There's a Hole in My Philosophy

There’s a Hole in My Philosophy

Visit Lonely Planets, Parts A: Introduction * 1 * 2 * 3 * 4 * B: Encore

This article concludes the six-part series excerpting Lonely Planets, intermixed with themes based on author interviews and related images. According to Kirkus Reviews, the new book is ‘an exuberant, provocative look at the possibility of extraterrestrial life, what it might be like, and what it might mean…Wisecracks, philosophical musings, and personal anecdotes make his text as lively as it is authoritative. The best look at this subject since Carl Sagan’s Cosmic Connection (1973).’

I grew up hearing a lot about UFOs from my parents and their friends, and from reading Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke and communicating with the science fiction crowd – all people who loved to think about alien life and space travel, and who would have welcomed real alien contact more enthusiastically than anyone else. Yet the dominant view was that UFO believers were generally quite deluded.

David Grinspoon, Principal Investigator for NASA’s Exobiology Research Program and author "Venus Revealed" and "Lonely Planets"

That is not a controversial statement even among UFO believers, most of whom seem eager to distance themselves from those other UFO believers, whom they regard as really flaky. But are all of them deluded? Carl Sagan and Asimov and my dad thought the answer was yes.

They were my authorities and one of their commandments was to question authority. So I had to question them, even while questioning whether this was always a good idea. At various times I’ve forced myself to rethink my stance on UFOs. Not wanting to form my opinion based on authority, or received knowledge, I’ve had to ask myself if we might all somehow be deceived on this issue.

Science says, "Without objectively verifiable evidence, assume that it doesn’t exist." But it is more accurate to say, "Without such evidence, we can’t say whether it exists." We must be careful not to become lazy and let our skeptical mind-set become a closed one.

We have a certain view of how aliens will and will not behave and manifest their presence here. We get huffy when these imagined rules of interplanetary etiquette (of necessity based on projections of ourselves) are not followed. Skeptics complain that the aliens reported by UFO enthusiasts don’t act like real aliens. Real aliens would not spend that kind of money on space fuel (energy is money). They’d stay home and improve things in their own systems. Real aliens wouldn’t be interested in kidnapping humans and examining us or stealing sperm and eggs. We can’t think of a good reason for them to behave like that. Real aliens would surely leave some spare parts or space trash or footprints behind for us to study. Don’t you know anything about aliens?

Yet, science faces some special challenges in applying itself to the question of intelligent aliens. Our methodology and philosophy assume that nature doesn’t care about and isn’t aware of our experiments. (Some ufologists assume the opposite). We don’t really know how to study something that knows it is being studied or might not want to be studied, or that might even be studying us. All our standards of evidence and proof – repeatability, multiple witnesses, material evidence, and so on – might fail with something that is actively messing with our minds, aware of us, and being careful not to be of interest to mainstream science.

Imagine for a moment that aliens were aware of our scientific method and were careful not to reveal themselves, perhaps out of compassion. You could envision their rules for avoiding our scrutiny:

Memo to All Space Brothers: Remember that human contact is to be avoided whenever possible. They are stuck in the "science" phase we went through eons before we went intergalactic. We can use this to predict their reactions and avoid suspicion. Under no circumstances leave any physical evidence that could be used to scientifically deduce our existence and extraterrestrial origin. It’s inevitable that humans will occasionally detect our activities, and this is acceptable as long as they don’t have what they consider to be a "scientific" case. So if you are detected, make absolutely sure that the observation is not replicable, and keep your spectral scramblers on. Such occasional cases are puzzling to them and help maintain our secrecy by sowing doubt about all sightings.

Science has given us criteria for distinguishing the physical from the metaphysical. But if a conscious entity is studying us, which box does it go in? If advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic, the boundary between the physical and the metaphysical vanishes again, as if science never happened.

Ohio St. U. Big Ear Project/Jerry Ehman
The never repeated ‘signal’ known as the SETI "Wow" signal, that was observed and classified as transient evidence that could not be confirmed as contact from 1977 Credit: Ohio St. U. Big Ear Project

Are SETI aliens, fashioned from logical scientific extrapolations, more likely to be realistic than UFO aliens who don’t follow our rules? Not necessarily. In our debunking of alien stories we insist that aliens must conform to our current notions of evolution, our current understanding of the laws of physics, and some extrapolation of our own technological capabilities. Because we must extrapolate from the known, and because we cannot consider to be real any phenomenon for which there is no scientifically acceptable evidence, we are not open to magic. So scientists may not be any better qualified than anyone else to predict what aliens will be like.

Here’s what we don’t always cop to: Our scientific arguments against "the extraterrestrial hypothesis" for UFOs depend on a framework of assumptions. These are the pesky metaphysical leaks and leaps in our airtight worldview – the things we feel we know to be true, but cannot prove.

It wouldn’t hurt our credibility to acknowledge that science has its own superstitions. We assume the existence of an objective reality that is independent from our consciousness. We assume that our minds do not create or affect what we observe. We also assume nature is consistent and repeatable, and therefore knowable. In all of this I could replace "we assume" with "I believe." I don’t doubt any of this. This set of regulations for nature seems so obvious and reasonable to me that it seems almost absurd to question it. But if you dig down deep beneath our solid tower of reason, deduction, and provisional truth, you see that the whole thing is planted in loose sand, supported by received, or intuitively perceived, knowledge.

I’m a believer because this is the way the world seems. Further, I think that most everyone knows that this is the way it is. You can spin intellectual counterarguments to your heart’s content, or you can meditate your way clear out of the galactic disk, but on your way back home tonight notice how your every move, breath, and thought is steeped in a solid world of consistent phenomena. If this is an illusion, I don’t think we can shake it. Even the Dalai Lama has to sit on the can like the rest of us.

No matter what you believe, reality is something we directly perceive, and we all operate on the experiential understanding that the world has external, material solidity.

Much as we "real alien researchers" would like the UFO phenomenon to just go away, we can’t dismiss all UFO reports out of hand. We might miss something important. Further, we alienate a large segment of the public when we appear to be close-minded, snotty, and overconfident.

In general it doesn’t really bother me what people believe. I care more about how people behave toward one another, and some of the nicest people I’ve met have also seemed to have had some of the wackiest ideas. UFO believers and SETI scientists reject each other’s philosophy, but both rely on the same core argument from plenitude. It’s still the best justification for the existence of aliens: With so many stars and planets, there just has to be other intelligent life. Why should we be the only ones? You will hear this exact same logic and sentiment trumpeted from the stage at conferences of both ufology and astrobiology.

I’ve found something else that scientists and ufologists have in common, something wonderful that is widespread among diverse communities with vastly different approaches toward alien life: a sense of humor. Certainly, some take themselves and their beliefs too seriously, but there is wide recognition, on all sides, of the absurdity of the subject matter, and an ability to laugh about it. This could be a good starting place for scientists and ufologists to meet. If I ever ran a joint SETI/UFO conference, inviting a constructive dialogue between skeptics and believers, I would make the first and last session of every day a comedy session.

David H. Grinspoon is a planetary scientist at the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder Colorado. His book Lonely Planets: The Natural Philosophy of Alien Life was published in November 2003. All rights reserved. Note: Users are warned that this work is protected under copyright laws and downloading is strictly prohibited. The right to reproduce or transfer the work via any medium must be secured with HarperCollins Publishers.

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