Difference, tolerance and aliens


‘The Three Astronauts’ by Umberto Eco; illustrated by Eugenio Carmi; translated by William Weaver.

Three mutually distrustful astronauts – American, Russian, and Chinese – take off from three corners of the Earth, hoping to colonise other planets in order to resolve Earth’s overpopulation. Arriving together on the strange landscape of Mars, they warily keep their distance from one other. Eventually, though, they come to realise that they share similar feelings despite their linguistic differences.

Their common humanity is reinforced when they encounter a radically different creature: a green-trunked, six-armed Martian, who appears to them so monstrous that they swiftly unite in the desire to fight him. All-out war is avoided when a vulnerable baby bird in need of help elicits a sympathetic reaction not only from the three astronauts, but also from the Martian. The astronauts conclude that the Martian must possess a sensitive heart, and surely a brain as well. They learn that ‘just because two creatures are different they don’t have to be enemies… each one has his ways, and it’s simply a matter of reaching an understanding.’

You can view all pages of the book on flickr here.


Discussion – Tolerance

  • What is tolerance – and how is it different to friendship, resignation, indifference or indulgence?
  • What are the benefits and risks of being tolerant?
  • How might we reach an understanding with people who are very different from us?
  • Why does intolerance exist in our world?
  • Should all actions be tolerated? Should all opinions be tolerated?
  • How should we determine the limits of what ought to be tolerated?


Activity 1 – Space capsule

“In 1977, the Voyager spacecraft launched into space. And with it went the Golden Record – a collection of sounds and images that would describe life on Earth to whomever or whatever might find it.” (Suggested listening: The RadioLab podcast segment Space Capsules.)

Imagine you were appointed to create the contents of a new space capsule to be launched into distant space in hopes of it being discovered by an alien civilisation, or by humans of the far-off future.

  • How would you depict life on Earth?
  • What sounds would you use? What music? What images? What artefacts?
  • How would you describe humanity and human civilisation?
  • What are the most admirable, virtuous and beautiful things about human beings and human society?
  • What are the most disappointing, shameful and ugly things about human beings and human society?

Write, draw or craft your responses and pack them safely in a space capsule of your own creation.


Activity 2 – What would the aliens think?

Imagine that an unknown spacecraft is hovering near Earth. Inside, aliens are discussing what they have observed about human behavior by studying us. What might they be saying?

Here’s a sample response: “Human beings seem to be rather technologically advanced, but they have still haven’t been able to find ways to properly care for each other. Some do not have shelter, although they live in very large cities filled with dwellings, some of which are uninhabited. Some do not have food, although they live near farms, storehouses or shops that are always full of produce. Access to dwellings depends on having tokens of value that they call ‘money’. Also, humans often judge themselves and each other based on their appearance. We don’t understand this at all!”


Activity 3 – Ten steps to statehood (or, create your own micronation)

This activity is adapted from Wikihow.

  1. Decide on the purpose and goals of your micronation.
  2. Create insignia: a national anthem, flag, coat of arms, and national symbol (e.g. plant or animal).
  3. Claim land for your nation. It can be your own property (such as your backyard) or a public place (such as a park).
  4. Do something in your micronation. For instance, hold a festival, play a sport, or trade with another micronation.
  5. Establish yourself as the leader of your micronation.
  6. Choose your preferred system of government, and appoint officials.
  7. Establish laws and restrictions. Some things may be banned in your country, or you may need a passport to enter.
  8. Devise institutions and customs such as national foods, holidays and cultural establishments.
  9. Design your micronation’s currency.
  10. Create an alphabet and a language for your micronation.

* Note: The four requirements of statehood, defined in the Montevideo Convention of 1933, are a defined territory, a government, a permanent population, and the ability to enter into foreign relations. When you meet these requirements, congratulations! You’re a sovereign nation. But you’ll still be considered a micronation until another country recognises you…


Philosophical Allsorts:

“We all call barbarous anything that is contrary to our own habits.” Michel de Montaigne (1533 – 1592)

“It is thus tolerance that is the source of peace, and intolerance that is the source of disorder and squabbling.” Pierre Bayle (1647 – 1706).

“If we are to live together, and not die together, we must learn a kind of charity and a kind of tolerance, which is absolutely vital to the continuation of human life on this planet.” Bertrand Russell (1872 – 1970)

“If we extend unlimited tolerance even to those who are intolerant, if we are not prepared to defend a tolerant society… then the tolerant will be destroyed, and tolerance with them… We should therefore claim, in the name of tolerance, the right not to tolerate the intolerant.” Karl Popper (1902 – 1994)

“We have no need of other worlds. We need mirrors.” Stanisław Lem (1921 – 2006)

“As we realize that more and more things have global impact, I think we’re going to get people increasingly wanting to get away from a purely national interest.” Peter Singer (1946 – )


The Philosophy Club runs co-curricular and extra-curricular workshops for children in Australia.




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