Let’s be honest with ourselves. There is much more to our interest in extraterrestrial contact than merely meeting an alien intelligence. Beyond the purely speculative considerations of an alien civilization there is a deeper need. We see First Contact as providing a catalyst for change in human civilization. Some have suggested that this hope is quasi-religious in nature. I agree. I think there is a degree of faith built into the First Contact considerations. Many people hope that aliens will someday provide us with knowledge about technology, life and progress. The technology would help us solve our environmental and energy related challenges. The mentorship of an advanced civilization would help us achieve a new level of prosperity and peace on Earth.
These hopes are understandable and, of course, quite naïve. There is one thing that I can guarantee about alien civilizations, if they exist. They are likely much more complicated than we can understand. They are also likely to have attributes that we view as positive and attributes that we view as negative. Hoping for a visit from perfect beings is a rather absurd thought. Imagine if we traveled back 2000 years in human history. We would have technology and knowledge far surpassing anything people of that age would be able to imagine. And yet we would still be complex beings with plenty of good and evil. We haven’t managed to solve problems related to hatred and violence. Why would we imagine that aliens have done such?
We cannot head into First Contact with naïve hopes. We must be careful, critical and well-considered at each and every step. We must not take anything at face value. We must take charge of change and make sure it fits our needs and our desires.
There is something that First Contact of any sort could provide, though: a revolution of the spirit. I borrow here from the Burmese political activist Aung San Suu Kyi. She has been working for human rights and political freedom in Myanmar for decades. It has cost her dearly with both her family and her health. And yet is appears her hard work is beginning to pay off.
Suu Kyi made a famous speech in 1991 as she accepted the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought. In that speech, she spoke of the greater context in the struggle for political freedom. This excerpt comes from Wikiquote:
“The quintessential revolution is that of the spirit, born of an intellectual conviction of the need for change in those mental attitudes and values which shape the course of a nation's development. A revolution which aims merely at changing official policies and institutions with a view to an improvement in material conditions has little chance of genuine success. Without a revolution of the spirit, the forces which produced the iniquities of the old order would continue to be operative, posing a constant threat to the process of reform and regeneration. It is not enough merely to call for freedom, democracy and human rights. There has to be a united determination to persevere in the struggle, to make sacrifices in the name of enduring truths, to resist the corrupting influences of desire, ill will, ignorance and fear.”
This is a tremendous thought. It is not merely guns and threats that keep people in line. It is fear. Suu Kyi points out that fear works in many ways, including the fear of oppressors who do not want to lose power. However, it is collective public fear that can allow a military government to hold back a nation. We have seen many examples in recent years of how a change in that fear can lead to action and hope. That action and hope can roll over tanks and change governments. Now, there is plenty of sacrifice and often bloodshed along the way. But the change is something that collectively people could not imagine until it started to happen.
I see humanity as also ruled by fear. Suu Kyi gave the charge for people to “liberate their own minds from apathy and fear.” This can happen in one nation. This can also happen for an entire planet. I think humanity needs a revolution of the spirit. Perhaps, just perhaps, extraterrestrial contact would be a dramatic enough event to help us break out of fear and see new hope for our civilization. We choose to live in violence and chaos. We can choose to live in peace and order if we wish. That may sound simplistic and it most certainly is simplistic. It is also the truth. There is no great outside force causing us to treat each other like crap. It happens through decisions we make each and every day. Recent events in many oppressed countries show that we can collectively change that equation. It isn’t easy. None of the revolutionary nations of recent has achieved the peace that they hope to achieve. And yet they are moving forward. In this way all of humanity could move forward. First Contact could provide the catalyst for a revolution of the human spirit. We don’t need aliens providing us with technology and telling us what to do. The simple realization that the universe is much more complex than we have previously understood could provide the catalyst for change. First Contact can be more than just a scientific breakthrough. It can be the wake-up message for planet Earth. That message is simple: it’s a new day and we can decide how that day will go.
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