“Where is everybody?”
What is the Fermi paradox?
Here’s the short version: There should be intelligent life on other planets. But so far, we haven’t found credible evidence of any civilization other than the one here on Earth. Why not?
We now know that in our galaxy alone, there are over one hundred billion stars. We think that most of them have planets. We know that intelligent life is possible, because it exists on our planet. Even if only a small percentage of stars have habitable planets, intelligent life could have developed on millions of other planets in our galaxy. (The Drake Equation is one tool for making such estimates.)
Since most stars are billions of years older than our sun (which is about 4.5 billion years old), some of those intelligent beings would have had billions of years to develop technology far beyond what we earthlings have achieved since we first started on a technological path a few thousand years ago.
By now, there should be spaceships zipping all over the universe! Aliens should be exploring every corner of the galaxy, as portrayed in popular science fiction series such as Star Trek and Star Wars.
And yet, there is no scientifically sound evidence that alien civilizations have ever visited our planet, nor have we been able to detect any signals or other evidence for the existence of any intelligent beings elsewhere in the universe.
So where is everybody?
Many answers have been suggested to the thorny question raised by the Fermi paradox. Most conclude that intelligent life on other planets is very rare, and maybe even unique to Earth.
A common assumption in these answers is that other intelligent species would naturally follow the scientific and technological path that we humans on Earth have followed. Any cultures that didn’t develop advanced technology would be primitive, and far below our level of development.
Swedenborg had a different view.
Who is Swedenborg?
Emanuel Swedenborg (1688–1772) was an 18th century Swedish scientist, philosopher, and theologian. During his regular working career he was an Assessor on the Swedish Board of Mines. Mining was one of the most important industries in Sweden. Meanwhile, he researched and wrote hefty books on many scientific and technological subjects, such as metallurgy, chemistry, cosmology, and human anatomy.
However, after a spiritual awakening in his fifties, he spent the last three decades of his long life focused on spiritual subjects. He wrote extensive commentaries on the Bible. He presented a renewed version of Christian theology centered on a God of universal love and wisdom. He developed Jesus’ words about being born again in John 3:1–8 into a detailed teaching about “regeneration”—what we today would call personal spiritual growth.
His most popular book has always been Heaven and Hell, which has gone through hundreds of editions in dozens of languages since it was first published in 1758. In this book, Swedenborg offers a detailed description of the spiritual world and what happens to us after death. It is based, he said, on his own first-hand experience. According to Swedenborg, for the last twenty-seven years of his life he was able to be fully conscious in the spiritual world so that he could travel extensively there, visit angels and spirits in their communities and homes, and talk to them about their beliefs and their everyday life. In recent decades, thousands of people who have had near-death experiences have corroborated much of what Swedenborg wrote about the spiritual world three centuries ago.
A universe teeming with human life?
Having a curious and wide-ranging mind, Swedenborg also delved into more esoteric subjects that were of special interest to scientifically-minded people in his day—and that are still hot topics today. One of those subjects was extraterrestrial life.
If the Drake equation had existed three centuries ago, Swedenborg would have had the most optimistic possible solution to it. He believed that every star had planets, and every planet—and even every moon—had people on it (see Other Planets #3–4, 112).
He even said that during his travels in the other world, he met many beings who came from other planets, and were now living in the spiritual world. This included groups who, he said, came from all the then-known planets in our solar system—Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn—and from Earth’s moon. (We now know that he was mistaken about the other planets in our solar system being inhabited. More on that in a minute.) He also described meeting beings who came from five or six planets in other solar systems.
All of these beings from other planets, he said, were human. They had bodies very similar to ours, with only slight variations. He did know that Earth’s moon had no atmosphere, and he was uncertain just what sort of people could live on planetary bodies that have little or no atmosphere (see Spiritual Experiences #1670). But for the most part, he described the other planets as having everything we have on ours: mountains, hills, rivers, lakes, trees, animals, birds, fish, and so on, all under the warmth and light of a sun that was the star of their solar system.
In fact, Swedenborg’s universe was very similar to the Star Trek and Star Wars universes. In Swedenborg’s universe, if we had spaceships capable of interplanetary or interstellar travel, we could hop on over to any planet we cared to visit, whether it was orbiting our star or another star. If we landed on any planet that had a proper atmosphere, we could step out of our ship and breathe its air, stroll in its meadows and forests, eat its fruits and vegetables, and talk to its inhabitants.
Swedenborg, of course, did not have access to our current knowledge of astronomy and cosmology. Today’s powerful telescopes did not exist in his day, nor were the scientists of the 18th century able to send robots or even humans to other planets and moons. There was little or no information about what it was like on the surface of other planets.
Unfortunately for 21st century aficionados of science fiction, we now know that none of the other planets or moons in our solar system has humanoids walking around on its surface. The huge gas giants—Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune—probably don’t even have solid surfaces. And if they do, the atmospheric pressure there would be so intense that it would crush us into jellybeans. The surface of Venus is a blazing furnace hot enough to melt lead. The atmosphere of Mars is so thin (only 1% of Earth’s atmosphere) that it would be impossible to breathe there. Mercury, the Moon, and Pluto have no appreciable atmosphere at all.
