“When he redesigned the cosmos, Descartes diminished the significance of human beings by opening up the possibility of life elsewhere. The concept of multiple universes was strange and new, but by the middle of the eighteenth century, many natural philosophers believed not only that they existed, but also that they provided homes for intelligent beings.”
Extraterrestrials have been imagined for at least 2300 years, if not longer. Epicurus wrote to Herodotus in 300BCE proposing there could be "infinite worlds both like and unlike this world of ours", even ones inhabited by "living creatures and plants and other things we see in this world"2. The foremost evolutionary biologist, Prof. Richard Dawkins, makes some comments on the likelihood of life evolving on alien planets:
“It has been estimated that there are between 1 billion and 30 billion planets in our galaxy, and about 100 billion galaxies in the universe. Knocking a few noughts off for reasons of ordinary prudence, a billion billion is a conservative estimate of the number of available planets in the universe. Now, suppose the origin of life, the spontaneous arising of something equivalent to DNA, really was a staggeringly improbable event. Suppose it was so improbable as to occur on only one in a billion planets. [...] Even with such absurdly looking odds, life will still have arisen on a billion planets - of which Earth, of course, is one.”
At the pessimistic end of the spectrum, cold-era politics lent a new skeptical air to the theories on life in the universe. What if all advanced life develops destructively powerful nuclear weapons and destroys itself?
“By the end of World War II, many scientists believed that life must exist elsewhere - after all, there are 100 billion stars in our galaxy alone, so why should planet Earth be unique? For Enrico Fermi, the Italian nuclear physicist who had helped to develop America's atomic bomb, this argument contained a fatal flaw. How come, he asked, that we found no evidence of any extraterrestrial beings? [...] In the aftermath of Hiroshima, a more sinister solution emerged: could the evolution of intelligence entail a built-in tendency towards self-destruction?”
However this argument does not surface much in the modern era, as it presupposes that all life follows the same development; and this is something that we simply have no information about. There are various reasons why we may have not yet detected life:
We have not yet looked in the right direction at the right time, and have missed all clues.
Fermi's theory that all advanced life eventually destroyed itself. However, we could still detect their radio signals for long after the species had self-destructed.
No species has managed to colonize other planets due to insurmountable technical difficulties; as a result, all species have died out on their home planet and hence had small footprints on the Universe.
“[UFOs] tell us absolutely nothing about intelligence elsewhere in the universe, but they do prove how rare it is on Earth.”
Arthur C. Clarke6
Unluckily, the distances between stars and galaxies in the Universe are so unimaginably large that, although hopeful data hints at a large number of inhabited planets, it is still unlikely that there is life nearby or even within the traveling distance of a hundred lifetimes. Even at the speed of light, the distances involve make traveling to alien planets a one-way journey. Out of all the UFO sightings, where there has been reliable evidence it has tended to lend itse8lf to terrestrial explanations rather than extra-terrestrial ones5. Where there is no evidence, though, many people cling, out of hope or fear, to the idea that UFOs are aliens. It seems that in the absence of evidence people assume that 'sightings' are aliens even though, wherever evidence has emerged, it has pointed to Earthlings as the source.
It is common sense that the popular press play up and exaggerate stories, including (and especially in previous decades) when it comes to UFOs. The press behaved in the same way as it did with other 'moral panics' - with much sensationalism, and with disregard for evidence7. But it wasn't until I read the research of Martin Gardner that I realized just how much of a role imaginative newspaper editors had played in the creation of the UFO craze. It started in 1947, when Kenneth Arnold saw 9 small weather balloons that were strung together, 'flying' in formation in the sky. The papers came up with the idea of 'flying saucers' on their own, and henceforth, enthusiastically published hyped-up articles attributing all unidentified flying objects to mysterious advanced technology and aliens. It was a science-fiction decade, with a popular press to match.
