Swedenborg’s Solution to the Fermi Paradox

Aliens“Where is everybody?”

That is the question physicist Enrico Fermi asked several of his fellow physicists over lunch one summer day in 1950. And that’s how the Fermi paradox got its name.

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 #34, 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:

Aliens vs. Advent: Swedenborg’s 1758 Book on Extraterrestrial Life

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:

About

Lee Woofenden is an ordained minister, writer, editor, translator, and teacher. He enjoys taking spiritual insights from the Bible and the writings of Emanuel Swedenborg and putting them into plain English as guides for everyday life.

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12 comments on “Swedenborg’s Solution to the Fermi Paradox
  1. John Ridgway says:

    Billy Graham suggested intelligent life on other planets in the Universe.

    • Lee says:

      Hi John,

      It’s a fairly common idea, both in Swedenborg’s day and today. However, most evangelical Christians reject the idea that there could be intelligent life on other planets because they believe salvation is possible only through conscious faith in Jesus, which would not be possible for people on other planets. Billy Graham was a bit unusual in that regard.

  2. K says:

    I think it’s still possible that there could be technological aliens out there, but they’re incredibly rare. Even on Earth, people have only been technological for about 200 or so years, and agrarian for about 10,000, out of the 100,000+ years they’ve been here.

    Like one can say cats have hair – even though there’s the odd one out that’s bare – one can say there’s no technological aliens out there. Even if they’re out there, but very rare.

    But Swedenborg could be literally right, and _only_ Earth ever developed civilization like it has. The rest of the universe may not need it to be spiritually advanced, like you say.

    • Lee says:

      Hi K,

      Swedenborg’s conception of the universe was considerably larger than the prior Judaeo-Christian conception of the universe, which was basically about the size of earth’s orbit around the sun in idea. However, he did not know just how vast it was. He probably thought of it as something like the size of our galaxy. He seems to have had some awareness of other galaxies, but probably didn’t know that they were full of stars just like ours. He probably thought of them as some sort of clouds out there in space.

      Given just how vast we now know the universe is, it does strain credulity to think that we are literally the only technological civilization in existence in the entire universe. Perhaps, as you suggest, they are simply very rare. Maybe there is on average only one in each galaxy, or one in every thousand galaxies. Put that together with the length of time any civilization would exist with high technology, and the distances between technological civilizations may just be too great for us to have any likelihood of detecting them. Or it will take technology far beyond what we have now to detect them.

      If faster-than-light (FTL) travel ever becomes possible, then we might be able to start visiting other galaxies and seeing if we find any technological civilizations. Or maybe there is one on the other side of our galaxy, and it just hasn’t made it here yet. But I suspect that FTL travel is not possible. Otherwise, given that there could already be civilizations that are millions or even billions of years old, it would seem that we would have already been visited by aliens from elsewhere in our galaxy or from another galaxy. But there just isn’t any credible evidence for that. And I do not believe that aliens would travel the vast distances to earth only to play cat-and-mouse games with us. If they visited us, everyone would know it, and see it with their own eyes.

      If FTL travel is not possible, then technological civilizations would probably be limited to traveling within their own galaxies. And if there is only one technological civilization per galaxy, or one per thousand galaxies, then it’s unlikely that one of them would ever be able to visit or communicate with another one.

      As of now, there are just too many unknowns for us to draw any definite conclusions. But I am certain that SETI will continue to move forward and develop. Perhaps in our lifetime we will get some answers. Or perhaps it won’t be for several more centuries. Who knows?

      Meanwhile, Swedenborg’s solution to the Fermi Paradox gives us some reason to believe that there may indeed be many inhabited planets in our galaxy and in our universe, even if we have not been able to detect any so far.

  3. Rami says:

    Hi Lee,

    You and I once briefly discussed this idea once before, but I wanted to again bring up the possibility that there is at least some version of the Great Filter hypothesis- the idea that all civilizations inevitably reach a technological singularity where they eventually destroy themselves- that satisfies the Fermi Paradox. But rather than the standard model where these civilizations obliterate themselves into non-existence, might it be possible that they reach a point of *material* technological development where they implode upon themselves and are forced to revert to a simpler, spiritual existence? And perhaps, many eons later, redeveloping a ‘spiritually organic’ technology that’s consistent with what you’ve described before?

    This would make sense for materially minded civilizations like our own, as our conception and development of technology is purely material from the ground up. It seems that to follow along this material trajectory might ultimately lead to a reality where it explodes right back in our faces, blowing us back to the Stone Age and forcing us to start from the beginning, only with a renewed sense of spiritual values that will guide our rebuilding process. So not so much a great filter, but more of a great reset.

