The Future’s Most Important Possibility — Contact With Extraterrestrial Life
As a kid raised on science fiction shows like Star Trek, Battlestar Galactica, and Space:1999, I have always taken it for granted that contact with extraterrestrial life is looming on the horizon for humanity. As an optimist, I tend to see this as something that would be full of possibility, and indeed the very thing we need, rather than something to fear.
The Drake equation postulates several things, and in doing so, predicts the possibility of extraterrestrial life contacting us.
The Drake equation is a probabilistic argument used to arrive at an estimate of the number of active, communicative extraterrestrial civilizations in the Milky Way galaxy. The number of such civilizations, N, is assumed to be equal to the mathematical product of (i) the average rate of star formation, R, in our galaxy, (ii) the fraction of formed stars, f, that have planets, (iii) the average number of planets per star that has planets, n, that can potentially support life, (iv) the fraction of those planets, f, that actually develop life, (v) the fraction of planets bearing life on which intelligent, civilized life, f, has developed, (vi) the fraction of these civilizations that have developed communications, f, i.e., technologies that release detectable signs into space, and (vii) the length of time, L, over which such civilizations release detectable signals. (Wikipedia)
The Drake equation also considers broadcasting ‘detectable’ signals to be paramount to our ability to hear from ET. However, we tend to privilege radio frequency signals over all other possibilities, despite the knowledge that we live in a multiverse with different dimensional possibilities. The equation assumes that ET occupies 3D/4D reality (3 spatial dimensions and one dimension of time), but that is not necessarily the case. String/M theory makes it clear we live in a multiverse. What if ET is inter-dimensional? How do we measure ‘them’ and conduct repeatable experiments if they operate according to physical laws we can’t adequately observe? What if the phenomena we do observe (UFOs, crop circles, etc.) are ET poking through the veils that separate our dimensions? Are those phenomena then observable and measurable according to our scientific method? For one thing we can’t run controlled experiments, because we aren’t in control.
In my mind, the most important part of this equation is (v), the fraction of planets bearing life on which intelligent, civilized life has developed. This is important because war and violence tend to stifle civilization growth over the long-term, and a focus on war and violence re-allocates resources that could be used for scientific discovery, infrastructure, exploration, and other endeavors beyond a planet. Despite all of the alien invasion movies and shows that dominate popular culture, logic would suggest that extraterrestrial motivations to visit other planets are more likely to be benign rather than aggressive.
Another important part of this debate is what is typically referred to as the Fermi Paradox — if there are so many extraterrestrial species in our observable universe, then why haven’t any traveled to Earth already? I would argue that we don’t know that they haven’t. As Einstein famously said, ‘Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence’. We tend to overlook, among other things, the ramifications of multiverse theory in our analysis — we say that other habitable planets are so far away that we can’t get there, and neither can ET get here. However, I think it is logical to consider other means of transport, many of which we might not be able to fathom. I postulate that ET is probably inter-dimensional and might use wormhole technology (wormholes that they create while tapping into free or zero-point energy sources) in order to explore the cosmos. That takes the ‘it would take light years for any of us to reach each other’ problem out of the equation.
So let’s imagine for a moment that ET can get to us. That maybe they have had that ability for an aeon of our time. Why might advanced ET life might be interested in us? I run across far too many well-meaning people who say that there is nothing interesting about us to ET, unless they are here to exploit or destroy us, but I see things differently. Advanced species are highly likely to have left aggression and destruction behind in order to evolve — so what then could be there interest in us? Well, maybe they are here to help. Maybe advanced intelligence also includes advanced spiritual values like loving-kindness, as the Buddhists might characterize it. We know that altruism is fundamental to human nature (when it’s not brainwashed out of people being taught to hate) — I think smart, advanced species operate on principles of altruism and feel it’s their duty to help civilizations advance beyond self-destructive tendencies.
Consider some other scenarios for what might motivate other civilizations to help us.
Observing a Volatile Species
This is what ET: The Extraterrestrial was doing on Earth. He was a botanist, collecting botanical samples, who accidentally got left behind. As scientists, observation is core to understanding, and we engage in a lot of observation of other species ourselves. If so, it should be looked upon as a potentially benign phenomenon that ETs might be observing us and might have been for quite some time. It’s likely that they observe a lot of rapidly advancing civilizations who tend to accept violence, exploitation, and pollution as acceptable ways to exist. In the fabric of space/time, some of the things we do might have further reaching effects than we think. If we can pollute our planet, we can pollute the space around it, and that could be a problem for neighbors of ours. If we show aggressive, expansionist tendencies on our own planet, we are likely to expand those practices beyond our planet. It’s understandable then, that they might want to keep an eye on us.
It has been suggested that extraterrestrials aren’t new to Planet Earth, but have been involved in our development for millennia, at least. Civilization as we know it (with advanced knowledge of astronomy, mathematics, architecture, engineering, etc.) did appear to spring up out of nowhere, including Sumer/Mesopotamia, China, and Mesoamerica and the cosmological myths in many areas around the world are full of ‘beings from the stars’. As advanced species themselves, ET might view it as mentorship. We are at a crossroads and they might want to lend a guiding hand, so we can also one day be an advanced species. Otherwise we might be at the risk of extinction, or perhaps even worse, we might destroy others.
Anyone paying attention to the news knows that we have many intractable problems. The daily suffering on this planet is most likely anathema to benevolent extraterrestrials and they feel compelled to do something, just as we feel compelled to intervene when we see disaster and genocide occurring. Advanced species are likely to have advanced technologies, which could go a long way towards helping humanity, dealing with the energy crisis, and cleaning up the planet. They might feel a responsibility to help less advanced civilizations in peril.
This theme was explored in the two films (original and re-make), The Day the Earth Stood Still, in which an advanced ET visits Earth to intervene in humankind’s bad decision-making. For instance, if they think we are on track towards total climate destruction, nuclear war, or some other self-inflicted destruction (which most of humanity of course doesn’t want), they might feel the need to intervene. We might only be one planet, but we are part of a whole.
These are just a few of the reasons that come to mind; the reality if probably much more complicated. But as we continue to discover that we have neighbors closer and closer, and as the malevolent alien invasion has not yet come, perhaps its time to explore other explanations. First or open contact with altruistic extraterrestrial life could be the most important and yes, positive thing, to ever happen to humanity.
The Visit is a documentary thought experiment into what first or open contact could look like (full version is on Hulu). Only I’d like to suggest a different ending — what if there are others observing our self-destruction and feel compelled to do something about it?
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