Sightings: Sunday 5 December 2021: Why it matters how we think about intelligence and technology

Watching a certain kind of article turn up on my news feeds gets a little like binge-watching The Walking Dead or one of its numerous spinoffs: how many times can one watch another zombie shamble into view to be dispatched? Surely, some readers here might justifiably feel the same when the topic of the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) or the very notion of an advanced, extraterrestrial civilization is raised and cut down.

Until such time as I can win a forum for my arguments as public as that of a certain Harvard professor of astrophysics I can’t help but persist in the exercise, at least to keep my brain fibres warmed up and limber and my critical machete honed. On (in?) the other hand, it might be time to clarify what my reflections on this topic intend…

Two articles that caught my attention this week and that provide good opportunities in this regard are Joelle Renstrom’s from Wired “Looking for Alien Life? Seek Out Alien Tech” and another from FuturismScientists Say There May Be ‘Humans’ All Over the Universe“.

Nanosats

Renstrom’s article collates ideas already addressed here (that SETI might prove more fruitful were it to search for technosignatures rather than signals from extraterrestrial civilizations) along with remarks and reflections from Seth Shostak and Susan Schneider that speculate about the implications for SETI of an extraterrestrial species’ having become post-biological: “Maybe they experienced what many scientists believe is in store for Homo sapiens—the merging of biological beings and machines. Maybe they’ve become nanosats. Maybe they’re data or are part of a digital network that functions like a collective consciousness….”

The critical fissure, however, is right there in that first sentence: “Maybe they experienced what many scientists believe is in store for Homo sapiens”, and even more in the article’s subtitle: “Shifting the search for extraterrestrial life from biological to technological signs could break us out of anthropocentrism and help guide humanity’s future.” Ironically, the “paradigm shift” Renstrom outlines (“shifting the search for extraterrestrial life from biological to technological signs”) is itself anthropocentric, modeled as it is on the self-understanding of one, very recent and by-no-means global, culture of Homo Sapiens. The unconscious narcissism (anthropocentrism) is evident in the way Renstrom outlines his argument:

If we assume that biological life of some sort emerged on other planets, then we can also make some educated assumptions about how that life evolved—namely, that other species also invented technology, such as tools, transport vehicles, factories, and computers. Maybe those species invented artificial intelligence (AI) or virtual worlds. Advanced ET may have reached the “technological singularity,” the point at which AI exceeds human or biological intelligence. Maybe they experienced what many scientists believe is in store for Homo sapiens…

Despite the fact we have yet to determine how life arose on earth and have yet to detect it off-world (provided we could even recognize it when we encountered it…), one would have to be perversely stubborn not to be moved if not convinced by the sheer number of even earth-like planets so far discovered not to grant the assumption that life-as-we-know-it has emerged elsewhere in the cosmos. But note the leap Renstrom makes: “namely, that other species also invented technology, such as tools, transport vehicles, factories, and computers.” Aside from the far-from-unquestionable concept of technology at work here, that equates technology with (or reduces it to) tool-use, how is it an “educated assumption” that life gives rise to technology, especially that exemplified by factories and computers not to mention the complex society and culture that underwrite them? It is, from the available evidence, not only anthropocentric to imagine life develops technology (in a more educated sense), but chauvinistic, in as much as one (perhaps short-lived) inflection of human culture (namely that of the so-called “advanced” societies) is posited as a norm or model. The critical move occurs when a vector of “development” is projected from the present into an imagined future (“what many scientists believe is in store for Homo sapiens…”). If evolution, governed by the laws of nature, is so chance-ridden as to be unrepeatable, how much moreso the story of human culture? That is, “histories” that naturalize cultural patterns, e.g., the advent of technology and its “progress”, are arguably self-serving narratives of the cultures that compose them (i.e., depicting these cultures and their order as somehow necessary or destined to be) let alone of the ruling classes of those cultures whose privilege is premissed on precisely the pretense of their cultures’ being part of the inevitable, natural order of things.

“…human-like evolution has occurred in other locations around the universe”.

But what if those natural laws of physics, chemistry, and biology that govern evolution entailed that the morphology of life were more harmonious if not uniform, such that extraterrestrial, humanoid organisms were well within the realm of possibility? The theory of evolutionary convergence posits, roughly, that similar conditions can and will entail similar evolutionary developments. Mammals and cephalopods both possess eyes, though they do not share a common, eyed ancestor; likewise, birds, bats, insects and pterosaurs all developed flight independently. On these grounds, evolutionary biologists believe that “they can ‘say with reasonable confidence’ that human-like evolution has occurred in other locations around the universe“.

But some evolutionary biologists cannot resist the temptation to take the next step. An example is Ari Kershenbaum, the author of The Zoologist’s Guide to the Galaxy who conjectures:

Some planets are just going to have simple life on them. Many, maybe even most. But let’s assume that we found a planet with something we would call intelligent life. No one gets intelligence just because it would be a cool thing to have; their ancestors must have benefited from that intelligence. If they reached the stage where they can build a radio telescope, then they must have been through the stages where it was advantageous to be curious, where it was advantageous to communicate.

