Who is looking into what will happen when aliens land?
An extraordinary number of people have considered this seriously: staff at the UN Office for Outer Space Affairs, legal sources, NASA personnel, space scientists, former military representatives, and experts in space communications and engineering.
In your new film The Visit: An Alien Encounter, I was most struck by the to-camera contributions of Paul Beaver and Vickie Sheriff, former Ministry of Defence personnel in London.
To be frank, I found it strangely reassuring to find such highly professional people in charge of the political machinery. Politicians may come and go, but civil servants are around forever.
They seemed to have a very clear idea of what would happen if we were visited by aliens and how to handle them. How did that make you feel?
The most frightening aspect for me was Beaver’s sense of how public panic would cause society to break down. I thought panic leading to Armageddon was just a Hollywood cliché, but the MoD officials I spoke to had seen this process under way during the Bosnian conflicts of the mid-1990s. Their assumption – that society tips into anarchy very quickly – was deadly serious and sincere. Beaver and Sheriff told me, more or less, that the varnish of society is very thin: fear cuts through it quickly.
So was Sheriff more worried by people than by extraterrestrials?
She knows how to balance risks. If such advanced beings meant us harm, they would have harmed us by now. She’s much more worried that we would harm peaceable aliens by making mistakes.
One of your interviewees, Jacques Arnould, a French theologian, said that when we’re confronted with something alien we need to treat it like a human. Do you agree?
I think he was getting at something deeper. Society’s varnish is our willingness to treat each other as beings like ourselves. If you want to communicate with aliens, you have to invest them with human characteristics, because where else do you even begin? The same applies to how you treat other people.
“Our way of thinking is perhaps just as dogmatic as religious thinking in the Middle Ages”
Why can’t we be objective?
That’s the promise scientific thinking has been holding out to us since the Renaissance: that the world can be understood, and that we can command the world through our understanding of it. In this, our present way of thinking is perhaps just as dogmatic as religious thinking in the Middle Ages, which only permitted certain ways of perceiving and thinking about reality. Meeting a true alien would challenge our assumptions. Before us would be a dynamic agency utterly unknown to us.
Why do aliens so disturb our reality?
Because there’s this gulf between a scientific understanding of life and the way we experience it. In the film I asked Christopher McKay, an astrobiologist with the NASA Ames Research Center, if life was blind to everything beyond its own survival. He said yes, life just wants to live. A human being, in trying to extract amazing knowledge from the universe, is just doing what living things do. It’s investing in its future. It’s expanding.
What’s wrong with that?
Nothing. But it’s not enough. It doesn’t include the fact that we experience life through emotions, dreams and feelings. Towards the end of the film, Chris Welch, of France’s International Space University, imagines entering an alien craft. His thought experiment expresses extraordinary courage and open-mindedness. I hope we can bring such an attitude to an alien encounter if it happens for real.
And there’s hope in the fact that we conjure up aliens in the first place. We long to be seen by something other than ourselves, because then our own existence is strengthened. Alongside it is this suspicion that perhaps the alien is resting inside ourselves: that while we’re alone in the universe, we don’t truly know who we are.