In January, the Kepler space telescope discovered an Earth-like exoplanet orbiting a star similar to our Sun. In April, NASA announced the discovery of three new Earth-like exoplanets, all within a distance from their host star considered ideal for habitation and all candidates for possessing liquid water. NASA stated that all four of these planets were prime candidates for hosting alien life forms.
The potential implications of discovering intelligent life on other planets are as varied as they are profound. Perhaps these beings possess technology far superior to ours and can aid us in development of devices only imagined in sci-fi literature and film. Perhaps that same technological superiority has engendered staggering advances in medical technology, thereby ending disease and death. Perhaps the superior intellect has cultivated superior moral convictions and these beings now enjoy a society free of strife, turmoil, conflict, inequity, and inequality. If we discovered intelligent life, and assuming their posturing towards inferior beings is indeed beneficent, any of these possibilities would yield unprecedented and unparalleled benefits for the human race.
But there is one possibility that could change our existence and shape our future in such staggering ways that it is almost beyond comprehension. It is, quite frankly, the one potentiality I hope we encounter.
What if these intelligent beings perception of reality was drastically different than and superior to our own modes of perception? We say that people have a fundamentally different worldview, but what if they viewed a fundamentally different world?
Reality, for us, is nothing more than subjective interpretation. The reality that we experience is simply the interpretation of external stimuli by our brains. And for all its amazing complexity, the brain is shockingly inept at interpretation, and therefore presents us with inaccurate representations. The external world is colorless, soundless, and tasteless; these are sense experiences that exist solely in our minds (for a more in-depth philosophical argument on this check out the section on Idealism in The Science of the Unknowable). What exists in the external world are frequencies and waves, nothing more. Furthermore, our brains are bombarded with a relentless assault of sensory data every second, but are capable of processing and interpreting only a small portion. How great is the divide? The brain process 400 billion bits of information per second, but we are only consciously aware of 2,000 of those bits. Additionally, our brains are pattern recognition machines. They love patterns, like a moth loves a flame, like a schoolgirl loves a boy-band, like Tim Burton loves Johnny Depp, like…well, you get the point. The brain uses patterns to construct the reality in which we live. Patterns that were useful in the past persist in the future. Patterns that were not advantageous are discarded. But that is not to imply that those patterns are insignificant or irrelevant in the present. The brain exercises an innate right to make arbitrary decisions about what is important and what is not. For instance, when you walk into a room, say a living room, your brain has a schema for living room and it uses this schema, based on past patterns and experiences, to construct the representation of said living room. The brain does this because of the overwhelming amount of data it receives per second. If the brain knows what a living room is supposed to look like, it can dispense with processing additional information that it deems superfluous. A consequence of this is that if there is something in the room that does not conform to the brains imposed pattern, something so aberrational, the brain concludes that that thing simply is not there at all. It never was before, therefore, it can’t be now. When constructing reality, the brain exercises its right to dispense with aberrational information with reckless abandon. The conclusion is that there is a huge disconnect between what we perceive as the reality of the external world and the reality of the external world. You don’t have to take my word for it, numerous neurological experiments have been performed which provide overwhelming evidence for this conclusion. If the reader requires further convincing, I would suggest checking out Beau Lotto’s work on the subject.
Now, back to the aliens.
What if these intelligent beings had brains constructed significantly different than ours? What if their brains were capable of processing all 400 billion bits of information per second? There would be no disconnect between perception and reality as far as they were concerned. And imagine what kinds of things they could tell us, what wonders they could show us, what simple truths about the nature of our existence and our place in the universe they could reveal. It would be an unrivaled metaphysical paradigm shift.
And that, to me, would be more exhilarating than traveling at light speed, more exciting than time travel, more enticing than beam-me-up-Scotty technology.
After all, maybe then we would finally accept a long-overdue conclusion: that motion, time, space, and solidarity are constructs and constraints of an inefficient interpretation of external stimuli by an overstimulated pattern recognition machine.
Wouldn’t that be something.