A still from a 2015 video provided by the Department of Defense shows an unexplained object as it soars along the clouds (Department of Defense via AP).

First Contact

Extraterrestrial encounters & human possibility

Three years ago, the Pentagon released a pair of videos featuring diamond- and pill-shaped “unidentified flying objects.” In these videos one can hear the astonished voices of military pilots. The darting, shifting movements of these objects, the voices say, defy the laws of physics. The government has since released more videos featuring similar phenomena. Last May, former Sen. Harry Reid, a longtime advocate for government UFO disclosures, took to the New York Times to outline all the possible explanations: “It’s unclear whether the U.F.O.s we have encountered could have been built by foreign adversaries, whether our pilots’ visual perception during some encounters was somehow distorted, or whether we truly have credible evidence of extraterrestrial visitations.”

Of course, visual distortion doesn’t quite jolt the imagination the way space aliens and mysterious foreign-built technology do. Little wonder, then, that most of the public attention has focused on one of these two possibilities. “Regardless of whether these are super advanced military drones or alien probes it should be good news,” tweeted Caleb Watney of the Progressive Policy Institute in 2019. The speculation did not end with the release of a new government study conducted by the director of national intelligence, the secretary of defense, and other government agencies. On June 25, having concluded an official investigation of 144 such videos, the U.S. government formally admitted they could not explain the “UAPs” in 143 of them. (“UAP” stands for “unidentified aerial phenomena,” the new term for UFOs.) So: nothing debunked and nothing proved. Or as Politico summarized the report’s findings: “The Pentagon…found no evidence to indicate that they mark a technological breakthrough by a foreign power, or that the objects are of an extraterrestrial origin—though neither explanation has been ruled out in what has been described as a preliminary assessment that lacks sufficient data.”

There’s more than sensationalism behind this way of framing the question. If either aliens or super-advanced foreign tech did turn out to be real, the world as we know it would change dramatically. The new government study has made it more respectable to speculate not only about whether technologically advanced alien civilizations may exist, but also about whether human technology might, in some secret precincts, have progressed into realms now considered impossible by physicists. This second scenario is no less fantastic than the first. It would mean that real human technological progress could match or exceed our wildest sci-fi dreams. In the Twitter thread mentioned above, Watney exclaims, “If [UFOs are] advanced military, we can apparently end the great stagnation!” “The great stagnation” is a term coined by the economist Tyler Cowen and popularized by tech entrepreneurs like Peter Thiel to describe what they see as the relative deceleration of technological progress in the past few decades. The existence of man-made UFOs might mean that this relatively un-creative period has already ended without our knowing it—until now.

In the American public imagination, flying saucers are both the ultimate symbol of the alien—of everything unfamiliar and inaccessible—and also a reassuring symbol of human possibility—a portent of our possible intergalactic destiny. The New York Times columnist Ross Douthat has argued that public interest in UFOs is an example of confused religious fervor, but it also seems to be an outgrowth of an old-fashioned non-religious faith: faith in Progress with a capital P. The idea that these aerial vessels could come either from another planet or from a secret project of a foreign power assumes that, either way, scientific progress anywhere in the universe would follow roughly the same trajectory, and that any such unexplainable marvel must ultimately be the result of science. That is, it must be something natural, not supernatural. Whatever those pilots saw, it can’t have been a miracle.

In the American public imagination, flying saucers are both the ultimate symbol of the alien and also a reassuring symbol of human possibility.

First contact with an advanced alien civilization can be seen as a kind of cosmic rite of passage, the definitive sign that, scientifically at least, the human race has come of age. This is the backstory of one of American culture’s most popular myths: the Star Trek universe. In Star Trek: First Contact (1998), once human beings develop faster-than-light travel (thanks to Zefram Cochrane, a genius working in isolation), the nearby Vulcan civilization decides to pay us a visit, and ultimately incorporates the Earth in the United Federation of Planets. Similarly, the mathematician and cultural commentator Eric Weinstein has speculated that aliens may have decided to pay us a visit after we discovered nuclear fission and fusion: “I think we sent a signal to the cosmos in 1945 and then on Nov. 1, 1952.”

 

Three hundred years ago, major European thinkers were already considering the possibility of extraterrestrial life. “I would indeed bet all that I own—if this matter could be established through some experience—that there are inhabitants on the planets that we see,” wrote Immanuel Kant in the Critique of Pure Reason, in a section dealing with the concept of faith. “This view,” he continues, “is not a mere opinion but a strong faith.”

