Alien Wisdom and the Meaning of Life

Alien Wisdom and the Meaning of Life December 18, 2015


This Existential Comics gets at one of the biggest challenges that encounter with extraterrestrials could offer to terrestrial faiths. Some have presumed that either the presence of belief in incarnations of God on their world would be a biggie, at least for Christians. Others have presumed the opposite, the apparent lack of such revelations specific to their world. But what if they don’t even understand our questions and the assumptions that they take for granted at the most basic level?

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  • arcseconds

    I actually think it would be quite unlikely we would be able to have a meaningful discussion on this particular question, or even on similar questions.

    For a start, in my view the whole ‘meaning of life’ thing is a confused quasi-question. I think this is an essential insight in Douglas Adams: ’42’ seems nonsensical, but what kind of answer were we expecting? If we don’t know what kind of answer we want, we probably don’t understand the question.

    As far as I can work out (and I must remember to ask the next person who asks about the meaning of life) the answer is supposed to be one that makes them feel OK about everything (or something), either in their own life or with life in general. But could a 2-minute answer achieve this? Probably not. Feeling OK about things is not something a short answer can achieve: it’s the sort of thing that might require an entire reorientation of one’s existence. And we could also ask whether one really should feel OK about things.

    Plus, I suspect the question is really one that rises out of modernity. Without the particular cultural background of individualism, and rejecting traditional forms of life, yet at the same time being nostaligic for them, plus still having the idea floating around that life is part of one great plan, I don’t think the particular form of disquiet this question attests to arises.

    So I don’t think there’s any reason an alien culture would come up with the same confused quasi-questions as we do. I don’t even think other human cultures come up with them: as far as I know the meaning of life kind of question simply doesn’t arise in small-scale societies, and while say the Greeks did have reflective questions about life, I don’t think any of them posed this question: their question was more ‘what is virtue?’.

    Another point that is relevant here is that if you put asside progressivist assumptions, which appear to involve focusing on our particular history and supposing it to be a necessary trajectory, there may not be anything inevitable about modern science. It came about through a highly particular combination of circumstances, and it’s hard to say whether a very different cultural history could come up with a similar cultural institution. For all we know, it may be as particular as the symphony orchestra, which I think we can treat as being unique.

    The above applies to humans as much as other lifeforms, but with other lifeforms we have the additional complication that different evolutionary history is likely to produce very different psychologies. A eusocial species, as an example, might do things that are recognisably intelligent, and may even have science and technology of a sort, but if this is always done in an entirely communual fashion, perhaps with developmentally different specialists performing different parts of it, they might not have anything that really corresponds to scientists. And the notion of balancing individual lives with the life of the community might make just as much sense as balancing the lives of your individual organs with the life of you, in which case there could be little hope of a meaningful discussion about politics.

  • arcseconds

    Let me put it this way:

    So could we ask “what is the meanging of life?” to aliens and get a meaningful answer?

    Well, can we get a meaningful answer when we ask humans that?

  • Tony Prost

    Well, the orthodox answer is: To know Him, to love Him, and to serve Him in this world, and to be happy with him in the next.