Kershenbaum’s speculation seems offered in a blithe spirit, but it’s precisely its light-heartedness that betrays the shallowness of the thinking at its foundations. First, there is the failure to reflect on “intelligence”; for Kershenbaum, it’s merely what “we would call intelligent life”, apparently an “intelligence” like our own, or, more precisely (and narrowly), like that ability to solve technical problems, instrumental reason, that leads to the construction of radio telescopes. It’s as if, e.g., David Stenhouse hadn’t published his Evolution of Intelligence in 1974 (!) that sought to articulate intelligence as “adaptively variable behavior,” a conception that recently has been applied to research into plant cognition. More gravely is the way Kershenbaum’s conjectures dovetail from evolution (natural selection) to culture, as if the latter were unproblematically reducible to and explainable by the former….

undermining a position…

For the most part, discussions around UFOs, Unidentified Aerial Phenomena (UAP), and SETI are divided between “believers” (UFOs are manifestations of the technology of extra-, ultra, or cryptoterrestrials, interdimensionals, or time travelers…) and “skeptics” (UFOs are a purely social or psychological phenomenon). Many who have encountered what I write here at Skunkworks slot it into the latter category, but, in doing so, really misread me.

At the end of the day, the questions posed by, e.g., The Galileo Project, are to be answered empirically. It may be that someday unequivocal evidence of nonhuman technology will be secured. However, at the same time, it is a legitimate question to ask just how such technology will be recognized as technology in the first place, just as it’s a legitimate question how we might recognize intelligent life (let alone life) if and when we encounter it offworld, let alone be recognized by that intelligent Other as its Other. What’s at stake in these questions is not a matter that can be resolved empirically, through observation or experiment; such questions address the concepts that are at the very basis of thinking about extraterrestrial life: What is technology, life, intelligence? As such it falls to philosophy to reflect on the assumptions and implications of the unconscious (assumed) content of these concepts as it is at work in the discourse about UAP and SETI.

The implications of how life, intelligence, technology, and related matters are thought are not merely “academic”, but reveal how the society and culture that deploy these concepts thinks about itself and other forms of life, human and otherwise. Speculations about advanced, extraterrestrial civilizations or the future of our own are more science-fictions than evidence-based predictions, and, as such, function as mirrors that show ourselves to ourselves but in an indirect, distorted or estranged, way; like dreams, they may be said to reveal the unconscious of how we think about the world, and, like the unconscious, such thinking is not, strictly, rational. Indeed, these ideas can be shown to function ideologically, making seem inevitable and natural (and thereby defending and entrenching) a way of life that in fact is contingent and that favours one species or social group. Perhaps in this light what I write above is now more understandable:

It is…not only anthropocentric to imagine life develops technology but chauvinistic, in as much as one (perhaps short-lived) inflection of human culture (namely that of the so-called “advanced” societies) is posited as a norm or model… If evolution, governed by the laws of nature, is so chance-ridden as to be unrepeatable, how much moreso the story of human culture? That is, “histories” that naturalize cultural patterns, e.g., the advent of technology and its “progress”, are arguably self-serving narratives of the cultures that compose them (i.e., depicting these cultures and their order as somehow necessary or destined to be) let alone of the ruling classes of those cultures whose privilege is premissed on precisely the pretense of their cultures’ being part of the inevitable, natural order of things.

Thus, speculations about extraterrestrial life, intelligence, and civilization are in fact inextricable from and revelatory of the most urgent crises facing life on earth, climate change, environmental degradation, extinction, and the role of humankind (or certain of its societies) in this crisis. How we imagine extraterrestrial life is how we think about life on earth, the other species with which we cohabit it, and the ways of living with them that Homo Sapiens has invented over the millennia.

Telepathy and the Language of Thought

Synchronicity is one of the editors here at the Skunkworks. Not long back, a member of that Facebook group I monitor (for research purposes) linked an article by Rupert Sheldrake, “Rationalists are wrong about telepathy”, and, yesterday (30 November 2021), The Anomalist drew our attention to a post at UFO Conjectures, “Telepathy and Consciousness“.

Telepathy as such is, shall we say, a complex issue. Sheldrake’s article points to what seem instances of precognition, thinking of someone just before they telephone or email, for example. Popular culture is familiar with Zener card experiments, or aliens’ telling an abductee telepathically, “Don’t be afraid…Don’t be afraid…”.

This latter example echoes in a way what one member of the group commented on the Sheldrake article thread: “We already engage in telepathy—the projection of our thoughts to another brain. Speech, signals, written text, we’ve mastered it”, and it’s this conception of telepathy, the projection of articulate thought (speech) into another’s mind, I want to address here.