    Because Swedenborg’s characterization of alien relationships with technology resonates with me, but it doesn’t necessarily follow that this was their way of life from the beginning. It’s entirely possible that alien worlds far older than ours also lost their spiritual mindfulness at some point in their histories and began to think more materially, developing technology much in the same way they we did, until it became either too self-consuming or simply too volatile that their arrogant recklessness caught up with them.

    Maybe we’re slowly reaching our own singularity. Maybe alien civilizations never develop too far beyond our own point of development before they self-destruct and are forced to reconsider their priorities as they fragment into small communities and rebuild with sticks and stones all over again.

    • Rami says:

      Hi Lee,

      I wanted to talk about the possibility of life in the universe, as you touched on in your comments. One entirely plausible scenario is that the universe is in fact teeming with simple life, but complex, intelligent life is exceptionally rare, and this is where the Rare Earth Hypothesis brings itself to bear on the subject. But as we materially look for answers to this and other questions, I wonder, does Swedenborg’s theory of correspondence shed any light on possible answers? Obviously, this is hardly a scientific speculation (at least science as is materially understood), but I often look toward correspondence theory to make sense of material realities, kind of inductively reasoning from the literal ground up.

      When it comes to life in the universe, and more specifically the *creation* of life in the universe, can we look toward the creation of human beings in the womb as paralleling, say, the creation of habitable planets and complex life? Because creation, well, is not an easy task, and is indeed quite difficult, as evidenced by just how difficult it is for a single sperm to reach a single egg and create new life. If there is a spiritual correspondence to the conceiving of new humans in the womb, might that same correspondence underly the creation of new life in the universe? If so, and if complex life in the universe is so rare, then correspondence might explain why,

      • Lee says:

        Hi Rami,

        Current scientific knowledge generally supports the theory that advanced life is very rare in the universe. Most of the exoplanets we have discovered so far do not look suitable for the development of any life at all, let alone advanced life. Some exoplanets may be suitable for life, and there are some candidates that exobiologists would love to study more closely. But so far, there’s not much reason to think that advanced life is anything but very rare out there.

        Looking at our own solar system, it took 3.5 to 4 billion years for humans to evolve from the simple forms of life that first appeared on earth only half a billion to a billion years after it initially formed. If that is a reasonable estimate for how long it takes intelligent life to develop on a planet, the other two planetary candidates for life in our solar system, Venus and Mars, simply didn’t have enough time.

        Some scientists think Venus may have had liquid water on its surface for as long as three billion years. This would easily be long enough for simple, and even moderately complex, life to develop there. But it’s well short of the lower estimate of 3.5 billion years for humans to develop on earth.

        Meanwhile, Mars apparently lost its liquid water a whopping 4 billion years ago. And since the solar system formed about 4.6 billion years ago, there just wasn’t time for much in the way of life to develop on Mars. At best there may have been simple microbial life on Mars.

        As for using correspondences to create theories and even draw conclusions about scientific matters, it is fun, but perilous. It’s easy to bend correspondences one way or another, based on our own pre-existing ideas and proclivities.

        To use your example, if a planet is like a womb, we would expect life to be very common, since a rather high percentage of wombs do become host to new life. A more apt comparison might be sperm, the vast bulk of which expire without fertilizing an egg and producing new life. Perhaps planets are like sperm, not like eggs and wombs. Perhaps God produces hundreds of millions of planets for every one that leads to life.

        And yes, if we’ve learned nothing else, we’ve learned that life is incredibly complex, and the conditions for it to exist are also incredibly complex. If it takes the entire vast universe that we see to produce the “many hundreds of thousands” of inhabited planets that Swedenborg alludes to in Other Planets #26, that would still be within range of the “correspondences” of sperm as bearers of new life.

    • Lee says:

      Hi Rami,

      Good to hear from you again. This is certainly a possible scenario. At this point, we don’t have enough information to support or disprove it. That information could come in one of two ways:

      1. By our finding intelligent life on multiple other planets, and determining that some of these civilizations had followed that course, and none of them have sustained high technology for long periods of time.
      2. By our following this course ourselves, blowing ourselves back to the stone age technologically, so that the only example we have fits that scenario.

      Unfortunately, it will likely be centuries before we are able to get either kind of evidence.

      For my part, I’m not a technology-hater. I don’t believe technology is destroying the earth. Advanced technology is just an advanced and more powerful tool in human hands. If we destroy the earth through our use of technology, that’s because of us, not because of the technology. We can also use technology to restore the earth. The choice is in our hands.

