By R. W. Richey
R. W. Richey is the owner of FTL Strategies, a software company specializing in rapid application development and lean software methodology. He lives in Salt Lake City with his wife and a dwindling number of kids. In his spare time he maintains a blog/podcast at wearenotsaved.com where he posts on a variety of topics.
Or download the audio file here: God as the Answer to Fermi’s Paradox
One day, sometime in 1950 at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, Enrico Fermi and some other scientists were having lunch together. At the time, the popular media was fascinated by stories of flying saucers and UFOs. While none of the “sightings” had been scientifically confirmed, it was the dawn of the atomic age and anything seemed possible. Fermi and the other scientists spent that lunch discussing these stories, at one point going so far as to speculate on the potential for faster-than-light travel. In the midst of their discussion, and seemingly out of nowhere, Fermi exclaimed, “Where is everybody?” Fermi had just realized that behind the sensational stories of UFOs and little green men, lay a profound question. Given the number of stars and lifespan of the universe, why haven’t we been visited by extraterrestrials?
As the story goes, Fermi went back to his office, ran some numbers, and found that—even using incredibly modest assumptions—we should have been visited by extraterrestrials long ago and many times over.1
Have you ever seen the Hubble Ultra Deep Field Image?2 It shows a dark background salted with 15,000 little blotches. Each of those blotches is a galaxy, and each of those galaxies contains an average of 100 billion stars. Based on the exoplanets we’ve recently discovered, it’s very likely that each of those stars has at least one planet orbiting around it. It would take 12 million of these ultra deep field images to cover Earth’s whole night sky, which means we can make a defensible estimate of 123 quintillion stars in the visible universe and at least as many planets. This constitutes a mind-blowing amount of potential for advanced intelligent life.
Fermi ran his own numbers to determine the likelihood of extraterrestrial life, but these equations were not recorded and in 1961 Frank Drake came up with is own equation, in advance of the first formal scientific meeting to discuss the possibility of contacting extraterrestrials. Named after him, Drake’s Equation begins with the number of stars and then filters out any stars without planets. Then it filters out planets that don’t have life. Then it filters out life that isn’t intelligent. And finally, it filters out life that is incapable of communicating on an interstellar scale. This gets us to the number of, as Drake put it, “detectable civilizations in our galaxy.”
Of course, once you move beyond the number of stars and planets, everything else is guesswork. We’re not sure how common life is. We don’t know how often a planet with life will end up with intelligent life, or whether that intelligent life will ever communicate on an interstellar scale. But what both Fermi and Drake realized is that the first number—the number of stars—is so massive (somewhere between 100 and 400 billion in just the Milky Way), that even if you’re pretty conservative with your filtering you still end up with a large number of possible “detectable civilizations.”
And there are several other strong arguments in favor of extraterrestrial intelligent life.
The universe is incredibly old. Most people assume that at a minimum there needs to be a rocky planet in order for life to start. Well, the first rocky planet is 6 billion years older than Earth, meaning that there could be civilizations out there that are much older than we are. Even if we use very conservative estimates for how long it would take a civilization to spread from one star to the next, we should expect extraterrestrial civilization to be pretty much everywhere by now.
Take, for example, self-replicating probes (also sometimes called Van Neumann Probes). These are spaceships which could be sent to the nearest star, and then, once there, use the materials present to build more copies of themselves. The probes thus constructed could then travel to new stars, and so on basically forever. Even if they travelled and reproduced very slowly—taking, say, 500 years to get from one star to the next—they could visit every solar system in the galaxy in just a few million years. And this is technology we’re not that far from developing ourselves.