What’s curious about the comment (that “we already engage in telepathy…”) are the assumptions that underlie its mistaken claim. Surely, communication by means of some sensuous medium (speech, gesture, writing…) is not telepathy, which is, in some regards (namely, that under consideration here, the projection of articulate thought (speech) into another’s mind), precisely communication by some other as-yet unidentified means.

But what telepathy as thought here and the comment share is the idea that thought or ideas precede or are otherwise independent of language. It’s precisely this assumption that I understand to motivate the comment concerning “speech, signals, [and] written text” as “the projection of thoughts” into another’s mind, if not brain: one brain communicates a thought to another—by means of some (presumably shared) semiotic system.

This philosophy of language, that language represents independently pre-existing ideas or objects, belongs to the European Enlightenment and seems to be the default, popular notion of language and its operations. It is depicted in the illustration of the communicative circuit familiar to students of linguistics.

A has an idea, thought, or concept that they translate into some sensuous sign (here, speech) that B hears and translates back into thought. The problem is however that, since the advent of a science of language (called philology in the Eighteenth Century), this theory of language has been superseded.

It was Herder (1744-1803) and Hamann (1730-1788) who pressed the thesis that human thought is dependent on language. This position was shared and developed by Humboldt (1767-1835) and, perhaps most famously, by Ferdinand de Saussure, who explained the relation of thought and sound by means of the illustration, below:

A is thought and B is sound; both without the other are amorphous or, more precisely, unarticulated. Vocal sounds, unless they are are recognized as linguistic types (signs), by themselves are mere gibberish; thought (concepts) unrelated to signs have no identity. Saussure envisions the relation between thought, sound, and articulate language as that between the atmosphere and the surface of water, which gives rise to waves, whose formation arises from the conjunction and interplay of these two elements and is nothing in itself. (As Saussure so famously maintained: language is not a substance).

The indivisibility of thought and language reaches its most extreme statement in the Whorf-Sapir Hypothesis:

We dissect nature along lines laid down by our native language. The categories and types that we isolate from the world of phenomena we do not find there because they stare every observer in the face; on the contrary, the world is presented in a kaleidoscope flux of impressions which has to be organized by our minds—and this means largely by the linguistic systems of our minds. We cut nature up, organize it into concepts, and ascribe significances as we do, largely because we are parties to an agreement to organize it in this way—an agreement that holds throughout our speech community and is codified in the patterns of our language […] all observers are not led by the same physical evidence to the same picture of the universe, unless their linguistic backgrounds are similar, or can in some way be calibrated.

If we take these developments in linguistic science seriously (notwithstanding the protestations of Jerry Fodor) then the possibility of that kind of telepathy discussed here vanishes: the purely mental transference of articulate thought between two people depends upon their sharing a language.

What’s important here is not so much telepathy in general, but that reported to occur between human beings and putative extraterrestrials. As Ludwig Wittgenstein so famously remarked, “if a lion could speak, we could not understand him.” How much less so an unearthly interlocutor? It does not follow that, given the possibility of telepathy in general, images or emotions or other nonlinguistic, inarticulate content might not be shared (the aliens could quite rationally subject human subjects to Zener card experiments…), just that no understandable thoughts per se could be exchanged. To paraphrase Wittgenstein: if a Zeta Reticulan were telepathic, we couldn’t understand what it was thinking.

Sightings: Saturday 6 November 2021: Science / Magic, “adaptively variable behavior” and related matters

This past week what caught the eye and/or sparked a thought was Arthur C. Clarke’s Third Law, Magic, and Science, and an Indigenous confirmation of the views I recently brought to bear against The Galileo Project and the attendant paradoxical implications of Star People….

I don’t often nod to other websites (Skunkworks should have a blog roll…), but a recent post at Curt Collins’ The Saucers That Time Forgot gives me the opportunity to draw attention to some of those I follow.

Collins’ post addresses Arthur C. Clarke’s famous Third Law: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic,” pointing out how “Almost from inception, the phrase has been used and abused to the point of cliché.” In doing so, Collins not only helps to clear away some of the fuzzy thinking that obscures the UFO phenomenon, but raises another topic of broader if not graver import.

Anyone familiar with the writings of Renaissance scholar Frances Yates will know how entwined magic and science are, mixed together as they are in the foment of Hermeticism and related movements just before the foundations of the Royal Society (the original Invisible College) were being set down. Both seek to control nature and their respective natures are much more closely related than the pedestrian history or philosophy of science would comfortably admit with their story of the triumphant emergence of enlightened, rational natural science from the obscure mysticism of alchemy and its ilk.

Today, Newton’s interests in alchemy, astrology, and labours to interpret Biblical prophecy are better, if not well, known. What is less known (but not to readers of Yates) are Descartes’ and Francis Bacon’s interest if somewhat unclear involvement in Rosicrucianism. This mutual implication of Magic and Science (and, by extension, technology) is happily the topic of serious research, a good primer of which can be found at independent scholar Andreas Sommers’ Forbidden Histories (which can be followed, too, on Facebook). Sommers’ Essential Readings is a small library sufficient to deconstruct in the rigorous sense the Science/Magic (or as Sommers terms it, the Natural Magic / Scientific Naturalism) binary.

