The Great Filter

Here’s some brain exercise this morning, for any interested.

One of the most fascinating scientific puzzles is the Fermi Paradox. Given that there are billions of habitable planets in our galaxy, then why haven’t we seen evidence of any advanced alien civilizations? Even if complex life evolved on only a very small percentage of those planets, the odds are that there should be a great number of civilizations capable by now of interstellar communication/travel. So, where are they?

There are lots of suggested answers to this paradox, ranging from the simple (the Rare Earth hypothesis says that the evolution of complex life is so exceedingly unlikely that it may have occurred nowhere else) to the fantastic (the zoo hypothesis, for example, says that advanced alien civilizations shield themselves from us as they observe us, zoo-like).

Assuming the more likely scenario–the reason we haven’t heard from advanced alien civilizations is that they don’t exist–scientists posit that there must be some “Great Filter,” that is, that somewhere on the road from simple to exceedingly complex life, there is a wall which cannot be crossed, or which extinguishes life before it reaches the most advanced technological stage.

This Great Filter may be either behind us, or ahead of us. If it is behind us, then we’ve presumably cleared the great improbable hurdle and are the first (or only) complex life in the galaxy (there are some other possibilities that I’m discarding for simplicity sake). But maybe the Great Filter lies ahead of us. That argument supposes that while there may be many alien civilizations that reach our level of advancement, some catastrophe or obstacle prevents them from ever reaching the most advanced stage. Thus Oxford philosopher Nick Bostrom argues that if we should find evidence of extinct complex life on Mars (for example) that would be “by far the worst news ever printed on a newspaper cover,” because it would mean the Great Filter lies ahead of us.

The most interesting proposed answers to the Paradox reject the notion that the seeming absence of contact with advanced alien civilizations means they don’t exist. Proponents of these hypotheses (including, for example, those who favor the zoo hypothesis), have come up with a fascinating list of possible explanations for why we aren’t in contact with advanced alien civilizations. While the hypotheses are bizarre, they eliminate the question of any “Great Filter.”

Here are 10 of them, taken from this  highly recommended article:

Group 2 explanations get rid of any notion that we’re rare or special or the first at anything—on the contrary, they believe in the Mediocrity Principle, whose starting point is that there is nothing unusual or rare about our galaxy, solar system, planet, or level of intelligence, until evidence proves otherwise. They’re also much less quick to assume that the lack of evidence of higher intelligence beings is evidence of their nonexistence—emphasizing the fact that our search for signals stretches only about 100 light years away from us (0.1% across the galaxy) and suggesting a number of possible explanations. Here are 10:

Possibility 1) Super-intelligent life could very well have already visited Earth, but before we were here. In the scheme of things, sentient humans have only been around for about 50,000 years, a little blip of time. If contact happened before then, it might have made some ducks flip out and run into the water and that’s it. Further, recorded history only goes back 5,500 years—a group of ancient hunter-gatherer tribes may have experienced some crazy alien shit, but they had no good way to tell anyone in the future about it.

Possibility 2) The galaxy has been colonized, but we just live in some desolate rural area of the galaxy. The Americas may have been colonized by Europeans long before anyone in a small Inuit tribe in far northern Canada realized it had happened. There could be an urbanization component to the interstellar dwellings of higher species, in which all the neighboring solar systems in a certain area are colonized and in communication, and it would be impractical and purposeless for anyone to deal with coming all the way out to the random part of the spiral where we live.

Possibility 3) The entire concept of physical colonization is a hilariously backward concept to a more advanced species. Remember the picture of the Type II Civilization above with the sphere around their star? With all that energy, they might have created a perfect environment for themselves that satisfies their every need. They might have crazy-advanced ways of reducing their need for resources and zero interest in leaving their happy utopia to explore the cold, empty, undeveloped universe.

An even more advanced civilization might view the entire physical world as a horribly primitive place, having long ago conquered their own biology and uploaded their brains to a virtual reality, eternal-life paradise. Living in the physical world of biology, mortality, wants, and needs might seem to them the way we view primitive ocean species living in the frigid, dark sea. FYI, thinking about another life form having bested mortality makes me incredibly jealous and upset.

