Monday, February 6, 2012

Extraterrestrial Contact: The Fourth Adjustment

I had a pill stuck in my throat the other day. It was annoying as hell and as I downed glasses of water it reminded me of something. Pardon the coarse analogy, but it came to me that the pill is the realization by humanity that we are not alone in the universe and not at the center of the universe. It’s something we are, collectively, still trying to swallow. Slowly the pill works its way down. We’re not choking, but it’s a slow, uncomfortable process. Each planetary discovery by the NASA Kepler mission brings us closer to the truth.

The discovery of extraterrestrial life will help in the process. The discovery of extraterrestrial intelligence will speed the process up. Harlow Shapley called this the Fourth Adjustment of how humans view themselves. He refers to the change in geocentric, heliocentric and galactocentric world views. The geocentric and heliocentric views are familiar to us from history. The galactocentric view shifted just in the last few decades, when it was shown that our solar system lies on the edge of the Milky Way. The adjustment effect is to ever broaden human perception of the physical world around us.

Steven Dick argues in his 1995 paper “Consequences of Success in SETI: Lessons from the History of Science” that this Fourth Adjustment has already begun. Popular culture has actively considered the possibility of extraterrestrial intelligence for more than 200 years. Many surveys show that the majority of respondents believe that extraterrestrial life exists. A 2005 poll conducted for the National Geographic Channel even showed that 7 out of 10 Americans surveyed thought that extraterrestrial beings have the ability to travel through space and communicate through deep space.

Humans themselves may be slowly making the Fourth Adjustment, but it appears that human institutions have a ways to go. The U.S. Government cut off spending for the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) in the 1990s under intense political pressure. The United Nations has yet to act on any major SETI related proposals. That’s understandable- institutions have many pressing needs at this time and supporting SETI research entails political risk. However, technology may be changing institutions whether they like it or not. It’s increasing our economic interdependence. It’s putting the power to force change in the hands of millions of individuals, thanks to social media. The Internet and other communication technology is changing the way we relate to institutions and creating new demands on institutions. As humans across the planet grow closer together with technology, it seems likely that institutions will do so as well. Why is this important for the Fourth Adjustment? Knowledge of extraterrestrial intelligence demands that we view our civilization differently. It makes us consider the human context in the wider universe first and culture and nation based contexts secondarily. Dick says that the shift is happening slowly, but there is still a high likelihood of a significant revolution in thought if extraterrestrial intelligence is ever discovered.

The pill will go down eventually, whether slowly or in a dramatic event. Future generations of humans will view the universe very differently.


Álvaro Cardoso said...

Hello Eric. :) Another good post about this topic. I totally agree with you in all the points, but i think it's not a question of "find" or "discovery"... it's more a question of "make it public", and then comes the "Adjustment" like it should be done, if there is a right way to do it at this moment, because it will be a shock to our culture and way of thinking (not for me).

I think there's a lot evidence and facts everywhere that we are not alone and so unique in the Universe. It's a question of understand, know the world we live, then know the universe we live.

Maybe the answer is here on Earth... If we try to learn about ancient cultures and our ancestors, what do we find? :)

Let's imagine that we would be able to travel back in time, what would our ancestors think about us? Our technology? Our capabilities?

Until now, the "Truth is out there", been called madness, hoax, lies, conspiracy... well, Giordano Bruno was burned at the stake for such "heresy", and in the end, who is right? :)

Eric said...

Alvaro: Perhaps it will be a case of making it public. I think you're right that no matter how it goes down...if First Contact is revealed in any way. it will be a big shock to our culture.

Carl (from UK) said...

I think that any first contact with life outside our planet will create some element of shock, however, I think that the shock would be different depending on the type of contact and also how it is handled.

Regarding type, I would think that a discovery of microbial life on Mars, or Europa would be the easiest to handle. We would still be in the position of power as we would have done the finding and we would still be the top dogs, so to speak. This would lead to a realisation that life can exist outside of our planet and would make further contact/discoveries easier to handle – assuming the full ramifications were explained to the public. I don’t think many people would have a problem dealing with this.

Slightly more surprising would be finding evidence of life in the form of an object, or maybe lights/gases from distant planets (capabilities within next decade(s)). This would be a step further as it would be intelligent life, but we would have the chance to discuss and plan our next steps. This would be a significant surprise for some people, but I think society as a hole could handle this.

The latter options would be high information first contact which would cause the biggest shocks. Either ET turning up unannounced, or contacting our governments first, with information being drip fed to us. Dealing with the latter first this would be managed by the world leaders and it would give them time to prepare us for disclosure. This would be more of a shock as we would no longer be masters of the universe, but at least the realisation of this could be managed. There would be a key watershed moment, which the world leaders would have to get right, as once contact is announced it cannot be undone. In my opinion large groups, even today, would suffer a great shock and would not take this well. This would cause a shock, but one which people with open minds could handle.

The last option of ET turning up unannounced ala ‘V’ or ‘Independence Day’ (but without conflict) would be such a shock that this would be a disaster for mankind (in my opinion). Firstly it would be almost impossible for governments to prepare/control the unprecedented levels of hysteria that would occur. Secondly, there would be genuine scepticism surrounding ET’s motives, given their lack of appreciation for our ‘backwardness’ in this matter. I would expect any ET with our best interests at heart would want to lessen the impact of first contact on mankind and therefore I for one would be worried.

Personally I think a discovery of microbial life will be first, unless there is something going on which our governments haven’t told us about!

Another great blog by the Way!

Eric said...

Thanks Carl. Yes, I think the most likely scenario is for humans to discover microbial extraterrestrial life and have a slow process toward eventual discovery of extraterrestrial intelligence. It might be the best path for our civilization, as it would allow us to mature before being subject to outside forces, namely other civilizations. I have so much respect for the researchers developing plans to search for life on mars and the moons in our solar system. The ancient lake just drilled in Russia may be a first step toward understanding what type of ancient life we had and if it can be sustained trapped beneath miles of ice.