Luis Cayetano has again been kind enough to engage me in conversation and give me free reign to improvise further thoughts on a wide range of topics, consciousness, UFOs, technology, society, the Enlightenment, conspiracy theory, and so on and so forth.
It’s a long one, clocking in at just over two-and-a-half hours, and, despite my preparatory efforts, the sound quality of my end was not as clear as could be and should have been. Nevertheless, we were able to orbit, touch on, and dig into a number of interesting topics and questions, including how fictions become truths, the UFO-as-fetish, problems in interpreting the symbolic dimension of the phenomenon, among many others.
Thanks again to Luis Cayetano for producing the interview and its YouTube incarnation. You can hear it, here.
…most of our fantasies about advanced alien intelligence suppose it to be like us but with better tech. That’s not just a sci-fi trope; the scientific search for extraterrestrial intelligence typically assumes that ET carves nature at the same joints as we do, recognising the same abstract laws of maths and physics. But the more we know about minds, the more we recognise that they conceptualise the world according to the possibilities they possess for sensing and intervening in it; nothing is inevitable. We need to be more imaginative about what minds can be, and less fixated on ours as the default. As the biologist JBS Haldane once said: “The universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose.” Our only hope of understanding the universe, he said, “is to look at it from as many different points of view as possible.” We may need those other minds.
Schuster examines the recursive relation between the potential discovery of an Extraterrestrial Intelligence (ETI) and that discovery’s consequences for our self-understanding and understanding of life on earth in general, but no less (which is important, here), the ways “The science of the search as well as the cultural and civilizational questions embedded in any possible contact event are connected [if not determined] fundamentally to established philosophical positions towards cosmology, alterity, and co-existence.” Among these evolving positions is the growing awareness “that we require a contemporary—and more-than-human—political model for how to share the planet as a whole,” not only with humankind, but all the earth’s other lifeforms, an essential thesis here at the Skunkworks. The urgency of this question is underlined by humanity’s marked, indeed catastrophic, failure to share the earth, either with its own kind or its animal and plant Others. In this regard, Schuster draws the inference—one often drawn here—that “The ironic failure to connect SETI and the search for inhabited exoplanets to habitability crises on Earth…means that SETI research is at risk of continuing to repeat the failure to share the biodiverse [and racially, culturally diverse] Earth.”
Schuster draws our attention to one fundamental flaw in SETI, rooted in its cultural embeddedness: “The long history of treating Black and Indigenous bodies as Other and alien is encoded in historical conceptualizations of extraterrestrial otherness,” a not uncomplicated matter. Shuster draws out the implications of this embeddedness: “The meaningfulness of SETI, in other words, does not depend alone on whether or not there is actual contact with ETIs. What SETI most compellingly offers is a place for public reflection on and enaction of a commitment to planetary sharing and cosmological commons.” Such reflection brings into play the recursiveness Schuster is at pains to illuminate:
Thinking humanistically about the planet, …would include thinking of what can be called the interplanetary humanities in the context of a potential plurality of worlds. SETI research and thinking envisaged thus would play a role in understanding Earth as a planet among planets and in shaping the trajectory of planetary thinking in the environmental humanities. The result is that the scientific and cultural implications of SETI will help inform the humanistic thinking about our planet and vice versa.
Deliciously, in this regard, Schuster lays out Kant’s “rational alienology” as discovered and originally researched by Peter Szendy, not to present it in and for itself but as “an opportunity to sketch out some of the basic conceptualizations that are implicit in what [Schuster discusses] as a chiasmus of Kant’s thinking of SETI and philosophy.” One implication of Kant’s reflections Szendy teases out is the startling insight that “thinking SETI does not necessarily mean actually thinking about aliens, but recognizing methodologically and formally how human consciousness imbricates within itself an alien consciousness. This alien consciousness is ultimately in a paradoxical way deeply intimate yet radically unthinkable at the same time.” Delightfully, “Szendy finds similar implications … in the work of Carl Schmitt, Edmund Husserl, Derrida, and Emmanuel Levinas, each of whom entertains at key moments how the alien point of view from exoplanetary space fundamentally changes conceptualizations of dwelling, cosmopolitanism, and human being on Earth.”
Schuster concludes his study with a reading of Ted Chiang’s “The Great Silence,” which “piercingly reflects on how the desire to look up at the skies and contemplate alien contact frequently corresponds to a refusal to look down and around at the forms of contact among interspecies others on Earth,” a frequent theme addressed here at the Skunkworks. Indeed, Schuster articulates a not uncommon thesis we ourselves has posited here:
The Fermi paradox, embedded in the Anthropocene, may be explained by the irony that the science and technology that allow a civilization to become spacefaring also relies on extractivism, exploitation, and climate-changing processes that undermines that planet’s life. Instead of asking aliens how to escape the bottleneck of the Anthropocene, it would be easier to ask counsel of our animal neighbors. The only way out of this paradox, as Chiang’s parrot recognizes, is that SETI must be folded into multispecies relations and multispecies relations into SETI. [my emphasis]
Here’s to more such chance encounters, not because their authors are likeminded, but because of what they bring and contribute to a shared, urgent body of concern.
Well, maybe not the worst, but pretty bad. At least his dumbfoundingly vapid clickbait articles for The Debrief serve to maintain if not swell the site’s advertising revenues.
That being said, as any more-or-less regular reader here will know, Loeb has become something of this site’s bête noire. Since he came into the public eye with his hypothesis concerning ‘Oumuamua, his speculations about extraterrestrial life, civilization, and technology have consistently embodied the ideological tendencies targeted here. Since his starting up The Galileo Project and becoming a regular contributor at The Debrief, his pronouncements have become all the more exasperating. However much I resolved to “whack-a-Loeb“, his latest contribution, which deigns to wax philosophical about ethics, has reached such a nadir of intellectual dereliction I’m persuaded (and hope!) this post will be my last on him.
Loeb titles his article “How Can We Guide Our Life?” (which right away sets the linguistically-attuned mind furiously scribbling questions…). Whatever exactly he might intend by this title, I take it his article begins by posing the question, roughly, of what one should live for. He rejects being concerned with one’s posthumous reputation. Asked for his “opinion about the true mark of human greatness”, his response is, in a word, humility. He, then, shifts his attention from the person to, presumably, the species: “How does humanity wish to be remembered on the cosmic scene?” Loeb’s answer is arguably the same, as humble, but on a species-wide scale: humanity is best remembered as possessing an “unpresuming culture that sought knowledge-based [sic] on new evidence from interstellar space,” which, having discovered “that there is a smarter culture on the cosmic block” sought “to do better in the future relative to our cosmic neighbors than we did in the past.”
It doesn’t take too much close scrutiny to find the lapses in Loeb’s logic. In terms of how each of us should lead our lives, Loeb would, on the one hand, have us ignore our personal legacy. For himself, he seems to place little stock in posthumous reputation (he could “care less about what other people say”): those who follow are unlikely to have much insight into the whole truth of his life nor are they necessarily going to be the most charitable commentators; memorials, such as paintings or statues, communicate “little about…guiding principles or the value of…accomplishments” (assuming that is their raison d’etre…). Shifting to a cosmic perspective, even Einstein is put in his place, as “[m]ost likely, there were smarter scientists on habitable planets around other stars billions of years ago”. From this perspective, that of “the vast scale and splendor implicit in the cosmos” wherein “all humans die within ten billionths of cosmic history,” all individual accomplishments shrink to nothing. However, on the other hand, Loeb confesses he guides his life “so as to have an opportunity to press a button on extraterrestrial technological equipment,” to be the one to discover an unquestionable artifact of alien technology. As the one to make this discovery, Loeb would, by his own account, be the one to “force a sense of modesty and awe in all of us” as we discern our place on, at least, “the cosmic block.” Being the one to put us in our interstellar place, Loeb would imaginably take his place with the likes of Copernicus and Galileo, at least as far as human history is concerned, which would be quite the legacy, one to be proud of….
When it comes to how humanity might be “remembered on the cosmic scene,” deeper problems yawn. One might well ask: remembered by whom? Loeb leaves this question unasked and unanswered. Either homo sapiens will be known by itself or by other forms of extraterrestrial intelligence, which, for Loeb, includes forms of Artificial Intelligence (AI). In the event of our extinction, then, imagines Loeb, “perhaps our technological kids, AI astronauts, will survive,” artifacts best designed to “carry the flame of consciousness” out into distant space and time, and, thereby, into the awareness and memories of other intelligent lifeforms. At the same time, however, Loeb advocates a humility, not only because, as he surmises, other, alien intelligences have, do, and will exceed our own, but, from the point of view of “the vast scale and splendor implicit in the cosmos…all humans die within ten billionths of cosmic history,” extinguishing both their legacy and their narrow-minded, perverse self-importance. From this perspective, whether humankind is proud or humble, whether its traces are one day discovered or not, seems pointless. On the one hand, Loeb posits that humility should guide our life; while, on the other, he, personally, aspires to a historical greatness (guided by the aspiration to be the one who discovers an indisputable extraterrestrial technological artifact); he suggests humankind should culture some kind of memorialized humility or at least leave a more durable legacy in the form of its own technology dispersed throughout the stars, but the vast spatiotemporal scale of the cosmos swallows all such aspirations, reducing them to nothing. Either Loeb’s cosmic ethic must restrict itself to the human scale, which, for Loeb is merely an arrogant, self-centred point-of-view, or it must view things from a cosmic perspective, which dissolves all possible value in its implacable vastness.
Loeb’s thinking is riddled by such ironies or contradictions. He constantly advocates against being narrow-minded and self-centred, but his entire worldview is oriented to just such a perverse self-regard. His “humanity” is hardly all human cultures that have lived or do, but that of the so-called “advanced societies” of what used to be termed “the First World”. This idolatry is evident in the old-fashioned sentiment that “human history advances” and in the technofetishistic fantasy of “our technological kids, AI astronauts” that can act as vessels for “the fire of consciousness.” This squinting focus on the technological is evident in the disdainful yawn he shares with “kids” (presumably students) who pass by the “statues and paintings of distinguished public figures” in University Hall at Harvard University. Paintings and statues, however, aren’t made to communicate accomplishments of those honoured but to memorialize them because of their accomplishments. Loeb, here, betrays, as usual, an instrumental thinking, one that conceives of everything in terms of ends and means and efficiency (“A video message would [be] far more informative in conveying the authentic perspective of these people from our past”), i.e., Loeb’s stance in this regard, despite his philosophical airs, reveals him to be a rank philistine when it comes to matters of general culture. This narrowness is most egregious at its most unconscious. Loeb relates he inscribes a “personal copy of [his] book Extraterrestrial to [his] new postdoc… just arrived at Harvard from the University of Cambridge in the UK” as follows: “although you arrived to the Americas well after they were discovered, you are here just in time for discovering extraterrestrial intelligence and its own new world.” The blithe indifference to the fact that Turtle Island was hardly “discovered” least of all by his post-doc’s European forebears and his oblique referring to it as “the new world” betray an unconscious colonialism.
