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Does a "Great Filter" Exist? (Or, Why We've Never Discovered Signs of Alien Life)

2001_8_3 The Great Filter is the idea that there is some single, almost insurmountably improbable barrier on the path to the stars that explains why we've never seen any sign of alien life.  It combines aspects of astronomy, biology and history to arrive at one inescapable conclusion: university professors dream of book deals.

Robin Hanson of George Mason University posits a "Great Filter" that prevents the rise of intelligent, self-aware, technologically advanced, space-colonizing civilizations. The "filter" would be one or more improbable steps along the path that starts with the creation of a planet and ends with a race capable of colonizing the galaxy.

Somewhere between those two points, philosopher Nick Bostrom points out, "the Great Filter operates, and it must be powerful enough that even with all the billions of possible starting worlds on which life might evolve - all those rolls of the cosmic dice - one ends up with nothing: no aliens, no spacecraft, no signals, at least not in our neck of the woods."

The very existence of life makes finding a four-leafed clover with winning lottery tickets for leaves look like a sure thing.  Add the staggering improbability of our evolution from single cells and you end up with odds so vast they've driven the invention of everything from the Drake equation to an invisible sky-beard who seems unnecessarily preoccupied with what we do one day out of every seven.  People who study this subject file all that under "Shit we already knew", and were too busy actually working on the science to come up with a garbage buzzword phrase that would look really awesome in bold type on the cover of a hardback book (available now for $29.99!)  Luckily Robin Hanson was ready to do that for them.

There isn't actually a book yet, but the Great Filter "theory" is so clearly designed to be publisher-ready you can almost see the page numbering.  It talks in grand terms about a vast threat facing humanity, and if it never seems to have any idea what that threat actually is, was or will be then who cares?  Most of the 'evidence' is based on the scarcity of life in the cosmos in general and how that describes threats to Earth specifically, otherwise known as "Fundamental misunderstanding of statistics #1".  He goes on to talk around this ethereal menace and all the effects it could have on THE SURVIVAL OF EARTH, combining lots of different fields in compelling pop-science friendly chapters without ever coming up with an actual result.

Not that we're claiming that Professor Hanson doesn't understand all this; just that he's made a tactical decision not to care.  His real intentions are further revealed by the way he throws around "possibility of world-destroying physics experiments" (we're assuming he'll scribble "I'M TALKING ABOUT THE LARGE HADRON COLLIDER" on autographed copies).  This is a great buzzword for catching media attention and popular sales, at the tiny price of sacrificing even the pretense of scientific validity.  Everyone who's even heard of the basic physics of the LHC knows these cataclysm quotes are garbage.

Bostrom, director of the awesomely titled Future of Humanity Institute at Oxford University, claims that the Great Filter poses an "Existential Risk".  That's a perfect choice of words because he thinks it means a threat to our very existence, when it's really a made-up Nietzschean problem for people who should be delighted but are determined to be miserable anyway.  He confirms this assessment by telling us we should take any discovery of alien life as terrible news, as that would put this mysteriously unspecified Filtering Boogeyman in our future instead of the past.

Listen: if we discover life on Mars and you can honestly call that a bad thing, then it's not just that you aren't a scientist.  We're not even sure you could be described as human.

Posted by Luke McKinney.

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Source LinkS

Nick Bostrom on the Great Filter

Please Give Me A Book Deal (aka The Great Filter Page)

Comments

Condescension? Check. Hyperbole? Check. Religion bashing? Check. Refusal seriously to consider concepts at odds with worldview? Check.

Definitely a Galaxy Classic . . .

For anyone interested in moving beyond the glib, Bostrom's interesting hypothesis is being earnestly discussed in more serious spaces.

"It combines aspects of astrology, biology and history"
Please, oh please, tell me that astrology is a typo for astronomy...

its books like this that not only scare already ignorant people away from the sciences, but take up shelf space on the one shelf of science books at the bookstore.(as opposed to the entire damned section on astrology and phoney witchcraft for teenage girls)

ummm.. been done 20+ years ago

The Crystal Spheres
David Brin.
First published: Analog, January 1984.

