The Fermi Paradox is the observation that, while calculations of the number of likely planets in the galaxy (or universe) that can support life suggests that there might be millions or billions of them — recent news stories, e.g. CNN, increase the number, if anything — nevertheless, no SETI signals have been detected. So, where are they?
A post a few days ago by Sean Carroll about the recent estimates of billions of potential habitable planets suggests a reason: the Enlightentment/Boredom Hypothesis (EBH).
The EBH is basically the idea that life is kind of like tic-tac-toe. It’s fun for a while, but eventually you figure it out, and after that it gets kind of boring. Or, in slightly more exalted terms, intelligent beings learn to overcome the petty drives of the material world, and come to an understanding that all that strife and striving was to no particular purpose. We are imbued by evolution with a desire to survive and continue the species, but perhaps a sufficiently advanced civilization overcomes all that. Maybe they perfect life, figure out everything worth figuring out, and simply stop.
I’m not saying the EBH is likely, but I think it’s on the table as a respectable possibility. The Solar System is over four billion years old, but humans reached behavioral modernity only a few tens of thousands of years ago, and figured out how to do science only a few hundred years ago. Realistically, there’s no way we can possibly predict what humanity will evolve into over the next few hundreds of thousands or millions of years. Maybe the swashbuckling, galaxy-conquering impulse is something that intelligent species rapidly outgrow or grow tired of. It’s an empirical question — we should keep looking, not be discouraged by speculative musings for which there’s little evidence. While we’re still in swashbuckling mode, there’s no reason we shouldn’t enjoy it a little.
As always, the scale of history and of humanity’s tiny presence in this history is my point of interest.