Extraterrestrial Contact: Savior in the Skies or Dark Night of Terrors?

Pictured above: Warrant Officer Ellen Ripley prepares for a peaceful first contact with extraterrestrial life in the year 2122.

14 September 2017

The Philodemic Room

Just 9 days after the 40th anniversary of launch of Voyager 1, humanity’s first attempt to reach out with our presence to the cosmos, The Philodemic Society gathered for its first induction of the 2017-18 school year to debate “Resolved: It is unethical for anyone to attempt extraterrestrial contact.”

Mr. Appel began his induction keynote by focusing in on the potential risks that contacting extraterrestrial life could pose to humanity, arguing that, just as his right to wave his arms ends at Pres. Ernst’s nose, “no one has the right to endanger us all.” At the same time, however, the potential benefits of extraterrestrial contact would almost certainly be concentrated in the hands of those already wealthy, all while spending resources that would be better put to use solving problems like “poverty, inequality, and global warming” that affect us all. In fact, Mr. Appel worried that any potential new technology gained by contact would just result in “technological innovation without a moral one.” Because attempting contact has “too great a risk of catastrophe, no reward for such a risk, and no one with a right to take that risk,” attempting extraterrestrial contact would not only be imprudent, it would be unethical, Mr. Appel argued.

Pushing back on the “overstated” risk of extraterrestrial contact, Mr. Maury began his induction keynote by laying out the potential benefits of such contact. From technological advancements to discourse with a civilization likely tens of thousands of years older than our own, there would be much to gain from contact, even if only we could share “our story and our heritage.” After all, any sufficiently advanced civilization would already have the ability to detect our presence, so “the risk already looms.” But, even then, if a civilization did detect our messages, it would likely not have “malicious intent” but, rather, altruism since, rationally speaking, “altruism and empathy have benefits for all.” Contacting extraterrestrial life does bring uncertainty, but “if we waited to understand every ET civilization before contacting them, we’d wait an eternity.”

Ms. Li fired back that “the night up there is dark and full of terrors.” In the end, there’s a reason that we haven’t heard from any extraterrestrial sources yet, one that we should learn from: “if they are fearful, why shouldn’t we be?” Our species’ history is “rife with first contacts that go horribly wrong,” usually for “the less technologically advanced” people, who we almost certainly are compared to any extraterrestrial civilization that would respond to our message. Just as Columbus didn’t intend to kill millions of indigenous people in the Americas with smallpox, an “ET [wouldn’t] have to be warlike to be dangerous.” “If there is any risk at all,” Ms. Li argued, “it’s unethical to run that risk” because the bearers of that cost would be the future inhabitants of Earth. We have no right to let others suffer because of our “recklessness,” she argued.

However, Ms. Provo questioned the applicability of the history of human first contact because those tales “are stories about humans,” while an extraterrestrial civilization is guaranteed to “not be human, period.” While our preconceptions about sci-fi have been shaped by media, there are tangible benefits to the mere act of reaching into the cosmos, with inventions like GPS and the Canadarm that we’ve “got NASA to thank for.” There is a “vital contradiction”, Ms. Provo argued, between the fear of the affirmation and the inherent human desires for “someone to know we existed” and to be “accepted in a universal community.” Ending her keynote, Ms. Provo contended that hers was the side of “the pursuit of our dreams.”

Kicking off the floor speeches, Mr. Dalman noted that it would be a fallacy to assume we’d get contact back within our lifetimes, raising the question “How can we make decisions for beings in the future?” It can’t be unethical to be curious, to explore, Ms. Logan argued, because it’s an important part of human nature. After all, we must “keep doing what makes humanity great.” Reminding the Society that there are “things we have to do here [on Earth],” Mr. James questioned whether “simply shouting into the night” was the best way “to secure our legacy” and to “spend resources.” However, Mr. Boling pushed back, noting that the topic of debate, extraterrestrial contact, doesn’t require many (or any) additional resources. Additionally, for any alien species to be able to achieve interstellar travel would require an “alien equivalent of world peace,” meaning that they’d most likely have a culture of peace, not warlike intentions.

