Dissolving & Not Resolving The Fermi Paradox

Dissolving & Not Resolving The Fermi Paradox

Paper by Anders Sandberg, Eric Drexler and Toby Ord of the Future of Humanity Institute, Oxford University made the news last week. “Dissolving the Fermi Paradox“, on Arxiv (and therefore not yet watered down by peer review).

The point I want to make about it is simple enough, and appears in contrast to the opening sentence of the abstract: “The Fermi paradox is the conflict between an expectation of a high ex ante probability of intelligent life elsewhere in the universe and the apparently lifeless universe we in fact observe.”

There is no such probability, ex ante or ex uncle. The History Channel aside, and not counting non-material beings, we do observe an apparently lifeless universe. That is interesting. The question is why.

Now no proposition has a probability. All probability is conditional on the evidence assumed. Different assumptions give rise to different probabilities. We have high or low probabilities on whether other (non angelic) rational beings besides ourselves exist depending on what assumptions we make about such creatures.

Ultimate knowledge consists in the cause of why other (material) rational beings exist, or why they do not. To my knowledge such knowledge does not exist. Though there are arguments.

One, we have no idea how any life arose in the first place. It could have been miraculous, or it could have been the result of certain forces acting on inanimate matter (the miraculous encompasses the second explanation). Either proposition is a supposition, themselves the end results of arguments in their favor. God caused life to begin, “through Him all things were made”, or life arose by a certain physio-chemical operation. Both are believed on faith.

Once life appeared, it changed. There had to be an ultimate architect—creator of at least the nature of physical existence—that accounts for the mechanisms of change. The assumption is that given life arose at places far distant from us, places comprised of the same physical stuff as us, it possess the same nature and therefore the same mechanisms of change. It does not follow from these assumptions that the mechanisms of change must necessarily have led to creatures possessing the ability to be rational.

Since the mechanisms are not known with specificity, since they are only crudely guessed at, to believe creatures possessing the ability to be rational arose anywhere else is a decision, a guess, one made without proof. Proof would be cause, and the cause comes in specifying the exact precise mechanisms both for life’s initiations and for its changes. These are lacking.

A probability may be formed, almost surely unquantifiable, from making further suppositions about both exact precise mechanisms, that creatures possessing the ability to be rational did arise. These mechanism-suppositions have to be augmented by guesses or observations about other places that possess the same physical stuff like us. There is less controversy in those, and some are made in the linked paper.

Once creatures possessing the ability to be rational came about at some distant place, however they came about, they had to move from non-rational to rational. Since rational creatures are different in essence or nature from non-rational creatures, there has to be a third mechanism causing the move. God is responsible is one explanation, well in accord with observation of ourselves and angelic beings. There is no other explanation except that some mysterious yet-heretofore unknown mechanism did it. Again, both propositions are matters of long arguments, but the “just happened” is weak at best, since rationality arising, i.e. “just happening”, from non-rationality would appear impossible, since intellects are not material, and are therefore not able to be operated on by physical mechanisms.

Well, here we are. Gather all arguments on both sides together. We have God created life and the mechanisms, the mechanisms led to creatures possessing the ability to be rational, and God imbued some of these creatures with rationality. Or some unknown cause made the mechanisms, some unknown mechanism made life, further not-fully known mechanisms caused changes, and a still-yet-unknown mechanism caused rationality. Call these hypotheses God and Unknown.

Whichever you pick, it is not at all clear whether material creatures which are rational exist elsewhere. There isn’t anything forbidding such creatures in the God hypothesis, nor in the Unknown. So we can’t work with cause. We have to supply other assumptions from which we can form a probability. Problem is, there are no such unique assumptions. Therefore, there will no unique probability.

Of course, you can make the assumptions sound learned by attaching math to them, as the authors have done, following a tradition initiated by Drake. The math makes the assumptions sound more valid than metaphysical propositions, at least to some. And until you realize any number of equations can be substituted for the ones the authors picked.

Fermi’s paradox is a metaphysical matter, because under either hypothesis, God or Unknown, it is a valid question to ask, “If other rational creatures exist, where are they?” Searching for the answer is therefore not nuts. Under the absence of any direct observation of these creatures, the answer must remain philosophical.


  1. Physicists study theoretical models of dark matter molecules. Dark matter is their explanation for observed phenomena for which they have no evidentiary cause. Therefore, complex molecules, and chemistry completely different from our own!

    Dark energy and universal expansion are similar in origin. Look – something is going on that we don’t understand, and see no cause for. Photons are red shifted, so space itself is expanding! No mechanism needed. Just imagination and faith. Invent a new branch of physics, so we can publish papers and get research grants!

  2. John B()


    I thought that Dark Matter and Dark Energy had already been invalidated?

    What’s the latest?


  3. Sander van der Wal

    Dark matter only interacts through gravity with itself. Therefore nobody is expecting some kind of chemics (which is based on the electromagnetic force).

  4. Shecky R

    NO real reason to believe, given the vast distances, that we should’ve contacted advanced aliens within such a short timeframe; nor any reason to believe that civilizations a million years advanced would find us to be anything other than assholes completely unworthy of contact.

