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.


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.

Of Serotonin and Spirituality

I found this interesting (you might not). While I’m deeply suspect of a laboratory measurement of “capacity for transcendence”, I think it is interesting if there is a biological correlation between religiosity/spirituality and serotonin. It makes sense that your brain chemistry would matter in your spiritual life, and it opens the door to a lot of fascinating questions. Are some people “wired” to be more religious? Can it be passed on genetically? Is it something that evolved in us uniquely, compared to other animals with complex brains?

The connection to psychotropics is also really interesting to me. There is definitely a subculture of people who take psychotropics and who also report all kinds of “spiritual” experiences while on them. I’ve done a little bit of research into this – with books and articles! don’t get ideas – and found it fascinating overall. If you’re interested in the…one might say neurological structure of religious experience, then its worth a look.

Of Serotonin and Spirituality
Scientists see a biological underpinning for religiosity, and it is related to the neurotransmitter serotonin.

By: PT Staff

Serotonin, the brain chemical crucial to mood and motivation, also shapes personality to make you susceptible to spiritual experiences. A team of Swedish researchers has found that the presence of a receptor that regulates general serotonin activity in the brain correlates with people’s capacity for transcendence, the ability to apprehend phenomena that cannot be explained objectively. Scientists have long suspected that serotonin influences spirituality because drugs known to alter serotonin such as LSD also induce mystical experiences. But now they have proof from brain scans linking the capacity for spirituality with a major biological element.

The concentration of serotonin receptors normally varies markedly among individuals. Those whose brain scans showed the most receptor activity proved on personality tests to have the strongest proclivity to spiritual acceptance.

Reporting in the American Journal of Psychiatry, the researchers see the evidence as contradicting the common belief that religious behavior is determined strictly by environmental and cultural factors. They see a biological underpinning for religiosity, and it is related to the neurotransmitter serotonin.

Psychology Today Magazine, Nov/Dec 2003
Last Reviewed 8 Jul 2008

Evolution Break – The Frogmander!

I figured, I haven’t mentioned evolution in a little while, so here you go.Image from University of Calgary

The short article reads as follows:

“Some people just don’t get the point, no matter how much stuff happens – Americans continue to see creationism taught in their schools not as a religious doctrine, but as science, by at least a quarter of the nation’s biology teachers.Despite a 2005 Pennsylvania court case that threw intelligent design out of the classroom, states still set their own precedent, and teachers, more than legislators, are in control of what happens in their classroom. This is a dangerous proposition when 16% of the nation’s biology teachers are creationists, and 1 in 6 of those believe the earth is less than 10,000 years old. It’s this very population that may not be qualified to explain to their students what is going on when scientists in the field discover an animal like the frogmander: a 290-million-year-old fossil linking modern frogs and salamanders to a single ancient amphibian.”

“The frogmander is just the latest in a long, long line of body blows to creationism that are typically shrugged off as the work of the devil, or the by-products of a scientific community that’s not open to a pluralism of views when it comes to creationism. Instead, this frog, the Gerobatrachus hottoni, or “elderly frog” will help unify the family tree of amphibians, which had been shrouded in scientific mystery since time immemorial. The ancient record existed up until the point that the elderly frog should have existed, and the modern one began after it, but the gap was not to be filled until the current issue of the journal “Nature” was released, and with it the news of this missing evolutionary link.”

“First collected in the 1990s, nobody noticed the significance of the frogmander until 2004, when a scientist going through the archives of the Smithsonian Institution found what are termed “archaic features” in the fossil, anachronisms that gave away the frogmander’s deep secret.”

I have to say, frogmander sounds like a villain from the four-color golden age of comics. “Spider Man #57 “Attack of the Frogmander!”


For our anniversary last year, my wife and I took a whale-watching trip out of Monterey.

When you come upon it, you can see first a growing roiling in the water. It is the upper tip of the bait-ball of frantic fish, swirling in a seething sphere, desperate to escape the dark shapes of predators below. The predators are first sea lions, twisting beneath them and letting out strings of bubbles to confuse and herd the fish. The swim beneath the school, forcing it ever upward toward the barrier of air above.

Next the seabirds see this and begin to land on the water, swooping down. Some plunge beneath the surface and come up with fish. Not many birds this afternoon.

The seething on the surface becomes more frantic. We cut the engines and drift closer. We can’t approach them under power closer than a few hundred yards, but the currents are pushing us closer, turning the boat so that the stern is pointed toward the emergence.

Dozens of sleek brown shapes burst from the seething water and plunge back in, gleefully devouring fish. Perhaps forty sea lions who have corralled the meal to the surface where it is trapped and then begin eating at will. The few birds who are present are scared off by the sea lions, but hover nearby. Fear and desire and delight all at once.

We’ve seen flickers of vast shapes just beneath the surface, have even heard their distant breath, seen the tips of small dorsal fins and the bulge of emerging tail flukes, but when it happens, everyone is struck, everyone is suddenly overwhelmed by silence. The only sound is of hairs raising, eyes widening, heartbeats quickening.

The sea lions suddenly depart, and I know what is happening, biologically, behaviorally, I am very familiar with all of these behaviors, could write a paper about them. And I know it’s going to happen, but knowledge has not prepared me. Two massive black heads emerge from the seething water, mouths open, baleen visible in strips, devouring fish. You can hear their sudden wet breath like an entire room emptying of air at once, then drawing it luxuriously back in. They slip back into darkness, are followed by a third, smaller head, a juvenile does the same.

From this point onward, for almost an hour, there is incredible silence. We are close enough that the whales can see us and we can see them. We can hear every detail of their breath and even sense the rush of displaced water as they come up again from below. It falls into a rhythm. Sussurus of seething fish, rushing splashes of sea lions, then an intake of silence, and the rush of sound as three or four meters of humpback whale erupts from the water. We can see individual shafts of baleen, the glint of the sky in their dark eyes, the bright spots of barnacles and the scars left by them.

I am not in church. I don’t know any of the people we’re with. But suddenly we’re a congregation, sitting at the edge of our seats. We’re Zaccheus in the tree, straining to see. We just breathe together, quietly shuffle so that others can see. Listen to the occasional flicker of camera shutters.

Then they depart, passing beneath us, invisible in the gloom of the ocean. The fish disperse, decimated.

Do they think of us, passing underneath and breathing on the other side, an odd linear shape silhouetted by the sky? We’re certainly thinking of them.