Summary: In my opinion, the real victims of anthropomorphism are the adamant uninformed skeptics who suffer from perhaps the most deleterious form of anthropomorphism: assuming that our present states of both science and consciousness will not, and even cannot, "progress" or evolve into states of being which could be so qualitatively different from our current world view as to be inconceivable to us now.
In the United States, "Do you believe in UFOs?" is an often heard question whenever the subject of unidentified flying objects is brought up. An answer of "yes" is bound to insinuate that one believes in "flying saucers", as it has been an unfortunate cultural vagary in the United States to conflate the two terms in an obviously misleading fashion. "UFO", a classification term coined by Edward Ruppelt, first director of the Air Force's Project Blue Book, is just that--an unidentified flying object; and qualifying an aerial phenomenon as a UFO does not imply any adjunct speculation regarding its origin. In its most conservative, technical sense, the qualification of some anomaly as a UFO is a functional qualification, indicating a lack of sufficient empirical and (as is often assumed) explanatory information about the anomaly in question. The connotation of "flying saucer", on the other hand, does not need very much in the way of elaboration. Here we have a term coined by the press in June of 1947, in reference to Kenneth Arnold's figurative description of what he allegedly saw from the cockpit of his private plane.
So, it is only after taking note of this important semantical distinction that we can properly divorce the subject matter of "UFOs" from that of "flying saucers", and then begin to evaluate the various hypotheses that are forwarded to account for UFOs.
To begin with, there is not (and there will not be) any one hypothesis that will eventually explain all UFOs. The reason is simple: we have no reason to believe that UFOs are of any singular nature. UFOs are not a set or class of identical phenomena--after all, they are UFOs! Since it is widely accepted (from both the scientific establishment and civilian UFO organizations) that 90-95% of all reported UFOs turn out to be conventional phenomena, we should consequently expect that the remaining 5% of reported cases to be unidentified simply because of a lack of sufficient information--a probabilistic breakdown of the likely explanations of these "unidentified flying objects" should logically match the categorical percentages of our vast numbers of Identified Flying Objects (IFOs). Statistically, we should anticipate the likelihood of genuine UFOs to fit into our various categories of IFOs (i.e. meteorites, misperceptions of Venus, helicopters and other conventional aircraft, ball lightning, hoaxes, etc.). But one thing that must be kept in mind from such a perspective is that an extremely low percentage of UFO sightings are ever officially reported, as the existence of a culturally-induced "ridicule factor" inhibits many witnesses from coming forward. Speculations vary, but it has been estimated that for every UFO sighting that is reported, anywhere from 15 to 50 are not. (I personally feel that such estimates are not out of the ballpark as I have come across, as a case in point, about a dozen friends and co-workers who, after learning that I am interested in UFOs, have nonchalantly told me of sightings that they have had; most were multiple-witness sightings; none were ever reported).
As is usually the case when trying to scientifically "pin down" a phenomenon that isn't testable in a controlled setting, our theories on the nature of various UFOs are never conclusive. They remain hypotheses with probabilities attached--formal and informal probabilities that are contingent upon hosts of factors, such as laws of mathematics and statistics, available empirical data, and consensus from a community of scientists (with all the factors that such a consensus itself is contingent upon). In fact, such a probabilistic view of theorization is representative of a major current (and by all signs the major current) in philosophy of science--namely pragmatism, whereby a notion that is abandoned (for a variety of epistemological and conceptual reasons that I won't get into here) is that scientific "laws" can be certain to exist in a strict and ultimate sense. This applies to all theories and all sciences, even the most seemingly irrefutable "hard" sciences. [Hence, for example, Occam's Razor favors Einstein's general Theory of Relativity and modern Quantum Physics over Newtonian mechanics with regards to defining space, time and causality. We don't, however, say that Einstein is "right" and Newton "wrong", or that Einstein finally discovered the real "laws" of nature. For although classical mechanics is not as accurate and precise as the new physics, it nonetheless "works" instrumentally for our everyday commonsense perceptions of the world.]
So although one may naturally be inclined to qualify all UFOs as conventional phenomena (given sufficient information), the possibility remains that some UFOs may be genuine anomalous phenomena. And it is my distinct impression that the majority of physical scientists who directly involve themselves with the UFO phenomenon to a significant degree do believe there is a very good chance that some UFOs are a heretofore unknown natural phenomenon--a genuine anomaly.