Interested parties are also urged to check out the The Renaissance Mathematicus, which regularly and with much gusto takes the piss out of received ideas about the emergence of science from the Humanist dogmas of the Renaissance….

Pursuant to my critique of Loeb and his kind who identify intelligence with human, instrumental reason, the recently-published volume, The Mind of Plants: Narratives of Vegetal Intelligence, was brought to my attention (synchronicitously or otherwise…). Edited by Dennis McKenna, the book collects short essays, narratives and poetry by authors from the humanities, social, and natural sciences on plants and their interaction with humans. YES! Magazine published an excerpt from Robin Wall Kimmerer‘s contribution, “Hearing the Language of Trees”, wherein she writes:

The story of intelligences other than our own is one of continual expansion. I am not aware of a single research study that demonstrates that other beings are dumber than we think. Octopi solve puzzles, chickadees create language, crows make tools, rats feel anxiety, elephants mourn, parrots do calculus, apes read symbols, nematodes navigate, and honeybees dance the results of cost-benefit analysis of sucrose rewards like an economic ballet. Even the slime mold can learn a maze, enduring toxic obstacles to obtain the richest reward. The blinders are coming off, and the definition of intelligence expands every time we ask the question.

The ability to efficiently sense, identify, locate, and capture resources needed in a complex and variable environment requires sophisticated information processing and decision making. Intelligence is today thought of as “adaptively variable behavior,” which changes in response to signals coming from the environment.

Kimmerer’s position here harmonizes sweetly with that taken by my last post and Justin E. Smith’s argument concerning intelligence I condense there.

Kimmerer’s Indigenous perspective is one where “human people are only one manifestation of intelligence in the living world[;] [o]ther beings, from Otters to Ash trees, are understood as persons”, all of whom share “a past in which all beings spoke the same language and life lessons flowed among species”, a worldview at curious odds with that one chronicled by, among others, Ardy Sixkiller Clarke, whose stories relate encounters with humanoid sky gods, giants, little people, and aliens among indigenous people. One is tempted to wonder why a world already inhabited by manifold intelligent creatures, intelligence freed from an anthropomorphic fetish, contains, too, nonhuman but nevertheless all-too anthropomorphic intelligences….

The Xenophobia of Avi Loeb’s Interstellar Xenia

Anyone struck by the recent announcement of Christopher Mellon’s and Luis Elizondo’s being appointed research affiliates to Avi Loeb’s Galileo Project may have been curious enough to visit the project’s website, where they may have been tempted to read an article linked there, “Be Kind to Extraterrestrial Guests“, by project head Loeb.

Loeb proposes that “we” (who are we? Homo Sapiens? Americans? Harvard faculty?…) adopt the classical Greek custom of Xenia, the hospitality extended to strangers as typified in the Homeric epics, except in an expanded, “interstellar”, sense: “Interstellar Xenia implies that we should welcome autonomous visitors, even if they embody hardware with artificial and not natural intelligence, which arrive to our vicinity from far away.” Why? “Our technological civilization could benefit greatly from the knowledge it might garner from such encounters.”

A problem with Loeb’s proposal is evident, first, in the example of mundane hospitality he offers and the exosocial implication he draws from it:

On a recent breezy evening, I noticed an unfamiliar visitor standing in front of my home and asked for his identity. He explained that he used to live in my home half a century ago. I welcomed him to our backyard where he noted that his father buried their cat and placed a tombstone engraved with its name. We went there and found the tombstone….

If we find visitors, they might provide us with a new perspective about the history of our back yard. In so doing, they would bring a deeper meaning to our life within the keen historic friendship that we owe them in our shared space.

Loeb’s anecdote is likely chosen as much for its concreteness and emotional appeal as for whatever features it might be said to share with a hypothetical encounter with ET. That being said, the scenario presents the encounter between Homo Sapiens and an extraterrestrial Other as one of immediate (i.e., unproblematic) mutual recognition (like that between Loeb and the “unfamiliar visitor”), which is both telling and fateful.

By what warrant does Loeb assume the unproblematic recognition of or by this Other? Aside from the obvious obstacle, that, while Loeb and his visitor, or the stranger and his host in Bronze Age Greece, share the same culture, which an interstellar visitor would not, consider the scenario depicted in the science-fiction film Europa Report. A team of astronauts is sent to explore the moon of Jupiter named in the film’s title, where it discovers under the ice a bioluminescent creature resembling an earthly squid or octopus. Does the creature use its bioluminescence to hunt or attract prey in the dark oceans under Europa’s ice, or, being “intelligent“, is it its means of communication? And, if the creature were “intelligent”, how would the human astronauts know and how would the creature perceive in the astronauts their “intelligence”? Why would the astronauts, rather than, say, their capsule, even be the focus of the creature’s curiosity? Even so shopworn a science-fiction franchise as Star Trek (in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home) envisioned a technologically-advanced, extraterrestrial species blindly indifferent to all human civilization on earth in the search for its own Cetacean kind.

