When I was growing up, it felt like it was trendy to believe we were alone in the universe. Around the time I was sitting in my first-grade classroom watching the Challenger spin out of control and seriously questioning my desire to be an astronaut (full story here), it was popular to say that human beings on planet Earth were the only intelligent beings in the universe. This never seemed particularly viable to me and I recall getting into a few arguments with classmates and at least one teacher on the subject. And ultimately, this perception, whether it was actually widespread or limited to the sample size of my experience, basically disappeared.
It probably has something to do with the vastness of that picture up top there. Those are galaxies pictured that we’ve discovered and each galaxy is so unimaginably large that it could contain up to one-hundred trillion stars. And there are at least 150 billion galaxies in the observable universe, which is probably a tiny little fraction of the actual universe. Suffice it to say that when we contemplate how many planets this actually means, we’re approaching a number like 80,000! a lot faster than we think. In fact, I think it was Jake in 8th or 9th grade who originally tried to convince me that no self-respecting people in science had ever felt that we could possibly be alone in the universe as intelligent beings – the universe was simply too large for the math to be conceivable that we were one in several hundred quadrillion. After I got over being angry at the people who’d argued with me about this in the past, I was mostly relieved.
As education about the size and scope of the universe has become more widespread, as exploration of the local area has increased, and as we’ve discovered water-like substances on Mars, we’ve begun to project that life is not only not limited to Earth, but it’s actually likely to be quite common. There are planets with life everywhere, though most are still out of any reasonable reach for communication or travel at our current stage of technological development. But people are still wondering why we haven’t heard from any of them, now that we’ve realized they must be teeming with intelligent life. And while a few hubristic idiots have guessed that we’re just more advanced than everyone else and they haven’t figured out radio signals yet, most people realize that the same math that makes it so likely others are out there makes it beyond obvious that just as many species are way ahead of our curve as way behind it.
And so it’s become popular to posit a possible theory (really two, or the two in a binary as a single theory) as to why we have radio silence from what should be a cacophonous universe overflowing with extraterrestrial wisdom. I don’t know where the actual original source of this theory came from – presumably Stephen Hawking or one of his ilk, but like so many pop culture references, I’m only aware of it in its endless reflection in blogs and other sources rather than from the original material. So apologies to whoever’s idea this originally was, but you should know it’s become public domain. Anyway, the concept is that all intelligent life either wipes itself out (Cuban Missile Crisis, climate change, etc.) before it can sufficiently travel to or communicate across the stars or that it develops such compelling virtual reality that the intelligent life decides to retreat into a solipsistic delusion rather than reach out to others.
Never mind that this leaves out a third viable possibility also ripped from the last fifty years of our planet’s experience, namely that intelligent societies develop capitalism or similar selfishness-maximizing orders which eventually devolve into corporate kleptocracy and consolidation that enables entire planets to become slave-states that serve a small elite or even one entity… and that entity chooses not to expand horizons to seek out the only source which could possibly interfere with its power, thus choosing to make the planet self-contained and isolated. This post isn’t about that, I promise. But I do feel that should be included in the possible reasons if we’re projecting our current myopic view of ourselves onto a universe of hundreds of quadrillions of planets.
The actual problem with this theory is that it assumes the universe is as chaotic as we perceive it to be from our position of only really discovering it in the last couple-hundred years. Which is probably not surprising given the predominance of atheism and nihilism as guiding principles of most of the scientific community. But the notion that each planet is an utterly isolated society pinging randomly into the universe without ever hitting paydirt before succumbing to its own failings is profoundly short-sighted. Yes, self-destruction is a constant threat from a variety of sources, especially as the development of technology accelerates to the point where it can command enough space to cover the vast distances between galaxies. But given that the only intelligent species we know about has managed to avoid it to this point, it seems absurd to assume no one else has gotten to this point or even beyond.
And yet, not everyone does. We have beloved iconography of science fiction telling us that there are alternative possible outcomes, portraying vast starfleets of human progeny traversing the universe in hyper-speed-capable airships. Of course, since we are a hubristic species deeply in love with our own intelligence and capability, we always put humans on those ships and imagine tiny American flags or their descendants as what’s being proliferated across the stars. Because to not imagine ourselves at the forefront of this technology would be impossible, or at least treasonous. But let’s suspend disbelief for just a second, get our noses out of that truly adorable pond, and contemplate what might be the case if someone else were way, way ahead of us?
