Ming the Mechanic:
The Fermi Paradox

The NewsLog of Flemming Funch
 The Fermi Paradox2007-02-19 18:56
picture by Flemming Funch

"The Fermi paradox says that if extraterrestrial civilizations exist, at least one of them should have colonized the entire galaxy by now. But since there is no evidence of this, humankind must be the only intelligent life in the galaxy. The Space Review has an article on how the Fermi paradox can be applied to human civilization. It says that, like the extraterrestrials, humans have three choices: colonize the galaxy, remain on Earth, or become extinct."
And the conclusion is pretty much that if nobody else seems to be colonizing the galaxy, we've got to do it. Which is of course fun to think about.

But I wanted to comment on that whole idea that if extraterrestrials existed, they'd inevitably have colonized the galaxy, and we'd have met them, and since we don't see them, they don't exist. It seems to be a pretty prevalent view amongst science-buffs.
The Fermi paradox is the apparent contradiction between high estimates of the probability of the existence of extraterrestrial civilizations and the lack of evidence of contact with such civilizations.
The problem is that it all assumes that extraterrestrials would be very much like us, and they'd be doing the same kinds of things we could imagine doing right now, and they live in a universe that's based on the theories we've come up with so far.

But this is all very iffy. Sure, if the universe really is as mechanical as we imagine, and if the only thing these guys could do would be to send radio signals, and send up rockets, and then make better rockets, and after a few centuries send out inter-stellar rockets, yeah, then we'd be able to watch their TV shows, and some space probes ought to have passed by.

But if reality really is constructed radically differently, maybe not. Imagine for one thing if we live in a 3 dimensional reality, what if most everybody else live in a 4 or 5 dimensional reality. Would they bother giving us signals we can recognize on our terms? There are plenty of anthills on our planet, but have we ever bothered to send in a representative of our civilization that would talk with one of them on their terms? Maybe a little ant that would walk in, and wave his antennas and try to say that we come in peace, and there's a big world beyond their anthill. We haven't bothered, because it didn't seem worth the trouble, and ants aren't all that smart anyway. What were we gonna talk about? Uhm, there's food over there! And they're probably just going to kill our representative. Who says we don't seem the same to a suitably advanced alien race. Kind of retarded folks living in our own little world.

And we assume that there's sort of limited space that we all share. Even though the galaxy is big, we'd guess that if there's intelligent beings on some planet circling some other star, they'd think of colonizing the galaxy, and its the same galaxy we're in. That's a mechanical view of how reality works, which might not check out.

Imagine that maybe we're living in more like a virtual reality. What we see is stretching billions of light years in all directions, but what if it still is just basically our own virtual reality projection, corresponding with how we look at the world right now. And all these other guys might not have exactly the same virtual reality to operate in, because their world view is different.

Think of the way we can construct virtual worlds right now, on the Internet. There's a server, or a bunch of servers, rather, where World of Warcraft is simulated, and lots of people can go and log in and live in that. And there are some other servers that house Second Life, and one can go live there. The rules are different between them, and they're different spaces. If you walk to the edge of the Warcraft world, you're not going to see the Second Life world. Doesn't matter if you get an extra large telescope or something, because it isn't there. Even if the servers were in the same datacenter, you could not see one from the other, because that's not how the simulation is done. Somebody could very well make an interface, like a phonebooth from which you could teleport from one to the other, but if they don't, there's no way of getting from one to the other, other than logging out altogether, and logging into the other. And say one group in World of Warcraft decided to colonize all of the known universe, they could go and do so without ever running into any aliens. They'd find nothing but other World of Warcraft players, no matter how far they walk in any direction. And if some of these guys had forgotten that they were just humans who logged in from home, and they tried to reason things out from inside the game, they might well conclude that this is all that exists, and there's no other kind of virtual worlds, and no other kinds of people. Which would be all false, of course.

You can't necessarily make sense of a problem when you're inside of the problem. You can't solve a problem with the thinking that created it, as Einstein said. If you live inside a certain illusion, you can't necessarily transcend the illusion, using only pieces of that same illusion.

When some civilization is expanding, even greatly, there's not necessarily any reason they should run into every other civilization. Particularly if we're talking about 3 or 4 dimensional civilizations in a universe with more dimensions. There's plenty of room for everybody.

Say you do want to contact some other world, maybe the way of doing that is something totally different than just travelling far in your own world.