James Oberg, for example, a columnist for "Skeptical Inquirer" and formerly of NASA, has long followed the UFO phenomenon, and though he obviously considers himself a skeptic towards many of the popular notions of UFOs, he laments over the lack of attention given to the phenomenon by physical scientists--it is his opinion that there might be something of scientific worth lying behind some of the truly anomalous UFOs.
Michael Persinger, a neuroscientist at Laurentian University in Canada, has long involved himself both with the UFO phenomenon and other types of "paranormal" phenomena (such as the Fatima sightings), all of which seem to have a similar physical component of some sort of luminous energy display being witnessed by the experiencers. Persinger's "tectonic strain theory", which is currently talked about quite a bit in various UFO journals, etc., bases itself on the premise that something physical is happening, that the people reporting certain UFOs (and probably most, if not all of the so-called "high strangeness cases") are, in fact, seeing an anomalous display of light energy. Persinger's basic argument is that when massive layers of rock underneath the earth's surface are pushed into each other (i.e., tremors or earthquakes), huge bursts of energy rise to the surface, taking the form of a concentrated sphere of light and moving in various irregular patterns--the entire phenomenon lasting anywhere from a few seconds to several minutes. (In the Nova UFO documentary, their interview with Persinger includes an experimental demonstration in which a rock that is roughly one foot in diameter is squeezed by a large compressor until it explodes. A slow motion replay of the experiment is then shown, and what can be seen are a couple of small balls of light of definite shape, moving outward from the rock before dying out--a phenomenon that was not visible to the naked eye.) Persinger has apparently done a computer analysis of about 3,000 UFO sightings and has found that many of them occurred weeks or months before the start of earth tremors, and his theory has gained weight from some Japanese geologists who have provided him with rare photographs of a luminous display moments before an earthquake. Persinger also believes that the luminous energy from these tectonic fractures may cause witnesses who are close to the phenomenon to hallucinate or to temporarily black out. If this is the case, one could easily infer that the Fatima incident and certain UFO abduction reports are cultural variations of the same sort of "space-time transient".
So, how does the extraterrestrial hypothesis (ETH) fit into all of this? It goes without saying that the ETH is known to capture the imaginations of the public whenever the topic of UFOs comes up; and for many amateur "ufologists", proving that some UFOs are "nuts and bolts" spacecraft from other planets becomes almost a religious crusade. One unfortunate consequence of such naive a priori insistences, by many pop-culture ufologists, that a UFO-ETH connection certainly exists has been the ironic flip side to this misguided position--namely, the a priori dismissal by "UFO skeptics" of even the hypothesis that some UFOs could conceivable be extraterrestrial in nature.
As Karl Popper has forcefully argued, science is a deductive, not inductive, process. A hypothesis is creatively put forward, with accumulated empirical evidence acting to either falsify the hypothesis or substantiate it (at least until a "better" hypothesis eventually overshadows it). Hence, no hypothesis is ever technically dismissed a priori for being "unscientific" or "pseudoscientific". But as sociologists and philosophers of science know, the decisions of many working scientists are not akin to the idealized Bayesian rational-choice scientist, which most people think of as characterizing the decisions and evaluations of scientists.
We know, for example, that NASA's SETI program (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence), which is a publicly subsidized project of significant financial and technological investment, has many supporters within the scientific community. The merits and validity of SETI are by no means an uncontroversial topic within the scientific community, but shouldn't we be able to infer from the project's having gotten off the ground (and its continued governmental support) that a sizable number of pertinent scientists believe the SETI program to be a worthwhile venture, with at least some chance of success? [Note the flood of letters in the fall 1991 issue of Skeptical Inquirer in response to a spring issue article on ETI--most of the letters seemed to be generally supportive of SETI; many letters were corrective of an author's error, which, once corrected, greatly increases the speculated fraction of hospitable biospheres that evolve an intelligent species.] Perhaps a definitive answer to this question must await a comprehensive sociological study of the SETI program and its history, but looking at the various arguments for and against SETI does relate directly to the viability of the hypothesis that some UFOs are of extraterrestrial origin. If the idea that an extraterrestrial intelligence not only exists but would be similar enough to us such that we could communicate with it is an eminently defensible position, then just how "far out" is the very idea that a UFO might be extraterrestrial in origin?
