Monthly Archives: June 2014

The Fermi Paradox

Enrico Fermi (1901–1954)

Our universe is vast beyond imagination. Really, you cannot imagine how vast it is. If you look into the night sky in perfect conditions you might be able to see about 2,500 stars, but that is only 0.000001 of the stars in the Milky Way. There are between 100 and 400 billion stars in our galaxy and about the same number of galaxies in the observable universe. Thus there are about 1023 total stars or 100000000000000000000000 stars in the observable universe. For every grain of sand on earth, there are 10,000 stars out there! If you don’t think that is a lot go to the beach, play in the sand, and look around.

And these numbers are just stars. If our star, the Sun, is typical in having 8 planets then our galaxy alone contains something like 2 trillion planets! Now we don’t know what percentage of those stars are sunlike but if we go with a conservative estimate of 5% and the lower end for the number of stars, 1022 then there are about 500 quintillion or 500 billion billion sun-like stars!

Now if we go with the most recent conservative estimate of how many of those sun-like stars are orbited by Earth-like planets, around 22%, that leaves us with 100 billion billion Earth-like planets! A hundred Earth-like planets for every grain of sand on earth. Now if only 1% of those Earth-like planets orbiting sun-like stars developed life and if only 1% of those planets developed intelligent life then there would be 10 quadrillion, or 10 million billion intelligent civilizations in the observable universe! In our galaxy alone there would be 100,000 intelligent civilizations.

All of which caused the physicist Enrico Fermi to ask, why haven’t we encountered beings from other worlds? 

The fact is that SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) has never picked up a single radio wave or any other form of contact. If you don’t think this is surprising to consider that there are older stars with far older Earth-like planets on which more advanced civilizations could have developed. They could be civilizations that have harnessed all the energy of their planet or the star or their entire galaxy if they were sufficiently advanced.  If so they would have seemingly colonized the entire galaxy. Some scientists have hypothesized that civilizations could create self-replicating machinery that colonizes the entire galaxy in around 4 million years.

Source: Scientific American: “Where Are They”

And if only 1% of intelligent life survives long enough to become a potentially galaxy-colonizing civilization, there would still be 1,000 of those types of civilizations in our galaxy alone. So again, why haven’t we seen or heard for them? Where is everybody? This is the Fermi Paradox.


Here are a few of the explanations proposed to explain the paradox:

1) Higher civilizations are rare. Maybe something dooms them as they advance. Perhaps only a few of them have managed to surpass whatever it is that dooms civilizations and they have not spread out through the galaxy.

2) Higher civilizations don’t exist. We are the only civilization that has avoided destruction so far and may soon destroy ourselves too.

3)  Higher civilizations visited earth before we were here or before we had ways to record the visit.

4) Higher civilizations have colonized the galaxy but not our part of it.

5) Higher civilizations are not interested in colonization.

6) Higher civilizations know better than to broadcast their existence since there are predator civilizations out there.

7) There is one higher predator civilization which has exterminated all other civilizations.

8) Higher civilizations are out there but we don’t know how to perceive them.

9) Higher civilizations are observing us now but don’t want us to know. Perhaps they abide by the “Prime Directive” of Star Trek’s Federation.

10) We are wrong about reality; the universe is not vast in space and time.

I have no idea which if any of these hypotheses is true. What I do know is that our ignorance humbles me. The universe is not only bigger than we can imagine but probably stranger than we can imagine as well. As Xenophanes said long ago, “All we have is but a woven web of guesses.” And for those who cannot tolerate uncertainty and ambiguity, there is always fanatical ideology. As for me I’ll accept uncertainty and reject fanaticism, thereby living with integrity.

Note – This post relies heavily on and was inspired by an article published here at the website “Wait But Why?”

What is the Cosmos? Who are We?

What is the cosmos? – The cosmos is a vast incomprehensible mystery about which we can say one thing for sure—it doesn’t care about us. It can turn against us in multiple ways at any moment and eventually it will kill us. For almost all of its life we didn’t even exist, and for most of its future, we probably won’t either. We are of the cosmos and part of it, but we are not central to its concerns, we did not have to be, we are extraneous.

Who are we? – Our existence was born “red in tooth and claw,” and any of a trillion slight changes and we wouldn’t be here. But we are here, as the product of random mutations and environmental selection. Our hodgepodge of traits include aggression, territoriality, dominance hierarchies, sexual behaviors, and other traits of the primates and lower animals. We are not fallen angels, we are modified monkeys.

What does this mean? – Only we can raise ourselves up, and we have a lot of raising to do. An honest look at life provides a picture so bleak that we turn away. Addictions, violence, greed, materialism, fantasy, group loyalty, and religious, moral and political fanaticism shield us from reality and destroy the better selves we could be.

