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The Aliens Are Coming

UFO against the sky. Free public domain CC0 photo

By Charles Foster

It’s said that 2022 is going to be a bumper year for UFO revelations. Secret archives are going to be opened and the skies are going to be probed as never before for signs of extraterrestrial life.

This afternoon we might be presented with irrefutable evidence not just of life beyond the Earth, but of intelligences comparable in power and subtlety to our own. What then? Would it change our view of ourselves and the universe we inhabit? If so, how? Would it change our behaviour? If so how?

Much would depend, no doubt, on what we knew or supposed about the nature and intentions of the alien intelligences. If they seemed hostile, intent on colonising Planet Earth and enslaving us, our reactions would be fairly predictable. But what if the reports simply disclosed the existence of other intelligences, together with the fact that those intelligences knew about and were interested in us?

Many would feel relief that we were not alone. The night sky would seem a less scarily empty place, and our position, balanced on this ball of spinning rock, less precarious. Many would be glad, too, that the responsibilities associated with being the sole possessors of intelligence in the universe could now be shared with others. Some would be worried that, true to our recent form, we would seek to kill and exploit the aliens: to farm them, eat them, steal and patent their secrets, destroy their innocence, teach them the morality of the free market, and set them to work in sweat shops.

Others would see the aliens, however benign, as a threat to human supremacy. Many humans like to think of themselves as the best that the universe has birthed. They are the ones who, in their own ontological insecurity, tend to deny the consciousness and the moral significance of non-human animals, because (they think) to credit any non-human with any human attribute is to diminish humankind (by which they really mean themselves). These, I imagine, would address their insecurities by trying to become alien-farmers.

In the sphere of religion the revelation of alien intelligence shouldn’t have much of an effect. It should merely complete the Copernican Revolution. C. S. Lewis, in his Space Triology, dealt squarely and convincingly with the suggestion that Christianity would be challenged by extraterrestrial life.1 Other religions, tending to be less anthropocentric than Christianity, have always been less troubled by the thought that there might be theologically significant organisms with bodies that do not look like the body of Jesus.

And yet, of course, the Copernican Revolution, though it might have triumphed in cosmology, has not triumphed in (particularly fundamentalist Christian) psychology. There are some would-be alien-ranchers who would try to deal with their theological queasiness at sharing the world with intelligent non-humans by declaring that so long as they were able to control the aliens, outer space was simply a suburb of the Earth, and the Earth continued to be, really, the centre of the universe. This would create a theological and psychological mandate for subduing the aliens.

Some, of course, would simply be fascinated. What sort of anatomy and physiology do the aliens have? And, perhaps most intriguing of all, what sort of being do they have? We tend to assume that our kind of being (embodied, sensual, machines plus souls or, in our more desolate moments, just advanced computers) is the only imaginable type of being. It is not necessarily so. The religious literature is full of accounts of other kinds. And wouldn’t we expect that radically different ontologies might mean radically different epistemologies too? The universe might turn out to be a much more interesting place than we suspect.

Most of us, though, will read with interest the article announcing the proof of alien life, and will then get on with making the kids’ tea, writing the long-overdue paper, ringing up a friend, or worrying about the plight of earthly refugees. I’m not at all sure that those aren’t the best responses.


 Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra, and That Hideous Strength.


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23 Comment on this post

  1. There is an awful lot of hoopla about an awful lot of things now. Aliens had to re-emerge, mas o menos, But, to mention them in the same breath with artificial intelligence seems presumptive, if not outright counterintuitive. I mean, if we suppose they (aliens) are life forms, it feels insulting to bring them into an AI discussion. The notion of something we have called human consciousness is also taking a beating…never mind that we cannot even agree on what it is or whether it exists.: some are now characterizing it as hallucination. Presumptions upon presumptions. I have been considering and evaluating a concept I have called contextual reality—sorta like an idea John Perry floated a number of years ago (levels-of-reality). The premise is relatively simple. Reality changes, over time, with what we know, or, in a more modern context, newer facts and information override older notions of what is real and what is not. This is tricky, however. Because interest groups, believing their ideas sound, are fooled by faulty facts and/or erroneous information. This manifests in our social institutions, mass and popular culture for example. I contend it has also wrought havoc in our political system.
    More later, I hope…

  2. Dear Mr. Foster:
    Point taken. You did not write about consciousness or reality either. My remarks were not a critique of your article; were not intended as such anyway. I was drawing comparisons among certain concepts and ideas, either currently or perennially popular in philosophy and neuroscience, good, bad or indifferent. And introducing a notion of my own regarding our collective views on reality. Hope this clarifies my intention.

  3. This may be of some interest to you as it shows that speculation about alien life has a long and what we might call an almost ‘matter of fact’ history.

    I have a copy of the 11th ed. (1799) of Richard Brookes’, ‘The General Gazetteer or, Compendious Geographical Dictionary’ (First published 1750). In the Introduction Brookes gives a brilliant little description of 18th century cosmology which he concludes with a speculation about the possibility of intelligent life on other planets.

