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Do Dyson Spheres and Von Neumann Probes make the Fermi Paradox Worse?
Lincoln Cannon   Jul 24, 2012   Lincoln Metacannon  

Are we ourselves perhaps the self-replicating probes (panspermia?) of another civilization that has already begun colonizing the universe?

Scientists Anders Sandberg and Stuart Armstrong are working on a paper that explores the relation between theoretical engineering capacities and colonization of the universe. Of course, this is not a new topic. For decades, scientists and philosophers have analyzed what has come to be known as the “Fermi paradox”, named after physicist Enrico Fermi, who called attention to two apparently conflicting observations: on the one hand, the universe appears old and large enough to have produced many Earth-like planets capable of supporting intelligent life; yet on the other hand, we have no objective evidence for the existence of intelligent life beyond humanity on Earth. Many have argued that if intelligent life existed elsewhere then it should have been able to colonize the universe many times over by now, but perhaps “many times” grossly underestimates just how many times it could have happened by now.

In the video, Stuart provides an enjoyable and thought-provoking presentation of the analysis that he and Anders have been working on. He reasons, based on our improving understanding of theoretical engineering capacities, that an intelligent civilization not much more advanced than us could start and complete within 10,000 years (and perhaps orders of magnitude faster) a project of launching a sufficient number of replicators for universal colonization. Basically, the civilization could build a Dyson sphere around its star and harness that energy to build and launch trillions of von Neumann self-replicating probes toward all the galaxies in the observable universe. Stuart then observes that this makes the Fermi paradox “worse” because 10,000 years (or less) on cosmological scales is almost no time at all, suggesting that the critical path would be travel time (rather than any earlier stage in the project), and there’s clearly been more than enough travel time available to the probes of any intelligent inhabitants of stars and galaxies older than our own. He concludes that one of following explanations must be true:

1) The technology is impossible.

2) His calculations or assumptions are wrong.

3) We are already colonized, but don’t know it.

4) Technological civilizations are far rarer than most imagined.

Near this point in Stuart’s presentation, the audience engaged him in some interesting conversation. Everyone allowed #1 and #2 to be rejected, at least for sake of argument. However, when Stuart expressed his inclination toward #4 rather than #3, some members of the audience questioned his reasoning, suggesting that we ourselves are perhaps the self-replicating probes (panspermia?) of another civilization that has already begun colonizing the universe. Stuart responded that he considers this unlikely because it doesn’t seem to make sense that the colonizing civilization would use a mechanism that forgets its origin. I don’t share his assessment for a few reasons: first, if evolution is sufficiently predictable then we may not have forgotten our origins in the most pertinent sense; second, forgetting in some senses may be valuable to the robustness of a replicator or the interestingness of its results; and third, we have practical and moral reasons to trust that technological civilizations are not rare, as outlined in the New God Argument.

In case you didn’t actually watch the video, I’ll add in closing that Mormons make an appearance in Stuart’s presentation. He uses us as an example of persons that would want to colonize the universe for ideological reasons. I wonder if he knows anything about Mormon Transhumanists?

Lincoln Cannon is a technologist and philosopher, and leading advocate of technological evolution and postsecular religion. He is a founder, board member, and former president of the Mormon Transhumanist Association. He is a founder and advisor of the Christian Transhumanist Association. And he formulated the New God Argument, a logical argument for faith in God that is popular among religious Transhumanists.


I think you have to ignore a lot of evidence to believe that we are not both influenced by and drawn to universal extropy.

On the time-scale of the galaxy we have not been listening for very long. The time we have been listening and not heard anything can A) be the pause between the transmissions B) the way we are listening.

There is also the possibility that the diversity of life on this planet is a representation of competing intergalactic colonial powers.

I choose to believe that the universe has no ego, therefore I see no need for us to be programmed with a specific god complex. We are however definitely wired to be creatures of faith in the cosmos, which I see as the only necessary marker a universal creator would need to place in a self-replicating system.

I also reject the concept of time on the universal scale. Which only further begs the question: where are the aliens?

They are right here, living among us and within us, if you care to pull the wool off your eyes.

The former head of SETI recently commented that if we compare the visible universe to Earth’s oceans then we’ve sampled only a single glass of its water for advanced intelligence.

I’ve just finished watching this presentation and found it very stimulating. The questions aren’t always audible but other than the prisoner’s dilemma there isn’t much of a discussion about conflicting colonial interests.

Assuming that other intelligent species have reached these conclusions too, then it should follow that some have had conflicts, and others have had errors.

I don’t follow his argument about why would we be programmed to forget. If an alien species stepped into our solar system maliciously or not I’m pretty certain we would mark our territory with extreme prejudice, which also may have something to do with why we are having problems making friends in the neighborhood.

I like the ocean comparison, it’s like saying no one is home because the TV is not visibly on through the front window.

“if we compare the visible universe to Earth’s oceans then we’ve sampled only a single glass of its water for advanced intelligence.”

But even a single glass of ocean water would have thousands, if not millions, of plankton.  Be sure not to appeal to ignorance and mix up facts with beliefs in this kind of topic.  I’ll elaborate later.

In the analogy, plankton might correspond to simple life, and we’ve identified many places that appear likely to be suitable for simple life. It’s just a matter of time until we can confirm. However, most persons seem to agree that we haven’t identified any likely candidates for advanced intelligence, apart from Earth.

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