Star Trek's Prime Directive and the Fermi Paradox

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Star Trek's Prime Directive and the Fermi Paradox

From the Drake Equation to the Fermi Paradox, we look at some reasons why we may not have been contacted by some of the intelligent life forms that supposedly exist in the universe.

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The biggest problem with trying to analyze the question of "Why haven't they contacted us?" is trying to ascribe human logic, perspective, and rationality to an entity or collective that may not conform to any of those things.
Just to pose one example - suppose they're of a cold-blooded or insect-like nature and regard us with the same mindset we might look upon a termite mound? "Sure they can build, but that doesn't make them sentient."

Ultimately, I don't think we'll ever know for certain unless we can make contact and establish clear lines of communication. Given that our species has a few thousand languages and dialects on this mud-ball alone, getting a straight answer may prove the more challenging obstacle.

Interesting stuff. Although, I would counter that Kirk, Picard et al tended to treat the Prime Directive as a guideline at best, not the first and most important rule of Starfleet. I'm relatively certain that if you went through Star Trek and worked out a ratio of times the Prime Directive was ignored versus times the Prime Directive was obeyed, the former would massively outweigh the latter.

Now, aliens might well be rather more professional than the various captains of the Enterprise, but if they're out exploring space they're bound to be at least a little curious.

Maybe a sentient pulsating star has been trying to communicate with us for years...

Maybe a few black holes or any other massive bodies that emits no radiation (dark matter?) are actual stars covered in a Dyson Spheres...

'The zoo hypothesis' is a standing theorized resolution to the Fermi Paradox and is included in the Wikipedia article on the Fermi Paradox, specifically referencing the Prime Directive from Star Trek as an example. It even has its own separate wikipedia page.

Charles Stross gave another interesting answer to the Fermi Paradox in Accelerando: moving is too inconvenient. In that book, the successors to humanity were converting matter in the Solar System into a giant, solar-powered Dyson Sphere/supercomputer, on which all of their intelligences were running.

However, inside the supercomputer, communication is extremely fast, and lots of power is readily available. Yet, any attempt to send out a colonization mission elsewhere would involve outside communication slowing down by several orders of magnitude - and at that point, the AIs had become adapted to the high-bandwidth environment. Thus, advanced civilizations were predisposed to remain in their own solar system.

Weird timing, since this just came up in conversation yesterday.

Maybe other civilizations exist, but there are technological or economical hurdles to galaxy-wide expansion that cannot be overcome.

This is usually my first thought on the matter. We don't even know that interstellar travel is reliably possible, let alone feasible. And space is big. Really big.

Kieve:
The biggest problem with trying to analyze the question of "Why haven't they contacted us?" is trying to ascribe human logic, perspective, and rationality to an entity or collective that may not conform to any of those things.

And that's another bit. Hell, even the Prime Directive is based on our own historical and anthropological studies. A culture without that baggage might view things differently, for better or worse. On top of your termite example, a species might simply not have compunctions with interfering, but might choose to hinder us. If so, they might not be overt. Or they may not care about other civilisations, which isn't entirely divorced from humanity as we do have isolationist groups. Maybe there are cultural or even religious taboos. Maybe they're just too alien for us to understand them. Hell, maybe that goes both ways. Wouldn't that be funny?

Anachronism:

Now, aliens might well be rather more professional than the various captains of the Enterprise, but if they're out exploring space they're bound to be at least a little curious.

Or they might lack the compassion that leads to most of Kirk and Picard's interference. Even on the shows, these are labeled as very "human" elements.

Or they just don't care what happens to a bunch of naked apes. We spent hundreds of years dehumanising people simply because of our varied skin pigments, so imagine what you could do with a species that was more significantly different, like a bunch of fleshy monkeys who still think mobile phones are a pretty neat idea.

Reasons why we haven't been visited: Basically my theory is that faster than light travel simply doesn't exist. Subspace bubbles/waves, wormholes and tachyon replacement technology is probably so far out there that it remains a theory at best.
Besides that, it's a vast universe and we simply might not have been encountered yet.

