Flipping the Fermi Paradox on its Head

 © 2020 by Joel Marks and a TOTH to Nick Bostrom and David Koepsell 

The physicist Enrico Fermi famously posed the puzzle of there being no evidence whatever of other intelligent life in the universe, despite the seemingly plausible assumption that intelligent life would be abundant in our galaxy and others and have had time to reach extraordinary levels of power to enable constructions and alterations and explorations that would be detectable over galactic distances. But it has just occurred to me (on Hallowe’en 2020) that this argument can be turned on its head. For perhaps the lack of evidence is itself evidence that there is other intelligence life than our own. 

            Here is what I have in mind. Let us suppose that the premises of Fermi’s argument are true or at least plausible, to wit: 

(1)  The conditions in our universe allow for the coming into being of life as a common natural process.

(2) The age of our universe allows for life that has come into existence to evolve naturally to superintelligence and power (once it has reached a certain level of development that would enable it to defend against premature extinction).

(3) We see no evidence of such superintelligent life anywhere in the visible universe. 

But what follows from this? Does it follow that there is no other intelligent life in the universe? Certainly not, as others who have thought about this have already recognized. Thus, there could be abundant intelligent life that has reached our own level, but perhaps such life almost inevitably goes extinct before it can evolve further (naturally or by its own genetic or other engineering). For example, everything is always in flux over cosmic timescales, so life would always be precarious in a universe of planetary collisions, asteroidal and cometary impacts, superflares, novae, and so on. Also, once intelligence has reached our level, such that it has the capacity to destroy itself, it may very likely do so. 

It does not even follow that there is not abundant superintelligent life in the universe. For perhaps the most natural tendency would be for a superintelligence to hide from other superintelligences lest some of those others harbored malign designs, or if they themselves did. Another possibility is that it is more efficient to retreat into virtual existence, such that some kind of massive and invulnerable mainframe or server sits underground and generates indefinitely continued intelligent (and wish-fulfilling) existence for uploaded consciousnesses. 

My own proposal is somewhat different, and one I have not come across elsewhere, or at least not with this implication drawn from it. For a proposal made in a different context has been that we are in a kind of zoo or laboratory, which can only function as intended if the habitat is made to appear natural: the animals in the zoo or the experiment do not know they are in a zoo or a laboratory. My novel (?) point is simply this: Under such circumstances the verisimilitude of the habitat or the effectiveness of the experiment might be facilitated by eliminating signs of other intelligent life (and in particular of the zookeepers or experimenters themselves) in the pseudo-universe of the habitat or laboratory. This would be analogous to observing microscopic particles without allowing the conditions of observation to alter their behavior. 

Ergo Q.E.D.: The paradoxical seeming lack of evidence of other intelligent life in the universe could itself be evidence of other intelligent life in the universe.


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