Do we really want to know what’s out there?

“New ‘life in space’ hope…” was the headline of a newspaper item the other day—about an astronomical survey suggesting that billions of habitable planets exist in our galaxy alone.

Hope is not what we should be feeling about the prospect of finding “life in space.” Proof that there is even one extraterrestrial intelligence out there would be something to fear.

Many others have made similar arguments. Even in the scientific journal Nature there was an editorial six years ago that included the lines:

It is not obvious that all extraterrestrial civilizations will be benign—or that contact with even a benign one would not have serious repercussions for people here on Earth.

In Hollywood, too, the ET-themes seem to have become a lot darker in the past couple decades (e.g., Species, War of the Worlds, Transformers) as this awareness has sunk in.

As the Nature editorialist implied, the risk of encountering overtly malign aliens doesn’t exhaust the scary possibilities, and somehow seems unlikely anyway. Any “bad” ET neighbor capable of detecting us and traveling here would have wiped us out long ago—or anyway would have done whatever it wanted, regardless of what we did or thought.

If I had to bet, I’d bet that any advanced aliens we happen to meet or unambiguously detect are “good” ones. Our own experience here on Earth is that the more socially and technically advanced (and wealthy) societies tend to be more cooperative and benign—I think of Canadians, Norwegians, Swiss. In general, Western society, as it has matured, has become much more peaceful, much more respectful of other, weaker societies. Contrast, for example, the rapacious, expansionist Vikings of 1000 AD with their more or less passive descendants in modern Scandinavia.

But meeting “good” aliens would be no picnic. In fact, being turned to ashes by alien tripod robots might be a more merciful fate. An Earth society that had to confront, and then live with, the existence of a vastly superior alien species, could face a slow, painful disintegration.

There would be a basic demoralizing effect (especially on our elites) from the knowledge that everything we do and think is inferior and primitive—perhaps laughably so, with a cultural gap analogous to that between ants and humans.

I suspect that the worst shock of all, from a visiting ET, would be an explanation of the universe for which we are totally unprepared.

As Nietzsche noted more than a century ago, we humans fail to keep up psychologically with the implications of our science. Whether we profess atheism or tome-thumping monotheism, we still tend to think of our lives and our civilizations as having some kind of meaning in the grand scheme of things. We pay lip service to the ETI possibility, but really we see ourselves as a lone, special species on its way to ruling the heavens, or destined for some kind of union with the entity who already rules. Other, smarter creatures come into this picture only as helpers (e.g., angels) of the highest beings, not as representatives of intermediate cultures that once were like ours.

Yet for some time quantum mechanics and cosmology have been indicating that the universe—in every direction, dimension and sub-universe—is a cold infinitude; and in this unfathomable context our experienced existence effectively has no significance: The ultimate secret is that there is no secret. The existential relativism of the currently-popular “Many Worlds Interpretation” (MWI) of quantum theory is so extreme, and so different from our intuitive view of things, that if we took it seriously, we’d be seriously messed up. Currently we can justify ignoring MWI’s implications in our general thinking because we’re unable to prove or disprove it. But an encounter with vastly smarter aliens could force us to confront and accept their model of reality—and if it is anything like MWI, it will be one in which the broad “meaning” and “purpose” we crave is entirely absent.

So maybe we should be grateful, for now, that SETI’s antennas deliver only the static of stars, and UFOs flit and swoop just out of science’s reach. If there are real aliens out there, their elusiveness may be the clearest indication that they mean us no harm.

Originally published on March 29, 2012.