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Current Affairs

A Magazine of Politics and Culture

C.M. Duffy

We’re Not Alone in the Universe

Aliens are almost certainly out there. Let’s hope they’re not like us.

Are we alone? 

Of course we’re not. There are plenty of aliens out there. There have to be. The known universe is gigantic. There are 700 quintillion planets in the Universe, by the best current estimates; yes, that’s a real number, and if you write it out, it’s 700,000,000,000,000,000,000. The overwhelming majority of planets can’t sustain anything like life—look at our own solar system, where Earth is located in what is called a perfect “Goldilocks zone” relative to the sun. It’s not so hot that we boil alive (as we would on Venus or Mercury) and not so cold that we would freeze to death (as on every other planet in our neighborhood). But even this is not dispositive. Just because we wouldn’t thrive on a planet, doesn’t mean that something won’t. 

When you combine our own existence with the fact that the universe is unfathomably huge and contains quintillions of possibilities, there’s strong evidence to suggest the presence of sophisticated “aliens” on other planets. Harvard astrophysicist Avi Loeb explains:

I do not view the possibility of [an extraterrestrial] technological civilization as speculative, for two reasons. The first is that we exist. And the second is that at least a quarter of the stars in the Milky Way galaxy have a planet like Earth, with surface conditions that are very similar to Earth, and the chemistry of life as we know it could develop. If you roll the dice so many times, and there are tens of billions of stars in the Milky Way, it is quite likely we are not alone.

Loeb is convinced that aliens exist (and that we’ve already encountered an object built by an alien civilization, more on that shortly), and while he says here that the simple facts make it “quite likely” we are not alone, “quite” is something of an understatement. In fact, it would be absolutely shocking if we were the only intelligent life in the universe. Elizabeth Kolbert of the New Yorker quotes a NASA astrophysicist saying of finding intelligent life elsewhere that “it’s definitely not an ‘if,’ it’s a ‘when.’”

We should work on the assumption that aliens are out there. Lots of them. 

Art by C.M. Duffy

It’s strange to me how primitive our discussions about extraterrestrial life tend to be. There’s still something kooky or funny about discussing aliens. But to me, it’s one of the most serious topics there is, because it implicates the entire future of human civilization and touches the deepest questions about who we are, what this strange thing called life is, and where all of this is headed.

I do not understand why people aren’t more curious about aliens. Here we are, a colony of little monkeys on an isolated dot in the Milky Way, and we’ve recently had the good fortune to become aware and start looking around. (I say recently because we’ve only been using electricity for under 200 years, a blip in the life of our 200,000 year old species and nothing in the life of the planet or the universe itself.) We share our Earth with millions of other different forms of life, from the humble water bear to the mighty cypress tree, but none of the rest of them have made substantial progress in astronomy (so far as we know). We are the ones with a Technological Civilization.

Regrettably, instead of uniting on a vast inspiring project to explore and understand the universe, human beings have thus far squandered phenomenal amounts of our resources and knowledge in figuring out new ways to murder each other. The best scientific minds of the 1940s, people like Richard Feynman and Niels Bohr, had to spend time assisting the United States government in figuring out how to harness atomic energy for the purpose of incinerating the maximum number of people possible. They did this because another great mind, Werner von Heisenberg, was trying to develop a nuclear weapon for Adolf Hitler. Today there is a similar brain drain as physicists, engineers, and mathematicians whose knowledge could deepen our knowledge of the universe instead create sophisticated new financial products for Wall Street or assist the military in developing terrifying autonomous killer robots

We stand on the edge of a great cosmic sea. A new Age of Discovery awaits, with wonders untold scattered across vast distances. It’s the Final Frontier. And yet human beings have not even managed to abolish prisons, militaries, and the nation-state. How far we are from realizing our potential! How sad it is to see generations miss out on learning the deepest mysteries of our infinitely fascinating reality. 