We are surrounded by an unimaginably cold, dark and inhospitable cosmos. Here on this pale blue dot beneath the thin blue line of our atmosphere, we exist on a friendly island in the universe’s vastness. Yet we willfully destroy our planet so that we can have bigger cars, houses and shiny things, while others live in squalor and a thousand sophistries justify our selfishness. Meanwhile, the planet becomes uninhabitable and unending war continues.

All the while the good people sign their petitions, raise their children, pay their taxes, follow the law, volunteer, and try to be better people. For the most part, they are quiet; no one listens to them. Meanwhile Rush Limbaugh, Bill O’Reilly and Donald Trump pontificate to the masses. The worst of our species, horrific people, attract the most attention.

Can we say anything positive about all this? I don’t know. The world looks bleak and I’m not going to become a Scientologist or join the Tea Party. (The tea party is a political movement in the US.  Its members think it is a grass-roots movement that opposes government tyranny, but its funders are billionaires who want their own power unchecked by democratic government.) We must have hope, but the world tries to rip it away from you everyday. For now, Schopenhauer best expresses my sentiments: “If God made the world I could not be that God, for the misery of the world would break my heart.”

The Case for Soft Core Atheism

(This article was reprinted in Humanity+ Magazine, June 26, 2014)

I would like to summarize and comment on the May 15, 2014  New York Times interview of philosopher Philip Kitcher by the philosopher Gary Gutting on the topic of “The Case for Soft Atheism” It is closely connected with the issues in my previous post, “Modern Cosmology Versus Creation by God.” Here is an abridged version of the conversation.

G – You “take religious doctrines to have become incredible.” Why do you say that?

K – “The most basic reason for doubt about any of these ideas is that … nobody is prepared to accept all of them.” They are often contradictory and can’t all be true. Moreover if you had been brought up in a different culture you would probably have different beliefs, so how can you say that your views are the correct ones?

G – Perhaps it’s not doctrines but religious experiences that are important, and many of these experiences are similar across cultures.

K – Experiences, even if they are similar, are not independent of doctrines. Moreover so-called religious experiences are easily confused with all sorts of psychological experiences that have psychological or biological causes.

G – So you reject all religious doctrines but “resist the claim that religion is noxious rubbish to be buried as deeply, as thoroughly and as quickly as possible.” Why ?

K – I advocate a soft atheism which recognizes that religious doctrines are not literally true but that some religious practices and concern for social justice are worthwhile.

G – So you think that atheists like Dawkins only refute unsophisticated religious claims?

K – Yes. Religions based on promoting humanistic values reject a literal interpretation of many of their doctrines are immune from much atheistic criticism. And by not considering the stories and metaphors of other religions literally either, you don’t have to choose between them, since they all may have some values in common.

G – So you will tolerate this refined religion?

K – Yes but eventually I would like to religion morphing into, and being replaced by,  a kind of secular humanism. I don’t ignore religion, but I do want it to gradually disappear.

G – You don’t believe religious accounts of a deity but you don’t exactly say they are definitely false either. Why don’t you just say you’re an agnostic rather than an atheist?

K – Conflicting religious doctrines show that we can’t describe this supposed reality so we should “reject substantive religious doctrines, one and all, even the minimal ones …” I think theism is false, hence I call myself an “a-theist.”

G – But just because we can’t describe deities it doesn’t follow that they don’t exist. We can’t completely describe what a banana tastes like or what being in love is like but we don’t conclude that they don’t exist.

K – I think we know a lot about bananas and love. I reject theism rather because”I start from the idea that all sorts of human inquiries, including but not limited to the natural sciences, have given us a picture of the world, and that these inquiries don’t provide evidence for any transcendent aspect of the universe.” Of course our picture of reality is incomplete, but when people make fantastic claims about the existence and actions of ghostly beings without evidence, it isn’t dogmatic to reject such assertions.

G- What of religious experience?

K – There are adaquate scientific explanations them thus “referring such experiences to some special aspect of reality is gratuitous speculation.” These experiences testify to the religious ideas in a culture, not to any transcendent reality.

G -But there are respectable arguments for the existence of gods.

K – The arguments are all deeply problematic and at most are supplements to faith.

G – “I agree that no theistic arguments are compelling, but I don’t agree that they all are logically invalid or have obviously false premises.”

K – I believe that religion at its best should not defend dubious metaphysical doctrines but focuses on human problems. Let us then be inspired by the humanism in religion. “The atheism I favor is one in which literal talk about “God” or other supposed manifestations of the “transcendent” comes to be seen as a distraction from the important human problems — a form of language that quietly disappears.”

