This essay was originally published in October 2021.
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.