Aside from the press, hoaxes added to the numbers of reports. Three military men lost their lives investigating UFOs such as those seen near Maury Island. Gardner reports that "the entire Maury Island episode later proved to be a hoax elaborately planned by two Tacoma men who hoped to sell the phony yarn to an adventure magazine. Both men eventually made a full confession"8.
“At first the military forces brushed aside the flying-saucer mania as mass delusion, but after the reports grew to vast proportions, the Air Force set up a "Project Saucer" to make a careful investigation. After fifteen months they reported they had found no evidence which could not be explained as hoaxes, illusions, or misinterpretations or balloons and other familiar sky objects. [...]
A book could be written about flying saucer hoaxes perpetrated in the past few years by pranksters, publicity seekers, and psychotics. Unfortunately, exposure of the hoax seldom catches up with the original story.
Even more difficult to expose are the semi-lies - accounts which have a basis in fact, but may be grossly exaggerated. For example, an observer sees a balloon but is convinced it is a saucer. Others are skeptical and this irritates him. So to convince them, he adds details, or exaggerates what he has seen. He may do this without being aware of it, and later recall the episode not as he saw it, but as he has added to it in his desire to convince himself and others. This is a well-known human failing and there is no reason to suppose it could be involved in hundreds of so-called saucer sightings.”
Investigation of UFOs has always found, where evidence is available, that the source of the sighting is an optical illusion, a result of human error or misunderstanding, or normal skybound objects that the observer has mistaken for something spooky. The example of Skyhook balloons teaches us much about the human predisposition to prefer exciting and stimulating theories to normal and mundane ones. First, the basics:
“[In 1951 Feb] the Office of Naval Research distributed a ten-page report on the Navy's huge skyhook balloons, used for cosmic-ray research. The report pointed out in detail the ease with which these giant plastic bags - a hundred feet in diameter - could be mistaken for flying disks. The balloons reach a height of 100,000 feet, and are often borne by jetstream winds at speeds of more than 200 miles per hour. If the observer guesses the balloon to be farther away than it is, then, of course, estimates of speed can be incredibly high.
At a distance, a balloon loses entirely its three-dimensional spherical aspect. It takes on the appearance of a disk [and] a globular object viewed through a telescope looks remarkably like a plate. [...] The plastic composition of a skyhook balloon offers a surface that seems highly metallic in reflected sunlight. Most of the saucer reports describe the disks as silvery in color. At sunset the balloons may shine in the sky for thirty minutes after the earth has become dark [due to their height]. "If your imagination soars," the Navy release said, "[...] The wisp of the balloon's instrument-filled tail may impress you as the exhaust. The sun's rays may suffuse the plastic bag to a fiery glow" [...].
One of the few points on which all observers of flying saucers agree is that there is no noise. This excludes, of course, any known type of propulsion, but is precisely the way a balloon behaves. Observers have sometimes insisted that what they saw could not be a balloon because it was moving against the wind. They forget that wind directions in the stratosphere may be quite different from wind directions on the ground. [...]
The first skyhooks went up in 1947, the year flying saucers were first reported. [...]
At the time of the Navy's report, 270 skyhooks had been released from various spots in the United States, often remaining in the sky more than thirty hours. Frequently, lost balloons were actually traced by following press reports of flying saucer sightings!”
This tells us about the human reasoning process: We are inclined towards seeing things in a more dramatic and exciting light. We learn that before concluding extraordinary things, we should first check our basic perceptions and thinking processes, because we can fool ourselves in obscure yet routine ways.
Let us presume that we have detected intelligent aliens, 100 light-years away. This is not a long way but still covers a thousand stars and their planets. If we want to communicate with someone who we know exists, who probably do not know we exist we must first attract their attention. Someone could be trying to contact us but so far we could have missed the signal by unfortunately not facing a receiver in the correct direction!
