One of the big problems with ETIs is that it is very unlikely that we can make actual physical contact with them. One reason is just statistics, as I said earlier. While the odds of life existing elsewhere in the universe need not be too small, the chances that any one ETI will cross signals or even paths with another is very small, due just to the immense size of the universe compared to the speed of our travel and communications.
But there is another problem working against an actual meeting between an alien life form and ours. Although we believe that the laws of physics and chemistry are universal in their application, the laws of biology are not believed to be so. All the life forms on the Earth have evolved in its peculiar mix of oxygen-nitrogen atmosphere, along with its abundance of water. Life on other planets would have evolved in completely different environments and are unlikely to resemble the forms we are familiar with except for the broad constraints laid down by the laws of physics and chemistry. It would be an absolutely stunning discovery if the life forms we encounter were also oxygen-breathing, water-drinking, cell-phone using beings like us. That would imply that the range of conditions under which life can occur is far more restrictive, and the laws of biology far more universal, than we had anticipated. It would also mean that the probability of life originating on other planets is even lower, since they would require environments similar to ours in many ways.
Even universal laws like gravity can cause problems. If an organism has evolved on a planet that has a gravity field much different from ours, that could pose problems for an actual meeting. Organisms that have evolved to survive in a field of a certain size would find it hard to move and maneuver in fields that are much greater.
In any event, even if the time-space-technology barriers are somehow overcome and an actual direct encounter takes place, any face-to-face encounter between an ETI and us will likely have to take place with either or both being encased in spacesuits that can simulate the required environment.
For an atheist, the discovery that ETIs exist, like any other scientific discovery, brings with it only wonder and curiosity. There is no dogma to be disturbed. But for religious people, questions about life and origins are inextricably bound up with religious doctrines and are bound to cause problems. Most religions, although making claims of universality, are really quite parochial, basing their entire theology on claims of what has happened here. There will have to be some scrambling to try and incorporate the new facts of the existence of other intelligences into an Earth-based theology.
Nowadays we tend to forget the fact that it was much easier during the pre-Copernican times to believe in a personal god with whom one was in direct contact. A finite and fairly small universe with the star-embedded heavens not too far away made it easy to think of god as a human-like entity keeping an eye on us from heaven. All such a god would need were heightened human powers, like extremely good eyesight to be able to see everything and some form of ESP to read our minds. Since the distance from heaven to Earth was not that great, it was possible for god to act quickly and easily everywhere.
The realization that the universe was vast and possibly infinite raised issues that were far trickier, and this has been dealt with by emphasizing more the notion that ‘god is everywhere.’ While this solves the problem of how god can know everything instantaneously, it also makes it harder to visualize a human-like personal god. The advance of science and the notion that everything must obey the laws of science has caused other problems for the idea of a personal, human-like god. For example, the restriction that no information can travel faster than the speed of light means that a god who is everywhere and knows everything ‘at the same time’ must be violating this law somehow, even if one overcomes the problem that simultaneity is no longer a universal quality under the laws of relativity. So we now have the conundrum of a god who violates his own laws. This is why religion needs to indoctrinate children into religious beliefs at an early age and surround them with communities where such questions are not raised, and where meaningless platitudes such as ‘god is everywhere’ are accepted as deep truths, beyond the reach of reason and logic.
It seems to me that if life were to be discovered on distant planets, and not just any old life but a society with vastly superior capabilities, surely the man-made nature of religion and god would be obvious to everyone?
But that may be just my prejudice. I suspect that the discovery of ETIs would cause theologians to put in overtime to come up with some rationale as to why this is consistent with whatever their respective religious texts say. Organized religion is too much of a profitable business for its beneficiaries to allow their cash cow to go under due to the emergence of inconvenient facts. They will dust off the writings of some previously obscure religious mystic whose words could be construed to mean that he had anticipated this discovery, and the mystic’s words would be used to show how the religious texts are correct and even prophetic and scientific. Thus the discovery of ETIs will be portrayed as a triumph for religion. This is similar to the way that St. Augustine’s words are now interpreted by some to suggest that he had anticipated the big-bang model of the universe.
I actually do hope that we receive a signal from outer space. To my mind, it will confirm what I have long held: that all the differences that we dwell on here such as ethnicity, religion, geography, nationality, are just tiny and superficial and largely artificial, not worth fighting and killing over. Furthermore, it should give us hope that societies can deal effectively with advanced technology and need not end up destroying themselves with it, either by blowing themselves up or by slowly strangling their own planet, the way we are currently risking things.
But while that is my hope, that may not happen. It is possible that while there may be a spurt of such forward thinking in the immediate aftermath of receipt of a signal, eventually that knowledge will become part of our background knowledge. When people realize that there is going to be no practical consequence to this discovery and that we will not be able to actually meet the aliens, they will go back to their usual ways, listening to their preachers explaining how all this fits in with god’s mysterious plan, and why their own group of people is still very special in god’s eyes, so special that killing people who are different is a virtuous act.
The only benefit we may get from receiving ETI signals might be if we could decipher the signals to get information that might provide some insights into new scientific and technological breakthroughs that might help us deal with some problems on Earth, such as global warming or the rapid depletion of energy and other natural resources.
That is not as exciting as being able to meet and chat with other intelligences, but it is not an insignificant benefit.
POST SCRIPT: The deep mind of George Bush
British comedians John Bird and John Fortune explain how everything is going according to George Bush’s grand plan.