At times when gazing at the night sky, it is impossible to conceive that among the multiplicity of stars and planets that a pale blue dot is alone in hosting life.
This seeming contradiction is known as the Fermi paradox: if life exists outside of Earth, why have we detected no signs of outside life?
Astrobiologists have offered numerous explanations to resolve the paradox, most focusing on the fragility of life and the rarity of planetary conditions would allow for life to arise. One enduring suggestion is the idea of a “Great Filter,” an evolutionary barrier to intelligent life arising.
Life, still an unclear process, might simply be so exceedingly rare as to make life confined to isolated lucky planets. It might arise only to be quickly destroyed by a wayward asteroid or sudden change in planetary climate.
Or the filter might further the path to intelligent life. Perhaps the evolution of a neural system complex to allow for intelligence is rare or a waste of precious resources species can not afford to squander.
In such a case, intelligent life might arise frequently but the species go extinct long before any signs can be detected.
It could also be, as frequently proposed, that intelligent life would naturally destroy itself far more often than advancing into a spacefaring species. The advent of nuclear weaponry and the looming threat of catastrophic climate change has made this possibility a harsh future to consider.
If such hypotheses are true, the refusal to search for intelligent life is a gamble that humanity is or will be the sole species that passes through the filter unharmed. It is a gamble to suggest, based upon our current knowledge, that no other species has succeeded, we alone will and will do so blindly.
Refusing to search is a decision to bet that our ignorance is a sufficient shield against a universe that, in the words of Neil deGrasse Tyson, is trying to kill us. It condemns humanity to progressing without a guide on where life might be and how it might arise, giving us no guide on where life cannot go and how it might cease.
While critics of the search are quick to note that contacts between more-advanced and less-advanced societies seldom end well for less-advanced societies, such a comparison ignores how societies become less-advanced.
In the early 1400s, the Ming dynasty had explored the globe, reaching the shores of East Africa.
But increased concerns over piracy led to haijin, a ban on sea travel matched with increasingly isolationist policies. Ming China quickly became eclipsed by Spain, Portugal and Britain who opened themselves to exploration.
Should there truly be a universal competition where the most advanced society will destroy those less advanced, to ban our own explorations is to make an arrogant assumption that either we will never be found or that we will remain advanced even while limiting our scope of research. Such arrogance is what led the Ming to be overthrown and their sovereignty repeatedly limited by colonialist Europeans.
All new technologies and explorations receive concerns of varying validity, space exploration included. But these concerns need to be weighed against the reality that without further exploration we consign humanity to a blissful but dangerous ignorance.
Matthew Schilling is a senior economics, history and government major from Mitchell, S.D.