    ‘It cannot be imagined, therefore, that the omnipotent Creator, who acts with infinite wisdom, and never acts in vain, shoud have created so many glorious suns, fitted for so many important purposes, and placed at such distances from each other, without suitable objects sufficiently near them to be benefited by their influence. On the contrary, it is reasonable to conclude, that they were created for the same purposes with our Sun; to bestow light, heat, and vegetation, on a certain number of planets revolving round them. And, from analogy we may infer, that all these innumerable systems are with equal wisdom contrived for the accommodation of rational inhabitants; perhaps of still higher orders of intelligent beings, all capable, in the different scales of existence, of a perpetual progression in knowledge and virtue, in perfection and felicity.’

    The only mention of ‘Omnipotence’ (not Creator or God) before this passage is the usual deist move of how the immensity and grandeur of universe must ‘exalt our ideas of the wonders of Omnipotence, and the inconceivable extent of the creation’. We should not forget that Brookes’ remarkable argument by analogy was in a best selling *factual* gazetteer that was in continuous print for nearly seventy years.

    1. And it should be noted that Richard Brookes’ gazetteer is far from unique among works in the mid-18th century discussing intelligent life on other planets; there is at least one historical monograph on this subject, Michael J. Crowe’s The Extraterrestrial Life Debate 1750–1900: The Idea of a Plurality of Worlds from Kant to Lowell (Cambridge University Press, 1986). Among many works from the same time period, Crowe quotes Benjamin Franklin, author of the “Poor Richard” almanacs, who in 1728 expressed ideas very similar to those in the passage above from Brookes’ gazetteer. Crowe notes that Franklin was “far from being the only almanac author advocating pluralism” of inhabited planets; others in the 18th century include Nathaniel Ames, Benjamin West (pseudonym Isaac Bickerstaff), Samuel Ellsworth, Benjamin Banneker, and Philip Freneau.

      As the title of Crowe’s book suggests, Kant was famously confident about extraterrestrials. Kant made regular references to aliens throughout his works, and Peter Szendy’s book Kant in the Land of Extraterrestrials: Cosmopolitical Philosofictions (Fordham University Press, 2013) goes so far as to give aliens a “central role” in Kant’s thought, connecting alien personhood with Kant’s interest in the possibility of perpetual peace on Earth.

      Kant’s enthusiasm for aliens was even mentioned in Bertrand Russell’s A History of Western Philosophy, and its Connection with Political and Social Circumstances from the Earliest Times to the Present Day (1945), where Russell threw some cold water on Kant’s enthusiasm:

      “The most important of [Kant’s] scientific writings is his General Natural History and Theory of the Heavens (1755), which anticipates Laplace’s nebular hypothesis, and sets forth a possible origin of the solar system. Parts of this work have a remarkable Miltonic sublimity. It has the merit of inventing what proved a fruitful hypothesis, but it does not, as Laplace did, advance serious arguments in its favour. In parts it is purely fanciful, for instance in the doctrine that all planets are inhabited, and that the most distant planets have the best inhabitants—a view to be praised for its terrestrial modesty, but not supported by any scientific grounds.”

      1. Andy. Thanks for this. I vaguely remember Kant’s interest in extraterrestrials as it was I recall a topic Gerd Buchdahl covered in his Kant lectures. These were well before the Michael Crowe and Peter Szendy books you mention which I shall track down. Russell threw a lot of cold water over Kant but I forget this drenching. Thanks again.

        1. Good job, Mr. Tayler. Others who have commented here were not as thoughtful on this topic I try to keep an open mind.

    1. I did not hit ‘reply’, so I was addressing Charles not you. I did not post *my* comments, I posted an 18th century comment by Brookes on alien life which I thought might interest Charles or anyone else with the slightest interest in intellectual history and/or the possibility of alien life.

      I must say your “comments” looks like something an AI system might generate.

  4. Prescient – “…rational inhabitants; perhaps of still higher orders of intelligent beings, all capable, in the different scales of existence, of a perpetual progression in knowledge and virtue, in perfection and felicity.”

  5. Aliens certainly exist, proving to be appearing in public more and more often. The question is, will it come with good intentions or bad?

    1. I am still following this blog, mainly because Mr. Foster had me at “It’s said that 2022 is going to be a bumper year for UFO revelations.” As a school teacher and follower of Christ, I am always seeking new information and enlightenment to broaden my horizons on education and spirituality. God is so mysterious and powerful that there has to be more to everything beyond the human experiences.
      Thank you,

  6. @Ria It’s the other way around; THEY are fed up with humans, and the way “we” (sorry, but I’m not a sheep..) trash this “world”, both mentally and in any other way. They will get rid of bad energy, and darkness, and I thank them, from the bottom of my heart.. Finally <3

    1. MANMADEDEMONS.. EVEN YOURE LOVED ONES WILL GO COLD.. how do you not not ur talking to another bean from outter earth?? RISKY..

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