What if... we encountered intelligent alien life?

By David Kyle Johnson

A few months ago, a simple question led me into one of the most interesting minds I've ever come across; wondering what we could expect from hypothetically discovering that we existed inside of a computer simulation, I had virtually stumbled into Dr. David Kyle Johnson, an award-winning professor of Philosophy at King's College in Pennsylvania. 

He's made quite a name for himself by bridging the gap between the curious nature of philosophy and the mainstream interests of the general public, publishing countless papers on topics relating to the multiverse, metaphysis, religion and providing ample philosophical commentary on shows and movies like South Park and Black Mirror. 

His answer to the simulation question garnered so much interest that, when a new question popped into my mind a few weeks ago, I couldn't think of anyone better than Dr. David Kyle Johnson to provide us some comprehensive insight into what we could expect in the event that we one  day encounter intelligent alien life. 

 “The universe is a pretty big place. If it's just us, seems like an awful waste of space.”
― Carl Sagan

When I was writing my lectures for The Great Courses series Sci-Phi: Science Fiction as Philosophy, many of my favorite topics ended up getting cut. For example, in my initial drafts, between my lecture on the conflict between religion and science inspired by Carl Sagan’s Contact, and an exploration of the concept of radical translation inspired by the Denis Villeneuve film Arrival, I had a whole section on how the world would change if we discovered that alien life was real. Unfortunately, because of time constraints and other considerations, that section got the axe…at least to a large extent.

But now, thanks to a request from Mike at Borealism, you get to hear the whole spiel—and then some. And it couldn’t come at a more opportune time. Days after Mike asked me to write this article, a new study suggested that there are likely between 4 to 211 planets housing intelligent life in our galaxy, with the most likely number being 36. 36! Not just life…but thirty-six intelligent species in our galaxy, right now. This is incredible—although it is far from proof of intelligent alien life.

When it comes to finding proof that we are not alone in the universe, it could essentially happen in two ways. First, we could discover them; their existence on a distant planet could perhaps be revealed by us intercepting a communicative radio wave, or by making an observation about a distant planet that reveals their existence. Or maybe, in the distant future, one of our deep space probes stumbles upon one of their deep space probes, and the probes are sophisticated enough to send back information about each other. Or maybe, just maybe, we come across them Star Trek style, by sending manned spaceships deep into outer space.

But the second possibility is that they discover us—they are the ones that are exploring, and they find us sitting here on this planet and decide to pay us a visit. This actually is how humans discovered that they were not alone in the Star Trek universe. Zefram Cochrane developed the first faster-than-light “warp engine,” the Vulcans detected his flight, and the Vulcans decided to make first contact. (See Star Trek: First Contact.)

The consequences of these two different ways to discover that “we are not alone” could be drastically different, however. First, let’s talk about the latter.

They Discover Us

When NASA sent Voyager 1 on a mission that would eventually propel it into deep space, NASA put a “golden record” on the spaceship, which contained not only samples of our culture, like music, but also information on how to locate our solar system. Many people objected, suggesting that we had just signed our own death warrant. Why would we want to tell alien species where we are? Didn’t anyone at NASA see Aliens…. or Independence Day, Mars Attacks, Village of the Damned, Predator, Signs, War of the Worlds, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, or just about every other episode of Doctor Who? I mean, granted, some of these were made after 1977, when Voyager 1 was launched. But still, the point stands!
Things don’t seem to go well when aliens visit. They want to kill us, colonize us, enslave us, or otherwise do away with us.

Of course, these are just movies, and the fact that something happens in a movie is not necessarily a good reason to think that it will happen in real life. But, strangely enough, such movies are somewhat based in reality. Think about what’s happened on the Earth, every time an indigenous life form was visited by a more technologically advanced “alien life”—like when the British found the aborigines and the Europeans found the Native Americans. Things did not go so well for the natives (to put it mildly). If life which is alien to Earth ever discovers us, it might go just as badly for the entire human race. They might take over all our resources and enslave us; or they might relegate us to a small reservation and then build giant fuel (anti-matter?) pipelines that run through it that constantly leak and explode. Indeed…. maybe, only if we are lucky, will our little golden record stunt to tell aliens where we are, not end with us having small alien creatures bursting out of our chests.

