The Fermi Paradox, or ‘Where the hell are they?’ and ‘They are made out of meat!’

Sputnik-1, Fermi paradox

The Fermi Paradox, or ‘Where the hell are they?’ and ‘They are made out of meat!’

The Fermi paradox is quite well known in the community of the scientists and pseudo-scientists alike. In simple terms, it simply does not make sense that we, as human beings, are the only intelligent life form in the universe. Seeing the vast amount of stars, probability of existence of other intelligent life forms beyond our planet stands in contradiction to our knowledge of them.

Enrico Fermi summarises it as such:

  • The Sun is a typical star, and relatively young. There are billions of stars in the galaxy that are billions of years older.
  • Almost surely, some of these stars will have Earth-like planets. Assuming the Earth is typical, some of these planets may develop intelligent life.
  • Some of these civilizations may develop interstellar travel, a technology Earth is investigating even now (such as the 100 Year Starship).
  • Even at the slow pace of currently envisioned interstellar travel, the galaxy can be completely colonized in a few tens of millions of years. (Wikipedia)

Seeing the undeniable possibility of other intelligent life forms, it becomes all the more questionable whether life on earth is unique.

To be sure, Fermi was a scientist, and a respected one at that; not just another conspiracy theorist with aims to blame the government for whatever reason once again. He is recounted to have come up with this paradox quite simply, in a way of a casual remark:

“The remark came while Fermi was discussing with his mealtime mates the possibility that many sophisticated societies populate the Galaxy. They thought it reasonable to assume that we have a lot of cosmic company. But somewhere between one sentence and the next, Fermi’s supple brain realized that if this was true, it implied something profound. If there are really a lot of alien societies, then some of them might have spread out . . . So what Fermi immediately realized was that the aliens have had more than enough time to pepper the Galaxy with their presence. But looking around, he didn’t see any clear indication that they’re out and about. This prompted Fermi to ask what was (to him) an obvious question: ‘where is everybody?'” (SETI).


The paradox has been thought about by so many people, that the web is filled with various hypothesis and possible solutions. So much so, that I will not be able to capture all of them even if I tried (which I didn’t, as that seems quite pointless). But here is a shot at some, split in 2 categories:

1. There simply aren’t any other civilizations with intelligent life in the outer space. Whatever the odds, the reality seems to be different:

  • We are simply that rare. And if you are a Christian, this seems rather straight-forward; if you aren’t, we could still be the chosen peoples, but then randomly chosen by sheer luck and some random variables.
  • Perhaps we are not that rare, but we are the first to evolve, and others have a lot of catching up to do.
  • We simply aren’t rare at all, just arrogant to think that we are because we are experimenting with space travel and presume to overcome the obstacles, which are physically impossible to overcome.

2. There is intelligent life in the outer space, but we are not really part of them or of no interest to them.

  • We have been visited, or communicated to, but it was way before we had the means to understand these messages.
  • Our part of the galaxy is too remote for interest by other civilizations.
  • There is no need for colonization by intelligent life, simply a different mentality that we humans have.
  • Intelligent life would not send out signals, out of fear of a big bad wolf.
  • The so-called super-predator theory: a civilization so advanced that it exterminates all other civilizations once they come close to positing a threat (and we do not).
  • We simply don’t know what we are transmitting in terms of communication; all of which could be picked up, but only as mere noise (or they communicate so much faster that our communication is simply too slow to be understood as communication rather than random noise).
  • Zoo Hypothesis: we are like a primitive protected species; we are being observed but like a national park, entry or communication is prohibited by some laws of the galaxy unknown to us.
  • Spies!: They are here, been here, and are going to stay here. We just don’t know it, cause they hide it well.
  • ‘Area 51’: or simply, there is evidence, but it is hidden from us.
  • Alien what?: Purely philosophically speaking, our perception of things may be rather different from what we think it to be. We could be in a Matrix of sorts, or our understanding of the universe is too primitive and rests on speculations too much…

The by far most amusing piece comes from Terry Bisson:

