The Psychological Reason Humans Want to Believe in Aliens- But Shouldn’t
Humans aren’t meant to find aliens. Maybe we will one day, but that’s not the point of our existence. Of course, there is no point in our existence. But that’s another story.
Humans are social creatures. From the beginning of our civilization, we have imagined “higher powers,” or types of beings that could transcend, guide, and keep humanity company. Most importantly, these projections of higher life forms proved to us, to those that believed, anyway, that we were not alone.
Humans long for the company of others- and so do other species on Earth. My dog follows me around the house, struggling up the stairs that have become increasingly difficult for her to navigate as she ages. But she wouldn’t think twice about it, even if she could. She doesn’t want to be alone. The desire to not be alone has helped dogs survive as a species. Thousands of years ago, dogs domesticated themselves as an evolutionary choice. Their need for companionship is not just emotional: it’s a means of survival.
We’re too friendly for our own good
Humans formed packs for survival too, which has evolved into an emotional need for companionship. We have a word for that quality: “clingy.” Sometimes, humans get annoyed when other humans nag them for attention or validation. We feel isolated in our own bodies and minds, hyperaware of our own vulnerability. So, we spend our existence looking for reassurance that other humans feel the same way. We spend our existence being “clingy,” but not just as individuals. This quality defines our species.
As a species, we don’t have anyone to “cling” to. There is no higher power to console our grief over the hardships of life. There is no being of equal or greater intelligence (that we know of) that we can commiserate with about the vast emptiness of the universe and the fleeting nature of life. Think about a clingy younger sibling, the one that will do anything for their older sibling’s approval. That little sibling will go to great lengths to be in the company of their older sibling with no regard for how badly a rejection will hurt. They just want company. They try and try again.
Is having the universe to ourselves so bad?
In the grand scheme of the cosmos, humans are that little sibling. We always feel alone and need the company of others. We invented higher powers to give us wisdom and guidance: imaginary friends if you will. But for us to have conceived of the wisdom that higher powers give us, we must have already had it inside of ourselves. Maybe we are all we need.
Humans define our existence in the universe by our lack of interaction with extraterrestrial “others.” Maybe it would be better for our self-esteem as a species if we thought about ourselves in terms of what we are and what we have accomplished, instead of in terms of what we lack. Dwelling on how we are “alone in the universe” is applying the same framework of human existence, ie, loneliness, to our place in the cosmos. But maybe that place isn’t so bad.
That being said, the Fermi Paradox is still a persistent and valid anomaly. This paradox asks if chemistry, biology, and physics suggest that, by mere odds, there should be intelligent life elsewhere in the universe, why isn’t there?
“Given that our star and Earth are part of a young planetary system compared to the rest of the universe — and that interstellar travel might be fairly easy to achieve — the theory says that Earth should have been visited by aliens already.” -Elizabeth Howell, Space.com
There are several explanations for the Fermi Paradox (many more than I list here). None of them are incredibly comforting.
1. All other life has died off
We have not found intelligent life, and it has not found us, because it has died off. Our existence here on Earth proves the more advanced a civilization becomes, the greater the capability to destroy itself. Never mind that our planetary homes and the circumstances that enable them to support life are finite and, over long periods of time, can change. (For example, what if Earth lost its protective magnetic field due to a polar realignment? We’d be toast.) Intelligent civilizations may cause themselves to expire long before the universe would ensure it.
2. The Dark Forest Theory
Mutually assured destruction, which may destroy us and could have already destroyed other civilizations, plays another role in explaining the Fermi Paradox. The mere possibility of mutually assured destruction may be enough to explain the silence of the cosmos. Maybe tens of thousands- as the Drake Equation suggests- of intelligent civilizations exist in the Milky Way alone. But they all know they have the capability to destroy each other, and the incentive to colonize each other. And so, to prevent interstellar conflict of any kind, they keep quiet. They might know of each others’ existences. But they look the other way. Because if a stare-down started, who knows how it would end?
Earth might be disrupting this careful balance. In the 1970s, we launched the Voyager probe, which has traveled into interstellar space with recordings of Beethoven and other staples of human civilization for aliens to find. Other intelligent civilizations, whose existence may hinge on the mutually agreed-upon plausible deniability that no one exists, might see it and think, You idiots! You’re going to screw this up for all of us! We humans are making a show of our existence when every other intelligent civilization that cares about survival might be trying to stay quiet. We are the interstellar freshman walking into the high school with no regard for the existing rules. We’re going to get beat up- and everyone else might too.
3. They’re too smart for us
Of course, there’s always the possibility that a peaceful interstellar civilization already exists. It may be concealing itself until we are ready to become part of it. Many argue that as a civilization advances, so does moral responsibility. So the idea that other civilizations have not yet killed each other, or will imminently, is possible too. That would support the theory that extraterrestrial visitors would “come in peace.” Maybe aliens are like the ones in 2001: Space Odyssey, who left a breadcrumb trail starting in pre-human times for humans to uncover when they grew smart enough. Those aliens wanted human evolution to continue and delivered a new protohuman to Earth at the end of the movie. Stanley Kubrick confirmed the extraterrestrials of Space Odyssey are pure consciousness. Is that what we have to look forward to? Maybe the universe is so quiet because the “aliens” don’t take up any physical space.
But how much longer could an interstellar civilization hide from us? In recent years, we have discovered exoplanets across the galaxy, including Earth-like ones that could support life, although nothing is certain. The James Webb telescope launching in 2021 could give us a better picture of these planets. However, if we did find proof of life on an exoplanet, we couldn’t contact them. If we could, it would take hundreds, thousands, or millions of years just to send a radio signal back and forth. During that time, the civilization alerted of our existence could advance enough to travel here and exterminate us. So for now, we might want to keep our existence on the DL.
We might not need to look as far as we suspect to find life in the universe. Jupiter’s moon Europa might have underground oceans that could sustain life. Saturn’s moon Titan may sustain life as well in its methane oceans- and could be a potential site for human colonization one day. But any life on these moons would most likely microscopic and totally foreign to us. Maybe the satisfaction of finding life at all, however microscopic, would be enough to get us to quiet down and stop attracting life forms that could destroy us.