Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Extraterrestrial Contact: Saviors and Destroyers

There’s always been a semi-religious fervor to the consideration of extraterrestrial First Contact. It’s an understandable feeling as such an event would change humanity. It does however, seem to cloud the judgment and quite frankly we’re all in the same boat. History professor George Basalla examines the issue, in more depth than most, in his book “Civilized Life in the Universe: Scientists on Intelligent Extraterrestrials.” Basalla does an excellent job showcasing the robust debate that has surrounded the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) for decades now.

Carl Sagan, a man who I admire for his incredible creativity and vision, was one of the biggest proponents of aliens as saviors. I don’t mean in some traditional religious sense, but in a more secular sense. At various points in his career, Sagan lists many human problems associated with technology and posits a possible solution coming from the stars. Extraterrestrial civilizations could provide humans with the technology to solve those problems. Many of those fascinated by the possibilities of life After First Contact choose to focus on the possible benefits to humanity. Aliens could provide us with the knowledge to advance our technology, which could, in turn, help us solve our environmental dilemma and provide a better balance for the seven billion humans on this one small planet. Or aliens could provide us some great new philosophy that could help us overcome our conflicts and enter a new, peaceful age. Basalla points out that these beliefs came of age in the 1960s. It was a time when humans were faced with the stark realities of technology: a nuclear arms race grown beyond all reason, a global battle between two forms of government, pollution and civil unrest. Not that we don’t face our share of those problems now, but they were birthed and heightened in the 1960s and by the 1970s we were quite worried about the future of humanity. So, was the prospect of extraterrestrial help an easy fix, a kind of faith that would allow us to hope for a better future? Perhaps. Basalla raises the point to question whether our hopes have clouded the scientific judgment of SETI scientists. That’s a sobering and reasonable question.

The argument has power because of the often overly optimistic hopes of the scientists for life in the wake of First Contact. I think it’s important to note that the real world is rarely so simple or nice. It’s usually quite gritty and complicated. To think that First Contact would be purely positive in outcome for humanity is naïve. It’s belies the one thing that humans know for sure: life is struggle and struggle is life.
There are plenty of those who fall in the opposite side of the spectrum. They view extraterrestrial First Contact as having a negative, if not disastrous, outcome for humans. Those doomsayers include Stephen Hawking, one of the most respected physicists of our time.

There is a more measured approach courtesy of Biologist George Wald. He spoke out in a 1972 symposium sponsored by Boston University and NASA. Basalla says Wald's concern was the prospect of humans becoming reliant on alien technology and the impact such dependency might have on the human civilization. If we undermine our scientific process, what will become of us? If you have been reading this blog for any period of time you know that I share the same concern. Even if we were to be handed alien technology (and hopefully with a massive tutorial) I think we would be nuts to just accept whatever we are told. Gatekeeping would be essential. We would have to consider the impact of the information we received and decide if we are truly ready. Perhaps we could just find out about the aliens themselves and their world? They could keep quiet about their technology and allow human science to grow naturally.

It seems unlikely that extraterrestrials would be saviors or destroyers. No matter what their motivation, contact between two civilizations, separated by the vast distances of space for such a long time, would be a complicated enterprise fraught with potential problems and holding many opportunities. If it ever does occur we will need to walk through the landscape after First Contact as if it were a minefield: watching out for the worst and searching for the best.


Carson said...

Great post. There is a semi-religious fervor to this subject of extraterrestrial First Contact. This is because there is so much hope & wonder and it's almost incomprehensible. You hear a lot of New Age spiritual mumbo jumbo talk with many on the UFO side (not all), there are theist who hope a supreme being did not stop at one and lastly Michael Shermer mentioned something interesting about the scientific SETI side. A high percentage of the SETI folks were raised with a religious background who later became agnostic, atheist, non-theist, or secularist and went into SETI as their scientific career. For non religious people, it's a sense of optimism that "someone" might be out there that is more intelligent and technologically advanced than us and the possibility that having a longer evolutionary history will result in a benevolent species that is eager to communicate. It's comparable to something greater than ourselves. It gives secular scientific people a sort of religious feeling. What can be more noble and worthwhile? Let alone the hope, I'm sure the Search is worth it to them out of pure curiosity and to answer that question: are we alone? I have also noticed skeptics, free thinkers, agnostics and atheists not raised in a religion--seem to have little or no interest in extraterrestrial First Contact or speculation. I find that interesting.

It's intriguing how many people are set on the outcome. So many see aliens as saviors or doomsayers with nothing in the middle. It's funny it even comes from science minded people who have put a lot of thought to the event. I admit, I for one am guilty of a secular salvation coming from the stars. I hope they exist and they are willing to share their findings of the fundamental laws of physics/nature, all their knowledge, philosophy and will share their technology to solve our biggest problems like disease, aging, energy, travel and even enhancing cognitive capacities and emotional well being....HOWEVER I'm realistic and agree with you that First Contact will most likely be really complicated and have positive and negative outcomes for humans. Reality and the Universe is absurd. It's so difficult to imagine what our species will be like given hundreds, thousands, or a million years from now; let alone another species from another planet with a different evolutionary lineage. Perhaps there is interplanetary convergent evolution?

I was not aware of the book you mentioned. Thanks! It should be right up my alley.

Eric said...

Carson: That's interesting...I think you could be right that the religious background of the person might have a lot to do with their fervor regarding first contact. Certainly those with a religious upbringing, and then turned to an agnostic or atheist view might be more inclined to consider first contact in a religious way...while skeptics and original atheists might be less likely to do so. I also really like the idea of interplanetary convergent evolution. One would imagine that if first contact did occur our evolution would be impacted...and perhaps theirs. Great post! and enjoy the book...it is really good.