After briefly looking at the basic structures of the prevalent arguments for and against the idea of extraterrestrial intelligence (ETI), I will then contrast two articles which (given what I've read on the subject so far) represent the most tightly argued pro and con positions regarding the UFO-ET hypothesis: Michael Swords' essay, "Science and the Extraterrestrial Hypothesis in Ufology" (an extrapolation from SETI's optimistic camp), and Nicholas Rescher's essay, "Extraterrestrial Science" (a poignant application of insights from contemporary philosophy of science and epistemology to the question of ETI, and, by necessity, to the UFO-ET hypothesis).
The notion of extraterrestrial intelligent life presupposes the existence of extraterrestrial life itself, and this brings up the problem of our definitions of life, not to mention our definitions of intelligence in the former term. Edward Regis, a philosopher at Howard University writes:
There is no generally accepted definition of life, nor is there agreement regarding on what a correct definition ought to be based -- whether, for example, upon physiology, metabolism, biochemistry, genetics, thermodynamics or indeed something else. Neither is there agreement on whether non-carbon-based life is possible... Nevertheless, many scientists contend that because of the abundance of carbon in the universe, and its ease of bonding with other elements thereby forming a variety of stable compounds, carbon is the element of choice for the origin of life. Another problem with life based on alternative biochemistries is that we might not be able to recognize, much less interact with, such life even should it exist...(Regis, p. 19)
To what extent our reality, as perceived through the five senses along with, for example, our metaphysical necessity for the causal nexus, should be shared universally is generally an area of philosophical inquiry, and as a result, many working scientists contributing to SETI's legitimacy in various ways are oblivious to such fundamental concerns of anthropomorphism. [As we will see, the tacit anthropomorphism of many active SETI scientists may or may not be a problem--it all depends upon your epistemology, i.e., whether you believe the human mind is ultimately an accurate "mirror of nature" or rather that the mind is itself (with all its rational categories of space, time, form, causality, etc.) the product of Darwinian evolution. Even an "evolutionary epistemology" position, which at first sight may appear irremediably pessimistic about the very concept of ETI, can perhaps still maintain (in a Peircean tradition) that Ultimate Reality (if such is still a logically sound term) acts as somewhat of a guide, regulating in a determinate sense both how and in what direction epistemology/intelligence evolves.]
Needless to say, most scientists involved with SETI simply talk about "life as we know it". They talk about the probability that such life has arisen on other worlds, what it might look like, how it might manipulate its environment, etc. Such speculations, however, presuppose that there are other worlds. One can begin to see that the question of "advanced" ETI (and, by extension, that a UFO could be of extraterrestrial origin) can only be speculated upon in a far and honest manner by incorporating the probabilities of the many complex variables (from physics, astrophysics, biochemistry, evolutionary biology, psychology, etc.) into one large equation.
Except for our present concern with the viability of a UFO being of extraterrestrial origin, this idealized equation does turn out to be the lens through which SETI-oriented scientists view the big picture. This `lens' is called the Drake Equation. Named after a pioneer figure in the history of SETI, the Drake Equation is a mathematical string of multiplicative factors of the form:
N = R a b c d e L
The definitions of the factors are:
N: the number of currently extant hi-tech galactic civilizations;
R: the rate of galactic star formation;
a: the fraction of stars which have planets;
b: the number of earthlike planets per system;
c: the fraction of earths which will form life;
d: the fraction of ecologies which will evolve intelligences;
e: the fraction of ETI which will develop civilizations;
L: the mean lifetime of an advanced civilization.
Additional factors which we would add to address our concern with the UFO-ET hypothesis would include: the vastness of interstellar distances, whether gravity and space-time could conceivably be manipulated in non-relativistic terms, motivations for a comprehensive interstellar space exploration, motivations for covertness (e.g., why don't the aliens land on the White House lawn?), etc.
It would be prudent at this time to reserve discussion of the Drake Equation to a cursory "feel" of where it stands today--which parts of the equation are gaining more of a consensus and which parts are still highly contentious.
As it stands, variables "R" and "a" appear to be among the least contentious of the above Drake Equation factors. That is, there seems to be much more agreement among the respective physical scientists as to the probabilities of these factors.
