10 Questions to ask an alien Civilization
First encounters with aliens is a common motif in Science Fiction, and yet they always leave me feeling bitter. I often ask myself "why did they do that, why not this and that?"
"They just met an advanced alien civilization, of all the things they could have and should have done, why that?"
Often examined in these stories are the psychological impacts, or the political concerns, or the military anxieties. Often overlooked is the immense opportunity.
Any civilization capable of bridging the stars will be significantly more advaced than ours, make no mistake of that. Imagine all the ideas that would pour out of their brains if we cracked them open like a golden egg. I would ask them questions until I turned blue in the face and my tongue fell out, I would, otherwise I would regret not having done so for the rest of my Earthbound life.
In "The Demon-Haunted World" by Carl Sagan, we examine pseudosciences and conspiracies with the same kind of skeptical lens. We look at UFO claims.
Doctor Sagan was a well known and vocal skeptic, so he never received a shortage of mail from UFO "experts" trying to convince him and set him straight, "ask me anything" they would say. And so, clever Dr. Sagan would try to think of questions that any sophisticated civilization (a civilization, say, capable of bridging the stars) may find as simple as a word puzzle.
Questions such as Fermat's Last Theorem, or a cure for all known Earthly diseases, or a renewable source of energy. Of course, no one on Earth can asnwer those questions, so Dr. Sagan never got an answer. If you asked them something esoteric or generic, like "is there life after death" they would not be hesitant in reassuring us that there is.
One of the underpinning themes of the book is that there is never a shortage of snake oil salemen selling us fabrications that makes us feel happy, such as our dead loved ones still being with us. We readily buy into the lies because we secretly want to be placated, but just because something makes us feel good does not make it true.
Dr. Sagan's thought experiment was just a bit of playful juxtaposition, executed with a charm and wit typical of all of his musings. But let us, for now, conduct a different thought experiment. In a footnote Dr. Sagan remarks that
"It's a stimulating excercise to think of questions to which no human today knows the answers, but where a correct answer would immediately be recognized as such."
I'm inclined to agree. Furthermore, it serves a psychological need. A favorite pastime of children is asking questions, and they are joyous when receiving an answer. There is an immediate gratification when being answered, but that is a dangerous habit. Sometimes, absurdities and dogmas are often heralded as truth, a conspiracy theory is favored over no theory. That is not progress, selling untruth as truth is a disaster waiting to happen.
The process of asking the question itself may however satisfy some small intellectual need, and to the extent that we are inquisitive primates, there is no harm in generating playful thinking as long as we do not act irrationally on it.
Therefore, as the title posits, if we were to have the opportunity or privelege to ask an alien civilization no more or less than 10 questions, what could or should we ask them?
This is not a new game, this is a very old game. It has the same familiarity as games like "what would you wish for if you had a genie or a fairy in front of you?". It is a game that will end with about the same results. Many magazines and periodicals have columns with all kinds of experts; relationship advice, sexual suggestions, astrology, business. People are curious, they have questions to ask and lives to base their answers on.
However, this is a game that is not merely limited to the fantastic. There very well might be an alien civilization somewhere in any one of the hundred billion suns of our galaxy, or in one of any of the many other countless galaxies. We may, perhaps, one day, find them, or become engaged in dialougues of some type with them.
When the time comes we may be able to ask our silly questions, and based on the answers we receive, we may take the next step beyond a race of primates clinging to our rock on the edge of a vast nowhere. Any answers to these questions(if there are any), would be a gift to our race, and change our planet forever.
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