We’ve always looked to the stars for answers, but in our modern era, we’re actually able to find some of them. Learning more about the universe has led us to ask a lot of new questions about the nature of reality, space, time, and our existence. While the biggest questions seem to have an endless path to a complete answer, Enrico Fermi asked something a little more tangible: “Where is everybody?” It seems unlikely that, in a universe so vast, we’re the only intelligent life that exists. Although we can fashion several hypotheses that could explain our apparent solitude, the most popular theories currently tell us more about humanity than about what exists beyond.
Author Bryan Walsh’s new book End Times, as Insider reports, covers many theories that deal with three primary and broad possibilities:
- We’re alone in the universe and, like all paradoxes, Fermi’s is just a puzzle we have yet to solve.
- The intelligent life within our current scope of discovery doesn’t yet exist.
- We didn’t have the technology or aptitude to discover intelligent life until after it became extinct.
Basically, there aren’t aliens, aliens we can find don’t exist yet, or aliens existed before we could find them—or some combination of the last two. With a title like “End Times,” you might not be surprised to hear that one of the more popular theories falls into that third and unfortunate category: intelligent life, on average, over-utilized its resources and died out. In other words, they lost the battle we’re fighting right now: climate change.
It’s easy to understand why this theory remains popular. After all, we see ourselves through the lens of our technology and current circumstances. Plato presented the allegory of the cave to consider the elusive nature of reality. He had to concoct a situation that chained human prisoners in a cave so their experience of the world was only a cave. Through the lens of modern technology, we do the same thing with the simulation hypothesis. The circumstances don’t matter as much as the problem itself. In both cases, we’ve put the concept of free will up for debate by presenting a hypothetical situation that’s easily understood.
For the same reason, assuming climate change wiped out all other intelligent life that preceded our own falls into the same category. Climate change is a real and scary problem of our modern era, but it only holds up as an answer to the Fermi paradox if we accept the following: We qualify as intelligent life (by the standards of the entire universe) and all other extinct intelligent life had an awful lot in common with us. When we imagine extraterrestrial life, we shouldn’t forget the allegory of the cave because it tells us something important about how our knowledge is shaped by what we’re able to perceive and that our perception is very limited. The visible light we see barely accounts for a sliver of the electromagnetic spectrum, most of us never leave Earth to experience anything outside of it, and we all tell a lot of lies even if it’s often an accident—just to name a few examples.
This particular extinction theory tells us a lot more about our current fears—which are warranted—than it does about the apparent absence of extraterrestrial life. That’s a much easier question to answer because it’s self-evident: We can’t solve the Fermi paradox because we’re not that smart. In a sense, intelligence is a lot like body odor: nobody can really assess their own circumstances with much accuracy. You’re used to how you smell and comfortable with what you think you know, but it takes a less-biased perspective to actually determine if you’re a stinky idiot or a pleasant-smelling genius—and even that’s relative to your culture and time period. We’re all stinky idiots to generations farther off in the future, just as they will be to many generations beyond their time. There is no real answer to the Fermi Paradox because we’re not intelligent enough, as a species, to find that answer.
But like several issues of the past, that’s a temporary problem and these hypotheses help us debate the best possibilities worth pursuing. As long as humanity survives, we’ll keep looking for those answers and someday will find them because we’re willing to take chances on our theories, explore them using the scientific method, and refine our knowledge to inch closer to those big answers. We used to believe geese grew on trees because our intuition guided us to that conclusion. Now we know better, but even the most educated amongst us have believed all kinds of nonsense because the evidence available seemed to support it. It’s just a necessary problem that must occur when attempting to define the unknown. Einstein’s “biggest blunder” is a multi-layered example of the limitations of our knowledge and why we shouldn’t ever be too sure of anything.
Just as it’s important to ask big questions like “where is everyone?” and concoct theories and equations to guide us toward an answer, it’s equally important to remember how little we actually know in even our advanced society. For example, we don’t even understand how acetaminophen/paracetamol relieves pain, yet it’s the most common drug ingredient in the United States. Our own bodies remain about as much of a mystery as our solar system. We know enough to facilitate some incredible things, but our knowledge lacks precision. We have to forge ahead into the unknown to progress because it’s that uniquely human characteristic that leads to our most prized discoveries. It also leads to dosing dolphins with LSD in hopes of establishing telepathic communication.
Science is a series of mistakes until it isn’t, and it leads to growth and development that provides a framework for humanity to stand on equal ground together. It’s our collective yet imperfect knowledge that we can refine, together, as a global society. Maybe someday we’ll even have telepathic dolphins by our sides as we discover alien life on a distant planet. Based on what we actually know that seems pretty unlikely, but it’s the willingness to entertain and discuss ideas that initiates the path of discovery that gives us so much of what we love about our life.
We just have to remember that none of us are that smart, mistakes are the cornerstone of progress, and if aliens exist we’ll find them when we learn how. If there’s anything to learn from the Fermi Paradox today, it’s that we need to maintain our curiosity, keeps asking questions, stay patient, and forgive and accept our inevitable errors. All great things have been born through hardship, but curiosity, hope, and compassion make that struggle worthwhile. It’s easy to get lost in a plausible theory—especially one that incites fear—but it’s better to remain skeptical. After all, science isn’t about proving things right but, rather, about proving things wrong until the most plausible and demonstrable answer remains.
Top image credit: Bob Blob