Stephen Hawking (I know this one is attributable to him) has made the same contemplation and warned us against calling attention to ourselves in the universe, predicting that the outcome would look a lot like Europeans landing on the shores of the Americas, the opening salvo in the largest known genocide in human history. But even Stephen can’t get beyond the projection of pettiness, selfishness, and greed onto other species to reflect our own. Even forward-thinking Star Trek envisions that the only intelligences sufficiently smart to compete with our own are imperial bastards, enslaving and crushing resistance to fuel endlessly infinite expansion to no end other than self-service. And while human history before, I don’t know, yesterday is basically an unending series of might-makes-right empowerment of those willing to do the most violence, it seems really reasonable to me that there might be alternate courses for societies advanced enough to actually get off their home planets and do some real exploring.
Which brings me to my actual theory as to why we haven’t heard from any of the hundred-quadrillion intelligent species out there. They aren’t letting us. They’ve put a bubble around us to protect us from contact until we’re good and ready for it.
I realize this sounds facially absurd to many of you, because it assumes a different picture of the universe than the one we see when we look out. We see all those stars and galaxies and (in an amazing stroke of self-awareness) are overwhelmed with how much we still don’t know about them. So we assume everyone else is in the same boat, despite our understanding of how much we now understand about, say, our own planet when a scant 500 years ago we adorned maps with “Here Be Dragons” in every other corner. Look at the global picture of technology and capability two centuries ago and compare it to this very Internet and space exploration and everything else that’s currently underway. And you really don’t think someone else could have had, I don’t know, a two-millennium head-start on development and have mapped and made contact with most of the Milky Way?
We’ve even made these connections, just putting ourselves in the driver’s seat, in a mere century or so of speculative science fiction. Back to Star Trek, we have the concept of the Prime Directive and the idea that we’re not to interfere with other societies in a primitive stage of development lest we overwhelm them and change their destiny or unwittingly destroy them in some unanticipated way. And while it’s narratively fun to play with breaking those rules, we see ourselves as the people running from the mystically painted primitive volcano people without realizing that we, of course, are the volcano people. We are the primitives. We still think intelligence is doomed to destroy itself and everything around it or withdraw and resign from reality in favor of unending hedonism.
Don’t get me wrong. I don’t think we’re being pulled out of windows in the middle of the night by big-eyed green-guys who are occasionally too clumsy to properly wipe our memories. I would surmise that we’re being observed from beyond a safe distance. Imagine a cosmically-scaled police interrogation room window/mirror where those inside see only a reflection (or perhaps a pattern of stars). The level at which one can monitor from that distance is in some degree of question, but it seems hard to picture having the technology to travel many light-years, but not to magnify the view several million times from such distances. If for no other reason than travel at such a speed seems to require anticipating objects that might be in the way from that kind of distance with extreme precision. Despite the depiction of warp-speed travel in science fiction, there is so much debris in space that such travel as pictured would probably just lead to impossibly destructive collisions where the speed of travel made every bit of space dust or rock into a high-powered missile that brought down the ship. So either travel is slow or there’s some way of navigating from extreme distances with high accuracy.
So let’s assume the latter. It seems totally feasible. And right now, we’re failing our test of observation. Granted, we don’t totally know what the rules are or the goals. Those would have to be pure speculation. Maybe it’s merely a scientific advancement test. We have to be able to pierce our protective bubble, to get some Hubble-like telescope beyond the distance of the perimeter so it can suddenly start hearing all the signals and report back that we’ve made contact. But my guess is that any entity that would put such a barrier up around us is concerned enough with either our welfare or their welfare that we’re actually facing a moral challenge.
I would imagine that we’re still altogether too selfish, petty, and especially violent to be allowed out of the protective crib. There are probably rules that govern this part of the universe and whatever intelligences have overcome their infantile setbacks to survive and thrive and explore. Those rules would go beyond a Prime Directive that people actually followed and incorporate the extreme responsibility involved in stepping off one planet and on to another. They would note that species are like viruses, that once allowed to spread, they may be extremely hard to contain. And as a result, they would put a heavy burden and scrutiny on our species before we were deemed sufficiently trustworthy to play well with others.
It’s possible that we’re not even close. That some voyager cruised by, saw how desperately primitive we were, threw up the shield, and agreed to check back in a few millennia. We may not be under surveillance so much as having a pin in some interstellar map that says to look our way again in our year 4500. In which case, perhaps the urgency of this test is limited, though everything we do now has an obvious affect on the future that follows, even such a far-flung one.
