Many exceptional minds and bold personalities from various walks of life have spoken of humanity, whether explicitly or through playful allegory, as suffering from a hallucination, from a false and distorted self-examination that never fails to place itself at the center of all existence. And it’s like, uh, okay. I don’t think such rude allegations of self-delusion are warranted when you consider how humankind does have a rich history of being awesome. I mean, we did land on the Moon, split the atom, and gave inventing fusion reactors the good old college try. Doesn’t that deserve a gold star or something?
What other creature of reason has ever reached one million points in Donkey Kong, had enough perceptive power to admire the stainless steal lines of a DeLorean, invented garments that stretched at the waist, or used a pocket calculator for long division? This is what makes the “naked ape” so great. It’s our insatiable curiosity, our cleverness, and intellectual athleticism that will always and forever make the world a more… interesting place. But perhaps this greatness can be further illustrated by our keen interest in watching others of our tribe accomplish great things—that we too feel invigorated and energized to be more courageous ourself. Humanity is empowered and pushed onward by the phrase, “Anything you can do, I can do better.” This way of living, this grandeur, this epitome of the human spirit is the single, greatest quality of the human species because it, by itself, guarantees that we will always be someplace further along tomorrow. But not everyone shares the same romance for the human being.
In his book, Pale Blue Dot, Carl Sagan was smitten with a photograph taken of Earth by the Voyager spacecraft, some 3.7 billion miles away. The picture depicted planet Earth as but a small speck, made artificially minuscule from the distance between the camera and subject. Sagan’s accompanying text read, “Our posturing, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. … There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world.” Sure, there are times when our discoveries and revelations about our place in the cosmos are in direct contradiction to the social, political, and cultural beliefs we so proudly wear, causing us to wrestle with the so called “unsustainable” belief in human exceptionalism, but doesn’t the human condition always persevere? Don’t we always find a new interpretation to stand on?
Consider all the times when humanity has faced adversity, both in the real world and in the works of fiction. On one hand, we’ve had volcano explosions, potato famines, global floods, plagues, stock market crashes, toilet paper shortages, world wars, nuclear weapons, and 9-to-5 jobs. And on the other: alien invasions, time loops, asteroid impacts, Death Stars, and T-800 robots sent back in time to kill us. But doesn’t humanity always survive? Don’t we live to fight another day? Fuck yeah, we do!
It’s almost as if the theme song for the entire human race is “Tubthuming” by Chumbawamba. ♪ ♫ I get knocked down, but I get up again, there’s nothing that will ever keep me down. ♪ ♫ ♬ The fact that we’re still here after everything we’ve been through is itself a testimony to the tenacity, the resilience, and the ingenuity of our species. Humanity will persist, that’s for sure.
And so we should think of ourselves as a distinct form of intelligence that ought to be recognized and valued in accordance with our own extraordinary significance. However, there is one taboo question that keeps us awake at night, something we try not to think about, and we create all sort of hand-waving excuses in our attempts to explain it away. If human beings are so dashingly awesome, as we most certainly are, why the hell haven’t aliens tried to contact us yet?
The Fermi Paradox
Extraterrestrial contact is important to us because it implies that we are worth contacting. In our movies, we conceive E.T.’s as benevolent creatures, saving us from ourselves, bestowing gifts of technology, building our pyramids, handing down priceless wisdom, or instead as malevolent creatures bent on destroying us for fear of human potential outshining their own. Never do we imagine an alien spacecraft as coming out of hyperdrive only to look down upon Earth in benign indifference, seeing nothing of interest, and then driving off again. We wouldn’t know how to cope with that. The mere thought of such an unfriendly un-encounter would give us the sharpest pangs of humiliation and outrage, for what is human existence worth if it cannot be acknowledged by some celestial tourist? So, for the sake of our own mental health, it’s probably best we cobble together an interpretation for this “radio silence” we seem to be having.
Given the relatively young age of our Solar System and the relatively old age of the Universe, there should be life all over the place, comparable to what we see in films like Star Wars and Spaceballs. A space-faring civilization with even a modest amount of rocket technology should’ve been able to colonize the Milky Way galaxy by now. This, at least, was the pondering of physicist Enrico Fermi when, in 1950, he was having lunch with colleagues when suddenly he looked up from his bowl of soup and asked, “Where is everybody?” The absence of an extraterrestrial “Hello world” message tickled the curiosity of enquiring minds ever since, and a long list of hypotheses have been produced as to explain the why.
