We’re rare, we’re first, or we’re fucked: Great Moments in The Great Filter

This sort of thing – explaining the Fermi Paradox and speculating about why we haven’t heard from alien civilizations yet – is my jam.

The title of this post sets forth the three basic possibilities of why that may be. (1) That our civilization is exceedingly rare in the universe; (2) That we’re just first and all of the others haven’t grown opposable thumbs or built radios yet; or – and this is why this sort of thing is my jam – (3) that we’re utterly fucked because all species which have evolved to our level or slightly ahead of us die out and we’re next.

The key here is The Great Filter. The Great Filter is the wall beyond which almost no life on other planets passes. Cataclysm. Astronomical stuff like gamma rays. Asteroids. Single cell organisms never figuring out how to become multi-cell organisms. Super intelligent multi-cell organisms figuring out how to build nuclear weapons and annihilating themselves. For a humanist like me, The Great Filter is the closest thing there is to God. Except way more interesting, due to Its even-handedness and cool detachment.

Basically, Great Filter placement matters like this:

1) if our failure to find alien life is because we are rare in the universe, we may have leapt over The Great Filter where no other civilizations had. Which, sure, makes us lonely, but means as a civilization we beat the odds and our future is bright. So: no aliens = good news.

2) If our failure to find alien life is because we just happen to be the first to get to this stage of development, well, that’s OK. That means the development of life and civilization is a new thing. Many may be coming up right behind us, even if they’re not quite ready to transmit radio waves yet. Here The Great Filter hasn’t come into play. Maybe it never does. But if it does, it’s way ahead of us.

3) But what if our failure to find alien life is because all alien life that reaches a certain technological or evolutionary level runs smack dab into The Great Filter soon after? Meaning, sure, the billions of planets and stars created a TON of civilizations but, oops, they’re all dead now. Which probably means we’re next. This leads to my favorite part of the whole Fermi Paradox/Great Filter analysis: finding evidence of past sophisticated life on other planets may be the worst possible thing ever:

This is why Oxford University philosopher Nick Bostrom says that “no news is good news.” The discovery of even simple life on Mars would be devastating, because it would cut out a number of potential Great Filters behind us. And if we were to find fossilized complex life on Mars, Bostrom says “it would be by far the worst news ever printed on a newspaper cover,” because it would mean The Great Filter is almost definitely ahead of us—ultimately dooming the species. Bostrom believes that when it comes to The Fermi Paradox, “the silence of the night sky is golden.”

This stuff is utterly fantastic and if you’re not into this kind of thing, well, we’re not going to have a lot to talk about once all the mundane daily topics of weather, sports and dinner are used up.

Go read it.

Craig Calcaterra

Craig is the author of the daily baseball (and other things) newsletter, Cup of Coffee. He writes about other things at Craigcalcaterra.com. He lives in New Albany, Ohio with his wife, two kids, and many cats.

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