Thursday, May 13, 2021

Aliens and Us

The news swirling around US military reports of strange aircraft has a lot of people wondering what we will do if those objects do turn out to be alien spaceships. These days most people assume the craft will be drones with no squishy alien life forms on board, which is in itself interesting: our speculation about alien technology always tracks our own. But then if we are really talking about a civilization capable of exploring interstellar space, who knows what level of consciousness might be embedded in their machines?

I am of course highly skeptical because that's just the way I am, plus I just don't get why aliens would carry on a decades-long tease with us. If they can cross interstellar space they can presumably hide from all of our sensors. And if they didn't want to hide, why are they so elusive? Plus I think the leap to "space aliens" shows a great lack of imagination. I have seen numerous articles along the lines of, "these anomalies have to be one of these three things." (Like, say, "sensor glitches, aliens, or time travelers.") But we should be less certain that we know all the possibilities about things so far beyond our understanding.

Anyway Ezra Klein has an interesting essay in the Times today mulling over what would happen on Earth if we were certain alien spacecraft were visiting us. Excerpts:

One immediate effect, I suspect, would be a collapse in public trust. Decades of U.F.O. reports and conspiracies would take on a different cast. Governments would be seen as having withheld a profound truth from the public, whether or not they actually did. We already live in an age of conspiracy theories. Now the guardrails would truly shatter, because if U.F.O.s were real, despite decades of dismissals, who would remain trusted to say anything else was false? . . .

One lesson of the pandemic is that humanity’s desire for normalcy is an underrated force, and there is no single mistake as common to political analysis as the constant belief that this or that event will finally change everything. If so many can deny or downplay a disease that’s killed millions, dismissing some unusual debris would be trivial. “An awful lot of people would basically shrug and it’d be in the news for three days,” Adrian Tchaikovsky, the science fiction writer, told me. “You can’t just say, ‘still no understanding of alien thing!’ every day. An awful lot of people would be very keen on continuing with their lives and routines no matter what.”

There is a thick literature on how evidence of alien life would shake the world’s religions, but I think Brother Guy Consolmagno, director of the Vatican Observatory, is quite likely right when he suggests that many people would simply say, “of course.” The materialist worldview that positions humanity as an island of intelligence in a potentially empty cosmos — my worldview, in other words — is the aberration. Most people believe, and have always believed, that we share both the earth and the cosmos with other beings — gods, spirits, angels, ghosts, ancestors. The norm throughout human history has been a crowded universe where other intelligences are interested in our comings and goings, and even shape them. The whole of human civilization is testament to the fact that we can believe we are not alone and still obsess over earthly concerns.

This has even been true with aliens. The science fiction writer Kim Stanley Robinson reminded me that in the early 1900s it was widely but mistakenly believed that we had visual evidence of canals on Mars. “The scientific community seemed to have validated that finding, even though it was mainly Percival Lowell, but it’s hard to recapture now how general the assumption was,” he wrote in an email. “There being no chance of passage across space, it was assumed to be a philosophical point only, of interest but not world-changing for anyone.”


David said...

"I just don't get why aliens would carry on a decades-long tease with us."

I think one should be skeptical about this sort of skepticism. The inability to rationalize a motive for an action in no way proves the action isn't taking place. In the case of humans, sheer animus is usually, I think, sufficient to explain many seemingly undermotivated actions, like Russian interference in US elections. In the case of aliens, or alien AI, how could we possibly anticipate their motives?

Among other things, it seems quite possible to me that who- or whatever might have sent these probes may not even know what the probes have found. The probes may just be doing what they were programmed to do, perhaps thousands of earth years ago or more.

None of this is to say that I actually think they're alien. I have no idea what's going on with this stuff.

Shadow said...

Assumptions shouldn't be made about what they think (or anything else).

"Now the guardrails would truly shatter, because if U.F.O.s were real, despite decades of dismissals, who would remain trusted to say anything else was false? . . ."