It should be very difficult not to believe in the existence of intelligent beings elsewhere. But there’s a famous response attributed to physicist Enrico Fermi, who asked fellow physicists, roughly, if intelligent civilizations exist, where are they? This is now called the “Fermi paradox,” and the reasoning goes like this: if it is the case that there are many Earth-like planets that have developed civilizations as advanced as our own, many should have developed intelligent life long ago. They would surely have developed interstellar travel or some means of communicating. And yet we see no communication. Nobody has visited us. There are no signs of life at all. 

Plenty of ways of resolving this apparent “paradox” have been proposed. Perhaps there are no aliens. This would solve it easily. In 2018, a trio of academics from the Future of Humanity Institute (“three of the world’s great minds”) claimed to have “dissolved the Fermi paradox.” They “reevaluated the paradox in such a way that it makes it seem likely that humanity is alone in the observable Universe.” But they didn’t do any actual observation. Instead, they simply pointed out that previous attempts to calculate the probability of sophisticated life on other planets had not correctly done the math. (There is a formula known as the “Drake equation” that attempts to show the likelihood of life on other planets.) Those previous attempts and the one from the “three great minds”, however, are ultimately just using “probability” as a euphemism for “guessing.” Astrophysicist Ethan Siegel was distinctly unimpressed: These aren’t brilliant estimates or groundbreaking work. It’s guessing, in the absence of any good evidence. That’s no way to do science.” Siegel notes that, while it may be difficult to accept, the fact is that we can’t calculate the probability of life on other planets, because we just don’t know. We don’t have enough data to make informed guesses. (Imagine I show you a sealed box and ask you, giving no other information, what the probability is of there being a rat in the box. Whatever number you give will be meaningless, a mere synonym for your subjective confidence.) Siegel writes:

No amount of fancy probabilistic analysis can justify treating guesswork and wishful thinking as having any sort of scientific weight. Applying scientific techniques to an inherently unscientific endeavor such as inventing estimates to unknowns about the Universe, doesn’t make it any more scientific. The opposite of knowledge isn’t ignorance; it’s the illusion of knowledge.

Many explanations of the Fermi paradox depend on speculations about the inherent nature of life that reflect people’s personal optimism or pessimism. One common explanation for the paradox is that intelligent life “tends to destroy itself.” Perhaps manatees or flamingos can live without murdering each other (see the article “Manatees Are Better Than Us” in the latest print issue of Current Affairs) but once life becomes brainy like humans, it begins to develop ideas like nationalism and ethnocentrism that lead ultimately to self-destruction. It is, under this depressing theory, inevitable that we ourselves will perish horribly rather than explore the stars.

There are other theories. The aliens are hiding. Communication across such long distances is impossible. Interstellar travel is impossible. Perhaps you can come up with some new ones. An important qualification to all of this is that the word “intelligent life” is used to mean “technologically advanced life.” Dolphins are intelligent life, but if the universe is full of dolphin-aliens, who are highly intelligent but do not build radios, they’re going to be hard to spot from afar. The absence of technology is not the absence of thought, and it might be that there are plenty of civilizations around the cosmos that have literature and art without heavy machinery. 

There’s also speculation that we have encountered alien technology. The aforementioned Avi Loeb of Harvard has recently published a book, Extraterrestrial: The First Sign of Intelligent Life Beyond Earth, arguing that a piece of extraterrestrial technology entered the Solar System in 2017. The object, which has been called ‘Oumuamua, passed through quickly, and scientists didn’t get a good chance to look at it. It was an unusual shape and moving at an unusual speed, and Loeb argues that the best explanation is that it was a discarded piece of technology from an alien civilization—we have left such debris ourselves. Many in Loeb’s field disagree with his explanation, saying it is based on faulty reasoning, and an alternative that does not involve alien technology has recently been proposed, namely that it is “likely a piece of a Pluto-like planet from another solar system.”

