The concept of the Great Filter goes a long way toward explaining the Fermi Paradox and is pretty interesting. Basically, the Great Filter is a theoretical barrier that all civilizations approach at some point, ultimately either dooming that group or giving it free reign to advance. According to Tim Urban, “we’re rare, we’re first, or we’re fucked”. The Great Filter is essentially a wall in time that makes or breaks a civilization, if you will. When it comes to human interpretation of this concept, on one side tends to lie the somewhat naive (often religious) people who believe we are special (or, ‘rare’) and that the Great Filter is already behind us. The other two options postulate that the Great Filter is still ahead of us, which is why many scientists, including Stephen Hawking, are vocally alarmed about humankind’s destiny.
The Great Filter could be ahead of us in one of two ways; the first (as Urban puts it) is that we are first. ‘First’ meaning that we are the most advanced civilization in the entire universe, which when you consider the age of the Earth (4.6Ga) compared to the observable universe (13.8 Ga), can feel a little unbelievable – but still not a giant leap to think that we could be one of, (if not THE), first to find ourselves approaching the Filter.
The second way in which the Great Filter is in our future is that We Are Fucked. This is not a stretch when you consider the smorgasbord of skidmarks soiling the rag that is our current planetary underwear – nuclear annihilation, artificial superintelligence, impact events, and of course, human-driven climate change, to name the most identifiable few. This concept means we are neither rare, nor quicker to evolve than anyone else – which makes a lot of sense when you consider how many galaxies and suns exist, giving us our boring address on the nondescript outer arm of an unremarkable spiral galaxy.
Just as the concept of the Great Filter can be applied to a civilization, it is applicable at the individual human level as well – in our human lives we are all capable of standing before a Great Filter; not a three-option theory, but a simple two-parter.
The Great Filter for humans (we’ll call it the Human Filter), rather than obliterating us at a certain point, would merely be the point at which you truly shed anything fucking absurd that doesn’t positively contribute to your life in a demonstrable way. Those who haven’t passed the Human Filter are those who haven’t managed to simplify their lives to the point of immediately understanding whether their current situation in life is beneficial or detrimental, to themselves and others. There are an overwhelming number of people who seem to make their lives far more difficult or complicated than necessary, and these people are usually the unhappiest overall (people who tend to stagnate in their misery – for example an unhappy/ambiguous relationship or an unhappy workplace). These situations can be solved with a simple calculation that usually results in removing the unsatisfactory factor (leaving the bad job, getting clarification or removing the bad relationship altogether), yet the person involved seldom makes these changes and instead remains firm in their misery, confusing as that seems.
The simple answer is that these people are still living in front of the Human Filter, and are in some way comfortable in their dissatisfaction – after all, who doesn’t love to have a good wee sense of indignant outrage? Can you imagine how some might deal with finishing their day with no sense of annoyance or injustice? Besides, it’s so much easier to use our time and energy dealing with our trivial problems and gripes than to expend real energy trying to tackle real problems.
The troubling thing about the Human Filter is that time is of the essence. None of the aforementioned people are bad people at all, they are all as wonderful and beautiful and kind and thoughtful as the next person – they just haven’t been morbidly consumed by one or more of the following four thought processes:
- We only have ONE LIFE to live. That’s roughly 90 years, in the best case scenario. Think about this minus your current age, and take into account your shifting perspective of how fast time moves as you grow older (each year feels faster than it’s predecessor). Put down your phone/computer for a minute, close your eyes and really, really, TRULY give yourself a moment to understand that when your time is up, it’s up. There is almost definitely no afterlife (sorry, but science says no – also, the probability of your special fabulous religion being the winner out of all the other special fabulous religions out there is just a simple matter of statistics; meaning that you have a low chance of having chosen the correct religion, therefore are likely wrong in accordance with the mathematics of probability). So, suck it up and realise that the probable outcome is that you are going to cease to exist – just like before you were born, your consciousness will cease and it won’t be horrible or painful; it will just “be” (so think carefully about the regrets that you definitely don’t want to have before you are no longer conscious, and work on those ASAP).
- Being that we experience such a teeny speck of life in the vastness of infinity, you should know that nothing that you do matters in any form whatsoever – as long as you do not harm, or impede upon the enjoyment of, any other living creature, then you should do exactly as you please. You need to immediately stop caring what other people think about boring arbitrary shit like what you are wearing or what you do for a living. Seriously, if someone is going to think any less of you for living in a non-harmful and happy way, then those people are the ones that are in trouble, not you. Don’t waste your tiny precious sliver of time being alive manipulating your one life to conform to the standards imposed and upheld by other people (many of whom are still living in front of the Human Filter).
- The known universe is ridiculously vast. You’re a fucking speck of dust on one of the smallest planets on the one of the most inconsequential stars in one of the smallest galaxies. That Hubble Ultra Deep Field photo shows us about 10,000 galaxies – and the patch of sky in that shot is less than 2 percent of the area of the full Moon as seen from Earth. It’s pretty hard to get this scale across in writing, so do yourself a favour and watch this just for an entry-level understanding of how much of a nothing in space our sun (let alone the Earth, and all of us on it) actually are.
- We have no idea whether our civilization has passed our own Great Filter or not (unlikely), so it would behoove us to do everything we can to ensure that we actually manage to surpass it when that time comes. That’s why we have incredible people like Elon Musk trying to take some of our eggs out of this one planetary basket by becoming an interplanetary species – starting with Mars. That’s not the easiest thing to achieve and not everyone is going to be able to go to Mars anytime soon, so in the meantime, it’s now considered officially fuckwitted to ignore all of the compounding data about climate change, which means that if you’re not at least feeling guilty about doing nothing to help our ailing environment, then you’re probably firmly in front of the Human Filter.
The bummer is that we have neither knowledge nor control over when, and how, the Great Filter will present itself to us as a species – that event (hopefully) remains to be seen.
However, the awesome thing is that on an individual level, we very much have control over our own Human Filter – we can quite easily jump it safely – and if we all manage to pass the Human Filter, then these actions in and of themselves are going to help us negate at least a couple of the unnecessary and totally avoidable Great Filter scenarios, like self-destruction, climate change and death by post-human superintelligence.
By the way, I’m hovering around outside my own Human Filter, having a ciggie, chatting to the bouncer, waiting to sober up a little before he lets me in. As preachy as this post sounds, I’m not there yet. But I’m starting to think very hard about it, and the first step in overcoming the Great Filter as a civilization, is to think about how you can overcome your own Human Filter as a person.
Love, Chelle xoxoxoxoxo