Thursday, May 18, 2006

Fermi's Paradox, the Terrorists, and God

Statistically, it is clear that, in a big universe, there is an extremely high likelihood that there is life on other planets.

Let's remember the universe's tender age (13 billion years old), and how nearly infantile the planet earth is (4 billion years old), and how quickly life emerged on our planet (1 billion years ago). Different numbers , say a trillion year old universe, a five hundred billion year old planet, and life only being a couple million years old, might lead to a different conclusion, and it's never a great idea to do statistics on a sample of one, but the fact that terrestrial life has been present for almost 8% 0f the age of the universe is plausible argument that life on earth isn't that special. If we temporarily shelve a theological explanation, it is hard to reconcile a sense that earth is not exceptional with the question of why other aliens haven't shown up yet.

One possibility is that if you live in a universe teeming with life, observing the process of evolution is like watching paint dry. Maybe there is so much life in the universe, and life is so easy to create, that our whole planet is about as interesting as an abandoned petri dish in a corner of lab. However, I accept that curiosity and awe both confer evolutionary advantages -- in fact, curiosity is the motor of intelligence -- so it is safe to assume that whatever intelligent life has evolved elsewhere is also been curious.

If we keep extrapolating from our own experience, there is a better explanation of why intelligent aliens haven't yet visited us. Physics and biology are on a collision course: Biology leads to the evolution of creatures who are duped into promoting their genes through aggression, while physics allows intelligent beings to make relatively simple systems that harness enormous power.

So this is a slightly depressing wrinkle to Carl Sagan's answer to Fermi's question about the aliens. While there is a finite but infinitessimal chance for a world of nationstates to emerge from competitive civilization to cooperation, once the means to destroy a planet are distributed among tens of millions of individual agents, the chance goes from infinitessimal to almost zero. Is that the Zeitgeist animating Bush's hurried desire to create an absolutist totalitarian state? Does the future of the species hinge on America subduing not only its own population but also the rest of the world? If it turns out that the chances of world destruction without a clear American domination of the world are .99999999999999999999 and the chances of America winning the war on terror are .00001, is it still a good bet to fight the war on terror?

Statistically, that bet seems like an even better trade than exchanging all the Gold in Fort Knox for a wilted oak leaf, but if there is a .99999 chance that you will die in the next three years if you enjoy yourself, going down to .9999 if you remain completely celibate, go on a sea-weed and flax diet, and exercise for three hours a day, most people would choose to keep eating cheeseburgers, even if changing their behavior could lead to a tenfold improvement in their prospects.

Both the politics on the left and the right are playing for much higher stakes than the traditional Aristotelian good life. Both are working to prevent plausible scenarios that could make the world uninhabitable for humans, and it is an ironic twist that, in order to build to political consensus to avoid one of the scenarios, each party's solution greatly increases the likelihood of the other party's doomsday scenario.

Apocalypticism is as old as human civilization, and maybe it was a type of extrapolatory prophecy that envisioned the end of the world long before humans had the technology to make it happen. But Jesus' message is as relevant how as it was during the collapse of Jewish hopes for a free and independant state in the first century: Treat others well, worry about your soul, be happy, and let the cosmic drama play out however it ends up playing.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great point. Great Blog. Bravo

7:57 PM  

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