Okay, so my "keeping the 'X' (as in, the unknown) in 'Xmas'" column normally appears the week of the solstice. There's a good reason it's a week late this year.
When I did remember, I had already done my "Art of Tea" column and didn't want to run two off-topic columns in a row, so I put this off another week. Consequently, a somewhat delayed Salubrious Solstice to you all. Now off we go, into the wild blue yonder.
The title of this column is a quote from Enrico Fermi, infamously referred to as the "Fermi Paradox." The infamy lies in the fact that it is not anything like a paradox; it is simply a statement of utter ignorance. Why that is so will be the topic of this week's column.
The Fermi question concisely goes like this: there are tens of billions of planetary systems in this galaxy alone, thousands of quintillions in the observable universe. Even if only 1% of those develop life, even if only 1% of those life bearing planets develop intelligent life, even if only 1% of those intelligent life forms develop advanced technology, that's a heck of a lot of technologically-advanced, intelligent species out there. Furthermore, based upon the single data sample we have, it takes less than one third the age of the universe to go from a coalescing cloud of gas to an advanced technological intelligence. There's been plenty of time for other intelligences to evolve, several times over, and to advance far beyond us.
So far, though, we've seen no broadly-convincing evidence for extraterrestrial intelligence—and it ought to be pretty obvious. Hence the paradox.
Except it's not really a paradox. That word assumes we understand the situation well enough to see a logical contradiction. Let me illustrate. If I become reasonably convinced that millions of people every year travel by airplane, but every airport I visit and every airplane I inspect is empty of people, then I've got a logical problem. I understand air travel well enough to know that these two observations—millions of travelers, and empty airports—aren't compatible. Something must be wrong in my assumption.
But try this one on: if a god (or gods) exists, she can certainly work miracles. Yet, as I walk through the world, it does not seem to be lousy with self-evident, irrefutable miracles. So, obviously there are no gods.
Well, anyone above the grade school level can poke holes in that logic. It assumes you actually have some idea of what a god would think, what she would want to do, what would be her motivation for having created the whole shebang in the first place, etc. Most everybody with a lick of sense, whether or not they believe in a god(s), full well understands that there is no possible way they could have any idea how a god would think. You can't disprove the existence of deities by looking at an absence of miracles, because you have no way to conclude that commonplace miracles are an inevitable consequence of godhood.
The Fermi question is much more like the second than the first. To assume that advanced technological intelligence leads to either a signal, or interstellar travel, that we would recognize as such (that's important) requires making a huge number of unproven and untested assumptions about the physical universe and about what intelligence wants and does. You can create almost any scenario you want to imagine to explain the lack of observable data and at our current level of knowledge it is just as probable as any other scenario. Anything could be true. No thing in particular is very likely to be.
There is one data point we do all know something about: almost everything humans do makes no sense in any abstract, logical way. The overwhelming majority of our time, energy, and resources go into activities that cannot be explained as a consequence of intelligence. They aren't even behaviors that are typical of all species on Earth (although they aren't necessarily unique to ours). We are chock-full of species-specific behaviors that can be explained after the fact but couldn't be predicted purely on the basis of intelligence and certainly weren't inevitable on the basis of biology or evolution. They are just how we work.
Not every human being is subject to all these impulses. A sufficient majority are, across time and space, that it's pretty safe to say they're characteristic of human beings as a species. Individual exceptions noted: Dear Reader, this is not about you. Let me regale you with a short and highly incomplete list. (I intentionally leave out a couple of very obvious biggies, because I don't need them to make the point; I can do it entirely with "trivialities.")
1) Body ornamentation and decoration. Not limited to such things as jewelry or tattoos; includes hairstyling, makeup, clothes or fashion sense of any sort, whatever. All the stuff that goes into making you decide that you "look good" when you face other people.
Imagine how much time and money are expended by every man, woman, and child because they don't feel it is sufficient to simply wash up occasionally and throw on a gunnysack.
2) Food "composition," for lack of a better term. Cats find food that they can play with appetizing, but they sure don't seem to care much how it looks; we'd rather it sat still but are terribly sensitive to the aesthetics. At the high end we have things like sushi; that the low end we have the wonderful cliché movie images of slop being splashed into a tray in a military mess or high school cafeteria line. Makes you lose your appetite just thinking about it, doesn't it?