Right, the "if it happens one more time" trick.

I think unless the aliens can cure cancer or hand out free Superbowl tickets or let us hitch a ride to other galaxies, no one will care after the obligatory first 15 minutes. (Or is our attention span down to 5 minutes?)

They visit other planets. We store gasoline in plastic bags.

G. Verloren said...



The argument of "Well, we can't assume we know what aliens might be thinking or why they might be taking certain actions" is pretty weak in the face of the massive logical failures and contradictions that are apparent in the stories people tell - especially when it has to beat out Occam's Razor.

Some motives are so basic and universal that it's safe to assume they must apply to extraterrestrial life. Living creatures need sustenance, they need safety, they need all sorts of things which might differ in exact form, but not in underlying nature. And some things aren't even a question of motive, but simply circumstance.

Let's assume we're being visited by aliens, and have been for generations. Why would they suddenly start to appear in the 20th century (strangely coinciding in a massive global human cultural trend of abandonment of belief in spirits, ghosts, faeries, devils, etc, which are what predominantly feature in similar stories from earlier times)?

Let's assume aliens are visiting us, but don't want us to know about it. Why are their ships so brightly lit? They're intelligent enough to travel across the stars, and motivated to observe us undetected, and yet they can't figure out that flying around with a giant floodlight turned on in the middle of the night is giving them away? Give me a break! Even if there was some difference in ability to perceive wavelengths of light and didn't realize on their initial visits that the electromagnetic energy they were emitting was visible to earthly life, surely they would have noticed it very quickly and made changes to remain better hidden? It's been almost a century - why would they keep the lights on if they want to hide?

Or if they don't want to hide, why then aren't they even more brazen about making appearances? If they don't care about giving away their presence, why not just fly openly in the sky over Manhattan? Why not just land on the White House lawn and demand to be taken to our leader? Why would they be too cautious to make themselves plainly known, but not cautious enough to remain undetected?

Why the hell are they flying so low in our atmosphere? They ostensibly have insanely advanced technology for interstellar space flight, but for some reason they can't discretely observe us from orbit in sufficient clarity or detail? They need to fly in closer for a better look and risk blowing their secrecy, even though we with our comparatively primitive technology get all sorts of useful data from our relatively crude satellites?

G. Verloren said...


Let's assume that crop circles are real, despite all the times it has been demonstrated to be the work of us humans. Let's also assume livestock mutilations are real, despite all the times is has been demonstrated to be the work of humans or wild animals. Let's also assume that alien abductions are real, despite all the times it has been demonstrated to be sleep apnia, mental illness, etc. Ignore all the evidence against the idea, and assume that aliens actually are coming down and tampering with things.

Why? Study, presumably... but why in that matter? If you're going to secretly study a planet's lifeforms, why pick them up briefly, probe them, then release them again to blow your secrecy? Why not keep them for prolonged observation? Why not dissect them and keep specimens? Or if you have no interest in that, why not destroy them? You're telling me they can cross the distance between stars, but they have no means of discretely disposing of abductees? Can't incinerate them on board the ship?

Maybe for some reason they lack that capacity. But then why dispose of them by just returning them to the place you found them? You have a space ship that zip through the atmosphere easily, and venture out into space easily, and all the rest. Why wouldn't you just dump unwanted specimens out over the center of the Pacific Ocean, where they will never be found? Why not just keep them aboard until you break orbit, then drop them into space on any of countless trajectories where they will inevitably fall into the sun, or drift out into the universe? The only reason you wouldn't do such things, and would instead return someone to their place of origin, is if you simply didn't care about maintaining secrecy.

But if they don't care about maintaining secrecy, then why all the secrecy?

It just doesn't make any sense. It's far, far, far more reasonable to assume human fallibility and trickery as the roots of these reports, rather than that to assume that there is life out there which defies the most basic conventions of logic with no sensible potential explanations as to why.