Even if we set aside the specific case of our encountering extraterrestrial intelligent life, the same problem persists. The Galileo Project’s first focus is the search for near-earth “extraterrestrial equipment“, whether a functioning artificially intelligent probe or piece of detritus. In any case, we must be able to recognize the artifact as an artifact, precisely the point of contention around ‘Oumuamua: was it a natural object or an artificial one, as Loeb et al. argue? Again, science fiction has touched on just this challenge, as the ability to perceive a piece of alien technology as such is pivotal to the plot of Star Trek: the Motion Picture. (Loeb seems more a fan of Carl Sagan’s novel Contact or its film version). The problem becomes even more intractable if we take seriously speculations that the very structures of the cosmos or its laws may be artifacts.

So, whether our interstellar interloper be a piece of technology, “intelligent” or otherwise, or biological, we are a far ways from the easy hospitality Loeb was able to offer his visitor, as we may not even know we are in the presence of a visitor and that stranger may not recognize they are in the presence of a potential host. How is it, then, that Loeb overlooks these grave obstacles to mutual recognition in his advocating Interstellar Xenia? I propose that Loeb, like all those obsessed with, fascinated by, or or otherwise inclined to indulge the idea of extraterrestrial, intelligent life, is on the lookout for an anthropomorphic “intelligence”, failing to recognize, at the same time, that encountering an exo-tic, extraterrestrial life form is an instance of interspecies communication.

One needn’t travel to an imagined Europa to discover the grave flaws in Loeb’s perspective. First, restricting “intelligence” to human intelligence in general or that teleological, problem-solving, technical intelligence, instrumental reason, is demonstrably perverse, de facto and de jure. One need only glance at the growing body of research into animal and plant intelligence to see that Homo Sapiens already inhabits a planet teeming with intelligent, nonhuman life. Philosophical reflection on the concept of intelligence, too, dissolves the identification of intelligence with human, instrumental reason. Justin E. Smith makes this case in both a lively and readable manner that I encourage interested parties to read for themselves; here, I attempt to condense his case…. Smith explains

…the only idea we are in fact able to conjure of what intelligent beings elsewhere may be like is one that we extrapolate directly from our idea of our own intelligence. And what’s worse, in this case the scientists are generally no more sophisticated than the folk….

One obstacle to opening up our idea of what might count as intelligence to beings or systems that do not or cannot “pass our tests” is that, with this criterion abandoned, intelligence very quickly comes to look troublingly similar to adaptation, which in turn always seems to threaten tautology. That is, an intelligent arrangement of things would seem simply to be the one that best facilitates the continued existence of the thing in question; so, whatever exists is intelligent….

it may in fact be useful to construe intelligence in just this way: every existing life-form is equally intelligent, because equally well-adapted to the challenges the world throws its way. This sounds audacious, but the only other possible construal of intelligence I can see is the one that makes it out to be “similarity to us”…

Ubiquitous living systems on Earth, that is —plants, fungi, bacteria, and of course animals—, manifest essentially the same capacities of adaptation, of interweaving themselves into the natural environment in order to facilitate their continued existence, that in ourselves we are prepared to recognize as intelligence….

There is in sum no good reason to think that evolutionary “progress” must involve the production of artifices, whether in external tools or in representational art. In fact such productions might just as easily be seen as compensations for a given life form’s inadequacies in facing challenges its environment throws at it. An evolutionally “advanced” life form might well be the one that, being so well adapted, or so well blended into its environment, simply has no need of technology at all.

But such a life form will also be one that has no inclination to display its ability to ace our block-stacking tests or whatever other proxies of intelligence we strain to devise. Such life forms are, I contend, all around us, all the time. Once we convince ourselves this is the situation here on Earth, moreover, the presumption that our first encounter with non-terrestrial life forms will be an encounter with spaceship-steering technologists comes to appear as a risible caricature.

Both fact and reason, then, call into serious question the very intelligibility of Loeb’s imagined, hospitable meeting, for there are no grounds to decide just what organism, extraterrestrial or otherwise, would count as an Other for us to greet (and vice versa: on what grounds would Homo Sapiens be picked out of all the other species on earth to be that Other’s Other?). It’s almost as if Loeb has taken his clue from mythology, not only that found in the epic accounts of xenia, but the Biblical Creation story, wherein Man is made in the image of God and given sovereignty over all other creatures, or the myth of Prometheus who gifts humankind fire or inventive ingenuity. Such a metaphysical idea grants Homo Sapiens a special characteristic (“intelligence”), which is then imagined to be possessed by other, similarly “ensouled” and gifted extraterrestrials we hope not merely to encounter but to meet.