Panspermia. This is the idea that life might travel between planets on something other than a spaceship, perhaps carried by comets or asteroids. Lots of stuff ends up on Earth from elsewhere in the Solar System—even from outside the Solar System. Again, considering how old the Universe is, how much cross-pollination could have occurred over that time? Especially when we realize that …
Life is much hardier than we had previously thought. We’ve found it in volcanic vents, deep in the ocean, in water with incredibly high salinity—just about everywhere you can imagine. Which means that we are very likely to find life in areas we would think completely hostile to it. It was recently reported that worms frozen in permafrost for 42,000 years had been brought back to life!3
The mediocrity principle. Every time we thought we were unique, every time we thought we were at the center of things, it turned out we weren’t. Earth wasn’t the center of the Solar System; humans aren’t that much different than chimpanzees; and the Milky Way isn’t the only galaxy. Using that precedent, what makes us think we’re the only intelligent life in the universe, especially considering life’s astonishing hardiness?
However, there are certainly also forces that work against an abundance of intelligent extraterrestrial life. For example, there’s the general category of things that might make Earth rare. Maybe multicellular life is rare. Maybe intelligence is rare. Maybe intelligence is common, but you mostly end up with things like dolphins rather than tool-using creatures. Drake accounted for these possibilities with his filters, and each of those filters is behind us as a planet with intelligent life forms.
But then there are the filters that may still be in front of us—events or elements that may keep extraterrestrial civilizations from communicating or spreading—events that have caused the great (supposed) silence of the rest of the universe. Perhaps intelligent beings inevitably cause their own extinction through the use of nukes, or maybe virtual reality becomes so engaging that they lose interest in true reality.
But the fact remains: there is astonishing potential for intelligent life—billions of years more advanced than ours—to be out there somewhere, to know about us, and to have means of communicating with us. Yet, we have not heard from them in any scientifically verifiable way. That is Fermi’s Paradox.
But this brings up a very important question. What would we envision (or accept) as an instance of contact from an extraterrestrial civilization? I want to suggest that most of our assumptions about such contact are incorrect.
The incorrect assumption I see most often is that we’ll go from having no alien contact to their sudden appearance. But as I pointed out, it’s conceivable that there is a galactic civilization out there that’s six billion years ahead of ours. (To give context to that number, consider that humans have gone from simple machines to space travel in about 10,000 years, which can be divided into 6 billion 600,000 times). Let’s be conservative and imagine that the oldest intelligent civilization in the Universe is only a billion years ahead of us—or to put it another way, they could have noticed that Earth had life on it (and, if they chose, visited) any time in the last billion years. If we assume that they might randomly show up at any point during that time, then the chances of them first showing up in the next 100 years would be 1 in 10 million. What this means, I would argue, is that they’re either already aware of us or never will be.
The next faulty assumption is that our first contact with them will be “in person.” They’ll show up in a big ship and maybe blow up the White House. Or they’ll land all over the world and try to teach us their strange language. Though that kind of first contact is possible, it would be a million times easier (and safer, and less expensive) to start with communication, either by radio waves or something more exotic.
Third: we assume that extra-terrestrials will have technology that’s better than ours—but only slightly. Or even if it’s a lot better, it will still be recognizable as technology: ships that fly, laser beams, computers, etc. But that would require that the extra-terrestrials are only marginally older and more advanced than we are, when in fact, the likelihood is that they’ve advanced to the point where they would have powers that would seem god-like to us. As Arthur C. Clarke put it, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”4 Recall that they could have had 600,000 times as long to develop their technology as we’ve had to develop ours.
Finally, everyone assumes that when the aliens do arrive, they’ll want to either conquer us or study us.
But interstellar conquest doesn’t make a lot of sense. Anything we have that they might want, we’ve had for thousands of years, so why haven’t they already come and taken it? As we’ve already said, they’re either already aware of us or they never will be. And if they are aware of us, what’s the point of personally studying us now? They’ve already had billions of years to do so.
To sum up, extra-terrestrials should have visited us long ago and many times. We should expect that they would communicate with us before we actually see them, and that the dominant form of their contact would be this communication. We should further expect them to be so far ahead of us technologically that they would appear god-like in power.
What would these god-like extraterrestrials want from us, particularly if neither conquering us nor studying us makes sense?
