NASA’s religious quest for UFOs
The space agency is channelling ancient human desires
Humans have been staring at the sky for a long time now, a fact reflected in our most ancient monuments. The oldest known stone circle, Gobekli Tepe, was erected 12,000 years ago, and not only does it align to the stars, the “Vulture stone” features zodiacal inscriptions.
The sophistication of Gobekli Tepe is quite perplexing, given that the site dates back to the era when hunter gatherers were (possibly) wiping out the last of the megafauna. Of course, it’s always possible that the stones were put there by space aliens, in line with the ancient astronaut theory of civilisation’s origins as advanced by Erich von Däniken (and mocked by Frank Zappa in his finest composition, Inca Roads).
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Von Däniken’s books were massive in the 70s. By the time the 90s rolled around, however, visitors from space had shifted their attention to creating crop circles, and inserting foot-long anal probes into science fiction writers. The X-Files became a global cultural phenomenon, and posters depicting an alien smoking a joint beneath the legend “take me to your dealer” became popular. However, this enthusiasm for extraterrestrial life seemed to wane around the time a very different sort of UFO hit the Twin Towers, demonstrating with grim finality the truth of JG Ballard’s maxim that the most alien planet is earth.
And yet, twenty years on, it seems that we are once again ready to look to the stars. In fact, a new NASA-sponsored survey finds that the search for alien life is the top priority for astronomers over the next ten years. Perhaps this is not surprising coming from people whose job is to stare into space, but interest in the possibility of extraterrestrial life is enjoying a broader revival in society. A recent Gallup survey found that 40% of Americans think that UFOs containing alien beings have visited earth, up from 33% in 2019. Belief is up the most among college grads, where 37% now believe, over 27% in 2019. In addition, last year Trump declassified a trove of documents about UFOS, while Jeff Bezos recently took Captain Kirk himself into space.
Of course, enthusiasm for cosmic exploration is not universal. Prince William criticised Bezos (albeit without naming him), stating that billionaires should focus less on space and more on saving earth. I thought this was a bit churlish myself, an expression of the type of misrerabilist puritanism it used to be almost compulsory to lampoon, but which in these strange times marks you out as a righteous soul.
Speaking of righteousness, my own take on the search for alien life is that, rather like wokeness, it is an expression of a sublimated religious impulse that used to be directed at the real thing. You can even hear it in the language used by enthusiasts, who often speak of a desire to not be alone, which is of course the very same promise made by evangelical churches. That said, the differences are more significant than the similarities, as the type of organic molecules Curiosity Rover has been turning up on the surface of Mars since 2012 are a poor stand-in for a loving Heavenly Father, for sure.
If the astronomers did find intelligent life, we would still be completely alone, as it would be so far away we would never be able to touch it, or communicate with it. But regardless, this hope that is deep and ancient. So have at it, my astronomer friends, gaze through your telescopes and map the stars, following the same impulses that guided our long ago ancestors in Gobekli Tepe: continue their holy work.
“Prince William criticised Bezos (albeit without naming him), stating that billionaires should focus less on space and more on saving earth. I thought this was a bit churlish myself, an expression of the type of misrerabilist puritanism it used to be almost compulsory to lampoon, but which in these strange times marks you out as a righteous soul.”
I’m so glad someone else thinks this too – although I have to admit that I hadn’t managed to express it so well up to this point. Really, of all the people who should know better than to pontificate about how other people should spend their legitimately acquired and taxed wealth, Prince William stands pretty close to the front and centre in that picture.
It also grieved me sorely that even the Queen herself has been drawn into the climate change fiasco. She of course merely made the point that it is no longer a partisan political issue, but of course that persuades nobody who is a sceptic and has looked on with disgust at how mainstream politics has given up recognising that climate change scepticism is a valid and defensible position. The fact that scepticism is no longer represented is a failure of politics, not a reason to conclude that a consensus created via the systematic expulsion of one side of the argument must mean that we’re all past the politics now.
It is worth emphasising here that when I refer to climate change scepticism, this includes a recognition that the climate changes and is changing now, that this is indeed partly caused by human activity including CO2 emissions, that the effects are cumulative and cannot be continued indefinitely, that we should move to non-carbon dependent energy sources as fast as reasonably possible for many reasons beyond concern for the climate, and that some form of global political effort is needed to achieve this as well as the innovative capacity of free markets. Is this sceptical at all, you may ask? Well yes it is, when it is founded upon the justified view that the climate projections presented as evidence are not actually evidence, that it is very unlikely indeed that there is any near-term existential danger involved in climate change, that renewable energy is not a plausible replacement for the existing advanced energy generation infrastructure, and that not all forms of political effort in this context are worthwhile, helpful or compatible with the requirements of basic political and economic liberty.
