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Thursday, May 05, 2005
Inexorable incompatibility. A few days ago Best of the Web was too dismissive ("And some people think Christians are weird!") of Steven Spielberg's belief that aliens will be friendly. Spielberg said:
"I can't believe anybody would travel such vast distances bent on destruction. I believe anybody who would travel such vast distances are curious explorers, not conquerors," Spielberg said. "Carrying weapons a hundred-thousand light-years is quite a schlepp. I believe it's easier to travel 100,000 light-years with their versions of the Bible."If it is weird to think about such things, sign me up to the weirdo club. Problems may arise for which it is useful to have around a few science-fiction-loving weirdos who have got some thinking done in advance. A more significant criticism of Spielberg's argument is that his mention of aliens bringing their version of the Bible is not an entirely reassuring model even to believers in our version. As my fellow Christian weirdo C S Lewis said in his 1958 essay on whether Christianity could be reconciled with the existence of aliens, 'Religion and Rocketry', "'Gun and gospel' have been horribly combined in the past."
This post of mine got started when I saw a post about Spielberg on Thought Mesh. AOG wrote:
Conquest isn’t going to be profitable for the same reason we don’t have slavery and the USA is uninterested in conquering other nations. Once a society reaches a sufficient level of technology, brute force and large scale coercion becomes a liablity, not an asset. This is of course the same effect that doomed the USSR and other Communist nations.I agree with this as far as it goes. Of course aliens could wish to conquer for other reasons, such as a species need for dominance, to gain sentient sacrifices to Xfffa-peB[click]-nx, or the desperate need to fyoing the frupbooples of the poor Earthmen who will be grateful in the end.
Yet I find none of these prospects as scary as the next one AOG raises:
What is far more likely than hostility is complete indifference. It’s far from obvious that that would be preferable. For instance, a automaton swarm that dissassembled the planets to build large scale space structures would be indifferent to humans but hardly beneficial.I am haunted by the fate of the Amerindians at the time of first contact with Europeans: vast numbers of them were wiped out by diseases to which Europeans had immunity and they did not. The Europeans did not plan that, or want it. (There are some accounts of deliberate infection via gifts of blankets infected with smallpox, but in general even the most conscienceless European conquerors wanted living slaves.) Neither the natives or the newcomers knew why one group of humans died from contact and the other did not. Not even the germs themselves, who to alien observers might seem as important as the humans, can be said to have "wanted" so many Amerindians to die; strains of disease that kill off their victims too fast tend to be relatively unsuccessful in replicating themselves.
Should we ever make contact with aliens a similar fate might befall us, or them, or both. I don't mean that alien diseases would be likely to harm us or vice versa: surely our respective biochemistries would be too different. (Or would they? What about some microscopic natural or created von Neumann machines that ate more or less anything and used it to replicate themselves?) But I fear being consumed by some inexorable incompatibility, some phenomenon without purpose yet beyond our understanding. I fear the fate of the moth that flies into a flame.
This is not an argument for pulling in our horns. It behoves the moth to study fire. If there are dangers out there, better to know.
Once we know that one other intelligent race exists, or has existed, it's a safe bet there are more. Even if these aliens are both benevolent and compatible, what about the next lot, and the next, and the next? It's as if the Amerindians had to survive their interaction with not one but a thousand Europes.
I've delighted in science fiction for many years. I'm used to thinking that the discovery of an alien race would be tremendously interesting. The day the news of discovery came I would go half mad with wanting to know what they were like, how they lived and died, their ideas of good and evil, what they knew how to do, and how they got here - especially if that last item involved faster than light travel. I still do think I would have all of those reactions. But when I imagine that day as it would be to live rather than to read about, I think that fear would take a grip of my heart that would never entirely loosen, however many years went by with no harm done.