Taken together these stances reveal the direst irony of Loeb’s incessant invectives against narrow-mindedness and self-centredness. As I have never tired of pointing out, whenever Loeb posits older, more intelligent (or, at least, knowledgeable) extraterrestrials, he doesn’t decentre humankind but centres it all the more securely, taking Western instrumental reason to be characteristic of intelligence-as-such and Western, technoscientific society as the instantiation if not the very universal model of civilization. All these presuppositions, prejudices, and unreflected blindspots taken together coalesce into a black hole around which all Loeb’s conjectures about extraterrestrial intelligence, civilization, and technology orbit, a black hole into which I hereby consign all the man’s thoughts that touch on what concerns us here at the Skunkworks.
I wear it as a badge of honour that the perspective I take here at Skunkworks is unique.
I am aware, nevertheless, of at least some whose interests are close. There’s the second, more theoretical, part of M. J. Banias‘ The UFO People: a curious culture (glowingly reviewed by no less than Thomas E. Bullard, here). Gittlitz is, to my knowledge, the only person to reflect on the pertinence of Marxism to ufology (he is presently promoting his new book I Want to Believe: Posadism, UFOs and Apocalypse Communism). Recently, too, I became aware of Luis Cayetano, whose website “Ufology” is corrupt” is concerned more with the social, political, and psychological aspects of ufology than with UFOs themselves, a description that could be applied to what goes on here; however, Cayetano’s stance is much more vehemently skeptical and dismissive (along the lines of what one reads at author Jason Colavito’s blog).
Johnson’s article is thorough, unmasking the colonialist language of space exploration, the indifference of SETI researchers to Indigenous perspectives, conflicts between SETI research and Indigenous peoples (e.g., the construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope atop Mauna Kea in Hawaii), and the speciesism and Eurocentrism that underwrite speculations about “intelligence” and “civilization”, longstanding themes here at the Skunkworks.
You can read the article—which I urge you to do—either by clicking on its title, above, or at the link just under the picture, below.
The Debrief has inaugurated a new series of articles, “Our Cosmic Neighbourhood”, and given the first word to Avi Loeb (to whom The Debrief seems a while back to have given carte blanche…). I don’t know if this new series will be penned exclusively by Loeb, but his latest contribution leaves me inclined—if not urged by a sense of duty to maintaining speculative sanity (let alone my own…)—to engage in a game of Whack-a-Loeb: What Dr. Loeb publishes at The Debrief I will smack down (as long as I have the patience: life is only so long…).
This missive is titled “Communicating with Extraterrestrials”. After a regrettably naive introductory gambit, about how “the war in Ukraine illustrates how difficult it is for earthlings to communicate with each other even when they share the same planet and communication devices”, Loeb, in characteristic SETI fashion, considers the possibilities that communication between earthlings and extraterrestrials might occur by means of either a technological artifact from perhaps a long-dead civilization or some electromagnetic signal. Regarding that first possibility, Loeb’s favoured, he speculates
A more advanced form of an indirect encounter with a messenger involves an AI system that is sufficiently intelligent to act autonomously based on the blueprint of its manufacturers. Since AI algorithms will be capable of addressing communication challenges among human cultures in the Multiverse, the same might hold in the actual Universe. In that case, we should be able to communicate at ease with a sufficiently advanced form of AI astronauts, because they would know how to map the content they wish to convey to our languages.
It is Loeb’s hope that this “encounter with extraterrestrial AI will be a teaching moment to humanity and lead to a more prosperous future for us all.”
There are, unsurprisingly, a number of problems with Loeb’s speculations, many of which find echo in his earlier Medium article, “Be Kind to Extraterrestrial Guests” I responded to here. In this earlier piece, Loeb seemed to overlook that communicating with an extraterrestrial life form or artifact thereof is, at least, a form of interspecies communication. Likewise, in this, his latest foray on the topic, he overestimates (as usual) the potential for AI (“AI algorithms will be capable of addressing communication challenges among human cultures in the [Metaverse]”) and underestimates the challenges of interspecies communication (“we should be able to communicate at ease with a sufficiently advanced form of AI astronauts, because they would know how to map the content they wish to convey to our languages”).
I don’t doubt the capacity for relatively functional AI translation, but such “translation” can happen only when the parties communicate in stereotypes, what literary theorists long back termed “the already written” of speech’s inescapable “intertextuality”. That is, translation software does not interpret or understand what the interlocutors actually say, but draws on a vast data bank of the already-written to find the most probable equivalence for any given string. The mindlessness of this procedure can, as a direct consequence of how it works, result in laughable mistranslations.
The root of this problem was posited already in the late Eighteenth and early Nineteenth centuries by the founder of modern hermeneutics, Friedrich Schleiermacher, who observed that language could be characterized in at least two different ways, the grammatical and technical. By the former, he meant the impersonal rules that underwrite the possibility of any linguistic utterance’s being well-formed and hence not nonsensical in the first place, precisely the rules linguistics can quantify and programmers exploit to develop translation and speech- or text-productive software. However, there is also a creative aspect to speech, the “technical”, that both exceeds the already-written, being novel, and that underwrites the possibility of understanding a novel utterance if not any utterance in general (as a speaker must always make an educated guess not only about exactly what words are spoken but how they might be intended). As contemporary philosopher Robert Brandom so eloquently puts it: “What matters about us morally, and so, ultimately, politically is…the capacity of each of us as discursive creatures to say things that no-one else has ever said, things furthermore that would never have been said if we did not say them. It is our capacity to transform the vocabularies in which we live and move and have our being”. The “vocabularies” (the “already said”) that any such creative speech act will exceed and transform will, by the same token, transcend the capacity of the translation AI. The challenge of just such creative language use is especially acute in the case of tone, e.g., irony, which operates precisely in a space shared by the grammatical and technical, i.e., one and the same expression is used to mean its opposite. In this instance, the semiotic model of language-as-pure-syntax (Schleiermacher’s “grammatical” aspect) meets a limit, as Paul de Man so famously demonstrated in the opening chapter of his Allegories of Reading (1979).
If a linguistic AI by its very nature runs up against limits imposed by the nature of language itself, then how much moreso an AI produced by another species (as if the very idea were itself unproblematic…)? That is, at least translation software developed by a terrestrial programmer need only “translate” between human languages, but the problem of interspecies translation, as I sketch out in my earlier post on Loeb’s “xenophobic xenia”, is much more difficult (Diana Pasulka’s claims concerning the research of Iya Whiteley notwithstanding). I get the impression the very real challenges to this idea are not recognized by Loeb because of how he seems to conceive of language, writing, as he does, trusting his imagined “AI astronauts” would be able “to communicate at ease…because they would know how to map the content they wish to convey to our languages.” Many assumptions are packed into this all-too-casual claim. Is it the case in fact that a language “maps a content”, for example? Arguably not, such an idea belonging to the conception of language prior to the advent of the science of language, philology, in the mid-Eighteenth century. Moreover, without already possessing a knowledge of a human language, how would that AI find the equivalences for what it wished to convey? Loeb seems to think that natural languages are systems of or for more or less unproblematic representation, when in fact languages are intimately bound up with their pragmatic use in what philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein famously termed “forms of life.” For this reason he once remarked “If a lion could speak, we would not be able to understand him,” a contention all the more applicable to an extraterrestrial organism, let alone its artifact. All of this assumes, of course, that Loeb’s AI astronaut seeks out Homo sapiens rather than some other species of organism it encounters on earth…
There is no little irony in Loeb’s opening his article by telling his reader he “was recently invited to attend an interdisciplinary discussion with linguists and philosophers, coordinated by the Mind Brain Behavior Interfaculty Initiative at Harvard University [that] will revolve around the challenge of communicating with extraterrestrials as portrayed in the film Arrival.” I’m going to assume the film’s plot follows in its main lines those of the short story it is based on. What’s telling is that the film is not about communicating with extraterrestrials. The science-fiction scenario, as compelling as it is (imaginably why it’s adopted to orient the discussion Loeb has been invited to attend) is a literary device to present the plot’s theme, which is amor fati: the language of the aliens enables the protagonist to know in advance the daughter she will bear will die in childhood; nevertheless, in full knowledge of the pain she will bear, the protagonist chooses to affirm this fate. Moreover, that an important theme is also that of language, the story fulfills a (post)modern imperative for fiction, that it be reflexive, i.e., that it present and probe its own materiality. In a very important way, taking the story at face value is to completely misunderstand it, a sore failing for those who would aspire to understand and communicate with an utterly alien Other.
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…
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.
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“.
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….
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.
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….
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….
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….
As I observed in the last Sightings post, ufology as that myth-of-things-seen-in the-skies, despite apparent, dramatic developments (novelties), seems to orbit in an eternal-recurrence-of-the-same, which is characteristic of myth as such; myth posits an eternal (ever recurring) order…. That being said, some recent developments caught my attention.
The Galileo Project for the Systematic Scientific Search for Evidence of Extraterrestrial Technological Artifacts (headed by Avi Loeb) recently named Christopher Mellon and Luis Elizondo as Research Affiliates. (I assume these two names and their respective place in recent ufology are not unfamiliar.) I’ve elaborated a number of critiques of the thinking underwriting Loeb’s views concerning extraterrestrial technological artifacts (the most developed can be read here). However ideologically invested Loeb’s ideas, their scientific value remains an open question, depending on Project Galileo’s ultimate—empirical—findings. But it’s precisely the project’s scientific reputation that is thrown into question by its affiliation with Mellon and Elizondo, given their respective backgrounds in intelligence and their overt statements and innuendos concerning UAP (Unidentified Aerial Phenomena). Given Mellon’s and Elizondo’s enthusiastic participation in the drama of “Disclosure”, the scientifically-minded might be excused for wondering just how much of value the two can bring to, e.g., “assessing the societal implications of the data, if any extraterrestrial technological signatures or artifacts are discovered.” One’s tempted to imagine that once History’s The Secret of Skin Walker Ranch has run its inevitable course it might not be replaced by a new reality series, The Galileo Project….
The appointment of Mellon and Elizondo to a research project searching for artifacts of extraterrestrial technology underlines, again, the near hegemony a certain thinking about extraterrestrial life (and, by extension and most importantly, life on earth) holds in both the popular and more specialized imaginations, e.g., that of SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) researchers. Corey S. Powell’s Aeon article “The search for alien tech” reveals both in how SETI research has recently expanded in the wake of the discovery of exoplanets and most acutely in his own reflexive (unconscious) rhetoric just how strong the grip of this thinking is.