Reasons why we're not worth visiting: Assuming someone has actually taken a glance at our planet and species, they'd probably note that we are an incredibly divided species that prioritizes material wealth and power at the cost of our environment and by far most of our population. We also base our economy on a flawed premise and trust it blindly instead of coming up with something better for everyone.
We are currently in so great a state of unrest that any visit now and probably for hundreds of years, would upset the whole planet, making it severely awkward for anyone to attempt it.
As someone else stated - we might just not be interesting because we're too different or too primitive.

Reasons why others aren't visiting anywhere: Because they probably can't and are living far more harmoniously on their own planets, not giving two shits about anyone or anything else out there. Considering that we still have cultures that are close to being "primitive" tribes, it's not unimaginable that there are entire civilizations out there that haven't bothered evolving technologically.

Personally I just don't think anyone out there is capable of travelling very far and if their technology is vastly superior to ours, it's probably not based on the same conditions and environments that we're used to. Consider the elements on the periodic table.. we're making new elements that can't exist for more than a nano-second.
I doubt there's dilithium crystal out there that magically has the ability to reach through the 4th dimension if you apply a 9 volt battery.

Okay, so here's a different question, what if someone made a colony/generational ship?
Something as simple as a lack of gravity would likely kill that idea.

It's a bleak view and while I realistically think it's a hopeless dream, I do hope there's a lot more out there. I'm just sad that I'll die long, long, long before seeing any of it.

Anachronism:
Interesting stuff. Although, I would counter that Kirk, Picard et al tended to treat the Prime Directive as a guideline at best, not the first and most important rule of Starfleet. I'm relatively certain that if you went through Star Trek and worked out a ratio of times the Prime Directive was ignored versus times the Prime Directive was obeyed, the former would massively outweigh the latter.

Now, aliens might well be rather more professional than the various captains of the Enterprise, but if they're out exploring space they're bound to be at least a little curious.

That might because of the rule of good TV: Having the Enterprise passively watch events unfold on the planets below would be a very different show (although I'd love to see a Kirk\Spock version of MST3K riffing on developing civilizations). If you went through all the canon of Star Trek and tracked every time that any ship followed the Prime Directive, the numbers would be a little more representative of the original idea.

I wonder, where did you get that figure, that 5-50 mil years should be enough to colonize the galaxy?

One thing I've never heard anyone say in these discussions before (although I doubt I'm the first to think of it) is biological/habitat based barriers. For instance: imagine a nearby planet with hyper-intelligent dolphins. Space travel, radio, and electronics would all be very difficult technologies to develop. Living, as we do, in an oxygen-rich environment made detecting electrical charges easy; we can be sure the ancient Greeks had and they may not have been the first. Considering that it took us more than 2000 years to understand and use these forces, how much longer would our theoretical dolphin-people take to notice in an environment that would ground out most tests to confirm the existence of such things? Radio waves don't travel well underwater so they would be unlikely to detect them, let alone consider them a technology worth pursuing. Add that radio transmission and visible light are the only things we can detect at this rage and we could look right at them and not notice. Forget space travel, the bodies of aquatic creatures would be insanely hard to accelerate to escape velocity without destroying and imagine if the Apollo program had to be launched from underwater and carry enough water to house three dolphins for two weeks. I'm sure it would take us decades to adapt such a thing from our functioning technology.

However, all of this falls to one important fact: humans are incredibly adapted to using tools. Even infants can grasp the concept of tool use. A species without hands, no matter how intelligent, will fall behind in abstract tool use. Not to suggest that they couldn't or wouldn't have tools but rather that any tools they might have would likely be highly specialized.

Just a thought anyway.

Sgt. Sykes:
I wonder, where did you get that figure, that 5-50 mil years should be enough to colonize the galaxy?

It comes from Fermi himself, see the linked lecture. Based on reasonable limits like that the Speed of Light cannot be beaten you should be able to explore with a Von Neumann Probe every single star in our solar system in about 4 million years. From there it's just selecting the best places to go first. At a minimum our galaxy should be cluttered with Von Neumann probes from other intelligent species like ours.

However, we don't see these in our own system. You'd think that the earth would actually be flagged as interesting if these probes existed. This removes the argument that Space is just TOO BIG. Anyone who uses the TOO BIG argument is failing to grasp what the paradox presents.

The basis of the fermi paradox is that one of our base assumptions is completely wrong which presents one of our assumptions is actually a great filter. The assumption which is most likely wrong is that something is Ordinary about the condition of life.

