Summary of Our Improbable Universe
Chapter 12: Who's Out There?
Whether or not human investigators succeed at creating chemical life in test tubes, it is inevitable that the universe itself has done so many times over in its fifteen billion year history. All of the chemicals that we are based upon exist in abundance in naturally occurring environments throughout our galaxy of a billion stars and throughout the universe of trillions of similar galaxies. The early environment on planet earth wasted little time in creating life here. The oldest fossils of primitive cells are almost as old as the oldest rocks. Therefore an environment like the infant earth has a high probability of evolving a chemical soup into life. Recent observations by the Hubble space telescope prove that planetary systems like the suns are the rule rather than the exception. A billion, trillion such systems exist in this universe. Therefore it must be teaming with life. This is despite the fact that this improbable universe needed at least fourteen stepping stones in its fundamental structure in order to have any chance at all of producing intelligent life.
Though carbon compounds are the prime candidates for the foundations of chemical life it is conceivable that other systems of elements might evolve life. Silicon has been proposed as a substitute for carbon. The chemistry of the 92 elements in the periodic table is so rich that it is impossible to exclude the potential that other chemical systems might spontaneously evolve life in one of the billion trillion environments that this universe provides. Similarly it is not possible to exclude life from other levels of material reality. It is possible that the chemistry of nuclear matter on the surface of a neutron star might produce creatures that live at a speed that is a million times faster and a density that is a trillion times greater. The early universe might even have contained a fleeting form of life that was based on the chemistry of the sub-nuclear particles called quarks.
For the same reason that there must be life out there, there must also be advanced life. Some fraction of the stars that have life supporting planets will have ones with radios. Even if it is a small fraction, like 1%, there will still be a lot of them. Perhaps some fraction of them are interested in contacting other life forms and are sending radio signals into space to do so. Based on this line of thought numerous projects have been started to listen for radio signals from other stars. These projects go by the acronym, SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence).
If a SETI project detects a greetings from space, is it safe to answer? Any E.T. that sent us a message would have to be way ahead of us. If they were behind by more than several decades they would not have the technology to communicate over interstellar distances. The chances of making contact with a civilization that is right at the dawn of the radio age (like ourselves) is miniscule. Their line of evolution must be billions of years out of step with ours based on statistics alone. If they are of a malicious bent, then we have much to fear from making contact with them.
On the other hand we have a very good reason for believing that advanced E.T.'s are not destructive. There is a kind of late step in natural selection that any technical civilization must deal with. The tremendous power over nature that technology confers also allows self destruction through war or ecological crisis. Any such civilization will have had nuclear weaponry for millions of years. The fact that they possessed it for so long without destroying themselves is an important measure of their civilization. This challenge is built into the physical fabric of reality by the mere existence of long lived fissionable elements. The existence of these elements in nature automatically gives us relatively benign neighbors. Naziesk creatures are selected against by the physical structure of our universe.
To create by natural selection, risks a universe that is dominated by Nazi like monsters unless some kind of final filter is provided to weed them out. It is suspicious that a universe with slightly more charge on its electrons would not have fissionable stuff in its reality and would therefore not contain nuclear weapons. If the universe was created with deliberation, then the existence of this stuff could easily be interpreted as the "Last Judgment". It remains to be seen whether or not we will be found worthy of a future without end. Living with the bomb for millions or billions of years, is an achievement which few of us presume is within the capability of the presently popular versions of "Human Spirit". But with a great deal of evolution, we have a shot at it.
As concerned as we are about the existence of nuclear weapons, it is none the less a reason for comfort in assessing the psyche of an E.T. . Not only have they not destroyed themselves (assuming a contact) but they haven't destroyed us either. Along with nuclear technology goes the nuclear rockets that are necessary for interstellar travel. If there has been an advanced E.T. in our neighborhood for million years, then they would have had the opportunity to make the multi-hundred year trip to our planet to see what was here many times before. If they did not see fit to sterilize the planet long ago, then they probably will never do it.
As fearful as we might be of a civilization that is a hundred million years ahead of us technically, they have greater reason to fear one that is a hundred million years behind them spiritually. They have learned to live with the power that technology confers and we have not. Therefore they might choose not to contact us. Another reason that an E.T. would have second thoughts about opening a dialog with us is that in doing so they would be taking responsibility for our subsequent evolution. An E.T. would not want to become part of our highly questionable Karma. Perhaps in a few thousand years we will have gotten our act together sufficiently to alter this assessment.
A related reason for either us, or them, to be coy about communication, is that evolution and growth is something that only we can accomplish for ourselves. Direct contact with a higher being, such as an E.T., or our creator, would stunt our growth. We would become like the child that never leaves home. We would be perpetually dependent and a sad shadow of what we might have become.
So the answer to the question, "are we alone?" is undoubtedly "no!". But don't hold your breath expecting company. Before an E.T. is willing to hazard contact, it will have to see how much respect we have for the other living creatures of this planet whom we are so closely related to by intergalactic standards. They will also have to see how much respect we have for other humans as well. If we can't respect the lives of our close relatives, how can be possibly respect theirs? Undoubtedly they would perceived the "Last Judgment" nature of the challenges that we must face on our own before we obtain the multi-million year sustainability that they undoubtedly possess already. They would not have the arrogance to interfere with such deeply imbedded principles of life's evolution in this improbable universe. They must let us choose to live or die by nuclear or ecological disaster on our own. To not do so would risk intergalactic nuclear disaster and intergalactic ecological crisis.