Three decades before Kant’s Critique, Voltaire linked alien visitors with the modern idea of progress in a short story titled “Micromegas.” This satirical work has been called the first true example of science fiction. The eponymous hero of Voltaire’s story lives on a planet 21,600,000 times wider than the Earth; it orbits the nearby star Sirius. Micromegas himself is 120,000 feet tall, and towers over human beings not only physically, but also intellectually and morally. The story also features a “Saturnian” who is a mere six thousand feet tall and has only seventy-two different senses—Micromegas’s has a thousand. Micromegas magnanimously befriends the Saturnian, allowing that “a thinking being is not necessarily ridiculous just because he is only six thousand feet tall.” Together they travel to a curious little planet called Earth. Whether the earthlings they encounter—tiny creatures with a mere five senses—should also be categorized as “thinking beings” remains an open question at the end of the story.

Enlightenment writers often wrote fictional or semi-fictional accounts of voyages to strange realms. The aim of such writing, according to the historian Paul Hazard, “is to get oneself transported by some means or other to an imaginary land, and there to hold an inquiry into religious, political, and social conditions of the old world.” Other fictional narratives took a different approach, focusing on foreign visitors arriving in Europe. Both genres are designed to lampoon the Christian culture of Europe and the vanity of the human race. Either the exotic setting (as in a voyage story like Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels) or a foreign narrator (as in Montesquieu’s Persian Letters) provides a contrasting perspective from which to see our follies more clearly. Ultimately, these tales tried to expose the hypocrisy and shortsightedness of conventional morality, as well as the poverty and limits of human knowledge.

One of those limits, the human narrator of “Micromegas” explains, is technological. Describing Micromegas’s interstellar spaceship, the narrator says: “Those that travel only by stage coach or sedan will probably be surprised to learn of the carriage of this vessel.” The earthlings Micromegas meets lack the necessary scientific knowledge to design such machines. While on Earth, he and his Saturnian companion encounter a group of philosophers, each an expert in a different school of thought. Each advances a thesis; the extraterrestrials, unimpressed, make fun of them in turn. But the biggest guffaws come when they meet a follower of the medieval theologian Thomas Aquinas: 

He said that he knew the secret: that everything would be found in the Summa of Saint Thomas. He looked the two celestial inhabitants up and down. He argued that their people, their worlds, their suns, their stars, had all been made uniquely for mankind. At this speech, our two voyagers nearly fell over with that inextinguishable laughter.

It is true that, as Voltaire suggests, Aquinas believed the universe was “for” human beings, but that’s primarily in the sense that the universe opens itself up to the human being, so that it might be known, named, and loved. Human beings, Aquinas says, “are in some sense everything,” because they can potentially know everything, and reflect the essence of everything in their minds. Note that this does not exclude the possibility that there might be other equally intelligent beings, who can also reflect the essence of everything in their minds. In fact, Aquinas also speculated about the existence of intelligent beings who were not human. He did not imagine such beings could live on other planets only because he did not believe other celestial bodies were of the same physical nature as the Earth. But given what we know today, one can assume that a man who believed in the existence of angels would have no problem entertaining the possibility of intelligent beings from other planets.

Illustration by Henrique Alvim Corrêa, from the 1906 Belgium edition of H. G. Wells’s ‘The War of the Worlds,’ 1906 (Wikimedia Commons)

More generally, the idea that in the Middle Ages people believed the human race to have a uniquely exalted place in the universe is not quite true. The philosopher Rémi Brague has argued that, to the medieval mind, humanity’s status was much more ambiguous. In Wisdom of the World, he writes that at certain times during the Middle Ages, the human person was seen as a relatively lowly being: “As for quantity, man is something very small compared to the world. He is not what is the greatest in the world. He is in fact only an insignificant part of it.” Higher than human beings are the angels, and the astral bodies are higher still. Brague cites a text in which Maimonides discusses the folly of regretting that one is not a higher being, such as an “angel—or a star.” A star, in the medieval worldview, was a perfect and eternal sphere, fixed in the heavens. According to Brague, becoming either angel or star would amount to a “promotion.”

Thus, a citizen of the Middle Ages would not necessarily disagree with the narrator of “Micromegas” when he laments, “We on our little pile of mud, can only conceive of that to which we are accustomed.” After all, the Scriptures say that on this planet, we see but through a glass, darkly. Therefore, there’s a lot we don’t know. Aliens might exist! What’s doubtful is whether Micromegas is really an alien. Does he truly embody a point of view that foreign to human custom? In truth, he seems less a true stranger than the projection of an eighteenth-century European mind. To fantasize about becoming a star is, in fact, more challenging—more alienating—than anything in “Micromegas.” It’s arguable whether Voltaire’s story is even concerned with the unknown. It is mainly a didactic satire about progress. How much of the current speculation about UFOs is merely an updated version of the same kind of projection?

