Saturday, July 25, 2015

Jonesin' for Aliens

Ever on the fringes of legitimate science, but not marginal enough to earn “kook” status, is the ongoing search for extraterrestrial life – particularly “intelligent” life, which I guess means as intelligent as we supposedly are (or, failing that, as intelligent as dolphins or some people's dogs). And it's not an unreasonable topic, or question – and as a scientific quest I imagine it's no more outlandish than many others. But it doesn't end there. The ET crowd is pursuing its goals with an extra-scientific fervor – some might even say “religious”. They are looking fervently for the slightest clue, the most minute indication, that a given planet might have the conditions necessary to support life – although, let's admit, their notions as to what those conditions might be are only modeled on what they know about life on our home planet. Sci-fi writers down through the years have never had any problem positing radically different life forms; in fact, they exist on virtually every sci-fi TV show and in every sci-fi movie. You say you've got a planet with an average daily temperature of 800 degrees, and an atmosphere composed mainly of nitric acid? No problemo, we have a life form for that. How about a planet that goes down to a supercooled minus 200, with no atmosphere at all? Can do! How about one that's all gas, with no solid ground? Piece-a cake. But unfortunately, the grim pronouncements of “real scientists” tend to take the wind out of the sails of the fantasists, even though the “real” guys are not loath to speculate within their own frame of reference.

So what do we have? Vast arrays of data-collection devices, radio telescopes, and space probes all anxiously searching for ET (or something comparatively benign). We have “Trekkies” who have serious boundary problems between their favorite space epic and what's actually happening with the space program (ours, the Russians', or Richard Branson's). And what motivates these people? Is it just scientific curiosity? But they don't seem to be curious about much else – like where their particular obsession came from, for example. I think their motives fall into, basically, three categories:
  1. Longing for a savior/hero/master race/rescue. This would be the familiar mind set that has despaired of the human race's ability, or even its desire, to preserve itself and prevent some sort of inevitable calamity (you can pick from a large list that includes overpopulation, nuclear war, pollution, starvation, global warming, and many more). The notion – so common among humanists (ironically) – is that the human race is fatally flawed, and reprobate... that it represents an evolutionary mistake of the highest order... and that its only salvation would be if a “superior race” descended from on high – i.e. from outer space – to save us from our folly. No “Prime Directive” here, unh-unh – we want them to take over, kick ass and take names, and basically rule us for our own good. (Anyone see some disturbing similarities to Democrat voters here? Or am I just imagining things?)

  2. The great cosmic teacher/mentor. This is the notion that we aren't all that bad off – not hopeless, certainly – but would be much better off if we could only make a few key technological breakthroughs. So this superior race of benign ET's would happily share with us their secrets – like prolonging life, raising more crops on less land, eradicating all disease (both physical and mental), total control over our DNA, eliminating pollution, eliminating war, eliminating “hate”, racism, homophobia, sexism.... well, you get the idea. In short, making the human race no longer human, but angelic (or, more likely, robot-like). And they would expect nothing in return! No sacrifice of our first-born, no slaves, no hostages – just out of the goodness of their hearts (or whatever they have in their place). The assumption, of course, is that any superior race from another planet, solar system, or galaxy is automatically going to be benign and charitable. I'm not sure why this necessarily has to be the case, but there you are – no delusional system is lacking in unproven premises. 

  3. The triumph of materialism. This one is a bit more subtle. The bottom line of this train of thought is: At last, we can throw out the Bible! The human race is no big deal... nothing special... is just one out of, probably, “millions and billions” (channeling Carl Sagan here) of intelligent races in the Universe. And we – this generation – will, hopefully, be there at the beginning – at “first contact” -- not unlike the Indians who were the first to spot Columbus' ships out there in the Caribbean. And who knows, the folks from another planet who discover us might have, themselves, been performing the same search as we – maybe for eons! So the discovery is mutual, and a happy occasion for all, and let's all sit down to Thanksgiving dinner.
So yes, there is a scientific aspect to all of this, but a psychological one as well, and a quasi-spiritual one. A true scientist might play around with all of the probabilities involved, and decide that it's wildly improbable that we're the only intelligent life form in the Universe. But they would also accept the lack of evidence otherwise – at least for the time being. Either our data-collection devices aren't sensitive enough, or there really is no one out there (scary thought!). But they will remain cool-headed about the matter. On the other hand, those with a serious psychological “need” for salvation (in the material sense only) or rescue will be straining at every moment, riveted to the latest “news”, and apt to fall for pretty much any scam that comes along. And then we have the materialists, who will never be satisfied until the human race is put in its place once and for all, and liberated from dreaming, speculation, and superstition. Once we discover we're actually part of a vast intergalactic brotherhood of... well, not “man”, exactly... but of what? Of intelligence? Consciousness? Self-awareness? In any case, it would be humbling. We would have to take our place at the table, and the chances are it would be far below the salt. For after all, who are we? Who the hell do we think we are? We need to be taught a damn good lesson, and if electing Hillary isn't enough, we can always fall back on aliens (or other aliens, rather).

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