An Honest Appraisal of the Fermi Paradox

Kelly Smith

This is the second in our Fermi Paradox series. This one brought by us by Kelly Smith, Chair of the Department of Philosophy and Religion at Clemson University. Kelly is also the current president of SSOCIA: The Society for Social and Conceptual Implications of Astrobiology - - and serves on the advisory board of METI International.

I would like to inject a bit of philosophical perspective into the Fermi debate by offering a brief dialog which captures the most honest response we can give to the paradox:

Curiosus:  Why, in a universe supposedly teeming with intelligent life, have we not yet discovered any evidence of aliens?

Honestus: We have no idea.

I could just drop the mic and stop there, but can’t resist a few additional thoughts.  People (and scientists are people) hate to admit ignorance.  So, people engage in speculation whenever the data does not speak clearly.  There is nothing wrong with this, despite the pronouncements of some narrow-minded scientists. If nothing else, all nascent scientific disciplines rely on speculation. But not all speculations are created equal. The Drake equation is speculative, but serves to focus our attention on better estimating its parameters.  The claim that there is life beyond Earth at all is also speculative. But we have good theoretical reasons to believe this, and that belief spurs research, as evidenced by the recent huge strides in astrobiology. So, these are productive speculations.

Answering Fermi requires us to go way beyond that to postulate about alien psychology and social dynamics, which we do not understand well in humans.   Would aliens survive long enough to make contact?  Would they want to make contact?  Would they spread out beyond their home system?  We have no idea.  Even here, it’s healthy to speculate to lay our assumptions on the table, but the error bars are so massive that such speculations are not yet productive.  That seems obvious, but overconfidence about our ability to answer such questions is common and can actually shut down perfectly legitimate lines of inquiry.  Thus, while scientists are free to speculate on these questions, they do not do so as scientists.