I have read persuasive views prior to this point that predict the end of the monarchy as we know it once Queen Elizabeth II dies, because the culture shock of having a nakedly-political King in the form of Charles will collapse the pro-Monarchy cohort in British society. The Queen’s descent from her own position of strict impartiality is both depressing and surprising, and it may well come to be seen as a historic error once Net Zero’s real costs start to bite. The destructive economic effects cannot be avoided: they are going to have powerful inflationary effects and reverse decades of progress in terms of the myriad benefits that cheap and reliable energy have delivered in terms of innovation, technology, liberty and living standards.
The Queen should not have done this. It was a mistake, and a serious mistake at that.
As climate change alarmism kills people in third-world countries, there will certainly be moves in future by the left to airbrush out everyone who argued for it.
Slavery was legal in the 18th century but widely opposed. Climate change alarmism is the law in the 21st but also widely opposed. So when the left needs a reason to hate what the west has done in the 21st century, killing poor dark people by making energy too expensive is going to be right up there.
Incidentally, pharmaceuticals manufacture has a significant CO2 footprint. The next ecofascist step could quite easily be to outlaw production of certain drugs, such as those that provide palliative relief to people dying. They’re dying anyway, will go the argument, but sparing them pain is killing the whole planet, so they should just die. If you want an argument for euthanasia of useless mouths, climate change pseudoscience provides you with a unanswerable rationale that skirts the moral questions entirely.
Inexorably so – more specifically, the ways chosen to Save The Planet were all white-centric, therefore ecofascism = racism.
I give it about 5 years before this starts to be heard.
What the climate lobby should be looking to outlaw is smartphones, Facebook etc and all personal use of the internet given that data storage and mobile data already accounts for 20% of electricity usage.
If they were genuinely serious, they should be demanding a reduction in the number of TV channels to 3 with transmissions terminating at 11pm, a 90% reduction in the output of the film, television and music industries and a ban on Amazon and the likes of Deliveroo
The article over-labours an otherwise interesting aspect of human stargazing history. The religion-substitute role of aliens is a powerful argument for sure in a rational world refusing itself the comfort even of Raymond Tallis’s ‘Wonder’. But the parallel is weak. Alien life is a good organizing principle for funding space research. As for the existence of non-human space life, it is already a dead cert.
The closest but least-noticed parallel between belief in religion and belief in UFOs is perhaps in your last point. Since we only know of one place in the universe where life has evolved, our sample size of one is simply too small to determine whether life elsewhere is “a dead cert”. To do so requires a form of faith.
Either the universe is teeming with life because it can’t help itself, or it’s vanishingly rare and arises at such remote intervals of time and distance that it always finds itself constructively alone (of course the former could comprehend the latter, to some extent).
My money’s on the latter. I would honestly be surprised if we (or any other life form elsewhere) ever got to discover much less encounter alien life. Very, very old artefacts of extinct alien life, perhaps, like that recent asteroid that behaved a bit like a spaceship.
It may be that we never encounter anything else ‘alien’ living (although viruses and meteors may be disproving that already), but to say that llfe is likely to occur elsewhere – on a continuum from past to future – is less of an article of faith than a hypothesis based on a probabilistic likelihood given that under certain conditions it has occurred – here. A priori rejections of hypotheses lead only to dead ends.
“Speaking of righteousness, my own take on the search for alien life is that, rather like wokeness, it is an expression of a sublimated religious impulse”
Why is Religion the default criticism of anything the secular-humanist fails to agree with? Why has modern thinking become so childish and simplistic.
Vaganism – religion,
Woke – religion
Climate change -religion
Q-anon – religion
Antifa/Blm – religion
Religions as we think of them means a structured Dogma, Core Written Theology with great amounts of philosophical examination, a structure of Heiarchy, Cultus (religious rites, customs of practices – ritual), and agreed upon principals, ethics, rules, and ultimate purpose.
” the very same promise made by evangelical churches”.
“Curiosity Rover has been turning up on the surface of Mars since 2012 are a poor stand-in for a loving Heavenly Father, for sure.”