 

The New York Times recently published an interview with Dr. Douglas Vakoch, the founder of Messaging Extraterrestrial Intelligence (METI), an organization that supports sending signals in search of extraterrestrial civilizations. Vakoch is hopeful: “I think the benefits [of contacting extraterrestrials] are that we can gain a perspective on ourselves and see from another civilization that it is, in fact, possible to get through this technological bottleneck that we’re in right now, to have a confirmation that there is a civilization out there that may be able to provide us some advice.” Like Voltaire, Vakoch believes the extraterrestrial point of view would be an aid to human progress. He imagines intelligent extraterrestrials as more advanced and, possibly, more benevolent than ourselves. “I mean, as I look into humanity’s future, I do not see any assurance that we’re going to make this on our own. And so getting some input, learning from the lessons from other civilizations in itself could be much more advantageous than any of the risks.”

But such speculations depend on one big assumption: that we could communicate with aliens, that our minds have enough in common with theirs to be mutually intelligible. Not everyone accepts this assumption. The writer Noah Millman has argued that “nothing about [intelligent extraterrestrial life] will be organized around our social and mental categories.” More to the point, the “inner” life—the first-person point of view—of highly-developed species in our own planet, like dolphins, bats, or octopuses, is mostly incomprehensible to human beings. An alien’s consciousness might be more incomprehensible still.

Even if we could not easily communicate with aliens who traveled to earth, much less learn from them about the direction of our own progress, we could safely assume that any being capable of interstellar travel has some kind of rationality. At the very least we might learn something new about the scope of reason from them. Both Pope Francis and Brother Guy Consolmagno, the Vatican astronomer, have said they would baptize an alien if it asked for baptism. That, of course, would require that the alien be both rational and intelligible to us—capable of formulating a theological question, assessing an answer, and making the act of faith which, according to the Church, is an act of reasonable trust in God. What are the chances?

In one vision of human progress, there is no need to build spaceships, no need to escape our finitude. Earth is enough.

If aliens were to arrive on Earth tomorrow—aliens not only intelligent but intelligible—the first question we might want to ask them is: “What motivates you to travel through space?” Despite the pronouncements of certain adventurous billionaires, it isn’t at all obvious that this is the course our own progress will take. Instead of wandering through the universe, we might burrow deeper into ourselves. In an essay titled, “Progress and Prejudice,” the critic George Scialabba contrasts two views of human progress. One he labels “matter into mind,” attributing the idea to figures like Arthur C. Clarke and Teilhard de Chardin. In this vision, “mind gradually, inexorably rationalizes not only our material and social relations, but eventually even our organismic form.… We become gods.” The other view of progress is “a vision of human perfection achieved by going not onward and upward but inward and downward.” This view, which Scialabba attributes to figures like D. H. Lawrence and Christopher Lasch, disdains technological progress and the modern, bureaucratic state. It celebrates the body, the sun, the earth. In the human future as these figures imagine it, there is no need to build spaceships, no need to escape our finitude. Earth is enough. But if alien visitors were to arrive tomorrow, one of the few things we would know for certain about them is that they were explorers, their progress directed outwards. The question would be why. Curiosity? Restlessness? A thirst for conquest?

Finally, try to imagine what they would make of us as we are in the early twenty-first century. In the wealthier part of the world at least, where technology is more deeply integrated into commercial life, we are creatures of rich simulated worlds, of ever-more regimented work environments, of personality tests and productivity metrics, of status updates and endless scrolling, of cropped self-images for sale. Some of us have spent the past year seriously entertaining the notion that Zoom could permanently replace the classroom. Imagine an alien, weary from many light-years of travel, encountering us as we nod before one of our many screens, our own technological progress allowing us to travel less, or not at all. What would such an alien make of an intelligent creature whose most conspicuous progress consists not in Promethean exploration, nor in Laurentian intimacy with the body and the earth, but in ever-sharper simulations of all these things? Perhaps the one thing that would help us to snap out of this sorry state of affairs is an encounter with something genuinely alien. 

Published in the October 2021 issue: 

Santiago Ramos is a contributing writer for Commonweal. He teaches philosophy at Rockhurst University.

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