Then again, Hollywood aliens are not always bad: there’s Close Encounters, E.T., Cocoon, Flight of the Navigator, Contact, Interstellar—the aliens in these movies are “here to help.” One of my favorite such movies is Real Men, a comedy starring John Ritter and James Belushi, where the aliens give humans the choice: they can have a “big gun” which will blow up the Russians but also destroy the entire planet, or a “good package” that will save humanity from an impending ecological disaster. Who knows, at this point, given the effects of climate change, our only hope of survival as a species may be alien visitors who offer us exactly this kind of choice. So perhaps we should wish for an alien intervention… although I’m not confident that we would actually be smart enough to turn down the big gun. But my point is, an alien visitation might turn out to be the best thing that could ever happen to us.

And there is at least some reason to think that things would turn out in this kind of positive way. After all, the technological advancements of an alien race capable of visiting us would be beyond our imagination; and to survive as long as they have (long enough to develop the technology to travel between the stars), they would have had to overcome threats like war, ecological disasters, and pandemics. These accomplishments, one might expect, would come hand in hand with them setting aside the kind of racism, religious bigotry, and scientific ignorance that fueled the oppression of native populations on this planet. So maybe they would be kind to us.

On the other hand, because we likely will not have moved beyond our own racism, religious bigotry, and scientific ignorance—despite their generosity—we might try to destroy the peaceful beneficent aliens. “It’s bringing love. Don’t let it get away! Break its legs!” Although, such efforts would likely be futile. Indeed, if they are advanced enough, we might seem like ants; and if so, things are right back to being bad for us. We wouldn’t even seem worthy of moral consideration--to be the kind of being they would consider in their moral decisions.

But the chances that anything like an alien visitation will happen are extremely slim. The universe (and even our galaxy) is just too vast and enormous. Even the best spaceships imaginable, with the most efficient fuels physically possible, would take hundreds of thousands of years to transport lifeforms between planets. Although, to be fair, this doesn’t necessarily mean that such a visitation will never occur. It just means that, if we ever discovered alien life via an Earth visitation, it would be by contact with the nearly immortal space-faring artificially intelligent machines developed by that distant alien life.

In my professional opinion, such machines would likely be sentient (capable of consciousness), and behave just like biological aliens; if so, the effects of their visitation could be as equally good or bad for us, for mostly the same reasons that I already discussed. But there is one reason to think that such a visitation might be worse.

You know how, in your mind, a moment ago, you disagreed with me and said that artificial intelligent machines can’t be sentient because they are….well…because they are artificial? Well, those artificial beings are equally likely to harbor that same kind of bias, and think that you are not sentient because you are not artificial — a point made ever so wonderfully by Terry Bisson in his short story “They’re Made Out Of Meat.” Sure, meat beings are apt to think that metal beings can’t think, but metal beings would think it equally absurd that meat beings could think. If so, these nearly immortal space-faring artificially intelligent machines would not be willing to give you moral consideration, any more than you were willing to give them a moment ago. But since they would be more powerful…I’m sure you see where this is headed.

We Discover Them

Now, as I’m sure you know, some people think we have already been visited—that UFOs are real! (Or more precisely, that unidentified flying objects are alien crafts.) Hopefully I don’t have to explain to you, dear reader, why that isn’t the case. (The recently released “Navy UFO” videos have been debunked, as has every other sighting which has been possible to investigate.) Of course, true believers will say “there are so many sightings, at least one of them must be real.” But this commits something I have dubbed “the countless counterfeits fallacy,” which I have explained in detail elsewhere, so I won’t belabor the point.

