Humanistic Implications of Discovering Life Beyond Earth

Authored by: Steven J. Dick

Handbook of Astrobiology

Print publication date:  December  2018
Online publication date:  December  2018

Print ISBN: 9781138065123
eBook ISBN: 9781315159966
Adobe ISBN:

10.1201/b22230-49

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Abstract

The remarkable discoveries in astrobiology in the last few decades raise an urgent question: what is the impact on humanity of discovering life beyond Earth? In this chapter, we discuss possible approaches to answering this question, as well as critical issues and potential impacts under a variety of discovery scenarios. The approaches discussed are history, discovery, and analogy, with history providing past reactions when life was thought to have been found, discovery demonstrating that the impact of finding life will be an extended process dependent on the discovery scenario, and analogy offering cautious guidelines to societal impact. The critical issues include transcending anthropocentrism by questioning our conceptions of life and intelligence, culture and civilization, and communication and technology; questioning whether human knowledge is universal from the point of view of epistemology, cognitive science, and evolutionary biology; and providing a systematic framework for discussing societal impact. The actual impacts of discovering life are analyzed within a framework of cosmological, theological, ethical, and cultural worldviews. We argue that the discovery of life beyond Earth will transform our thinking in these areas, resulting in astrotheology, astroethics, astroculture, and a new cosmological worldview here termed “the biological universe.”

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