September 17, 2011

"Discovery of Extraterrestrial Life Confirmed!" - How Would You Respond? How Would Humankind?


What Do You Say To An Alien?, by Sam Roberts, The New York Times, Sunday Review, The Opinion Pages, February 11, 2012


Imagine the profound implications of scientists conclusively finding life on another planet or celestial body!  Beyond its significant contribution to our scientific knowledge, it would have an immense personal, philosophical and religious impact on the lives of many of us.  It could influence the future survival or extinction of Humankind.

Consider the various personal transformations human individuals would very likely undergo if life beyond Earth is discovered.  For most secularists it would be neither a surprise nor upsetting to their personal concepts of self, their daily life or their worldview.  If anything such a finding would be a boost to secularist confidence in science's methods and perhaps a cause for comfort and celebration on learning of our affiliation with at least one other life form in the Universe.

For some agnostics it would be the clinching piece of evidence that forces them to give up their belief in the possibility of the existence of an Abrahamic God.  Or it might be so terrifying a discovery that in their inability to accept it they were driven into a complete denial of science and toward the open arms of absolute theism.

For believers it would depend on the strength of their commitment to their faith in Abrahamic theology and cosmology.  Some Abrahamic believers, particularly fundamentalists and radicals, would willingly and calmly accept the discovery as further proof of God's will, and celebrate their expanded understanding of God's infinite powers.  Moderate believers, known by some as mainstream people of faith, would likely be either unmoved or driven toward the extremes of fundamentalism or agnosticism.

Another factor affecting the reaction of believers, probably more than secularists, would be the nature of the life discovered on another planet or cosmic object - how complex it is, how similar or dissimilar it is to Earth's Life.  We Earthlings define "life" as having the following minimal characteristics:

Responsiveness to stimuli
Signaling ability
Self-sustaining processes such as metabolism and homeostasis
Reproductive ability
Successful environmental adaptation over successive generations
Communication, especially among more highly evolved life forms

The more complex, the more similar the discovered extra-terrestrial life is to Life on Earth, the more likely it would be that such a discovery would persuade moderate believers and agnostics to reconsider their beliefs.  They could be inclined more toward secularism because science could prove multiple origins of life whereas religion preaches one divinely inspired and revealed origin.  This rethinking among religious moderates and agnostics would most likely happen if the extra-terrestrial life forms were less intelligent and less technologically powerful than humans.

On a broader social, cultural and global scale, the discovery of non-threatening extra-terrestrial life and its secularizing personal impact on millions of humans would speed up Humankind's ongoing movement toward a secular global morality and civilization.  Such personal transformations in the worldview of a significant number of humans and the bringing of more and more of us toward a unified secular understanding of life, on Earth and beyond, could bring about what I call the second major phase of human cultural evolution.*  Specifically, it could bring about an end to, or at least a peaceful accommodation or tolerance among, Humankind's many political, economic and ideological differences.  Equally important, this could lead in turn to an end of or reduction in the conflicts and wars such competing differences contribute to, and free up resources for a more effective human stewardship of the biosphere.

If extra-terrestrial life was found to be more intelligent and technologically advanced than human life, our reactions would be influenced mainly by what we perceived or had evidence for regarding the intentions of that life form toward us and our planet.  Whether we would launch a fear-driven preemptory strike or exhaust all possible diplomatic efforts at achieving peaceful relations while simultaneously preparing for a strike, retaliatory or preemptive, would be the most momentous decision our species has ever made.  A decision comparable in potential evolutionary impact to our ancestors' "deciding" to remain in forests or scavenge and hunt on savannahs, to continue to domesticate animals and plants, live in cities; or to use atomic weapons against each other, to live within laws, or to create the United Nations.

We should support scientific space exploration.  Finding non-threatening life out there may save and prolong Life here on Earth.  On the other hand, the discovery of life forms suspected of or proven to be threatening to Life on Earth will, of course, provide unique challenges.  Regrettably, Humankind has not yet evolved a unified global morality and a supporting pan-human pluralistic civilization to adequately respond to such an ominous discovery.

Tribalism, nationalism and religion continue to vie among themselves for Earth supremacy, giving global pluralism secondary consideration, if any consideration at all.  Their respective goals of hegemony and methods of short-term global resource exploitation shamelessly discount our species' and planet's future.  Fortunately, no culture, nation, economic system, or religion has so far made or forced a convincing case for its self-touted moral superiority and a subsequent right to rule Humankind.  The reason?  Humankind is pluralistic, contrary to the mis-informed social Darwinistic thinking that is regrettably still alive and well in almost all tribes, nations and religions.

Forging a secular global morality and civilization based on pluralism remains the best hope for all Humankind to survive, prosper and appropriately respond to life beyond Earth compared to the morality and worldview of a single tribe, nation or religion.

* - Cultural Evolution, Phase II - Establishing A Unified World View

Suggested Reading

Fountains of Optimism for Life Way Out There, The New York Times, May 8, 2011
Cast Adrift in the Milky Way, Billions of Planets, All Alone, The New York Times, May 18, 2011
Scientists:  Oceans, clouds, rainfall possible on distant planet, CNN, May 18, 2011
Evidence of Water Below Moon's Stony Face, The New York Times, Space and Cosmos, May 26, 2011
"Will Life Beyond Earth Have DNA Roots?"  World's Leading Authorities Say "Maybe Not", The Daily Galaxy, June 3, 2011
"Super-Earth" Found in Habitable Zone, Science, September 12, 2011
36 Light-Years From Here, New Hope for an Earth-Like Planet, The New York Times, Space and Cosmos, September 12, 2011
NASA Detects Planet Dancing With a Pair of Stars, The New York Times, Space and Cosmos, September 15, 2011
Extraterrestrial Aliens: Friends, Foes, or Just Curious? by George Michael, eSkeptic, September 14, 2011
Will the Aliens Be Nice?  Don't Bet On It by Gary Gutting, The New York Times, The Opinion Pages, October 5, 2011


Al Stefanelli said...

Great piece, Jim! I reason that most freethinkers would not be surprised, as it does not require a belief in the supernatural. As well, it's a pretty damned big universe. Personally, I would expect the (mostly religious) general public to freak a little. Either they will think "War of the Worlds" or their entire faith will be shaken.

If there were ever to be an event that would change the religious makeup of the planet, visitors from another planet would be up on the top of a very short list.

Anonymous said...

I believe that it would definitely segregate humans even further, debates about the cosmos would increase, violence with each other over each other's beliefs would increase because more would be at stake. The extra-terrestrial would be the least of our worries (given they didn't deploy a "Independence day" style extermination of the human race) our biggest fear should be ourselves.