What actually is much more likely, is that we discover aliens by detecting their presence on another planet, in one of the ways that I mentioned above, or otherwise infer their existence. What do I mean by “infer their existence?” Well, the aforementioned study is far from proof that there are 36 intelligent species in our galaxy—or even that there are 4. But if we—for example—discover evidence of past or present life on other planets or another moon in our solar system—like Europa—we will know that life is much more prevalent in the universe than we initially thought. Consequently, when combined with the kind of probabilistic calculations in the above study, the existence of intelligent life somewhere else in the universe could become a near certainty. But usually when we think about proving alien life exists, we think about receiving a radio transmission like in the movie Contact.

If we did, the consequences would be wide-scoping. Countries would likely fight about who has the rights to use the information in the message, and who should be the one to try to contact them back. This could divide us in drastic ways. However, the mere knowledge that we are not alone in the universe could also change humanity in drastically positive ways. The vast differences in alien life might make us realize that the differences over which we have traditionally fought are actually insignificant and unite us as never before.

But in all honesty, it’s impossible to tell exactly what all the effects will be. I can’t even tell you what the long-term effects of the COVID-19 pandemic will be; so how could I predict the effects of the greatest discovery in human history? Now, if you want a list of the possible effects, you can check out this wiki article. It’s pretty extensive. But don’t think of it as a list of what would happen. No one should pretend to know what the effects would be. Just think of it as a list of what could happen.

Religious Fallout

With that said, I do think that we can somewhat accurately speculate about what the discovery of alien life would entail about the truth of claims made by modern religions. By this, I do not necessarily mean to predict how religious people will react (although I may occasionally slip into that kind of language). After all, religious people will often still continue to believe something “by faith” even after it has been objectively proven false. (The evidence for evolution should have been the death nail of creationism long ago.) But I think we can know now, with some certainty, that the discovery of alien life would prove that many of the claims of modern religions are false.

Consider how scientific discoveries have affected religion in the past. Think about how the church reacted to discovering that the Earth is not the center of the universe, or to the truth of evolution, or even to discoveries that indicated how late the gospels were written (which entailed that they were not written by eyewitnesses). Indeed, the church is just now starting to deal with the fact that neuroscience has shown that there is no soul. While, again, some believers continue to believe what they have always believed no matter what, objective truth that contradicts a central religious teaching can rock a religion to its core.

When it comes to objective proof of alien life, Vanderbilt University astronomer David Weintraub, author of “Religions and Extraterrestrial life: How Will We Deal with It” thinks it will be especially damaging to Western religions. Why? Well, traditionally, Western religions have held that we are the center of God’s attention. We were made in God’s image, and the universe was created specifically for us—a fact symbolically represented by Western cosmologies placing the Earth at the center of the universe and having everything else revolve around it. This is why the church so vehemently objected when Copernicus and Galileo overturned that notion.

Now, it’s true that the church eventually adapted. “Ok,” they said, “the Sun is at the center. But we are still close to the center!” But then we learned that the sun was just another star, on the outer edge of an immensely huge galaxy full of stars. Indeed, we eventually learned that the universe has no center—like the surface of a sphere has no center. To quote Carl Sagan, “We [found] that we live on an insignificant planet of a humdrum star lost in a galaxy tucked away in some forgotten corner of a universe in which there are far more galaxies than people.”

Now, this dethroned humanity in a way that some at the time refused to accept, but again, the religion eventually adapted. After all, if humans are still unique in the universe, our status is still special, even if our physical location is not. A unicorn named Bob is still a unique and thus special creature, even if he lives at the corner of the forest, rather than its center.

But if the forest is full of unicorns—well, then Bob isn’t very special is he? This, it seems, is how the discovery of alien life would displace humanity. If we are just another intelligent species in the universe—one among hundreds, or millions, or even billions—then the universe definitely was not made just for us, and it would be absolute hubris to think that we are the center of God’s attention. The stars are not for our amusement; they are there to give life to other species. You might be able to explain away the symbolic dethroning accomplished by finding out that everything doesn’t, literally, revolve around us. But you can’t continue to (rationally) defend the notion that we are unique in the universe, if we prove that we are not by discovering alien life.

