Day 091 - Goodbye universe, hello virtual reality

Submitted by Sam on 20 August, 2011 - 00:10

One of the most interesting partial solutions to the Fermi paradox hypothesizes that we haven't been visited by alien civilizations – and nor should we expect to hear from them – because they do not travel, colonize or have very much engagement with the physical universe at all, having engineered Matrix-esque virtual realities for themselves that are far more compelling and fulfilling than the real thing.

This scenario returns to an earlier topic of the blog, and imagines that the universe is indeed described by a small set of laws, and that sufficiently advanced civilizations will tend to discover them, eventually decoding rules for all phenomena in the universe (including themselves). At such a peak of understanding, such a society would essentially find that its science was complete; its physicists would have found the theory of everything, and there would be nothing left that could not be explained. To be clear: they would have discovered the origins of life, understanding the exact chemical conditions that gave birth to their ancestors, and the full range of alternative conditions that could give birth to all other lifeforms throughout the universe. All of their astronomers' observations about the universe at large would have been arranged into an infallible theory of knowledge, and they would have models explaining the exact origins and ends of time and space, and everything in between.

Having unlocked the secrets of this universe, perhaps without even leaving their own solar system, such a race could readily determine that further space exploration would be unnecessary, and turn instead to a self-serving and insular virtual reality. With the immense computing power available to such a highly developed civilization, such a simulation would be utterly compelling. Their artificial realities could create universes for them more rich, more sensorily stimulating and more complex than our own.

This speculation, again, cannot solve the Fermi paradox unless it is a sociological condition that applies to every advanced civilization, but it does seem to me to have a rather compelling logic. Even without a retreat into virtual reality, an extraterrestrial civilization in possession of a workable theory of everything could very easily be imagined to conclude that interstellar travel is too costly, too difficult or ultimately too pointless to merit the effort, and hence why we have never heard from anyone else out there. Perhaps it is every civilization's destiny to ultimately slake its own curiosity so fully that its continued exploration and participation in the physical universe itself becomes at best unnecessary, and at worst too predictable to contemplate.

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