More and more astronomers come to the idea that we are not alone in the universe. For them, it’s a matter of math and humility. With potentially trillions of life-bearing planets, why should ours be the only one to evolve a high-tech civilization?
But if the aliens do exist, we have not yet encountered them. (Most likely.) You would think that out of trillions of chances of life appearing in the universe, we would have found signs of other intelligent life now, right?
Now a team based at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California is revisiting an old theory to explain Why. The “Great Filter” theory posits that potentially many other civilizations have existed throughout the history of the universe, but they all died out before they had a chance to come into contact with us. .
Even scarier, we are also well on our way to “filtering” ourselves out of existence, so to speak. In this sense, to understand why we did not meet other civilizations – that is, what extraterrestrials may have done to destroy themselves – may hold the key to saving our own civilization.
“The key for humanity to successfully pass through such a universal filter is…to identify these attributes within ourselves and neutralize them in advance,” wrote JPL astrophysicist Jonathan Jiang and coauthors. in a new study which appeared online on October 23 and has yet to be peer reviewed.
Not everyone in science buys into the idea of the Great Filter. “It seems too deterministic, as if the Great Filter were a physical law or a single impending force that confronts every rising technological civilization,” said Wade Roush, science professor and author of aliens, told The Daily Beast. “We have no direct evidence of such strength.”
But there is no doubt about the impact of the theory. The Great Filter was originally proposed by Robin Hanson, an economist at George Mason University, in 1996. It has since become a staple of sci-fi world-building. And for good reason: it is spectacular. “The fact that our universe appears to be basically dead suggests that it’s very, very difficult for advanced, explosive, enduring life to arise,” Hanson said. wrote.
By “explosive” he refers to the ability of a civilization to achieve cheap spaceflight and quickly colonize many other planets. In Hanson’s theory, there is something – or a lot – that prevents intelligent life from thriving on its home planet, spreading to other planets, and surviving long enough to come into contact with aliens like us.
At least a top defender of the search for extraterrestrial life has no objection to the theory. “I think it’s plausible,” Avi Loeb, a Harvard physicist, told The Daily Beast.
To understand the Great Filter, Jiang and his co-authors turned a mirror on humanity. Whatever seems most likely to kill we strength too pose an existential threat to intelligent life on other planets, they proposed. They have compiled a short list of the greatest threats to the human species, all but one of which are entirely our fault.
Of course, an asteroid could hit Earth with enough force to kill just about anything on the planet. It’s not necessarily something we can prevent. But so are the other civilization killers the JPL team thinks are likely to be. self-inflicted. Nuclear war. Pandemic. Climate change. artificial intelligence on the run.
Jiang’s team attributes these existential risks to what they describe as a deep-rooted dysfunction in intelligent beings such as humans. “Dysfunction can quickly snowball into the Great Filter,” the researchers wrote.
But dysfunction is not inevitable, Jiang and his co-authors pointed out. “The foundation of many of our possible filters has its roots in immaturity,” they wrote. We could grow as a species, dismantle our nuclear bombs, switch to clean energy, tamp down the zoonotic viruses who cause the worst pandemics and even develop better technology to deflect planet-killing asteroids.
All of these reforms require humanity to work together, the JPL team wrote: “History has shown that intraspecific competition, and more importantly, collaboration, has taken us to the greatest heights of invention. . And yet, we prolong notions that seem to be the antithesis of long-term sustainable growth. Racism, genocide, inequity, sabotage…the list goes on.
With peace, love and understanding – and some major technological breakthroughs – we could survive our own self-destructive tendencies and defy the Great Filter. And if we can work together to pass the filter, of course other civilizations could too. Our own survival should give us hope that one day, one way or another, we will meet the other survivors of the Great Filter.
Or maybe not. Hanson himself thinks Jiang and company got the Great Filter, and the potential solutions, partially wrong.
The global cooperation advocated by Jiang and his company as a means of survival could be the very thing that will ultimately destroy us, Hanson told The Daily Beast. “They clearly recommend more centralized control and governance of our civilization,” Hanson said. “But I actually see over-centralization of governance as the most likely contribution to our future Great Filter.”
In Hanson’s design, the more we decentralize, the more likely some of us are to survive and thrive. Imagine lone colonists battling a devastating pandemic, or private space explorers — your worldly Jeff Bezoses and Elon Musks — establishing off-world colonies on the moon or Mars. Colonies that could endure even if a calamity wipes out everyone on Earth.
Other critics think the whole Great Filter theory is rubbish. It’s possible we haven’t encountered any aliens yet, not because they’re all dead, but because…well, we haven’t met them yet. The universe is vast. Even if there is Billions flourishing extraterrestrial civilizations, they are almost certainly a long way off. It’s going to take patience and a lot of searching to finally find them.
“The Great Filter theory hinges on the assumed observation result that no one is out there,” Seth Shostak, a California-based SETI Institute astronomer, told The Daily Beast. “But this conclusion is far too premature. We just started looking.