Whatever may be hidden inside some of the planets and moons of our solar system, we now know that Earth is the only body in our solar system that has fields, forests, animals, and humans on its surface. And though we have discovered thousands of planets orbiting other stars, we also know that most of them could not host life on their surface.
In short, if life does exist elsewhere in the universe, it is nowhere near as abundant as Swedenborg thought it was. For more on Swedenborg’s interplanetary error, please see:
A low-tech universe?
However, in relation to the Fermi paradox, the interesting point about Swedenborg’s aliens is not how common they might be in the universe, but what type of intelligent life they might be.
Swedenborg’s aliens are intelligent and even human. But he also describes them as low-tech.
And yet, he saw most of them as being more, not less, advanced than humans on Earth.
You see, as much as Swedenborg loved science and technology, his view of what makes humans advanced was very different from today’s common secular and scientific view. For Swedenborg, it was not advanced knowledge of earthly science and technology that made a culture advanced, but advanced knowledge of God and spirit.
In fact, based on his experiences of speaking with spirits from other planets, whose spiritual knowledge was usually far beyond what we have on Earth, Swedenborg viewed Earth’s people as crude, materialistic, and ignorant of the most important aspects of human life.
In terms of technological advancement, none of the alien cultures Swedenborg encountered had progressed even as far as what we humans on Earth had thousands of years ago. They lived in very simple dwellings. If they wore clothing at all, it was hand-made from simple natural materials. Most of them were gentle vegetarians, though he mentions the inhabitants of one planet eating fish, and some of them had domesticated animals for their milk and wool. He also describes simple agriculture on other planets. (See Other Planets #93, 134, 144, 152, 162, 166, 176.)
The civilization on our planet is unique, Swedenborg says, in having such intellectual disciplines as astronomy, geometry, engineering, physics, chemistry, medicine, optics, and philosophy. The aliens he encountered had no science as we know it, and no advanced technology at all. People on other planets, he says, do not have such things as shipbuilding, metal casting, written language, or books and publishing. And yet according to Swedenborg, it is because the people of Earth have “a love for things physical and earthly” that we have all this science and technology, while the people of other planets do not. (See Other Planets #28, 81, 136, 155.)
Most people on other planets, Swedenborg says, have open communication with angels and spirits in the spiritual world. They do not need printed books, nor do they need shipping to carry those books and their information around the planet, because they have a direct and personal source for the most important information: knowledge about God and spirit.
After all, they know that they will live on their physical planet for only a few years, whereas they will live forever in the spiritual world. What sort of knowledge, then, is most important for people to cultivate? The aliens Swedenborg encountered were far more interested in talking about spiritual subjects than about magnificent mansions and other marvels of earthly technology. As for books, they joked about how on our planet, books know more than people do.
Swedenborg’s solution to the Fermi paradox
Why haven’t we been visited by aliens? Why haven’t we detected any radio signals from civilizations on other planets?
The common view today is that we haven’t detected any alien civilizations because intelligent life is exceedingly rare in the universe. If there is any intelligent life out there, it must be primitive and brutish, or else so far away that its signals and spaceships cannot reach us.
Not so, says Swedenborg. The universe is teeming with intelligent, human life. But most of the cultures on other planets are so much more spiritually advanced than humans on Earth that they would consider it a waste of their time and energy to develop material-world science and technology of the sort that we earthlings love.
Further, because they are not driven by the materialistic desire for wealth and power that is so common on our planet, they do not have kingdoms and nations, armies and weapons, war and conflict. They live simply and at peace with one another, each in their own extended families and clans. If any of their people do engage in selfishness and hostility, the others exile them to distant and deserted places in order to maintain the peace and harmony of the community.
Maybe Swedenborg is right, maybe he’s wrong. Certainly he was wrong about how common intelligent life is in the universe.
And yet, the picture he presents of how alien cultures live is entirely consistent with everything we have discovered so far. It neatly solves the Fermi paradox without resorting to the depressing notion that we are quite lonely, and perhaps all alone in the universe.
Based on what we know from our best current science, there should be millions of habitable planets in our galaxy, and many trillions in the universe as a whole. Many of these habitable planets would have had billions of years for technologically advanced civilizations to develop and thrive on them, and to spread from there throughout the known universe. And yet, we haven’t seen or heard from any other civilizations.
Perhaps that’s not because intelligent life is rare.
Perhaps it’s not because we humans on Earth are all alone in this vast cosmos.
Perhaps it’s because most intelligent life in the universe is far more advanced than we are when it comes to the things that really matter: our relationship with God, our relationships with our fellow human beings, and our preparation here in the material world for living to eternity in our true home in heaven.
For further reading:
- Spirit: The Final Frontier
- Aliens vs. Advent: Swedenborg’s 1758 Book on Extraterrestrial Life
- The Breakthrough Starshot Initiative & the Spiritual Aspirations of Atheists and Agnostics
- On Pluto, Atoms, and Other Things (such as Heaven) that Just Keep Getting More Complex
- Are We Headed for an AI Apocalypse?
- Wavicles of Love