An article which gives no information on the newly released data, or point, or actual thought yet says it is religion….. I suppose this is Unherd’s version of a good Sunday Article. Something equated to some vague ‘religiousesk’ stuff without actual religion….yawn.
Except that climate science is not all religion.
have you missed the point? A religious impulse is fundamentally different from Religion. You answered your own Q with ‘structured Dogma’. All the phenomena you list operate more or less on structured dogma of the loudest shouter’s new clothes. Like it or not in the modern world, Religion has eased into a tempting byword for extreme, rigid thought and action.
With respect, I think it more likely that the off-hand rejection of best-effort science (with little to disprove it with) will be seen as the Madness of (increasingly small) Crowds – much as flat-earthers have persisted since the greek or else middle ages as quaint curios rather than curia. Ask most people if straight lines exist and they will say ‘yes’ – whereas in nature they do not and the battle over the issue was fought perhaps as hard as climate debates.
Best effort science my a**e. No one is looking to disprove it and anyone who steps out of line is automatically a heretic.
Worst of all the climate ‘scientist’ who should be looking to disprove there own theories are doing no such thing
not so actually. Try having a look at this https://www.climateclips.com/climate-clips/
There are some very very clever people still looking for the ‘evidence’ – and not finding too much of it, either.
Please feel free to disseminate
All the best
I am all for space exploration – but given that we are talking now about mining the sea floor – wouldn’t it make sense that we properly explored our deep oceans as well ? Every time they send a ‘deep ocean probe’ down they discover amazing and bizarre new species and learn new things.
We should do this I agree, but with unmanned probes so that the technology developed can also be used for exploring the sub-surface oceans on Europa and other such places.
True – and a valid point. The more we know of the ocean deep, the less prepared we may be to destroy it – although that may be wishful thinking. The deep tells us a lot we may need to know about extreme environments and life on other planets: research on both has synergies. So do both: walk, and chew gum.
There’s no reason to suppose that UFOs are anything to do with aliens.
It’s much likelier that sightings are natural phenomena. Where they involve obvious craft, the craft are more likely to have been developed by other humans.
Otherwise you have to postulate aliens, which unlike natural phenomena or other humans, have never been shown even to exist. An explanation that UFOs are the work of aliens is thus no explanation at all.
There is also no reason to suppose that aliens do not exist. Given the age and size of the universe, and our knowledge of how life seems to be inevitable given the right conditions which we also know must exist in billions of other places in the universe, the proposition that Earth is unique is the odd idea for which a defence must be presented.
I do however agree that this does not mean that alien life has developed interstellar travel but for some reason is only interested in revealing itself to drunken rednecks and tinfoil hatters in the USA.
The rationalist and circumstantial argument that they don’t exist is, I think, stronger than that they do.
The conditions for life to arise appear so far to be vanishingly rare. It’s not solipsism that says you need liquid water and carbon. You need a liquid medium for molecules to move around in and form hydrocarbon molecules. Carbon’s a good candidate because of how many ways there are to construct different materials off it. Other candidates, such as silicon, are superficially interesting except that almost all silicates are all rigid, which makes it hard to see how you evolve a silicon-based amoeba.
Whichever you think is possible, the process takes time, so the number of suitably long-lived and stable stars is limited, and planets even more so. These aliens next have to develop technological intelligence, which has happened only once even on Earth. They have to be able to conquer huge distances; and they either have to exist at the same time as us or invent time travel. Either of these last looks really challenging.
Only then do you have anything or anyone capable of visiting, and given the effort, they’re likely to need a reason. Their reported visits hitherto seem to consist, as you note, of probing rednecks’ bottoms, or entertaining aircraft pilots.
Or it could just be the Chinese.
So I don’t rule anything out but in the sense of which is likelier…I’d be looking for Chinese markings on these UFOs.
“The conditions for life to arise appear so far to be vanishingly rare. It’s not solipsism that says you need liquid water and carbon. You need a liquid medium for molecules to move around in and form hydrocarbon molecules.”
The conditions you’ve started to describe aren’t rare though. We began detecting rocky planets over 20 years ago with our telescopes, and more lately we’re seeing evidence that some of these planets have water and CO2 in their atmospheres. And these planets, note, are close enough for such detection to be possible, which in cosmic terms equates to about as far away as next door. Unless there is a very good reason to suppose that such planets only exist in our near vicinity, the safest assumption is that their existence is common and ubiquitous.
