The Eagle on my Couch
Fermi's Paradox revisited
by Matt Giwer, © 2009 [Aug 01]
If there be eagles why are none on my couch?
If you ever saw my couch there would be no mystery in the question. There is even less mystery if you know something about eagles, not only their fashion sense and good taste but also their living and hunting habits as well as their general behavior. Simply knowing they stay away from all humans not just myself answers the entire question.
Whatever Enrico Fermi really asked rhetorically it can be expressed something like this. "If there there are intelligent alien civilizations why are they not here?" Those who do not like the conceit of rhetorical questions which are predicated upon acceptance of the implied conclusion as meaningful may ask somewhat different questions.
But first that eagle which is not on my couch. The paradox implies not just a single alien race but a plethora of them. Does this not imply at least one of them would be here now? I note with gratitude there is no mouse on my couch. There is neither elephant nor snail nor moose nor salamander nor shark nor a python on my couch. In fact I can safely say it would require significant taxonomic research to compile an exhaustive list of all the species which are not on my couch. Can I safely conclude my couch is a lifeless place?
Does this tell me humans, dogs, cats and the occasional dead bird are the only animals on earth? Or does it tell me I should not assume to know anything about intelligent aliens?
I have a rhetorical question or two of my own. You ask why are they not here? I ask you why there are not here now. Although ancient astronauts and gods in their chariots were at one time endemic in the world the aliens like the gods withdrew for reasons of their own. Certainly a moment or two after WC Fields died he likely asked why he was not in Philadelphia now. Certainly the implication behind this paradox is that aliens must have a continuing and open presence on earth at all times in history. Should an eagle stray onto my couch for even a moment is it obliged to stay there for all time and depend upon me for essentials of food and love life? Eagles sincerely hope not.
As we are an intelligent species, even if only in our own estimation, cannot an alien Fermi on a far away planet equally ask why we are not on his planet? If they are not here is it not equally legitimate to ask why we are not there? The fact that if he knew us he would know why we are not implies nothing about our existence but may imply something about our intelligence.
Not knowing the answer to a question does not imply anything about what precedes the question. The fact there is no eagle on my couch implies nothing about the existence of eagles. Nor does a single question about the location of an eagle at a particular time imply the form of the answer can only relate to the existence of the eagle. Certainly the behavior of eagles in particular and all the absent species in general implies nothing about their existence. Nor does the absence of a cat on the couch at this particular time imply anything about the historical relationship between my cat and his couch.
The style of this question implies a Socratic approach. It implies not only that a question must have an answer but that the answer can be derived by thinking alone. While I enjoy thought problems as much as the next person I do not indulge in them to the exclusion of considering other approaches to finding an answer no matter how comfortable the place to sit and think.
Nor am I the kind to let the form of the statement of the problem strictly delimit the nature of the general subject. In this case the paradox is bounded by two permissible answers, they are physically present now or they do not exist. In this case, if the former cannot be demonstrated the latter must be true.
This formulation of a problem is of use in eliminating one or more possibilities from a much wider range of possibilities. It is commonly expressed in a possibly apocryphal statement by Thomas Edison in searching for a light bulb filament that a hundred failed experiments were of value because they eliminated a hundred things that do not work.
In the Edison case he did not know prior to the discovery of a practical filament that such a thing existed. Nor do we know if alien civilizations exist. The failure of the one method of directly observe them now does not preclude their existence any more than any single failed experiment of Edison's precluded the existence of a suitable material for a filament.
The paradox only eliminates the possibility that intelligent aliens can be confirmed by directly observing their physical presence. Fermi knew that before asking the question. So the purpose of the question was an attempt to answer a hugely complex issue with a simple yes/no experiment. This is something which could only appeal to a particle physicist.
In the meantime I will continue to support the SETI project, The SETI@home project as well as researching ways to make my couch more eagle friendly.
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