The Search for Extra-Terrestrial Industrialization

In the Past, Present, and Future

In several posts I have discussed the Fermi Paradox, which, stated in its simplest form, is this: if the universe if full of life and full of technological civilizations, then where are the aliens? My posts on the Fermi Paradox include:

Silent Worlds, Empty Worlds

Methodological Naturalism and the Eerie Silence

Why the Fermi paradox must be taken seriously

Addendum on the Fermi Paradox

I have also, in a number of posts, reflected on how the progress of scientific knowledge in cosmology has continued to affirm and to follow a Copernican trajectory, consistently demonstrating to us that the cosmological context of the earth is not unique and not even especially rare. These posts have included:

Other Worlds

Twenty Years of the Hubble Space Telescope

More Evidence for the Copernican Principle

Given the success in extrapolating the Copernican principle, and knowing that small, rocky planets with an atmosphere circling sun-like stars in their habitable zones are not rare, the same Copernican principle ought to allow us to posit the non-rarity of life, of sentience, of civilization, and of technology. If this is the case, why are we not hearing the EM (electro-magnetic spectrum) broadcasts of other industrial-technological civilizations in our neck of the woods, galactically speaking?

It was my point in SETI as a Process of Elimination that the attempts to detect the EM signatures of alien civilizations, while very limited in extent to date, would have told us by now if there had been an advanced industrial-technological civilization on a planet orbiting, say, Tau Ceti or Epsilon Eridani. If there were such a civilization “close by,” say, within 25 light years of us, you would probably be able to listen to their radio broadcasts or watch their television shows with an especially sensitive receiver. Thus we can eliminate the possibility of an advanced technological civilization that is “close” to us in galactic terms.

We cannot, at least not yet, rule out peer industrial-technological civilizations farther afield in the Milky Way, much less in other peer galaxies throughout the universe. We can, however, say a few things about the possibility that remains of contacting other industrial-technological civilizations.

I have come to realize that the Fermi paradox can be expressed according to a law of trichotomy of exocivilizations. Taking our terrestrial industrial-technological civilization as the base line (not because we should count it a privileged civilization, but only because it is the one civilization of which we know something, and whose time and place of origin we can definitely assert), any other industrial-technological civilization would have to have appeared either…

1.prior to the appearance of terrestrial industrial-technological civilization…

2. …at roughly the same time as the appearance of terrestrial industrial-technological civilization… or…

3.after the appearance of terrestrial industrial-technological civilization…

Here we must carefully define the time-frames we will be discussing, because without being careful about the time-frame of the trichotomy we will quickly descend into incoherence.

In terms of the individual human life, civilization is very old; in cosmological terms, civilization is very young, and its few thousand years of development on the earth is nothing but the blink of an eye in the cosmic scale of things. Taking this cosmic perspective, the few thousand years it takes a species to go from essentially nothing to industrial-technological civilization is negligible. This is one of the sources of the Fermi paradox, because it is sometimes asserted that earlier civilizations could have or even should have emerged and colonized the galaxy before us.

Recent cosmological thought, however, with a greater appreciation for the natural history of the universe, has come to realize that an industrial-technological civilization cannot emerge until the heavier elements that fuel such a civilization are available, and these heavier elements can only come about through several generations of stellar nucleosynthesis, meaning that several generations of stars must be formed and then scatter their substance through going supernova before the heavier elements are available in sufficient amount to create both life as we know it and industrial-technological civilization as we know it.

This point has been made in relation to the anthropic cosmological principle. I haven’t yet taken the time to write in any detail about the anthropic cosmological principle (except for the short note Formulating an Anthropic Principle Worthy of the Name), but I have mentioned on several occasions that, while I consider strong formulations of the anthropic principle to be seriously wrong, weak formulations of the anthropic principle seem to me to be tautologically true: only a universe consistent with the existence of observers can be observed. Here is how Barrow and Tipler formulate a weak version of the anthropic principle as it relates to the age and size of the universe:

“…for there to be enough time to construct the constituents of living beings the Universe must be at least ten billion years old and therefore, as a consequence of its expansion, at least ten billion light years in extent. We should not be surprised to observe the the Universe is so large. No astronomer could exist in one that was significantly smaller. The Universe needs to be as big as it is in order to evolve just a single carbon-based life-form.”

