This has been one of my favorite philosophical ideas which I have always wondered about.

What would happen to human society the moment that undisputable evidence is found for extraterrestrial intelligence?

Hypothetical situation, just for fun:

What if suddenly one day a paleontologist digs up a large, metallic device, buried under dozens of layers of dirt which dates back twenty thousand years. This device is well preserved, contains some burn marks, but otherwise looks intact. The devices is taken to a group of the best physicists and analyzed, and it is discovered to contain an extremely advanced technology. They figure that it had fallen through the atmosphere and was buried thousands of years ago, well before mankind had any significant technology. They continue to take the device apart and discover a physical storage medium with a system of universal mathematical patterns. They study these patterns, deduce a primitive language (describing mixtures of chemicals, nuclear reactions, atomic models, etc), and finally conclude that the device is from an extraterrestrial civilization. They guess that it was probably one of many probes that were sent out to search for life, and maybe since this one crashed here, it didn't report back and therefore nobody came by to visit (hence our lack of vists even now).

Fictional story over, that's just an example of a way we might suddenly (nearly overnight) have solid proof of extraterrestrial life in the universe. Now, this information is told to the public (we'll assume no government cover-up conspiracies this time).

What happens now?

  • The first thing that always comes to mind is: will religious organizations (and people) accept the evidence and adjust their beliefs? Will they abandon those beliefs? Will they reject the clear-cut evidence for hundreds of years (as they did with the heliocentric model)? I can see some problems here. Religious organizations are stubborn to change, and they are the keepers of the ideas which many people cling to the strongest. Suddenly there would seem to be major discrepencies between what some religions have always told us and what we now have in front of us.
  • If we had the opportunity to try to contact these extraterrestrials, should we? The debate here would range between those who believe that the aliens will be benign, and those who think they will exploit us like the way we may have exploited beasts of burden.
  • Will humanity start to become more peaceful? I've always wondered if we became aware of a species which was in all ways far superior to us, would we become collectively humble enough to settle our differences, or would our incessant squabbles continue (which now seem insignificant in our grander perspective), or even be further enflamed by this event?
  • Would anything drastic happen to our worldwide economy? How much of our nation's budgets will suddenly be redirected into extensive study of astronomy, SETI projects, etc. How much into military research? Of course it may seem quite silly to think we could do anything significant in the way of defense against a civilzation that was 20,000 years ago already far more advanced than we are now.
  • Would people become depressed or excited at the idea of not being alone in the universe? Religious people may feel depressed if they grew up believing that humans are the only intelligent species created by their 'god'. Other people may be excited at the prospect of discovering an unimaginable number of new societies and cultures.
  • Would science fiction suddenly flourish? Would most authors depict extraterrestrials as benign or agressive?