Our resources? No. They’ve theoretically had billions of years to come extract those.
Our technology? Don’t be silly. Even if they were only 10,000 years ahead of us, our technology would look like levers and wheels compared to what they have. And the likelihood is that they are actually at least a billion years ahead of us.
Our extermination? As with extracting our resources, they’ve had all the time in the world to do that. Why would they decide to start now?
As we can see, there’s not much that the aliens could want from us, which leads me to posit that the situation is exactly the opposite: rather than wishing to take something from us, they might want to give something to us. They might want to help us.
But what kind of help could they feasibly offer? Because of the distances involved, giving us physical resources seems unlikely. But they might be interested in giving us technology or preventing our extermination. The problem is, they might cause our extermination if they give us technology before we have the maturity to use it. There are certain things we might not be wise enough, or even good enough, to handle. Which means there’s one other thing they might be interested in: our morals, character, and maturity.
You can probably see where I’m going with this by now, particularly in light of this article’s title. Consider these descriptors of extra-terrestrials: they’re already aware of us, their contact with us is mostly through communication, they have “miraculous” abilities, they don’t want to exterminate us, they want to prevent us from exterminating ourselves, and to that end they’re interested in helping us cultivate our morals and character. They want to help us toward “salvation.” These descriptors sound an awful lot like a Christian concept of God. And if we take Abraham 3:95 and the hymn “If You Could Hie to Kolob” into account, we could say it sounds like an especially Mormon concept of God.
When Fermi asks: “Where are they?” Mormons answer, “They’re already here and have been for as long as we have recorded history. We call them ‘God.’ And we call our communication with them ‘prayer.’”
Prayer as communication with aliens? It may seem far-fetched to begin with, but that is only because of how rarely science fiction and religion overlap in the popular mind. (The Eucharist and the Enterprise have not yet appeared in the same movie together.) One seems backward and mythological, while the other seems progressive and empirical. Besides that, prayer seems so subjective, so open to interpretation. Two people pray about the same thing and get a different answer. How is that supposed to be effective communication? How exactly does that help save us? Why do we need to be saved? And isn’t this whole process disturbingly similar to begging?
You might begin to see where some people would feel that this entire framework looks entirely too much like colonialism: that we are imagining God as an interstellar analogue of Europeans (or Mormons) heading into any non-European (or non-Mormon) area and bringing their religion along with them to foist on the natives—with the very best of intentions, of course. But I want to add one more thing onto our descriptors of God that will help free us from that accusation.
The usual colonialist route is to go into a land, take it over, extract its resources (usually with the coerced labor of the natives), and preach religion. But recently we’ve been backing off of that. These days, when we become aware of new indigenous peoples, we usually leave them alone. Seeing so many cultures wither and die under our watch, we’ve come to understand that we often do a lot of harm in the process of trying to do good, and that autonomy is a large part of maintaining a culture’s health.
But fostering some kind of dialogue between us and these indigenous people would likely be productive on both sides (each having its peculiar worldview and knowledge sets), if we could figure out a way to do it without causing harm. What would be the best way to do so, especially if we had a billion years worth of technology under our belt? I posit that we might use something akin to prayer. Imagine you were an anthropologist and you had access to prayer, meaning you could perceive the deepest thoughts and desires of the people you were studying, both individually and as a community. Certainly you would come to know and love them. A part of you would change as you immersed yourself in their lives. You’d desire their wellbeing. You’d want them to grow and progress in their individual fashion. You’d want to help them eliminate things that were holding them back. In other words, you’d become a very good listener, which, as far as I can tell from the majority of accounts I’ve heard from people who pray, is essentially what God does. And it would take a lot of listening and thought—and perhaps even some experimentation—to find ways to be truly helpful to an individual or community. This might take the form of granting some people their desires, while ignoring others in a way that seemed almost random to people who didn’t have your millions of years of experience. But with a knowledge unfathomable to them of physics, psychology, chemistry, quantum mechanics, technology, and so on, what you could do for them would be essentially miraculous.
