Are We Alone in the Universe and Are We Insignificant?

Max Tegmark is an MIT Physics professor that speaks both the language of scientists and the language of futurists. Those two camps are certainly overlapping but there is a very distinct (Joe Rogan podcast listening public) who is deep in the futurist camp without much grounding in the basic principles of physics, chemistry, biology, or generally the scientific method. So you have to be careful when considering the discussions on the topic of life elsewhere in the universe, lest you drift into wishful, or worse, irrational speculation.

That said, I find Tegmark’s view on intelligent extraterrestrial life interesting, if for no reason than because it goes against the mainstream speculation of the scientific community that there almost certainly does exist intelligent life elsewhere in the universe. The Drake equation is commonly used by scientists, philosophers, and hallucinogenic drug enthusiasts as a way to arrive at this conclusion.

Tegmark argues the contrary view that there very well could be a roadblock that has to be overcome in order for intelligent life to arise. By “roadblock” he means that the set of events, in sum, that lead to the emergence of intelligence could have an exceptionally low probability, so low in fact that our puzzle solving capabilities may be unique in the universe. He grounds this idea in that we have no good understanding of neither how life nor consciousness emerged on Earth. We think we understand some of the fundamental chemical characteristics of both, but don’t have a good grasp on the probability of something coming from nothing.

All this boils down to his view (if he “had to bet money on it”) that:

  • We are alone in the universe.
  • We are exceptional and thus not insignificant.

Of course, this is all, as I said before, wild speculation. When I hear ideas such as this, I grow suspicious. It sounds to me too much like the ancient belief that the sun revolves around the Earth. We wish desperately to be special, to be important in the seemingly infinite space and time of our universe’s existence. Most religions are built on this very wish. So when a man looks up 1026 meters to the edge of the observable universe, and has the mad guts to say he would bet money on the fact that we are alone, I sit back shaking my head, but am secretly in awe of the possibility that I indeed as unique as my mom always tells me.

0 thoughts on “Are We Alone in the Universe and Are We Insignificant?

  1. Peter Kinnon

    Until we have direct evidence of “intelligent” (silly word!) life elsewhere the question remains essentially unanswerable.

    The Drake equation is of no help because of unknown input values. The IT guys’ acronym GIGO (garbage in – garbage out) applies.

    Like yourself, though, my gut feeling is that imaginative life not only exists in this universe but abundant. And there is a heuristic case to be made which lends at least some indirect support to the speculation.

    This is provided by the broad evolutionary model proposed (very informally) in
    “The Goldilocks Effect: What Has Serendipity Ever Done For Us?” , a free download in e-book formats from the “Unusual Perspectives” website.

    Chapter 17 of my first book “Unusual Perspectives: An Escape From Tunnel Vision” (also a free download) provides a possible solution to the Fermi paradox in term of a version of “cosmic censorship” as an extrapolation of that model.

    1. Lex Post author

      I like the term “imaginative life” you used. It’s a very elegant way to step back from the counterproductive term of “intelligent life”. Thanks again for commenting Peter, I’m a fan of your work.

      1. Peter Kinnon

        Its good to see some of the seeds I have been sowing over the years have found fertile soil, Lex.

        Actually there is at last of groundswell of folk who are managing to escape the traditional anthropocentric mindsets and are becoming aware of the the fact that we are merely tiny cogs in nature’s vast evolutionary machinery.

        Arthur Schopenhauer famously remarked ” All truth passes through three stages. First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as being self- evident.”
        We seem to be on the brink of the third stage!

        By the way, I seldom use the term “imaginative” in this context as it has some quite different connotations in everyday usage. I instead try to use the neologism “imaginatory” to avoid confusion but slipped up here.

        Anyway, the important thing, as you say, is to step back from the vague and silly word “intelligence” and its derivatives.


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