Possibility 4) There are scary predator civilizations out there, and most intelligent life knows better than to broadcast any outgoing signals and advertise their location. This is an unpleasant concept and would help explain the lack of any signals being received by the SETI satellites. It also means that we might be the super naive newbies who are being unbelievably stupid and risky by ever broadcasting outward signals. There’s a debate going on currently about whether we should engage in METI (Messaging to Extraterrestrial Intelligence—the reverse of SETI) or not, and most people say we should not. Stephen Hawking warns, “If aliens visit us, the outcome would be much as when Columbus landed in America, which didn’t turn out well for the Native Americans.” Even Carl Sagan (a general believer that any civilization advanced enough for interstellar travel would be altruistic, not hostile) called the practice of METI “deeply unwise and immature,” and recommended that “the newest children in a strange and uncertain cosmos should listen quietly for a long time, patiently learning about the universe and comparing notes, before shouting into an unknown jungle that we do not understand.” Scary.

Possibility 5) There’s only one instance of higher-intelligent life—a “superpredator” civilization (like humans are here on Earth)—that is far more advanced than everyone else and keeps it that way by exterminating any intelligent civilization once they get past a certain level. This would suck. The way it might work is that it’s an inefficient use of resources to exterminate all emerging intelligences, maybe because most die out on their own. But past a certain point, the super beings make their move—because to them, an emerging intelligent species becomes like a virus as it starts to grow and spread. This theory suggests that whoever was the first in the galaxy to reach intelligence won, and now no one else has a chance. This would explain the lack of activity out there because it would keep the number of super-intelligent civilizations to just one.

Possibility 6) There’s plenty of activity and noise out there, but our technology is too primitive and we’re listening for the wrong things. Like walking into a modern-day office building, turning on a walkie-talkie, and when you hear no activity (which of course you wouldn’t hear because everyone’s texting, not using walkie-talkies), determining that the building must be empty. Or maybe, as Carl Sagan has pointed out, it could be that our minds work exponentially faster or slower than another form of intelligence out there—e.g. it takes them 12 years to say “Hello,” and when we hear that communication, it just sounds like white noise to us.

Possibility 7) We are receiving contact from other intelligent life, but the government is hiding it. The more I learn about the topic, the more this seems like an idiotic theory, but I had to mention it because it’s talked about so much.

Possibility 8) Higher civilizations are aware of us and observing us (AKA the “Zoo Hypothesis”). As far as we know, super-intelligent civilizations exist in a tightly-regulated galaxy, and our Earth is treated like part of a vast and protected national park, with a strict “Look but don’t touch” rule for planets like ours. We wouldn’t notice them, because if a far smarter species wanted to observe us, it would know how to easily do so without us realizing it. Maybe there’s a rule similar to the Star Trek’s “Prime Directive” which prohibits super-intelligent beings from making any open contact with lesser species like us or revealing themselves in any way, until the lesser species has reached a certain level of intelligence.

Possibility 9) Higher civilizations are here, all around us. But we’re too primitive to perceive them. Michio Kakusums it up like this:

Let’s say we have an anthill in the middle of the forest. And right next to the anthill, they’re building a ten-lane super-highway. And the question is “Would the ants be able to understand what a ten-lane super-highway is? Would the ants be able to understand the technology and the intentions of the beings building the highway next to them?”

So it’s not that we can’t pick up the signals from Planet X using our technology, it’s that we can’t even comprehend what the beings from Planet X are or what they’re trying to do. It’s so beyond us that even if they really wanted to enlighten us, it would be like trying to teach ants about the internet.

Along those lines, this may also be an answer to “Well if there are so many fancy Type III Civilizations, why haven’t they contacted us yet?” To answer that, let’s ask ourselves—when Pizarro made his way into Peru, did he stop for a while at an anthill to try to communicate? Was he magnanimous, trying to help the ants in the anthill? Did he become hostile and slow his original mission down in order to smash the anthill apart? Or was the anthill of complete and utter and eternal irrelevance to Pizarro? That might be our situation here.

Possibility 10) We’re completely wrong about our reality. There are a lot of ways we could just be totally off with everything we think. The universe might appear one way and be something else entirely, like a hologram. Or maybe we’re the aliens and we were planted here as an experiment or as a form of fertilizer. There’s even a chance that we’re all part of a computer simulation by some researcher from another world, and other forms of life simply weren’t programmed into the simulation.

For any fellow nerds who made it this far, may you have a pleasant day, free of Great Filters.

24 comments on “The Great Filter

  1. Laurie Graves says:

    I made it all the way to the end! Son of a biscuit, some of those proposed answers are downright nasty. I can almost hear the movie music that accompanies the nasty scenarios. Lots to think about, though.


    • Bill says:

      I remember my son telling me years ago that it was crazy for us to be attracting attention to ourselves without knowing whether the other intelligent life out there was friendly or not.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Ed says:

    If I had to guess, I would say we, human life, are the great filter and will eventually destroy ourselves with no help from the outside universe.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Bill says:

      That’s the main premise behind the argument that the Great Filter is before us–that as complex intelligent beings become more advanced, they ultimately destroy themselves with their technology. Seems terribly pessimistic to me.