  5. Ken

    Perhaps the quest to find intelligent life somewhere out in the cosmos is inspired [at least in part] in the difficulty of finding it here:

    Dorothy: How can you talk, if you haven’t got a brain?
    The Scarecrow: I don’t know. But, some people without brains do an awful lot of talking, don’t they?
    Dorothy: Yes. I guess, you’re right.

    Finding such life is a lot harder than one might think — and that’s assuming both the sender & receiver about both actively looking: https://what-if.xkcd.com/47/

    Leonard Mlodinow has a fun book about how the human subconscious greatly influences human behavior, in other words, so much of what so many consider “rationality” … isn’t (is demonstrably irrational/nonsensical)… see some for yourself at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NJ-IfVHJH58 (or, read his book).

    Donald Hoffman has some well-thought-out theories (theories, not definitive conclusions) about evolution optimizing for reproduction in a way that sub-optimizes for accurately perceiving reality. He’s got a lot of material on this, and a place to start is his TED talk, “Donald Hoffman: Do we see reality as it is? |TED Talk – TED Talks” http://www.ted.com/talks/donald_hoffman_do_we_see_reality_as_it_is/transcript?language=en His theory is certainly intriguing and the question might not be about being right or wrong, but how right or how wrong…

    Maybe he has a clue to why we haven’t found life elsewhere is that its something like: https://xkcd.com/638/

  6. Gary

    “The Fermi paradox is the conflict between an expectation of a high ex ante probability of intelligent life elsewhere in the universe and the apparently lifeless universe we in fact observe.”

    To nitpick just a little, I think the authors of the paper are assuming the reader accepts their “ex ante probability” is based on evidence of some sort. My guess is that would be, among other things, the desire to find aliens, a hundred years of exposure to science fiction, and the non-zero track record of such fiction actually predicting technological development. This may be lousy and/or disputable evidence, but these suppositions are being used to estimate a qualitative non-zero probability so they can go on to fuss with the Drake Equation.

  7. Kip Hansen

    The fact that we have not yet become aware of other intelligent beings out there among the billions and billions of other stars and solar systems is a comment on our infantile abilities at observing the rest of the universe.

    The fact that they exist can be derived logically — it is not logical that the Earth (our Earth) — out of the millions and billions and billions of other planets — would be the ONLY one to be inhabited. Now we await proofs of their existence.

    This question is perfectly valid: If we deduct that they most likely exist, why aren’t we aware of them? The answer lies in our limited knowledge of the universe. There was a time when Mankind was unaware of microscopic plants and animals too. We are still even ignorant of most life in the depths of the seas. Our ignorance does not equate to their non-existence.

  8. Milton Hathaway

    If someday we contact an intelligent society elsewhere in our universe, I wonder . . . will that society have a historical character essentially identical to our Jesus?

  9. Sander van der Wal

    If you formulate your theories about astrophysical phenomenae in such a way that there are no aliens needed to cause the phenomenon, you will not find aliens because of said observations.

  10. PK


    Nor does our ignorance equate to their existance.

  11. Sander – Oh, if only that were true. There are any number of papers discussing the theoretical chemistry of dark matter. Flights of fancy in the extreme.

    John B(): Nope. It’s remarkably difficult to prove a negative. Dark matter and energy are explanations for phenomena that have no known explanations. With no evidentiary cause, scientists are free to invent legions of angels and demons pushing and pulling upon the very fabric of the universe. Which is, of course, denim. 🙂

  12. Kip Hansen

    PK ==> Exactly — Ignorance, despite what BigBrother says, is not Knowledge. However, knowledge of one’s ignorance is priceless.

  13. swordfishtrombone

    Regarding your (false) claim that “nothing is known about the origin of life”, I followed your link. It’s as if someone has set out to produce the worst possible article on evolution, and has managed to include every creationist talking point: Abiogenesis not explained by evolution – tick. ‘Intelligent design theory’ – tick. Gaps in the fossil record – tick. ‘DNA contains specified complexity’ – tick. ‘Michael behe, professor of…’ – tick. Many scientists dispute evolution – tick. Things look designed – tick. These talking points are all either irrelevant, or flat-out wrong.

    “We have God created life…”

    You mean we have God creating the universe then waiting 9 billion years for just the right planet to form, then creating a self-replicating molecule and waiting another 4 billion years for humans to evolve, with 99.9% of all species going extinct in the meantime, and relying on just the right asteroid impacts and supervulcanism to create mass extinctions to give evolution the right pushes at the right times, then (somehow) adding an ‘immaterial intellect’ (whatever that is) to us, (even though other creatures such as crows demonstrate intelligent behaviour without needing such a thing) then waiting another 200,000 years before sending himself (or his son?) Jesus to sort us out again, by having himself killed to (somehow) forgive us for sins which we haven’t committed in the first place, to demonstrate his love for us by helping some of us to avoid a place of eternal torture which he has (lovingly) allowed to exist.

    Sounds plausible.

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