3) Acquisitiveness. The packrat instinct. Collecting, acquiring, hoarding of any sort far beyond what one can reasonably use within a reasonable period of time. It may be all those books you don't throw out, even though you're hardly likely to read them again. Or all the music you own, regardless of form and format; videotapes, DVDs, stamps, coins, barbwire, cameras or lenses that you haven't picked up in years but you might, you think. Clothing you never wear, furniture stored in the attic along with an extra set of dishes because, well, you never know. Think of how much smaller (and less expensive!) a living space you could dwell in if you limited your ownership to things you might reasonably need in the foreseeable future.
4) Pets. 'Nough said?
5) Real property/territory. Lots of species seem to do just fine without the concept of my/your real estate. Not humans. (Yes, a minority of cultures have explicitly rejected the concept of land ownership but (a) they are not the norm and (b) if the impulse weren't there, there wouldn't be a need to reject it.
6) Religious impulse. Note that this is not the same as theology. The existence (or not) of gods and the inclination to believe in (or not) gods are entirely separate. Humans are intelligent and humans have religious impulse but we have no special reason to think that one is a consequence of the other. It just is.
Now tally it all up. How much of your life, of the totality of society, is consumed and defined by satisfying one or more of these species-specific impulses?
Overwhelmingly, almost every aspect of our lives is driven by this arbitrary set of inclinations that have no connection we understand to technological intelligence. We imagine that the nature and actions of hypothetical advanced civilizations can be rationally discussed and analyzed, yet most of our own is based upon characteristics that have no rationally-predictable basis for existence. They simply are.
We think we can even start to talk sensibly about the Fermi question as being a "paradox?" We don't know enough to make sense out of ourselves. We certainly don't have clues about anyone else.
To paraphrase Pogo, "We have met the X and he is us."
Every year around this time, TOP columnist Ctein (it's his only name, and is pronounced "kuh-TINE") puts the X in Xmas.
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Original contents copyright 2011 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved.
Featured Comment by icexe: "Our great advancements in intelligence and technology might simply be meaningless to any far more advanced civilizations out there. Here's an example: There may be a colony of ants living under a rotted tree stump somewhere in the Amazon jungle who consider themselves the master of all they see around them. They have conquered and controlled the world they know. They may even be on a quest to find other 'intelligent' beings like themselves, but so far to no avail. Yet, unbeknownst to them, they share an entire planet with humans, who are thousands of times more intelligent and advanced, who are fully aware that such a thing as ants exist, but who simply don't care enough to ever bother looking for more of them under some random tree stump in some random corner of the world. And even if by the greatest of random chance some humans did stumble upon their nest, any attempt to communicate would be on a level completely unknown and undecipherable to both humans and ants."
Featured Comment by Alastair Smith: "As so often, XKCD put it nicely."
Featured Comment by Trevor Small: "No paradox. The reason we've seen no signs of intelligent life is that Earth is under quarantine. Out there, somewhere, is a whopping great sign that says 'KEEP OUT. INFECTIOUS DISEASE RISK. EARTH HAS HUMANS. HIGHLY CONTAGIOUS.' Or the alien equivalent. Kind of makes you feel proud of our virility, doesn't it."
Featured Comment by Mark L: "There is no doubt that there are more advanced civilations. The odds are stacked against this not being the case. The only questions are: 1) Do they know we are here and 2) what will their intentions be when they know. Let's hope that deep fried human being is not some advanced alien delicacy. And hope that a Canon 1DS can split their exoskeletal big cranium in half if they come for us!"
Featured Comment by Zeeman: "Since this is a photography site, the following begs to be added to Ctein's list of human impulses: 7) The aesthetic impulse, which drives us every day to seek or create what is beautiful. However, given the acquisitiveness of current shutterbugs, it might be that this will eventually converge with #3. Also, given the propensity of acquisitive shutterbugs to worship one among a limited pantheon of deities named Canon, Nikon, etc., the aesthetic impulse might also be headed towards convergence with religion. Now that is scarier than most alien invasion stories."
Featured Comment by Wil: "Jeez, I read to the end of that long article only to find, I don't give a damn."
Featured Comment by Skip Davis: "Sorry I am so late to comment, I was just so taken by this post that I had to think on it a bit. This one post was worth reading this site all year.... There are a lot of things to think about because of it. I am going for a long bike ride today just to enjoy this paradox called life."