Except that the last sentence is not true, regardless of whether the claims are true.
You may think so. But others who have looked in more detail have far less ‘certainty’- and open minds on this and other things. Newton was as much alchemist as scientist. Exploring the fringes of knowledge helps define what’s worth exploring. There be monsters …
Yup. Occam’s Razor. There’s only one thing we know for sure about ufos: they are here on earth.
“At the time of the original moon landings a writer acquaintance of mine dismissed the whole project as only of interest to what he termed the little man. Great men in his opinion would be concerned with great things such as writing great novels, composing great music, producing great philosophy. Only the small-minded could possibly find fulfillment in such petty machine-based achievement.”
This reminds me of the famous FR Leavis / CP Snow debate many years ago in which a supposedly great contest between the Arts and Science was said to have been won by FR Leavis on the side of the Arts. The problem, of course, that those who deemed the victory to lie that way were exactly the same people who CP Snow identified as being highly cultured and educated, but who could nonetheless proudly claim to know nothing about science; CP Snow’s position was that it is not legitimate to consider oneself educated and informed while remaining ignorant of such a vast and growing sphere of knowledge. History, of course, left CP Snow the winner, proving the old maxim that truth doesn’t win by persuading those who disagree with it, but by simply outliving them.
Exactly. It may also be an evolution of the aristocratic snobbery displayed towards people who had to work for their money, even, perhaps especially, towards those who were highly successful at commerce and became as rich as the landed class themselves.
“This reminds me of the famous FR Leavis / CP Snow debate”
reminds me of a straw man
Life… The smaller your life, the smaller the universe and reality you occupy. Most of you sheep’s universe and reality exists all within the bounds of your grazing land and paddock, yet you come here to post on the infinite Universe and on the Ultimate.
You know how at the bottom of Unherd’s pages it says they look for writers, and to submit a sample of your writing? I did that once, saying I could write of my encounter of Yeti in a far, and very remote, winter night. The sparse spruce trees covered in snow, as was all the land, so that the moon light had all of the mountains and forest lit in a sharp blue light , enough to see very clearly by, and how, when they begin singing, it felt like…….
But Unherd never bothered to even reply….. and so my stories (true) of the crypto-fauna and exceptionally strange physical phenomenon, and weird people encounters, from my long and odd life in outlandish places, go unprinted…..
Except that you have written the book and torn it up into little pieces, like confetti, and planted each piece in a different place in the internet so that one day a search engine can use all the names you use to collect all the pieces and an AI can be used to assemble them in an order that tells a story that may or not be yours depending on the order it chooses. But will there be any humans to read it? Do aliens read?
How would we know anything is a sign of intelligent life? Well, it would show a pattern that could only result from intention. What would be a good name for that? I know – intelligent design! Oh, wait- –
Mr. Kalder and UnHerd generally are out to lunch on this one.
Yes, there are crackpots who believe in aliens. There are also crackpots who agree with Freddie Sayers about governmental COVID policies. That does not prove that Freddie is wrong.
The US government has now, admittedly in an oblique way, bought in to the presence in our midst of non-human intelligence. The public report to that effect released last June was artfully written so as not to freak people out. The classified version of the same report, shared with a limited number of Congresspersons, is said to include a 40-minute video that shows clearly a craft as big as a football field rising out of the sea in close proximity to a US naval vessel. Politicians as disparate as Adam Schiff and Mitt Romney came out of the briefing featuring this video “gobsmacked.”
And so it is highly annoying to see the subject — potentially the most important story in human history — trivialized like this by people who have not bothered to dive into the evidence as journalists are supposed to do. READ — Jacques Vallee, James Fox, Ralph Blumenthal, Leslie Kean, Ross Coulthart, John Mack and Christopher Mellon. Or, if that’s too time-consuming, simply watch Fox’s recent documentary “The Phenomenon.” All of these people, all over the world, cannot be delusional.
To the oft-raised point that the speed of light is a barrier that precludes alien visitation, there are at least two potential counterpoints — the possibility of the bending of gravity/space-time, and the possibility, embraced by Vallee among others, that the travel is not between galaxies but between dimensions.
Finally, belief in the phenomenon is not always, perhaps not even often, driven by a quasi-religious longing. I say this because the evidence suggests that some of the entities in question are at best indifferent to humankind’s fate, and at worst actively malevolent. I do not wish to be “just another animal in the zoo,” but that may be the underlying story that is about to be revealed.
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