Fermi’s Paradox. Neither Fermi’s nor a Paradox

Gray (2015) is about discussing why the Fermi paradox is ill-named. The author firmly believes that the term is not only misleading in an attributive sense, but also in its conviction value. This paper falls squarely into the “explaining/dissolving/sharpening the Fermi Paradox” category.

As cited by Gray, the Fermi Paradox is described as “If technologically advanced civilizations have inhabited our Galaxy for timescales of approximately a billion years, and if some of these have engaged in interstellar travel and colonization, then why have we not seen physical evidence of their visits?” by Paul Horowitz.

The main points that he pulls out are that the doubtful ETI argument laid out in the “Fermi Paradox” actually originates in early papers by Michael Hart and Frank Tipler, and is only loosely connected to Enrico Fermi by an out of context quote from a dinner party. Apparently, he said, “Where is everybody?”, but, instead of doubting the existence of ETI, he meant that he thought the difficulty of interstellar travel was the reason for not seeing extraterrestrials. Ergo, use of Fermi’s name and reputation lends false credence to the arguments.

In response to the “paradox part of the phrase”, Gray states that the “Fermi Paradox” presents a fact (i.e. we haven’t found physical evidence of being visited by ETI) as evidence for the conclusion that advanced ETI doesn’t exist. This is not a paradox, just a leading question. One that has many possible solutions that aren’t the obvious one (there isn’t any ETI). That conclusion relies on several assumptions itself that may or may not be true (e.g. “interstellar travel is feasible, the Galaxy would be filled quickly” etc.).

The whole purpose of writing a paper about this is to help disentangle SETI from its murky public reputation. It seeks to strengthen the justification for SETI by weakening the power of a phrase (and set of ideas) commonly wielded against SETI supporters. I don’t think this type of paper would be very important in fields with steadier support. It “is important, because the Hart-Tipler argument (proposed renaming of the Fermi Paradox ideas) was cited as a reason for killing NASA’s SETI program on one occasion in the U.S. Congress, and under the guise of Fermi’s name and the claim of a logical paradox, it may continue to inhibit funding and research in that area of astrobiology.” The last sentence of the conclusion puts it all out in the open.

Along with Garber (1999), this paper shows the political climate surrounding SETI funding, which is not that optimistic (circa early 2000’s).