This could be that ...
1) Life might be extremely rare to the point were it boarders unique.
2) Multicellular life might be extremely rare bordering on unique.
3) Intelligent life like ours might be extremely rare bordering on unique.
4) Interstellar travel may have a barrier yet undiscovered making travel impossible.

If we ever find life in our solar system that evolved separately away from the Earth like on Titan and Europa then we can conclude that 1 and 2 are false. If 1 and 2 are false it's easy to see that 3 should also be false, but that would still be an assumption.

Some people are desperate to prove 1 - 3 are false because one of the valid hypothesis solutions to the Fermi Paradox is the God Hypothesis. But even that falls to the simple logic of why make a universe so big and only put one planet with life in it.

4 is the most likely the be the actual issue, but if it's not that then we fall into the Zoo hypothesis which falls pray to other failings.

An off shoot of the Zoo Hypothesis is the Petri Dish experiment. Ether done by God, or by Alien Life. Alien's, or God would be interested in the Earth as an experiment to observe the evolution of life in general. Evidence for this is in the Nemesis Hypothesis. We have a scheduled Mass Extinction event every 26 Million Years. It's part of what Mass Effect was based on but they shrunk the time scale down to thousands of years. Initially it was thought to be a Star but a few years ago it was proven that the periodic nature of the extinctions exceed known limits that would be on a near by star. Even if the star existed it should have had its orbit in the galaxy altered slightly over the last 700 million years.
image
Yet others claim the extinction events are a miss read of the data, but it's clearly still debatable ether way.

Perhaps we have made contact at the level of MiB status, wherein "The person is smart. People are dumb, panicky, dangerous animals, and you know it!" - Agent K
Considering how we handle gender relations, sexual orientation, race relations, even culture relations, alien contact would probably be an absolute shitstorm the moment someone from the radical religions decided to insult the extra-terrestrials. So if thats the reason, I support it. We hardly get along with next door neighbors and classmates, roomates, etc. How the hell could we manage not to insult another race of beings?

*-----*

We're 1 planet in a galaxy, a drop in the bucket of water dumped into the ocean. I also read something about our TV/radio signals end up degenerating bad enough not to be heard outside our own system or at least come out garbled. Older transmissions, maybe but we've done a lot of changes in narrowing our broadcast focus so signals don't extend as far as they would have in the fledgling years.

Basically there are innumerable reasons we haven't made contact, and just as many reasons why they may not have, and just as many against us ever making contact. *shrug*

medv4380:
Some people are desperate to prove 1 - 3 are false because one of the valid hypothesis solutions to the Fermi Paradox is the God Hypothesis. But even that falls to the simple logic of why make a universe so big and only put one planet with life in it.

To be fair, the god hypothesis does not necessarily require that only 1 planet have life. Many religions believe that there will be an end of the world scenario and very soon (within hundreds of years.) If this is the case we could have intelligent life in many many systems without any of them ever able to communicate with us. Basically, god made many systems many instances of intelligent life and the rest of the systems are buffer systems meant specifically to prevent interaction between civilizations. All civilizations are scheduled to end before they can really get going on space travel.

Also, the logic that god would not make an entire universe to put only one sentient species in it is problematic because it is ascribing human values of efficiency to a being that is supposed to be omnipotent. Human limits on something that has no limitations. Efficiency doesn't really come into play for an omnipotent individual. If there is a god and that god is truly omnipotent then it is entirely possible he created the vast universe just so we would be able to see something pretty when we look at the sky. For an omnipotent individual it would be no more difficult that not creating the universe.

the huge sucking chest wound in the fermi paradox is assuming intelligent life could of existed for that long. it cant. you need to go through a lot of generations of stars to build up the more complex elements to make complex life. even though it took us 14bn years to get here we might be the first or among them.

the other big issue is "intelligent life" however much of a misnomer that is, is not usually a good evolutionary option. it took some pretty specific conditions to pay off in us.

i think we will find a galaxy with life all over it. i just dont think the odds on any intelligent life evolving is going to be high.

