Life on Other Planets Would Rock Our World
Thomas G. Plante
My friend and colleague, Professor Phil Kesten, offers some remarkable and thought-provoking comments in his current Illuminate article about the more than 2,000 exoplanets now discovered by scientists. He mentioned that, since 1992, new technologies have been able to confidently determine that there are many planets that might actually have the distinct possibility of sustaining life. As a psychologist (and not a physicist like Professor Kesten), I often wonder what the response would be if we found out that there actually is life on other planets and what people might think and do if we discovered that these exoplanets sustained intelligent life.
if we confidently determined that intelligent life existed on other planets, this remarkable news would truly rock our world
Certainly, humans have likely always wondered about the cosmos and what life might be like on other planets. Until very recent years we could only just speculate and wonder. Yet, if we confidently determined that intelligent life existed on other planets, this remarkable news would truly rock our world.
Quality research in psychology, information processing, and cognitive science suggests that many humans would be unable to process or accommodate this news given the fact that it would greatly contradict their views and opinions about life, our world, the universe, and how it all works. This might be especially true for those who are invested in a literal interpretation of sacred scripture as well. These individuals would likely reject the news out of hand and perhaps try to silence the messenger or messengers.
For example, Galileo’s discoveries about the earth orbiting the sun—rather than the sun orbiting the earth—were met with strong denial by others, including the Roman Catholic Church. Tragically, many people over the centuries have been imprisoned and often tortured and killed when they reported scientific discoveries that contradict religious or popular conceptions about the world. In current times, those who deny the Holocaust or the science behind climate change might be cut from the same cloth. The point is that those who are invested in a particular world view are motivated to deny information that is contradictory to their view or, if this denial is too challenging to accomplish, work to eliminate or demonize the messenger of the threatening discoveries.
Learning that our cosmos has planets that support and sustain life, including advanced and intelligent life forms, would certainly create a crisis among many people.
Learning that our cosmos has planets that support and sustain life, including advanced and intelligent life forms, would certainly create a crisis among many people. Yet for others, the news would be welcomed as an exciting possibility of new world views, adventures, and opportunities. Either way we would have to both assimilate and accommodate this information into the way we view ourselves and the cosmos—and rethink much of what we have taken for granted for millenniums.
Scientific discoveries are exciting and engaging for sure, but they often also have cognitive, psychological, and behavioral consequences that are both expected and unexpected. Thus discoveries of intelligent life on other planets would certainly change the face of how many of us would not only view the cosmos, but ourselves as well.