As I said before, my guess is that sentience is overrated. That was going to be the expanded-upon point of my whole post, until I had another thought. But let’s retrace my clumsy trajectory:
I was thinking, in the shower, about the likelihood of a so-called intelligent group of entities encountering another like itself, intelligence-wise. But then what’s “intelligence”, anyway? I mean, at a species level. I figured that when it comes down to it, it is probably the extent to which we are able to transmute (excuse the alchemical lingo) the material nature of our environment. We’ve turned mere stardust into skyscrapers and smartphones and rubber balls and fluffy teddybears for kids to play with. We’ve turned biological matter into everything from chocolate chip cookies to colourful textiles. Perhaps the extent and diversity of such material transformation/transmutaion is some kind of phenotypic marker for so-called higher intelligences. This is roughly along the lines of Kardashev-type ratings of civilizations anyway: it’s all about how much of the intergalactic flotsam you can ultimately co-opt into doing your bidding.
Prognosis : bad
But what if this transmutative activity boils down to intrusive/disruptive behaviour? You know, like hijacking the universe? What if the universe was an organism that preferred to be composed of stardust, planets, meteors, black holes and things of that ilk, and nothing else thank you very much. I mean, in much the same way that our bodies prefer to be comprised of only certain types of healthy tissues, and not others. We sentient / intelligent lifeforms might amount to a cancerous growth that the universe-as-organism might actually be rigged to prevent from spreading. Never mind that such a universal immune response would appear hopelessly indistinguishable from a given intelligent species’ own ability to self-destruct; the point is that from this new perspective, annihilation of this kind would achieve something useful, not just merely unfortunate (from the routed species’ viewpoint).
I know what you’re thinking: we’re here. We haven’t been done away with. Yet. But so what? What if the universe also had a modicum of tolerance for intelligences such as us, so that we could prevail in numbers below a certain (planet-bound? Galaxy-bound?) threshold, but so that we could not proliferate further? It would certainly reduce the chances of different collectives of intelligences encountering each other.
<begin silly micro-scale non-thoughts>
Come to think of it: How often does an invading organism encounter its like, within our own bodies, I wonder? When a cancer spreads in one tissue, if it could think symbolically might it not wonder where all the other cancers are, given the appearance of tons of tissue all around just waiting to go into hyperdrive? Ditto with viruses and harmful bacteria? Sure, you might invade a host by yourself or as part of a miniscule horde and unpack your brilliant little pieces of takeover machinery. But unless the host has succumbed to something like AIDS, the chances of another small army nearby and intelligibly *JUST LIKE YOUR OWN* are perhaps small? Point being that the host dislikes being seriously hijacked but lives and lets live with smaller hacks?
<end silly micro-scale non-thoughts>
So I started wondering how that might play into Fermi’s Paradox. If the universe is part of an evolving multiverse with antecedents that it may have actually inherited a few useful traits from, then it stands to good reason that transmutative entities like us would either be strongly favoured (pseudo-symbiosis) or strongly inhibited (i.e when transmutation is disruptive). You gotta admit, things look disturbingly like the latter… space-faring aliens haven’t come a-knocking, after all… and in fact there don’t seem to be any, anywhere. It’s almost as if advanced intelligences are being throttled. Never mind that they might be destroying themselves: could it be that they might destroy the universe itself, were they able to proliferate unchecked?
Hmmm.. what a dreary conclusion…
Prognosis : good
Here’s a far more cheery outlook! Perhaps we’re not “space invaders” in some universal organism… but rather useful little organisms. Maybe be even more than useful. Critical, the way nuclear matter is to a eukaryotic cell. The fact of there being no evidence of other sentient/intelligent beings off-planet might itself be the giant clue to this. We might matter more than has become fashionable to admit.
Let’s stretch an already bad analogy till it snaps in our faces, shall we? Some components of things we’ve seen fit to categorize as “living” or “biological” are pretty few in number too. After all, certain functions / niches just need to be performed / filled once. A few times at best. If we are exploiting a core niche in this universe, or performing some core function, perhaps we/it just isn’t needed severally. Take a look at the “universe” known as the human body. (What? I said stretch till it snaps). Sure we have bizillions of neurons, but we have only one brain. Most cells have one nucleus. We have one mouth. One anus. One belly button. One heart. 2 lungs, 2 hands and two feet, max. 2 eyes. I’m not gonna lie – I’ve no idea where I’m going with any of this preposterously selective counting activity, but I just noticed that there are certain things there’s only a few of, that’s all. And they’re not all that trivial.
The ‘one / few’ pattern kind of falls in line with the Rare Earth Hypothesis, central to which is the idea that complex life forms simply aren’t common. I’m thinking this sort of rarity, however much loneliness it might induce, is perhaps closer to the truth of what the universe is “trying to achieve” with what appears to be one (or at best a few?) instances of “us”. Perhaps we’re the only ones out here because no others are needed out here. Perhaps we can single-handedly, or in tandem with a few other intelligences that we are yet to meet unfurl the master plan. Or keep it on track. Or maybe just up its chances of success.
Well, so I guess that’s 2 more variations on existing Fermi-paradoxical themes – one pessimistic, and one optimistic (wow, I actually wrote something positive about H. saps… I even implicated them in a grandiose if unprovable universal theme of sufficient beauty. See? I can has nice thingz to say about peeplz. Enjoy it while it lasts)…