As a layperson I find the debate over ‘Oumuamua hard to evaluate. How, without the relevant background, am I to assess the claim that the object was so remarkable as to be unlikely to be produced naturally? For the moment, I am going to continue on the working assumption that while aliens are out there, we haven’t seen anything we know was produced by them, until Loeb successfully persuades his colleagues to accept his findings. 

It’s important to distinguish between the question of whether there are extraterrestrials and the question of whether we have ever seen any. Personally I am certain they exist but have never seen convincing evidence that they are here. Believing that aliens are real does not mean believing that UFOs are aliens. Personally I am persuaded by the arguments demonstrating that extraterrestrial explanations for UFOs are far less rational than more mundane alternatives. But it’s important to be precise, and not to let the question of what some particular object is (whether a UFO or ‘Oumuamua) be conflated with the question of whether there is life elsewhere. (I do, however, agree with Loeb that there is no reason we should see the hypothesis that something has extraterrestrial origin as kooky or strange, and the reluctance to entertain such hypotheses is a kind of irrational dogma.)  

I have never really found the Fermi paradox interesting or puzzling, because I don’t see anything paradoxical about it. First, the fact that aliens have not visited Earth itself tells us nothing, since even if the universe is teeming with life, there is no reason why anyone should want to visit Earth in particular. Perhaps it is somewhat self-aggrandizing to wonder why we haven’t been communicated with; it’s as if a single blade of grass in the middle of Ohio awoke and asked itself “Why hasn’t anybody attempted to communicate with me?” Because, little blade of grass, you are one among billions. You do not matter.

Second, it’s entirely possible that we are somewhat average. It’s almost certainly a mistake to assume aliens will be anything like us, but, since we have nothing else to go on, let’s take ourselves as a representative sample of intelligent life. We only developed space travel within the lifetimes of presently-living people. We are primitive. If aliens are anything like us, they may also be primitive. Perhaps, all over the universe, as I type, alien civilizations are “waking up” just as we have. Lights are blinking on. Creatures are beginning to wonder what exists out there in the stars. Perhaps, even though we haven’t yet, we are all about to see each other very soon. 

It’s laughable to wonder “how it is we haven’t found aliens after searching for them,” because we have not even begun to conduct a real search. SETI (the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) is probably one of the most underfunded projects in all of the sciences. We’re not really looking. Nobody cares. We can ask this question after we spend a billion years at the project. To ask it now? Absurd.

You may say, of course: well, if we are average, then there are plenty of more advanced civilizations. Why haven’t we seen them? But perhaps they’re not much more advanced. Perhaps it doesn’t get much more impressive than average. And perhaps, sad as it may be to think about, we are still many thousands of years away from developing the right technology. The speed of light may not be an impenetrable barrier to interstellar travel, but it may be a very difficult one.

One thing that tends to cloud our thinking on this is that we are incapable of seeing things from the point of view of anyone other than ourselves. We say that we can’t see aliens. But can they see us? We sent a Chuck Berry record into space in the 1970s, but nobody can say we’re trying that hard to blare a “HEY! INTELLIGENT LIFE OVER HERE” sign across the stars, and we only just started sending signals a cosmic blip ago, within the lifetimes of presently-living people. 

And perhaps that’s a good thing. Because, while I think it’s unwise to speculate on the “inevitable” trajectories of other civilizations, it’s certainly the case that if the aliens are anything like ourselves, there is a deep danger that any encounter will end in catastrophe. When “civilized” and “Enlightened” Europeans came to the Americas, they simply wiped out the native population without a second thought. The United States, which sees itself as a champion of liberty and democracy, commits acts of mass murder without even noticing that the people it is killing are human beings. If humans could get rich off exploiting and enslaving aliens, I have no doubt that we would do it. Hell, we have death camps for our fellow animals, called factory farms, and pigs are plenty intelligent. We think nothing of it. We don’t even notice that they’re death camps or that the things in them are alive and conscious and in pain. The giant industrialized system of enslaving, murdering, and then eating other creatures is so normal as to be unworthy of comment. You’re telling me we wouldn’t eat the aliens?