This hope, however, is futile, as the only creature that meets the criteria we have set is ourselves. Were the problem grasped in its more thorough-going form, as one of interspecies communication, then we might turn our attention to all those other organisms with whom we share the earth and perhaps reflect on the nature and extent of the hospitality we extend to them and may perhaps be said to owe them. With this thought, the perversity of why we should extend hospitality to “autonomous visitors, even if they embody hardware with artificial and not natural intelligence” is revealed: “Our technological civilization could benefit greatly from the knowledge it might garner from such encounters.” First, Loeb narrows down civilization to its technology (as if technology were somehow meaningfully abstractable from the society and culture that produce it), then he restricts the interaction to what we, the hosts, might gain (“knowledge”), twisting his central idea of xenia out of all resemblance to the Hellenic custom he invokes, which is characterized in the first instance by the generosity of the host.

Loeb’s vision here is, first, narcissistic (i.e., it sees intelligence only as human intelligence, which he in turn seems to restrict to technical ingenuity, at that) and, second, self-centredly grasping (in conceiving of xenia only in terms of what we, the hosts, have to gain from our guests, “knowledge”). The supreme irony of Loeb’s position is revealed by this insistence that the discovery of a technologically-advanced, extraterrestrial civilization would precipitate a “Copernican revolution” that would disabuse humankind of its delusion that it is the only “intelligent” (and, hence, the most intelligent) species in its galactic neighbourhood, inspiring it to adopt instead a “cosmic modesty“, when in fact Loeb has conceived human instrumental reason as “intelligence” itself, the archetypal standard by which any other organism is determined to be intelligent or not, i.e., his stance is fundamentally anthropocentric. The narcissism of this conception entails that we will only ever be able greet and extend hospitality to ourselves. Loeb’s stranger is not strange enough….

The Oceans, Anthills, and Elf Churches

Again, the staff here at Skunkworks has received its writing assignment from the Office of Synchronicities.

In an article about the contributions of larvaceans to filtering carbon and plastic from the oceans, Bruce Robison, a senior scientist at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute, makes an offhand observation :

“If an alien civilization from some other solar system were to send an expedition to Earth to look at the dominant life forms on this planet, they wouldn’t be up here walking around with us. They’d be exploring the deep ocean.”

Why would these aliens focus their attention on the deep oceans? Because, as the same article reminds us, “scientists estimate that more than 99 percent of the planet’s biosphere resides” there.

The same day (9 June 2020), Chris Savia at The Anomalist linked to an at-the-time unpublished article “‘First in, last out’ solution to the Fermi Paradox” by Alexander Berezin. Berezin’s states his thesis as follows:

“First in, last out” solution to the Fermi Paradox:  what if the first life that reaches interstellar travel capability necessarily eradicates all competition to fuel its own expansion?

I am not suggesting that a highly developed civilization would consciously wipe out other lifeforms. Most likely, they simply won’t notice, the same way a construction crew demolishes an anthill to build real estate because they lack incentive to protect it….

Berezin’s argument is both sophisticated and nuanced (and couched in some assumptions that would normally call for closer scrutiny, here); nevertheless, Berezin and Robison make a similar point. Unlike the science fiction worlds of the Star Wars or Star Trek franchises (and, n.b., no less so in Close Encounters of the Third Kind or Carl Sagan’s novel Contact) or the fantastical imaginings of those who believe earth is being visited by dozens of extraterrestrial civilizations, they posit that homo sapiens would not be immediately recognized as “the dominant life form” or, more substantially, the significantly analogous Other of extraterrestrial explorers. Ironically, it is precisely the Star Trek franchise itself that recognized this problem, in the motion picture Star Trek IV:  The Voyage Home, where the aliens are cetaceans, utterly oblivious to the human population on earth and its civilization their activities threaten.

Berezin’s comparing such inadvertent destructiveness to how “a construction crew demolishes an anthill to build real estate” is telling, as it dovetails from speculation about the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence to huldufolk, Real Politik and ufonauts. Famously, in some places on earth, such as Iceland, precisely such construction projects are halted because they threaten not the habitat of an endangered species, but the abode of a non-human if anthropomorphic Other with which we share this planet, as was the case just outside of Reykjavík in 2013.

rockgreen

Perhaps most famously the relation between the Little People and ufonauts was brought forward by Jacques Vallee in his (in some circles) classic Passport to Magonia. This identification is brought home all the more forcefully in a 1970 close encounter report from Finland, raised for renewed scrutiny just yesterday at UFO Conjectures. The two witnesses report encountering a small humanoid being descended from a classic flying saucer, which one illustrator depicts thusly:Imj9

A diminutive man, complete with pointy hat and funny nose. That the illustrator is Finnish (doubtless raised on tales of Finland’s own Fae Folk) likely influences his sketch, but the likeness of ufonauts to Little People is famously not restricted to this one, exemplary case.

