Fermi, Gentile, Collectivism, and Meaning

New scientific discoveries suggest the reason for the continued existence of life on Earth is extreme luck, and that humanity may be alone in the universe. What should our response to this be?

Part 1—Looks Like Nobody’s Around 

Cosmic Silence

There are perhaps a hundred billion stars in our galaxy and a trillion galaxies in the observable universe. We’ve already detected many planets circling these stars, and some of them are even in the “habitable zone.” One might think that with such an astronomically high number of opportunities for life to evolve, the universe must be teeming with creatures of all types.

“But where is everybody?” asked Enrico Fermi, the architect of the atomic bomb, after discussing UFO reports with some fellow physicists. And this question, later termed the Fermi paradox, has been troubling scientists ever since. The search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) has been conducted since as far back as 1899 (when Nikola Tesla thought he received a radio transmission from Mars), but especially since 1959 when it was realized that microwave radio had the potential to communicate between the stars. The Soviets dominated SETI in the 1960s, using “nearly-omnidirectional antennas to observe large chunks of sky, counting on the existence of at least a few very advanced civilizations capable of radiating enormous amounts of transmitter power.” NASA topped the Soviet effort first with Project Cyclops and then a much more intensive Project Phoenix. China has also recently launched its first SETI-only satellite facility. The director of NASAs SETI department has stated that unless we hear something within a few years, we will soon be able to say with some confidence that there aren’t any continuous powerful radio beacons coming from anywhere in our galaxy. 

The possibility for intelligent life keeps shrinking. Brian C. Lackey explains:

As far as we knew in 1960, when modern interstellar SETI began, the Universe really could have been filled with aliens. Practically every star system could have had a radio beacon; there could have been millions of Dyson spheres in the Milky Way; every other galaxy could have been concealed in a blackbox. Now we know that all of these phenomena are [at least] rare. (Source here)

Types of Civilizations that Aren’t Out There

The Kardashev scale is a method of measuring a civilization’s level of technological advancement (based on the amount of energy it is able to use):

A Type I (planetary) civilization has mastered its own planet, and seeks to expand.

A Type II (stellar) civilization has mastered its own solar system, and seeks to expand. 

A Type III (galactic) civilization has mastered its own galaxy, and seeks to expand to other galaxies.

Each type of civilization would likely have its own distinctive signature. Lackey has done a search for various signatures of galactic civilizations and reached results which “all imply that Type III societies are not present in the observable Universe.”

Moreover, in all probability, we don’t have any Type II neighbors within our own galaxy. Dyson spheres are theoretical structures which could be built in order to harness all the energy of a star. All the light would be collected, making the star invisible. However, a structure like this would emanate infrared light. These infrared structures have been thoroughly searched for in our own galaxy, and nothing has turned up yet. The summary of these various searches implies we’re probably without a big brother (see here).

Lastly, if we’re without a Type II civilization, we’re more than likely without a Type I because of the relatively short time it would take for the development to occur. I say this because while our galaxy is estimated at 13.6 billion years old, it is only 100,000 light years across. Even a slow starfaring civilization (traveling at a few percent of c) would in all probability be able to spread out to the entire galaxy within ten million years. We are currently a type 0 civilization but are likely to become a Type 1 within the next millennium. To have another Type I civilization emerge at the same time after all this waiting would be quite a coincidence. 

Extreme Luck

The Drake equation was the first method of calculating the probability of extraterrestrial life and is expressed thus: 

Many modern scientists view this formula as archaic and overly simplistic. Futurist Isaac Arthur has listed 50 crucial factors for the development of intelligent, starfaring civilizations (see here). If each factor had a coin toss (50%) chance of happening, the odds of a star having a planet with life would be less than one in a quadrillion, or about one civilization for every several thousand galaxies. If the odds are more like those of a dice roll (one in six), there would only be life on one out of every 8.1 x 1038 stars, trillions of times more than the number of stars in the observable universe. And several recent studies have shown some of these factors are much less likely than a roll of dice. 

“The reason the Earth has managed to stay habitable for billions of years is simply down to good luck,” Southampton University researchers have said . In a series of computer simulations on 100,000 different types of planets starting off habitable, less than 2% were able to maintain their habitability for over three billion years (the time it took for life on Earth to evolve from its beginnings to this point) with the majority of planets either deteriorating to deep-frozen ice balls or intolerably hot conditions causing planet-wide sterility (see here).

In 2018 Proxima Centauri (our nearest neighbor) emitted a superflare that was so powerful it was visible to the naked eye. Such powerful radiation could strip a planet of its ozone within several years thereby exposing it to harmful cosmic rays. It is estimated that the radiation emitted during this solar flare was 65 times more powerful than the amount needed to kill Earth’s most radiation resilient organism. This is typical for an M-type star (composing ~75% of all stars), and therefore it is an unlikely place for life to emerge. However, another recent study surveyed 369 G-type stars extremely similar to the sun. It was found that our sun is the most mild even of these similar stars—and this was while our sun was going through its most active phase. (See here)

The emergence of life is probably another extremely unlikely event, with some placing the probability of a DNA molecule emerging on its own at one in 1089,000. This figure is quite extreme, and doesn’t take into consideration DNA precursors. Nonetheless, this process is a probable “great filter,” meaning it has such a small probability of happening that it prevents life from being a common occurrence in the universe. 

Part 2—A Response to Our Unbelievable Luck and Solitude 

The Quest for Meaning

The prospect of an alien encounter like that seen in the movie Contact carries with it the opportunity to learn things of which we could not dream. A being from a Type II or III Civilization could explain to us the great mysteries of life we have been questing for all these years. This makes the SETI search all the more meaningful, and at the same time all the more disappointing as it only shows us sterile surroundings. 