To me the question isn't are we alone but is there life out there that is as sentient as humans. I mean in the entire history of Earth there has only been one humanity. Raptors didn't contemplate mathmatics, chimpanzees don't sit around communicating their philosophies back and forth, crabs and jellyfish don't make tools or hyper complex structures. Is there even another species in earths history that was ever so ungifted in physical advantages but rose to the very top of the food chain?

The idea that in everything 'out there' we may be alone terrifies me far more than the idea that we are not alone.

No matter what happens, whatever perceptions keep shifting or scientific discovers made/proven/disproved, my brain just can't accept that fact that in the entire universe we could be the only existing life.

DrOswald:

medv4380:
Some people are desperate to prove 1 - 3 are false because one of the valid hypothesis solutions to the Fermi Paradox is the God Hypothesis. But even that falls to the simple logic of why make a universe so big and only put one planet with life in it.

To be fair, the god hypothesis does not necessarily require that only 1 planet have life.

You miss understand. It's not that the God Hypothesis has the requirement. If life is ordinary and the evolutionary process can occur without external intervention then the universe must have many planets with life. If the universe only has one then it is much more likely that the God Hypothesis is true no matter how unlikely it may seem. It would be strong evidence of God even though the opposite would not be strong evidence against God.

I didn't end up posting in the Drake Equation thread but did anyone else oppose or at least mention the absurdly long estimated lifetime of civilisation the article gave? I remember it being in the millions, which caused me to spit out my tea at the time (considering the relatively grounded nature of the rest of the article).

But yeah, the first response couldn't say it better in my opinion. Aliens be aliens; we have enough trouble trying to predict or even understand what China is going to do, let alone an entirely different sentient/sapient/whateverthefuck-ient species.

medv4380:

DrOswald:

medv4380:
Some people are desperate to prove 1 - 3 are false because one of the valid hypothesis solutions to the Fermi Paradox is the God Hypothesis. But even that falls to the simple logic of why make a universe so big and only put one planet with life in it.

To be fair, the god hypothesis does not necessarily require that only 1 planet have life.

You miss understand. It's not that the God Hypothesis has the requirement. If life is ordinary and the evolutionary process can occur without external intervention then the universe must have many planets with life. If the universe only has one then it is much more likely that the God Hypothesis is true no matter how unlikely it may seem. It would be strong evidence of God even though the opposite would not be strong evidence against God.

So the theory is that extreme rareness of life indicates a god? Eh, seems suspect to me. Even if the conditions to form life were so unlikely that it only happened once in our galaxy that is no good indication of god. There are enough galaxies out there that it could still be a freak chance sort of thing.

Edit: to be clear, I am familiar with a different god hypothesis, maybe it is named something else, but it is basically that all civilizations are kept apart by god. If life is common but never interacts it would indicate that something is preventing interaction. The hypothesis is that something is a god.

medv4380,
what are the variables in the graph you posted? im trying to make sense of it and i suppose it should show me how we've had regular mass-extinction events, but without knowing what is what it doesnt tell me much.
or if you have a link to a source i would like to read about it.

medv4380:
[quote="Sgt. Sykes" post="6.849794.20996129"]
image

murdeoc:
medv4380,
what are the variables in the graph you posted? im trying to make sense of it and i suppose it should show me how we've had regular mass-extinction events, but without knowing what is what it doesnt tell me much.
or if you have a link to a source i would like to read about it.

medv4380:
[quote="Sgt. Sykes" post="6.849794.20996129"]
image

The graph can be found here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Extinction_event#Patterns_in_frequency

thanks

As we can see on our own planet, once an appropriate scientific method has been invented there is exponential technologic progress. This is needed for interstellar communication let alone interstellar transportation.
There are risks to it, however.

One is self-destruction. To be able to power a spaceship to go to another solar system you need the power that could destroy a planet (or at least make it inhospitable.). Maybe self-destruction is the natural end for all inteligent life.

A second is a technological singularity. There are dozens of those, ofcourse, ranging from a Robot Apocalypse to a world where robots take care of all of societies needs.
Interstellar travel will not happen on its own, there will need to be a demand for it, a drive. We see it as a given that the drive will be there because we have it now. If we had robot butlers taking care of everything, we'd have very little need for it and in a few generations the potential loss of knowledge will make it forever impossible, dooming our race to a slow extinction while being cared for by uncaring machines. Maybe all formerly inhabited planets are just hosts to millions of machines taking care of the ruins of a long-dead species

Then there is immortality, That would grant any race space faring capabilities, since time is no longer relevant. However, without the fear of death a species might lose all purpose, idly wandering the universe for the sake of it before finally choosing to sleep forever.

