Why is the Fermi Paradox Paradoxical?

With at least a quarter trillion stars in Earth’s galaxy alone, which itself is one of hundreds of billions of other galaxies, the statistical probability of there being alien life somewhere is overwhelming. Yet, humanity’s best attempts to detect such life have been fruitless, giving rise to the Fermi Paradox: If statistically, life should be so common throughout the universe, how is it that not a trace of it has been detected?

The question whether the human race is alone in the universe has been on people’s minds ever since they began observing and contemplating the great cosmos. Speculations, ranging from idle reverie to serious scientific endeavors, amplified as the technology with which to espy and understand space advanced. It is widely postulated that at least 20% of stars host a planet similar to Earth in terms of boasting the conditions capable of supporting life as is commonly understood.  

Various explanations have been propounded in response. These range from the reasoned (such as that energy requirements forced advanced civilizations toward the cooler outer edges of galaxies) to some liable to raise many an eyebrow (for instance, that the universe as observed through a telescope is just a simulation). However, both the Fermi paradox and the hypotheses given to try to explain it are predicated on one crucial assumption, namely, that any civilization’s raison d’être are expansion and colonization.

The conditions deemed conducive for life to emerge have existed in the universe for billions of years, certainly long enough for human-like civilizations to evolve sufficiently to undertake interstellar and intergalactic travel, settle other planets and entire galaxies, and harness energy in unimaginable ways to support such (ad)ventures, the Dyson spheremegastructure being one possibility.

The problem could be that extrapolations have been based too much on anthropocentrism or, more accurately, humankind’s own planetary past. In history, ancient and modern, humans progressed by procreating and consequently usurping ever more territory, from both the nature and other humans, to expand. The natural corollary of such modus operandi is that, as soon as technology develops enough to permit it, people will move out into space. However, is that indeed man’s manifest destiny?

Certain trends appear to point in an altogether different direction.
As a society progresses and collectively waxes healthier and wealthier, its members are likely to have fewer children.

As people’s basic needs for food, shelter, health care, education, and employment are increasingly met, they turn their attention to other pursuits such as wealth creation and further enhancing the quality of life. Humans are able to indulge in an ever-wider array of comforts and conquer ever more threats to their comfort, including sickness and poverty.

“The conditions deemed conducive for life to emerge have existed in the universe for billions of years, certainly long enough for human-like civilizations to evolve sufficiently to undertake interstellar and intergalactic travel.”

There is though, one holy grail that continues to elude the human race: immortality. Conquering death has been a human obsession since the dawn of civilization. Man’s inability to do so gave rise to belief in religion and the supernatural. Now, solutions to immortality may already be underway.

Among quite a few ideas, transhumanism stands out as a real possibility. Briefly, if a way is found to “digitize” an individual’s brain (and with it, presumably, the individual’s consciousness), that digital brain can be stored, forever, anywhere, including in a completely cybernetic body. Given the exponential advances in technology, it is only a matter of time before the mechanics of the human body are emulated to perfection, right down to individual nerve endings and capillaries.

Putting the ethics, desirability, and uptake of living forever in a cybernetic body aside, ending up a race of cybernetic beings with immortal brains would effectively put a stop to human numerical expansion. In such a scenario, people would still establish bases on other planets, both to exploit their resources as well as create a safety net in case Earth is destroyed.

Natural human curiosity would also impel them to develop interstellar travel in order to explore the wider universe. (Incidentally, digital brains in cybernetic bodies would solve the problems of both intergalactic distances and cosmic radiation.) However, transhumans would certainly not embark on an endless colonization spree: There would simply be no necessity for one.

Trashumanism is not the only possible next step for the humankind. However, short of self-destruction or meeting with a premature demise at the hands of some cataclysmic event, almost all hypothetical scenarios envision the humans who reach the next evolutionary stage to have a small footprint. None of them visualizes trillions of humans crisscrossing the universe and establishing outposts in its every proverbial corner. Other than an occasional extraterrestrial visit, any alien activity would be simply be too inconspicuous to be noticed with the equipment currently at disposal.
After all, a civilization that has essentially transformed itself into a microscopic existence would hardly be noticed or noticeable with the telescopes and other equipment used today. Even as far as alien landings or flybys, there is no telling they did not happen. Our ability to detect any alien activity spans barely a few decades. Thus, the probability of the Solar System having been selected for an alien survey during the last few decades or centuries out of the 4.5 billion years Earth has been around is nugatory.

It has to be considered that, despite knowing more about the universe and being able to study it better than any previous generation, humans are living in a nanoscopic spec of an unimaginably vast space during an infinitesimally small fraction of the time space has existed. The Fermi Paradox, therefore, may not be a paradox at all. The Universe may well be saturated with advanced alien civilizations. It is just that their populations are too small and imperceptible to have happened upon the Earth’s tiny neck of the cosmic woods anytime recently.

As many have averred though, there is always the possibility that, for whatever reason, the humankind is indeed the sole instance of any kind of life, intelligent or otherwise, in the vast expanse of cosmos. Now that is a supremely depressing thought: Even if humans do embark on interstellar travel someday, there might not be anything, or anyone, to ever find.

What Do You Think?