If we sent a message to them it would take 100 years to get there. They would have to detect it and then send one back, which would take another 100 years. This means that a reply would take 200 years from the time our first message was sent. This is the fastest possible two-way communication allowed by the laws of physics. And this assuming they are close by. We would have to keep scanning from about 190 yrs after our first message up to 250 years after our transmission to see if they have replied to our one message. We would have to keep re-sending the signal for the 100 years in case they have not detected it yet! Only when we receive a response could we stop resending the original signal. Even if we did discover intelligent alien life in our lifetimes we certainly would not be alive to learn the outcome. If Human life was extended to beyond 200 years on average then perhaps it would seem more exciting - the prospect of still being alive when we are expecting an answer!
How long would it take us to establish a dictionary of mathematical terms with which to communicate? Depending on the length of the transmissions (they would have to be highly repetitive in order to be easily recognizable and to prevent data corruption) it could take well over a thousand years to learn anything about them, or them about us, apart from the fact that we both have well-financed radio astronomers and reasonable mathematicians.
On the other hand, luckily, our transmissions into space actually got a head start on our present intention to find life in the Universe:
“Humans have been sending radio waves into space at the speed of light for nearly one hundred years now. Although our goal has seldom been interstellar communication, radio is especially appropriate to that task because electromagnetic waves generally require no travel media, and because radio waves penetrate very efficiently through gas and dust clouds. To date, our "radio bubble," as Tyson calls it, encompasses every star around which a planet has thus far been found, including Alpha Centauri, at 4.3 light-years away; Sirius, our sky's brightest star at ten light-years out; and about a thousand others. So, if aliens are listening, they might have an opportunity to partake in any message sent at frequencies greater than twenty megahertz, including FM radio and television.”
The mechanics of listening to such weakened signals requires massive effort, massive receivers pointing in the right direction, "and, if the yearning stargazer actually wanted to decode our message's content, it would have to first adjust for Doppler's shifts caused by Earth's rotation and revolution, and then build a dish about twenty miles wide, or four hundred times Arecibo. That's a lot of work - and for what? A weekly dose of Desperate Housewives and reruns of Welcome Back, Kotter"5.
So although we might despair at the vastness of space and the remoteness of life on Earth, we might also get lucky. I explore the potential results of discovering alien intelligence in: "Discovering Alien Intelligence: The Politics of War and Fear" by Vexen Crabtree (1999).
Searching for aliens via their radio emissions may not prove to be that useful. Satellites and probes which we have sent into space transmit their radio signals in a directional manner (which saves energy) back towards the Earth, meaning, that often our transmission don't just spread across the Galaxy, but head straight for Earth. It would take an incredible stroke of luck for such intelligently directed signals to be intercepted or spotted by anyone that they were not directed at.
Now, our actual use of radio transmissions is dwindling. Things like the Internet have replaced radio as a good default method of communication, but, do not use radio waves that might travel into space. Paul Davies, physicist at Arizona State University, states that the mass use of radio may not persist, and already we have largely moved on to use things like fibre instead. 'Moreover, many modern radio devices (such as mobile phones) rely on a technique called 'spread spectrum' encoding. It uses signals that look like background noise, except to a receiver equipped with the right unscrambling code. Us Humans figured this out within a century of inventing radio technology, so aliens might have done the same. Radio signals that are clearly artificial in origin may, then, be only a transient sign of civilisation.'11
When we discover intelligent life in the universe we will have to face certain facts. The first would be that the appearance of an intelligent humankind was not a special act of creation by god(s). If intelligent life can arise in a multitude of conditions it makes it less arguable that God needed to act specially in order to create humankind. Yet such actions are part of the creation stories of all major religions. The particulars of our religions would be reduced to local symbolism and relative truths that apply only in some parts of the Universe, to some species.
