I believe there are many gods, not one, and always in conflict. Well, if there are gods who created and control what’s going on here, you can tell a lot about them by what is going on. I assume they are colonists.
And so anything you can see here you can infer is the act or the will of one of those gods. All you have to do is look around. You’ll see what they’re like. It’s like looking in someone’s yard. – W.S. Burroughs
Dateline: 1950 A.D. The physicist Enrico Fermi is having lunch with a few colleagues when the subject of interstellar travel comes up. There are countless potential living systems in our own galaxy, Fermi reasons.
If even a small fraction of these produced technological civilisations capable of launching manned expeditions, our own humble planet should have been overrun with extraterrestrial conquistadores millions of years ago.
“Don’t you ever wonder where everybody is?” Fermi asked.
In other words, if the galaxy is filled with little green men in luminous flying saucers who travel from star to star colonising other worlds, then why don’t we have any physical evidence of their existence – not even so much as a piece of broken zipper from one of their spacesuits?
This question (known as the Fermi paradox) has spawned a vigorous scientific and philosophical debate whose possible answers can be grouped into three broad categories.
– Extraterrestrial civilisations do not exist.
– Extraterrestrial civilisations exist but haven’t colonised the Earth, either because they can’t or because they don’t want to.
– Extraterrestrial civilisations exist and have colonised the Earth without our knowledge.
As we shall see, the implications for all of these positions are unsettling in the extreme – not so much for what they say about extraterrestrial life, but for what they might say about us.
Are We Alone?
The most straightforward solution to the Fermi paradox is that we are alone in the universe – our planet has not been colonised because advanced alien civilisations do not exist.
Perhaps (as many Christians claim) life is unique to Earth; or perhaps most alien societies ruin themselves through pollution or war, extinguishing life on their home worlds before they have a chance to spread outwards.
(Knowing as we do that terrestrial species have a better than 99% extinction rate, this latter scenario is rather easy to imagine.)
Of course, even if most alien species do expire in this way, isn’t it stretching the limits of conjecture to suppose that all of them do?
The Milky Way galaxy alone contains at least 100 billion stable solar systems;1 roughly a third of these possess Earth-like planets with oceans.2 The odds against every single one of these being either sterile or suicidal are literally astronomical.
So, Where Are They?
If we suppose that extraterrestrial civilisations do exist, we are left with only two options: either they are somewhere else or else they are here. So why might an alien civilisation choose to colonise the Earth (or not)?
Many researchers seem to assume that an extraterrestrial colonisation effort would be overtly belligerent, taking the form of:
– Resource Exploitation
– Scrub & Repopulate
– Smash & Grab
But wouldn’t successful alien civilisations be more patient and cautious than that? Couldn’t they also be:
A. unable or unwilling to launch a full-scale invasion of the Earth?
B. here already, and ruling over us by means so subtle as to be almost undetectable?
In fact, some scientists have argued that until we conclusively prove that extraterrestrial civilisations don’t exist, the Fermi paradox isn’t a paradox at all; instead, we aren’t looking hard enough, or haven’t been looking in the right places.
The Fermi paradox here reveals significant overlap with the theodicy, a traditional theological riddle, which asks: If God is good and all-powerful, where is the evidence of his existence – why is there so much evil in the world?
One of the most ancient (and persuasive) answers to the theodicy is that of Gnosticism, a speculative branch of pre-Nicean Christianity which held that God (or the gods) do exist, but are neither omnipotent nor benevolent; instead, these advanced beings from the stars are selfish, opportunistic and deceptive.
Gnosticism in Brief
In the Gnostic view, the god of the Bible was not the Supreme Being at all, but an arrogant Demiurge who fled the heavens to build this planet as an experimental prison, populating it with artificial life forms and strange, symbiotic hybrids.
Far from paradisiacal, his “Garden of Eden” was an eerie mad scientist’s laboratory where shadowy parasites abducted a pair of primitive primates named Adam and Eve, raping the female and implanting the male with false memories:
When they [the Demiurge and his angels] saw Eve speaking with [Adam], they said to one another:
“Come, let us seize her and let us cast our seed on her, so that… those whom she will beget will serve us. But let us not tell Adam that she is not derived from us, but let us bring a stupor upon him, and… teach him in his sleep as though she came into being from his rib…”4
These chthonic and creepy alterna-Christian creation myths have influenced thinkers from many different fields over the millennia, from politics to popular culture.
In recent decades, the Gnostic metanarrative has even made a re-appearance with the paranoid worldview which informs much contemporary speculation about aliens and UFOs, e.g.:
One of the purposes for which UFOs travel to Earth is to abduct humans to help aliens produce other beings. It is not a program of reproduction but one of production.
They are not here to help us, they have their own agenda and we are not allowed to know its full parameters.5
In all of the solutions to the Fermi paradox which appear below, we can see echoes of many of these same, disturbing ideas.
As the Demiurge and his angels pass from theology into speculative exobiology, the skies seem to swarm with icily indifferent robots, otherworldly djinn, celestial frauds and bestial, fallen bacilli.
