Tuesday, March 15, 2016

The Obligations of the Lonely

Mankind has gone through some transitions already related to the presence or absence of aliens in our Milky Way. For a long time, there was no knowledge whatsoever about other planets and therefore about other life on them. Buddhist myth says the heavens are full of other inhabited worlds, but this is an isolated concept, and does not impinge very strongly on Buddhist belief. Other belief sets do not discuss other worlds.

Until Lippersley's invention of the telescope in 1608, little was understood about the universe. Following that, starting with Galileo's observation of Jupiter and its moons in 1610, astronomical discoveries continued without stopping. The details are not important to this post, but for four hundred years knowledge has been accumulating about the solar system and its location in the Milky Way. Huygens in the seventeenth century had computed the distance to another star, assuming it was just like the sun, so by that time the sun was thought to be like other stars, and the question of whether other stars had planetary systems had to be so obvious that is was commonly discussed. The idea of other life, including alien civilizations, on such planets cannot have been far behind.

Thus, aside from a few deep thinkers, during the many millennia of mankind's existence, there was no thought of alien civilizations. The last four hundred years might be thought of as the second phase of mankind's relationship with other civilizations; during this time it became possible to conceive of it, but little knowledge was available to illuminate the concept. During the first period, humanity understood that it was alone in the universe, as there was no universe known for any aliens to inhabit. But during the progression of the second phase, it was gradually realized that mankind might not be alone in the universe, and specifically, after Galileo observed the Milky Way and realized what it was, a collection of stars, alone in the Milky Way.

The knowledge that we might not be alone in the Milky Way does not seem to have affected human society at all. No one writes polemics about how we should change our behavior because of other civilizations on other planets. Millions write polemics about how we should change our behavior for various reasons, so it is not a lack of interest in behavioral change that has blocked this. It is the lack of consideration that it would make any difference in our lives if there were or were not alien civilizations orbiting some other star in the Milky Way. Fiction writers have filled in this gap, and have produced uncounted numbers of short stories and novels involving alien civilizations, but no movement has arisen to exhort us to change something, anything at all, on the basis of some possible alien civilizations. They are supremely unimportant.

The most recent developments in astrophysics and astronomy, where exo-planets are being discovered by the thousands, has gained much popular interest. Now, it is common to hear about new super-Earths or other planets being found, and large, expensive observatories are being built to find more and to find out more about the ones we already know exist. Still there is no cry for us to change something about our world because there are other inhabited worlds in the billions of planets in the Milky Way. No one seems to have come up with a reason why the presence of alien civilizations should mean anything to us, other than a curiosity or a subject for fantasy and science fiction.

That might change if we enter a third phase of our relationship with alien civilizations and we actually detect the existence of some. There are a great many responses possible to the detection of an alien civilization on an exo-planet in the Milky Way, and most likely, all of them would be spoken of by different people and some ways to interact might be explored.

The changes that we might see here on Earth from the detection of an alien civilization might strongly depend on their technological level. If they were still in an agricultural phase, perhaps stuck there, we might not be so interested in contact. If they were in an phase further advanced than ours, we might want to have contact, or to avoid it if there was a fear that they would want our planet for their own. If they were in an agricultural phase, following a collapse of their advanced technology civilization, we again might not want to go there, but instead might take the alien civilization as an exemplar that we might try to avoid.

There would certainly be a large flux of thinking about how to interact, what we could learn, and what precautions we might take on the chance they were not going to treat us nicely. It would be a fascinating era in human history. But there is an option not yet mentioned.

What if we discover, after some thorough investigation, that we are alone in the Milky Way? Science fills in all the missing knowledge needed to conclude this, for example by determining that some preconditions for life happen to be so rare that there is no chance there would be a second civilization in the Milky Way, and maybe that most galaxies would be barren of life. We are it.

This sounds like a nice scientific tidbit that might get mentioned in passing but largely ignored. Science fiction writers might be the ones most devastated by the news, meaning they would have to stick to time travel or some other concept for their fantasies. Or perhaps it would be transformative.

Up to the present day, all through the first and second phases discussed in this post, human decision-making has been governed by factionalism. Factionalism occurs at every level, from the individual level where humans compete with one another, up to the larest groupings, the national scale, where again there is intense competition. Competition is the engine that evolution uses, and so there should be no disparagement of it, as without it, there would be no life, no humans, no cities, no brains, not much of anything. But despite its importance, the entrance into the third phase of our relationship with alien civilizations, where we encounter the vacuum of no life anywhere, there might be some change.

To illustrate, consider this example. A catastrophe happens, and all human life is eliminated, except for one family, living far from all civilization, who are unscathed. Do they change the way they live, or their attitudes toward life? Before the catastrophe, they want to survive and prosper, but after the catastrophe, they realize that if human life is to go on, they will have to make it happen. If they lived in a plentiful area, without much stress on their survival, would they change how they live? Would they modify their choices, perhaps to have more children? Would they be more motivated to prepare for extreme events? How would their psychology change once they realize they are the only pathway forward for human life?

Would human society react to finding a life vacuum in the Milky Way by deciding that their existence was critical, as life was rare in the extreme, and determine to preserve it? When we, as individuals, find something rare, like a beautiful geode or a interesting shell, there is an impulse to save and preserve it. What if we are the rare thing? Would our civilization, after a century of knowing we are alone and the only representatives of life perhaps anywhere in the Local Group of galaxies, transform itself into being less factional and devote a great amount of time to trying to ensure of survival as a species and also ensure life itself continues? It might be more of a change for us to find nobody was there than to find somebody is.

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