The physicist's assumption of the "uniformity of nature" with respect to the fundamental make-up of all matter and energy is, for good reason, never doubted by physicists.
Variable `R' -- the rate of star formation in just our galaxy alone is very much agreed upon, as it is arrived at in a rather straightforward manner. With a reasonable understanding of the process of starbirth, or by calculating the approximate history/time scale of the galaxy (along with an accurate star count), scientists estimate that our galaxy has averaged about 25 star births per year, and has perhaps slowed down to between one and ten star births per year in its current stage of development. Now, this variable "R" itself breaks down (as does all the other Drake Equation variables in an ideally-limited theoretic sense) into other factors: How many stars are suitable for life-formation? How many become unsuitable as their life histories progress? After eliminating those stars not conducive to planetary ecologies, we are left with six to fifteen billion sun-like stars in a galaxy of 250 billion stars (Swords, pp. 69-70).
Variable "a" -- the fraction of stars which have planets -- is a factor whose speculation stems, in part, from solid empirical evidence right here in our own solar system. Not only do we have one "planetary system" of nine bodies revolving around the Sun, but we also have several mini-systems of moons revolving around Earth, Jupiter, etc., leading many to believe that large rotating centers-of-mass naturally acquire secondary bodies revolving about them. This view is further supported by empirical measurements of various stars in our galaxy (gravitational wobbles caused by large unseeable objects on the stars; the widespread galactic phenomenon of "double stars", a variant of a planetary system, etc.). David Black, considered one of the most eminent planetary researchers writes that "Current planetary theories suggest that planets should be the rule rather than the exception." (Black, quoted in Swords, p. 71)
Variable "b" -- the number of earthlike planets per system -- is much more contentious. Here, we are defining earths as "rocky, terrestrial planets which stably orbit their suns for long periods of time at a distance which allows a proper temperature/radiation input so as to keep the solvent-of-life, water, in its liquid state." (Swords, p. 72). The frequency of such earths occurring during the formation of a planetary system is still widely debated, with the pessimistic side being greatly influenced by the models of Michael Hart.
As a sun-like star condenses by gravity out of a heavy molecular cloud, it flattens and takes on its disc-like form. Lumps that aggregate on the star during this process break away from the star and eventually revolve around it in a flattened plane. The critical phase is when the planets cool: to be earthlike, a planet must lie in a certain "Continuously Habitable Zone" (CHZ) whereupon water remains to allow the processes leading to life to begin. If it's too close to the sun-like star, it becomes a Venus; and if it's too far, it becomes a Mars. The questions is just how wide is the CHZ?
Pessimists believe that the strip is so narrow it is next to certain that "life as we know it" is a fluke--that we are, in fact, alone in the universe. But Swords refers to the Hart school as a "minority" position and notes that:
Newer models of atmospheres and temperatures point to life zones six or seven times wider than the Hart estimate. In our own solar system with the Earth at the reference distance of 1.0 astronomical unit, Hart's model pointed to a life zone between 0.95 and 1.01 AU. The new estimates increase the local life zone to between 0.86 and 1.25 (or greater) AU. Venus, for reference, is too hot at 0.72 AU. Mars is a bit too cold at 1.52 AU. (Swords, p. 74)
What this means takes on greater significance when the spacing of planets in our own solar system is looked at. Apparently, a mathematical formulation called the Bode-Titius equation attributes the gradually widening gaps between the planets as we go further away from the Sun to some underlying forces of gravity. If we then assume our planetary system to not be a deviant from the norm, we are then easily able to see how one could lay down the aforementioned CHZ grid over any initial arrangement of ordered planetary distances from a sun-like star. Using the optimistic end of CHZ speculation, it turns out that for our system, a planet falls in the life zone over 90% of the time. Hence, it our system is average, it follows that the vast majority of other systems would have a planet in the CHZ.