Eastern religions, such as Buddhism and Hinduism, would likely not have this problem because they have never claimed humanity to have such a special status. Buddhism would likely be the first to argue that alien life is equally valuable to our own. Hindus would likely maintain that alien life is just another example of the many forms that Brahman can take. Public intellectual Robert Lawrence Kuhn agrees.

[Western Religions] subscribe, at least traditionally, to the very special place of human beings on this particular planet, and thus might be disturbed or at least disoriented by the discovery of ETs. Many Eastern religions, by not claiming a personal God, would not be so troubled.

Then again, the Western religions might be more adaptable than we think. After all, before the Copernican revolution, it was widely held that scripture declared we are physically at the center of creation. Learning that was false didn’t kill Christianity; it just caused the church to reinterpret (i.e., ignore parts of) the Bible. The same happened when evolution exposed the errors of the creation story. Now it’s just “a myth.” Learning that we are not unique may not kill Western religions; it may simply cause them to reject the idea that we are unique. After all, the Bible doesn’t say there aren’t aliens; it just doesn’t mention them. And, just like Bob the unicorn, we can still be special even if we are not unique.

Alien vs. Jesus

But the threats to religious claims do not stop there, and among the Western religions Christianity seems to be most vulnerable. To see why, consider this. Do aliens suffer from original sin? Do they need salvation? Did Christ die for their sins too? It would seem that Christians have to say yes, since most Christian denominations maintain that Christ redeemed all of creation, and all of creation would also include aliens. But if so, then why haven’t the aliens heard of Jesus?

I mean, I guess the aliens might say that they have heard of Jesus. Indeed, if they say that at the very moment of Jesus’ crucifixion, they received a revelation from their god that said…

Your sins can be forgiven because of the sacrifice of a god/man on the planet Earth named Jesus. I command you to make contact with Earth. Point your radio transmitters in this direction! Ask for a copy of the Bible.

…well, that would be pretty good evidence in favor of Christianity!

But if aliens haven’t heard hide-nor-hair of Jesus, wouldn’t that be evidence against Christianity? Wouldn’t God have revealed the Gospel to them, given that their immortal souls are at stake? I mean, it was one thing for the European settlers of the Americas to have dismissed this sort of problem when they discovered natives who were completely unaware of Jesus and his teachings. They could “explain” the “religious ignorance” of the natives because they were “primitive, uneducated, savages.” (And please, read those “quotation marks” there as “fuck European colonialism.”) But it would be much harder to “explain away” the “religious ignorance” of aliens technologically advanced enough to make contact with the Earth.

(A quick aside: The fact that we automatically assume that aliens wouldn’t know about Jesus somewhat indicates a tacit assumption on our part that religious claims are just made up. This is similar to a point Ricky Gervais made to Stephen Colbert: if we removed all knowledge of existing religions off the face of the Earth, the new religions that developed after 10,000 years would be completely different than the ones we currently have. But if we destroyed all scientific knowledge, the scientific knowledge that reemerged in 10,000 years would be essentially the same. That’s because scientific knowledge is checkable; it is revealed by studying the world. In the same way, we would expect aliens to know the same scientific truths that we do—like quantum mechanics and relativity—although their knowledge would be much more advanced. But we would not expect them to have the same religious beliefs—because we know that stuff is just made up. But back to the issue of whether Jesus died for the sins of aliens…)

Gary Bates, the head of the Atlanta-based Creation Ministries International, has said something similar about this issue:

"My theological perspective is that E.T. life would actually make a mockery of the very reason Christ came to die for our sins, for our redemption. [God’s focus is supposed to be] mankind on this Earth." [The existence of intelligent, self-aware extraterrestrial life is] a huge problem that many Christians have not really thought about."

Now, to solve the “why don’t aliens know about Jesus?” problem, one could insist that Jesus’ sacrifice was only for humans. Ok, but then what? Does God have to individually appear on billions of different worlds—incarnating himself as every one of the billions of alien species across the universe—to redeem each one individually? This was an idea that Thomas Paine found especially ridiculous in “The Age of Reason.”