Imagine curved space. 3D space can easily be curved so that when you travel far in one direction, you'll end up where you started. It might be arbitrarily big, but still limited. That's what you see, for example, with a sphere. 2D Flatlanders could live on the surface of a sphere, and if they go far enough in one direction, they come back to where they started, from the opposite direction. Which would seem very puzzling to them, as the world obviously is flat. But for us with a 3D vantage point, it is perfectly obvious, that their plane is curved. No big reason to not think the same applies to us. Even if we can see billions of lightyears away, the space might just curve around, and the whole universe might just be one little bubble of reality. Of which there might be many more.

That you don't see anybody else in your own little bubble says absolutely nothing about whether there is somebody else in other bubbles. But if we wanted to contact them, we'd need to do something more than just walking around in our own sandbox. We'd need to create a bridge of some kind. We'd need to come up with some construct in our reality that can interface with a construct in another reality.

If a reality is a self-contained simulation, with its own objects, rules, players, etc, then it would be natural enough that you can't just violate its rules by throwing in a alien element. Like, again, if I want to meet somebody in Second Life, I have to play by the Second Life rules. I can't walk in there in my physical body, obviously. I couldn't walk in there as a World of Warcraft avatar either. I could probably construct something similar in Second Life, and I could maybe create an interface between the two. Like, I could be wearing some kind of body suit that mapped my movements to those of the Second Life avatar I had constructed. But I have to play by the rules.

Imagine that it works in a similar fashion in our physical reality. An alien can't just walk in and play by totally different rules. If he wanted to get into our reality, he'd have to find out how to log into it, how to choose a suitable representation of himself, and how to play by the rules. And if we follow the video game metaphor, it doesn't matter what kind of absurd powers you have in real life, if you want to play in the game, your only option is to use the tools available to do so, which per definition would follow the rules that create the simulation. It doesn't matter if I'm Donald Trump and I yell at people on the phone, I simply just can't drive my car into Second Life. Oh, I can pay somebody to create a simulation of my car in Second Life, and then I can operate that with the mouse of my computer. But the real car, no.

Makes sense? So, if some extraterrestrials really want to talk to us, what would they appear as? If the rules of our simulation allowed landing spacecraft and alien blob creatures, that could work. But it wouldn't necessarily be the REAL alien creatures in their real spaceships you'll see, just like it isn't the real you I see in Second Life. And if they'd have to pick some avatar anyway, they might as well pick an avatar that we find normal. Like, uhm, regular human beings who drive in cars and eat cheerios and go to work. That seems to be a reality we humans can understand. So, if you wanted to interact with us, you might get further with that than with trying to land a 50 mile long trans-dimensional light-craft on the White House lawn. That would get our attention alright, but it would change our civilization irretrievably at the same time, so it wouldn't be a very gentle way of communicating. So, maybe better being a human, driving a car. Or you might try some more artistic, surreal stuff, like crop circles. Or maybe a few scattered appearances of strange flying craft, to gauge our response, but always making sure they only appear on really fuzzy pictures, and only seen at a distance by groups of not too reliable witnesses.

So, I'm saying that just because aliens exist, it doesn't mean they sort of randomly come by on their way somewhere else. If they come by, it might be because they particularly have decided to interact with us, or to study us, and they particularly need to log in to our reality. And if they do, they'll probably read the user manual first.

What I'm touching on is a view of reality where reality is a simulation created by individual or collective worldviews. We here on this planet obviously share a certain reality, and we can interact with each other within it. But if we want to interact with drastically different realities, or beings in those realities want to interact with us, we might both need to transcend our game rules a bit, and find some common ground.

So, should we go and colonize the galaxy? Yeah, why not. But if we want to meet some other interesting people, we might have to come up with something different than just sending pieces of metal lightyears away. We might have to understand reality a little better first.

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20 Feb 2007 @ 05:15 by Ge Zi @ : reality of aliens
this reminded me of a story babba told me about the mission you, Flemming, and him went to watch some aliens at area 51.
What I remember is that you met some people, very much expecting to see some alien ships, that the next day you drove to another place and when you got back you learned that those people had indeed seen stuff and were very excited about - - only you, driving away the other day, had missed them because they were behind you.
Is that how it was? That would nicely illustrate what you said but on the individual level - that what's not real for us we just don't see, and if it's only because we turned our back. Darn!  

