21 December 2012

I will not be celebrating Filter Day

Overcoming Bias | Robin Hanson | Today Is Filter Day

So today, let me remind us all of one key somber and neglected fact: the universe looks very dead. Yes, there might be pockets of life hiding in small corners, but for billions of years billions of galaxies full of vast resources have been left almost entirely untouched and unused. While we seem only centuries away making a great visible use of our solar system, and a million years from doing the same to our galaxy, any life out there seems unable, uninterested, or afraid to do the same. What dark fact do they know that we do not?

Yes, it is possible that the extremely difficultly was life’s origin, or some early step, so that, other than here on Earth, all life in the universe is stuck before this early extremely hard step.
Hanson leaves out one entire end of the probability distribution. Perhaps these civilizations are uninterested not because they've learned a dark fact, but because they've learned a glorious fact?

Hanson is skipping right from "they haven't" to "they can't (because of catastrophe)." What if they aren't "stuck," but instead they don't need to alter entire galaxies to suit themselves? Perhaps they have created VR so good they don't need to leave home. Perhaps they've sublimed. Perhaps Bostrom is right, and there are plenty of advanced civilizations, but they're exogenous to our simulation. To be truly fanciful, perhaps we live in the Slow Zone.

There's another, less profound (and more likely) possibility. As Hanson says, the universe does look dead. Strike that. The parts of the universe which we can see look dead. But the observable universe is what, 100 billion light years across? Life arose on Earth 3.5 billion years ago. That means that if a large scale civilization arose at any time between now and the first single-celled organism on Earth we could only know about it if they were located in the 0.0043% of the observable universe closest to us. The rest of the universe could be teeming with Kardashev I+ civs and we couldn't possibly know unless they were older than bacteria.

PS I will note that just in my lifetime, both f_p and n_e in the Drake equation have been radically revised upward. In a couple of decades the estimate for life on other plantes has gone from "no way, there aren't even many other planets out there" to "hey look, exoplanets!" to "hey, lots of exoplanets!" to "yawn, more exoplanets" to "ah! rocky exoplanets" to "rocky exoplanets in the habitable zone" to "rocky planets in the habitable zone with moons."

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