Or maybe everyone is very quiet as to not wake up the terrifing self-replication robotic nano-probes send out to colonize planets by a race that didn't know or care what a terrible idea that is (it only takes one such race to ruin the galaxy for everyone).

All kinds of fun thought experiments that make me wake up screaming in terror..

murdeoc:
medv4380,
what are the variables in the graph you posted? im trying to make sense of it and i suppose it should show me how we've had regular mass-extinction events, but without knowing what is what it doesnt tell me much.
or if you have a link to a source i would like to read about it.

It's the chart that leads to the thought that there is a period in the frequency of mass extinctions. I don't know why the raw wiki link to it doesn't have the scales but the wiki article does. The X axis is in Millions of Years and the Y axis is number of Organisms in thousands. I believe it's limited to Ocean biodiversity. You can also lookup the info on the Nemesis Star which is interesting even though the general idea of it has been ruled out.

DrOswald:

medv4380:

DrOswald:

To be fair, the god hypothesis does not necessarily require that only 1 planet have life.

You miss understand. It's not that the God Hypothesis has the requirement. If life is ordinary and the evolutionary process can occur without external intervention then the universe must have many planets with life. If the universe only has one then it is much more likely that the God Hypothesis is true no matter how unlikely it may seem. It would be strong evidence of God even though the opposite would not be strong evidence against God.

So the theory is that extreme rareness of life indicates a god? Eh, seems suspect to me. Even if the conditions to form life were so unlikely that it only happened once in our galaxy that is no good indication of god. There are enough galaxies out there that it could still be a freak chance sort of thing.

Edit: to be clear, I am familiar with a different god hypothesis, maybe it is named something else, but it is basically that all civilizations are kept apart by god. If life is common but never interacts it would indicate that something is preventing interaction. The hypothesis is that something is a god.

We're not talking rare. We're talking unique. It's a fairly old debate though. God Hypothesis is an umbrella term that covers just about all the variants that God is used in the explanation.

If you're saying that the Principle of mediocrity can be wrong it would invalidate or force a rewrite of every hypothesis built upon it. As a note Richard Dawkins would disagree with your view. The mediocrity principal is currently built into most scientific views. Not all, but most, at this point in time.

Maybe backwards time travel is a real thing and easier than interstellar travel but (of course) harder than making a gigantic arsenal of nuclear weapons. Every society or civilization eventually invents this time travel on the way to developing interstellar colonization, then repeatedly changes its history until one of the changes causes the civilization to go extinct permanently without anyone being able to fix it (or at least replace it with something better than extinction) with time travel.

RA92:
Maybe a sentient pulsating star has been trying to communicate with us for years...

Maybe a few black holes or any other massive bodies that emits no radiation (dark matter?) are actual stars covered in a Dyson Spheres...

Dyson spheres would emit radiation, probably in the infrared, but radiation (even if they could somehow defy blackbody laws, they'd eventually vaporize from the heat of their stars without cooling). We have looked in the infrared, though nto on the kind of galactic scale we'd need to to find Dyson spheres.

Whenever this debate comes up, I always go with the Red Dwarf postulate. The Stars and Planets are the real entities and human beings are the galactic equivalent of measles. Other races avoid Earth, it's got a bad case of PEOPLE and no one wants to play with "that kid".

Maybe our brains are receivers instead of processors and our consciousness actually comes from our sun, If we travel too far from it we'll lose our connection to our consciousness or mind and that's why we can't travel to other star systems.

Rhykker:
Remember that Star Trek was able to predict the flip phone, tablet computer, Bluetooth headset, and other modern technology that was inconceivable to the everyman of the 1960s.

Star Trek also predicted that no-one would ever actually obey the prime directive. But in any case the prime directive is largely irrelevant. We don't need aliens to park on the White House lawn in order for us to see them. A true stealth/cloak system will never exist - using one would render you blind and incapable of propulsion. Any alien visitors must be visible, and any communications must be interceptable. Given how good we're getting at spotting small, inert rocks that come too close, how easy is it going to be for a spaceship intent on studying us to hide?

