So where is everybody: here, there, or everywhere?

News out of Penn State suggests that the search for alien intelligence is not going well, with the result that our species remains as mystified as the physicist Enrico Fermi was half a century ago when he postulated his famous paradox: if the vasty depths of the universe are so vanishingly large, why should there not be multiple alien intelligences out there, including some so intelligent that we would have heard from them by now?

Some of the more rudimentary explanations to have emerged in the years since seem sensible enough. The aliens are too far away, or just too intelligent to wish to have anything to do with what science fiction author Terry Bisson famously called “meat-based intelligence”. And then there is the furthest outlier argument, which determines that there must in any probability distribution curve be a least likely among the still viable alternatives, and maybe we are it . . . and we are alone. That particular singularity represents a terrifyingly small number, but it’s a bigger number than Penn State got to in counting up known alien intelligences.

Maybe we are still being battered by Maslow’s hammer. Just as we thought of God as a watchmaker when timekeeping was the ascendant technology: so now we talk of the mind as software running on the hardware of the brain. Our paradigm of the here and now in the search for alien intelligence suggests that from here, there must be something “out there”. And maybe all the while the intelligence is indeed there, but it is here too, and also everywhere. Intelligence may be more of a quantum suffusion, and less of a singularity. On which McCartneyesque theme, let’s listen to Paul “squirting air through his meat”, as Bisson would describe it, and then ask if meat-based intelligence isn’t actually pretty cool.

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