Reminding the Society that there is a probability that “we will shout forever and hear nothing back,” Mr. Musser noted that even though technology is powerful, he questions if it has “given us healthy souls.” After all, our problems can only be solved by us, even if we get help from extraterrestrials. Lamenting the fact that “we brought the world of structural realism to space,” Ms. Reilly asked why technologically advanced alien civilization wouldn’t have become “morally advanced” too. Still, just as the decision to make contact could prove harmful, we hold the demise of our species in our hands now. Ms. Reilly ended her speech by asking what would have happened if the Luddites had won, a possibility that seemed to fill Mr. Musser with hopeful glee.

Sgt. Finkenthal clarified that the negation must prove that attempting to contact extraterrestrials would actually make a difference above the status quo of just broadcasting some messages into space. At the same time, she contended, scientists would be much more likely to discover “nice technology” by making it themselves than by “asking the stars for it.” Still, this process of self-discovery would have to be driven by “ethical science” that doesn’t assume that the “wish to know” makes any means of exploration ethical. Mr. Soltis, however, argued that just because we can’t prove research to be good doesn’t make it bad. In fact, science is often made bad by those who use it, not invent it, just as it was “the capitalists that came after him,” not Cook himself, that destroyed Hawai’i. Focusing on the need to use our resources “somewhere that matters,” Mr. Thompson argued that we have a duty to pursue options that will “actually help humanity in the near future.” Extraterrestrial contact “could be cool,” he admitted, “but it could be catastrophic” too, a risk he didn’t feel we had the right to take.

As the bells tolled the top of the hour, Ms. Kathryn Blanco (COL ‘21) began non-member speaking time by arguing that a peaceful scenario of first contact would be “just as likely as the horror movie scenario.” More importantly, however, “space is a part of our world,” a fact that she believed made it “unethical to ignore” since, after all, “ignorance is bliss but is not safety.” Ms. Sarah Alshawi (COL ‘18) responded that the affirmation didn’t think we should ignore space, just explore it in a “more controlled manner than randomly sending out signals” and waiting for a “star man in the sky to save us.” We must consider both the magnitude and the probability of this risk, she argued, noting that in this case, both are high. Combatting the “ethics of expense” argument of the affirmation, Dylan Hughes (COL ‘19)  explained that “not all [human activities] have to be devoted to combatting poverty.” There are benefits in the mere “course of searching,” he noted, that could prove beneficial for all humankind. However, Ms. Aysha Jamal (COL ‘21) rebutted that it is “unethical to spend that much money on something” that may not produce any meaningful rewards. She questioned the optimism of the negation too, asking how we can expect aliens to be peaceful when “we haven’t established peace within ourselves.”

Whipping out the flag of the Holy See, Mr. Marrow exclaimed that the most qualified person to speak to aliens on behalf of humanity would be none other than His Holiness Francis, Bishop of Rome, Vicar of Jesus Christ, Successor of the Prince of the Apostles, Supreme Pontiff of the Universal Church, Primate of Italy, Archbishop and Metropolitan of the Roman Province, Sovereign of the Vatican City State, Servant of the servants of God. In fact, so handsome and peaceful a representative the Pope would be, “what alien could look at Pope Francis’s face” and still act ill toward humanity?

Returning to the question of equality of risk, Vice-President Griffin lamented that “those who take on the risk area very small minority,” largely from rich, white countries. There is “privilege inherent” to this decision, she argued, since the most affected by the potential for alien contact are also the least included in the decision to run the risk. Questioning if humanity would really use toward productive ends any resources we saved by not pursuing extraterrestrial contact, Ms. Ludtke predicted that “humanity will go at some point,” so contact could be worth the risk since “if [aliens] don’t destroy us, we’ll destroy ourselves.” Arguing that there are good reasons to be an isolationist, Ms. Fisher argued that our species doesn’t have a good history of first contacts with each other. Still, “we owe it to ourselves to focus on what’s happening now” and to spend our money on “something better than our immediate annihilation.” Ms. Haag, however, noted that humans are the “worst, objectively,” and relatively insignificant in the cosmos. This is why we have an obligation, she argued, “to do everything we can to expand our knowledge of the universe,” which would include attempting to contact extraterrestrials.

