I have been reflecting of late about the “Great Filter” – which is a subject most lawyers do not contemplate on Sunday afternoons, particularly if you are approaching your sixty-ninth birthday in the company (and familial distraction) of a six-year-old daughter. For the uninitiated, the Great Filter is a theory proposed as to why scientists at SETI and elsewhere have never heard a sound or any evidence of intelligent life beyond the Earth. Not a bleep, pop, or bop.
This is made all the more incomprehensible since it has been advanced by scientists and astronomers that at least 1/3 of all stars feature solar systems just like our own and with planets located in what has been termed “the Goldilocks’ Zone”, to wit – that special distance from the neighborhood star that is not too cold or hot and is “just right” for life to evolve. And, of course, become intelligent with sufficient time. By even the most conservative calculations, there should be trillions of ET’s out there broadcasting their unique version of “I Love Lucy”, although replete with tentacles and multiple eyes or antennae.
Seriously, with the likelihood of a myriad of civilizations which must have developed sophisticated communication – even radio – we should have heard something out there already.
And yet – not a bleep, pop, or bop. Why?
I will posit that it has a relatively simple explanation that has to do with what I call “temporal blindness”, which is an alternative spin on the prevailing view.
The Great Filter which expounds on Fermi’s Paradox (Enrico Fermi – 1901 – 1954) postulates that any high-tech society likely discovered Einstein famous equation and unleashed the proverbial “Nuclear Genie in the Bottle”. It only takes a small amount of hydrogen – certainly less than a soda bottle – to generate a nuclear explosion thousands of times greater than the archaic atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki which vaporized entire populations in seconds.
The Great Filter simply states that any society which has the ability to send out radio signals and then more complex wireless communications will soon annihilate itself with slightly more complex killing machines. Cosmic suicide is thus the analogue of the Great Filter.
And so, on this most pleasant of early April afternoons, I am contemplating the validity of this explanation for what seems to be universal and cosmic silence. The Great Filter is, indeed, a great mystery, and a daunting puzzle.
By way of background, I very much enjoy puzzles, but of the cosmic variety notwithstanding my legal training. It’s a bit of an anathema.
I enjoy putting exceedingly complex puzzles together and reaching out for the atypical explanation which has eluded contemporary thought (as recently explored in my book, Parenthetically Thinking – Intelligent Life Outside the Margins (2022 – Moster Law Firm, P.C.).
Admittedly, I am horrible at actual two-dimensional puzzles which I find boring and anxiety provoking. That said, I thoroughly enjoy more challenging and thought-provoking puzzles in three or – dare I say – four dimensions.
Not only is the Fourth Dimension a gateway to time, but I will argue – the antidote for the Great Filter – or at least – its central postulate that the most compelling principles of nature – are invisible to us.
Invisibility is brilliantly illustrated by my favorite all time science fiction story – The Time Machine, written by the late, great, and exceedingly prophetic author – H.G. Wells, and first published in 1895. The only thing unoriginal about this amazingly unique tale is the name of the central character and hero who is generically referred to as “The Time Traveler”. Thereafter it is literally “mind bending”.
The Time Traveler seeks to recount the basics of the first three dimensions, length, width, and breadth to his steadfast friends and colleagues sitting comfortably in his Victorian library elegantly paneled and appointed. It is New Year’s Eve – 1899, and its final moments are passing with the tick-tock of clocks everywhere – and of every size, dimension, and sound.
Unbeknownst to the Time Traveler, at least for now, and his guests, the line of demarcation between Centuries will herald forth an era of indescribable death, destruction, and misery for the world. Of course, none of this is visible in the ornate sitting room of our Time Traveler – and, of course, that is the point.
The Time Machine recounts that although the fourth dimension – time – exists, it cannot be seen because “our consciousness moves along it.”
To illustrate his point and physics, the Time Traveler unveils a glittering crystalline and metallic model of his time machine. A fresh cigar is slightly bent and placed into the saddle of what appears to be a cross between an Elizabethan sleigh and an amusement park carousel. A slight touch at first creates no effect at all and renewed skepticism – until it disappears in a flash and gust of wind.
The Time Traveler explains that although the device has seemingly vanished, it is still in the same position and location but occupying a different time as it rockets into the new century – passed the great World Wars, explosion of the first atomic bomb, and on to the Cold War, chaotic 60’s, collapse of the Soviet Union, brief respite of international conflict and potential for peace – and then 9.11 – terrorism – pandemic – and a new potential “Hot War” with a reconstituted Russia. And forward in time from where I am today – sitting at my computer – typing away on a pleasant Sunday in Galveston, Texas at 4 PM – 4.16.23.
I think I saw it for a second as the candle on my desk flickered. It might have been my imagination. The point of this long narrative is that H.G. Wells and the physicists shortly after the publication of the Time Machine got it right. The Fourth Dimension and time travel are about the invisible.
Albert Einstein (1879 – 1955), added the requisite equations formally establishing the scientific proof that our fabled Time Traveler was right all along. (Interestingly and contrary to popular belief, Einstein never received the Nobel Prize for his Theory of Relativity which irretrievably altered the Newtonian notion of time. Rampant antisemitism at the time infiltrated the Nobel nominating committee which refused to offer Einstein the recognition he deserved. Years later as a result of a compromise with a few supporters, he did receive a Nobel Prize, but for a lesser discovery – the photovoltaic effect).
BTW – the reach of antisemitism extended out to the rise of Hitler and his malignant Nazi regime which disclaimed Relativity and particularly its central tenet that mass can be converted to energy – as “Jewish Physics”. This was good for anyone reading this essay as we would likely not be around to comprehend anything with the exception of a swastika and Nazi salute.