Powell describes how “each age has featured its own version [of] yearning for contact with life from beyond, always anchored to the technological themes of the day”. Roughly in the latter half of last century SETI was essentially the search for a demonstrably alien, artificial signal somewhere in the electromagnetic spectrum, whether visible (e.g., laser) or invisible (e.g., radio). However, with the discovery of how to detect and study exoplanets, the search was able to broaden its horizon to include the chemical fingerprints of life and technology, bio- and technosignatures. These latter include, for example, the specific light reflected from solar panels, chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs, “highly versatile compounds that are used as solvents, refrigerants, foaming agents and aerosol propellants”), or “nitrogen dioxide, a byproduct of combustion or high-temperature manufacturing,” namely, the kinds of technosignatures human activity leaves in earth’s atmosphere. However, as Powell remarks “Alien technology could take so many forms that it is impossible for the human mind to consider or even imagine them all.” The search for technosignatures, therefore, expands to include “mechanical technosignatures”, such as a Dyson Sphere, or the kinds of artifacts The Galileo Project is on the hunt for.
There is an irony, however, in, on the one hand, admitting that “Alien technology could take so many forms that it is impossible for the human mind to consider or even imagine them all” and, on the other, the tellingly offhand comparison Powell makes discussing technosignatures:
We spew pollutants, belch factory heat during the day, and light up our cities at night. We can’t help it, any more than bacteria can help emitting methane. By extension, any advanced aliens could be expected to visibly alter their planet as an inevitable byproduct of creating a manufactured, industrial civilization.
Powell’s comparison levels the difference between the waste products of an organism’s metabolism and those of social, techno-industrial processes, human or alien, whose societies are thereby (if not therefore) imagined (if not thought) to be organisms writ large. Powell’s rhetoric here (con)fuses the natural and the social, natural history and history proper (Adorno’s critique of the distinction notwithstanding).
Powell’s rhetoric is part-and-parcel with that thinking that governs SETI in general and the Extraterrestrial Hypothesis concerning the origin of UFOs, the (Platonic) idea that life is not shaped only by biology but by some teleology that launches it on a vector to develop the kind of intelligence homo sapiens imagines it possesses, which, in turn, necessarily expresses itself as tool-use and technological development along the lines laid out by “First World” historians (who imagine that the world’s present-day “advanced” societies represent a goal or end of history…). Astrobiologist Jason Wright et al. keep strange company when they imagine alien technology millions or billions of years old (and presumably as much in advance of our own); Maitreya Raël tells us, too, that his Elohim are 25,000 years in advance of us….
More gravely is how this confusion of natural history and history proper evacuates the possibility of even thinking of self-directed social change (societies are ultimately as mindlessly instinctual as colonies of bacteria) and thereby serves a politically “conservative”, reactionary function. David Wengrow makes a not unrelated point with regard to how reigning, inherited narratives of cultural development work as myths (there’s that word again) to drain away the potential for even imagining alternate futures or change. Wengrow rehearses this restraining view of human history as follows:
We could live in societies of equals, this story goes, when we were few, our lives and needs simple. In this view, small means egalitarian, in balance with each other and with nature. Big means complex, which involves hierarchy, exploitation and the competitive extraction of the Earth’s resources. Now, as the human population approaches eight billion, we are left to draw the obvious dismal conclusions. There is no sense fighting the inevitable. Between entrenched neoliberalism and the pressures of our grow-or-die economy, what hope do we really have of making progress? [my emphasis]
Or, as Fredric Jameson so memorably put it: “It’s easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism.” Happily, as Wengrow points out and explains “nothing about this familiar conception of human history is actually true.”
The myth that possesses the imagination of believers in or speculators about advanced, extraterrestrial civilizations is as scientifically and philosophically problematic as it is socially consequential. On the one hand, we don’t even know how life appeared on earth, but what we do know, however, is that its evolution has been a precarious, chance-ridden, unpredictable process. On the other, the story of human culture and society is even more aleatoric and varied, underwritten by what Wengrow terms “the spark of political creativity” or philosophers, more generally, “freedom”. Accounts of life, “intelligence”, “development”, or “progress” that merely posit the (self-serving) self-understanding of one culture on earth as the outcome of some natural, necessary, universal process serve to only reify, naturalize and entrench, the social relations of that culture, now at a moment when its unnaturalness, borne out by the daily mounting evidence of its unsustainability (to put it in the most “objective” terms), is most in need of unmasking.
Things have been so quiet here at the Skunkworks (six weeks without a post) it prompted a tactful and warmly-received inquiry as to our well-being!
Posting here has slowed for a number of reasons. Materially, after nearly two years without a functioning library, the custom-made bookcases ordered over a year ago are almost finally installed, which has entailed the sorting, schlepping, alphabetizing, and shelving of more than 2,400 books. The ufological library’s soon no longer being a pile of books in the corner will at least facilitate a return to some of the projects undertaken here, e.g., a continuation of the study of the books cited in Jung’s Flying Saucers, categorized as “Jung’s Ufological Bookshelf”, along with some tardy notices if not reviews of recent ufological and ufological poetry books….
Admittedly, other concerns have imposed themselves. Apart from the more philosophical, ideology-critical reflection that goes on here, the raison d’être of the Skunkworks is to make public (and to make me publicly accountable for) the on-going composition of the mytho-ufological epic, Orthoteny (e.g., the last post, “Alexander Hamilton’s Prototypical Cattle Mutilation Tale” that shared a part of that epic, from On the Phantom Air Ship Mystery). Editing and submitting at least two other, unrelated poetry manuscripts and their component poems have also eclipsed for the moment much of the work that goes on here at the Skunkworks. Moreover, readers who recall the last two “Sightings” (4 July and 26 June) will also likely remember how these posts’ concerns, however related to the UFO mythology, were as much if not more the climate emergency (I’m working on an essay about the belief in near-term human extinction) and the ongoing liquidation, cultural and physical, of Canada’s First Peoples (30 September 2021 was the first National Day for Truth and Reconciliation in Canada).
But, more acutely, is the striking irony that as the phenomenon wins more “official” legitimacy (whether from various branches of the U.S. military and intelligence establishment or even scientifically, in the form of Loeb et al.’s Galileo Project) its cultural significance is all the more staid. As the cognoscenti have observed, in terms of governmental interest, we’ve been here before, nor does the Galileo Project push forward or, more importantly, deepen the research of SETI. How many times need I reiterate the ideological underpinnings of the search for technosignatures or extraterrestrial technological artifacts?
Indeed, these recent, dramatic (at least among some circles) developments, within the modern (post-1947) history of the phenomenon, seem an instance of an “eternal recurrence of the same”, that characteristic of myth that sees history as a pattern of eternally repeating structures. (Little wonder the circularity of the flying saucer reminded Jung of the mandala…). This aspect of the development of the mythology seems to have reached a limit point with the publication of Vallée’s and Harris’ Trinity. As I have argued the book seems a repressed work of science fiction, a provocative characterization of the UFO mythology itself (a discourse whose literality is unstable, questionable and problematic). It’s as if at the moment when the literality of the phenomenon seems to be approaching institutional acceptance (a moment in the unfolding of Disclosure?), its symbolic, mythological (if not ideological) significance presses against that literality to near a bursting point.
The “Disclosure” we are pursuing here is the presentation if not revelation of just that Symbolic, ideological content of the UFO mythology, “the myth of things seen in the skies”, and therein and thereby the myth (ideology) that underwrites, sustains and inspires the civilization and its worldview that finds it easier to imagine the end of the world than its own transformation, no small task and one, like poetry, alienated and distant from the march of “current events”.
In a recent discussion with a friend about Avi Loeb’s hypothesis that the object ‘Oumuamua displayed behaviours consistent with its being an artifact of nonhuman technology, namely a light sail, one problem with the consistency of his thesis struck me.
A root problem with Loeb’s thinking that I have noted at length here is the unproblematic spontaneity of the very idea of nonhuman, extraterrestrial technology of the kind Loeb proposes ‘Oumuamua might be. It’s precisely the way the idea seems unquestionable, even as a speculation, that I argue is a mark of its being ideological and calling for scrutiny. (Interested readers are encouraged to click on the ‘Avi Loeb’ tag to access previous posts on this topic).
However, aside from “merely” philosophical reflection if not critique of Loeb’s thesis, one might propose a problem with its internal consistency. If we suppose ‘Oumuamua to be a light sail, then it must have originated, however long ago, from a relatively advanced extraterrestrial civilization. If said civilization were sufficiently sophisticated to imagine, design, and manufacture a light sail, is it not likely the same civilization had at the same time if not earlier developed a form of artificial communication that employed some frequency of the electromagnetic spectrum, e.g., radio? If this same civilization were to possess some such communications technology, then it seems arguable that signals from this civilization would have reached earth long in advance of a light sail, given their relative velocities. In the same way, long before any light sail or subluminal spacecraft from earth will reach another solar system, all the EM emissions from our communications technology will have reached that solar system long in advance. Therefore, subject to a whole raft of assumptions, admittedly, imagining a light sail arriving in our solar system suggests that signals, intentional or otherwise, from the home civilization of said light sail will have alerted us to that civilization’s existence long in advance of the arrival of their spacecraft.
Just a thought, and one I doubt is original to me. (Nor should the implications of this argument for the Extraterrestrial Hypothesis for the origin of UFOs/UAP be underestimated…).
Amid the breathless suspense leading up to Friday’s release of the ODNI Preliminary Assessment on UAP, I spun a discussion thread with a persistent interlocutor around the theory that UFOs are extraterrestrial spacecraft, aka the Extraterrestrial Hypothesis or ETH. In the course of that back and forth, he linked a YouTube video on the matter. Aside from the ETH, the video’s interviewees pursued two lines of thought that touched on other, more urgent concerns…
It’s a commonplace in ufology and the more scientifically-formal search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) to contemplate the consequences of contact between humankind and a much more technologically-advanced extraterrestrial species (not race) in terms of that between Europeans and the indigenous peoples of the Americas, Australia, New Zealand, etc. For example, Tyler Cowen, a student of “Nahuatl-speaking villages in Mexico”, making the comparison, refers to “the Aztec empire, which met its doom when a technologically superior conqueror showed up: Hernan Cortés and the Spaniards.” The devastating consequences of this encounter are almost always couched in terms of “culture shock”, the approach adopted for instance by Dolan and Zabel in their A.D. After Disclosure.
It is perhaps no accident that those who speak in these terms are white, North American men; how such speculations are framed by interested parties outside this demographic in the rest of the world, I am unsure. What is striking about thinking of the consequences of contact in terms of culture shock is that it passes over if not represses the more painful facts of the matter implied in Stephen Hawking’s more laconic observation: “We only have to look at ourselves to see how intelligent life might develop into something we wouldn’t want to meet.”