“They’re made out of meat.”
“Meat?”
“Meat. They’re made out of meat.”
“Meat?”
“There’s no doubt about it. We picked up several from different parts of the planet, took them aboard our recon vessels, and probed them all the way through. They’re completely meat.”
“That’s impossible. What about the radio signals? The messages to the stars?”
“They use the radio waves to talk, but the signals don’t come from them. The signals come from machines.”
“So who made the machines? That’s who we want to contact.”
“They made the machines. That’s what I’m trying to tell you. Meat made the machines.”
“That’s ridiculous. How can meat make a machine? You’re asking me to believe in sentient meat.”
“I’m not asking you, I’m telling you. These creatures are the only sentient race in that sector and they’re made out of meat.”
“Maybe they’re like the orfolei. You know, a carbon-based intelligence that goes through a meat stage.”
“Nope. They’re born meat and they die meat. We studied them for several of their life spans, which didn’t take long. Do you have any idea what’s the life span of meat?”
“Spare me. Okay, maybe they’re only part meat. You know, like the weddilei. A meat head with an electron plasma brain inside.”
“Nope. We thought of that, since they do have meat heads, like the weddilei. But I told you, we probed them. They’re meat all the way through.”
“No brain?”
“Oh, there’s a brain all right. It’s just that the brain is made out of meat! That’s what I’ve been trying to tell you.”
“So … what does the thinking?”
“You’re not understanding, are you? You’re refusing to deal with what I’m telling you. The brain does the thinking. The meat.”
“Thinking meat! You’re asking me to believe in thinking meat!”
[. . .]
“Good. Agreed, officially and unofficially. Case closed. Any others? Anyone interesting on that side of the galaxy?”
“Yes, a rather shy but sweet hydrogen core cluster intelligence in a class nine star in G445 zone. Was in contact two galactic rotations ago, wants to be friendly again.”
“They always come around.”
“And why not? Imagine how unbearably, how unutterably cold the Universe would be if one were all alone …”


With this in mind, it is time to turn to the moral/political point, and who best to do that with, than Hannah Arendt and her [amazon asin=0226025985&text=The Human Condition]. After all, already in 1958 she points to a very strange occurrence, and briefly recounts the feeling that occurrence had. That occurrence is, of course, the Sputnik-1:

“In 1957, an earth-born object made by man was launched into the universe, where for some weeks it circled the earth according to the same laws of gravitation that swing and keep in motion the celestial bodies—the sun, the moon, and the stars. To be sure, the man-made satellite was no moon or star, no heavenly body which could follow its circling path for a time span that to us mortals, bound by earthly time, lasts from eternity to eternity. Yet, for a time it managed to stay in the skies; it dwelt and moved in the proximity of the heavenly bodies as though it had been admitted tentatively to their sublime company.

This event, second in importance to no other, not even to the splitting of the atom, would have been greeted with unmitigated joy if it had not been for the uncomfortable military and political circumstances attending it. But, curiously enough, this joy was not triumphal; it was not pride or awe at the tremendousness of human power and mastery which rilled the hearts of men, who now, when they looked up from the earth toward the skies, could behold there a thing of their own making. The immediate reaction, expressed on the spur of the moment, was relief about the first ‘step toward escape from men’s imprisonment to the earth.’ And this strange statement, far from being the accidental slip of some American re-
porter, unwittingly echoed the extraordinary line which, more than twenty years ago, had been carved on the funeral obelisk for one of Russia’s great scientists: ‘Mankind will not remain bound to the earth forever.'” (Arendt, [amazon asin=0226025985&text=The Human Condition], p. 1).

What we have here in moral/political terms, is no longer a paradox that concerns physics or statistics (probability). It does not even concern the difficulties with conspiracies or entertainment. From a moral/political point of view that Arendt pushes forward, and rightly so, the paradox denotes our endeavor to escape life itself. No longer are we interested in dealing with life, no matter how troublesome; quite the opposite, we will do anything, even go to space and meet other species, as long as we do no have to deal with this right here. In escaping the earth, we also escape politics; something that undeniably should not be escaped. The earth, in other words, “is the very quintessence of the human condition” (p. 2).

This is not to say that space travel is by definition something to be feared or neglected. Quite the opposite, as the citation above makes clear already (and the rest of the book even more so). Nevertheless, upon doing so, upon thinking about other life forms in outer space, we have to understand and acknowledge our own existence first – even if we find other life forms, in other words, we cannot approach other than through an existence already present to us, namely, as that from earth. Our human condition is precisely that: earthbound creatures who think, act and make judgments (and work, but that would take us to a different direction).

So in brief, the Fermi paradox is exactly the type of paradox which should not matter, unless we already have an understanding of what we are doing at all; which unfortunately, we don’t!

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