As you can see, with millions—if not billions—of years of experience, the “bugs” we connect with prayer (subjectivity, selectivity, interpretability, etc.) might actually be features. You might decide to make selective contact with one group of previously uncontacted people without opening the floodgates and contacting the whole planet. Perhaps this particular group was in danger, or had developed a certain level of technology, or had asked for help. Or perhaps you were experimenting with a new method of making contact. There are all manner of reasons why you might leave one group or individual alone while making contact with another, or contacting various groups or individuals using various (and even contradictory) media and content. You’re playing the long game.
Most importantly, you would be working with your groups and individuals on a consent model (rather than colonial) where they would seek out your guidance. Then you could help them prepare to receive the kind of assistance that would be most useful to them. Again, this sounds quite a bit like the Christian and LDS conceptions of God.
I can’t imagine it would be easy to find someone who would immediately jump on the “prayer as advanced technology” bandwagon since “prayer” is a religious term and “technology” a scientific one. But let’s remind ourselves of Clarke’s aphorism again: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” We already know how to measure EEG waves, and anyone who has lived during the past 50 (or even 10) years knows how quickly technology can progress, and how its advancement even seems to be accelerating. Who’s to say that a million, or a thousand, or—heck—twenty years in the future, we won’t be able to extrapolate the content of thoughts as well? And some extra-terrestrials could possibly have billions of years on us. Anything is possible. It’s constricting to make any assumptions about what extraterrestrials can and can’t do or would or wouldn’t do. As Mark Twain said: “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.”
Interestingly, Michael Shermer, the publisher of Skeptic magazine, once proposed something very similar. He asked, “Is God nothing more than a sufficiently advanced extra-terrestrial intelligence?”6 But he didn’t have a background in Mormonism, so he didn’t pursue the idea seriously. Well, I think we should. It answers Fermi’s paradox better than any other proposal I’ve encountered,7 and interacts very well with LDS theology. Would believing such an idea help us become “worthy” faster than we would otherwise? Would it provide our data-driven society with a more palatable approach to religion and motivate otherwise unreligious people to participate in it? Would it help us improve the efficacy of religion? These questions are beyond the scope of this article, but I think they are well worth considering. After all, God did tell Abraham that “the glory of God is intelligence.”
- Stephen Webb, Where is Everybody? Seventy-Five Solutions to the Fermi Paradox (Copernicus: New York, 2015).
- “Hubble Sees Galaxies Galore,” Hubble Space Telescope, https://spacetelescope.org/images/heic0406a/ (accessed 18 March 2019).
- Mindy Weisberger, “Worms Frozen for 42,000 Years in Siberian Permafrost Wriggle to Life,” Live Science, https://www.livescience.com/63187-siberian-permafrost-worms-revive.html (accessed 18 March 2019).
- Arthur C. Clarke, Profiles of the Future: An Inquiry into the Limits of the Possible (New York: Henry Holt & Co, 1984), 14, 21, 36.
- “And thus there shall be the reckoning of the time of one planet above another, until thou come nigh unto Kolob, which Kolob is after the reckoning of the Lord’s time; which Kolob is set nigh unto the throne of God, to govern all those planets which belong to the same border as that upon which thou standest” (Abraham 3:9).
- Michael Shermer, “Is God Nothing More than a Sufficiently Advanced Extra-terrestrial Intelligence?,” Edge, https://www.edge.org/response-detail/11150 (accessed 18 March 2019).
- “11 Fermi’s Paradox Solutions that Will Make You Have an Existential Crisis,” BuzzFeed, https://www.buzzfeed.com/christopherhudspeth/11-fermis-paradox-solutions-that-will-make-you-have-an-exist (accessed 18 March 2019). “Fermi Paradox,” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fermi_paradox#Hypothetical_explanations_for_the_paradox (accessed 18 March 2019).