A recent opinion column in the New York Times by Gary Gutting, a professor of philosophy at the University of Notre Dame, points to a serious concern that people have about contact with an extraterrestrial civilization. The primary questions are simple: would extraterrestrials be good guys or bad guys and do we really want to risk the bad guy scenario?
The debate is not new, however it has become re-energized with statements by Stephen Hawking and a recent study published in Acta Astronautica by a group of researchers postulating possible First Contact scenarios.
The possibility that aliens might be harmful to the human race must be considered. However, I would urge a more thoughtful approach to the debate. Perhaps we should take a look at the only civilization we currently know: humans. Let’s say that we develop space faring technology some day and travel to another planet. What type of extraterrestrial visitors would we be? Of course, John Cameron took his stab at the idea with Avatar. Science fiction writers have been exploring the topic for decades. The answer those authors usually come up with is based on the reality of humanity: we are neither good guys nor bad guys; we’re a mixed up, confusing, stew of good and bad intentions, and good and bad actions. Sometimes we think we’re doing something good and it goes terribly wrong. Humanity is complicated and often difficult to understand. I think we are naïve to expect aliens to be any different. They are likely to have motives that we might consider to be good and others that we might not like at all. Perhaps the most dangerous situation would occur if they have motives with good intentions that lead to bad consequences for us. It might be hard for us to recognize the danger because of the good intentions.
No matter how long a visiting extraterrestrial civilization might have been studying us, they would be relative novices at dealing with the human race, assuming that the First Contact in question is their first attempt. That means that they would not fully understand our society or how we might react to First Contact. Even worse, because of our lack of serious consideration of the issue, we would not be able to predict how we might react to First Contact. There would be a high degree of uncertainty for all parties involved. There is always risk inherent in uncertainty.
So, if aliens present themselves do we collectively turn off the lights and hide behind the couch? Of course not. We do what humans have done from the beginning. We move forward cautiously. We use reasoning and critical thinking to set a course. We learn from our mistakes. We analyze, make decisions and adjust our path. We keep moving forward. It is what humans do and it is what we will need to do in the wake of First Contact.