  3. BeeHappee says:

    Ha, good one, Bill. When I read “a group of ancient hunter-gatherer tribes may have experienced some crazy alien shit” I thought: this sounds like something from WaitButWhy. 🙂 Yes, more fun to speculate about possibilities than think about the Great Filter. Realistically, I vote for #9, although it would be more comforting to embrace big brothers of Light, the Arcturians.


    • Bill says:

      I tend to favor the idea that fully mature civilizations are content and sustainable, so therefore have no need to go out searching for life on other planets. But wouldn’t at least a few of them do it just for the fun of it and to satisfy intellectual curiosity?

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I made it through despite the fact I don’t think I qualify as a nerd (I’m smart but not nerd smart!). I just hope if we are being observed, the observers are getting a snack during this particular political episode.
    Thanks for broadening my horizon.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Bill says:

      Of course I meant nerd is a good way. 🙂
      My guess is that if we are all zoo creatures, our political squabblings are among the least interesting things about us to observe.


  5. Scott says:

    I love this subject, Bill… I personally think that it’s been far too much time, in far too huge a universe, for Earth to be the only place with life. There are complete galaxy *clusters* out there which only show up as a blip of light to us… Talk to be about trying to understand any communication from those galaxies. Yet another case of “we don’t know what we don’t know.” I always go back to the example that people used to drink Radon Water. We think we are so smart now? People used to think they were so smart then, too.
    Like I’ve said before, if we’re headed for the great filter, or about to be demolished to make way for an interstellar bypass, or merely part of a computer simulation, I’m just enjoying myself. (what do you mean, “why?” You’ve got to build bypasses!) 😉


    • Bill says:

      Well said Scott. Me too! Let’s enjoy the ride.

      So there are billions of stars in our galaxy and there are billions of other galaxies. As if that wasn’t mindblowing enough, the multi-verse theory speculates that there a near-infinite number of other universes. If we are alone, it is exceedingly unlikely.


      • Scott says:

        I read the entire linked article, too. Quite a thought provoking article. I’ll send it to a coworker too. I haven’t studied the multiverse theory yet…
        Mind-blowing? It would be if I could wrap my head around it! Perhaps I should be glad I can’t… Probably would be painful if I could!

        Liked by 1 person

  6. thesnowwoman says:

    OMG I am a nerd! I read to the end, but I did have to wait all day to get a minute to do it. Busy doing other nerdy things….like IP law 🤓


  7. Nerd Here too. I read to the end. What if the other civilizations are only as far as long as we are?
    It takes billions of years to become the predator species on this planet. It may take a long time to become a predator species in our solar system. We cannot live on any planet but earth. We also have been using up our resources and polluting our ecosystem. Would other species make a similar mistake and not be able to leap to another planet because of lack of resources? In 1000 years, will we have been able to feed the entire population, (even if it shrank) and have enough resources to establish a living system on the moon? Just the moon. I realize, this is not a million years. So, maybe, the other guys are facing similar resource and husbandry restrictions.


    • Bill says:

      Good point. One theory is that the Great Filter is behind us, but we’re the first civilization to make it this far. The argument against that is that we’re a relatively young planet. Some are billions of years older than ours. The article says to consider how much more advanced we are today than we were a thousand years ago. How much more advanced could civilizations millions or billions of years older than ours be? The counter-argument is that maybe conditions for the emergence of complex life in the universe didn’t exist until recently, in which case we could be out front (and past the dreaded filter).

      Glad to know I’m not alone in my nerdiness.


  8. Annie says:

    I might have nightmares tonight….


  9. Dee Ready says:

    Dear Bill, I did make it to the end of the article. I’m not a deep, philosophical or scientific thinker, but what I’m left with is the thought that no-one anywhere beyond our galaxy has to conquer us or test us or ignore us or examine us or do experiments with us or anything–we are doing a fine job of self-destructing. That is the sad truth that I have felt for long years. Peace.


  10. Joanna says:

    A filter or a test? A test to see if we really can listen to our creator and work things through 🙂


    • Bill says:

      I can’t accept the notion that the universe/planet/humanity either has no telos, or is destined for self-destruction. I prefer to believe that we’re on the road to an amazing and beautiful future!

      Liked by 1 person

  11. I made it to the end, and these days I don’t get time to do that much… It all seems possible, probable. I’ve seen a formation of 3 FO’s that looked like they weren’t from ’round here. There are more things in heaven and earth… and out there, I think.


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