Monday, May 21, 2012

Extraterrestrial Contact: Three Human Reactions

I propose that there may be three basic human reactions after high information First Contact with an extraterrestrial civilization. First Contact could be a huge mystery, requiring many years of study to sort out even the most elementary answers. If we discover a signal in far-off space, it is likely to take quite some time to figure out where it came from, what it says and what might have sent it. It would be unlikely that those discoveries would occur in some great flash, but rather they would probably move at the pace of human science, which is often necessarily slow and methodical. However, under the right circumstances First Contact could occur with a great flash of information. For example, if a message is sent to us in a language we could easily understand or if aliens stopped by Earth to say hello. While the later (years of scientific effort) is much more likely, I think there is value in examining the possible human reactions to a high information First Contact event.
It comes down, I think, to these basic reactions: no-go, go-slow and go-go. Sorry for the cute terminology, and bear with me for the explanation. There will be those humans who are incredibly excited by the information that a First Contact situation might bring. They will want to know everything they can about the aliens and their knowledge, as quickly as it can be known. I call these folks the go-go group. On the other side of the spectrum will be people who are quite worried about First Contact and the influence of alien thought and ideas. They may react by suggesting that humans send the aliens away, ignore the messages, or otherwise set up a barrier between human and alien interaction. I would call these folks the no-go group. I would further suggest that the no-go group may be tied to conservative, fundamentalist religions and the go-go movement may be lead by those with a great deal of faith in science.
The go-slow group falls in between those two poles. The go-slow folks would say: this is exciting and there is much to be learned, however let’s prepare a framework for that discovery before we proceed. We must move slowly in order to protect our human institutions, especially our method of science. If we move too quickly we could undermine our scientific institutions, which could be harmful to our future.
As you might imagine, if you have read this blog for very long, I fall into the go-slow group. I think that we should welcome First Contact in whatever form it takes, and use a great deal of caution and critical thinking in moving forward. We cannot assume anything. First Contact would, by its very nature, be a situation we have never dealt with before and one that not very many of us have actually considered with any rigor. We would be unprepared and need to take immediate steps to ready ourselves. That means limiting the type of information we receive at first and building a framework that is carefully tailored to our sciences for the transfer of information from extraterrestrial sources.
The go-slow group, by its very placement in the middle of the two opposite poles of no-go and go-go, is a moderate route. Moderates are often made fun of in the American political system. They can be viewed as those who do not have strong opinions and thus are willing to be swayed by opposing political forces. In reality, moderation is a philosophical idea that has been explored for thousands of years by humans. The Greeks used the term “meden agan” or nothing in excess. In this context, moderation is often used to describe everything from food intake to alcohol consumption. In action, moderation simply means that the path between the extremes is a safer and perhaps healthier path forward. Moderation could be seen as a more natural state. Moderation allows for growth and development, where extreme reactions tend to stifle growth and development or allow it to be reckless.
There are those who will argue that the go-go movement is not an extremist point of view. They will likely be joined by advocates seeking complete freedom of information in human endeavors, especially on the Internet. They will say that humans have a great capacity for understanding and limiting extraterrestrial information will limit human development. They will also be highly skeptical of anyone who suggests that information flow be controlled, especially if that call comes from institutions or governments.
I understand the go-go sentiment (or the one likely to occur if First Contact ever occurs). Freedom of information is the key to the future of humanity. We must give ourselves the true benefit of our new technology. The Internet allows us to have access to the entirety of human knowledge, at least as much as can be put into language and onto a computer. The free flow of that information, across all nations and all cultures, will allow humans to grow and develop in ways not previously imagined. I agree with those principals wholeheartedly, just not when it comes to extraterrestrial information. I should be clear, I don’t think there would be anything wrong with finding out where extraterrestrials come from, what they are like and the characteristics of their planet and solar system. I think we could learn whatever they can teach us about their history and their history exploring the universe. The dangerous part is the dissemination of information about physics, biology and technology. These are subjects that could literally explode human scientific paradigms left and right. Let’s be quite clear about this, there is a huge difference between a paradigm shift and a paradigm explosion. A shift is just a remarkable movement in one direction of thought or another. The paradigm doesn’t lose its foundation, but rather sets off from that foundation in a new direction. Alien information could cause a paradigm explosion, where the very foundation of our knowledge is eroded. I’m not saying that we should labor under false information willingly, but rather that in certain sciences we must move carefully and with great deliberation. We must work at every step to make sure we fully understand the information presented and that we align that new thought with our current foundation. In a sense this is what any student does. The physics grad student doesn’t throw out everything learned in her freshman year of high school, but rather takes the time to incorporate the new knowledge into her previous understanding. Doing such means that the student sees the progression and how the whole model fits together. If you simply dump graduate physics into the lap of that high school freshman she would likely struggle to understand and perhaps just jump to the end result.
Why bother going back to incorporate the new knowledge with the human foundation in the field? The answer is scientific muscle. If you work to acquire new knowledge in a gradual way, using the foundation you have already acquired, you build new scientific muscle and you will have the ability to transcend the new information and make new discoveries. If you are merely spoon-fed the new information and don’t do the hard work of incorporation, you will be knowledge rich and process weak. You will be dependent on alien spoon feeding and eventually lose the ability to make discoveries of your own.
Now granted this entire conversation assumes that the aliens we meet will be in advance of us technologically. If they have the ability to send us a high information message in a language we can understand or they show up in our solar system, they will be more advanced than us in technology. We do not currently have the knowledge or resources to do the same. There is also another huge question: would they be willing to share technological information at all? There are certainly plenty of arguments for not sharing such knowledge, with competition perhaps being the primary concern.
What would be your reaction in the wake of First Contact: no-go, go-slow or go-go? Join the discussion on the Alien First Contact Facebook page.