As I have argued ad nauseum here, the Extraterrestrial Hypothesis, that UFOs are spaceships piloted by extraterrestrial beings, is risibly anthropocentric, not least in its assumption of the immediate, mutual recognition of “intelligence” between ourselves and extraterrestrials, whether piloting flying saucers or signalling by some means from their own far-distant planet. Robison and Berezin both call this assumption into question forcefully.

At the same time, Berezin’s fateful example (of the construction crew and the anthill) also invokes both how humankind runs roughshod over nonhuman life and how such behaviour is called into question and curtailed by a respect if not reverence for nonhuman life when it is humanoid. This traditional (if unconscious) reverence finds its ufological expression in the admonitions concerning nuclear weapons and energy received by the early Contactees in the 1950s and the no-less apocalyptic visions of environmental catastrophe often shown to abductees some decades later. That the appearance of flying saucers as such, as circular signs in the heavens, was a compensatory psychological response to a planet divided during the Cold War was famously set forth by Carl Jung in the earliest years of the modern ufological era.

All this is to say that both the points of view of Robison and Berezin that decentre the human being and the reports of ufonauts and Little People that centre the humanoid both critique, each in their own way, that anthropocentric hubris that grasps all other beings (and other human beings, too) as raw material, as means to ends, as being, ironically, of no account. The former places homo sapiens among all the other species of life of which it is a part, not apart from, while the latter puts a human mask on the nonhuman, again, to put homo sapiens in its place, to better secure a livable home.

This line of argument finds its limit, however, in the cultures of Turtle Island. Generally, these non-European societies both perceived nonhuman creatures and even geographical features, such as mountains, lakes, and rivers, as “people” in their own right, while at the same time telling stories of diminutive Little People and Star People. This ethnological fact is cause to open another research department at the Skunkworks….

“Life should not even exist on the surface of the earth”

I’ve argued often here that imagining advanced extraterrestrial civilizations is a mere projection of one more or less accidental cultural formation of one species on earth, namely that of the so-called developed world of homo sapiens.

Now, James Tour, a synthetic chemist at Rice University in Houston, Texas, publishes an open letter making a case he summarizes as follows:

We synthetic chemists should state the obvious. The appearance of life on earth is a mystery. We are nowhere near solving this problem. The proposals offered thus far to explain life’s origin make no scientific sense.

Beyond our planet, all the others that have been probed are lifeless, a result in accord with our chemical expectations. The laws of physics and chemistry’s Periodic Table are universal, suggesting that life based upon amino acids, nucleotides, saccharides and lipids is an anomaly. Life should not exist anywhere in our universe. Life should not even exist on the surface of the earth.

Tour’s argument touches on not only exobiology, but SETI, and so, by extension, ufology and the extraterrestrial hypothesis (ETH), let alone the Neodarwinist consensus. Our inability to reasonably and confidently posit how life arises from nonliving matter on earth surely alters at the very least airy speculations involving the Drake Equation and Fermi’s Paradox, let alone the persuasiveness of the ETH.

Of course, it doesn’t follow that just because we can’t formulate exactly how life arose on earth that it hasn’t occurred elsewhere under different conditions or in different forms, which would be merely another tenuous generalization from our own situation and current state of our knowledge. Nonetheless, Tour’s argument surely reveals the ignorance and hubris that underwrites the widespread belief in the ETH (let alone Disclosure (to say nothing, here, of Neodarwinism)), exposing, in turn, how it is rooted not so much in science or reason but in ideology, psychology, and imagination.

Most pointedly, Tour’s article might serve to sensitize us to the mind-boggling singularity, precarity, and preciousness of life—all life—already existing here, on earth, moving us to attend to it and its preservation, such biophilia having always been at work in its own surreal, dialectical way in our rumours about the UFOs and their pilots and, indeed, in the messages they have communicated to us.

A Lone Voice in the Wilderness No More!

It’s been a morning rich in synchronicities.

I was working on a forthcoming review of D W Pasulka’s American Cosmic: UFOs, Religion, and Technology, wherein I had bookmarked the section concerning synchronicities and religion, as I had planned to integrate some of her reflections in my previous post. I had already read (synchronicitiously!) during my morning coffee-and-surf session an article about synchronicities and “information-ontology” (an article that calls for a response in itself!) that remarked Pasulka’s reflections, and my Facebook feed served up an article critical of the upcoming Peterson / Zizek debate, which, in turn, linked me to How Capitalism Can Explain Why an Encounter with Aliens Is Highly Unlikely by Charles Tonderai Mudede.

Anyone familiar with Skunkworks will know a long-standing and oft-repeated thesis of mine is that the thought of technologically-advanced extraterrestrial civilizations is merely an anthropocentric projection of one civilization on earth whose appearance has more to do with a tenuous thread of accidents than the triumphal march of a necessary (let alone a universal) Progress. And though I’ve been making this argument in various media since the mid-Nineties, never had I heard an echo (never mind glimpsed an affirmative nod) until I read Mudede’s article.