If one group of sentient beings on Planet A have to abide by a religious book that was sent their way by a divine messenger, and sentient beings on Planet B have a different book, in a different language, with completely different stories of creation, sin and redemption, then how do adherents on either planet claim that their religion is the ultimate truth? It can't be the ultimate truth. It is only localized, temporary, limited truth, which applied only to one species, for the duration of their existence. I am sure that just like all human religions, part of the lore includes masses culture-specific, language-specific and time-specific texts that lose meaning over distance and time. If those two vastly different cultures meet on Planet C, then, by which ultimate truth would the future natives have to abide by? Clearly, new religions would be needed to cope with these complexities.
Imagine an intelligent race in the universe finding out what our religion says about us and our central position in the Creator's plan, and perhaps imagine trying to tell them that our religions are not born from our own imagination, pride and ego! Needless to say, we would embarrass ourselves.
The impact of extra-terrestrial life on theology is a lot more interesting than outsiders would presume. The existence of aliens therefore throws a long shadow of doubt over the entire Christian system of sin and redemption, Heaven and hell, and in particular, cause problems for the idea of a only-son-of-god saviour. Judaism, Christianity and Islam all have holy books that claim to be absolute truth, yet, their cosmology places humankind and the Earth in a special, unique position in God's plan especially with regards to the causes and solutions to suffering. When we find aliens and discover their religions, if they have them, our traditional religions will no longer make much sense.
“In Christianity the Creator of the Universe has only one son, and that one son was born on Earth in the form of a Human, and died there in order to save humans (1 Peter 3:18). Such a sacrifice only occurred once - not once per planet, once per intelligent species, or even once per galaxy. There is no saviour for anyone who isn't on Earth. Aside from the Creator of the Universe having a human son, but Humans were created in the image of God and the angels, together in Genesis 1:26-27 they say "Let us make man in our image, in our likeness, and let them rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the livestock, over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move along the ground". This special creation of humankind must distinguish us from any race of intelligent aliens, who obviously only merely evolved into greatness. And in Biblical eschatology, when evil and suffering is stopped in the whole of creation, where does God place his new paradise? On Earth, of course (Revelations 21)! That's quite an endorsement of our species, from the creator of a billion billion stars!
Is it amazing divine grace that us Humans are so blessed with the Creator's special and ultimate attention? Or is it an anachronism, written into our myths and religions during a time when Humanity did not yet perceive the vastness of the Universe? Given that Christianity fought major battles with astronomers about the Earth being the center of the world and with biologists about evolution, and lost both major battles, I would hazard a guess that when it comes to the uniqueness of the Human race in the Universe, Christianity also finds itself the wrong side of the divide between mythology and history.
Full page: "The Crucifixion Facade" by Vexen Crabtree (2002)
“In Christian theology Adam and Eve were punished for the original sin (of eating the apple); this punishment would be passed on from parent to child, and included not only suffering in general and death, but also many specifics, such as having a painful childbirth. Romans 5:12: "Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all men, because all sinned". Humankind was also expelled from the Garden of Eden at that point. Clearly, aliens on another planet are not subject to original sin, and, the punishments listed in the Bible may not even be applicable for the various possible life forms which exist in the Universe. Jesus was god's only son, crucified once here on earth, for us humans. Alien life makes a mess for the entire Christian idea of sin and salvation.”
“Making our Earth just one amongst many raised thorny questions about Christ's uniqueness. It was hard to reconcile multiple inhabited worlds with the fundamental tenet of Christianity, that God singled out the human race for special attention.”
“The existence of extra-terrestrial intelligence would have a profound impact on religion, shattering completely the traditional perspective of God's special relationship with man. The difficulties are particularly acute for Christianity, which postulates that Jesus Christ was God incarnate whose mission was to provide salvation for man on Earth. The prospect of a host of 'alien Christs' systematically visiting every inhabited planet in the physical form of the local creatures has a rather absurd aspect. Yet how otherwise are the aliens to be saved?”
