Fermi Paradox: the antinatalist hypothesis

The Fermi paradox, informally postulated by celebrated physicist Enrico Fermi, deals with the contradiction between the (supposedly) high probability of intelligent life existing on other planets and the total lack of evidence for the existence of intelligent life elsewhere. During a casual conversation with other scientists Fermi supposedly said that the odds were great that intelligent extraterrestrial lifeforms capable of interstellar travel did exist. But then he became frustrated with the lack of evidence and, according to some, asked “Where are they?”

Space Jockey, H.R. Giger

There are several solutions to the paradox. Life might not exist outside of planet Earth. Maybe there is life, even animal life, but they are not intelligent. There is also the chance of intelligent life existing, but like us they are not capable of traversing the absurd distances necessary to explore solar systems close by, not to mention distant solar systems.

Other hypothesis are even crazier. One of them is that they're already here, and that a great chunk of UFO sightings are really alien spaceships, and not just pure invention or confusion on the part of witnesses. I love this idea, even though I know that, in the end, it's just fantasy. Some have proposed the possibility that the ETs have made a zoo out of our planet: a place where they observe us without us noticing their presence.  

One idea that is incredibly popular in this discussion is that there exists a great filter stopping almost all — if not all — intelligent species from colonizing other planets and solar systems: self-destruction. It seems like a realistic concept, because when we watch the only species that we know of that is capable of producing knowledge, science and advance technology — us —, we see that it is highly hostile towards other life forms and towards itself. Humanity has a nuclear arsenal capable of destroying all civilization and maybe even the entire species itself. It may very well be that intelligent aliens that arrive at a certain technological stage equivalent to ours end up destroying itself by atomic warfare. 

But there is another possibility, that of antinatalism. Antinatalism is the philosophical position that attributes negative value to birth. It should be clear that this position is easily derived from philosophical pessimism, and although antinatalists aren't necessarily pessimists, a great number of pessimists were or are antinatalists. Even those who weren't explicit antinatalists had at least a strong tendency to support the position. 

The hypothesis of antinatalism applied to the Fermi paradox is fascinating, at least in my view. If we were able to prove it (though I know it never will be proven), it would at least partially serve as validation to cosmic pessimism. The idea goes something like this: any intelligent enough species comprehends the reality that all life is an incessant search for satiation, and that the moving force of life are its negative aspects. The lack of something is what moves all living beings.

When an animal is hungry, it eats, it becomes satisfied, but after a while it needs to eat again. Also, there's boredom, the desire to fulfill sensual needs. But after we satiate all of these desires, they return. It is an eternal cycle of consumption in order to satiate needs and desires, until the day the organism starts to fail and dies of old age, or is devoured by other organisms.  

If that were the only problem with life maybe existence wouldn't be so bad, although I sustain that the mechanism of hunger — which is the main force of nature — is equivalent to a cruel joke made by a non-existing god. But that is not the only problem. We also fumble around in search of a higher meaning that isn't there, so we create our own local and fleeting meaning. The negative aspect (hunger, needs, boredom) that moves all living beings is just the background. This background makes itself known to us through the hellish mechanisms of physical pain and psychological terror. Hunger, boredom and unfulfilled desires hurt and torment us. We can't fully escape those things because they are interwoven in the fabric of reality. Everywhere we look, and anywhere we go, they are there, lurking in the shadowy background. 

The antinatalist solution to the Fermi paradox says that any intelligent enough species is able to perceive that the mechanism of eternal needs, consumption and procreation isn't worth all the pain and suffering. ETs, if they ever existed, simply chose to leave existence in a peaceful manner, denying nature's program, choosing not to reproduce.

However, since the only intelligent species we know can't get rid of the addictions and vices provided by life and its perpetuation, the perspective that aliens would chose their own end through non-reproduction seems unlikely to me. If they exist, ETs are probably as addicted to life as we are, no matter how miserably life is.

By Fernando Olszewski

(This post was first published February 12th, 2017, @ Exilado Metafísico)

(Revised in 2022)