20 Feb 2007 @ 07:31 by Max @ : Very Impressed.
The analogies you use make a lot of common sense. I do admit that in contemplating various dimensions, I get very lost, so the part about the Second Life vs. WoW really helps :).  

20 Feb 2007 @ 13:08 by ming : Area 51
Ha, GeZi, yes, maybe that applies somehow. We were very keen on seeing what we came for, but we missed it, and instead we had what probably was a more mystical experience.

All the other people had lined up on the main road, and set themselves up with lounge chairs and telescopes and videocameras, all pointed South into Area 51. But since we were in a 4WD, we thought we'd drive a few kilometers closer, to get a better view. And that's where we spent the night looking at the sky. There were some little red lights flickering very quickly across the sky, but that's not what we were looking for. And then, when the sun started coming up, we decided that there probably wasn't gonna be anything happening that night, so we wanted to get back to the main road. We saw a very bright light to the North, which we thought was a headlight of one of the cars up on the road, so we drove in the direction of that. As we got closer, we realized it couldn't be a headlight, as it was up in the air. So we thought it was probably on top of a mast of some kind. But as we got even closer, we realized there was no mast, just a light hanging still up in the air. We looked at it with binoculars, and it seemed to be a constellation of several bright lights in a triangular formation. But it was in the wrong direction, and not what we came to see, so at the moment we didn't grant it any special significance. Didn't try to take pictures or anything. And then later, when we ran into some of the other guys, we realized that while we had been driving North, following the light hanging in the sky, everybody else had been looking South, behind us, and something had indeed come up over Area 51. Not a craft that moved in right angles or anything, but nevertheless a bright light that had come up and moved around a bit and landed again. Could have been a helicopter for all I know. But they got great video of it, which appeared several times on TV, and everybody were very excited, except us.

But, hey, it is entirely possible that whatever came up over Area 51 was just a show put on by the Groom Lake base to feed something to the UFO watchers. And maybe what we were looking at were the real aliens hanging there quietly watching things.  

20 Feb 2007 @ 13:27 by rayon : The lightyear thing
is the biggest hurdle. For perspective, Sirius our nearest star, is four lightyears away, light travels at 186,000 miles per SECOND approximately.

Most stuff in the light coming to us shows formations in the heavens, histories of their ancient wars, whatever, hundreds of thousands years ago! The images of their current life, now, are still on the way to us, in another hundred of thousand years, these pics of their TV progs will reach us. Will we still be here to see them?

This Ming is the problem of interest to me since childhood. No tv in those days, and my father would take us out on the grassed garden terraces. We all lay on our backs, while he with a powerful torch beam created a pointer to the main constellations and major stars and planets. We discussed their names, magnitudes, and particular conjunctions (Mars is nearer to the Moon now than for 850 years, and other such vital information which also kept the braincells fully occupied trying to figure out why this should be such vital Astronomical importance).

Anyway we saw most of the Sputniks, John Glenn sail overhead, fireballs, meteorites, and I wanted to be the first woman in space, but no aliens,. There was one book which came nearest to setting up a scenario for Alien visitors and reciprocation by Earthlings. Callend Harmonic 695 or something. This book was stolen by a visiting academic, elderly English from my then house, of course this served only to deepen the intrigue.

Cutting to the now, in this story, I believe that when we have learned to LOVE all life and respect it correctly, then will space travel become a possibility at the speed of Light, which is what is required in our universe to get about. Just like your servers Ming, you must love them to get them to function, if they inflamed you with war like fury, would they function as you wished?

Thank you for another NCN excellent laugh!  

20 Feb 2007 @ 13:43 by ming : Lightyears
Obviously inter-stellar travel would be cumbersome if we really had to travel across all those lightyears. You need enormous amounts of fuel, and it takes a long time. But theoretically possible. But since we've already succeeded in doing our own small scale teleportation experiments, it doesn't take too much imagination to envision that there will be much better ways of doing it than rockets. More like entangling some particles in different locations, transferring a sufficient amount of information, and bingo, you're very far away, without having had to go through time and space. We can already do that, sending stuff to somewhere else instantly, although it is very small stuff, like a few photons, but it is a promising start. It is entirely possible that a likely window between having the technology to consider interstellar rockets and having teleportation technology is only something like 50 years, so that it is unlikely that any technological race ever would choose the rocket approach.  