The topic is timely because when we Canadians, for example, “look at ourselves” in the light of two fields of unmarked graves recently discovered on the grounds of residential schools what is revealed is that the disruption of the cultures of the First Nations is not so much due to some catastrophic shift in world-view, however radically unsettling, but the overt and covert violence of settler colonialism, i.e., that the very foundation of the Canadian nation state is premissed on the liquidation of the indigenous population as a means to exploiting the natural resources within its borders unhindered. Canada’s First Nations didn’t experience a spiritual crisis encountering the French, Dutch, and English, but have suffered being displaced from their lands and resources through violence or subterfuge and having their children forcefully removed to residential schools whose explicit purpose was summed up by Duncan Campbell Scott, deputy superintendent of the federal Department of Indian Affairs from 1913-32: “I want to get rid of the Indian problem.…Our object is to continue until there is not a single Indian in Canada that has not been absorbed into the body politic, and there is no Indian question, and no Indian department…” The shock to their culture was the result of intentional cultural genocide.
There is a not unrelated paradoxical irony at play in the way that one will hear in the same breath blithe speculations about civilizations thousands if not a billion years ahead of our own and reflections on “the Great Silence”, that we have yet to discover some bio- or technosignature of extraterrestrial life of a sufficiently-advanced extraterrestrial civilization.
Anyone familiar with the work that goes on here in the Skunkworks will be familiar with the implications of that first idea, but, here, I want to remark two other problems with this notion of so long-lived a civilization. On the one hand, one might ask “Whose culture?”, i.e., how to conceive of a culture or civilization that transcends the life of its biological substrate, the species of which it is a culture; a culture that outlives the species whose culture it is stretches the imagination, even moreso if that substrate is imagined to be transbiological, as such “artificial life” (if it can be said to possess a culture at all) would be more likely to change at an even greater rate than a biological species does under the pressures of natural selection. On the other hand, if we “look at ourselves” we find that one of the longest-lived, continuous cultures on earth is that of the aboriginal peoples of Australia, about 60,000 years. What underwrites the longterm stability of such cultures, however, is their having found a sustainable form of life, one rooted in a more harmonious relation to earth’s life support systems than that ecocidal relation characteristic of the so-called advanced, high-tech societies.
When it comes to the Great Silence, in an early articulation of an idea now termed “the Great Filter”, Sagan and Shklovsky in 1966 accounted for it by proposing that perhaps “it is the fate of all such civilizations to destroy themselves before they are much further along,” Unlike the pattern of repression that characterizes thoughts about contact, in this case UFO discourse has been explicitly related to existential threats to human civilization if not homo sapiens itself, from Jung’s proposals in his Flying Saucers: A Modern Myth of Things Seen in the Sky to George Adamski‘s Venusians and Klaatu of the classic film The Day the Earth Stood Still to recently revived stories of UFOs interfering with nuclear missiles to Vallée’s and Harris’ recent Trinity: The Best-Kept Secret the UFO has been associated with the danger posed by the advent and proliferation of nuclear weapons. More recently, beginning especially with the growing number of abduction stories in the 1980s, the mythology has come to weave itself into the more general ecological crisis, with abductees reporting they have been shown scenes of environmental destruction (a theme taken up by the 2008 remake of The Day The Earth Stood Still). Unsurprisingly, e.g., believers in and proponents of Disclosure (official transparency about the reality of and longstanding relations with extraterrestrial civilizations) maintain that zero-point or free-energy extraterrestrial technology can replace our stubborn reliance on fossil fuels. However much the UFO orbits these existential threats, the fantasies this association gives rise to by way of solutions are as weighty as the angel hair that used to fall from the flying saucers: either the extraterrestrial intervention is prophetic (revealing a truth, however much we already know it) or the solution to the problems technological development brings with it is just more technology. In either case, it seems, to paraphrase Fredric Jameson, it’s easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine an end to the social order than underwrites present-day technological change, capitalism.
In all these speculations about technologically-advanced extraterrestrial civilizations one can discern a play of revelation and concealment. On the one hand, thoughts about contact or the Great Silence relate and are related to mundane, human matters: the history of colonization during the Age of (so-called) Discovery or the resilience and sustainability of culture and civilization especially under the strain of increasing ecological pressures. On the other hand, on inspection, these reflections betray a repressed, social content that is the mark of the ideological. The (on-going) material violence of European colonization becomes a merely spiritual shock; “civilization” is abstracted from the bodies of the civilized, as if it might be possessed of some immaterial immortality, while, simultaneously, the real, long-lived cultures on earth are overlooked precisely because their form of life contradicts the self-estimation of the advanced societies as having superseded these more primitive contemporaries (i.e., precisely that these cultures are our contemporaries, that they are, therefore, no less modern than ourselves is what must be denied); and the solution to the problems “development” causes is thought to be ever more development, reinforcing the status quo at the base of the problem.
Just as UFOs or Unidentified Aerial Phenomena (UAPs) appear to fly free of gravity and the physical laws of inertia and momentum, so too the thinking about or related to them frees itself from the material base (society, culture, and nature) of its ideas to flit around as nimbly, but, just as the countless stories of UFOs might be said to constitute a myth, a collective dream, the truth of these speculations is no less their grave, unconscious, repressed, all-too-earthly content.
As for that preliminary assessment on UAP? What of it? Here’s something on a leaked draft of a report on an arguably more urgent matter…
Regular visitors to these Skunkworks can imagine how our interest was piqued by the headline “Philosopher UFOlogist says humans are not ready to make contact”. The Skunkworks Research Library secured the (self-published) book in question, Adrian Rudnyk’s The Assessment: The Arrival of Extraterrestrials, and a brief notice of it might be forthcoming, but, here, I want to essay the more profound way that the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) and speculations about intelligent, technologically-advanced extraterrestrial life is more “philosophical” than Rudnyk seems to perceive or SETI and its collaborators would themselves probably be prepared to admit.
A driving thesis of the critical and creative work here is that the very idea of a technologically-advanced extraterrestrial civilization is ideological, i.e, the form of one society and culture of one species on earth is held up as paradigmatic and natural. So-called “advanced” society (that of the so-called “First World”) imagines itself to be, in Francis Fukuyama‘s expression, “the end [the final goal] of history”. This assumption underwrites untroubled speculations about extraterrestrial life, intelligence, and culture: if some life evolves “intelligence” (like that displayed by technologically-advanced terrestrial societies), then that intelligence will likewise develop technologies along lines analogous to the development of earthly technologies, such that it makes sense to speak of these extraterrestrial technologies as being less or more advanced than those possessed by homo sapiens at a given time. The homogeneity of such development is even thought sufficient to be able to speak intelligibly about technologies hundreds, thousands, and even millions upon millions of years “more advanced”…
Kershenbaum’s book by and large is more level-headed than Loeb’s recent Extraterrestrial: The First Sign of Intelligent Life Beyond Earth, extrapolating, as it does, what we know about the evolution of life on earth to potential life forms on other planets. Such an exercise does not fall prey to ideological blindness the way that Loeb et al. do, as it assumes only that the laws of physics, chemistry, and biochemistry (and, by extension, evolution) hold throughout the galaxy if not known universe. However, when pushed, Kershenbaum can’t help but fall into the same trap as all those who take the idea of technological, extraterrestrial civilizations “seriously”. In a recent interview with the author, Kermit Pattison relates
Kershenbaum predicts that some aliens will exhibit social cooperation, technology and language… He even posits that aliens will share the quality we hold most dear: intelligence. “We all want to believe in intelligent aliens,” he writes. “It seems inevitable that they will, in fact, exist.”
That such a scenario “seems inevitable” reveals that Kershenbaum and those who think like him are no longer engaged in scientific but metaphysical speculation. Indeed, the idea of this inevitability is arguably grounded in Plato’s theory of Forms, which precedes even the term ‘metaphysics’.
Plato’s theory of Forms or Ideas is arguably as much an invention of Plato’s interpreters as of the author of the dialogues himself. That being said, one can all-to-quickly summarize the theory in its received form as follows:
The world that appears to our senses is in some way defective and filled with error, but there is a more real and perfect realm, populated by entities (called “forms” or “ideas”) that are eternal, changeless, and in some sense paradigmatic for the structure and character of the world presented to our senses.
If we think of these Forms as designs or plans, the temporal connotations of these words suggests just how Kershenbaum’s prediction about extraterrestrial intelligence flowering in technology are in a sense Platonic. It’s as life were possessed of a potential to develop what we know as STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) that it might actualize to a greater or lesser degree. Some organisms (e.g., homo sapiens) fulfill this potential, others (slime mold?) do not, while others “inevitably” actualize it even more than we have. It’s the inevitability of the idea, that we are sure to encounter technologically-advanced extraterrestrial civilizations that essentializes it. It’s part of the essence (Form, Idea…) of life that it has the potential to develop “intelligence” and subsequently “technology”. Homo sapiens are merely an instantiation of the actualization of this essential potential.
The fetishistic character of this idea that Western civilization is somehow a cosmic norm is revealed all the more starkly when we reflect that the “intelligence” operative in STEM (instrumental, calculative reason) and the technology it produces (and, no less, is, in a sense, produced by) is hardly even the norm among human beings, let alone life on earth. The narrowing down of rationality to technical problem solving is a perversity peculiar to a particular society, very restricted in space and time, ironically, one whose own science undercuts and overturns this blinkered, proud self-regard; at the same time, this very science is itself hardly a universal potential aspect of culture, being but one, and a very new one, among many no less functional “systems of knowledge” that have enabled groups of homo sapiens to survive and flourish.
However much Kerschenbaum, Loeb, and others might protest, that our science is governed by often all-too unconscious metaphysical assumptions is well-known to philosophers, among them, surely, Diane W Pasulka. In her American Cosmic, she invokes Martin Heidegger‘s notion of technology in the course of her argument that technology and that represented by the UFO has taken on a religious aura in recent history. Heidegger is well-known for (among other things) articulating what he called “the History of Being”, i.e., a particular trajectory of the basic question of ontology, “What is ‘being’?” from Plato and Aristotle, who first explicitly posed the question, down to himself, who poses it and recasts it again as “fundamental ontology” in Being and Time. What the history of Being uncovers is that the question received a definitive answer among the ancient Greeks, one that held sway until Heidegger’s resuscitation of the question and “destruction” of the history of ontology to free the inquiry from its sedimented, guiding assumptions. Plato and Aristotle posited that “being is presence”, an answer to the question that was passed down to Christian and Medieval civilization, and inherited as an unspoken presupposition of what became the natural sciences.
Aside from whether one accepts Heidegger’s history of Being, it is surely ironic that, on the one hand, Kershenbaum invokes the precariously chance-ridden process of evolution to imagine life on other worlds, while remaining somehow blind to the even more aleatoric process that leads to any given culture’s having ended up where it is, while, on the other, Loeb would argue that humankind should be humble, because it is not unique! What greater hubris is there than to project one’s own peculiar society as somehow characteristic of life in the cosmos? In this regard, Kershenbaum and Loeb not only unknowingly take up inherited Platonic notions but arguably also in a parody of the Ptolemaic universe place this latest, if not last, moment of Western civilization at the centre of, if not the universe, then its workings, an instance of a norm no less universal than the speed of light.
