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The great filter

By Mike Ruffin It was 1950, and some scientists at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico were walking to lunch. Along the way, they talked about some recent reports of UFOs and a New Yorker cartoon that attributed the recent disappearances of New York City trash canisters to alien activity. The conversation around the lunch table moved on to other topics. Suddenly, one of the scientists, Enrico Fermi, exclaimed, ‘Where is everybody?’ He then went on to talk about the vast number of stars in the universe, the likely huge number of Earthlike planets orbiting some of those stars, and the seeming likelihood that intelligent life would have developed on many of them. If you keep your speculations close to home and go with the most conservative estimates, you’d reckon that there are around a billion Earth-like planets and about 100,000 intelligent civilizations just in the Milky Way galaxy (which is only one of the 100 billion galaxies, at least, in the observable universe). Fermi wondered why, if there are indeed lots of intelligent civilizations out there, none of them have shown up here. Odds are they would have, especially given the likelihood that some of them would have been around a lot longer than we have and would have developed much more advanced technology than ours. Fermi was no run of- the-mill scientist (if there’s any such thing). He had won the Nobel Prize for physics in 1938. He led the team that developed the first nuclear reactor. He was one of the main experts that participated in the Manhattan Project, which developed the first atomic bomb. Many answers have been proposed to what became known as ‘Fermi’s paradox,’ ranging from ‘They came here before we got here’ to ‘They are here and we’re too primitive to perceive them.’ Around 1975, astronomer Michael Hart proposed that the reason we’ve not seen extraterrestrial life is that it doesn’t exist. He noted that intelligent aliens would naturally spread out and colonize the galaxy, but they haven’t. The best answer to why they haven’t, he said, is that they aren’t there. Well, if there aren’t any other advanced civilizations out there, why not? In the late 1990s, economist Robin Hanson proposed a theory known as ‘the Great Filter’. Perhaps there is a Great Filter beyond which life must move if it is going to develop into an intelligent form, and that filter is hard to get past. Maybe human beings are unique in having developed as far as we have. Or maybe lots of civilizations have developed to the point where we now are, but something has prevented them from moving to the next stage, which would be Galactic colonization. Maybe we’ve already gotten past the Great Filter, so we’ve gone where no civilization has gone before and we can keep moving forward. Or, maybe the Great Filter is still ahead of us. Perhaps the Great Filter beyond which no society has ever gone is the point where it has developed not only the technology to destroy themselves, but the willingness to do so. Maybe Jesus lays out our Great Filter for us in the Sermon on the Mount when he says, ‘You have heard that it was said, ‘˜You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteousness’ (vv. 43-45). In the Star Trek episode ‘Let That Be Your Last Battlefield,’ the Enterprise rescues an injured man named Lokai, whose skin is black on one side of his body and white on the other. He’s a self-described political refugee from the planet Cheron. Soon, another man from that planet comes aboard. His name is Bele, and he says he’s a law enforcement official who’s been chasing Lokai for many millennia. Bele’s body is also halfblack and half-white, but the colors are reversed, which in Cheron’s culture is an important difference. Finally, after much intrigue and drama, the Enterprise arrives at Lokai and Bele’s home planet, only to find that warfare has destroyed the entire population. When last we see the two men, Bele is still in pursuit of Lokai. Lt. Uhura wonders if hate is all they ever had. Capt. Kirk responds, ‘No’”but that’s all they have left.’ Maybe hate is the Great Filter. Maybe love is the only way through. Mike Ruffin is a writer and editor who lives in Yatesville and works in Macon. This article first appeared on Coracle, the blog of Next Sunday Resources.

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