A Philosopher's Blog


Posted in Philosophy, Science by Michael LaBossiere on September 4, 2011
Stephen Hawking NASA 50th (200804210001HQ)

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While not as popular as the debate about whether there are aliens or not, the debate about whether aliens would be hostile or not is rather interesting. Some scientists, such as Stephen Hawking, take the view that aliens might well be like us-that is, rather hostile. Others have claimed that they would be peaceful. These folks often use various stock argument. One is that any race advanced enough to cross the stars would have advanced beyond bad behavior. While the debate is current theoretical, it can obviously be approached rationally.

One approach is the method of analogy. Since we have not encountered any aliens (as far as we know), we have a sample set of one intelligent species, namely our own. Since we are rather hostile, the logical inference is that other intelligent races would also be hostile. Of course, this argument is exceptionally weak since the sample consists of one species on one planet. Other species could be quite different. However, a sample of one is better than a sample of none, hence the best conclusion would seem to be that aliens are probably hostile like us.

Another approach is to consider the conditions that would need to be met for a race to be able to travel from star to star and how this would impact their behavior.

As noted above, one stock argument is that aliens would be peaceful because they would need to be advanced and advanced races would be peaceful. On the face of it, both premises can be challenged. First, it might be the case (as some sci-fi writers have speculated) that interstellar travel can be done with a very low level of technology and we just failed to make that discovery. Second, a race might acquire advanced technology by means other than advancement (such as finding it in a crashed ship). Third there seems to be no correlation between technological level and peacefulness. After all, humans have not shown any tendency to be more peaceful-we just have more advanced ways of hurting and killing each other. While alien races might be different, there is no foundation for the claim that advances in technology must correlate with increases in peacefulness.

Another stock argument is that a race would need to survive past the crisis of self-destruction and also become unified in order to master interstellar travel. Such a race, some argue, would have learned peace. While this has some appeal, the argument is easy enough to counter. First, there are various ways a race could get past the crisis of self-destruction without being peaceful. For example, if the race was unified by war prior to this crisis it could still be quite hostile. As another example, a race that is far more collective than humans could be unified, but unified against the rest of the universe in a very hostile way.

Another stock argument is that interstellar conquest and war would not be feasible because of the distance and cost. This, of course, does not show that aliens are not hostile-it just shows that they would have little or no way to act on that hostility. However, it is easy enough to imagine ways around these problems. Perhaps war and conquest would be feasible. After all, getting an entire planet would probably be worth the cost of getting to it and conquering a world might require sending only one ship and the right equipment (like an automated factory that could build a robotic fleet and army on Mars and attack earth with locally built forces). Another possibility is a race that is desperate and needs another world to survive, regardless of the cost (which is a classic sci-fi plot device). Or perhaps there are races that would send a weapon to exterminate us, perhaps out of xenophobia.


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  1. ajmacdonaldjr said, on September 4, 2011 at 1:44 pm

    I think space is too vast for feasible travel, but your article is thought provoking. I think we, as a society, are getting away from the modernist notion of someday abandoning “spaceship earth”, which is a good thing. Until we realize the earth is our only home, in the midst of a vast – and even vaster – ocean of space, we will never begin focusing on what’s most important: the people with whom we share our planet.

  2. T. J. Babson said, on September 4, 2011 at 1:59 pm

    “After all, humans have not shown any tendency to be more peaceful-we just have more advanced ways of hurting and killing each other.”

    This is patently untrue. Facts are stubborn things.

    Steven Pinker charts the decline of violence from Biblical times to the present, and argues that, though it may seem illogical and even obscene, given Iraq and Darfur, we are living in the most peaceful time in our species’ existence.

    • magus71 said, on September 5, 2011 at 1:55 am

      TJ–you are correct.

      Why do we assume aliens won’t fight among themselves, too? Why would an alien civilization be one, happy, monolithic, human-condemning species?

      • Michael LaBossiere said, on September 5, 2011 at 4:20 pm

        The best conclusion (which is weak) is that they would be like us in many ways, including hostility to each other and themselves.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on September 5, 2011 at 4:19 pm

      Contrary to Pinker, I would say that we have plenty of violence. However, I will accept that the percentage of people killed per day by war is lower than the past (thanks, in part, to more precise weapons). But crime seems to be doing reasonably well. As such, I’m not sure that I’d be inclined to agree that we are more peaceful as a species. We do have better weapons and better means of keeping populations in line that do not require violence. But that seems to be an odd form of peace.

  3. Anonymous said, on September 4, 2011 at 9:51 pm

    A possibility of Alien contact that you hadn’t touched on was that of inconsideration. Extermination may not be of any hatred or violence but because the alien force views us as unimportant. Could be something as simple as our definition of sentient life may not match their own.

    Basically they could look at us with our computers and nuclear weapons the way we view apes with finger paints and sticks. They may not exterminate us, but they could “save us from ourselves” by blowing us back to the stone age. That’s of course if they cared enough for our species to even attempt anything so… considerate.

    I think it may be more likely they wouldn’t even realize that we’re being exterminated. If this species has developed a peaceful mentality it doesn’t mean that they’re empathetic, kind, gentle, or sensitive to other forms of life. I suppose it is assumed a peaceful society doesn’t go out of their way to eliminate or destroy something, but our own history has taught us the worst things imaginable were done with the best of intentions. it would be hard to imagine that this alien species wouldn’t fall prey to the same idiom.

    Best example I can think of is the species sees our planet or star as a threat to their own species and just obliterates one or the other. They’re not doing it because they hate us, they’re doing it to prevent something bad from happening to their own species.

  4. Ted Shisler (@TedShisler) said, on September 5, 2011 at 7:47 am

    Humanity should be technologically prepared for an alien contact; they could be hostile.

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