What is Fermi’s Paradox?
Fermi’s Paradox is not so much of a paradox, at least it is not a logical paradox; it is more of tension between two putative truths: (1) We have no evidence for the existence of extraterrestrial civilizations; (2) The existence of extraterrestrial civilizations is highly probable.
One of the most comprehensive books on Fermi’s Paradox is Stephen Webb’s If the Universe is Teeming with Aliens . . . Where is Everybody?, which examines all of the proposed solutions to Fermi’s paradox available at the time of Webb’s writing.
A Possible Zenithist Solution
A zenithist accepts (2) above, given that an infinite natural system yields an extremely high probability that extraterrestrial civilizations exist.
A zenithist may or may not accept (1), but I will assume the truth of (1) in this post.
My proposal has five parts:
- Rare Earth Hypothesis
- Exclusionary Range
- Convergent Evolution to Unity
- Justified Hiddenness
- Order of Development
In summary, the solution is this: It may be highly likely that no complex life exists in the observable zone of our universe (∼46.6 billion light-year radius). Given this radical rarity of life in the observable universe, the barriers to interaction are extreme. Due to these extreme barriers, only Zenith (or beings near the Zenith-limit) can interact with us. Yet, Zenith chooses to remain hidden to us.
Every Zenith being is maximally advanced and therefore Zenith beings converge on every achievable optimum of mastery. This convergent evolution may result in something far more unified than a heterogenous “federation” of advanced biological forms. This more unified being converges on the best reasons possible, thus its decision to stay hidden is (1) determined by the best reasons and (2) immune to defection by other Zenith-beings. As for near-Zenith beings, beings that are slightly less advanced than Zenith, yet still capable of interaction with us, their defection risk may be zero if the right sort of axiological unity occurs far in advance of the power to interact with us (the power to escape the deep exclusionary range). Any near-Zenith being that could interact with us will yet choose to remain hidden with zero chance of defection.
The levels of advancement here are unimaginable to us, so it seems as likely as not that our reasoning about Zenith’s unity, hiddenness, and “best reasons,” could essentially apply to near-Zeniths, as we (our analysis) could not tell the difference that far up the asymptote.
That is my “sketch of a solution.” It borrows from theology, which ought not to be surprising given the similarity of subject: extremely powerful beings.
Below, I make a few remarks and clarifications on this basic sketch. I organize my remarks according to the five parts of my proposal.
(1) Rare Earth Hypothesis
It may be highly likely that no complex life exists in the observable zone of our universe (∼46.6 billion light-year radius).
This pessimism may seem odd coming from a zenithist, who believes that life is infinitely distributed. However, an infinite distribution of life does not mean an infinite density of life emerging in any given finite volume of space. A Zenithist may hold that life is infinitely distributed, but also hold that civilizational life occurs on average only once in every 10100 cubic meters of space.
The low density of extraterrestrial life, particularly life in civilizations above Kardashev Type II, seems a better guess than high density (in the observable universe), since none of our astronomical observations have yielded plausible signatures of such life.1
For a succinct view of this “sparse life” view, I recommend Michael H. Hart’s “Atmospheric Evolution, the Drake Equation, and DNA: Sparse Life in an Infinite Universe.”
(2) Exclusionary Range
Given this radical rarity of life in the observable universe, the barriers to interaction are extreme. Due to these extreme barriers, only Zenith (or beings near the Zenith-limit) can interact with us.
The ability to interact with beings some 10100 cubic meters of space away is an extraordinary ability. The extraordinariness of this feat, and other such feats, translates into what I call an exclusionary range: for a given set of prerequisites to interaction, there will be some set of beings that do not meet the prerequisites; beings in this set will range in their abilities, but insofar as they do not meet the prerequisites to interaction, they are excluded from interaction.
Note that an exclusionary range is relative. The exclusionary range for two civilizations existing in the same galactic quadrant will be narrower than the exclusionary range for two civilizations existing in two different galaxies.
I think the prerequisites to interaction, given the rare earth hypothesis, are so extreme that only beings at or near the Zenith-limit can escape all (or most) exclusionary ranges. I think it is more probable than not that even a Kardashev Type III civilization existing some 50 gigaparsecs distance will be excluded from interacting with us.
Finally, I should add that I use the term “interaction,” but I use it broadly to mean any instance where one civilization becomes aware of another civilization. So, passive reception of radio waves from another civilization counts as an interaction.
(3) Convergent Evolution to Unity
Every Zenith being is maximally advanced and therefore Zenith beings converge on every achievable optimum of mastery. This convergent evolution may result in something far more unified than a heterogenous ‘federation’ of advanced biological forms.
I think convergence to unity is relevant to Fermi’s paradox because of the problem of defection, which I mentioned in the summary above and will address further in the section on the “order of development.”
In brief, given a group of Zeniths who have decided to stay hidden, what is the likelihood of at least one Zenith defecting from this group and revealing their existence? If Zenith is a strongly unified being, at least in terms of decision-making, then the likelihood of a revelatory defection is extremely low, and may go to zero, even in an infinite natural system. Since the Zenith-limit is a convergence to all achievable optima, we may suppose that numerous homologies will exist at this limit, including ethical homologies (to mix metaphors).
In one of his best-known essays, “How to Make Our Ideas Clear,” the 19th-century American philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce wrote, “The opinion which is fated to be ultimately agreed to by all who investigate, is what we mean by the truth, and the object represented in this opinion is the real.”