I don’t know how he does it. Philosopher Justin E. Smith, very much my contemporary, and even once a faculty member of my alma mater here in Montreal, not only functions as an academic in a French university, teaching, researching, and writing articles and books, but he maintains a Substack account where he posts juicy essays weekly. With regards just to that writing, he tells us
In case you’re curious, I spend roughly six hours writing each week’s Substack post, taking the better part of each Saturday to do it. This follows a week of reflection, of jotting notes about points I would like to include, and of course it follows many years of reading a million books, allowing them to go to work on me and colonize my inner life nearly totally.
At any rate, his latest offering harmonizes sweetly with our own obsessive critique of anthropocentric conceptions of intelligence. You can read his thoughts on the matter, here.
Of recent developments in the ufological sphere, two stand out to me: the release of a huge cache of CIA documents on UFOs and the prepublication promotion of astronomer Avi Loeb’s new book on Oumuamua and related matters. I was moved to address Loeb’s recent claims (you can hear him interviewed by Ryan Sprague here and hear him speak on the topic last spring here), but, since I have addressed the essential drift of Loeb’s speculations, however curtly, and I’m loathe to tax the patience of my readers or my own intellectual energies rehearsing the driving thesis here at Skunkworks yet again, I want to probe a not unrelated matter, an ingredient of the ufological mix since the earliest days of the modern era.
In 1954, I wrote an article in the Swiss weekly, Die Weltwoche, in which I expressed myself in a sceptical way, though I spoke with due respect of the serious opinion of a relatively large number of air specialists who believe in the reality of Ufos…. In 1958 this interview was suddenly discovered by the world press and the ‘news’ spread like wildfire from the far West round the Earth to the far East, but—alas—in distorted form. I was quoted as a saucer-believer. I issued a statement to the United Press and gave a true version of my opinion, but this time the wire went dead: nobody, so far as I know, took any notice of it, except one German newspaper.
The moral of this story is rather interesting. As the behaviour of the press is sort of a Gallup test with reference to world opinion, one must draw the conclusion that news affirming the existence of the Ufos is welcome, but that scepticism seems to be undesirable. To believe that Ufos are real suits the general opinion, whereas disbelief is to be discouraged.
Loeb’s recent experience harmonizes with Jung’s. Loeb recounts around the 22:00′ mark in his interview with Sprague that when he and his collaborator published their paper arguing for the possible artificial origins of Oumuamua, they experienced a “most surprising thing”, that, despite not having arranged for any publicity for their paper, it provoked “a huge, viral response from the media…”
There are, of course, myriad reasons for the media phenomenon experienced by both Jung and Loeb. An important aspect of their shared historical horizon, however, suggests the ready, public fascination for the idea of extraterrestrial, technologically-advanced civilizations springs from an urgent source. Jung, famously, however correctly, argued that flying saucers’ appearing in the skies just at the moment the Iron Curtain came down had to do precisely with the new, mortal threat of atomic war, that, from his psychological perspective, flying saucers were collective, visionary mandalas, whose circular shape made whole, at least to the visionary imagination, what humankind had split asunder in fact. Though we live now after the Cold War, the cognoscenti are quick to remind us the threat of nuclear war remains, a threat along with increasingly acute environmental degradation and global warming. There’s a grim synchronicity in Loeb’s book’s appearing hot on the heels of the publication of a widely-publicized paper in the journal Frontiers of Conservation Science titled “Underestimating the Challenges of Avoiding a Ghastly Future.”
Just how do such anxieties arguably underwrite the desire to discover other “advanced” societies? Jung was right, I think, in seeing the appearance of “flying saucers from outer space” as compensating for the worries of his day. Rather than affirming the phenomenon’s dovetailing into his theory of archetypes, however, I would argue that the very idea of UFOs’ being from an advanced, technological civilization, an interpretation put forward spontaneously by the popular, scientific, and military understanding, is a response to the growing concern over the future of the earth’s so-called advanced societies. Such evidence of extraterrestrial intelligence seems to confirm that technology (as we know it) and the kind of intelligence that gives rise to it are not the result of a local, accidental coupling of natural history (evolution) and cultural change (history proper) but that of more universal regularities, echoing, perhaps, however faintly, those cosmically universal natural laws that govern physics and chemistry. That such intelligence and civilizations spring up throughout the stars suggests, furthermore, they all share the same developmental vector, from the primitive to the advanced, and that, if such regularities hold, then just as our visitors are more advanced than we are, then we, too, like them, might likewise negotiate the mortal threats that face our own civilization, enabling us to reach their heights of knowledge and technological prowess. That we might learn just such lessons from extraterrestrial civilizations we might contact has been one explicit argument for the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI). The very idea, then, of a technologically-advanced civilization embodies a faith that technology can solve the problems technology produces, one whose creed might be said to reword Heidegger’s final, grave pronouncement that “Only a god can save us”, replacing ‘god’ with ‘technology’. What’s as remarkable as it is unremarked is how this tenet of faith is shared equally by relatively mainstream figures, such as Loeb, Diana W. Pasulka, and SETI researchers, and more outré folk, such as Jason Reza Jorjani, Steven Greer, and Raël/Claude Vorilhon.
Conversely, discovering the traces of extraterrestrial civilizations that have failed to meet the challenges ours faces could prove no less significant, as Loeb himself has proposed: “…we may learn something in the process. We may learn to better behave with each other, not to initiate a nuclear war, or to monitor our planet and make sure that it’s habitable for as long as we can make it habitable.” Aside from the weakness of this speculation, the idea of such failed civilizations is based on the same assumptions as the idea of successful ones, thereby revealing their being ideological (positing a social order as natural). Imagine all we ever were to discover were extraterrestrial societies that had succumbed to war, environmental destruction, or some other form of self-annihilation. Technological development would then seem to entail its own end. Indeed, that this might very well be the case has been proposed as one explanation for “The Great Silence”, why we have yet to encounter other, extraterrestrial civilizations. We might still cling to the hope that humankind might prove the exception, that it might learn from all these other failures (à la Loeb), or we might adopt a pessimistic fatalism, doing our best despite being convinced we are ultimately doomed. In either case, advanced technological society modelled after one form of society on earth is projected as unalterable, inescapable, and universal. The pessimistic conception of technological advancement, a blinkered reification of a moment in human cultural history, arguably expresses from a technoscientific angle the sentiment of Fredric Jameson’s famous observation: “It’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.”
The consequences of this technofetishism are manifold. However much technology is not essentially bound up with capitalism, it is the case that technology as we know it developed under capitalism as a means to increase profit by eliminating labour, a development that has only picked up steam as it were with the drive to automation in our present moment. When this march of progress is imagined to be as natural as the precession of the equinoxes, it is uncoupled from the social (class) relations that determine it, reifying the status quo. In this way, popular or uncritical speculations about technologically advanced extraterrestrial societies are arguably politically reactionary. But they are culturally, spiritually impoverishing, too. This failure, willed or otherwise, to grasp our own worldview as contingent legitimates if not drives the liquidation of human cultural difference and of the natural world. Identifying intelligence with one kind of human intelligence, instrumental reason, and narrowing cultural change to technological development within the lines drawn by the self-regarding histories of the “advanced” societies, we murderously reduce the wild variety of intelligence (human and nonhuman alike) and past, present, and, most importantly, potentially future societies to a dreary “eternal recurrence of the same,” a world not unlike those “imagined” by the Star Trek and Star Wars franchises wherein the supposed unimaginable variety of life in the cosmos is reduced to that of a foodcourt.
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.
“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.
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:
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 arguedad 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….
UFO believers and skeptics are both convinced that they know. Believers (extreme examples include devotees of the Sphere Being Alliance, the ECETI Ranch, and all those breathlessly waiting for Disclosure) know that UFOs are extraterrestrial spaceships piloted by a wide variety of alien races/species with equally various intentions for humankind; they, I would argue, are not skeptical enough. Skeptics, on the other hand, know that UFO sightings and encounters with their putatively extraterrestrial pilots are merely a mishmash of rumour, misperception, and pathology; they, it seems to me, are (for the most part) neither skeptical enough of their own sometimes strenuous explanations nor curious enough about the cultural, social, and psychological implications of the phenomenon in its multifarious guises even if their dismissals are all well-founded. The phenomenon, as is well-known, also exhibits features that elude both the believers’ beliefs and the skeptics’ debunkings. For my part, the UFO phenomenon remains, therefore, a mystery, whether one appends the adjective Fortean to it or not.
As I’ve ventured on a couple of occasions, the UFO is as much an aesthetic object as a possible object for the physical sciences. By “aesthetic object” I do not mean one that is merely or exclusively “beautiful” (though UFOs themselves and related experiences can possess this quality) but that, following Immanuel Kant’s line of thought, the UFO requires we create a concept for it rather than subsuming it under one ready-to-hand (if we could do that it would hardly be the persistent anomaly it has proven to be). It’s precisely this characteristic I want to touch on here, that the conceptual demands the UFO phenomenon places on our attempts to conceptualize it suggest it is at present a kind of epistemic singularity.
Just as a gravitational singularity (a black hole) suspends the normal laws of spacetime, the UFO warps our thinking about it. The irrationality displayed by both believers and skeptics is a case in point. But even those who have attempted to grapple with the mystery with method, reason, imagination, or speculation find their investigations quickly complicated if not frustrated by the equally wily and protean evasiveness of the phenomenon, aptly characterized with reference to the Trickster of various folklores. Paradoxically (go figger) this denial of understanding and comprehension is at the same time an open invitation to imagine and think in a non-linear, alogical way, “outside the box” of the rules of method, with an impish playfulness of mind equal to that displayed by the phenomenon itself. From this perspective, two, more “out-of-this-world” (how apt) speculations take on a certain appeal.
Since the dawn of the modern era, Kenneth Arnold’s 1947 sighting, analogues between the UFO and more mythic or religious manifestations have been noted. Adamski’s circle identified the flying discs of the time, inspired by their Theosophically-tinged grasp of Hindu and Vendantic lore, as vimanas, the aerial chariots of the gods of ancient India. More recently, similarities between alien abductions and shamanic initiation and practice have been noted. Even more recently, psychonauts for whom dimethyltryptamine (DMT) has been the preferred vehicle for exploring what appear as alternate dimensions have reported encounters with beings markedly similar to entities associated with UFOs and alien abductions. In an attempt to probe this experience more thoroughly, Dr Andrew Gallimore is attempting to develop the means to allow psychonautical explorers to reside in these unusual realms longer than the relatively more transient states of DMT intoxication afforded by smoking it or even drinking ayahuasca, by means of medical technology. Such efforts put the mainstream Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) and the so-called Secret Space Program in a new light!