Six of the most widely-discussed scenarios follow:
– Extraterrestrial civilisations spread via self-replicating AI probes.
– Extraterrestrial civilisations develop massive virtual reality simulations.
– Extraterrestrial civilisations have left this universe and developed the ability to manipulate hyperspace.
– Extraterrestrial civilisations develop xenophobic and/or authoritarian religious forms.
– Extraterrestrials are biologically very primitive, or spread themselves via biologically primitive forms.
– The Earth is being deliberately quarantined.
Conveniently, most of the possibilities listed here could plausibly be used to explain either why our planet has been invaded or how it could already have been invaded unbeknownst to us; which outcome you favour really seems to depend on your assumptions about alien motivation.
POSSIBILITY #1 – Extraterrestrial civilisations spread via self-replicating AI probes
Frank Tipler of Tulane University has argued that alien civilisations would probably explore and colonise the Universe by proxy, filling the galaxy with self-replicating AI (artificial intelligence) probes instead of venturing forth themselves.
Thus, even a very distant extraterrestrial civilisation should be able to seize, secure, sterilise and strip-mine our entire planet in about 4 million years.
“If they existed,” concludes Tipler, “they would be here”; and since we are here instead, they must not exist.6
On the other hand, if hives of autonomous, adaptable, rapidly multiplying robotic probes were roaming the galaxy, successive generations might eventually become so intelligent as to far surpass their creators.
In time, as these “artilects” spread throughout the Universe, they could come to abandon their creators’ agenda, preferring effortless communion with their own kind to the laborious conquest of organic, planetary life. Reflects AI researcher Hugo de Garis:
I suspect strongly that virtually all the ETs out there are in fact artilects, and hence have intelligence levels astronomically superior to the human level.
To me, biological technological intelligence is just a fleeting phase that nature goes through en route to creating immortal massive artilectual intelligence, which may be a phenomenon as commonplace as the creation of life from the molecular soup…
The answer then to Fermi’s paradox is that we human beings, being mere biologicals, are utterly unworthy of the artilects’ attention… What’s in it for them? We are very probably not so special and are very, very dumb…7
POSSIBILITY #2 – Extraterrestrial civilisations have developed massive virtual reality simulations
Recent trends suggest that it should be possible for an advanced civilisation (either earthly or alien) to develop fully immersive virtual reality simulations like the “Holodeck” of Gene Rodenberry’s Star Trek.
If such a technology were developed by an alien species on its own planet, the prospect of mingling in real time with a distant and dirty species like our own could seem unappealing, degrading or even boring to extraterrestrial psychonauts. Opines evolutionary psychologist Geoffrey Miller:
Basically, I think the aliens don’t blow themselves up; they just get addicted to computer games. They forget to send radio signals or colonise space because they’re too busy with runaway consumerism and virtual-reality narcissism.
They don’t need Sentinels to enslave them in a Matrix; they do it to themselves, just as we are doing today.8
Alternately, it could be that our own world (and the visible universe which seems to surround it) is itself a vast computer simulation engineered by aliens, some form of artificial intelligence (as in the film The Matrix) or even our own descendants.
The planetarium hypothesis holds that we can’t find evidence of alien colonisation because contact with other worlds hasn’t been built into the simulation.
POSSIBILITY #3 – Extraterrestrial civilisations have left this universe and developed the ability to manipulate hyperspace
A third possibility is that alien civilisations become capable of interstellar travel, but learn how to escape this universe soon afterwards. If transcension were common, extraterrestrial civilisations might quickly lose interest in colonising other planets.
Why travel to a distant ball of mud and water when you can explore higher dimensional hyperspace instead?
On the other hand, if alien scientists did have the ability to leave our shared space-time and launch themselves into the larger multiverse, they could be here now and we would not be able to see them.
In the same way that a glass pipette might seem – from the point of view of beings trapped in the flat, two-dimensional world of the Petri dish – like an enormous, transparent column which descends from the sky to abduct unsuspecting amoeba out for an afternoon stroll, aliens from higher dimensional space-time could enter and leave our reality at will, seeming to appear and disappear, change shape and pass through solid barriers as they experimented on and/or revealed themselves to us, and all without leaving a shred of physical evidence.
The idea that extraterrestrials are actually multi-dimensional has been an influential one, leading some UFO researchers to conclude that:
This [the UFO phenomenon] is not the product of an alien culture from a nearby star, here to explore our solar system. Instead it is an intelligence which dwells in a different type of reality and moves through hyperspace in such a way as to interreact with us almost as a side-effect.
It is an intelligence that is not here to study us but it has been here all along and effectively controls our whole existence…9
Advocates of Jacques Vallee’s “control system” hypothesis similarly argue that we may never find the evidence we seek because extraterrestrials aren’t encumbered by physical artifacts like spaceships or ray guns; instead these polymorphous and hallucinatory aliens freely wiggle and hop in and out of our world like angels, demons and gods from the twilight realms of the collective subconscious.
POSSIBILITY 4 – Extraterrestrial civilisations develop xenophobic and/or authoritarian religious forms
A fourth possibility is that extraterrestrial civilisations tend to develop xenophobic and/or authoritarian religious forms. Given the history of our own species, the difficulties such belief systems might present to alien scientists can easily be imagined.
