Please universe, just say something. Say anything. We want to hear from you.
"Please, universe, just say something. Say anything. We want to hear from you." 00one/gettyimages.com

"Is life on Earth just a lucky fluke?" According to the website Astronomy, this question has preoccupied the the mind and work of a British physicist named Stephen Webb since his childhood, which was shaped by the Space Age of the 1960s. As a boy, he was certain that by the time he became a man humans would live in a universe that looked much like the one in the popular Disney TV show, The Mandalorian—solar systems teeming will all kinds of intelligent life forms, from froggish women to gambling ants to what have you.

Webb, however, was brought straight back down to earth in the final decade of the Cold War, the 1980s, by an article that appeared in Asimov’s Science Fiction magazine titled, "The Fermi Paradox." The author of the article, the geologist Stephen L. Gillett, returned to a basic question that the Italian American physicist Enrico Fermi made famous in the middle of the 20th century: "Where is everybody?" Meaning, where are the aliens? Why haven't we meet them yet? Our galaxy has billions of stars that are similar to our star, the sun. Many of these stars have planets. Many of these planets must be in a habitable zone. And yet, we have heard nothing from the galaxy or from universe that sounds intelligent. Why are we so alone?

Sixty-five million years ago, a comet hit planet Earth and killed all of the large and loud animals of that time. Gillett's Fermi Paradox article did something similar to the large population of aliens in Webb's imagination. They all vanished in an instant, and he began to wonder about the awesome silence of the universe. Are we really alone? Is the extremely thin layer of life, our biosphere, all there is? Webb decided "to collect solutions to the so-called Fermi paradox."

Here are some of the solutions that Webb gathered and presented in a 2002 book If the Universe Is Teeming With Aliens … Where Is Everybody? 75 Solutions to the Fermi Paradox:

Aliens live where we’re not looking, talk how we’re not listening or resemble something we haven’t sought out. Maybe the aliens like to send messages or signals using neutrinos, nearly massless and barely-there particles that don’t interact with normal matter much, or tachyons, hypothetical particles that fly faster than light. Maybe they use the more-conventional radio or optical transmissions but at frequencies, or in a form, astronomers haven’t sought out. Maybe a signal is sitting on data servers already, escaping notice. Maybe the extraterrestrials subtly alter the emissions of their stable stars, or the blip-blip-blip pulsations of variable stars. Maybe they put something big — a megamall, a disk of dust — in front of their sun to block some of its light, in a kind of anti-beacon. Maybe their skies are cloudy, and they consequently don’t care about astronomy or space exploration. Or — hear Webb out — perhaps they drive UFOs, meaning they are here but not in a form that scientists typically recognize, investigate, and take seriously.
Fans of the Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges will certain get a kick out of this fantastical speculation.

But the fact of the matter is Webb does not have to go so far out to look for answers to the paradox. He only has to examine the history and key features of the culture he lives in, capitalism, to find a way to the room that holds the final explanation for the universe's apparent dearth of intelligent life.

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Now, what must not be doubted is that universe has, due to its fine tuning, what the English-born Belgian biochemist Christian de Duve's called in the mid-1990s a "cosmic imperative." Life will certainly emerge if the right chemical and energetic conditions are available for the transformation of dust to vital dust. Extrasolar planets were only confirmed a little under 30 years ago. Now we see them all over the place. It is only a matter of time before we spot the signatures of a planet with a biosphere. That is going to happen. What is unlikely to happen, however, is that we ever find technologically advanced life forms. And if we did, then we must assume that these forms of life are locked in a culturally constructed class struggle that's hypertrophied their means/machines of production.

Webb has made the same mistake that the German philosopher Hegel made at the beginning of the 19th century. But whereas the latter projected capitalist history to the whole history of the world, the former projects it to the whole universe. But if one looks at human history, you will not find anything that looks like continuous progress. History is a mess. Good ideas come and go. Technologies emerge and vanish. Socially complex societies arise and collapse. This was the state of things until only 300 years ago.

Capitalism, which got its start with the Dutch in 17th century, does have a pattern of development that can be described as progressive. But the motive force of that progress is not something like a metaphysical will to technology but market-share competition between capitalists and the wage-profit struggle between capitalists and their employees. There is no explanation for the improvements in machine technology in the 19th century that can surpass the one that identifies a steady increase in the political power of workers. Today, almost all of our robots are not busy exploring planets and new moons; they are instead stuck building cars or monitoring stores. An alien in a spaceship will most likely not be operated by enlightened beings but rather raw capitalists looking all over the galaxy for free or cheap labor.