Are Intelligent Civilizations Doomed?

by Fraser Cain on August 25, 2014

One answer to the Fermi Paradox is the idea of the Great Filter; the possibility that something wipes out 100% of intelligent civilizations. That why we’ve never discovered any aliens… they’re all dead. Is that our future too?

In a previous episode, I presented the idea of the Fermi Paradox. If space is huge, like space huge, not aircraft carrier huge, and there are billions upon billions of stars, AND there seem to be lots of habitable planets around those stars, where are all the damn aliens?

There are plenty of theories about what might be the solution for the Fermi Paradox, like there aren’t a lot of aliens out there and we’re too far apart to bother with, or maybe they just don’t want to talk to us because of our meat cooties, or maybe we’re really in a cosmic zoo and if you break it, you bought it.

It’s possible that we’re the first intelligent civilization to exist in the entire Universe, but I’ve never been a fan of that idea. If we’re the best the universe can do in billions of years, I seriously need to make some heavy expectation adjustments to my view of everything.

Planets everywhere. So where are the aliens? Credit: ESO M. Kornmesser

Planets exist everywhere. So where are the aliens? Credit: ESO M. Kornmesser

There is still another theory, one that you might find troubling. It’s called the Great Filter, and it says that something prevents intelligent civilizations from ever forming, in a darkly mysterious Philip K Dick kind of way.

Consider the long series of steps that happened to get from the early Earth to where we are now: A planet with the right combination of atoms needed to have liquid water long enough for organic molecules to form, those molecules needed to somehow be able to reproduce, eventually becoming the first organisms, which became multicellular organisms, then learning to reproduce sexually, evolving tool use, and eventually becoming intelligent life, and all the while managing to survive a planetary extinction or two. And then, at some point in the future, this intelligent life goes on to colonize an entire nearby galaxy.

Since humanity has passed all those previous steps, we know they’re not impossible. Maybe really really improbable, but not impossible. As we imagine the future, there’s nothing in the laws of physics that’ll stop us from building machines that can help us colonize the entire galaxy. Pretty machines with blinking lights, possibly incorporating meat parts from future generations of humans. If we can do it, any race could do it.

If the universe has been around for 14 billion years, and we’ve done it in a fraction of that, there’s been plenty of time for this to have been done. And yet, still no aliens. So maybe the Great Filter is still waiting for us. No matter how hard we try to extend beyond our Solar System, something will stop us.

This image shows the Hubble Ultra Deep Field 2012, an improved version of the Hubble Ultra Deep Field image featuring additional observation time. The new data have revealed for the first time a population of distant galaxies at redshifts between 9 and 12, including the most distant object observed to date. These galaxies will require confirmation using spectroscopy by the forthcoming NASA/ESA/CSA James Webb Space Telescope before they are considered to be fully confirmed.

There are so many places where aliens could have evolved. So where are they? Credit: NASA/HST

So what could the Great Filter be? There are lots of ideas. Maybe all civilizations discover the most horrible of weapons and eventually destroy themselves. They could develop virtual reality technology and choose to spend their future in a simulated reality. They could create an exotic type of matter that destroys their home planet. Perhaps they create robotic servants who inevitably overthrow their masters in a planetary robotalypse. Perhaps someone creates a super plague that wipes out all life, the civilization ruins their environment and its ability to support life by filling their oceans with plastic and their atmosphere with CO2 until their planet becomes a pressure cooker. Or maybe they just watch too much reality tv and just get too dumb to put food in their own mouths and die of stupid.

Whatever the cause is, here’s the haunting idea behind it… Whatever this Great Filter is, it must hit 100% of intelligent civilizations. Because if even 1% of aliens are able to avoid it, they’d go on to colonize the galaxy. And still even to this day, yes, we have no aliens.

There could be some high probability absolute devastation event in our future, which will happen just before we become a space-faring civilization…. And there’s no way we can predict or prevent it. The idea that all advanced civilizations are doomed is unsettling.

Here’s hoping that the Great Filter is wrong. Either we’re the first advanced civilization in the Milky Way, or perhaps we’ll figure it out, and avoid the catastrophe that killed off all the other aliens in the galaxy.

So what do you think? What’s it gonna be? What will wipe us out? Tell us in the comments below.

About 

Fraser Cain is the publisher of Universe Today. He's also the co-host of Astronomy Cast with Dr. Pamela Gay.

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