Reiterating the importance of personal choice, Sgt. Hu responded, “I don’t want my life to end that way.” We have a duty, she argued, to protect the right of people to choose their own future, if for no other reason, because our motto as a society is “Eloquence in the Defense of Liberty.” Pushing back against Sgt. Hu’s assertion that “there would be little to be gained” from contact, Mr. Pullin likened contact with extraterrestrials to his experience at Georgetown. As a GSPer using his time at Georgetown to “see out beyond [his] own bubble,” Mr. Pullin felt that his own version of first contact had proven incredibly valuable for himself, just as it could be for humanity on a much grander scale. Our ability to “try to understand our own lives” through trying to understand aliens’ makes the effort of contact “always with whatever cost” that contact bears. Still, this debate, at its core, “comes back to choice,” President Ernst noted, using his prerogative. Building on the arguments of Sgt. Hu, President Ernst explained that while “space is inspiring,” if “Mr. Musser isn’t inspired, I don’t get to make that choice” for him. Ms. Pravecek, however, argued that just as she would be curious to try “hallucinogenic mushrooms” to experience more fully what life has to offer, there may be “something else to experience other than human life” that may well be our “destiny” to experience too.

Returning to the floor from the pits of graduate school, the alumna Ms. Rachel Greene ended the floor debate with a heartfelt congratulations for the inductees. Addressing them directly, she mentioned to Mr. Appel that “we can all feel the energy off you” and to Mr. Maury that his relationship with his mentor, VP Griffin, was “what this society is about.” Also, I believe it’s important to note that my mentor, Ms. Kathryn Li, met Ms. Greene as “a baby seglette.”

Ms. Provo, returning to the rostrum, argued that we all have the right to reach out into the sky “as long as there is a thoughtfulness or awareness of the weight of this message.” After all, “there is something to be gained” if those messages are thoughtful and well-crafted since, quoting the non-member Ms. Blanco, “space is our space, and we cannot ignore it.” In fact, so important is our place in the universe around us that “it would be unethical not to explore it.” Ms. Li, however, reminded the Society that it would be dangerous to broadcast our exact address when all of human history, the only sample we have, would predict no reason that “aliens would not be as warlike as us.” Even if an extraterrestrial civilization is somewhat likely to be friendly or altruistic, she furthered, “I don’t think [that’s] a justifiable risk” to make on behalf of descendents who have no say in the matter. Explaining that dolphins are simultaneously kind to humans and viscous to squid, Ms. Li challenged the Society with a straightforward question: “why are we the dolphins and not the squid?”

Finishing out his induction keynote, Mr. Maury rebutted the affirmation argument against spending resources on the contact attempt by reminding the Society that “misuse of resources isn’t an inherent component of contact.” At the same time, it would be absurd to only make decisions of this caliber by “consensus rule,” he argued, because it would be impossible to ever reach full consensus. Finishing out the debate, Mr. Appel, a jokingly self-described “communist sympathizer,” pushed back in defense of consensus, noting that because “we don’t have the consent of future generations,” we cannot make this decision for them. Additionally, he argued that there’s a lot of exploration we can do that doesn’t involve putting a “giant TV thing” into orbit and broadcasting our presence. Like Ms. Pravecek suggested, he agreed that experiencing all that life has to offer–including, potentially, “to feel the rush of civil murder”–is valuable, but he also noted that he doesn’t have the right to “endanger all of [us] by expanding [his] mind.” Even though he “wants everyone to have curiosity,” Mr. Appel closed by reminding the society that this curiosity shouldn’t come at the cost of solving real world problems.

The Philodemic Society was proud to induct its two newest members: Mr. Sam Appel and Mr. Matt Maury, and, by a vote of 28-1-26, the Society affirmed the resolution.


Marshall Webb

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