Winner of 1985 Hugo Award in short story category.

Luke has it right. Even the best of scientists are often innumeric (numerically illiterate). The Great Filter is that species and civilizations come and go in a blink. That vast distances keep the effects of those species and civilizations local. And that billions of stars in billions of galaxies give us astronomically small probabilities of catching the glimpse we want through some alignment of impossibly small chances. Sure, maybe for every 100 billion human-like civilizations that last long enough to arrive where we are, there might be two that are local to each other enough in space to make a connection. But that's not us. The numbers don't work and if you think a sentient species will have a longer existence than a non-sentient species, you would be letting your irrational reasoning get the best of you.

Agree or disagree with the position, you can't argue that someone who writes with the maturity of a pissed-off 14 year old needs Comp 102. Viva teh interwebs!

regarding your last thought:
you might not be human, but you might be dancer

who's to say civilizations so far ahead of us can't travel faster than you know is possible.

I would also suggest that Luke should actually read Nietzsche before he dismisses his philosophy as wrong-headed pessimism.

This article is trash. Stop contaminating the internet with garbage please! Thanks

Where is discussed in more serious spaces?

@Neil ALL articles on this crappy site are garbage, they never present ANYTHING even remotely original.

I think this site must be ran by middle-schoolers personally.

First, There are plenty of other possible 'world-ending' physics experiments without having to get into particle accelerators.

Second, we don't even know what's outside of our own heliosphere. It might take more time than a civilization can exist to learn how to escape it, let alone survive outside of it.

But kal-El made it here! LoL.

Could it be there's more to life than meets the eye, or science's eye? The Great Filter may be as simple a thing as the filter between the material and spiritual dimensions. Robin Hanson may be on to something without knowing it. There are those who claim we have yet to understand the relationship between time and matter. But as long as we're focused on the material, we'll never learn to see beyond it. Ironically, Jesus talked about that, though his words are not generally understood by mainstream Christianity. "For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also."

I want these two minutes of my life back. Terrible article.

Oh for f*cks sake! "as simple as the filter between material and spiritual dimensions" Lets try to keep this discussion in the boundaries of reality ok? go over to your new age crystal boards if you want to talk about "Spiritual DIMENSIONS" (lol do you even know what that word means? outside of star-trek?) or other some such delusions.

P.S yeah this article is garbage, the idea of some kind if barrier preventing ascension into a space faring species is actually quite plausible. For instance what if light speed actually IS unbreakable?


Oh for f*cks sake! "as simple as the filter between material and spiritual dimensions" Lets try to keep this discussion in the boundaries of reality ok? go over to your new age crystal boards if you want to talk about "Spiritual DIMENSIONS" (lol do you even know what that word means? outside of star-trek?) or other some such delusions.

P.S yeah this article is garbage, the idea of some kind if barrier preventing ascension into a space faring species is actually quite plausible. For instance what if light speed actually IS unbreakable?


Oh for f*cks sake! "as simple as the filter between material and spiritual dimensions" Lets try to keep this discussion in the boundaries of reality ok? go over to your new age crystal boards if you want to talk about "Spiritual DIMENSIONS" (lol do you even know what that word means? outside of star-trek?) or other some such delusions.

P.S yeah this article is garbage, the idea of some kind if barrier preventing ascension into a space faring species is actually quite plausible. For instance what if light speed actually IS unbreakable?


Filters ???? Who is filtering the reality ???
The article does Not clearly address the bad guy.
Covert filtering ???

We are at the caves age term of stars 'contacts'....may be in 40-50Y some will know more about nearby star contacts and possible trips.

Intelligent lifes are NOT within this system aroung a small yellow G star...except for some of us Human beings....we are NOT YET clever at looking much further...YET.

The rest is pure fantasy...from whoever wrote these craps.....about 'MAGIC FILTERS'....

Really the article did NOT had a great success in many readers...may be becouse the FILTER idea is crap.

Regards : NOT to the 'magic Filter'

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