Given the lethal effects of Einstein’s brilliant work as effectuated by the Manhattan Project and advent of nuclear weapons, we have all forgotten the central theme of the great writers and physicists of the late 20th Century and as amplified by Einstein himself, to wit: Our sense of reality which is based on but three dimensions is not only limited – but illusory. Our perception exists on the thin slip of a massive iceberg with a plethora of dimensions unseen and below – starting with the Fourth Dimension.
We are physically and psychically “blind” – as we live but one second at a time moving ever forward in time. We have no idea what literally lies just around the corner. I refer to this as temporal blindness.
As an example, I was traveling home a few months ago from a trial and stopped to get a cup of coffee on my way back from West Texas to Galveston – about a nine-hour ride. When I was approaching the exit to the highway, a pickup truck suddenly appeared in the wrong direction. Although not known for my reflexes and dexterity, I hit the brakes and swerved into the other lane then onto the grass. I should have been killed but for some reason was spared.
Four minutes before my likely departure from the Earth, I paid for a mediocre cup of coffee, and set off for a late night arrival at home. As I turned on to the access road, I thought for a moment about my blessed and sweet 6-year-old daughter and how much I missed her. That was almost my last thought.
Death by some maniac in the wrong lane, drunk or tired, or just stupid – almost ended my life and speculations like this essay. It was out there in the fourth dimension and invisible to me although only four minutes in the future. Like all of us, I was temporally blind. My perception was limited to three dimensions and my memories.
Now, imagine for a moment that we could actually perceive the fourth dimension in the same way we experience the prior three. As an example, looking at my home on stilts about three tiers back from the Gulf of Mexico, I might see how it will look in ten years and then twenty and beyond. I would assume that the wood structure would start to rot and eventually collapse. More likely, it would be purchased by a developer along with the other homes and turned into a massive hotel.
Turning my view to the ocean expanse about a ½ mile from my balcony, the Gulf would eventually creep up towards our development as a result of global warming. We currently live on a thin strip which creates a narrow land bridge between Galveston Bay and the ocean. My fourth dimensional perspective would unveil the submerging of this entire area along with the rest of Galveston Island as once again the ocean reigns supreme.
All said, and critically – I would see that pickup truck coming and wait four minutes before leaving the convenience store.
Perhaps the best encapsulation for the existence and power of the unseen is a brilliant essay entitled “Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions” by Edwin Abbott Abbott in 1884. The premise is that the inhabitants of “Flatland” live in a world where only two dimensions exist – length and width. Although they happily dwell in this “flat” world, they cannot comprehend the existence of the third dimensions – breadth. This creates not only a huge deficit in their perception but inability to perceive anything that humans would easily observe in our world of three dimensions. For example, a simple ball would be observable only as a circle and a cube – a square blinking in and out of existence. The ability to observe the simple act of a ball being thrown would be limited or even impossible.
This amazing thought experiment makes clear the prevailing view of Wells and the physicists at the dawn of the 20th Century, that our perceived reality is mostly invisible. We are simply put, the three dimensional equivalents of the inhabitants of Flatland – and nothing more.
As we traverse the early 21st century, we are gleaning the existence and possible ability to observe the unseen dimensions including dark matter, dark energy, and even possible multi-universes or the multiverse as it is popularly known. Critically, the observations and predictions of quantum mechanics have evidenced an Alice in Wonderland world where particles can wink in and out of existence and cross the distance of the universe without traversing the distance in between.
I have further postulated that the roll out of the first Biocomputers which consist of trillions of electrified and laboratory neurons will literally allow us to peer into the unseen dimensions and finally find a cure for what I have termed temporal blindness.
And so, my answer to the Great Filter is that it cannot be pierced given our primitive perception as personified by temporal blindness. Our SETI researchers are seeking communication from other analogous “Flatland Civilizations” emitting detectable waves in three dimensions. Although we might stumble on such primitive communications, I would bet the farm and Firm that undetectable communications by multi-dimensional perceiving civilizations likely proliferate given the billions of years of cosmic and planetary evolution.
Consequently, the reason why have not heard from ET has nothing to do with a cosmic filter resulting from nuclear suicide of other civilizations. Likely, most have passed our primitive stage of development and moved on to traversing a multitude of communications which are entirely unknown and unseen by our species. The paucity or seeming non-existence of ET’s has to do with a search for analogous “Flatland Communications” which likely have a probability of detection near zero.
My sense is that we are bombarded by a plethora of ET communications made undetectable by our temporal blindness. The question is where to look?
An advanced ET civilization would likely be communicating in more complex ways than simply replicating radio or wireless broadcasts. The late, brilliant, and kind astrophysicist – Carl Sagan – had a great idea in his book Contact which was turned into a major motion picture starring Jody Foster. The ET message was encapsulated within the seemingly random numbers of pi. There was a communication waiting to be found with sufficient time and attention directed in the most unexpected place. Others are probably lurking in real life.
I would also predict that these cosmic messages might be discovered within the context of quantum entanglement wherein information is transferred between subatomic particles faster than the speed of light. We are just beginning to understand this quantum mechanical process and how to unleash the underlying technology. Given the ability to allow for communications in excess of light speed, it seems to be a great candidate for verifying the existence of ET civilizations.
In my own book, So Far – released in 2022, I discussed the fascinating discovery of the smallest unit of time – the zeptosecond which a trillionth billionth of a second or the equivalent of one day to 35,000 years! Imagine the expanse of 35,000 years ago to now when the Earth was in the midst of an Ice Age.
Is it possible that some sort of ET intelligence dwells within the temporal span between a zeptosecond and this very moment? We would not be able to detect this given our organic predilection for everything macro or large.
I would anticipate that in the coming decades with the advent of biocomputers and the concomitant advances in physics, we will suddenly discover that we were never alone at all.
And finally, we will be able to truly see.