508 BCE

The Great Filter

A planet alone.

Two possibilities exist: either we are alone in the Universe or we are not. Both are equally terrifying.

― Arthur C. Clarke

We – as a civilization – have yet to see evidence of intelligent life outside of our home planet. One attempt at explaining this is called The Great Filter.

The theory says that given the vastness of space – the unimaginable number of planets and stars – there must be some big obstacle, a filter, that prevents intelligent life from evolving to spacefaring galactic civilization. Because, if there wasn’t, we should have seen some proof of life beyond our planet by now.

Maybe the human species has successfully bypassed this filter. Perhaps the filter was being born into a habitable planet (maybe most planets are simply not made of the right materials). The filter could be the challenge of evolving from single-cell life forms to multi-cellular life. It could be the advent of sexual reproduction. Maybe one of these things is really hard and really important.

If we’ve already passed the filter, this isn’t so scary for us. The alternative is terrifying: the filter might be in our future. That would mean that our civilization has an uphill battle somewhere ahead of it. And we may not know it’s coming.

What could this be? Perhaps the obstacle is establishing a multi-planet civilization. Perhaps it’s really hard organize and collaborate across the vastness of a solar system. Perhaps rogue gamma bursts wipe out swaths of life in a single go – and happen often enough that life is unlikely to make it beyond the planetary stage. Perhaps faster-than-light travel does not exist, making intergalactic travel realistically unfeasible.

This is a disheartening thought.

I think it’s easier to argue that the filter is ahead of us and not behind us. We, as a species, are complex. And we evolve. But our evolution is slow and our technology evolves faster than us. We will never escape this planet without our technological advances.

My belief is that we’ll get to the point where our technology is so complex that no one member of our species could possibly hope to understand the massive amounts of state encoded in our machines or our political structure. At our current state – how many people know how to build a cell phone? It’s only a minuscule percentage of our population. Now imagine the same question asked for a interplanetary spaceship.

Our brains, and our ability to conceptualize the state of the world around us would have to grow leaps-and-bounds in order to make a multi-planet civilization work.

(To be continued)