Carl (UK) said...

I also advise a go-slow approach.

Throughout human history we have always explored, whether it be Columbus, NASA or Kepler, we have always wanted to find out what it over the next horizon. Therefore I could not imagine a scenario where we wouldn’t want to participate in some way with advanced extraterrestrials. Also, we have a number of problems at this time in our cycle and I think the potential to answer problems such as global warming, over population, our reliance on fossil fuels would be too greater and incentive to just ignore them.

I would argue against go-go as we would need to evaluate our next move carefully. We would not want to make any mistakes in something with so great an importance for mankind.

I think a go-slow approach would be best and I think we would follow that approach. While we are still explorers and are inquisitive, we have sought to limit the risk to the brave pioneers as we have progressed. In distant past people sent Columbus to sea believing he could fall off the edge of the world, more recently NASA limited the risks to its astronauts but still risked life, nowadays we seem to seek to limit risks further by sending artificial intelligence into the unknown. Therefore while we still seek answers to what is out-there we also see the importance of trading carefully, which is why I believe mankind should and would take a go-slow approach..

Eric said...

Carl: I like your comparisons to explorers of every age. Science and commerce are "go-go" human endeavors. NASA has taught us much about the value of caution. I think we have developed as a civilization in our ability to not only seize current opportunities, but take a look at where such opportunities may lead, and whether they are good for all.

purplearcanist said...

A go-slow approach would probably be a good idea. As some technologies would be really game changing, and the implications could go really far. I agree that first contact will most likely be more subtle then aliens landing at our doorstep, as humanity tries to piece together a message or alien artifact, perhaps discovering some new technology or ideas.

An interesting first contact scenario happens in Achron's plot ( Basically, around 2500 AD, humanity starts colonizing other planets, sending out sleeper ships, moving at relativistic speeds, to colonize the Remnant system. Once they arrive, they discover alien ruins, and reverse engineer instantaneous teleportation, which has a huge impact, basically transforming the Remnant System from a colony outpost to the hub of human civilization. The real kicker is that aliens show up and start attacking, but its not as simple as most hollywood scenarios. The humans actually have superior weaponry, but are militarily outmaneuvered, because the aliens possess time travel technology. The reason for the attack? To preempt humans from getting time travel (called chronoportation) and messing with time, but it ultimately fails.