It seems to me, however, that the real difficulty here is how the hosts of other sub-factors (such as the actual masses of both the sun-like star and, more importantly, the planet found in the CHZ; the periods of rotation of the CHZ planets, etc.) endlessly complicate speculations. Swords notes this, but goes on to quote Sebastian von Hoerner of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory, who writes:
Some astronomical estimates show that probably about 2% of all stars have a planet fulfilling all known conditions needed to develop life similar to ours. If we are average, then on half of these planets intelligence has developed earlier and farther, while the other half are barren or underdeveloped. (Quoted in Swords, pp. 75-76)
Variable "c" -- the fraction of earths which will form life -- has an increasingly "cut and dry" consensus within the scientific community. The so-called "combinatorial problem" has become less of a problem ever since chemists began simulating the Earth's primordial atmosphere, discovering that these original circumstances began to spontaneously create the chemicals of life.
The primitive conditions not only produce the right biochemicals but they seem to do so in a non-random way. Chemistry's products are determined, and not just anything is possible. Certain atomic arrangements (for example, just certain amino acids or nucleic acid bases) are strongly favored over other arrangements in the same biochemical classes of compounds. There seems to be a limited set of biochemical units out of which earthlike life, and presumably all galactic life, can be constructed. (Swords, p. 77)
That such chemicals combined in a non-random way of course contradicts the long held idea that spontaneous biochemical life is the result of pure chance. We are given hints that some sort of principles of physics, or evolutionary necessities of some kind, are at work. Needless to say, the vast majority of scientists expect that an earthlike planet in the CHZ will develop simple life forms.
Variables "d" and "e" -- the fraction of ecologies which will evolve intelligences and the fraction of ETI which will develop civilizations -- are hotly debated topics, for it is here that the concept of evolutionary probabilities is addressed, and with it, all the various debates about what should and shouldn't necessarily entail from the different stages of a particular ecosystem.
What can pretty much anticipate the line of thought of the pessimists, to which many evolutionary biologists subscribe: though the spontaneous origin of life may occur many times on many earths, it is highly unlikely (and probably close to nil) that a recognizable "intelligence" will be found anywhere else. The classic exposition of this viewpoint was presented in George Gaylord Simpson's 1964 paper, "The Nonprevalence of Humanoids", in which Simpson claimed that the random and highly idiosyncratic course of evolution on earth made the odds next to zero that intelligent life could even be repeated here. But the evolutionary biologists who have followed Simpson furnished their pessimism with more than just inculcated scientific conservatism--they are able to infer quite a bit from the evolutionary histories of different species right here on earth. And not all of them are entirely pessimistic. [A sociological survey of evolutionary biologists' opinions, or a comprehensive review of the literature, would be necessary to say what the consensus among evolutionary biologists really is.]
Is our rather liberal definition of intelligence, i.e., the ability to make use of previous experience in subsequent actions, problematic from the start? Ernst Mayr, Emeritus Professor of Zoology at Harvard, and one of the most eminent scientists in the field, makes the commonly heard observation that rudimentary forms of intelligence are widely distributed in our animal kingdom, but points out the incredible improbability of genuine intelligence emerging on another planet:
There were probably more than a billion species of animals on earth, belonging to many millions of separate phyletic lines, all living on this planet earth which is hospitable to intelligence, and yet only a single one of them succeeded in producing intelligence. (Mayr, in Regis, p. 28)
Elsewhere, David Raup deems the complexity and diversity of our earth's evolutionary record as showing that "there was anything but a neat and simple progression from single to complex or from unsophisticated to sophisticated." (Raup, in Regis, p. 34)
Both Mayr and Raup note the apparent phenomenon of "evolutionary convergence" here on earth, most noticeably the examples of the sabertooth tiger and the widely referred to fact that many species have independently developed eyes. Fossils of the long-extinct sabertooth tiger, in the La Brea tar pits of Los Angeles, apparently revealed substantial information about its anatomy. In South America at about the same time geologically, there was a marsupial version of the sabertooth tiger. Surprisingly similar anatomy evolved independently in the two mammalian groups, and although placental and marsupial mammals have a common ancester in the Mesozoic era, they had been genetically separate for tens of millions of years before the sabertooth form appeared. Raup views such evolutionary convergence as responses to similar environmental pressures and/or opportunities, and makes a nice logical addendum:
It is presumed that convergence is most common in situations where there are only a few ways of solving a particular problem, thus increasing the probability that independent lineages will adopt the same solution. (Raup, in Regis, p. 35)
Mayr believes that the evolutionary convergence of eyes throughout the spectrum of life on earth simply demonstrates a feature that evolves whenever of selective advantage to the animal kingdom. And as we are the only species possessing "genuine intelligence" (along with eyes), it then appears that such genuine intelligence is nowhere near as necessary as eyes in order for a species to survive.
