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SETI's Paradox and the Great Silence
by Paul Gilster, gilster_at_centauri-dreams_dot_org

One reason our SETI searches may be turning up nothing is that everywhere in the cosmos, civilizations exist that are much like ours. They may be, in other words, what Alexander Zaitsev calls "dismally monotonous," capable of being no more than passive when it comes to other living worlds. They are listening rather than transmitting. And Zaitzev is at the forefront of the movement to change all that, at least where Earth is concerned.

A seminal paper by Zaitsev lays out the basics of METI - "Messaging to ETI" - the idea being to transmit purposely to likely stellar systems. The Russian scientist is fascinated by the question of consciousness. How widespread is it, and is it not the aim of SETI to find out whether it is a universal phenomenon or a singular one, isolated on our own world? On this score, all kinds of speculation are possible, and I rather like this Arthur C. Clarke quote cited by Zaitsev as one of various hypotheses:

" is almost evident that biological intelligence is a low form of intelligence. We are at the early stage of the evolution of intelligence, but at the late stage of the evolution of life. True intelligence is unlikely to be living."

But of course, we don't know that, nor do we know how to regard John Wheeler's "participatory anthropic principle," which says that it takes observers to bring the universe into being. Zaitsev thinks that true participation in the universe requires something more than contemplation, and that we should supplement Wheeler with this thought: "Senders are necessary to bring consciousness into the universe."

The consequence? We need a new term in the Drake equation, one covering planets in the communicative phase of their existence that are purposely transmitting signals to the outside. How to gauge a factor like that depends upon how we ourselves receive the idea of broadcasting to the stars, since we're the only technological civilization we know about. Zaitsev points to what he calls "METI-phobia," the fear of encountering hostile civilizations that, if taken seriously, would keep us not only from transmitting but even replying to transmissions, since we wouldn't know how to judge the true nature of any beings that contacted us.

We can work out a value for the METI factor for our own world. The METI/SETI ratio is currently less than one percent, given that total SETI search times vastly outnumber the total transmission time, which Zaitsev pegs at some 37 hours. If all civilizations were like ours, communication would be deeply unlikely. From the paper:

Given such enormous distances and, consequently, long signal propagation time, communications should be mostly one-way - our addressees receive our messages, and we, in turn, detect those who have chosen us as their addressees. This is how the Universe at a certain stage of its development appears for observers as inhabitable. Otherwise, centers of intelligence are doomed to remain lonely, unobserved civilizations.
So do we transmit or not? SETI League members know that this question is in serious debate within and on the edges of the SETI discipline. Zaitsev is saying that our choice against transmissions would have us set the new factor in the Drake Equation to a value close to zero, and that would imply that searching is meaningless since other cultures may well have made the same choice that we have.

In other words: SETI makes sense only in a Universe with such properties that it develops Intelligence that realizes the need not only to conduct searches, but also to transmit intelligent signals to other hypothetical sites of self-consciousness.

In that sense, we are indeed engaged in a participatory universe, one where our choices probably are not so different from those of other beings, and our choice against METI would leave us unlikely to overcome the Great Silence. Zaitsev thus frames the debate from the standpoint of METI advocacy: The Drake Equation gives us the likelihood of finding detectable civilizations elsewhere in the galaxy. And right now some of its key terms are based on us.

The paper is Zaitsev, "The SETI Paradox," presented by the author at the the Russian SETI-2005 Conference and published in the SAO (Special Astrophysical Observatory) Bulletin. The paper is now available online.

This editorial first appeared on Centauri Dreams, and is used here with minor edits, by the kind permission of the author.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in editorials are those of the individual authors, and do not necessarily reflect the position of The SETI League, Inc., its Trustees, officers, Advisory Board, members, donors, or commercial sponsors.

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