Recently, UFOs and Aliens have made it into the news sources again and again. First Stephen Hawkins declared that if we encounter aliens, they will likely be hostel and eager to wipe us aside and absorb the Earth’s resources. As recently as this week, a handful of ex-military personnel gave testimony that UFOs have been sighted at various United States and Russian nuclear facilities. But of course UFO and alien encounter stories reach back to the 60’s and earlier. Hollywood movies and mid-western tales aside, what would it really mean for humanity if we encountered non-terrestrial lifeforms? What are the odds that we already have?
For the sake of this discussion, I am only considering aliens that originated at one time from another planet and then arrive via space ship (as opposed to various abstract concepts of freely-existing life). I am also only considering those aliens that are of a construction “similar” to humans, meaning only some kind of body that houses their homeostatic processes and consciousness.
What might they want with us?
Hawkins suggests the Earth’s resources would entice aliens. Many agree that a violent takeover may be the only feasible ending to a real first contact. I personally disagree. What are the reasons any species spreads out? It certainly could be for lack of resources, possibly due to population growth. It could be for conquest to spread religion or some other system of control. Another possibility is simply that a species may expand in the name of exploration. Are any of these motivations favored by reason?
Extra Terrestrial Scientists
One thing I think we can be sure of is that any aliens that can reach us are scientists. In order to build something like a spaceship, tremendous accomplishments in learning must have taken place, and this requires creatures with a certain curiosity, and a capability for learning and rationality. Without a means of logic, there is no way to build concepts on top of one another and progress from the specific to the general. Without learning and curiosity, there is no way to advance knowledge towards a goal. The existence of a space ship would instantly establish that the alien lifeforms were scientists of a sort.
Consider what is involved in the simple task of remaining alive during flight. This requires an understanding of one’s required atmospheric composition (and temperature and pressure), one’s tolerance to acceleration, and susceptibility to atrophy, radiation, and weightlessness. Even in principle, these concepts are scientific in nature, and the process of acquiring knowledge about them and re-applying that at a later time requires a scientific method. It is very unlikely that any creature developed on a planet’s surface and therefore subject to the general concepts of evolution (and for this reason in need of an artificial vessel for travel in the first place) could survive a vacuum. Just to ensure one could stay alive, these aliens would need to have an intimate understanding of their own bodies, and furthermore technology capable of replicating their environment. Extraordinary achievements in materials sciences, engineering, architecture, navigation, and propulsion would be required to name a few. Very likely, these categories include such physical concepts as relativity and chemistry. The fundamental principals in nature and mathematics are necessarily what they are, and they are entirely species agnostic (that is to say the human identification of them in no way indicates they are applicable only to humans). For instance, the Pythagorean theorem is a property of euclidean space, and it does not matter if it is a human looking at it or something else entirely, and it does not matter if the language is mathematics or something we have never even considered — the property is what it is, and must be analogous across all languages that understand it. These species agnostic concepts provide a common denominator, and let us draw certain conclusions about intelligent aliens.
No matter how different alien lifeforms may be, and no matter what extra or deficient capabilities they possess, we can conclude a common grounding in the basic laws of reason, even if those laws are expressed and understood entirely differently, because only this basis enables the scientific methodology required to explain their advancement.
So we will necessarily be dealing with a species that is intelligent (in some sense), rational (in some sense), and scientific (in some sense). Of course none of this yet requires they be conscious, sentient, or moral. So what might they want with us?
According to Stephen, aliens that reach Earth seek it out for its natural resources, intent to scrape it dry and move on. This presupposes that aliens are spreading for reasons of dwindling resources, and it further suggests that these aliens are able to survive on this diet of worlds. This seems shockingly unrealistic to me. Even allowing any incredible achievement of technology possible in physics, it still remains undeniable that a journey from other planets to Earth would require between decades and millennia to complete.
This fact seems to narrow down the intention of the travelers somewhat. Does it seem practical that a species in need of resources would look to outer space? The search for planets matching their requirements (assuming as Hawkins does that their requirements are Earth-like planets) would take centuries upon centuries for each one, requiring the ship and inhabitants to survive this massive interim without any infusion of resources. This seems insurmountable, and far less likely than the alternative that a vessel capable of traveling and supporting life for such time intervals would need to be self sufficient to an enormous degree.
If anything, I would expect them to park near our sun and utilize its energy output to some capacity, as energy is the true foundational requirement from which anything else could in theory be synthesized.
Before moving on, are the assumptions I have made this far sound? Isn’t it possible these creatures can survive thousands of years, so searching for planets is not out of the question? I believe we are safe, because no matter how foreign these beings might be, the concepts of evolution underpin their existence as they do ours, and with the same universal relevance as the Pythagorean Theorem. Unless one wishes to argue that a species popped into full form spontaneously (the odds of which are too small to consider), we must accept that higher lifeforms are the result of simpler lifeforms enhancing themselves though some mechanism. In order to explain a higher order being, some natural (mechanical) mechanism must explain the evolution, and also the selection that lets changes propagate. On Earth we understand natural selection, and various copy errors that cause genetic evolution in species. The particular medium / manifestation of this evolutionary process need not have any similarity with an alien world, but the fundamental principal of a simple construction self-replicating and improving is definitely universal, and therefore the underlying properties of natural selection apply.