CommentaryKitcher’s position is reminiscent of Dewey’s view that religion must disappear but the religious attitude is worthwhile, an idea I first encountered more than 40 years ago. I’ll let Dewey speak for himself while silently nodding my agreement.

If I have said anything about religions and religion that seems harsh, I have said those things because of a firm belief that the claim on the part of religions to possess a monopoly of ideals and of the supernatural means by which alone, it is alleged, they can be furthered, stands in the way of the realization of distinctively religious values inherent in natural experience. For that reason, if for no other, I should be sorry if any were misled by the frequency with which I have employed the adjective “religious” to conceive of what I have said as a disguised apology for what have passed as religions. The opposition between religious values as I conceive them and religions is not to be abridged. Just because the release of these values is so important, their identification with the creeds and cults of religions must be dissolved.

As I have stated many times in this blog the replacement of religious superstition by scientific rationalism will benefit us and our descendants. In the end such considerations lead to the promulgation of secular humanism and eventually to transhumanism. Looking around the world today, a better future can’t get here fast enough.


Modern Cosmology Versus Creation by Gods

(This article was reprinted in Humanity+ Magazine, June 25, 2014)

I would like to briefly summarize and then comment on the June 15, 2014  New York Times interview of philosopher Tim Maudlin (M) by the philosopher Gary Gutting (G)entitled “Modern Cosmology Versus God’s Creation.” Here is an abridged version of that conversation.

G  – “Could you begin by noting aspects of recent scientific cosmology that are particularly relevant to theological questions?”

M – It depends on the theological account. Modern cosmology refutes the Biblical account of an earth at the center of creation–the universe is vast and we are not at its center.

G – Just because the universe is big and we aren’t at the center doesn’t mean we can’t have a spiritual relationship with our god. Besides, there may be other purposes for the universe or other creatures with relationships with our god.

M – Humans may or may not have an important role in the universe, or perhaps the universe doesn’t care about any beings. But accounts that make us the main purpose of the creation seem contrary to have the evidence.

G – Biblical literalism is inconsistent with cosmology but other versions of theism–like the belief that an intelligent being created the cosmos–are not refuted by modern cosmology.

M – Traditional theism doesn’t just say some being created the universe, but that it was created with us in mind. The evidence of the huge structure of the cosmos, with most of it irrelevant to life, our location in that universe and the eons of time necessary for evolution belie the claim that it was created for us.

G- Perhaps, but we don’t know what a creator wants. Maybe the creator made a huge universe for us to study. Also what do you think about fine tuning–the idea that the constants, parameters and laws of nature are seemingly perfect for life?

M – We don’t know what these constants are, or if they are even constant, so we can’t say much about them from a scientific point of view. But if a deity wants us to know of its existence there would be easier ways to let us know.

G – That assumes we know how deities behave. But I’ll admit that we might explain the constants scientifically.

M- Yes. For example if there are an infinite number of universes then life would probably evolve somewhere.

G – So we don’t know if fine-tuning for human life supports theism?

M – ” …  note how “humans” got put into that question! If there were any argument like this to be made, it would go through equally well for cockroaches. They, too, can only exist in certain physical conditions.” Imagine a deity who created the universe with us as an unintended byproduct of nature’s constants. This is as plausible a hypothesis for the constants of nature as the Biblical hypothesis that the cosmos was made for us.

G – What about the idea  we need a creator to explain the existence of the universe? And what about the view of some cosmologists, like Lawrence Krauss, that a quantum fluctuation could have produced something from nothing?

M – People want more than a creator as an explanation, they want to be significant in the creation. Also a nonmaterial cause must either be explained by something else–in which case its not the ultimate cause–or it explains itself–in which case we might as well say the cosmos is its own cause as a god is. And if the universe is infinite then it didn’t have a cause at all. As for Krauss, he thinks the quantum vacuum state is where causation ends but I don’t think we can answer these questions definitively.

G – So scientific cosmology doesn’t support theism, and it refutes the claim that we are the primary purpose of god’s creation. Still would you grant the minimal claim “that the universe was created by an intelligent being” as at least reasonable, or does science support atheism or agnosticism?M – “Atheism is the default position in any scientific inquiry, just as a-quarkism or a-neutrinoism was. That is, any entity has to earn its admission into a scientific account either via direct evidence for its existence or because it plays some fundamental explanatory role.” The main problem with a minimalist account is “that in trying to be as vague as possible about the nature and motivation of the deity, the hypothesis loses any explanatory force, and so cannot be admitted on scientific grounds. Of course, as the example of quarks and neutrinos shows, scientific accounts change in response to new data and new theory. The default position can be overcome.”

Commentary – The more specifically we define the gods, the less likely they are to be real on mere probabilistic grounds. The more vague we are about them, the less we say when we talk about them. If good scientific evidence for the gods appears, then we should give belief in them our provisional assent. Until such time we should not believe in them. Let me conclude by quoting my previous post.

