Don Sensing writes about Fermi’s Paradox:
The universe is many billions of years old. Fermi calculated that an alien species smart enough to become spacefarers could reach any point in the galaxy in five million years. But we we have no scientific evidence that aliens beings have been here…So, Fermi asked, where is everybody?
Standard answers to the Paradox involve emphasizing the vast distances involved, and the fact that “as far as our galaxy is concerned, we are living somewhere in the sticks, far removed from the metropolitan area of the galactic center,” as Edward Teller put it. Another theory is that species which are sufficiently intelligent to achieve interstellar travel have a tendency to blow themselves up long before they reach anywhere in our vicinity. But another possible explanation is suggested by Geoffrey Miller:
I suggest a different, even darker solution to the Paradox. Basically, I think the aliens don’t blow themselves up; they just get addicted to computer games. They forget to send radio signals or colonize space because they’re too busy with runaway consumerism and virtual-reality narcissism. They don’t need Sentinels to enslave them in a Matrix; they do it to themselves, just as we are doing today. Once they turn inwards to chase their shiny pennies of pleasure, they lose the cosmic plot. They become like a self-stimulating rat, pressing a bar to deliver electricity to its brain’s ventral tegmental area, which stimulates its nucleus accumbens to release dopamine, which feels…ever so good.
Reading the above, I was reminded of an old science-fiction story…I couldn’t remember the name or the author, but, amazingly, I was able to locate it online. The story is called “Ambition,” and it was written by William Bade in 1952. The idea is that a scientist working on space travel finds that he has somehow been brought by time-travel to an era hundreds of years in the future. He is thrilled, because he assumes that the people of the future will have developed space travel to a high degree, and that he will actually be able to fulfill his dream of journeying to the planets. “Somewhere, out there in the night, there must be men who had walked beside the Martian canals and pierced the shining cloud mantle of Venus…Surely, a civilization that had developed time travel could reach the stars!”
And he finds that the future civilization indeed has created vehicles that would easily be capable of such exploration…but they are used only as super-airliners. Nobody has any interest in traveling into space, indeed, they can’t imagine why anyone would want to do such a thing. A sympathetic woman explains to the protagonist that “this is the Age of Man. We are terribly interested in what can be done with people. Our scientists…are studying human rather than nuclear reactions.” There appears to be no thirst for adventure in a form likely to be recognized by a 20th-century man. (Indeed, it seems that the reason the future people chose the protagonist as a research subject is that they found his interest in going to the moon and beyond to be so bizarre as to be worthy of psychological investigation.) The story’s subtitle is:
To the men of the future, the scientific goals of today were as incomprehensible as the ancient quest for the Holy Grail!
So…when a society reaches a certain level of wealth and sophistication, does the desire for adventure tend to die out? I’m reminded of a passage from another SF story, this one by Heinlein, in which a Martian is asked why he and other members of his species just sit around all day, “growing together,” as they called it, never actually doing anything. The Martian’s reply is: “My fathers have labored, and I am weary.”
Is there psychological truth in this remark? Are many modern-day Americans and Europeans “weary” because of the heavy lifting done by their forefathers in creating civilization? To what degree has the desire for adventure and achievement been replaced by first, low-risk faux adventure (play a videogame rather than start a business, for example), and second, obsessively narcissistic self-focus?…and, to the extent this has actually happened, is it an inevitable consequence of a certain stage of social evolution?…or is it rather a consequence of certain current reversible social factors? (For example, there are apparently a considerable number of young men focused on viewing porn and playing videogames rather than going out with actual women and pursuing real-world careers and/or advenures. To what extent does this phenomenon reflect a lack of courage and initiative versus to what degree does it reflect a social and economic environment that has damaged the relationship between the sexes and, in many cases, blocked the career ladder?)
In my 2005 post Skipping Science Class, I commented on the UK’s then-new GCSE science curriculum, to be studied by all pupils from 14 to 16, which was to no longer have much actual science in it…
Instead of learning science, pupils will “learn about the way science and scientists work within society”. They will “develop their ability to relate their understanding of science to their own and others’ decisions about lifestyles”, the QCA said. They will be taught to consider how and why decisions about science and technology are made, including those that raise ethical issues, and about the “social, economic and environmental effects of such decisions”.
They will learn to “question scientific information or ideas” and be taught that “uncertainties in scientific knowledge and ideas change over time”, and “there are some questions that science cannot answer, and some that science cannot address”. Science content of the curriculum will be kept “lite”. Under “energy and electricity”, pupils will be taught that “energy transfers can be measured and their efficiency calculated, which is important in considering the economic costs and environmental effects of energy use”. (The above is from John Clare’s article in the Telegraph.)
Melanie Phillips said: “The reason given for the change to the science curriculum is to make science ‘relevant to the 21st century’. This is in accordance with the government’s doctrine of ‘personalised learning’, which means that everything that is taught must be ‘relevant’ to the individual child.” The assumption seems to be that no child would likely be interested in anything much beyond his day-to-day life.
In A Preface to Paradise Lost, C S Lewis contrasts the characters of Adam and Satan, as developed in Milton’s work:
Adam talks about God, the Forbidden tree, sleep, the difference between beast and man, his plans for the morrow, the stars and the angels. He discusses dreams and clouds, the sun, the moon, and the planets, the winds and the birds. He relates his own creation and celebrates the beauty and majesty of Eve…Adam, though locally confined to a small park on a small planet, has interests that embrace ‘all the choir of heaven and all the furniture of earth.’ Satan has been in the heaven of Heavens and in the abyss of Hell, and surveyed all that lies between them, and in that whole immensity has found only one thing that interests Satan.. And that “one thing” is, of course, Satan himself…his position and the wrongs he believes have been done to him. “Satan’s monomaniac concern with himself and his supposed rights and wrongs is a necessity of the Satanic predicament…”
One need not believe in a literal Satan, or for that matter be religious at all, to see the force of this. There is indeed something Satanic about a person who has no interests other than themselves.
I suspect that “educators” who think only in terms of narrow “relevance” are often projecting their own limited vision and interests onto the children for whom their programs are targeted.
But is there something much darker going on in our societies? Have we reached a level at which the desire for adventure, whether physical, financial, or intellectual, has necessarily become less common?
Have our fathers’ labors made us weary?