Are Plaeadian professors who promote interstellar exploration passed over for promotion or excluded from alien faculty functions? Are extraterrestrial exobiologists denounced as heretics and electrocuted by otherworldly Inquisitors? If so, then we may never encounter these advanced beings from the stars.
Alternately, it could be that alien conquerors literally walked the Earth’s surface millennia ago and left literary monuments to their endeavours in the form of the Babylonian and Sumerian creation epics and the Hebrew Bible.
In this view (the so-called “alien astronaut” hypothesis), the gods and messengers of our own authoritarian religious traditions were not representatives of a supreme being at all, but extraterrestrial colonialists masquerading as gods!
Israeli scholar Zechariah Sitchin’s works are generally representative of this latter position, holding that alien scientists (the “Elohim” and “Nephilim” of the Old Testament) genetically engineered homo sapiens from the great apes in an attempt to create a slave race:
They made us through genetic engineering. They jumped the gun on evolution, and made us to look like them physically, and to be like them emotionally. That is what the Bible says:
“Let us make the Adam in our likeness and after our image.”
Physically, outwardly and inwardly. So much of what they are, we are.10
Are human beings really descended from some prehistoric encounter between the apes and the angels 300,000 years ago? Sitchin is convinced of it. As proof, he points out that humans possess 223 genes found in no other species on Earth.
Either these genes were horizontally transferred by some unknown species of bacteria, Sitchin insists, or else they must be extraterrestrial in origin.
POSSIBILITY #5 – Extraterrestrials are biologically very primitive, or spread themselves via biologically primitive forms
600 million years ago, the Earth was ruled by sponges, flatworms and jellyfish. Possessing neither brains nor nervous systems, these simple organisms flourished, surviving nearly unchanged today.
In similar fashion, our universe may be teeming with species hugely successful on their home planets but lacking the complex cognitive skills necessary to build and launch spacecraft.
The flip-side of this possibility is the panspermia hypothesis, which holds that extraterrestrial colonists arrived here billions of years ago, not as bug-eyed monsters in metallic spacecraft, but as spores or bacteria which fell from the atmosphere to fertilise the Earth’s oceans with primitive life.
In time, these alien microbes evolved into the many terrestrial species biologists know today, including human beings!
Of course, the panspermia hypothesis doesn’t answer how our most ancient one-celled ancestors originated themselves; perhaps their ancestors too were seeded somewhere else by alien scientists from another solar system.12
POSSIBILITY #6 – The Earth is being deliberately quarantined
Finally, the “zoo hypothesis” holds that we haven’t been able to find any hard evidence of alien contact or colonisation because our extraterrestrial overlords don’t want us to – instead they are treating this planet like a farm or laboratory. As early 20th century paranormal researcher Charles Fort wondered:
Would we, if we could, educate and sophisticate pigs, geese, cattle? Would it be wise to establish diplomatic relation with the hen…?
I think we’re property… we belong to something… that once upon a time, this earth was No-man’s Land, that other worlds explored and colonised here, and fought among themselves for possession, but that now it’s owned by something… all others warned off.13
If this planet functions as a livestock enclosure of some sort, then it makes sense that representatives of the civilisation cultivating and/or studying us would occasionally slip up and reveal themselves.
The indignation expressed by the contactee who recalls alien encounters under hypnosis may have something in common with the drugged and dizzy roar of the bear who wakes up to discover a radio-tracking chip stapled to his ear:
Close Encounters of the Fourth Kind (CE-IV): The contactee is abducted by the UFO occupants, taken aboard the landed craft, and subjected to a variety of “tests” and “experiments.”
Some investigators claim to have recovered physical evidence of these interactions in the form of scars from alien surgical incisions. Some abductees report memories of devices being implanted within their bodies, typically through the nose.
Perhaps most alien civilisations are unable or unwilling to colonise other worlds, due to their religious beliefs, immersion in video games, or an unfortunate tendency to blow themselves up, but even if 99% were thus incapacitated, this still doesn’t explain why the remaining 1% seem to have left the Earth alone.
On the other hand, if just one ambitious, alien civilisation from among the remaining 1% were to colonise the Earth using any or all of the strategies described above, our seeming isolation would be explained and Fermi’s paradox would stand resolved – as long as they did so covertly.
Are we then, mere talking monkeys in a cosmic cage, simulated serfs in a vast video game or experiments in an extraterrestrial Petri dish, as some of the most plausible solutions to Fermi’s famous question would seem to imply?
Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately), the “covert colonisation” hypothesis is by definition almost impossible to disprove; in the end, we may have no choice but to test some of these strange scenarios by launching colonisation programs of our own:
Earth has provided a stable platform for the evolution of life over 4 billion years. But that lease is limited; we know for sure that it will expire after a few billion more. Long before that, our planet may become a place where it is no longer suitable for us to live.
Increasing luminosity of the Sun may gradually boil our oceans, or more sudden catastrophes may threaten our existence. If we are wise, we will have furnished our new apartments long before that time.