Raup brings up a good point about our definition of intelligence, a point that I believe hides deeper philosophical issues. Our above liberal definition of intelligence qualified it as essentially a "problem-solving" activity. We can immediately see that this definition is much too broad, as many species here on earth would exhibit this quality of intelligence. Raup gives some nice examples to illustrate his point:
Protective mimicry is a common phenomenon. A butterfly, for example, may achieve immunity from predators by evolving a color pattern which mimics the appearance of a poisonous species known and recognized by predators. The predator avoids all butterflies with that particular color pattern, regardless of species. Mimicry evolves over a long series of generations by selecting those chance mutations that make the nonpoisonous species look more like the poisonous ones. In the process, many butterflies are eaten by predators but the result is the enhanced survival of the species. Exactly the same result could have been achieved by an intelligent organism. (Raup, in Regis, p. 39).
Though the actions of the butterfly (and any other organism that invokes camouflaging) may appear, in a post-hoc sort of way, as signs of intelligence, we surely don't, however, maintain that the butterfly is intelligent--that through a reasoning process it consciously decides that action X is in its best interest. Raup hence concludes that:
The problem of protection can be solved either by intelligence or by standard Darwinian adaptation...The manifestations we ascribe to an intelligent being, and which are crucial to the SETI strategy, can be produced by an unintelligent organism and the mechanism for accomplishing this is the ubiquitous process of adaptation. (Raup, in Regis, pp. 41, 42)
Interestingly enough, Raup interprets his position as improving the chances of SETI's success, whereas Mayr believes the SETI program to be a waste of taxpayers' money. Mayr, for example, writes:
[It is] interesting and rather charactistic that almost all of the promoters of the thesis of ETI are physical scientists...Why are those biologists who have the greatest expertise on evolutionary probabilities, so almost unanimously skeptical of the probability of ETI? It seems to me that this is to a large extent due to the tendency of physical scientists to think deterministically, while organismic biologists know how opportunistic and unpredictable evolution is. (Mayr, in Regis, p. 24)
This comment by Mayr may indicate a slight prejudice against the "physical sciences" in favor of the paradigm of his own field, but it also signifies that a comprehensive appraisal of SETI's potential must incorporate the views of many different disciplines.
For example, Michael Swords (our SETI optimist) notes a new trend in the biological sciences of applying physical principles to biology, limiting, in effect, the various possible designs and structures a life form can take. He writes:
The field is still largely in infancy but the initial insights are impressive. Limitations on the variety possible in design turn out to be far more restrictive than most biologists suspected. The systems of fluid transport and filtration are based on only five and six design principles, respectively, no matter in which life form they appear. An interesting specific example of limited design is the "fibrewound cylinder", the commonest skeletal unit on the planet. This structure appears in plants, many lower animal forms, and some higher animal forms such as the swimming mammals. It allows lateral bending while resisting longitudinal compression, a useful combination of flexibility, mobility, and strength. A particular angle for winding the fiber around the cylinder is most efficient in balancing these traits. This exact angle evolved several times...(Swords, p. 83)
Swords mentions that even large biological categories, such as skeletons, have not only limited numbers of designs but, oftentimes, identical mathematical ratios of bone length to physical stess, etc. Among the structural restrictions that Swords addresses are bilateral symmetries around tubal forms (e.g., arms and legs positioned around food-input and output orifices) and the actual number of arms and legs a successful land-roaming organism is likely to take. (For example, Swords notes the mysterious mathematics that dictates a brain-dependent preference for lower numbers of limbs--some of the tentacles of an octopus are left to unconscious robotic movement; the six legs of an insect are controlled as two sets of threes by their brains, etc.)
