So this is an unusual topic for this publication, I agree. In almost 20 years of blogging I have almost never ever talked about extraterrestrial life, but for various reasons I’ve been pondering about it lately, and here go some thoughts and beliefs in no particular order.

Yes, these are beliefs, because at least at the time of this publication I have no proof whatsoever of the existence of intelligent extraterrestrial life forms. So, I choose to (maybe irrationally) believe they exist, somewhere.

So, beliefs they are. Where do I begin?

Rural Paradox

On December 30th, 2016, the Financial Times published a letter to the editor signed by “An Invisible Observer” from a solar system “70,000 light years from earth” titled “ET to FT — you are not alone on your little blue marble”.

The original is paywalled, but thankfully we have a snapshot on to read it in its entirety.

We will never know for sure who wrote it (if anything, the author definitely sounds British), and if it was a real alien or not (or, put another way, if it was a prank or not), but the tone and the explanations certainly hit home regarding my own beliefs about extraterrestrial life, and the apparent Fermi Paradox we’re living in.

You need to appreciate that your planet is really in a quite rural part of the galaxy.

(I love the world “rural” in such a context. Imagine living in the Andaman islands and trying to understand what are those metallic birds flying over you every so often at inconceivable speed and height. Also, my dear invisible observer, how about “denser” in lieu of “more dense” in the paragraph below?)

Where the stars are more dense, civilisations discovered each other at a level of advancement similar to your 1950s, and within a dozen light years or so of each other. But there isn’t any one close to you. You are like an isolated tribe in the rainforest thinking the world is what you see.

(The letter is a gem, and I recommend you read it.)

In short, I believe the universe is full of life. Life is the default mode in our cosmos. Whenever conditions align more or less successfully, life appears, because life is inevitable.

Just like our visitor from a planetary system 70'000 light-year away said,

There are millions of earthlike planets, and millions of those are habitable, and millions of those are inhabited and millions of those have civilisations at least as advanced as yours, and millions that are far more advanced.

After a few million years of evolution, a big chunk of that life evolves into intelligence somewhere, and some of that intelligence become interplanetary, interstellar, or even intergalactic species.

Also, I do not believe we’re the first, nor the last, nor that we’re alone. Far from that.

But I don’t believe in a barbaric civilization becoming an interplanetary one. Quite the opposite; I believe barbaric ones, sooner or later, simply destroy themselves.

Good Intentions

To put it in popular culture terms, in general I subscribe to Steven Spielberg’s idea of extraterrestrial life over Roland Emmerich’s. I also agree with Sabine, by the way.

Said differently, I believe that more advanced civilizations must become less savage as they evolve; from a galactic perspective, we’re just a bunch of idiotic monkeys hurting each other for no reason. We are a very primitive group of self-proclaimed “intelligent” beings, stuck in a pathological tendency to hurt one another. This is the biggest stumbling block to our development.

In other words: true intelligence cannot be decoupled from compassion and goodwill.

You most probably remember the joke that goes like this:

– What proof do we have of intelligent life elsewhere in the universe?
– The fact that they haven’t contacted us.

Yes, I also believe that this isn’t a joke.

Humans are a sick species, bend to destroy not only their home planet and everything in it, but pretty much every other human being that gets in their way to make (wait for it) more money.

(By the way, the fact that this “Invisible Observer” sent a letter to the FT, of all publications, hints at a certain interest in our flawed economic system.)

This crazy pursuit of money has its origins in our fear of scarcity; we are a fearful species, still clutching at our panic of being hungry or dead, and eschewing any kind of compassion for the sake of survival.

Those are the traits of savages, and we humans, despite our meager technological advances, are still playing by the rules of an economic system that (by nature and by design) depends on the enslavement of a group of people to ensure the riches of another, even when said enslavement is called employment.

The reason we find tales of space conflict entertaining is because we want to think that conflict is a necessary consequence of the existence of intelligence. I don’t believe it is. And I do believe that true alien life intelligence would consider this as a trait blurring the lines between amusing, concerning, and fascinating.

True Evolution

I believe that, if we do not destroy ourselves first (as Carl Sagan famously said) we will become an interplanetary race.

Doing so will require new sources of energy, which will in turn help remove scarcity from the human equation. The wide availability of cheap sources of energy is, I believe, just a matter of time. Nuclear fusion, Dyson spheres, you name it. The availability of such sources should, in turn, remove the fear of survival, and open the door to breakthroughs in transport and communication.

As the author of the letter to the editor of the Financial Times said,

To you, the universe is silent because you haven’t invented the right listening technologies.
Not knowing you’re not alone, though, has dragged on your science. In time, you’ll learn how to manipulate space-time; keep in mind that while nothing can travel faster than light “in” space-time, it is possible to travel faster than light “through” space-time.

(I belong to a generation who not only was born too late to watch Neil Armstrong walk live on the Moon, but also entirely missed the possibility of seeing people walking on Mars. Instead, we got Reaganomics and neoliberalism.)

After those new sources of energy will come new ways of traveling, including faster-than-light travel, which again, I believe, is just a matter of time. I believe our modern science of physics is stuck in yet another “aether” moment, when physics comes up with the stupidest ideas to explain whatever the James Webb Telescope is seeing that we can’t immediately figure out.

We will be in such a state until a new Einstein shows up and slaps scientists in the face with some new breakthrough theory. In a few centuries, maybe decades, we will expand the theories of Relativity and Quantum Mechanics with some new knowledge, and everyone will proclaim “how didn’t we think of this first!” And the cycle will repeat, because that’s the spirit of science.

Conditio Sine Qua Non

Now, those are only the technological aspects of our evolution as a true interplanetary species, and they are an important condition, but not a sufficient one.

If we want to thrive as an interplanetary species, we will have at some point to abandon the old capitalist ways (which will anyway be made obsolete by boundless, free-as-in-beer energy) and accept the fact that all life is sacred, and that every living being in the universe is a treasure to be cherished. I believe that more advanced civilizations have been able to overcome our current clumsy state of economic misconfiguration.

Undergoing such a transit is what I call true evolution. Becoming a respectful, compassionate, and wise species, one that left behind all quarrel against one another, and in turn, against others in this universe.

At which point in time, I believe, we will have our “first contact” with alien life forms. It won’t happen earlier.

Or maybe, argh, maybe Uncle Duke is right:

the idea of being visited by aliens lost its appeal when i realized they’d likely just be some other planet’s asshole billionaires

PS: should you happen to be the author of the 2016 Financial Times letter reading this article at some point in time after June 2024, I invite you to drop me an email. I would love to chat with you, and, I promise, our talk will remain private, no matter if you are alien or not.

PS2: as a disclaimer, I must say I’m not the “sad earthling” that wrote a reply to this comment published on the Financial Times on January 2017. I don’t think that the “only discernible purpose of life on Earth is the replication of DNA”, seriously, WTF. That’s really a sad earthling, indeed.

Update, 2024-06-14: Counternotions hits the nail as usual.