Sunday, July 11, 2010

Aliens on Earth and Life in the Universe

Since prehistoric times there have been clues found to possible contact with extraterrestrials, be it in oral traditions, stone monuments, petroglyphs (cave drawings), or other forms of art.

Today, we are able to send spacecraft on missions to explore other worlds and have powerful telescopes capable of peering deep into space to observe distant galaxies in all stages of evolution. And yet, the question of whether there is life elsewhere in the Universe remains unresolved. One thing is certain, however: the implications of such a discovery would be immense.

As part of a recent class project, I met with a woman in her mid to late 40s from northern Minnesota and asked her to share her thoughts and opinions about the possibility of life (particularly intelligent life) elsewhere in the Universe and about the impact that such a discovery might have on society. As we talked, my pre-formed questions were quickly cast aside as the conversation--concentrating more on the social aspects--took a course of it’s own. The conversation took place near Duluth, Minnesota on June 5th, 2010. At her request, I have used her preferred pseudonym of Lynen.

Asked to consider the implications of the discovery of intelligent life on other planets, or of an alien visit to this one, Lynen doubted that such a discovery would ever be made public for fear of creating widespread panic.

“Even if they (the aliens) handed out daisies while rainbows beamed from their fingertips, people would still buy guns and flee,” she said. In a broadside against our commercial age, she added, “Because of the potential for enormous wealth from such a discovery - through merchandising and entertainment, for example - there would be a stampede to try to co-opt, copy write, trademark, or patent some aspect of it.” She thinks that in order for such an adventure to prove successful, “the masses would have to accept the alien life forms.”

I asked what difference it might make if intelligent life were discovered far from our own solar system, far enough away, in fact, that it would take thousands of years (traveling at speeds currently available to man) for them to reach Earth.

“I think it would be an opportunity for governments to take more power and exercise control over their populations through fear-mongering. Martial law could be justified and military budgets increased,” she replied. “Having the aliens far away would be a vague and poorly defined threat – like today’s terrorist,” she added.

Turning to religion, I asked what might be the effect on our belief systems. “Religious leaders would try to dispute any proof of intelligent life far from Earth - claiming it had been fabricated or photo-shopped – fearful of the threat to established norms,” she said.

Looking past the initial panic she sees as inevitable, Lynen painted a picture of how religious leaders might adapt to a changed world. “Once the masses have accepted the reality of the discovery, each religion would then try to claim the alien life as proof of the existence of their God - that either the aliens are their God or are their God’s creation,” she said.

I suggested that Christians might see the arrival of aliens as an allegory of the Christ story, coming from the heavens to bring healing to humans. “There would definitely be those who would assume that the life forms had good intentions – like that scene in Independence Day, when people massed on roofs of skyscrapers holding banners welcoming the hovering spacecrafts. As the base of the crafts opened and bathed the throngs with light, everyone cheered and beamed euphorically – until, of course, the aliens beamed back – annihilating people, buildings, and cities,” she said.

“Regardless of the aliens’ intent, fearful people would become more fearful and peaceful people more peaceful. Some would loot, some would pray, while others would mix another cocktail,“ she added.

But what if the aliens had good intentions? Lynen considered the possibility of some sort of camaraderie developing between humans and aliens, but ultimately doesn’t think such altruism could last long. “We’d present our motives as altruistic – the aliens would make the cover of Time, be knighted and be given the keys to cities, until, that is, we see something of theirs that we want – even if it was only an idea – we’d still want to call it our own,” she said, adding, “We'd take what they have and need, and then try to sell it back to them.”

To glean more insight into how humans might react, Lynen drew on periods from history when there have been “alien” arrivals. She mentioned the Spaniards and the Aztecs. “At first the Spaniards were greeted as gods by the Aztecs. But had the Aztecs correctly perceived the threat, they may have been able to overpower the outnumbered Spaniards instead of becoming enslaved by them,” she said.

Alluding to a non-mainstream belief, she said, “There are people who believe that humans were engineered by aliens as a slave labor force – that ancient Samarian texts, scripture and myth support that theory – and that “Our Creator” is only another intelligent life form.” Expanding on this theme, she said, “Some of the mythological creatures are also thought to be the offspring of aliens (Nephilim) mating with early humans and that there are alien life forms living among us to this day, manipulating us with mind control towards some nefarious end.”

Lynen does not believe in God. Asked why God might create such a vast universe if the only beneficiaries are those on our own planet, she said, “Any creator of the Universe should be beyond our comprehension - the more we try to define it, the further we get from the truth. Defining it humanizes and diminishes it.”

Looking at the longer term impact, Lynen said, “It wouldn’t take too many generations for paradigms to shift. All those born after the discovery of life elsewhere would filter their perceptions through it. No longer would history be relative to B.C/ A.D. or B.C.E./C.E., but instead, another acronym would quickly come into use, separating life before the discovery, and after.” She concluded, “The discovery of intelligent life would undoubtedly change our perception of what God is.”

And how might life on Earth be defined within the context of the Universe? I wondered. “Both secular and religious people can agree on one thing and that is the concept of no beginning and no end. Religions call it eternity, but too often focus less on the life we have – that has a beginning and an end, and more on the indefinite. Life on Earth should be enough,” she said.

“Thank God for scientists!” she exclaimed. “They also accept the concept of eternity, but call it infinity and use it in math problems that have nothing to do with the Ether, unless it involves traveling through it,” she continued.

“Before I sleep at night, I often try to imagine infinite space. I imagine myself reduced to a grain of sand, and then I imagine my neighborhood, my town, my state, my country, and my continent…reducing each of them in turn to a grain of sand and I keep going--bigger and then smaller--until all that defines the Universe is a grain of sand – so, vastness then becomes more comprehensible, but reversing the process – finding the beginning is…well, impossible.”

“What I do enjoy considering, though, is that the infinite provides infinite possibilities – and really, that should be proof enough that other intelligent life has to exist. If there is an infinite before and an infinite after, then anything can and has happened,” she concluded.