"The point of the foregoing", writes Swords, "is not to prove anything but to show that, at the least, the facile dismissal of morphologically similar aliens needs a lot more work than authoritarian guesswork." (p. 86) As far as part of the UFO phenomenon is concerned, namely CE3 reports (i.e., encounters with alien beings), Swords wants to shift the burden of proof a little bit. He writes:
On the facts of and reasoning discussed above, these reports tend to agree with those things deemed likely to be universal, while differing in those things we know may differ. Such an "inspired" dichotomy might well be seen as a positive aspect of the reports rather than a reason to dismiss them. (Swords, p. 86)
Within the better UFO organizations, and among the better individual "ufologists", attempts have been made to find whatever similar characteristics exist among the various critters in alleged CE3's. What has emerged as the "typical" aliens that one will encounter (and which are nowadays the only type ever reported) have been nicknamed the "Greys". Through a most subtle form of cultural contamination and folkloric contagion, an extremely tight and consistent description of these Greys has made its way into virtually every popular book on UFOs of the last five to ten years. The emerging mythology surrounding the Greys, especially with its increasing coherence about their physical appearance, is leading to the creation of an identity for this "alien race". Those UFO enthusiasts who are also "believers" know exactly "who" you are talking about when you mention the Greys--they recognize with countenance the aliens that are being described or drawn by recent "abductees". And with this coherent identity being given to a mythological (?) entity (an entity that closely resembles humans) what is also given to that entity is a purpose, its mission, its conscious reason for observing and "abducting" us. [In another paper, we will see how many enthusiasts believe the Greys' mission to be the scientific analysis of--and the genetic experimentation with--we humans. It is an adaptive mythology enfolding from the interpretations various popular ufologists give to the literal narratives of "abductees".]
Philosophy, Logic and UFO's
At a Los Alamos dinner party during the Manhattan Project, Enrico Fermi asked, "If extraterrestrials really exist, then where are they?" The following chain of reasoning has become known as the Fermi Paradox:
(1) If extraterrestrial civilizations have existed elsewhere and "elsewhen" in our galaxy, and
(2) if interstellar travel/colonization/migration is inevitable for at least one of them, then:
(3) simple calculations indicate that an expanding wave of colonization will fill the galaxy on a timescale short compared to the lifetime of the galaxy, but,
(4) we do not "see" them here, therefore
(5) Premise (1) is wrong -- there has never been another technological civilization anywhere or "anywhen" in our galaxy except the earth. (Regis, p. 129)
Although it is a logically invalid argument, the Fermi Paradox has nonetheless exhibited considerable influence among SETI pessimists, prompting Swords to write, "[the Fermi Paradox] has received an apparently serious hearing in the literature, giving one some concern about presumptions and prejudices playing overtly importantly roles in scientific discussion." (p. 87).
A much better variant of the basic Fermi Paradox idea, however, is the artificial intelligence prediction of the famous mathematician, John von Neumann. In a famous 1948 lecture entitled, "The General and Logical Theory of Automata", von Neumann argued that within a few hundred years, robots capable of self-replication will be devised here on earth. (As it turns out, von Neumann's lecture preceded the discovery of DNA by five years--he successfully predicted the basic components of any self-replicator: an automatic factory, a duplicator, a controller, and an instruction program.) It follows then, that any intelligent civilization more advanced than us would have flooded the galaxy in a few million years' time with these exponentiating "von Neumann machines". Since we haven't encountered any such machines, they don't exist, and, therefore, we must be alone in the universe. Such a solipsist view is championed today by mathematician Frank Tipler.
Carl Sagan and William Newman, strong SETI-supporters, counter Tipler's version of the von Neumann machine argument with a "wait and see" attitude. "Absence of evidence," they write, "is not evidence of absence." (Sagan and Newman, in Regis, p. 152) They not only argue about various technical calculations of replication time, speed of interstellar travel, etc., but stress that any intelligent civilization would surely refrain from carelessly constructing and deploying von Neumann machines, as they would eventually come back to endanger the host planet.
Sagan seems to be representative of most SETI supporters: he believes in ETI, but does not believe we have ever been visited by "flying saucers". He cites the vast distances between stars as the factor which most restricts the concept of galactic travel, and he is dubious of various ad hoc attempts to rationalize what would certainly be a peculiar alien habit of covertness (if they visit us, why don't they contact us openly?). Sagan, citing the falsification problem for the UFO-ET hypothesis, writes:
What is the critical test for disproving the hypothesis that UFOs are angels' halos? It is difficult to think of a really critical test. It seems to me that one runs into precisely the same problem with the ETH. There is no good empirical test which could, for all cases, exclude this hypothesis. I would like therefore to ask: is it possible that we hear so much of this hypothesis because the idea of extraterrestrial visitation somehow resonates with the spirit of the times in which we live? (Sagan, in Sagan and Page, p. 271).