John S. Barrow, and Frank J. Tipler, The Anthropic Cosmological Principle, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1986, p. 3

What this means is that we cannot simply extrapolate backward in time and assert that an industrial-technological civilization might have emerged at any time in the history of the universe. The universe has to be approximately as old as old as it is now — old enough to produce our sun and our planets with their relatively plentiful mineral resources — for a civilization to emerge with a technological infrastructure capable to creating radio transmitters and receivers.

This argument — it could be called an anthropic argument, but I would call it the argument from natural history — can be extended to the appearance of terrestrial civilization, which, since the industrial revolution that made contemporary technology possible, has been powered by fossil fuels. A civilization that exploits fossil fuels to bootstrap itself to rapidly achieve high technology cannot come about until these fossil fuels have been laid down and fossilized. So no more than the age of the universe being arbitrary is the age of the earth arbitrary when it comes to the production of industrial-technological civilization.

It would certainly be possible to have a technological civilization without fossil fuels, but there is still a temporal constraint on the emergence of a sufficiently sophisticated biological infrastructure to support a brain of sufficient complexity for sentience, consciousness, and instrumental intelligence to emerge.

Thus in terms of the first division of the trichotomy of exocivilizations, industrial-technological civilizations would be limited to the recent past, with “recent” understood on a biological time scale. It would be unlikely that another industrial-technological civilization would have emerged in the Milky Way, or in another galaxy of approximately the same age as the Milky Way, beyond, say, 10-20 million years ago. This still means that there could be a civilization in the Milky Way millions of years old, which would seriously out-class our terrestrial civilization. The point here is that we don’t have a past of 13.7 billion years (the current estimate for the age of the universe) possibly filled with civilizations.

In terms of the second division of the trichotomy of exocivilizations, industrial-technological civilizations roughly contemporaneous with our own — and here I place the emphasis on roughly — would presumably be of a roughly similar character to our own, having emerged in a similar cosmological context and at a similar age of the universe. Seeing civilization in its cosmological context, like seeing biology in its cosmological context as I wrote about yesterday in Eo-, Eso-, Exo-, Astro-, means that we understand exocivilization to have been constrained by the same physical laws and material resources as our own civilization, i.e., esocivilization (which I now realize might also be called endocivilization).

Once an industrial-technological civilization emerges, it progresses rapidly (as I discussed in The Industrial-Technological Thesis), so that an industrial-technological civilization a mere few thousand years more mature than our own — a very real possibility in cosmological and biological terms — would possess a significant technological advantage over terrestrial civilization. However, as contemporary civilizations on a cosmological time scale, we must think of exocivilizations a few thousand years older or younger than terrestrial civilization as near-peer civilizations.

Because of the size the universe, and the great gulf between galaxies, between galactic clusters, and between super-clusters, and because of the constraints placed on communication and transportation by relativistic physics, it may be that near-peer civilizations are prevented from talking to each other for all practical purposes by virtue of the light cone in which each civilization finds itself embedded. The light cone not only describes the propagation of light but of all EM spectrum radiation, including radio signals.

The third division of the trichotomy of exocivilizations, regarding exocivilizations that emerge after our terrestrial esocivilziation, would involve different consequences for the possibilities open to the development of contemporary industrial-technological civilization, which would include:

After the end of terrestrial esocivilization, precluding the possibility of communication

After the end of terrestrial industrial-technological civilization, which is to say, a stagnant successor to contemporary terrestrial civilization, capable of being “discovered” in its dotage (imagine all of human civilization as a terrestrial India, with ancient and venerable traditions but a marginal role)

During the existence of an intact terrestrial industrial-technological civilization, which implies a spatially expanding terrestrial esocivilization, and therefore exocivilizations subordinate to, and perhaps even subject to, human civilization

Once one begins thinking about the possibilities there are two many to list, and providing some kind of typology of the interrelationship of civilizations would require a significant investment of time. For example, an expansionary exocivilization might exapt terrestrial civilization, expanding through and around and on top of that which came before, as later cities have exapted earlier cities and grown through them. The effort to formulate the interrelationships of esocivilization and exocivilizations would be the project of astrocivilization, i.e., the totality of civilization in the universe.

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