      Further, if the purpose of creation is a heaven from the human race, as Swedenborg says, then Elon Musk’s goal of making humanity a multi-planet species is congruent with that purpose. More people on more otherwise uninhabited planets means more humans for heaven. From that perspective also, I don’t think technology is an inherently evil thing that must be wiped out for humanity to achieve its true spiritual potential.

      • Rami says:

        Hi Lee,

        Always good to drop by here, and I thank you for making me feel welcome.

        I must admit, I’ve grown increasingly anti-technology over time (an ironic thing to be typing on my fancy new laptop over my high speed internet connection, for sure), but my cynicism toward technology as at present vague and sketched in broad strokes. I’m not yet prepared to articulate those thoughts, but one thing I can say is that I’m particularly anti technology that operates out of sync with nature- technology that exist in a state of disharmony with the natural world.

        For instance, we have things like wind and solar power, which I would uphold as an example of technology that works in harmony with nature as it harnesses natural resources. Yes, traditional windmills are constructed from wood, but it’s entirely possible for humans to harvest the bounty of Mother Earth in a responsible, renewable way.

        Contrast this with, say, the automobile- the internal combustion engine. The simple reality is this is piece of technology which pumps poison into the air. The fact that single automobile has a negligible effect on the environment over the course of its life doesn’t change the fact that it operates out of sync with the environment, and collectively, have done tremendous damage that environment. So I would describe the automobile as technology that operates in disharmony with nature.

        And then it becomes ever more complicated when we see how technology is invariably linked to industrialization and industrial capitalism, which is both exploitative and historically pernicious in its complete lack of stewardship. So we have destructive technology, and the paradigms on which this technology is born that has influenced my disenchantment with our modern technological age.

        I know this is both fringe and besides the point, but while I don’t necessarily believe in the existence of Atlantis, the technologically advanced way the Atlanteans were said to live seems entirely consistent with the spiritually grounded technology you once described. They were profoundly more advanced than we are nearly 10,000 years before we showed up, but not advanced in the materially conceived understanding of technology that we presently have, but in a spiritually holistic way that we have long since forgotten.

        I’m not a technology doomsdayer, but I have great concerns that technology that’s purely material, and a civilization that exalts it as much as we do can only end in one, dramatically destructive way.

        • Lee says:

          Hi Rami,

          As I said earlier, I view technology as a tool in the hands of the human beings who wield it. The effects of the technology will mirror the motives and purposes of the people who direct the technology to accomplish those motives and purposes. This is why I believe that the most important thing for the future of the earth is to us humans to develop our spiritual and ethical awareness.

          And I do see much development in that direction, despite the pernicious alliance between government and big industry that tends to subsidize old and dirty technology and practices while making it difficult for newer and cleaner technologies to take their place.

          Currently we see a single company, Tesla, pushing the entire auto worldwide auto industry toward electric vehicles (EVs), which are far cleaner and more ecologically sound than the old internal combustion engine (ICE) technology.

          While much has been made of government subsidies for EVs, Tesla was already firmly on that path long before any subsidies appeared, and has already surpassed the numbers at which it could receive further subsidies. Yet it continues to produce more EVs than any other automaker. Meanwhile, government subsidies continue for the fossil fuel industries and the legacy automakers. It is laughable that General Motors is supposedly “leading the EV revolution” when it is currently not offering a single EV of its own for sale, and continues to make nearly all of its profits from manufacturing ICE vehicles.

          The reality is that fossil fuels are highly inefficient, and cannot compete with renewable energy sources on a level playing field. This, and not subsidies, is why renewables are quickly overtaking fossil fuels.

          In another decade or two, no auto manufacturer will be making gasoline-powered cars anymore. Any auto manufacturers that don’t successfully make the transition to EVs will go bankrupt, and go out of business. (This may include GM.) In another two or three decades, very few power plants that burn fossil fuels will be left in the world. They will not be able to compete with wind, solar, and other renewable energy sources.

          This is why I do not share your pessimism about technology. As we have become more ecologically aware, we have pushed our technology in more ecologically sound directions, despite strenuous efforts by the corporate / government alliance to continue with the older, dirtier technology. If Elon Musk had not come on the scene with Tesla and its goal of converting the world from ICE to EV vehicles, the legacy automakers would still be slurping at the government trough while churning out more and more highly inefficient and heavily polluting ICE vehicles.

          As for Atlantis, I will believe it existed when I see some sound scientific evidence for its existence. Meanwhile, I think it is a mythological origin story of human beings similar to the origin stories in the early chapters of Genesis. These stories didn’t literally happen, but they do have a deeper significance that tells about our emergence from being mere animals to being spiritually aware humans.

          Back to the main subject, I believe that as humanity continues to become more spiritually and ecologically aware, our technology will continue to get cleaner and more in harmony with both nature and spirit.

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