The Fourth Filter


The story about the Amish, SMH, Good Weekend, by Melissa Fyfe

photographs by Meredith O'Shea


After I wrote (twice, blogs 941, 942) about the Fifth Filter, I had some thoughts about the Fourth Filter, the filter humans have overcome, that lead to the stage we are at: We have conquered the world, we dominate all other species and we exploit the planet for ever-dwindling resources. 

Just quickly, a recap of the Five Filter theory: The first filter was the epic establishment of life in the form of single-cell beings. It is an enigma where, when and how this occurred (and - if you're religious - why). It's mooted that this form of life is common in the universe, since - it's believed - single cell beings can survive in zero temperatures (space is cold) and apparently for millions of years; it is also mooted that life on Earth was seeded by a microbe-carrying icey asteroid that hit Earth in primordial times. The second filter was overcome when these single-cell beings combined to form multi-cell organisms; a process that probably is quite common in the universe too. The third filter is when those organisms evolve into sophisticated beings, on par with the animals on our planet. Overcoming the fourth filter leads to the stage humans are in: We dominate all other beings and learnt to exploit our environment to our advantage. There is no telling if and how often that has happened in our galaxy, presently or at any time before. The fifth - the Great Filter - is the one we are facing and that would have been faced by any of the other potential civilisations in our galaxy: We must avoid self-destructing. Apparently there is no civilisation in our galaxy that has overcome the Great Filter ... will we?


So, all that’s left for us is to overcome the Fifth Filter, i.e. not to destroy our environment, not to kill ourselves off with war and not to build Artificial Intelligence (AI) that becomes more intelligent than ourselves and decides at some point humans could possibly endeavor to limit their capacities ... that this is not desirable ... hence it’s best to eliminate humanity.


The point here of course is that since we do not observe aliens it is quite likely there are no aliens in our galaxy. Why? Because they didn’t overcome the Fifth Filter.


So the thought that comes to mind is that it probably is just not likely that any civilization - including ourselves - is able to deal with the challenges posed by the Fifth Filter: Once a civilisation has begun on the path of technological evolution, once they have engaged in their industrial revolution ... indeed, once they have begun mass-agriculture, there is no stopping technology. The process will inevitably lead to climate change, the destruction of the environment, the development of war-technology that is all-destructive and AI & robotics that are uncontainable.


Should humans beat the odds and overcome the Fifth Filter, i.e. not destroy their living space, not kill themselves off with ever-evolving weaponry and not build artificially intelligent robots that will have the capacity and the inclination to eliminate them, there is a likely scenario awaiting our descendants: In centuries or millennia to come humans indeed would learn intergalactic travel. As they explore planets in other solar systems of our galaxy, they are likely to come across ruins of other civilisations that had come to stage four, but were destroyed by the Fifth Filter.


The universe is 13.8b years old, our galaxy 13.5b years, our solar system and Earth 4.5b years and life on Earth about 3.8b years. Modern humans have populated Earth since just 200,000 years ago, the agricultural revolution began some 5,000 to 10,000 years ago, followed by the industrial revolution 200 years ago and the electronic revolution a mere 75 years ago


It indeed is quite possible that in the history of the galaxy there have been civilizations that have come and gone without being in our own timeframe and without having been able to contact us, or be detected by us, before they fell victim to an event described by the Fifth Filter (or an asteroid collision).


But here is a thought: How about a civilization that did overcome the Fourth Filter ... but then neither overcame the Fifth Filter nor fell victim to it, i.e. they did not self-destruct. Probably because they did not follow the natural progression of ever improving technology, ever larger development (Growth), ever growing Gross Domestic Product (GDP, the measure of a country’s productivity).


What if a civilization somewhere in the galaxy eschewed the temptations we have fallen victim to? This is an interesting question … how would we humans as intergalactic travelers deal with them? Remember, we would be on the way to discover resources … the story in the movie Avatar comes to mind.


And then in the newspaper a story about the Amish; more precisely a story about an Australian family that got sick of the rat race and decided to jump off. They studied Amish communities in the US and then established themselves in Tasmania. 

If they were able to establish a larger community and inspire their children to live the same way … hey, presto, a branch of humanity that will not destroy the environment, that will not self-destruct with warfare and is unlikely to develop malicious robots. 

But wait, there's more!

In Australia the Aborigines have populated the continent for some 65,000 years (Bruce Pascoe says in his book Dark Emu 80,000 years; he also reports a contentious claim by A.P. Kershaw "... that people have been present on the Australian continent for at least 140,000 years"). For all we know they have lived in unison with nature, with their own rules and laws. Technology has not taken over their lives. They were not necessarily peaceful, however, their limited technology ensured they could not extinguish themselves. They respect the environment and they look after the land when allowed to do so. 

"In his book Dark Emu indigenous historian Bruce Pascoe documented how Aboriginal people established a sophisticated, cultivated form of land management, carefully tended irrigation and farming and fish-trapping practices - with villages with wells, dams, permanent buildings made of clay-coated wood and elaborate cemeteries - operating as a cluster of distinct but connected democracies. A land carefully tilled, a land built upon, a land that sustained an economy, a land that was theirs." Julia Baird, SMH 

"Aboriginal democracy created 'the Great Australian Peace' on a continent which was extensively farmed, skilfully managed and deeply loved." 

"Pascoe builds a picture of a shared future in Australia based on the traditions which sustained the Aboriginal Nations for so long: respectful human co-operation across political borders and knowledgeable, sustainable care of the natural world." Judges, NSW Premier's Literary Awards, re. Dark Emu

They were conquered by the white man and their traditional ways are threatened. They indeed have overcome the fourth filter and were not in danger of being consumed by the fifth, the Great Filter.

What if they had been left alone? How many civilisations are there in our galaxy that are at a similar stage? But in control of their destiny and not in danger of falling victim to their own technological prowess. You and I will never know, but it sure is a tantalising question.