The growing improbability of other intelligent life in the universe and the apparent randomness of the situation in which humanity has been cast leaves us without clear answers to questions such as: can we find greater meaning? what is our purpose? what should we strive for? 

Philosophical inquiry is the traditional method of attempting to find answers to deeper questions. However, many modern Western thinkers consider philosophy incapable of answering any meaningful questions, much less life’s great questions. In my opinion, this stems from their methodology. They use logic to disprove the utility of using logic.

Things were not always this way. In Classical Greece and Rome, a philosophy was to be lived. Stoics distanced themselves from pleasure in order to be able to handle pain; Pyrrhonian skeptics trained their minds to doubt everything they thought they knew; and Diogenes the Cynic gave up all modern conveniences, destroying the single wooden bowl he possessed on seeing a peasant boy drink from the hollow of his hands. 

Thus, one could say from this approach that a philosophy is an informed decision on how to live one’s life. I will explore two philosophies of living which have implications for the individual as well as society.

Individualism

In the Renaissance there is much light, yes, and there is much in it with which Italians may share national pride. But there is much darkness. For the Renaissance is also the age of individualism, that through the splendid visions of poetry and art brought the Italian nation to the indifference, skepticism, and distracted cynicism of those who have nothing to defend, not in their family, their Fatherland, or in the world where every human personality conscious of its own value and personal dignity invest itself.

Giovanni Gentile

The modern popular philosophical narrative in the West is one of materialism and the individual. Having separated Philosophy from Science, a philosopher with this mindset stands in awe at Science’s accomplishments, revering and eventually imitating the scientist’s methodology. Objectivity is this philosopher’s way of viewing the world. He doesn’t see a mind, he sees a brain. Man isn’t a spiritual being, he is an advanced animal. Consciousness isn’t the essence of the universe, it’s a random byproduct of molecules interacting. Man is seen as a selfish actor, trying to propagate his DNA in whatever way he’s been programmed to do.

As this mindset is absorbed by the masses, the strive for greatness can be discouraging. One can achieve historical importance only by becoming a great historical figure. Those who labor towards this selfish goal are almost guaranteed disappointment, and even those who are successful are not able to enjoy their historical success after their passing. One might rather settle for the minor distinction of what Camus called “the dandy.” This is someone who has set up their life to be viewed from the outside. A dandy is well read, has cultivated talents, and is financially sound. However, he is a hollow of a man:

[The dandy] can only be sure of his own existence by finding it in the expression of others’ faces. Other people are his mirror…Perpetually incomplete, always on the fringe of things, he compels others to create him, while denying their values. He plays at life because he is unable to live it. He plays at it until he dies

Albert Camus, The Rebel

Conversely, the individualist might seek his own satisfaction, guided by his desires. A man might be satisfied (at least temporarily) living his life this way, but the larger questions must remain ignored. This creates an incompleteness in his humanity, as he treats his life as a distraction from the disturbing answers this individualistic outlook gives: i.e. everything that he has done is for naught because he soon will die. 

Furthermore, an individualistic society moves in random directions, only able to stumble onto greatness by accident, or achieve anything without putting down the individualistic mindset for a collective one (as often happens in desperate times such as war).

Collectivism 

Giovanni Gentile envisioned a political philosophy in which “the State and the individual are one, or better, perhaps, ‘State’ and ‘individual’ are terms that are inseparable in a necessary synthesis.” He saw it necessary to know history—not to thirst for trivial knowledge, or even to avoid past mistakes—but rather as a way to frame the present moment as a part of a historical narrative in which we are the actors and of which we now have control. 

Let us take a lesson from our bodies. An individual cell is not able to do much (unless it is cancerous and able to do great damage). If it stands on its own it is completely impotent and unaware, yet it is willing to work and even sacrifice itself in order to create a human. In this process it not only becomes part of something bigger, it creates a completely new being; something with consciousness! The human it creates is not only many times greater than itself, it is able to live on after the cell has died.

Likewise, a man who is willing to sacrifice his own needs for the greater society is able to transcend his own existence and become one with the society he is struggling for. This man is able to achieve a kind of immortality. His struggles live on with the society he has sacrificed for. His identity merges with that of the collective, or at least one would hope. A forced collectivism, as seen in the Soviet Union and North Korea, won’t create these types of emotions.

However, if a society truly shoots for greatness and allows for the participation of its citizens in this endeavor, a person can truly dream of visiting the stars, creating a galactic civilization, or solving the mysteries of the universe. His dreams become greater than anything an individualist can think of. 

Part 3 Summary 

The types of SETI searches listed above indicate we’re probably all alone in our galaxy, and “practically alone” in the visible universe. If we expand our civilization to other planets and stars, it will likely be virgin territory. Earth will be remembered as the beginning of life in the universe. 

With such high goals possible for mankind, these endeavors should receive an appropriate amount of priority. The free market which has brought us plenty now pressures us towards over-plenty, giving us possessions which are intentionally built to break, and addictions which devour our time. If our society can free itself of these burdens, manpower can be freed to take up endeavoring towards these lofty goals.

Recently, the goals and mindsets fed to the public and taught in our schools are divisive and harmful. We demean our history and neglect our future. Dwelling on these types of conflict stifles thoughts of greatness—nay, drives one away from collectivism and towards selfish endeavors. This leaves our collective progress to the luck of the free market. We’ve made it this far on luck, maybe it’s time to take the reigns into our own hands.

Man is a complex being. Every person has both tendencies towards collectivism and individualism written in his blood. The question is: which one do we encourage? which one will show us the right path?