Considering what we do know about the process of evolving, it seems to support that aliens would not be timeless, nor would they lack resource requirements. No processes in nature operate with zero energy consumption, and conservation of energy requires every process (alive or not) to take in at least as much energy as it puts out. Our alien friends must take in more than enough energy to remain operational or at least alive. Given the efficiency of natural systems, it is a stretch to imagine a species that can store enough energy to survive centuries without any additional energy input. This does not close the door to stasis or other methods to suspend energy consumption during travel, but it at least lengthens the odds against any enterprise by an intelligent species in need of resources that involves random space travel (keep in mind that no signals from Earth have yet reached any foreign worlds, and therefore no species can possess knowledge of our existence except by chance encounter).
And of course if the species has other ways of absorbing energy, then the underlying assumption that resources on Earth are required is broken.
From basic arguments of evolution, it seems unlikely that a species is timeless or long-lived on the order of centuries. If this were the case, it becomes unlikely that the species could have survived long enough on a confined planet to develop space travel. Additionally, it would greatly slow down the process of evolution, and tend to reduce the chances of higher lifeforms taking charge.
The Blue Zoo
Going forward on the belief that the aliens that might arrive on Earth are 1) scientific in nature, and 2) not in need of any resources they are not already capable of producing, is there still any concern that they may wipe us out just for the fun of it? It is certainly possible. Arguments from evolution on Earth suggest that morality is a natural development that assists in the formulation of civilizations (essential for large-scale social and technological development) as well as in the rearing of children. I do not have enough information to speculate if these particular elements in Earth evolution would apply universally or not. My hunch is that they will.
Without morality in some degree, it is impossible for organizations of a species to form and target a common goal. Implicit in any such arrangement are things like trust (which implies honesty), fairness (required for accurate scientific evaluations), and order. If a species has accomplished something like space travel, it is very likely they have long since accomplished civilization and interdependence.
So if we can assume our aliens have some concept of internal morality, where does that leave us? Are we an interesting exhibit on a large turning zoo? Or might we fall victim to one of the other reasons a species might spread out — conquest? Perhaps we can be assimilated or employed in a manner suitable to a lesser life form? Or converted to some “religion” of the aliens, like a cosmic “white-man’s burden”?
I doubt both. Few slavery tasks needed by one species are suitably executed by another, not to mention the rarity of intelligent life would leave any slave-dependent system dry in no time. As for religion… that is a whole other topic. Short answer is I doubt a species of such intelligence will have religion at all, let alone a concept of god that needs to be forced onto others.
Sightings and Abductions
I am very skeptical of all such stories. The primary reason is the absurd laziness and lack of elegance in these accounts. I think the level of technology required for a species to reach us is exponentially more staggering than the average person appreciates. To a life form with such capabilities, the capacity for secrecy from our primitive technology and predictable habits is easily achieved. Why these sloppy encounters? Just enough witnesses to get a story churning, but not a proper first contact?
Once again, we are necessarily dealing with a scientific species. Studying the broadcasts from Earth (and even observing us) is easily achieved from afar, using the very familiar scientific process. Avoiding detection is no trouble, and initiating first contact just as easy. But the accounts we see paint the picture of aliens trying to keep cover, but incapable of doing so. Bright lights, crop circles, day-time flights in front of witnesses — this is just lazy. We could argue that the aliens are not concerned with detection, and yet in every story they fly off quickly, and are never caught (really caught) on camera or radar. It is like they are there being morons, and yet smart enough to keep proof hidden.
These reports demonstrate a lack of rationality and purpose, but have all the markings of superstitious ghost stories.
I believe that if we do encounter aliens, it will be those from the third option I presented at the start: the explorers. They will be searching the cosmos to explore and to learn. Encountering humanity would be an excellent learning opportunity for them and for us, and would not spell any kind of disaster.
Well I really do hope we have our first contact in my lifetime, but my guess is we will not. I personally believe it next to impossible that life does not exist elsewhere, but the odds of intelligent life more advanced than us existing close enough for them to reach us is exceedingly low. The milky way houses 100 billion stars, spread across a 100K light year disk… so even granting the odds of one star in one billion that has an orbiting planet with intelligent life, that only leaves 100 such lifeforms in our galaxy. Assuming they are evenly distributed in the 125 million cubic light-year volume of our milky way, that is only one species per million cubic light years. So, at best we are 1,000,000 light years away from our closest neighbor, making the odds of them stumbling across us astronomically small.
As for making statements about our nuclear weapons, I suspect they could do a lot more then temporary de-active our warheads if that is what they wanted to do. The whole thing sounds superstitious and lacking common reason.