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The Tantalus Paradox: A Possible Reason We Haven’t Met Aliens

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My 13-year-old son and I recently went to the excellent 20th Annual Earth and Space Exploration Day at Arizona State University. Later, we were chatting over dinner, talking about space, and we kind of hit on an interesting possible explanation for why we very curious and industrious earthlings haven’t met any aliens yet. So let me develop our thinking here … we’re calling it the Tantalus Paradox.

First of all, it’s related to the Fermi Paradox. Originating with Enrico Fermi, the basic idea is that given the probabilities of life and technological development in the universe, it stands to reason that the universe should be teeming with civilizations. Yet, as Fermi is reputed to have quipped, “Where is everybody?”

Of course, we get answers like everything’s really far apart in the universe, life is pretty rare in the universe, and so on. Yet, we are finding new planets every day, new galaxies every day, and the odds are greater every day that there has to be intelligent life out there somewhere. And still where is everybody?

So my son and I came up with what we’re calling the Tantalus Paradox, after the character in Greek fable named Tantalus. Tantalus cooked and served one of his children and was sentenced by the gods to be trapped in water he couldn’t drink and with food dangling always just beyond his reach.

The Tantalus Paradox is intended to add a possible companion explanation for the Fermi Paradox and to stimulate thought. Here it is in rough argument form:

  1. The evolution of a technologically advanced civilization, no matter how alien or exotic, anywhere in the universe, requires at least two essential things: 1) the pressure of competition (first between species and later within the dominant species) which stimulates intelligence and problem-solving; and 2) abundant and available local resources (first on the home planet and later the home system, as a civilization evolves from Kardashev I to Kardashev II). The confluence of these two things is rare, but not impossible.
  2. The transition from a local system civilization to an interstellar civilization (Kardashev II to Kardashev III transition) requires a tremendous amount of within-species collaboration and lots and lots of available local resources.
  3. By the time any given civilization reaches the Kardashev II (K2 for short) stage, intense internal competition has become ingrained in the civilization, making large-scale collaboration difficult if not impossible, and local resources have been over-exploited. These two assets, competition and resources, are what got the civilization to this K2 point, but these things won’t get them to K3. We can call the transition from a Kardashev II civilization to a Kardashev III civilization the “K2-K3 chasm,” and it’s a huge leap that will be technically tough to cross anyway.
  4. Because evolution is what it is, any civilization anywhere in the universe, no matter how alien and exotic, will likely reach the K2-K3 chasm after having exhausted the means to cross it. Not only that, but destructive competition and resource exploitation will likely have brought about a crisis point that must be addressed—the survival of the species in question will require new approaches.
  5. Therefore, the vast majority if not all civilizations in the universe hit the K2-K3 chasm and either perish from resource over-exploitation or find some cooperative, resource-light way to persist, stuck in K2. Either way, interstellar travel, which may be possible in the abstract, is no longer possible in reality because the very evolutionary principles and availability of local resources that put it within a civilization’s grasp now prevent it from being attainable. Like Tantalus, civilizations are competitive, eat their futures, get stuck, and thus can’t reach the K3 bounty that would fuel further evolution and expansion.

So simply put, the paradox is that intense competition evolves intelligent civilizations but it also results in over-exploitation of resources, leaving civilizations stuck in their own systems, staring at the stars. That’s the idea in a nutshell. Not sure if it’s already out there. Of course, it assumes the non-existence of X-files–style conspiracies, secret space programs and other stuff like that. If we think about our own future, the cooperation and resource usage requirements kind of make sense, and a suggestion here is that solving for collaboration and smart resource usage may be essential, but they’re going to be tough challenges anywhere, not just here on Earth.

Anyway, I welcome any further thoughts on this Paradox.


Author: Eric Kingsbury

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