The 20th century marks a unique point in our consciousness as it is the first period where we in mass began to seriously contemplate the possibility that we may not be alone in the universe. From SETI, to Voyager I, to goofy Area 51 conspiracies and claims of seeing flying saucers — as well as countless related books, films, and tv shows — it’s undeniable that this mystery sincerely captivated millions among both the general public and scientific experts.
Whilst our imagination of “aliens” can prompt some cartoonish imagery of green or blue figures with squeaky robotic voices and bug-like eyes (mainly owing to 20th century pop culture and science fiction) — the idea itself has some legitimacy when abstracted at its highest levels.
The thinking goes like this: given the billions of galaxies, stars, and planets in the universe — as well as the billions of years of existence of the universe — it seems plausible that the remarkably unique conditions that made Earth an environment suitable for the emergence of intelligent life, could occur elsewhere; additionally, the chain of events that propels the existence of all life as we know it — given sufficient time and sufficiently hospitable conditions — could possibly have occurred, or is at the very least likely to occur, elsewhere (in this hypothetical, “other Earth”).
Many have written about this with far greater insight and erudition than I could hope to — so that won’t be the focus here. What I will do however is explore some of the assumptions we project onto this hypothetical extraterrestrial life, based on the only model of life we have, which is our own.
In terms of pure probability, and based on the current knowledge our relatively young (but highly valuable) scientific method has garnered — the theory at its most open-ended does hold water.
This is where things get interesting though. Our model, imagination, and hypothesising of “aliens” has always been a projection of our values, consciousness, and state of being at the time. During the period where colonisation, warfare, imperialism, and conquest were widely acceptable human endeavours, our image of “aliens” projected this, and we imagined “them” as a threat in our pop-culture…as something that could “only come here” to “take over the world”.
Towards the end of the 20th century, when our acceptable values had widely been transvaluated (in the Nietzschean sense) towards humanitarianism and global unity — one of the most popular images of “aliens” could be found in E.T: a movie where the major theme centred around sympathising with the “outsider”, and seeking empathy and commonality with that you’re not familiar with, over mistrust and hostility.
The cinematic peak of our depiction of aliens however — and the main prompt for this write-up — is 2001: A Space Odyssey. This doesn’t play the same game that other pop-culture depictions get into, such as depicting the aliens. Instead here, the aliens are an omnipresent force — something that’s clearly there, and extremely powerful, but never actually seen or heard. The aliens here are meant to represent a potential coming leap in human evolution — beings of pure force and energy that seem to be able to exist across multiple dimensions. Beings that — as Kubrick himself mentioned — have possibly transcended the need for a body itself, as the body is really merely a container and source of energy for your brain (which could be considered as the “real” you).
The aliens in 2001 are so far “ahead” of us that they are essentially able to treat us like zoo animals, constructing an artificial, ultimately “off”, art-deco habitat for our protagonist at the end of the movie — to study his behaviour the way we study monkeys and lions in zoos.
This vision projects yet another idea: the idea of progress. The implication is that these aliens in 2001 arrived to their advanced state through constant iterative refinements, discoveries, and improvements in their organisational prowess and knowledge-gathering, (which would include but isn’t limited to technology, economic planning, education, healthcare, and governance). Possibly over millions of years.
What this depiction doesn’t consider however is how a species that advanced could come to accept the idea of progress, as well as what exactly would motivate the species to persist in its pursuit for progress.
Using us as a model for intelligent life, it would seem to be necessary for such a species — which we can also assume to be a social species (given how much of intelligence appears to have evolved out of social utility, such as the development of language for instance) — to utilise values and beliefs as a basis for living. Meaning has been and remains a critical impetus for human life. What has most strongly fuelled our sense of purpose and will to live has, for the overwhelming majority of our existence, revolved around mythology and religion.
The “Death of God” in the 19th and 20th century however sent shockwaves to our system, and we are still recovering, or at least trying to. For a species to continue advancing to the extent of what we see in 2001, the species would likely have had to overcome a very daunting challenge (beyond the “newspaper” problems we’re already familiar with): nihilism. The species would have had to come up with a meaning to life, and acted decisively on it. They would have had to answer Camus’ definitive question affirmatively: that life is indeed worth living, and that the pursuit of progress — particularly technological progress — is desirable and valuable. (Ted Kaczynski for example makes an excellent case against the latter notion)
It is interesting to ponder how such a species would overcome the philosophical and ethical concerns which continue to trouble us. What forms of government allow them to exist and prosper for millions of years? Aristocracy? Monarchy? Democracy? Fascism? Something else we haven’t even imagined?
What system do they come up with for the adequate and fair distribution of resources (i.e. what we call “economics”) that could sustain them for such a lengthy period? Do they even value fairness?
How did they manage to not plunder their environment(s), assuming that even is the case, and assuming they even consider that a worthy goal? Or do they simply behave irresponsibly and colonise new planets once they’ve sufficiently fucked up their old homes?
And most importantly, what values enable them to prosper for such a lengthy period? The aliens would have to come up with their own value system for “right” and “wrong”. “Good” and “evil”. Or are they, as Nietzsche challenged us, able to go “beyond Good and Evil” — and what would this imply?
What would motivate such a species to keep advancing in such a manner?
To continue projecting: such a species would surely advance to the point where existential concerns begin to occupy them the way they occupied us (perhaps quite “early” on in their evolution). To then go on to hypothetically prosper for another million or so years, (if not 100s of millions of years), they would have had to overcome nihilism, and develop an advanced value system that could enrich their lives and sufficiently satisfy them to live on for millions of years, with rapid progression and advancement.
Or do they just wing it — ultimately being pushed most strongly to keep living by their instincts for reproduction and survival over everything else?
The alternative is also just as interesting. Suppose what we aptly call the “humanities” is indeed unique to humans. Suppose music, art, poetry, philosophy, and novels are things that could only be found on our tiny blue dot — and that these will live and die with our species.
Suppose the appreciation for what we call beauty, and the need for meaning and purpose is unique to Homo sapiens — and that other forms of intelligent life wouldn’t need to wrestle with the existential concerns I’ve projected onto them.
Suppose the idea of emotions themselves is unique to our planet, and that includes wonder, awe, spiritual ecstasy, and joy. The same wonder and awe we feel when look at our galaxy in the night sky, or the same intensity of joy and feeling that we experience when listening to marvellous music, or witness a wonderful painting. That prospect is also just as interesting, and makes the task of relating to such a race even more daunting. It would also make us even more unique, and we should perhaps consider this in how we value and relate to the arts — as this could possibly be our unique fingerprint in the universe.
Do aliens philosophise? Or is the desire for meaning a unique “bug”/“feature” in Homo sapiens, that an extraterrestrial intelligent species may not be shipped with?
Do aliens write silly blog posts wondering if other aliens philosophise?