But I’d imagine that if we can put up a thousand security cameras in a casino, every intelligent planet discovered has constant monitoring. Intelligence seeks intelligence; even we want to make dolphins do tricks even if we seem unconcerned with trying to decipher their actual language. We train dogs and cats and monkeys and seals, however pathetically. There’s little doubt that each sprig of smartness that whatever galactic order exists finds is tracked and watched and, who knows, perhaps even saved if the equivalent of the planet-destroying volcano starts to erupt. The implications of this idea are, obviously, enormous.
Not only does this idea restore something like a God concept to those who’ve long since stopped believing, for we have a higher power (albeit of a much different nature than God) observing our movements and making some sort of evaluation, but it also means that there is some sort of meaning to our existence, even if it’s only in the context of other intelligences and not necessarily a greater transcendence of lifespan. Problematically, we don’t know exactly what their criteria are for deeming us worthy of actual interaction or contact, but given that we actually have extremely little disagreement locally on what the actually correct values are, it seems the challenge is more one of discipline and dedication to ideals than discernment of them. We have known for a few thousand years that we should stop beating each other about the head and torso with sticks. Instead, most of human history is about the perfection and development of those sticks and the study of their impact on heads and torsos. Would you let such a people into your intergalactic community of species?
I think the only real counter-argument to this theory is that it would seem too utterly harsh and cruel to make a lifeform feel this alone and abandoned when one had the power to welcome them into a more universal community. This idea seems compelling for about five seconds before you realize the pitfalls of contact for a species that’s still so intolerant that it still regularly enslaves its own members to other members of the species.
We still have racism as a massive and prevalent problem throughout our societies, with developments in the last decade or so that have normalized racism and dressed it up in more acceptable clothing in the name of fear. The representatives of the wider galaxy probably look so, yes, alien, to us that we would instantaneously fear them no matter what they did or said or how they behaved. We even have science fiction that imagines that even if they came in total peace and offered us everything, it would merely be so they could farm us like cows and fatten us up for consumption (an old classic episode of The Twilight Zone, “To Serve Man”). Domestically, we have more fear of humans we call aliens than we could probably ever conjure up for actual aliens. And that’s only the first step, the first handshake of contact. The first five seconds, before we got into any discussion of rules, values, or what membership in a wider community would mean.
It would be a little like inviting a pre-lingual infant to serve as a key representative in the UN. And sure, maybe the infant couldn’t do much harm voting randomly whenever it wanted to be fed and totally misunderstanding the proceedings. But it would be a waste of everyone’s time. Surely it would be better to let the infant grow up and let you know what kind of person it is before letting it have a seat at the most important of tables.
Which brings me to the larger point of the whole issue of expanding our technology, our understanding of the universe. We have been hellbent on separating questions of development and advancement of science from issues of ethics, let alone (gasp!) morals. Those who attempt to infuse such questions are lampooned as fuddy-duddies, even amidst a backdrop of most scientists believing that failure to anticipate the consequences of rash technological action is literally threatening the survival of the planet and the species (i.e. failing to consider fossil fuel usage leading to catastrophic climate change). Yet we continue to plow on unheeded, not only maintaining past destructions but blithely inventing new ones at every turn, with only “oohh” and “aahh” drowning out the small soundtrack of dissent or caution.
But what if we have it backwards? What if our moral, ethical, and philosophical development is actually the key to unlocking the scientific mysteries of the universe? Surely whatever we could discover on our own is a pale shadow of whatever intelligence has us under observation has come to know about the area. Back to our pre-lingual infant example, would we rather let said newborn grow on its own in science and technology or teach it what we know? It seems the power of education, of collective knowledge and development, is powerfully better than just letting it flounder in its own misunderstanding. And maybe again this is an argument for intervention, but if the infant is punching every other entity it sees, maybe waiting till it learns the value of not punching is a valuable prerequisite to undertaking such an endeavor.
It would seem that caring about being good, about doing good, about proving ourselves to this larger intelligence, is the most important priority of our future existence.
And if you don’t find this feasible, if you think this is all far-fetched and cling to your belief in the original binary of selfish destruction or selfish withdrawal, your conclusions should probably be the exact same. For the only way out of this conundrum, the only way to invent a galactic order and fulfill the dreams of Buck Rodgers and Ray Bradbury and Star Trek, would be to be the exception to this newly imagined rule. And the only way to do that is to prioritize moral and philosophical development over technological. Or at least to keep it apace, to maintain enough of a moral check on technological behavior that one can prioritize the real world and its existence over the constantly nipping alternatives.
In either case, the message should be clear. If you want to meet an alien, you should first be good. And convince everyone else to be good too. We are almost certainly on a very candid camera. And right now, they’re unfortunately just filming a cautionary tale.