Unintentional Irony in 'Great Filter' Piece

Monday, August 30, 2021

A short post at Big Think speculates on why we haven't found any evidence of other intelligent life in the universe, ending as follows:

Image by Jacek, via Unsplash, license.
These possibilities assume that the Great Filter is behind us -- that humanity is a lucky species that overcame a hurdle almost all other life fails to pass. This might not be the case, however; life might evolve to our level all the time but get wiped out by some unknowable catastrophe. Discovering nuclear power is a likely event for any advanced society, but it also has the potential to destroy such a society. Utilizing a planet's resources to build an advanced civilization also destroys the planet: the current process of climate change serves as an example. Or, it could be something entirely unknown, a major threat that we can't see and won't see until it's too late. [bold added]
For most who read the article, the specter of humanity destroying its home will indeed seem like a good example of this Great Filter at work. Leave it in the ground! Now! they might even exclaim.

But what if the opposite is true?

Those who fear a climate change apocalypse would have us "leave it in the ground" sooner rather than later, often failing to consider (or outright wishing away) the problem of how we would survive without cheap, plentiful, and reliable energy. For example, many if not most anti-fossil fuel activists also oppose nuclear power, which is the only energy technology remotely close to being ready to replace fossil fuels as an energy source.

But it's worse than that: There is bad thinking behind climate change catastrophism, and that's what is leading our headlong rush into outlawing the energy sources we currently need to survive.

Energy advocate Alex Epstein wrote about this back in early 2016:
Those who believe in the ideal of human nonimpact tend to endow nature with godlike status, as an entity that nurtures us if only we will live in harmony with the other species and not demand so much for ourselves.

But nature gives us very few directly usable machine energy resources. Resources are not taken from nature, but created from nature. What applies to the raw materials of coal, oil and gas also applies to every raw material in nature -- they are all potential resources, with unlimited potential to be rendered valuable by the human mind.

Ultimately, a resource is just matter and energy transformed via human ingenuity to meet human needs. Well, the planet we live on is 100% matter and energy, 100% potential resource for energy and anything else we would want. To say we've only scratched the surface is to significantly understate how little of this planet's potential we've unlocked. We already know that we have enough of a combination of fossil fuels and nuclear power to last thousands and thousands of years, and by then, hopefully, we'll have fusion (a potential, far superior form of nuclear power) or even some hyper-efficient form of solar power.

The amount of raw matter and energy on this planet is so incomprehensibly vast that it is nonsensical to speculate about running out of it. Telling us that there is only so much matter and energy to create resources from is like telling us that there is only so much galaxy to visit for the first time. True, but irrelevant. [bold added]
So much for the old, tired idea of resource depletion.

As for climate change, Epstein argues elsewhere, chiefly in The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels that the ill effects of climate change are wildly exaggerated and some beneficial effects are ignored altogether -- along with many compelling arguments in favor of continuing and increasing fossil fuel use, at least for the immediate future.

So, returning to the idea of an intelligent species succumbing to an as yet unseen threat: It might behoove any global warming catastrophist who cherishes his own life -- and who isn't hoping, as David Graber does, "for the right virus to come along" -- to consider the following idea: Might global warming alarmism be wrong? And might implementing the policies allegedly required to save the world in fact be a "great filter?"

Might our intelligent species be on the verge of snuffing itself out by acting precipitously to prevent what another author might rightly call a "fake invisible catastrophe?"

-- CAV


Dinwar said...

One thing that has always struck me about the climate change debate is that the AGW side is clearly operating on the basis of the Divine Right of Stagnation. Viewed objectively climate change will cause some areas to be better suited for human life (areas that are now tundra), while others to be worse (low-lying coastal cities). That's how things work in general. If there's a major economic shift--say, the rise of a new communications technology--some areas become more preferred (Silicon Valley) and others less (the Rust Belt). The same was true with the rise of new crops, or shifts in trade routes, or....well, literally anything else humans have done.

From a geologic perspective climate change is inevitable. It's going to happen. We're either going to exit this current interglacial and go back to a glacial period, or we're going to leave the ice age and stop having glacial/interglacial cycles. Either way is a change. An interglacial is an inherently unstable and, again from a geologic perspective, short-lived condition. All we can do is prepare for it. Like anything else, those in a position to profit by it are going to come out ahead, those not in such a position are going to lose money. That's not catastrophe, that's life.

The idea that this has anything to do with the entirely speculative "Great Filter" is absurd. It's entirely possible that the galaxy is teaming with intelligent life, we just don't know how to look for them. We've been looking for a handful of decades, and only seriously examining the issue for about a third of that time (if you can call what we're doing serious examination). To put this into perspective, a few decades after medicine became a scientific discipline they were still operating on the theory of humors. Geology was just starting to get into the Catastrophist/Uniformitarian debate. Astronomy was still figuring out how to build telescopes and mapping stars to find their influence on life on Earth. No scientific discipline achieved its goals in its first few decades; most underwent a period of what appears to be insanity, as they didn't have enough data to really hone in on true theories. With SETI and the like this trend holds true. We are looking for Earth-like life, not life as such. We are constantly looking for planets with liquid water, for example--despite the fact that our own solar system (Titan) shows evidence (certainly not proof, but reasonably strong evidence) of life. Titan has liquid methane, not water. The idea that we'll find intelligent life when we 1) don't know what we're looking for, 2) don't really know how to look for it yet, and 3) are unnecessarily limiting our searches means that any answer to "Why haven't we found intelligent life?" is premature.

It gets worse. The scientific community requires such an absurd degree of evidence before accepting that something is life that nothing short of an alien walking up and saying "Take me to your leader" is accepted. We have found stromatolites on Mars--or at least, we have found geologic features that would unquestionably be considered stromatolites if they were on Earth. Yet the scientific community refuses to accept these as fossils because....well, as far as I can tell there might possibly be some as-yet unknown process that might possibly make these features. It's no different than Aquinas' argument for God--I can imagine it, therefore we must treat it as true. THAT is what passes for scientific criticism in this discussion. This isn't just me saying this, and this isn't a crackpot stance; this was all discussed in peer-reviewed literature. (I will admit I take an unusually harsh view here, but I think it's deserved.)

Also, FYI, Google appears to have removed your blog from their search results, at least for me.

Gus Van Horn said...


You make some worthy points above, although I don't have a problem with a discussion such as with the idea of a "great filter." There are many things that have to go well for intelligent life to occur. That said, I am inclined to believe there is likely to be other intelligent life out there.

Thanks for the heads-up regarding the possible de-listing. I can't find the blog by searching for its name on the Tor browser, although results from the blog pop up when I use my normal browsers.