Sunday, July 6, 2008

The fellowship of being

What will we recognize as the common bond? Will it be posture or movement? Will it be similarities in face or figure? Will it be in the sounds used to communicate? Will it be in the aspect of touch? If we meet an extraterrestrial being what will draw us to them and what will drive us apart?

You would imagine that extraterrestrial beings would be very different from us in many characteristics. There has been plenty of speculation about what extraterrestrial beings may look like. I would think though, that there would be another condition that would tend to connect us to extraterrestrial life: The fellowship of being. The fellowship of being is an awareness of life and a connection that goes beyond the usual senses. The key of course is not just biological life but sentience. It’s one thing to be a living creature and quite another to have a subjective sense of awareness. There is also sapience, or the ability to act with appropriate judgment, also described as wisdom. There is no doubt that any biological being visiting Earth would have both of these characteristics and this may be our only obvious bond. The critical issue is if we can see through our physical differences to experience that bond.

We feel some sort of connection with most living creatures here on Earth, but it certainly becomes more acute in the beings that most look and act like us. It’s one thing to step on a spider and quite another to kill an ape that is looking us in the eyes. Humans can mow down a swath of trees and not feel any remorse. Is the plant and insect world too far removed? Are the differences too great to carry that fellowship of being? Well, what’s to say that wouldn’t be the case with extraterrestrial beings? Perhaps they will just be too different for us physically to find fellowship of being. It makes you wonder how that would impact the relationship and ultimately the success of the contact.

We are creatures of appearance. It means a great deal to us in every culture. The characteristics of preferred appearance may change from people to people and place to place. In the end we value appearance and use it to gauge everything from possibilities of mating and friendship to the opposite end of the spectrum. How many enemies have been created due to differences in appearance?

You will hope that we will be able to move beyond the confines of our little world and begin to perceive life in a new way. We will judge the appearance of extraterrestrial beings, but perhaps we would be better off evaluating minds. Extraterrestrial visitors are likely to be highly evolved compared to us and we have no idea what that will mean. They may find it tough to understand us due to our undeveloped state.

There is another possibility which is raised when considering the length of time and physical strain probably required for space flight: perhaps our visitors won’t be living beings at all, but rather mechanical surrogates of some sort. How would that impact First Contact? It would certainly create a barrier. Trust issues would be magnified. Just who are we dealing with here, the surrogates or the creators? The world reaction would be muted by a sense that we are only seeing a small part of the reality. The awe of First Contact comes from meeting beings that are not human and that have no connection to Earth. Meeting the technological representatives of such beings is simply not the same.

The same goes for First Contact via transmission. It is more likely that we will simply receive a message one day on a SETI radio telescope than that we will ever get a visit from an extraterrestrial civilization. Certainly such a thing would be easier to manage. The impact would be greatly reduced, leaving us plenty of time to contemplate as scientists work to decipher and improve communication.

First Contact of the direct kind, where extraterrestrial beings actually visit Earth, would be an explosion of awareness. The rest of the possibilities are mere puffs of smoke in comparison. The fellowship of being is what we really seek. It’s not enough to know that there is a radio on somewhere in the darkness and that we are not alone. What we crave is the touch of that non-human hand and the gesture that welcomes us into a universe grander than the one we have previously known.

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