Where is everybody?Enrico Fermi, physicist
To mention a few of the more popular ideas: first, there is the Rare Earth Hypothesis. Earth is unique, or at least very rare, in supporting life, or that maybe life is common, but intelligent life is rare. Next, there is the Great Filter Hypothesis. There is some physical or esoteric barrier that inhibits the rise of interstellar, space-faring species. This could be the distance between stars being too great for travel and communicating, or maybe civilizations destroy themselves with their own technology before advancing too far into space, or their habitat deteriorates before cosmic advancement. Next, the Isolation Hypothesis. Aliens prefer to be alone over expansion. They prefer to explore their inner space rather than outer space. They prefer to work on the smallest molecular scales rather than the largest cosmic scale. And then the Transcension Hypothesis. E.T. doesn’t care about us. For the same apathetic reasons that our current technologically advanced society doesn’t try to communicate with primitive Amazonian tribes via the internet, E.T. doesn’t extend a hand to us with their own forms of communication. Finally, the Zoo Hypothesis. Aliens have kept their distance. They’ve deliberately avoided contact and have instead planted seeds of life around the galaxy in order to study life-bearing worlds for their own amusement.
Of course, alien contact is predicated on our ability to receive communications from them. However, humanity is unquestionably the most backwards civilization in the Universe when you consider the time scales involved and the exponential leaps technology makes. We’ve only just invented radio telescopes a few decades ago for receiving any form of communication at all from outer space. We focus our efforts on radio waves because that is the technology we’re most comfortable with. But it could be that radio signals are the technological equivalent of carrier pigeons to galactic communities. We really don’t know.
But all this talk of Fermi Paradoxes is flipping pointless, because here’s the deal. A civilization that is a million or a billion years more advanced than ours will have science and technology so far ahead of us that we wouldn’t even recognize it if we saw it. Imagine introducing an iPhone to a tribe of monkeys throwing poop at each other. Then, multiply that knowledge gap by 10,000, or 100,000, and now we might be somewhere in the ballpark of estimating our place in the world. With such a commanding wisdom, what probably happens is that intelligent life, whether inadvertently or through planned experimentation, discovers the Universe is only a computer simulation, and from that point, just gives up.
The Game of Life
In the 4th-century BCE, the Chinese philosopher, Zhuang Zhou, remarked, “I dreamed I was a butterfly, flitting around in the sky; then I awoke. Now I wonder: Am I a man who dreamt of being a butterfly, or am I a butterfly dreaming that I am a man?” Dreams are an interesting experience because they can often feel so real and authentic that, if we didn’t wake up from them, we might remain convinced that it was the real world we were immersed in. This ambiguous distinction between what is real and what is not is something that has been showing up in virtual reality experiences more and more frequently these days.
Jump on YouTube and search for ‘virtual reality videos funny’, and watch how people respond to simulated environments. Users strap on a VR head display, and maybe headphones, and it’s as if their brains are sucked into a different reality. Their bodies respond instinctively to the sights and sounds that pop and flash across the headsets. People jerk back and forth, they loose their balance, fall to the floor, and start kicking at virtual zombies or digital snakes as their friends and onlookers laugh hysterically at the bizarreness of the situation. But then, all of a sudden, it dawns on us. Shit! If the brain can be so easily deceived, how do we know we’re not experiencing a simulation right now? How do we know we are not just a reflection of electronic processes designed by a superior world of absolute existence? Can we know anything for certain?
In the 1998 Playstation video game, Star Ocean: The Second Story, the maximum level a character can reach is Level 255. You can continue playing the game beyond that, battling monsters, collecting experience points, but the character will never advance beyond Level 255. This is just a limit, a compromise that the programmers imposed on the virtual environment. If we exist in a simulated environment there might be limits or strange phenomena that make their appearance when we start looking at the extremities of the physical world. And as impossible as it may seem, there are many odd wonders that deserve further investigation.
Astronomers recognize an initial state in the Universe, commonly known as the The Big Bang. It’s the earliest known period from which stellar evolution commenced. If the Universe was indeed a simulation, this is what we would expect to see, an initial starting point. There are also constraints in the Universe, the most obvious being the speed of light. A simulated world would, presumably, have a maximum speed in which information can pass through the system, in this case photons at 299,792 km/s. Next, there are a finite set of identical, reusable components that compose physical matter—atoms, neutrons, protons, electrons, and so on down the line—as if object-oriented programming, a method used in software engineering, was something woven into the fabric of reality itself. There is also the elegant simplicity and beauty in the fact that nature can be revealed in mathematical shapes and patterns. Everything is computable. Look at the work of physics prodigy,Stephen Wolfram, and his heroic search for the computational rules that generate the Universe and shape the laws of physics. A simulated reality is almost a certainty.
What effect might knowledge of living in a computer simulation have on a creature of high intelligence? If extraterrestrials are anything like humans, they’ll probably feel shell-shocked. Their ambition and drive would putter out like a paper airplane that’s lost momentum. There wouldn’t be anywhere to fall but into a ghastly pit of despair and lethargic wasting, preoccupied and obsessed with the notion that they were—nothing. How inconsequential would everything seem? How useless their existence would become without any purpose or destiny. Powerless, like a wee infant trapped in a crib, only capable of wailing, “What is it all for?” I mean, wouldn’t you want to give up too? And there it is. We have the answer. Intelligent life advances to a point, makes some profound discovery about the Universe, and then has a mental breakdown that completely collapses their society, preventing them from ever reaching out to life forms in other star systems. And you know what? We might not be far from that point ourselves.