The news swirling around US military reports of strange aircraft has a lot of people wondering what we will do if those objects do turn out to be alien spaceships. These days most people assume the craft will be drones with no squishy alien life forms on board, which is in itself interesting: our speculation about alien technology always tracks our own. But then if we are really talking about a civilization capable of exploring interstellar space, who knows what level of consciousness might be embedded in their machines?
I am of course highly skeptical because that's just the way I am, plus I just don't get why aliens would carry on a decades-long tease with us. If they can cross interstellar space they can presumably hide from all of our sensors. And if they didn't want to hide, why are they so elusive? Plus I think the leap to "space aliens" shows a great lack of imagination. I have seen numerous articles along the lines of, "these anomalies have to be one of these three things." (Like, say, "sensor glitches, aliens, or time travelers.") But we should be less certain that we know all the possibilities about things so far beyond our understanding.
Anyway Ezra Klein has an interesting essay in the Times today mulling over what would happen on Earth if we were certain alien spacecraft were visiting us. Excerpts:
One immediate effect, I suspect, would be a collapse in public trust. Decades of U.F.O. reports and conspiracies would take on a different cast. Governments would be seen as having withheld a profound truth from the public, whether or not they actually did. We already live in an age of conspiracy theories. Now the guardrails would truly shatter, because if U.F.O.s were real, despite decades of dismissals, who would remain trusted to say anything else was false? . . .
One lesson of the pandemic is that humanity’s desire for normalcy is an underrated force, and there is no single mistake as common to political analysis as the constant belief that this or that event will finally change everything. If so many can deny or downplay a disease that’s killed millions, dismissing some unusual debris would be trivial. “An awful lot of people would basically shrug and it’d be in the news for three days,” Adrian Tchaikovsky, the science fiction writer, told me. “You can’t just say, ‘still no understanding of alien thing!’ every day. An awful lot of people would be very keen on continuing with their lives and routines no matter what.”
There is a thick literature on how evidence of alien life would shake the world’s religions, but I think Brother Guy Consolmagno, director of the Vatican Observatory, is quite likely right when he suggests that many people would simply say, “of course.” The materialist worldview that positions humanity as an island of intelligence in a potentially empty cosmos — my worldview, in other words — is the aberration. Most people believe, and have always believed, that we share both the earth and the cosmos with other beings — gods, spirits, angels, ghosts, ancestors. The norm throughout human history has been a crowded universe where other intelligences are interested in our comings and goings, and even shape them. The whole of human civilization is testament to the fact that we can believe we are not alone and still obsess over earthly concerns.
This has even been true with aliens. The science fiction writer Kim Stanley Robinson reminded me that in the early 1900s it was widely but mistakenly believed that we had visual evidence of canals on Mars. “The scientific community seemed to have validated that finding, even though it was mainly Percival Lowell, but it’s hard to recapture now how general the assumption was,” he wrote in an email. “There being no chance of passage across space, it was assumed to be a philosophical point only, of interest but not world-changing for anyone.”