So let’s hope they’re nothing like us, because if they are, we may end up having done unto us what we do unto others, and it will be hard to come up with an argument for why the aliens shouldn’t treat us like we’ve treated pigs and cows. Of course, they’re not going to back off just because we have a peace-loving socialist society. Our only hope is that by the time we meet, both we and they have gotten rid of our demons and are mature enough to have contact without mutually assured destruction. 

You may think I’m drifting far into the realm of fantasy. But I don’t think anything I’m saying is more unreasonable than the same thing would have been if said in Europe in the year 1450. There was good reason to believe that there were unknown populations out there in unexplored parts of the globe. And the responsibility of any moral person at that time would have been to try to build a moral society that was capable of exploring without inflicting mass destruction. Unfortunately, that is not what happened. I do, therefore, think that it’s irresponsible to be interested in aliens without also being a socialist. If it is possible, as I think it is, that in the near or mid-term future, human beings will encounter life on other planets, we cannot be as we are now. 

Thinking about aliens is encouraging to me, because it suggests a possible human destiny that is worth pursuing. It’s tempting to be pessimistic given the threats of climate change and war and pandemics, but it encourages me to know that if humanity can cooperate, we have projects worth working on together. First we fix the problems of capitalism and nationalism, then we can go and explore the universe. Don’t you want to explore the universe? If you do, we’d better get cracking on establishing socialism, because until we do, we can’t explore even if we want to.

 The collective journey of discovery is not profitable, and so no one invests in it. The moon landing had to be a socialized project, in part because there was no obvious financial return on it (and in part because the United States government wanted to stick it to the Russians and show, after having been bested repeatedly in the Space Race, that communism wasn’t the only system that could produce historic technological breakthroughs). Some billionaires today are so rich that they can afford private space programs (Bezos, Musk) but their visions for the human future in space are bleak at best. Bezos simply wants us to replicate ourselves until there are a trillion human beings colonizing every part of the galaxy. It’s hard to imagine a more hideous fate for our species, I’d rather we never found out what was out there than to see it only to destroy everything we touch.

Ronald Reagan once said, in a rare moment of wisdom, that if the aliens came to Earth, all of our differences across nations would seem irrelevant overnight. That’s true. But we do not need to wait until we actually meet them to reconceptualize ourselves as a united human species. 

Of course, uniting is not simply a matter of developing a humanist mindset. Humans are “divided” in part because there is exploitation and oppression. These things cannot be wished away. They have to be destroyed by force, and until we do that, there is something grotesque about dreaming idly of space exploration and aliens. Gil Scott-Heron, in his song “Whitey On The Moon,” spat at the moon landing, because the U.S. government seemed to be able to find endless funding for NASA while public housing crumbled. He was right: if there is to be a grand search for extraterrestrial life, it can only be conducted in a society that takes care of its own. Otherwise, our priorities are deeply out of order. 

But I still think space is worth thinking about here and now, long before we are able to seriously focus on it, because it offers us a hope for what we might be building towards. Fantasies are worth having, especially when they could really happen. They keep you marching onward. They offer up something to think your grandchildren might get to see, beyond a climate crisis. Another, better human future is possible. 

Enrico Fermi himself did not just spend his time speculating about the existence of aliens. He was also the “architect of the atomic bomb”, having played a critical role in the Manhattan Project. Perhaps if he had spent his time figuring out how to look for aliens, rather than working on building a bigger bomb and simply waiting for the aliens to show up on his doorstep, he would have escaped his paradox. Today, we need to figure out how to build a society that cares about the pursuit of deep scientific knowledge for its own sake, rather than because it helps sell drugs or intimidate China. Once we do that, and begin to pursue our incredible collective destiny, we will hopefully find others doing the same, and can begin the age of galactic solidarity. 

For wild speculation on what the “good aliens” might be like, consult the Current Affairs Field Guide to Socialist Aliens

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