Mudede’s argument is similar to mine:  technoscientic civilization as is familiar to those of us living in the so-called “advanced” societies is the result not of some transhistorical cultural necessity but is the result of cultural and even climactic accidents, e.g., the advent of capitalism in the Sixteenth century or that of the Holocene whose temperate climate allowed for the development of agriculture and settled society. Mudede’s account has the added virtue of weaving Capitalism into that history of contingencies that lead to the present precarious moment of modernity. Interested parties will read (if they have not already read) his article, linked above.

My most serious disagreement with Mudede is that the question “Why should aliens be technologically advanced?” “has never been properly considered”!

“What we have here is a failure of imagination….”

Sometimes, like Rich Reynolds at UFO Conjectures, I roll my eyes over the ufological, which seems to perennially re-invent the wheel, only to spin it in the same, well-worn rut.

Paul Seaburn at Mysterious Universe informs us of a new book Die Gesellschaft der Außerirdischen: Einführung in Die Exosoziologie (The Society of Extraterrestrials:  Introduction to Exosociology) by scholars Michael Schetsche and his research assistant Andreas Anton at the Institute for Sociology of the Albert-Ludwigs-University Freiburg, Germany.  Schetsche and Anton essay three scenarios of human contact with an advanced, extraterrestrial civilization:  remote (via some medium of communication), indirect (through the discovery of an artifact of undeniable alien manufacture), or direct (in the form of a piloted or unpiloted alien spaceship). The first scenario is the goal of the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI); the second and third are believed by some to have already happened, not only by the adherents of Exopolitics and the Disclosure movement but even (it would seem) by religious studies scholar D.W. Pasulka in her American Cosmic: UFOs, Religion, Technology, wherein an inexplicably “alien” artifact plays an important role. At any rate, Schetsche and Anton contend that an instance of alien technology could pose a material threat (imagine small children playing with a hand grenade) or inspire conflict between nations eager to secure and exploit what they can learn from it. The third scenario is compared to the contact with and colonizations of the Americas and Africa by technologically superior Europeans; even if the extraterrestrials don’t conquer or colonize the earth, the social repercussions of such contact might incite social chaos. Says Schetsche, “Even if people do not kill each other, direct contact can destroy the social, economic, political and religious structures of countries.”

It’s getting to be a tiresome exercise explaining just how dreary and somnambulent such speculations are. In general, they develop a deeply questionable anthropocentrism that merely projects features of human society on to imagined extraterrestrial societies. Aside from perversely restricting “intelligence” to the Promethean, technoscientific version characteristic of one chance vector of one part of human history, it assumes an immediate recognition between Us and Them. Even the writers of Star Trek IV:  The Voyage Home had more imagination, probing the possibility that intelligent life on and off the earth is not restricted to only those “made in God’s own image.”

The second scenario, the discovery of an alien artifact, is, by extension, no less problematic. First, it is assumed we could in fact recognize an alien artifact as such. The recent controversy over the possible artificial, extraterrestrial origins of ‘Oumuamua among institutional researchers or the longstanding if less respectable speculations that one or more moons in the solar system (including the Earth’s) may be artificial illustrate the problem. More problematically, any piece of technology sufficiently within our own relatively primitive, earthbound purview would be unlikely to belong to a spacefaring civilization, unless technology-as-such is fairly uniform throughout the universe and the discovery of warpdrive is right around the corner, or we have already back engineered the propulsion systems of crashed flying saucers or been taught their principles and construction by their manufacturers as part of an agreement, Faustian or otherwise, an arrangement within the parameters of Schetsche’s and Anton’s speculations but not likely one they would ascribe to.

The third scenario is also all-too-recognizable among the cognoscenti. Offhand I can’t recall the earliest instance of Europeans-meet-the-Native-Americans analogy, but the prediction that direct contact would “destroy the social, economic, political and religious structures of countries” has a history that runs from the earliest, anxious investigations into the phenomenon by the United States Air Force to the most recent “After Disclosure” writings of Richard Dolan. It is curious that sociologists don’t explore the fact that for decades more than half of people in the developed world already believe in the possibility of extraterrestrial, intelligent life and its either having already contacted us or the possibility of such contact. Indeed, the default understanding of ‘UFO’ is “alien spaceship”. That the reality of the third scenario is in a sense already accepted, either as an all-too-mundane possibility or as a real if suppressed reality for believers, witnesses, or experiencers surely calls for sociological scrutiny, especially since the undeniably real social, economic, political, and religious disruptions we in fact suffer seem utterly unrelated to exosociological events.

Of greater sociological import are the reasons why books like Schetsche’s and Anton’s obsessively repeat the anthropocentrisms outlined above, while ignoring the very real “social, economic, political, and religious” significance, effects and implications of this reflex and its projections. As Pasulka makes repeatedly clear in her recent study, regardless of whether “UFOs are real” the belief they are or may be has real world effects.