26 Feb 2007 @ 23:14 by Sophie @ : 3D Reality..or 4D Reality?
I just wanted to bring up the fact that we actually live in 4D reality, not 3D. The fourth dimension is TIME. Other than that, I see what you're saying about the possibility of extra-terrestrials existing in other dimensions.  

27 Feb 2007 @ 03:51 by ming : 4D
Well, three and a half, I sometimes say. Whereas we can move relatively freely in the 3 spatial dimensions, we seem sort of stuck, moving in one direction at a constant speed, as far as time goes. Which is a little like only being able to walk north, and having to keep moving.  

6 Apr 2007 @ 23:12 by gravitonring : actually i am Fermi, FERMI LIVES :)
as a child in the 1940s, in a small US town dominated by Anglos, my Italian family was second class and stuck in poverty; Mussolini made Italy an enemy of the US, and i was drawn into hating my own heritage, all four grandparents had come to the US from Italy circa 1900; Fermi became my hero and science became my escape from ethnic identity! my attitude was: 'who are these Italians, and why do they think i am one of them, i am American!' then, in 1945, the Italian Mafia took over my hometown! being Italian became even more disgusting to me! sometime during that year, i had a brief near death experience which LEFT ME WITH THE SAME type of disparity: 'who are these humans, and why do they think i am one of them, i am an infinite mind!' my physical conception trapped my cosmic consciousness into a human form; my human form trapped my infinite mind into a localized mammalian brain; Fermi and i never met as humans, however we were spiritually and infinitely in synch; science became a tool to measure the local physical reality; however, there was never any doubt that the universe was mine, to explore as infinite mind, an intangible way to experience the tangible; there is no place to go within the infinite mind, IT ALREADY IS EVERYWHERE! we know that the cosmos is infinite or nearly infinite, and the intangible universe certainly is infinite; many of my young friends took the celestial trip with nraye and her family :) lying on the ground in a cemetery in central Kentucky in 1959, or in Arlington Cemetery in 1962, or just looking at the night sky from a small town outside of Pittsburgh PA in 1950; the aliens are us :) we are already communicating with every sentient being within the infinite mind; there are simply no WORDS in the infinite universe, ONLY a MELODY...

24 Jun 2015 @ 16:40 by Buntobox @ : Danger
A very interesting piece but I don't think we have to include other realities to explain why other civilisations haven't been in contact (unless of course they have and the only way to find that out for sure is to storm the pentagon and blow open the vaults). As was mentioned in one of the Star Trek movies, we're "too primitive" to be interesting and on top of that WE'RE DANGEROUS! We've got sixty years of propaganda disseminated through countless Hollywood movies that portray any sort of alien contact as a threat, either to our culture or our very existence. If any starship landed on the White House lawn you can take it for an absolute certainty that the natives would shoot first and ask questions afterwards, and unless the aliens were very enlightened with beliefs that rendered the idea of violence anathema, they'd lay waste to Earth in under a week. It seems to me that any civilisation capable of interstellar travel would have observed us for long enough to understand this and is, as a result, giving us a very wide berth. I don't doubt for a second that they're out there, but until we grow up as a species, we're unlikely to be allowed to see or meet them.

There's a second possibility though. We have a primitive capitalist mindset that makes us want to acquire, colonise and conquer everything, including any part of the galaxy we can reach in our hopelessly primitive spaceships. It could be that a highly evolved civilisation would have progressed well beyond such a limiting and destructive outlook and have lost its desire to acquire, colonise and conquer by the time it has the ability to actually do it. In fact reality may be constructed that way so that the universe isn't reduced to a state of endless interstellar warfare between competing civilisations bent on dominating everything they discover on their travels. Genuinely highly evolved beings may well have concluded that there's no place like home and it's only the primitives that try to go out and imprint themselves on other worlds.  

Other stories in
2009-11-01 16:35: Seven questions that keep physicists up at night
2008-10-14 20:33: Where are the podcars?
2008-07-05 00:08: Self-Organized Criticality
2008-05-16 13:34: The Universe as God
2008-01-11 19:00: Richard Dawkins comes to call
2007-12-02 21:10: An E8 theory of everything
2007-09-27 00:46: Parallel universes are a bit more real
2007-07-05 23:40: What happened before the big bang
2007-06-27 00:58: Naïve realism
2007-05-26 02:26: Mars cave

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