Tuesday, February 14, 2023

What if Extraterrestrials Sent the UFOs?

 by Michael C. Dorf

First of all, I refuse to use the term "UAP," given the rich and weird history of "UFO." I get that "unidentified aerial phenomena" is technically more accurate than "unidentified flying objects" because some of the observations might not be of "objects," while some of the objects lack the capacity to "fly" in the sense of direct their own course. Even so, it's not as though the term UFO offended extraterrestrials or anyone else. It seems to me that the Kansas City pro football team and the Atlanta major league baseball team should change their names (and their fans should abandon the "tomahawk chop") long before we give up "UFO."

Meanwhile, yes, I know. By far the most likely explanation for the discovery of the three UFOs that the U.S. and Canada have shot down since shooting down the Chinese spy satellite is simply that the more finely tuned parameters for detecting and acting on high-altitude objects have revealed more stuff floating in North American airspace than we previously cared about. However, while that fact means that it's highly unlikely that there are suddenly more UFOs above the North American skies than in the past, it doesn't rule out the possibility that some of them are of extraterrestrial origin. Maybe the hyper-intelligent octopus-people of Kepler-62f have been silently watching us for years and we're only now noticing their probes.

Undercutting the ET explanation is the statement by the National Security Council that the three objects shot down since the downing of the Chinese balloon were (as reported by NPR) "uncrewed and . . . have limited abilities, from a lack of communication signals to a lack of obvious propulsion capability." But of course, the spacefaring octopus-people could have all sorts of technology we barely comprehend--means of hiding their crew, communications, and propulsion methods. Thus, when White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said "[t]here is no – again, no — indication of aliens or extraterrestrial activity with these recent takedowns," it's possible that our technology is unable to detect the cloaked signs of extraterrestrial activity.

Am I serious? No, of course not. But my Verdict column tomorrow will discuss the Chinese spy balloon, so I thought it would be fun to write about ETs in today's essay for the blog. The column discusses the scientific and legal distinctions between spy balloons and spy satellites. In the balance of this essay, I'll say a few words about how we might think about contact with alien civilizations.

Okay, so let's begin with the crazy assumption that one or more of the UFOs we're shooting down are extraterrestrial in origin--either uncrewed probes or vehicles with hidden ETs aboard them. It seems like an obvious blunder to shoot them down. If the ETs are hostile, destroying their craft risks angering them at which point they will unleash their vastly technologically superior weaponry against us. And if they're friendly, destroying their craft deprives us of an opportunity to benefit from their advanced technology. Perhaps they were on the verge of descending from their octagonal spaceship--an indication that the alien visitors are indeed octopus-people?--to teach us how to regenerate injured or diseased body parts. Maybe they were about to teach us how to predict the future (if they're heptapods rather than octopods, but what's one limb among friends?).

The foregoing conundrum reflects a debate among serious scientists about whether we should be trying to make contact with extraterrestrial civilizations. Beings with the technology to travel across light-years could provide us with marvelous gifts if they're friendly or easily destroy (or farm or enslave) us if they're hostile. As the late Stephen Hawking explained: "If aliens visit us, the outcome would be much as when Columbus landed in America, which didn't turn out well for the Native Americans."

Each of the last two links offers alternative perspectives that are, in my view, more persuasive. Distant alien civilizations likely have much closer planets, moons, and other objects they can exploit for non-living resources. By way of comparison, the cost-benefit calculus of mining asteroids within our own solar system is uncertain. Traversing interstellar space for any resources--including other living beings to farm, enslave, or otherwise exploit--would be absurdly expensive. Of course, interstellar travel for benign purposes is also prohibitively expensive, but one could imagine that the payoff of making contact with an alien civilization has such great scientific value that it alters the calculus. Or perhaps a civilization sufficiently advanced to travel across interstellar distances has so much advanced technology (dilithium-crystal-powered warp drive, infinite improbability drive, Wookiees, etc.) that getting here is a cinch. In that case, we have no firm basis to guess whether the ETs who do show up are friendly or hostile.

I suspect that purveyors of the Hawking view--be afraid, very afraid--are applying a version of Pascal's wager. To oversimplify, 17-century French philosopher Blaise Pascal argued for belief in God on probabilistic grounds: we don't know for certain whether God exists; if He exists and we please Him by believing in Him, we will receive an enormous benefit of eternal blissful life, whereas if He does not exist and we nonetheless believe in Him, we won't lose very much; by contrast, if God exists but we displease Him by disbelieving in Him, we will suffer eternity in hell (or simply miss out on heavenly bliss, which would also be a great loss). Thus, Pascal calculated, the expected payoff for believing is greater than for disbelieving.

For a fuller explanation of Pascal's wager, consider the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry, which also includes well-known criticisms of the argument. To my mind, the entry omits (the best version of) the most telling argument against the wager: we have no idea what will please God, even assuming He exists. Maybe God doesn't care whether we believe in Him. Or maybe our belief pleases Him but does not suffice for us to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Maybe, as most religions teach, God also wishes us to act in certain ways. But how?

Most of the world's great religions agree about basic ethical precepts: don't kill, steal, or bear false witness, etc. But many also prescribe ritual practices. You can't comply with all of them because complying with the tenets of one religion often means violating the tenets of another. For example: "For traditionally religious Jews, engaging in Buddhist practices is a violation of the prohibition against avodah zarah, idol worship." Pascal's wager fails because it provides no real guidance.

Now that's not to say that Pascal's wager fails conceptually, only empirically. Suppose that tomorrow skywriting appears in numerous places around the world in the various local languages saying:

There are many religions but the Southern Baptist Convention is the one true church. Adherence to its beliefs and ritual practices will ensure your place in heaven; defiance of them will lead to eternal suffering in hell. Also, in case you were wondering, the dinosaur bones aren't real; I put them in the ground to test your faith. Biblical Creation is the real deal.

Initially, one would want to investigate possible human origins of the skywriting. Was this a prank? Was it a stunt--perhaps by the same people who run those "Jesus gets us" ads during football games? However, if exhaustive investigation failed to identify a plausible human origin for the skywriting, one might indulge Pascal's wager and think: it's possible, even likely, that evidence for some non-Divine account will emerge, but it's also possible that the skywriting is real. Even if the latter probability is low, so long as it's not trivially low, I ought to abide by the admonition and become a practicing God-fearing Southern Baptist, given the stakes.

Now, of course, we have nothing like such evidence regarding God or His wishes that would warrant any action based on Pascal's wager. Nonetheless, we do have at least a plausible basis for acting with respect to the ETs. Given how horribly humans treat even our fellow humans and how much worse we treat sentient members of other Earthling species, we have reason to believe we would be hostile to ETs and thus to fear that ETs would be hostile to us. If we are Bayesians about it, we will assign equal probability to friendly and hostile aliens, but even if we think it more likely that ETs capable of visiting the Earth are friendly, if we assign a non-trivial probability to hostile aliens, we might think it prudent to avoid angering them.

Meanwhile, whereas we can't know how to please God, even if we accept the rest of Pascal's logic, the ET version of Pascal's wager provides clear guidance: at the very least, we should avoid alerting the ETs to our presence. That was in fact Hawking's advice.

Unfortunately, it's probably too late for that. The ETs may have already gotten our signals. If so, we better hope they're friendly. And if they're visiting, let's hope they're here to help us. Perhaps they even need our help! If so, shooting down their octagonal and other-shaped starships seems like a grave error.

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