Solution They Have No Desire to Communicate

Speech is great; but silence is greater.

Thomas Carlyle, Essays: Characteristics of Shakespeare

So far we have assumed that ETCs want to communicate. Maybe they don't?

Resolutions of the paradox based on the idea that ETCs will keep themselves to themselves depend on making assumptions about the motives of alien beings. If such beings exist, they will be the product of billions of years of evolution in unearthly environments, with senses, drives and emotions different from our own. Or they may be artificial intelligences that have taken over from their biological creators. or they may be of a form quite beyond our imagining. Whatever the case, how can we pretend to understand the motives of intelligences so vastly different from ours?

Probably we cannot understand alien motives — but it is fun to speculate.

One reason why ETCs might choose to keep quiet is fear. When an ETC broadcasts to space, it reveals its location and perhaps its level of technology. Any neighbors who are listening may be aggressive; worse still, they may be berserkers. We have no idea whether aliens would think this way, but many humans certainly do. Perhaps caution is a general trait among advanced intelligences.139

others have suggested that the spirit of curiosity pervading humanity (and many other terrestrial species) might be lacking in intelligent extraterrestrials. Perhaps ETCs simply have no interest in exploring the universe or in communicating with other civilizations. One could argue that ETCs lacking curiosity and a desire to learn how the universe works would never develop the technology to communicate over interstellar distances; that any intelligent species we meet must have curiosity about the external world. But a glance through the history books shows that there have been human cultures that were isolationist, wanting nothing to do with others. Perhaps a similar philosophy is common among ETCs.

A more common argument, usually advanced in a spirit of humility, is that any ETCs would be so far beyond us intellectually they would be indifferent to our existence. i heard one astronomer say that advanced civilizations "would not want to communicate with us because we could teach them nothing; after all, we don't want to communicate with insects." Yet is that true? We are unlikely to be able to teach an advanced ETC anything about a "hard" science like physics, say. But actually, physics is easy: the universe is constructed of a small number of building blocks that interact in a small number of well defined ways. The Universe is intelligible.

Advanced ETCs are therefore unlikely to spend much time discussing physics; they will all have the same theories of physics because they all inhabit the same Universe. The areas of study that are really hard — in the sense of difficult to master — are subjects like ethics, religion and art. Advanced ETCs would not want to learn about electromagnetism from us, but they might be fascinated in trying to comprehend and understand how we see the Universe — a challenge worthy of them. Furthermore, it is just not correct to say that "we don't want to communicate with insects." Biologists have gone to great lengths to interpret signals that might be encoded in the dance of the honeybee; pheromone communication by ants has long been studied. Such investigations are part of a wider study of animal communication and animal cognition. Indeed, the possibility of communication with "lower" species has fascinated humans for thousands of years. Just because we might be a "lower" species compared to others does not mean that we are inherently uninteresting. (Besides, even if ETCs are indifferent to lower forms like us, it does not explain why we have not seen or overheard their communications with peers.)

Not All Cultures Are Expansionist

The most frequently cited example of an isolationist civilization is that of China under the Ming dynasty.

The dynasty was founded in 1368 by Zhu Yuanzhang, who became the Hongwu emperor (which in translation means Extremely Martial).140 Under his rule, and later that of the Yongle emperor, China expanded her empire. The Yongle emperor and his successor, the Xuande emperor, sent the great admiral and explorer Zheng He on seven remarkable voyages. The voyages took him as far as India, the Persian Gulf and the coast of East Africa. Zheng He commanded one of the greatest armadas in history — on his first voyage, 60 of the 317 ships were 400-foot "Treasure Ships"; it must have been an awe-inspiring sight — and undoubtedly China was the leading maritime power of the day. Indeed, China was probably the most technologically advanced nation on Earth. But after the deaths of Zheng He and the Xuande emperor, and for reasons that are still debated, China ceased its expansionist policies, forbade foreign trade, and embarked on an inward-looking path.

Another common argument is that super-intelligent ETCs refrain from communication with us to protect us from an inferiority complex; they are waiting until we can provide worthwhile contributions to the conversa tions taking place in the Galactic Club. (Presumably, therefore, the ETCs deliberately "talk above our heads"; they may also place us under interdict, as we discussed earlier.)141 As Drake pointed out, however, on an individual basis all of us routinely deal with minds superior to our own. As children we learn from our elder siblings, parents and teachers; as adults we learn from the great authors, scientists and philosophers of the past. It's no big deal: at worst, when we find we will never write as well as Shakespeare or have insights as profound as Newton, we might be disappointed — but then we shrug, and we do the best we can. At best, viewing the accomplishments of others serves to inspire us. Why should it be different for societies?142

It is possible to dream up many other reasons why intelligent extraterrestrials are reserved. Maybe they reach spiritual fulfillment on their home planet and see no need to search for others. Maybe they believe only ethically advanced species should attempt to spread into space and are waiting to evolve into such a species. Maybe the inevitable time delay involved in interstellar communication makes interaction with other species appear less attractive; it would have to be one-way. (But we engage in one-way communication all the time. We read Homer because his works are interesting, even though we have no chance of engaging in a two-way communication with him.) Maybe — and this is a depressing thought, given our lack of progress in spaceflight since the Apollo missions — they just cannot be bothered.

The trouble with all such resolutions of the Fermi paradox is that they require an unlikely uniformity of motive. If the Galaxy is home to a million civilizations, as the optimists suggest, then perhaps some of them have no desire to communicate with others. But to explain the paradox requires all civilizations to behave that way. And surely that is unlikely.

Indeed, the problem might be even more acute than I suggest above. To develop interstellar communication, a civilization presumably requires a community of billions of minds. Mankind, for example, has over the centuries drawn on the genius of a vast number of minds to develop our present level of technology. If this holds true for other ETCs, then there may be trillions of intelligent individuals out there — some of whom, if they belong to a K3 civilization, will have access to unimaginably powerful technology. In this case, these resolutions of the Fermi paradox demand a uniformity of motive not only between ETCs but also of individual members or groups within an etc!

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