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.