Some years ago, I thought about the Drake equation, SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence), the Fermi Paradox, the connections between them and the SETI track record so far. Eventually, I realized that there is a plausible conclusion for the Fermi Paradox which I think is, while simple, also quite deep in its philosophical implications.
The Drake Equation attempts to give an estimate to the number of intelligent civilizations in our galaxy which we might be able to contact. The Fermi Paradox provides a line of reasoning which implicitly gives a (high) number of such civilizations, but also notes that we've not found anyone else yet. And that is the core of the Fermi Paradox: there should be many others out there, so why don't we see even traces?
If I were to explain the Fermi Paradox, I would do it like this: the presence of organic molecules in distant moons, planet(s), comets, nebulae, etc. speaks of the ubiquity of the building blocks of life in the known universe. Therefore it is likely that:
- Life has emerged and will emerge outside Earth.
- The process of evolution is a strong fundamental property of systems which contain agents capable of adapting to their environment, regardless of the environment being real or simulated. This property surely exists elsewhere outside Earth - therefore evolution surely is driving development elsewhere as well.
- The presence of life together with evolution will, in time, evolve a collective of life-forms.
- The presence of evolution working with a collective of life-forms will, in time, form collectives of higher organization, i.e. an intelligent civilization.
There might not be many civilizations which reach this level of intelligence, but it is bound to happen at some point in time (perhaps not simultaneously with another civilization!). As there are, due to the ubiquity of organic molecules, many possibilities where the whole process from organic molecules to intelligent civilizations might kickstart itself, we can assume that intelligent life could have emerged before us and can emerge after us. However, we could still be alone now.
In the case of previous intelligent civilizations, we might be able to pick up some transmissions (although this is not strictly necessary). This is what various forms of SETI aim to find out - to detect communications traces from the other civilizations. However, so far there has been no documented success.
Also, if we were the last of the intelligent civilizations, we should definitely be picking up some transmissions. However, SETI projects have not succeeded in this either.
Therefore, it seems strange that we have not actually detected any intelligent alien civilizations. This is a re-formulation of the Fermi Paradox.
Putting all these together, there can be only one conclusion: we are the FIRST intelligent civilization of the (known) universe. Every other civilization which follows us will be younger than us (maybe somehow even our descendants).
In other words, are the pioneers, the first ones, the ones those who come after us might some day call the Ancients. We're the ones showing the way; the adults to the children. In all the science fiction stories, the mysterious "first ones" who created weird and fascinating technology for numerous deus ex machina moments - that would be us, the humans.
I find this an exhilarating thought. It puts things into perspective and gives the humankind a tremendous responsibility, but also a practical purpose and "meaning of life" as something concrete instead of the meanings dictated by visions of the divine.