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Are We Ready for Alien Contact?

Gabriel G. de la Torre, a psychologist at Spain’s University of Cádiz, isn’t sure we should be in a hurry for SETI and similar initiatives to succeed—because we have a skewed and incomplete understanding of how we should respond to first contact with an extraterrestrial civilization, and what our next step should be. After sending questionnaires to 116 students at American and European universities, he reached the unsettling conclusion that “the knowledge of the general public … of the cosmos and our place within it is still poor” and that “we need a new Galileo to lead this journey.”

But I’m not sure de la Torre, or anyone else, is in a position to assess just how huge contact with an intelligent extraterrestrial civilization would be. In a relative sense, the fact that we’re disagreeing about issues of scientific literacy and ethical priority pales in comparison to the fact that any civilization we encounter is statistically likely to be much more advanced than we are, and its mere existence will tell us things that will blow our minds—and that kind of dramatic paradigm shift will have unpredictable consequences on all of us.

But maybe it doesn’t matter. As Carl Sagan explains here, taking into account the finitude of the speed of light and the vastness of the universe, we may not hear back from another civilization until 2350 or so:

It’s no coincidence that this process towards a more cosmic view—which Sagan calls “the deprovincialization of our planet”—is in our best interests as well, whether we actually contact another species or not. If contact with an advanced extraterrestrial civilization does shock our cultural system, we can hope it will do so completely enough that we will finally give up violence and exploitation—because those very terrestrial threats have threatened our survival as a species as completely as any extraterrestrial civilization could.

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  • I read the paper, and I’m planning on write some op-Ed for the Grail, but IMO dude gives too much emphasis on religion as a ‘modulator’ of our perception of reality. Bitch, please! As if materialistic scientists didn’t also hold biased opinions.

  • Jeffercat

    We’re not ready. The problem with relating to a more highly advanced alien civilization is that ultimately we would lose our autonomy. At first we’d be eager to learn new methods and technologies to help with humanity’s various problems, disease, famine, poverty, energy etc. We would eventually seek guidance in every facet of our lives to help eliminate any shortcomings and maximize the quality, pleasure and length of existence. Ultimately, we’d come to adopt the aliens’ lifestyle, tailored to our own species because every detail of every endeavor would be guided by the aliens’ knowledge and technology. We would no longer be the same people. We would be a different society, one dependent upon- and therefore managed/ruled by- aliens. Such a role might stifle the natural evolution to which we’re dedicated. Perhaps a species much attain advancement autonomously in order to be capable of commanding its power.

  • Tom Head, Ph.D.

    That was basically where I found myself drifting, too—the controversial hypothesis he’s making is that he *is* ready for alien contact, not that the rest of us *aren’t*. None of us are going to be ready, ever, until it actually happens.

  • Tom Head, Ph.D.

    But collectively speaking, do we really have autonomy in the first place? I don’t see a clear difference between having our societal habits dictated by aliens and having them dictated by human history and social constructs; in both cases, we’re dealing with forces beyond our control.

  • Childhood’s End.

  • Exactly! It’s what Rich Dolan says about Disclosure when he equates it to parenting –you’re NEVER gonna be ready for it, but when it happens you’re forced to learn the ropes as you go along 😉

    So here’s my Op-Ed on it:

  • Jim Pratt

    As long as they don’t show up with the intention of kicking the crap out of us, it could be the best thing that could happen. Not because they’re going to solve all our problems and lead us into a higher plane of existence, but because it would force us to reconsider every pre-conceived notion, every paradigm about who and what we are and what our place is in the universe. It will be a revolution of philosophy and our deepest psychology. No, we’re not ready, we’ll never be ready, but it will happen someday and when it does – we’ll try to find a way to deal with it. I hope we don’t screw up.

  • R. A.


  • BW

    I liked your response. The good professor should consider Fatima-1917 as a counterpoint to his call for more knowledge of astronomy. Wherever The Others come from, there is no firm reason to believe it is from elsewhere in our physical universe.