But in any case, the whole question is largely irrelevant. The important point is this:

Depending on what numbers you plug into the Drake Equation, estimates suggest that there may exist hundreds of thousands of civilizations in the Milky Way.

No estimates using the Drake Equation suggest anything. We simply do not know any of the numbers. If someone suggests there are hundreds of thousands of civilisations in the Milky Way, that is not an estimate, it's simply a wild-ass guess based on absolutely nothing. The Drake equation tells us what variables we would need to know in order to make such an estimate, but with our current level of knowledge it does not actually allow us to do so. There is therefore no paradox. If you guess that there should be lots of civilisations wandering around the place but we don't see any evidence of them, the conclusion is simply that your guess was wrong. A paradox occurs when two contradictory things both appear to be true. It is not a paradox when a prediction simply turns out to be wrong.

Kahani:

Rhykker:
Remember that Star Trek was able to predict the flip phone, tablet computer, Bluetooth headset, and other modern technology that was inconceivable to the everyman of the 1960s.

Star Trek also predicted that no-one would ever actually obey the prime directive. But in any case the prime directive is largely irrelevant. We don't need aliens to park on the White House lawn in order for us to see them. A true stealth/cloak system will never exist - using one would render you blind and incapable of propulsion. Any alien visitors must be visible, and any communications must be interceptable. Given how good we're getting at spotting small, inert rocks that come too close, how easy is it going to be for a spaceship intent on studying us to hide?

But in any case, the whole question is largely irrelevant. The important point is this:

Depending on what numbers you plug into the Drake Equation, estimates suggest that there may exist hundreds of thousands of civilizations in the Milky Way.

No estimates using the Drake Equation suggest anything. We simply do not know any of the numbers. If someone suggests there are hundreds of thousands of civilisations in the Milky Way, that is not an estimate, it's simply a wild-ass guess based on absolutely nothing. The Drake equation tells us what variables we would need to know in order to make such an estimate, but with our current level of knowledge it does not actually allow us to do so. There is therefore no paradox. If you guess that there should be lots of civilisations wandering around the place but we don't see any evidence of them, the conclusion is simply that your guess was wrong. A paradox occurs when two contradictory things both appear to be true. It is not a paradox when a prediction simply turns out to be wrong.

If you see foot prints, is it wrong to guessed someone was here?

As I sit here typing this, I would like to imagine that out there is a member of an alien race writing fan fiction about strange pink flabby bipeds with opposable thumbs, and them being abducted by these pink things and forced to endure all manner of erotic experiments.

What if we are the most advanced of all species in the milky way (numbers and reason do not seem to backup this possibility, but it might as well be the case). In that case the reason for lack of contact is simply that we haven't started exploring.
Having said that, we can also assume that in a galaxy where advanced civilizations are common, we are not worth to be contacted, and we are simply a case of study about the development of a civilization.

In any case, we will never find the answer until we develop either FTL capabilities or something more advanced that a telescope to see what's out there.

This discussion, this right here, is why I love the Escapist. How many other non-science related websites could engage in a discussion like this, throw in a bunch of great theories, and discuss it intelligently without name-calling. Love you all you wonderful people.

I think the most likely answer is the duration of a civilisation. Even a civilisation that endures for a million years and fills the galaxy with artefacts wouldn't leave much of a trace a million years after their decline. If we all succumbed to a virus tomorrow that left our infrastructure intact no trace of us would be left after as little as half a million years let alone a million years. Except maybe a few lucky vacuum ablated satellites, and the odds of finding them would be remote. For all we know other civilisations have lived on Earth, but all traces of them have long ago been eroded to nothing. The chances of civilisations arising may be high, but the chances of those civilisations coinciding in time may not be so. Drake's equation is too full of unknowables

@Shodan1980 (quote function not working for some reason). The interesting part is that even if a previous civilization existed in this planet, we might never find it due to the time factor. We as a civilization have only existed for several thousand years (if we consider either the starting of written history or agricultural development as true indicators of a civilization). And even in that case we should consider the possibility that some civilizations might have fell to a cataclysmic event of some kind, loosing or their previous achievements, which could make the possibility of civilizations with inter-stellar travel capabilities coinciding extremely rare.

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