EXOCULTURE SHOCK

March 29th, 2012

Do we really want to know what’s out there?

“New ‘life in space’ hope…” was the headline of a newspaper item the other day — about an astronomical survey which suggests that billions of habitable planets exist in our galaxy alone.

As I’ve suggested before, hope is not what we should be feeling about this prospect. Proof that there is even one extraterrestrial intelligence out there would be something to fear.

Many others have made similar arguments. Even in the scientific journal Nature there was an editorial six years ago which included the lines:

It is not obvious that all extraterrestrial civilizations will be benign — or that contact with even a benign one would not have serious repercussions for people here on Earth.

In Hollywood, too, the ET-themes seem to have  become a lot darker in the past couple decades (e.g., Species, War of the Worlds, Transformers).

The possibility of malign aliens should be the least of our worries, though. Any “bad” ET neighbor capable of detecting us and traveling here would have wiped us out long ago — or anyway would have done whatever it wanted, regardless of what we did or thought.

In any case, it seems more likely that advanced aliens would be “good” ones. Our own experience here on Earth is that the more socially and technically advanced (and wealthy) societies tend to be more cooperative and benign — I think of Canadians, Norwegians, Swiss. In general, Western culture, as it has matured, has become much more peaceful and respectful of other, less advanced cultures. Contrast, say, America’s civilize-the-savages attitude of the Philippine war era a century ago with our present solicitude for remote Amazonian tribes. Or compare Vikings of 1000 AD to modern Swedes.

And if by ill chance aliens did come and turn us to ashes, arguably they’d be performing an act of mercy. An Earth society that had to confront, and then live with, the existence of a vastly superior alien species, would be in serious trouble.

There would be a basic demoralizing effect from the knowledge that everything we do and think is inferior and primitive – laughably so, like ants vs. humans.

But I suspect that the worst shock of all, from a visiting ET, would be an explanation of the universe for which we are totally unprepared.

As Nietzsche noted more than a century ago, we humans fail to keep up psychologically with the implications of even our own humble science. Whether we  profess atheism or tome-thumping monotheism, we still tend to think of our lives and our civilizations as having some kind of meaning in the grand scheme of things. We pay lip service to the ETI possibility, but really we see ourselves as a lone, special species on its way to ruling the heavens, or destined for some kind of union with the entity who already rules. Other, smarter creatures come into this picture only as helpers (e.g., angels) of the highest beings, not as representatives of intermediate cultures that once were like ours.

Yet for some time quantum mechanics and cosmology have been indicating that the universe — in every direction, dimension and sub-universe — is a cold infinitude; and in this unfathomable context our experienced existence effectively has no significance: The ultimate secret is that there is no secret. The existential relativism of the currently-popular “Many Worlds Interpretation” (MWI) of quantum theory is so extreme, and so different from our intuitive view of things, that if we took it seriously, we’d be seriously messed up. Currently we can justify ignoring MWI’s implications in our general thinking because we’re unable to prove or disprove it. But an encounter with vastly smarter aliens would force us to confront and accept their model of reality — and if it is anything like MWI, it will be one in which the broad “meaning” and “purpose” we crave is entirely absent.

So maybe we should be grateful, for now, that SETI’s antennas deliver only the static of stars, and UFOs flit and swoop just out of science’s reach. If there are real aliens out there, their elusiveness may be the clearest indication that they mean us no harm.

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