No less imaginative is the hypothesis of Trevor James Constable , that UFOs are in fact plasmatic life forms native to earth’s atmosphere. What makes Constable’s theory all the more provocative is how it is couched in Wilhelm Reich’s orgone theory and as of 2003 given more mainstream as well as fringe scientific support. Mircea Sanduloviciu and his colleagues at Cuza University in Romania have created plasma phenomena that can grow, replicate, and communicate just like living cells, while Nik Hayes and Leon Southgate have managed to photograph Constable’s orgonotic bio-forms. Just as psychonautical exploration expands our notions of reality, so the investigations of Constable et al. widen our ideas of what might constitute life on (and off) earth.
Such wild research suggests another feature of the phenomenon closer to the heart of the mythopoeic work undertaken here in the Skunkworks: it inspires equally a rational, scientific and poetic response. That is, just as some ufologists tackle the enigma with forensic and natural scientific methods, its irrational dimension demands a playfulness of mind no less nimble and agile. To paraphrase the idea of Aimé Michel quoted above, the phenomenon puts into question both the laws of our physics and the structure of our societies. In line with Claude Lévi-Strauss‘ argument (in his four-volume Mythologiques) that mythological thinking is no less rigorous or practical than that of our natural sciences, the phenomenon inspires a response from the whole of the human being, as if as a kind of “compensatory mechanism” (Jung) it seeks to balance the deepening perversity of our present technocapitalistic moment and the ecological crises that it engenders. To heal is to make whole, and the spiritual stresses the black (rabbit) hole of the UFO phenomenon places on human understanding might play just that role.
Because the UFO phenomenon is anomalous, it is a site of mere speculation until it is definitively identified. Speculation is a curious activity, melding conjecture, contemplation, and mirroring (‘speculum‘ being Latin for ‘mirror’). Thus, our more or less informed guesses about the nature of the UFO reflect our assumptions about ourselves and the world.
As I’ve often held forth at length here, thoughts about the UFO reveal how we think about ourselves. Talk about the UFO as being an artifact produced by the advanced technology of an extraterrestrial intelligence gives away how we conceive of technology and intelligence in general.
In the first instance, intelligence is reduced to instrumental reason, solving problems to achieve certain ends; technology is understood to progress, to develop along a linear vector toward ever greater efficiency and power. In thinking as close or disparate as the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) or variations on the ufological Extraterrestrial Hypothesis (ETH), this restricted sense of intelligence is assumed to be a universal product (if not goal) of evolution, technology, in turn, the inevitable fruit of this intelligence, invariably progressing along the same trajectory.
More gravely however is the (ironic) theological underpinning of these notions of science and technology. The ultimate end of science is the philosopher’s God, an omniscient, omnipotent being. The omnipotence of technology’s god is underwritten by its omniscience (how fateful that knowledge is here expressed by the Latinate ‘science’!). Philosophy might begin in wonder (as Aristotle had it), but science does not spring from the desire to understand nature but to dominate it (as Francis Bacon proposed).
The head-spinning progress made in this project has inspired as much techno-pessimism as -optimism. The figure of Elon Musk combines these tendencies: on the one hand, he seems persuaded that technological ingenuity might extricate humanity from the dire problems development has engendered, as indicated by his investments in batteries and electric cars; on the other hand, he has equally pushed space exploration and colonization and expressed grave concerns about the potential threats posed by Artificial Intelligence. But in either case, Musk et al. are technofetishists: like those who cast the Golden Calf then prostrate themselves before what they themselves have made, the technofetishist places human technological activity and achievement on a pedestal, as if it were a self-causing, self-sustaining phenomenon, independent of society, its actors and their interests, i.e., as if it were natural. Masking contingent human activity as if it were necessary and natural is the very definition of reification. Such reification is all-too-evident in ufological discourse that orbits ideas of advanced, extraterrestrial civilizations.
At this point I want to introduce a no less bold, complementary speculation: what if technology, despite its historically very recent acceleration, is already nearing its terminus?
This thought is inspired by recent on-line backs-and-forths I’ve had with various embodiments of the technofetishist zeitgeist. Among those heavily invested, monetarily and otherwise, in information technology (I.T.) is the belief that artificial intelligence underwritten by quantum computing is a done deal, just waiting around the next historical corner. Aside from the thorny issues around just what concept of intelligence is assumed here (though I touch on that matter, above), is the status of quantum computing. There is good reason, both physical and mathematical, that quantum computing is in principle impossible. (Interested parties are urged to consult these brief articles by Moshe Y. Vardi, Mikhail Dyakonov, and on Gil Kalai).
What if, then, the I.T. revolution will soon run into the limits stated by Moore’s Law, the paradoxes of the quantum world prove ultimately unsolvable to human intelligence (instrumental reason in its speculative guise), and relativistic spacetime restrict space exploration to subluminal speeds? It hardly follows that science and technology will come to an end, but it is not outside the realm of possibility that human intelligence (instrumental reason) and ingenuity will reach ultimate limits, as some argue they have in the realm of physics.
The flabbergasted and violent reactions this suggestion might inspire among the technorati and ufophilic alike speaks not to so much to its potential truth-value as to the (unconscious) ideological and no-less theological character of technofetishism and its ufological variations, SETI and the ETH.
In his recent conversation with Bryce Zabel, M. J. Banias makes a telling analogy, between the moon landing whose anniversary is presently being marked and another hypothetical world media event, the announcement (@ 56″) that “humanity is not alone and there is some other intelligence and it’s active with us and it’s trying to engage with us in some way.”
At this point in the interview, Banias and Zabel are caught up in their conversation, and their enthusiasm gets the better of their reflective faculties. For, if there is a heartbreakingly unacknowledged fact about life on earth it is precisely that “humanity is not alone,” that there are other intelligences living here, active with us, which cannot help but interact if not engage with us.
As I have arguedad nauseum here and will continue to do so the Extraterrestrial Hypothesis concerning the origin of UFOs and the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence both suffer from an anthropocentric hyperopia that overlooks the wildly varied forms of intelligent life with which homo sapiens shares the planet in a squinting search for ourselves offworld.
As is well-acknowledged by naturalists, many species are self-conscious, from elephants, to great apes, all the way to corvids and even ants. Moreover, these and other species exhibit both intelligence (even fruit flies and jumping spiders weigh and decide between alternative courses of action) and culture (whales and elephants, for example, can be shown to possess natural languages). The capacity for numeracy is evident in bees, and, most compellingly, increasingly so even in plants. How much more mindblowing is the possibility plants on earth exhibit a radically nonhuman consciousness than that some humanoid, technological race (species?) inhabits an impossibly distant exoplanet? And how much more urgent is the need to reflect on the implications, moral and material, of how we engage with the alien (nonhuman) forms of life around us (to wit), let alone what the character of that interaction entails for how we might treat extraterrestrial life if and when we discover it, or how it might treat us if it discovers us first?
‘Creation’ is humanity’s ‘raison d’etre’ and is ultimately what distinguishes us from other sentient creatures, including other intelligent ‘higher primates’.
Ok, apes, crows & other species make tools &/or elaborate constructions to attract potential mates but there’s no orang-utan ‘Art’ or chimp ‘Science’ (beyond figuring out how best to access food).
My first impulse was to question this claim factually, with a quick internet search, which revealed, among other things, the arfulness of Amblyornis inornatus (Vogelkop Bowerbird). I was also reminded of a remembered passage from Joseph Campbell’s Primitive Mythology describing a circular dance by, I think, chimpanzees. But then on some reflection I realized I’d fallen for the particularly insidious assumptions that underwrite the claim for humankind’s special, creative status.
The bias of the thinking is revealed by analogy with the comparison of “advanced” to “primitive” cultures, by and to the advantage of the former. As Jerome Rothenberg observes in the Pre-face to his groundbreaking assemblage, Technicians of the Sacred (1967):
“Measure everything by the Titan rocket & the transistor radio, & the world is full of primitive peoples. But once change the unit of value to the poem or the dance-event or the dream (all clearly artifactual situations) & it becomes apparent what all these people have been doing all those years with all that time of their hands.”
In the same way, measure everything by the Sistine Chapel or Quantum Mechanics, and the world is full of uninspired, dim nonhuman animals, but once change the unit (or focal species) of measurement, and the world thrives with not only creativity and intelligence, but nonhuman powers and virtues, as well. The young William Butler Yeats mocks anthropocentric pretense with an eloquent simplicity in his poem “The Indian Upon God”.
There’s a reason philosophers in the Twentieth century coined the expression ‘ontotheology’: for the fateful confluence of Judeaochristianity (in which Man is created in God’s own image) and Platonism (and, with it, the inheritance of Hellenic thought) shores up an anthropocentrism that has reigned from then until now. It was most famously Protagoras of Abdera who is said to have stated that “Of all things the measure is Man, of the things that are, that they are, and of the things that are not, that they are not,” usually rendered as “Man is the measure of all things.”
The identification of “creativity” with human creativity is part and parcel of the identification of “intelligence” with human intelligence that roots and orients the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence and the Extraterrestrial Hypothesis about the origin of UFOs. It is also, arguably, this anthropocentricism that justifies the ways of Man to himself in his exploitation of every being on (and, in the planning stages) off the earth as either raw material or commodity, a mode of behaviour that has resulted, most poetically, in mussels being cooked alive at low tide in the superheated waters off the coast of California.
Avi Loeb, the Harvard Professor of Astronomy is at it again. Professor Loeb is most famous of late for his conjectures that the interstellar object Oumuamua might be an alien spaceship. Most recently remarks he made at The Humans to Mars Summit (14-16 May 2019) concerning the value of the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) have stirred some interest.
I haven’t had the time to fast forward through the three days’ live streaming to find Professor Loeb’s talk, but the idea of his that caught the attention of at least two journalists (here and here) is that discovering extraterrestrial civilizations that have self-destructed, as ours threatens to do, might help us learn to avoid their fatal mistakes: “The idea is we may learn something in the process. We may learn to better behave with each other, not to initiate a nuclear war, or to monitor our planet and make sure that it’s habitable for as long as we can make it habitable.”
Where to begin?…
In the best of all possible worlds, Loeb and I would have an intellectual cage match on this subject. I have consistently (and with increasing impatience, admittedly) taken to task the assumptions that underwrite Loeb’s views and SETI in general, on the grounds that they are anthropocentric in identifying “intelligence” with human intelligence (an identification with fatal consequences for all those other intelligent life forms with which we share the earth) and, worse, that they reify one civilization’s vector of technical development, namely that of “the West”, as being natural to all imaginable anthropomorphically intelligent life. The Enlightenment is sometimes taken to task for unconsciously restricting the human to white, ruling-class males; SETI’s assumptions seem equally, if not more, perverse.
But Loeb’s statement quoted above reveals the vacuity of his thesis. We don’t need to discover another civilization that ended itself through war, nuclear or otherwise, or by fouling its own nest. We already understand that we need avoid even a “limited” nuclear war and we already monitor the habitability of our planet, with increasing scrutiny and anxiety. The only virtue of this aspect of xenoarchaeology would be to discover a civilization that succumbed to an internal threat of which we are unaware. But even letting SETI’s frankly ideological assumptions off the hook, even such a discovery would be empty, since civilizations are each determined at each moment by a set of conditions that are in each instance radically local (historical).