Still people will find their gods hiding in the gaps of quantum or cosmological theories, or in dark matter or energy. If you are determined to believe something it is hard to change your mind. But defenders of the gods fight a rearguard action–scientific knowledge is relentless–and these hidden gods are nothing like the traditional ones. Those gods are dead.

And as science closes the gaps in our knowledge the gods will recede further and further into the recesses of infinite space and time until they vanish altogether, slowly blown away, not by cosmic winds, but by ever encroaching thought.

“The Logic and Beauty of Cosmological Natural Selection”

Messier 92 in the Hercules constellation.

I came across a wonderful piece in the June 10, 2014 issue of Scientific American, “The Logic and Beauty of Cosmological Natural Selection” by Lawrence Rifkin MD.  (He writes at or you follow him on Twitter@LSRifkin.)

Rifkin argues that “The hypothesis [of] cosmological natural selection, and its power, beauty and logic provide what may be the best scientific explanation for the existence of complexity and life in the universe.” CNS has been most extensively formulated by the physicist Lee Smolin in his 1992 book The Life of the Cosmos. Here is a basic description:

Throughout the universe, stars that collapse into black holes squeeze down to an unimaginably extreme density. Under those extreme conditions, as a result of quantum phenomenon, the black hole explodes in a big bang and expands into its own new baby universe, separate from the original. The point where time ends inside a black hole is where time begins in the big bang of a new universe. Smolin proposes that the extreme conditions inside a collapsed black hole result in small random variations of the fundamental physical forces and parameters in the baby universe. So each of the new baby universes has slightly different physical forces and parameters from its parent. This introduces variation.

Given these “inherited characteristics, universes with star-friendly parameters will produce more stars and reproduce at a greater rate than those universes with star-unfriendly parameters. So the parameters we see today are the way they are because, after accumulating bit by bit through generations of universes, the inherited parameters are good at producing stars and reproducing.” Of course the existence of stars are crucial because the molecular material contained in stars is a prerequisite of life.

One of the advantages of CNS is that it directly addresses the so-called “fine-tuning problem”–why the laws and parameters of nature are remarkably conducive to life. It answers that the laws of our universe “are the way they are because of non-random naturalistic cumulative inherited change through reproductive success over time.” CNS also explains the complexity and the apparent design of our universe without positing gods, analogous to how natural selection explains the complexity and apparent design of our biology.

Critics might argue that there is no evidence for CNS, but Rifkin points out that there is no direct evidence for other scientific alternatives that would explain the existence of our universe like quantum fluctuations, multiverses, cyclic universes, or brane cosmology. And CNS has the advantage of explaining the fine tuning problem better than the alternatives, which is why Rifkin thinks CNS will eventually be vindicated.

Furthermore CNS has profound implications for the question of life’s meaning. “In a world of branching universes conducive to life, ultimate cosmic doom may be avoided, keeping alive the possibility of eternity – not for us as individuals, or for Homo sapiens, but for the existence of life at large in the cosmos.” So the future of the cosmos is open, still to be determined–surely a more hopeful message that inevitable cosmic death. Yet this does not imply that we were meant to be here, that the universe cares about us, or that any teleology is at work–Rifkin definitely rejects any god of the gaps.

In the end CNS, like any scientific idea, stands or falls on the evidence. “If evidence proves any one of the cosmological alternatives—or an entirely new idea altogether—we will embrace reality, no matter where it leads, and be struck with awe at our ability to discover the grandest of cosmological truths and our place in the universe.”


I am unqualified to adjudicate between various cosmological theories but CNS is a robust theory that is consistent with perhaps the greatest idea of all time–the idea that everything, from the cell to the cosmos, evolves over time. Moreover CNS provides a straightforward solution to the fine-tuning problem. I have no doubt that there is a naturalistic solution to this problem–assuming we can even be sure the cosmos is fine tuned. (Some theorists suggest we don’t know enough to say for sure.) But if our universe is fine tuned, then naturalistic solutions will explain it. Scientific solutions will close this gap in our knowledge like they have previously closed so many others. This is after all one of the main reasons why so few philosophers are non-naturalists.Science works.

Still people will find their gods hiding in the gaps of quantum or cosmological theories, or in dark matter or energy. If you are determined to believe something it is hard to change your mind. But defenders of the gods fight a rearguard action–scientific knowledge is relentless–and these hidden gods are nothing like the traditional ones. Those gods are dead.

And as science closes the gaps in our knowledge the gods will recede further and further into the recesses of infinite space and time until they vanish altogether, slowly blown away, not by cosmic winds, but by ever encroaching thought.