Peirce defended a convergent evolutionary view of scientific investigation, where hypothesis-proliferation and hypothesis-elimination evolve in a collective, interacting, and self-correcting asymptote that converges, like the independent developments of the wing structure, on the fixed limits of reality. The philosopher Nicholas Rescher has referred to this long-run view as “Peirce’s Epistemic Eschatology.”2
I think something like Peirce’s convergentism could apply in ethics, metaethics, metaphysics, metametaphysics, and other subjects of a less “concrete” nature.
If this convergentism or something very much like it is right, then Zenith will have converged on every achievable fixed limit of this sort, given that Zenith simply is the being who hits every achievable fixed limit. Since I’m including ethical and metaethical truths, even if those truths are, e.g., eleventh-order truths about the meaninglessness of lower-order ethical truths, then Zenith will have converged upon the limits of ethical and metaethical inquiry. If so, I think it is reasonable to risk the claim that Zenith’s decisions (being those of a post-biological entity, in my view) will be mostly, if not entirely shared by all Zeniths.
Of course, this talk of “sharing decisions” presupposes a distinct plurality of beings, but this distinctness may not straightforwardly apply to Zenith, whose powers over its own identity may complicate our sense of individuals.
(4) Justified Hiddenness
Zenith chooses to remain hidden to us.
Zenith converges on the best reasons possible, thus its decision to stay hidden is determined by the best reasons.
Hopefully it is obvious why this solution requires hiddenness. If we claim that (i) Zenith exists and (ii) exists here now, and yet (iii) we have no material evidence of Zenith (insofar as we can tell), then either (a) Zenith does not exist, (b) does not exist here now, or (c) Zenith is choosing to remain hidden to us. Since the Zenithist wants to deny (a) and (b), hiddenness seems to be the only option left to make (i)-(iii) plausible. This is transparently motivated reasoning, but motivated reasoning and sound reasoning are not mutually exclusive.
So, why is Zenith hidden?
The solution picks up from the previous section on convergence to unity, where I suggested that Peirce’s convergentism might apply to any field of inquiry, including ethical inquiry. In short, if Zenith makes a decision, it is as justified as any decision could be, since Zenith, qua the achievable optimum of rational investigation, is not surpassed in good decision-making by any other being, unless there exists something like the God of St. Anselm of Canterbury, i.e., that than which nothing greater can be conceived.
This part of my solution to Fermi’s paradox uses indirect evidence (which, of course, is still evidence, just indirect evidence); it does not specify what reasons Zenith has for its hiddenness, only that Zenith must have the best reasons, whatever they may be, for its hiddenness. Nor does this indirect evidence mean that one cannot propose persuasive specific reasons for Zenith’s hiddenness.
(5) Order of Development
As for near-Zenith beings, beings that are slightly less advanced than Zenith, yet still capable of interaction with us, their defection risk may be zero if the right sort of axiological unity occurs far in advance of the power to interact with us (the power to escape the deep exclusionary range). Any near-Zenith being that could interact with us will yet choose to remain hidden with zero chance of defection. The levels of advancement here are unimaginable to us, so it seems as likely as not that our reasoning about Zenith’s unity, hiddenness, and “best reasons,” could essentially apply to near-Zeniths, as we (our analysis) could not tell the difference that far up the asymptote.
One might argue that beings close to Zenith-limit, but not exactly at the Zenith-limit, will have the power to interact with us, yet lack both Zenith’s unity and Zenith’s “best reasons” for staying hidden, such that we should again expect material evidence of interaction by these near-Zeniths. Since we have no such evidence, my solution becomes less probable.
We are deciding between two contradictory claims here:
(1) Some near-Zeniths who possess the power to interact with us pose a defection risk.
(2) No near-Zenith who possesses the power to interact with us poses a defection risk.
There is no empirical resolution here. It may seem a priori more appealing to assert the humble particular affirmative (1) against the imperious universal negation (2). However, consider this example:
(3) Some differential equations are kangaroos.
(4) No differential equations are kangaroos.
Humble claim (3) is a category mistake and false. Imperiously universal negation (4) is true.
I would not argue that claim (1) above is a category mistake like claim (3), yet claim (1) may be false in other profound ways. Perhaps in the order of development, possession of unity (or near-unity) and best-reasons (or near-best-reasons) must be prior to escaping some set of deep exclusionary ranges. We don’t know. It may be as wrong to say that a human blastocyst could recite the Quran as it is to say that near-Zeniths could interact with us (across exclusion) before achieving innumerable proficiencies amounting to “unity,” “best reasons,” and so on. We don’t know.
So, the probability of my solution, I think, is not reduced in this instance. Rather, it is a wash between the two contradictory unknowns of (1) and (2).
This wash does not wash over the whole proposal. If the other reasons survive a gauntlet of stress tests, perhaps needing the occasional correction, then my Zenithist solution may be considered a strong candidate solution, though only one zenithistic candidate in an indefinite field of possible proposals.
In the spirit of Peirce, we should proliferate proposals as we make our hopeful and self-correcting way to the ultimate-long-run-real.
1 The Kardashev Scale, proposed by astronomer Nikolai Kardashev, is a “method of measuring a civilization’s level of technological advancement based on the amount of energy they are able to use.” (“Kardashev Scale,” Wikipedia). Kardashev proposed only three levels, or Types: planetary (Type I), stellar (Type II), and galactic (Type III). Type I civilizations have the power to use and store all the available energy of their planet; Type II, all the available energy of their native solar system; Type III, all the available energy of their native galaxy.
2 For a crystal-clear defense of Peirce’s philosophy of science, I recommend Rescher’s Peirce’s Philosophy of Science.
Pre-order Zenithism by Jonathan van Belle on the DO Store.