My argument here cuts too against those who believe we can learn from history. Such thinking makes of human societies a kind of natural phenomenon subject to transtemporal laws. But human societies are not “natural” in the way the behaviour of the electron is natural, but historical, and, as such, admit to being not known but only understood within the context of a constellation of temporally local and ephemeral determinants. In a word, and to say too much too quickly, human societies operate within the realm of freedom not (natural) necessity. This is not to say humans beings in the aggregate escape or otherwise stand above nature, but only that it is illegitimate to seek to know them the same way we seek knowledge of nonhuman nature.
Nor am I arguing ultimately against the curiosity that drives SETI. What I am relentlessly and mercilessly critical of are the zombie ideas that make of the human being, and our present iteration of civilization, exemplars of all imaginable intelligence throughout the universe.
Most movies inspired by the UFO phenomenon have been and remain B-grade, generic science fiction or horror (not that such artefacts aren’t without their abyssal significance, either), but recently, at least in my media bubble, richer, more thoughtful films have appeared, among them some that have received publicity, such as Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival, and others, less celebrated, that have slipped under the radar, namely Jason Stone’s At First Light and Ryan Eslinger’s UFO, which is understated, smart, and dramatically complex.
[I’m writing about Eslinger’s film from the point of view of someone who’s viewed it, so, if you haven’t and don’t want the whole plot revealed, read no further!]
The film begins with a UFO sighting over Cincinnati airport, inspired by the famous O’Hare International Airport sighting of 7 November 2006, which catches the attention of the film’s protagonist Derek (who witnessed a UFO as a small boy) and an FBI agent Franklin Ahls, who seems a one-man UFO investigations desk with the entire agency’s resources at his beck and call. The plot is driven, at the narrative level, by Derek’s (primarily mathematical) investigation into the sighting and the social fall-out of his actions and Ahls’ parallel investigation and suppression of the event, while, thematically, by the question (in its many senses) “Are we alone?”.
Despite the impression left by the trailer, the plot is much more cerebral than cloak-and-dagger, dealing for the most part with Dereck’s efforts to decode the message from the film’s titular UFO that he discovers in recordings of air traffic control communications during the sighting. One of the most delightful moments in this narrative arc is Dereck’s debunking of an official debunking of the sighting, which identifies the observed object as a small drone: the audience witnesses the process, diagrams, numbers and all, by which Dereck calculates the approximate diameter of an object “about the size of a dime held at arm’s length” hovering at about two hundred feet below that day’s cloud ceiling. The plot doesn’t have so much a heart as a brain, one cracking itself over the complex mathematics of the numerical message sent by the UFO’s pilots, the solution to which ultimately involves considerations drawn from the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) and physical constants of, e.g., hydrogen. This is a gambit as daring as satisfying, evoking as it does some of the real, hard problems of putative communications with a technically advanced, nonhuman species.
Mathematics and physics do not lend themselves to the run-of-the-mill UFO cover-up movie, frustrating viewers with an insatiable appetite for that same old same old. Eslinger’s script is both more daring and more complex than that, delving into Dereck’s character as a way into even more profound thematic depths. Derek’s obsessiveness and mathematical genius render him a bit of a sociopath, causing him to betray his friends and inspiring his wearily understanding mathematics professor Dr. Hendricks to compare him to Thomas Edison at his worst. By the end of the film, the attentive, reflective viewer will likely be struck by the manifold irony in Dereck’s wondering if “we are alone.” At least twice, through brief flashbacks, Dereck’s lonely, if not traumatic, boyhood is revealed: his mother refused to believe him when he told her that he had witnessed strange lights in the sky, and it is suggested he was the only child of a single parent whose lives were materially precarious. He is able to attend university only because his high intelligence secured him a prestigious scholarship, but his selfish single-mindedness alienates him from those around him. Little wonder someone so isolated should wonder about being alone in the universe.
But the real thematic pay off of the film comes at the end, which has mystified or disappointed some reviewers. Franklin Ahl’s investigation into this and other UFO sightings is driven by a growing anxiety about the fate of humanity. Invoking a certain strain of SETI speculation about different levels of technical civilization, at one point during a meeting with a panel of scientists, he wonders out loud if “the eerie silence” SETI has met with is not caused by all civilizations’ self-destructing as they approach the threshold ours is. If, however, the UFOs he is chasing are indeed spacecraft from distant civilizations, then these have solved the problems that threaten to snuff ours out and learning to communicate with them might win us access to this direly needed information. When Dereck does decode the aliens’ message, which reveals the location of their next appearance, he witnesses the UFO and is immediately taken into custody by Ahls. The agent reveals that the aliens have been communicating in this way for some time and in increasingly complex ways, presenting problems whose solution seems to be leading along a path of research and discovery that imaginably leads to that know-how that saved them from the self-destruction that threatens us. Ahls recruits Dereck, who learns that we “are not alone”, in the literal sense that the universe is indeed (perhaps) inhabited by other technological intelligences, but also, unconsciously, that he is not alone in his obsessions, that finally he has found a place in this world.
But such an emotional resolution would be cheap if larger stakes were not in play. The Fine Structure Constant plays an important role throughout the film, right from its very beginning. At one point, discussing the constant with two scientists, it is suggested that the constant may in fact be the same throughout space, but not time. That the constant might be variable proves important to possibly solving the much more complex communications received from the aliens, which, in turn, suggests, though this is never spoken by any character, that the aliens are not from a distant point in space, but in time, namely our own future. Dereck, then, is representative of today’s youth whose ingenuity is required to solve the questions that lead to solving the problems that threaten our future. But not only that: that mathematicians make their breakthroughs only in their youth is a cliché invoked at least twice. However, when Dr. Hendricks gives him this spiel, he immediately contradicts her, supplying as many examples of older mathematicians who have made important contributions. Thus, the intelligence of all generations is presented as being up to the task of facing down the world-threatening problems that loom before us. None of us are “alone” in this world or what threatens it. Young, old(er), and even future generations have a stake in the game and a role to play.
Eslinger’s is a sly sleeper of a film because of how, like Villeneuve’s Arrival, it deploys the UFO as a material, weaving it together with emotional and social matters to address larger but no less related concerns. The result is, from this point of view, an original, refreshingly pleasant and emotionally satisfying movie. Within the larger context of the UFO phenomenon, however, it doesn’t quite escape one of the central and most compelling suppositions in the reception of the phenomenon, that our technical ingenuity, which got us into this perhaps suicidal mess, will be what gets us out. It does, nevertheless, leave one with a sense of hope.
Working randomly toward another review for Jung’s Ufological Bookshelf, I came across the following passage from Edward J. Ruppelt’s The Report on Unidentified Flying Objects (1956): the
“will to see” [UFOs] may have deeper roots, almost religious implications, for some people. Consciously or unconsciously, they want UFOs to be real and to come from outer space. These individuals, frightened perhaps by threats of atomic destruction, or less fears—who knows what—act as if nothing that men can do can save the earth. Instead, they seek salvation from outer space, on the forlorn premise that flying saucer men, by their very existence, are wiser and more advanced than we. Such people may reason that race of men capable of interplanetary travel have lived well into, or through, an atomic age. They have survived and they can tell us the secret of their survival. (17)
Here, in a nutshell (as it were) Ruppelt plainly states many of the assumptions that guide beliefs about UFOs and extraterrestrials to this very day.
D. W. Pasulka’s recent American Cosmic: UFOs, Religion, Technology (2019) owes much of the splash it has made to her treating the fascination for the advanced technology the UFO-as-extraterrestrial-spacecraft represents as a religious phenomenon, yet, here, Ruppelt lays bare the “almost religious implications” the idea has. (And he is hardly the last: Festinger et al. published their classic study of a flying saucer cult When Prophecy Fails the same year as Ruppelt’s no-less-classic Report, Jung published the first, German edition of his Flying Saucers: A Modern Myth of Things Seen in the Skies in 1958, and anthologies of articles exploring the religious dimension of UFOs and contact with their pilots have appeared since (e.g., The Gods Have Landed: New Religions from Other Worlds (ed. James R. Lewis, 1995), UFO Religions (ed. Christopher Partridge, 2003), and Alien Worlds: Social and Religious Dimensions of Extraterrestrial Contact (ed. Diana G. Tumminia, 2007)).
A famous (or infamous) intersection of American esoteric religious tendencies, the flying saucer, and anxiety over “threats of atomic destruction” are the Space Brothers of the Contactees. But Ruppelt’s point seems more complex. The Space Brothers, “wiser and more advanced than we”, land to warn us of the unknown dangers of atomic energy and weapons, yes. But, it is “by their very existence” that they “are wiser and more advanced than we” are. Here, he articulates a too-often unspoken assumption that “social and technical advancement” go hand in hand, a questionable thesis, as I’ve argued.
Even if we disentangle wisdom from technical ingenuity, Ruppelt observes a further belief, used today to justify the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI) and hopes that Disclosure will liberate world changing technologies, namely that “that race of men capable of interplanetary travel have lived well into, or through, an atomic age. They have survived and they can tell us the secret of their survival.” SETI researchers, like all who believe UFOs are extraterrestrial spaceships, project that trajectory of historical accidents that lead to the “advanced societies” of the earth onto the evolutionary vector of all life in the universe, as if all life universally follows a path from simplicity to complexity to human-like intelligence that as it grows in complexity necessarily develops a technology whose own development is always the same. That the hubristic anthropocentrism of this assumption persists unnoticed and unquestioned among so many of both casual and more dedicated or serious believers in extraterrestrial intelligence never ceases to appall me.
More gravely is how the UFO believers Ruppelt describes “act as if nothing that men can do can save the earth”, a sentiment echoed by German philosopher Martin Heidegger’s words twenty years after Ruppelt’s (quoted by Pasulka to end her book): “Only a god can save us.” Not twenty years after Heidegger’s words were finally published, Jacques Vallée in the Conclusion to his Revelations (1991) remarks the same situation and despairing response:
…Technology offers us some breakthroughs the best scientists of thirty years ago could not imagine. Better health, plentiful leisure, longer life, more varied pleasures are beckoning.
Yet the hopeful vistas come with a darker, more disquieting side. There is more danger, crime, environmental damage, misery, and hunger around us than ever before. It will take a superhuman effort to reconcile the glittering promises of technology with the utterly disheartening dilemma, the wretched reality, of human despair.
But wait! Perhaps there is such a superhuman agency, a magical and easy solution to our problems: those unidentified flying objects that people have glimpsed in increasing numbers since World War II may be ready to help…. (254)
The ironies of this despair are manifold. On the one hand, it is believed that technology alone can solve the problems its development has led to. On the other hand, these technological answers are not forthcoming from our technology. In either case, as Vallée worries, the desperate and credulous are subject to being manipulated by their belief that “only a god [or “that race of men capable of interplanetary travel”] can save us.”
