Is there a Great Filter that Explains the Great Silence?

by James Jaeger

There are books, videos, papers and articles floating around the Internet about the subject of the Fermi Paradox and the theory of the Great Filter. (1)

Rather than taking the time to explain what the Great Filter is, watch a short film entitled "Why Alien Life Would be our Doom - The Great Filter" such at This film does a great job explaining the issue but I am having a difficult time agreeing with its conclusion: finding alien life would be our doom. This conclusion may have originated with Oxford University philosopher, Nick Bostrom, when he said: "no news is good news" -- meaning that were we to find primitive Life on Mars it would eliminate a number of Great Filters behind us (when we were primitive Life) implying that the Great Filter is in front of us (when we are advanced Life).

Let's thus explore the issue and see if any other conclusions can be arrived at.

The Fermi Paradox is simply the idea that, if there are some 400 billion star systems all over the Milky Way Galaxy, how could there possibly be ZERO other civilizations out there other than our own. In other words, "where is everybody," as Enrico Fermi asked his colleagues -- Edward Teller, Emil Konopinski and Herbert York -- one day in 1950 at lunch. Since then countless scientists and laymen have been trying to answer this question, “where is everybody?”

This brings us back to the Great Filter, a proposed answer to the Fermi Paradox. Specifically, the basic questions connected with the Fermi Paradox are: 1) is there a Great Filter and 2) if there is, is it a) in front of us or b) behind us? So follow my logic:

If we made it through some Great Filter, we may be the ONLY ones who did it. After all we are still here, but we don’t hear from anyone else "out there." Or, consider this: if WE made it through the Filter, others SHOULD be able to make it through as well. So why haven't we heard from them? Why the Great Silence? There could be many reasons for the Great Silence. They never existed in the first place, is one. They do exist but we’re all still babies. We're all about the same technological age and not yet able to communicate with each other. This is, in essence, the Gamma Burst theory. Under the circumstances of 2a or 2b it doesn’t really make much difference if the Filter is in front of us or behind us -- or anyone else -- we can ALL eventually get through it.

On the other hand, if there is a Filter and no one can get through it – this is an existential threat to any and all Life in the universe. Under this circumstance, no one out there has gotten through the Filter, and this is why we haven’t heard from 'anybody.' If this is the situation, the scary part is we will encounter this Filter as well and just like all the others we will not get through it either. The Copernicus Principle probably applies here, the idea that we are nothing special. Given this logic, the Great Silence we "hear" from the universe is a foreboding of things to come: the Universe is going to Filter us out too. Even though this has to be a possible explanation for the Great Silence, it prompts the question: why would the Universe filter out that which it went to all the trouble of creating? Why would the Universe create Life and then filter it ALL out -- not even one sperm gets through to the egg?!

This brings up the only other possibility: there is a Filter, but it's NOT impossible to get through -- just very, very difficult. That said, we may, in fact, have already gotten through this Filter because it happened when we were Protozoa, or at one of the many evolutionary steps we have already passed through. Or, the Filter may still be in front of us. It will be very, very difficult to get through it, but nonetheless it's still in front of us.

Given these things, discovering extraterrestrial life -- whether primitive or advanced -- is kind of irrelevant to whether there is a Filter or whether we will get through it if it exists. If we discover Life (primitive or advanced) "out there" all that really means is there is NO Filter, OR the Filter is surmountable. How can the discovery of Life "out there" mean anything different, as the film implies and Nick Bostom imply?

Again, the fact that we have NOT discovered any Life (primitive or advanced) is what's scary. This is evidence that there IS some kind of Filter (existential event) in FRONT of us. And it's obviously in front of us because we haven't yet hit it, i.e., we're still here to wonder about it!

So, I would say to my fellow Human Beings, here's the lesson: we should be concerned, VERY concerned. We should be doing at least two things right now. 1) Pouring resources into SETI the "search for extraterrestrial Life" (both primitive and advanced) and 2) pouring resources into a study of this Great Silence. To the degree point 1 continues to fail to reveal extraterrestrial Life (primitive or advanced) we should radically increase our allocations into point 2. I would even go so far as to say that, unless extraterrestrial Life is discovered within a certain period of time, we should place a short or long moratorium on all research that could possibly cause an existential event -- our Great Silence. This moratorium would have to include Superintelligent AI, genetic engineering, Nanotechnology and any other technologies that could cause our extinction.

Practices -- such as our use of fission, fusion, fossil fuels and technologies that build up excessive carbon dioxide-type gasses in our atmosphere -- should be curtailed to the degree the Fermi Paradox and the resulting Great Silence are NOT resolved. In other words, to the degree we do NOT find extraterrestrial Life "out there," it is safer to assume that some Great Filter lays in front of us -- as it did for "everybody" else -- and it may be very, very difficult to get through. I am NOT going to say this is an impossible Filter -- because , again, that would make no universal sense -- but I am going to say it could be a very, very limiting Filter. This really could be Human Civilization's ultimate test as to whether or not we are worthy to go on to become a Type II and then Type III Civilization. This could be the same test played out in the macrocosm that's been played out in the microcosm countless trillions of times throughout our entire evolution: the one little world out of billions, that survives the journey to fertilize some Galactic Egg.

No one is going to like any of this -- the idea that we are being tested, or the idea that curtailing the technological advancement of an entire world may be vitally prudent. But, until the full set of questions are answered, but what do you want to do? Fall victim to the same demise that every other technological civilization in the galaxy has succumb to? That would be stupid, no? Are we a stupid civilization? I don't believe we are. I believe we are a civilization that can solve its problems. I believe we are a civilization that can realize that it's not wise to spend too much of our money and intellectual resources on weapons and warfare, or for that matter on debilitating collectivist philosophies that make us all weaker and less able in the long-term.

Given these considerations, wouldn't it be prudent to take some of the $500+ billion we pour into weapons and war and use this money to fund SETI? Right now we allocate probably less than a billion dollars to SETI every year. That is foolish. We should re allocate at least 10% of the $500 billion allocated to war to search for Life (primitive and advanced). That's $50 billion a year to figure out if the Human Race is on a collision course with a Great Wall of Fire and what we can do to avoid it. If Human Civilization isn't worth that psaltery sum, then let the Great Filter filter us out and make room for more worthy civilizations.


24 November 2018

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