“Although Paul Davies talks of the humorous idea of thousands of Christs resembling various aliens, being sent to all those planets by God, it contradicts the main messages of the Bible: that Jesus was God's only son and that the Crucifixion was a unique event specific to Jesus (1 Peter 3:18). So, there is no salvation for aliens. Also, Biblical eschatology has Zion descend on to Earth after Judgement (Revelations 10), with no more stars in the sky. Genesis 1:26 says that man is made in the 'image' of God and the angels, 'in our likeness'; so where would aliens come from? Are we to believe that intelligent life evolved throughout the universe but that our species in particular was created by the Creator, and that the Creator happens to look Human, along with the 'only' son of God who is also Human-shaped? To believe such things is known as 'homocentricity', a prideful and egotistical speciesism. Do aliens who live countless light-years away from Earth really have to know Jesus in order to be saved? But if you alter the Bible's stories to make them compatible with alien races on other planets, you also alter the central truths of Christianity; the religion you end up with after taking aliens into considering simply isn't Christianity any more.”
Some activist Christians have pushed for Christian messages to be sent out into space, and that our first priority should be to convert aliens. The horrendous consequences of this type of belief when Christians conquered the natives of Northern America and Australia are written into our history: They converted, or were killed. Hopefully such a violent and shocking confrontation will not also be part of humanity's future.
Mainstream theologians and intellectuals within the Abrahamic suite of religion have not given much time to discussions of the implications of alien life. However some have, and Erman McMullin warns his fellows that "religion which is unable to find a place for extraterrestrial persons in its view of the relations between God and the universe could find it increasingly difficult to command man's assent in times to come"13.
Some saviour religions actually cater for aliens. The Urantia movement holds that God has 700 000 sons incarnated on various worlds in the universe; Jesus is, of course, one of those divine sons14. The early scientist and astronomer Huygens argued that "the planets must be inhabited because otherwise God had made worlds for nothing"15. The religions that seem best placed to function in a Universe with more than species of intelligent, sentient beings are those that hold to universalist ideals; that is - the creator of the universe saves all living beings, and everyone goes to heaven. Other positions - that God punishes members of one species for doing 'evil' things, while punishing members of a different species for doing completely different things according to local circumstances, does not make sense if God embodies any set of absolute morality. In other words - deist, pantheist, universalist and non-religious forms of deism appear to be able to explain aliens much better than Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam).
“There have also been many sects, cults, and schools of thought, religious or not, that have been atheist. For example many UFO cults are atheistic. The Raelians were founded by Mr Vorilhon when fluent French-speaking aliens told him that we had mistranslated the Bible, and in fact everything on Earth was built by the aliens. The infamous Scientology is a sci-fi, self-help, anti-alien religion with beliefs that don't include any kind of theism (hence, it is also atheist).”
Skeptical Inquirer. Pro-science magazine published bimonthly by the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, New York, USA.
The Guardian. Respectable and generally well researched UK broadsheet newspaper.
The Economist. Published by The Economist Group, Ltd. A weekly newspaper in magazine format, famed for its accuracy, wide scope and intelligent content. See vexen.co.uk/references.html#Economist for some commentary on this source.
The Bible (NIV). The NIV is the best translation for accuracy whilst maintaining readability. Multiple authors, a compendium of multiple previously published books. I prefer to take quotes from the NIV but where I quote the Bible en masse I must quote from the KJV because it is not copyrighted, whilst the NIV is. [Book Review]
God And The New Physics (1984). Penguin 2006 edition. Davies is a Professor in theoretical physics who has published ground-breaking research.
Science: A Four Thousand Year History (2009). Hardback. Fara has a PhD in History of Science from London University. Published by Oxford University Press.
Gardner, Martin. Died 2010 May 22 aged 95.
Fads & Fallacies in the Name of Science (1957). Published by Dover Publications, Inc., New York, USA. Originally published by G. P. Putnam's Sons in 1952 as "In the Name of Science".
Encyclopedia of New Religions (2004, Ed.). Hardback. Published by Lion Publishing, Oxford, UK.
Cosmos (1995). Originally published 1981 by McDonald & Co. This edition published by Abacus.