What should be no less concerning for those interested in such matters is how these ideas Ruppelt describes over six decades ago persist in governing if not grounding what we imagine and think UFOs—and, more importantly, ourselves—to be.
I’ve arguedoften 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.
Neuropsychologists Gabriel de la Torre and Manuel García, from the University of Cádiz, in an article recently published in the journal Acta Astronautica, set out to “explain how our own neurophysiology, psychology and consciousness… play a major role in [the] search [for] non-terrestrial civilizations … and how they have been neglected up to this date.” (How the researchers managed to neglect the not irrelevant work of Jacques Vallee (from 1990!) or that of Susan Palmer and myself (from nearly twenty years ago) is itself an interesting case of the phenomenon they are investigating….).
Their research concerns inattention blindness, like that demonstrated by the Invisible Gorilla Experiment of Chabris and Simons. Following their example, de la Torre and García had 137 subjects distinguish artificial structures from natural features in aerial photographs, one of which contained a tiny gorilla. The complement to attention blindness, the mind’s tendency to perceive pattern in chaos (pareidolia), was addressed as well. The implication of their research is that the SETI focus on electromagnetic signals, in either the visible or invisible spectrums, primes it to miss those evidential “gorillas” that would indicate non-terrestrial civilizations. The pair goes on to propose a tripartite classification of such civilizations, all of which, in general, are characterized by their varying degrees of mastery over forms of matter and energy, whether quantum, gravitational, or dark.
What is ironic is that de la Torre and García have fallen prey to the same prejudices that keep SETI researchers and proponents of the Extra-Terrestrial Hypothesis concerning the origin of UFOs from perceiving the intelligent life that swarms around us. As I’ve written elsewhere these prejudices are that intelligent life is intelligent in the way we ourselves conceive ourselves to be, cultural, tool-using creatures capable of mathematical thought and cognizing natural laws that are then exploited technologically, and that such civilizations follow universal paths of linear development toward increasing sophistication, knowledge, and mastery over nature. These prejudices are, arguably, the reification and projection of the history of one culture on earth, namely the one that calls itself the developed world, a culture resulting hardly from a natural, cultural evolution (the pairing of which adjectives should be illuminating enough) but from a highly contingent history that could have as easily followed countless other paths.
In terms of “civilization”, the founder of ethnopoetics, Jerome Rothenberg, makes a pertinent observation in the Pre-face to the first edition of his epochal assemblage Technicians of the Sacred(1967): “Measure everything by the Titan rocket & the transistor radio, & the world is full of primitive peoples. But once change the unit of value to the poem or the dance-event or the dream (all clearly artifactual situations) & it becomes apparent what all these people have been doing all those years with all that time of their hands.” When one considers that the oldest, continuous society on earth is not China but that of the Australian Aborigines, whose oral poetry sings of a ground sloth extinct 60, 000 years, the variability if not relativity of technical ingenuity becomes apparent.
Intelligence, as well, is neither a simple, nor exclusively technical, nor even human attribute. Some human beings are breath-taking coders, but their smarts are outwitted by the ability of a chickadee to remember where it’s stashed its seeds. Indeed, the attempt to imagine nonhuman intelligence, like the one Denise L. Herzing undertakes in her 2013 paper “Profiling nonhuman intelligence: An exercise in developing unbiased tools for describing other ‘types’ of intelligence on earth” expands intelligent life to include dolphins, octopus, insects, and even some bacteria. Even fruit flies can be shown to make decisions.
If we extend our curiosity to sentience, self-awareness, then the standard mirror test shows that Asian elephants, all the great apes, bottlenose dolphins, orca whales, Eurasian magpies, and even ants possess self-consciousness. And as thought-provoking as it is controversial is the contention of plant neurobiologist Stefan Mancuso that plants possess intelligence and sentience, albeit in a radically nonhuman way. Little wonder then that on 7 July 2012, “a prominent international group of cognitive neuroscientists, neuropharmacologists, neurophysiologists, neuroanatomists and computational neuroscientists gathered at The University of Cambridge to reassess the neurobiological substrates of conscious experience and related behaviors in human and non-human animals” drafted and signed The Cambridge Declaration of Consciousness, that, based on four “unequivocal observations”
“The absence of a neocortex does not appear to preclude an organism from experiencing affective states. Convergent evidence indicates that non-human animals have the neuroanatomical, neurochemical, and neurophysiological substrates of conscious states along with the capacity to exhibit intentional behaviors. Consequently, the weight of evidence indicates that humans are not unique in possessing the neurological substrates that generate consciousness. Nonhuman animals, including all mammals and birds, and many other creatures, including octopuses, also possess these neurological substrates.”
I leave it to interested parties to google “panpsychism”….
An aspect of the tale of Narcissus often forgotten or missed is that Narcissus failed to recognize himself in his own reflection. Like Narcissus, SETI researchers and their critics de la Torre and García and the proponents of the ETH fail to recognize that their speculations concerning intelligence and civilization are merely projections of humankind. Despite Darwin and the libraries of research conducted on nonhuman and even plant sentience and intelligence, the reigning prejudice still seems to be what philosophers would call that “ontotheological” one, that Man is made in God’s own image. Once we disabuse ourselves of this mere speciesism, then we see that SETI is merely (“mirrorly”) a search for ourselves and that this prejudice blinds us to the mind-boggling richness of nonhuman life, sentience, and intelligence already sharing this planet with us, at the same time it perhaps mercifully spares us realizing the heart-breaking suffering we impose on innumerable other forms of life. Perhaps it is precisely because of the latter realization we refuse to recognize a sentience like our own in other living beings and turn our gaze from the earth to the stars at our own and increasingly the biosphere’s peril.
The myriad, variegated narratives inspired by UFOs—from sighting reports to the wildest, baseless fantasies to more sobre, scholarly research and reflection, as well as fiction, films, documentaries, and even poems—taken in toto can be grasped, as Jung proposed, as a “visionary rumour” or “myth of things seen in the sky”, the manifest content of a collective dream expressing the anxieties and aspirations of a technological civilization that can imagine its own species suicide as readily as relocating to another planet. It makes perfect sense then that the Contactees of the Cold War era were warned of the dangers of nuclear weapons or that in the 1980s Abductees were shown by their captors depictions of environmental devastation.
The UFO mythos in this way takes up in its vortex both our aspirations to interplanetary travel and the Anthropocene. That is to say, humankind can be imagined to be already on an interplanetary journey, from Earth to Eaarth, propelled by the same man-made forces that have driven the world from the Holocene to the Anthropocene.
Regardless of when the Anthropocene might be said to have started (as if geological epochs are so finely demarcated) and to a lesser extent of whether we term this new age the Anthropocene, Capitalocene, or Cthulhucene, the earth is no longer the relatively temperate place that nurtured homo sapiens’ recent cultural development, the civilization we live in. It is undeniable rising levels of atmospheric carbon, ocean acidification, and ubiquitous “plastification” have markedly modified the earth, along with increasingly unpredictable weather patterns, the extinction and pressurized evolution of plant and animal species, and human transformations of the landscape and sprawling, artificial constructions all have changed the earth in unnerving, unrecognizable ways. Given a description of the chemical composition of the environments of two planets, we wouldn’t be too far amiss to believe we were observing two different worlds, rather than one in two different epochs. Humankind has transported itself en masse from Earth to Eaarth by an unconscious and unintentional “exoforming” (rather than terraforming) and now faces the challenge of having to colonize a planet unpredictably different from its homeworld.
What propelled human beings to this new planet itself gets caught up by the myth, which points to a Promethean intervention that created the sapience that underwrites the cultural explosion and rapid technological development within the matrix of the Holocene that results in the exoforming of the earth as a by-product of industrialization. The laughably perverse hermeneutic of the Ancient Astronaut Theorists like dreams, slips of the tongue, and other psychopathologies of everyday life, unconsciously discerns a truth, that our present predicament seems destined and out of our control. Whether the cultural heroes and gods of antiquity were Extra-terrestrial teachers, or if they interbred with proto-humans or genetically modified them, the Ancient Astronaut Theorists intuit that human beings are not quite at home on the earth (an insight they share with, among others, certain strains of Gnosticism), that there is something uncanny and “alien” about us, whether we call it sapience, intelligence, science, or technology, or, as I do here, technoscience.
It is just at this point that for all its way-outness the myth harmonizes with those concepts and values that make the accidents and historically and socially contingent forces that led us to this cultural point seem natural, universal and necessary. The assumptions that orient the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI), for example, posit that intelligent life is intelligent in the way humans conceive themselves to be, that ET civilizations will follow the same tool-using vector as our own, that technological civilizations follow a linear path such that they can be judged more or less advanced than each other, and that our and their histories will be sufficiently analogous in these regards that once we make contact and learn to understand each other then perhaps we can learn from them how they negotiated their way through the impasses that seem to threaten the existence of the very civilization that led to these crises. In more mundane terms, we tend to have faith that scientific ingenuity will be what will get us through precisely the grave dangers that ingenuity has wrought. This faith in science or “being-scientific”, this assumption that the radically contingent and social history of our civilization’s history as we write it from this moment is somehow more assured than that equally chance-ridden story of our or any species’ evolution and that it is moreover universal to all beings like us is the ideology that underwrites and guides both the speculations that UFOs are spaceships from other planets and that our stories of the gods who descend from the sky in chariots of fire (or more elaborate mechanisms, like that witnessed by Ezekiel) to remake if not make human beings in their own image are actually ancient astronauts.
And it is just here that a darker, more paranoid thread of the myth can be picked out. If we bring together the proposal that ETs have genetically engineered homo sapiens from the beginning with the stories about alien abduction and human-alien hybridization (a most extreme version being perhaps the more recent work of David Jacobs) then it becomes imaginable that the earth and human beings have been undergoing a process of colonization from the inside-out. The genetic and cultural interventions or intrusions simultaneously culture a technological intelligence and behaviour that exoforms the earth while the human species is transformed into an alien species fit for the planet the earth is becoming. I am unsure if any Gnostic in their most pessimistic speculation has outlined such a destiny and fate for humankind. In this view, the technoscientic knowledge outlined above and science-fictionally projected here is an alien technology whose end is at the same time the repression of the recognition of all non-human intelligence on the earth (the matter for another note, surely) and the extinction of homo sapiens and the earth as we knew it.
N.b. Let me be clear: I hardly believe the contents of the myth I sketch here. I merely set out to constellate and cast the horoscope as it were of patterns I find in the UFO mythos and its implications and suggestions. It is therefore not a question of the truth of the Ancient Astronaut Hypothesis or the views of David Jacobs but of what meaning can be gleaned from them, reading them as if they were just what I suppose they are here, aspects of a myth for our time.