Among those who should know better, namely those engaged in the attempt to scientifically investigate UFOs or UAP, the idea that what they study represents spaceships from some extraterrestrial civilization is all too common. Regardless of whether this Extraterrestrial Hypothesis (ETH) turns out to be true or not, its central assumption, that there exist extraterrestrial civilizations of intelligent, technologically-advanced beings (whether organic or artifactual), is ideological, presupposing as natural the cultural formation of but one kind of society on earth, one which, should it continue on the way it has the past four centuries or so, threatens to perform a practical argumentum ad absurdum, demonstrating its falsity by bringing about its own catastrophic collapse and perhaps the extinction of Homo Sapiens in the bargain.
I have essayed the idea that this central presupposition is an unconcious Platonism, appearing to believe that essence precedes existence, that there is some inherent teleology in life that drives or leads it to “intelligence”, tool use and technology, and that technology, too, is governed by some essence that shapes and guides it along a more or less universal vector of progress, so that it is possible to speak intelligibly about civilizations’ being more or less “advanced”. One would have hoped it would have been enough to point out that this is precisely the view of Maitreya Raël whose Elohim are “25,000 years in advance” of contemporary terrestrial technology, but no such luck.
Putting aside the classical philosophical question as to why there is something rather than nothing, we have yet to determine how life appeared on earth and how this life came to be conscious (indeed, how consciousness might be said to evolve—an aspect of the “hard problem of consciousness“). Of course, it’s not giving too much away to grant that there is in fact sentient life of earth; it came to be and evolved to this point. “Evolved” is the key term here; however much we might observe examples of convergence and take into account recent research that seems to suggest a certain predictability to evolution, I wager your garden variety evolutionary biologist will maintain that evolution is a precariously aleatoric process.
If evolution is a pack of wild cards, how much more so is cultural change (n.b., not “development” let alone “progress”…)? The conjectures of sociobiologists notwithstanding, culture and the story of its change over time, history, argues not that essence precedes existence (beings aim at fulfilling some predetermined form or end) but that existence precedes essence. As Hegel, and, lately, Žižek, have observed: the apparent necessity of history (“It had to turn out that way!”) is a function of retrospection, not undetermined, among other things, by even the narratological rhetoric of articulating that retrospection, historiography; as history unfolds it is chaotic, aleatory.
Yet, for some reason, those given to entertaining the ETH seem to imagine that life gives rise to “intelligence”, which, of itself, gives rise to tool-use, of which technology is only an elaboration. However, only a slightly more fine-grained scrutiny reveals that technology as we know it is bound up with the natural sciences. The sciences in turn are grounded not only on observation but rely on mathematics, arithmetic and geometry, to express those relations and laws observation and experiment discover. But what of mathematics? In the case of both “pure” mathematics and geometry, praxis preceded theory. Arithmetic was first developed for use in taxation, trade, and astronomy (used, in turn, in the creation of calendars); likewise, geometry is developed to facilitate surveying, engineering, and, again, astronomy. It’s Pythagoras and Euclid, at least in the Mediterranean, who abstract pure mathematics from this practical know-how.
The way pure mathematics abstracts from the praxes of bureaucratic government, i.e. those of the social formation of its day, underlines that science is always a social endeavour, made possible (determined) by a social and cultural mileu always local in space and time. For example, arithmetic is a special instance of writing, a “technology” developed to facilitate trade (e.g., to keep inventories), a behaviour in turn made possible only due to surpluses the product of agricultural society and the division of labour that makes it possible, a society, in turn, whose condition of possibility most generally was the relatively stable, temperate climate of the Holocene, which, in turn was itself determined by all the features of earth’s geology and even its relation to the sun that have allowed life to appear and thrive on the planet so far.
A similar case can be made for the advent of Newtonian physics and the knowing subject of the natural sciences. The social matrix for Newton is no longer the polis of Pythagoras and Euclid but capitalism and the commodity form. It was Slavoj Žižek’s The Sublime Object of Ideology (1989) that brought my attention to the work of Alfred Sohn-Retel, especially his Intellectual and Manual Labour: A Critique of Epistemology, who makes the case. As Žižek so ably summarizes:
…The apparatus of categories presupposed, implied by the scientific procedure (that, of course, of the Newtonian science of nature), the network of notions by means of which it seizes nature, is already present in the social effectivity, already at work in the act of commodity exchange. Before thought could arrive at pure abstraction, the abstraction was already at work in the social effectivity of the market….
Before thought could arrive at the idea of a purely quantitative determination, a sine qua non of the modern science of nature, pure quantity was already at work in money, that commodity which renders possible the commensurability of the value of all other commodities notwithstanding their particular qualitative determination. Before physics could articulate the notion of a purely abstract movement going on in a geometric space, independently of all qualitative determinations of the moving objects, the social act of exchange had already realized the ‘pure’, abstract movement which leaves totally intact the concrete-sensual properties of the object caught in movement: the transference of property. And Sohn-Rethel demonstrated the same about the relationship of substance and its accidents, about the notion of causality operative in Newtonian science—in short, about the whole network of categories of pure reason. (10-11)
Regardless if one is persuaded by Sohn-Rethel’s argument, the point is that science and technology, including the ways they feed into each other, are woven from the fabric of the society within which they appear and operate; they are cultural phenomena through and through. As such, they cannot be subsumed under universal, natural laws that would enable us to predict their appearance and development under any other circumstances, on or off the earth. The ETH grows from a rootless abstraction (about science and technology), unaware of the profound, contingent determinations of our own situation, how one civilization on earth arrived at its present moment, a moment that scrupulous examination suggests is singular.