In this case the person who is irreverently called the Son of God, and sometimes God himself, would have nothing else to do than to travel from world to world, in an endless succession of deaths, with scarcely a momentary interval of life.

The catholic comedian, Stephen Colbert, even once echoed Paine on The Colbert Report.

If we accept that there is alien life on other planets, doesn't that totally blow Jesus out of the water? Because he was born of the Virgin Mary and became Man…he did not become creature. Aren't we double-booking our saviors here?

Of course, as Notre Dame Theologian Thomas O’Meara points out, maybe aliens don’t need redemption. Maybe, unlike us, they aren’t horrible sinners who can only be saved by God having himself tortured and killed. Maybe their version of Adam and Eve didn’t rebel, and they still live in paradise. And we probably should hope so—for our sake. This should make them less likely to enslave us or to squash us like ants.

Turning the Tables

If they are not morally perfect, however, despite all the evidence that alien life would present against the doctrines of Christianity, I would expect at least some evangelicals to not only be unfazed by such evidence, but to also feel the need to proselytize the aliens and convert them to Christianity. I can just imagine someone like the conservative Christian character in Contact, Richard Bank, in debates about what message to send back to aliens after they have made contact, arguing that it is imperative that our message include an invitation to accept Jesus Christ as their savior.

But what if the aliens had their own bible and tried to convert us to their religion? What if that is the very reason they are sending signals out to the galaxy? What if an evangelical religion took over their world, and they now feel called to convert the universe. What if aliens visiting Earth were actually on a “Mission Trip”? How would our society react to knowledge of alien religions? Would they reject them? Or like a teenager rebelling against his Christian parents to become a Buddhist, would they readily embrace them?

Again, I’m not sure. I’m not even sure we could understand them. The barriers of language might make it impossible to read and understand their bible—or anything else they tried to communicate. Could we really learn a completely alien language? Could they teach it to us? This is called the problem of radical translation, and for more on it, see my lecture on the movie Arrival (lecture 6) in Sci-Phi: Science Fiction as Philosophy. (For an affordable way to experience the course, you could check out the audio book version; but if you also want to see my incredible collection of vests and ties, the awesome sci-fi nerdiness of the set, and a few of our fun video gags, like mirror-universe-evil-me, you can watch it pretty affordably on the Great Courses Plus app.)

But if the aliens are religious, attempts to convert us is probably the best we could hope for. In my opinion, it is much more likely religious aliens would be like The Krill from The Orville, who believe that only they have souls, that all other lifeforms are thus expendable, and that their god (Avis) created the entire universe and its resources for their use and disposal. If you thought what the Europeans did to the Native Americas was bad, you ain't seen nothing yet! (For more on The Krill, and the dangers of religion, see Darren Slade’s chapter in my forthcoming book Exploring The Orville.)

But in my estimation, any aliens we discovered would likely be atheists. Abandoning religion and all the superstition, bigotry, and scientific ignorance that inevitably come along with it, is the only way a society could survive long enough to develop the technology to travel the stars, or even to send decipherable messages into outer space and still be around long enough to receive a reply. After all, as Phil Zuckerman points out in “Society without God,” by all measurable standards—things like education, life satisfaction, sense of security—the happiest nations in the world are the least religious. One would therefore also expect them to be the most stable and long lasting.

Indeed, some have worried that the fact we haven’t detected signals from other planets indicates that advanced civilizations always destroy themselves right around the time that they are about to develop the relevant technology—either with something like nuclear war, or by rendering their planet uninhabitable (with something like climate change). The technology necessary for communication goes hand in hand with things like nuclear bombs and carbon-based fuels that destroy planets. The fact that we are about to reach that level of technology, as we are also destroying our planet, makes me all the more concerned that these worries are legitimate—and all the more wishful for that first alien contact.

Copyright 2020, David Kyle Johnson

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