This post is about how one physicist’s casual question over a lunch table may be the first faint note of the last trump, for those who have ears to hear.
The casual question is “where are they?” Enrico Fermi was the physicist. He was talking about aliens. What occurred to him was that there are an unimaginably huge number of stars out there. They have been around for an unimaginably huge time. Any civilization that ever existed out there at all, if it spreads at all, no matter how slowly, should long ago have expanded to fill the whole galaxy and beyond. Instead, there’s just us.
This very puzzling contrast between the age and size of the universe, the undeniable possibility of intelligent life in it (because here we are), and the noticeable absence of other intelligent life, is called Fermi’s Paradox.
There have been a number of solutions proposed, some of them pretty silly. The non-silly explanations tend to pick different steps somewhere on the development path from the beginning of life to the spread of intelligent life throughout the galaxy, and suggest that its incredibly unlikely for something to get past that point. You could argue, for instance, that life arising at all anywhere is extremely unlikely, so that the initial Earth evolutionary event some billions of years ago was probably literally a miracle. Or you could argue that becoming a spacefaring civilization–getting off the planet into the solar system–is just too hard technically and economically. Or you could argue that as we become more technically advanced we’ll spend our days eating lotuses in incredibly realistic and satisfying virtual reality simulations and that it would be incredibly difficult for sufficient people to have the moral character to resist to sustain an expanding civilization.
Nick Bostrom calls that incredibly unlikely step the Great Filter.
He points out that the further down the path that step is, the more likely it is that we have some big catastrophe ahead of us. If the mere existence of life at all is the Great Filter, then we’ve already passed through it and the universe is our oyster. But if intelligent life is common, whatever it is that prevents intelligent life from expanding around the universe is something that probably still have to happen for us. His argument is quite interesting and worth your while.
God has created peopled worlds without number. We don’t know if they are in this universe or not, though the scriptures read as if they are. If they are, that makes Fermi’s Paradox acute. We would have to assume that the Almighty either deliberately squashed any people that was in danger of communicating with other peopled worlds, or we would have to assume that there are intrinsic factors that prevent a rising civilization from rising too far. As with the various cyclical theories of human progress that we mentioned recently, the notion would be that everything we do to draw us upward also creates balancing factors that draws us back down. In Book of Mormon terms, you might say that the more prosperous a group becomes, the more wicked they become, and the harder they fall.
The gospel as preached in nearly every age has prophesied a final collapse in which the world will end. Whatever the timing of that event, I see no way of spiritualizing it. The end of days and the second coming of Christ in wrath is not a lovely metaphor for individual death and for the eventual end of each individual human institution or culture, though it is also that. The scriptural teaching is meant to be taken as real.
That being so, it is unlikely that the end is arbitrary. God doesn’t get bored and move on to new toys. It’s possible that the end comes when it does for liturgical and dramatic reasons. By analogy, think of a concert hall where a symphony is being played. The music stops not because of an external necessity, such as the lights being cut off. Nor does it stop when the orchestra gets tired playing. It stops when the symphony is finished. It’s possible that there are poetic and metaphorical meanings behind the different dispensations of mankind and the end comes when it does because that is when the beauty and internal logic of the creation drama demands it.
But I judge that to be unlikely. The scriptures teach pretty uniformly that the end comes when wickedness has risen to such a pitch that the end has to come. All the scriptural models we have suggest the same, like Sodom and Gomorrah for example, or the Nephite civilization before the appearance of the resurrected Christ.
If the literal Second Coming and end of the world happens because we decay so far that it has to, then the only question is whether moral decay is inevitable once civilization reaches a certain level of “progress,” or whether that decay is something that inevitably sets in once something contingent has happened. Human nature and probability being what it is, you would expect the contingency to happen eventually, but in theory and even in practice it could be postponed indefinitely.
I am a space settlement enthusiast. I want the Saints to sing psalms under Alpha Centauri, and beyond.
But the scriptures offer a frighteningly realistic possibility that the numerous worlds God has made are in this universe and this galaxy without the possibility of impinging on each other before their ends comes, because a certain level of development makes a wickedness singularity inevitable, and then the end comes quickly.
Scripture offers us the image of an angel flying in the heavens announcing the coming of the end. But it may actually be the absence of beings and the silence of the heavens that is the sign of the times.
- Gregory (Scotland Yard detective): “Is there any other point to which you would wish to draw my attention?”
- Holmes: “To the curious incident of the dog in the night-time.”
- Gregory: “The dog did nothing in the night-time.”
- Holmes: “That was the curious incident.”