Galactic Civilization and ‘The Filter’ Fallacy

The Filter, in Brief

So, there is this idea of ‘The Filter’, the great divide that separates intelligent species from the galactic civilizations that are their supposed birthright. The reasoning goes as follows:

  • All intelligent species exist on the path to developing technology and culture that will enable them to expand to control their planet, and then solar system, and then multiple solar systems, and then spread throughout galaxy
  • Given the age of our own galaxy, we would expect other intelligent species to have evolved before humans, and to have already begun this colonization process
  • We don’t see any sign of them, and so there must be The Filter, the crisis that prevents intelligent species from moving along this inevitable staircase of development
  • So we wonder – is The Filter behind us, and we’re one of the few intelligent species to make it this far, or is The Filter ahead of us, and we’re doomed?

In thinking about what this Filter could be, one can come up with places it could occur starting all the way back with the origins of life:

  • It could be that it is very unlikely for life to begin at all, and so on planets in their star’s ‘Goldilocks zone’ we will only find various kinds of chemical soup
  • Maybe it is very unlikely for multicellular life to develop, and so that soup will just be filled with simple single-celled organisms
  • It could be very unlikely for intelligence to develop (this one is a hard sell for anyone who has looked at the intelligence of non-human animals)
  • Perhaps run-away feedback loops like climate chance prevent intelligent species from living long enough, or maintaining a civilization long enough, to colonize their solar system
    • Ditto with something like thermonuclear Armageddon, or AI deciding to kill us off, or nanotechnology turning us al into grey goo, etc.
  • Or a lack of any faster-than-light travel solution could make colonizing worlds beyond one’s homeworld economically impossible
  • Or maybe something crazy, like a FTL-capable civilization wipes out all competition, and they just haven’t decided we are a threat yet

Clearly there are a lot of other options, but those above are common.

Flawed Premise

The problem I see in this formulation immediately (and I’m far form alone, nor innovative in doing so) is that it is founded on the premise that all intelligent life will inevitably lead to something like our own technocratic, hierarchical and exploitative way of life. That is, we take the way we happen to live now as a cosmic given, and then reason from there.

That’s insane. That’s a failing grade on your term paper in Philosophy 101. That’s a huge argument build on a sample size of one, when we even have other intelligent species on Earth to look at for other examples. Why not argue that orca intelligence is inevitable, or cetacean intelligence, or chimpanzee intelligence, or the emergent intelligence of insect colonies? We’re not even the only intelligence here. We’re just the most disastrous for every other living thing.

Conclusion

Maybe there is no filter, and we are just caught in the throes of a suicidal trajectory because we are a particular kind of intelligent life in a particular situation. There’s no reason to assume that all life would be in a similar situation, much less to assume that all intelligent life would inexorably seek to exploit their entire planet, and then solar system, and then multiple solar systems.

Maybe as we find signs of life in other places, that life will be living in approximate balance with its ecosystems, like the various species of human did for hundreds of thousands of years before the last ten thousand or so. Maybe they will have developed means to detect us, and have meetings to decide what to do about this one rogue form of intelligent life out there that seems hell-bent on killing itself and everything around it. Can they somehow contain the damage we do? What do the thousands of other intelligent species on other worlds think?

The galaxy could be empty of star-spanning civilizations because of wisdom and no other reason. The “Filter” could exist only in our thinking about the nature of life, and intelligence, and civilization. It seems that we are catastrophically wrong about how to live on our own planet – it stands to reason that we would also be catastrophically wrong about how to live on multiple planets circling multiple stars as well.

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