Sagan is, of course, taking note of the peculiar fascination we in the United States seem to have with the UFO-ET hypothesis, as opposed to other conventional explanations and, also, as opposed to other titillating popular hypotheses--e.g., interdimensional beings, religious beings, time travelers, etc. [John Spencer, a prominent British UFO researcher, cites a 1988 opinion poll survey which revealed that in most European countries approximately 16-17% (depending on the country) of the adult population believed that there was some basis to the claims of extraterrestrial visitation in the subject of ufology. In England, the figure was 23%, but in the U.S., the figure was 58%! Such statistics may be indicative of relationships that exist between the scientific community and the general public of each respective country, or other the nature and quality of press coverage of UFO-related stories.]
So what would be the motivation for such hypothetical aliens to want to visit or monitor us, and why their presumable covertness? That such questions are necessarily asked may attest to the weakness of the UFO-ET hypothesis, but the former question of motivation has, surprisingly, received quite a bit of attention among the likes of Sagan, et al. For the moment, let me just say that the notion of "colonization waves" is favored by Sagan, but Michael Swords rejects this idea on the grounds that such an undertaking (be it a consequence of overpopulation or other urgent dangers) would probably seek the nearest available planetary system and stop right there. Swords instead draws our attention to insights of cognitive science which are starting to attribute plain old curiosity as being a neurobiological trait. Swords also sees curiosity, for us, as:
a powerful "matter of the spirit" which is one of those irrational urges which disregards economics, security, and other practical values and plunges forward anyway. Curiosity is the driving force of Discovery. As such it would be the same motivator that pushed any technological civilization forward in the development of its elaborate tools. (Swords, p. 92)
But why the apparent ultra-secrecy on the part of those UFOs which are, hypothetically, of extraterrestrial origin? Here, Swords (who, it should be mentioned, once sighted, with his brother, a hovering dome-shaped object that flashed multi-colored lights before disappearing from their line of sight) speculates anthropomorphically:
If you were living around a nearby star, you might well want to know what we, your neighbors, were like. Once you found out, you probably would want to keep track of us, while keeping a low profile yourself. Depending upon your level of interspecies ethics, you might be sitting "out there" right now, weighing our existence in the balance, hoping that we learn how to behave properly, or just paranoically biding your time until you give up on us and pull the trigger. Many such paranoia scenarios might be possible, but they all call for one alien behavior: ultra-secrecy. The last thing a worried civilization wants to do is give itself away. (Swords, p.91)
That Swords may have a personal agenda for wanting to elaborate upon and spell out--in the best possible light--the soundness of the UFO-ET hypothesis is highly likely. But does that really matter? As I mentioned at the beginning of this paper, the pragmatist view of science allows hypothesis-formation to be a creative process, one might even say an "irrational" process.
Is Swords properly using the scientific method to evaluate each facet of the UFO-ET hypothesis? I can see no obvious reason to deny that he is. Is he a illegitimely anthropomorphisizing through his various speculations? Only insofar as the many SETI scientific disciplines are also getting more anthropomorphic in their speculations, especially as physical principles are increasingly being applied to evolutionary possibilities.
In my opinion, the real victims of anthropomorphism are the adamant uninformed skeptics who suffer from perhaps the most deleterious form of anthropomorphism: assuming that our present states of both science and consciousness will not, and even cannot, "progress" or evolve into states of being which could be so qualitatively different from our current world view as to be inconceivable to us now. I close with a quote from Shklovskii and Sagan:
Finding life beyond the earth--particularly intelligent life...-- wrenches at our secret hope that Man is the pinnacle of creation, a contention which no other species on our planet can now challenge...
The discovery of life on some other world will, among many things, be for us a humbling experience...In assessing evidence for extraterrestrial life, and in evaluating statistical estimates of the likelihood of extraterrestrial intelligence, we may be at the mercy of our prejudices. At the present time, there is no unambiguous evidence for even simple varieties of extraterrestrial life, although the situation may change in the coming years. There are unconscious factors operating in the present arguments of both proponents and opponents of extraterrestrial life. (Shklovskii and Sagan, as quoted in Sagan and Newman, in Regis, p. 160)