“The surest sign that intelligent life exists elsewhere in the universe is that it has never tried to contact us” – Bill Watterson
Thus far, the score for intelligent life in the universe is “Humans 1, Everything Else 0”. Okay, maybe dolphins, but they wisely keep their mouths shut unless there is a candlelit tuna dinner involved. There is a school of thought that tends to mix its science fiction tropes and postmodernist metaphors, suggesting that we’re just too darn anthropocentric in our search for other intelligences. That is to say, that some smart-alecky folks are convinced that the universe is teeming with intelligent life, but our notion of intelligence is so embedded in our humanity that we would fail to recognize it, or wouldn’t even know what to look for in the first place. I suspect these are the same people who think Joyce’s Ulysses is a transcendental work of staggering genius, rather than a poorly punctuated, hallucinatory rambling. Carl Sagan famously attributed this anthropocentricism to our “carbon chauvinism”. Others have listed our classificatory biases under a rubric of disdain for things that aren’t air breathing, big brained, or bipedal (political commentator Glenn Beck, for instance). While I’ll admit to being ideologically pro-carbon, a huge fan of the oxygen/nitrogen mix for respiration, and positively thrilled to be walking on two feet out of pure selfishness (it makes me feel tall), I wonder if the situation vis a vis the search for intelligent life in the universe is truly as dire as those who have opted to take philosophical relativism to its ultimate extreme would have us believe. There are three parts to this question, and I’ve labeled them “1”,”2”, and “c” (I have an indexing impediment). First, how can we define intelligence in non-human critters? Second, is the ability to conceive of “intelligence” adequate to the task of discovering other, different intelligences? And, alphabetically third, if there are alternate forms of intelligence outside the realm of our comprehension, does it really matter at all, since we might simply be sentient ships in the night, eternally unaware of each other’s existence? Which come to think of it, concisely describes a few of my past relationships, the failure of which I self-servingly attribute to the fact that I am ostensibly human, and she was clearly an alien. Luckily, I find not only solace, but also reasons for optimism in the fact that we believe we have been contacting bizarre “other intelligences” in the form of disembodied spirits, non-corporeal aliens, and ineffable gods for quite some time, and puzzling over how to relate to them. How can our storied history of trying to wrap our intellects around the insistent voices in our heads help us figure out what to look for out there in the universe?
People who insist that our search for intelligent life out there in the great beyond is hampered by our inability to conceive of an alternate form of sentient existence, one not constrained by our fleshy, bipedal carbonism, are actually saying we are collectively morons, albeit politely, since they’ve obviously conceived of the possibility themselves, and just want to feel superior to the rest of us workaday slugs. We forgive them their hubris, since obviously this is some sort of compensation for the fact that their mother didn’t love them. The truth is, as a species, we’ve devoted an awful lot of time, mythology, folklore, and theology to thinking about what an alternate intelligence would look like, what its motivations would be, how it would exhibit desires should it have any, and even discussing how to achieve some sort of rapport with a consciousness that is by definition outside our realm of experience. Our gods “move in mysterious ways”; the “Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao”; we’ve long been receiving cryptic and incomprehensible communiqués from dead people and prophets; Canadians and Americans have lived in relative peace, express mutual respect, and have shared pop stars for over 200 years (although we’re keeping a “suspicious eye for the French Canadian guy” on Quebec). Clearly, one of the charming qualities of sentience is the ability to conceive of the inconceivable, and make commensurable the incommensurable.
We tend to give gods a pass on the whole ineffability thing. I mean, they are gods after all. Therefore, historically we haven’t exhausted inordinate amounts of brain cells considering the character of divine intelligence, the presumption being that they have some idea what they’re doing, and will let us know directly when they feel communication is necessitated. This maintains a lucrative industry in priests and prophets. On balance, I guess the gods are “job creators”. And it is no doubt true that, currently enamored as we are of our technological savvy, and the cool gizmos that it has produced, when we think about talking to life on other planets, we tend to think in terms of audio, video, and broadband, because heck, what good is it having radio telescopes at our disposal unless we can establish a common Billboard Top 10 with whatever life forms are out there (now that human sacrifice related to precise astronomical alignments has gone out of style. Sigh. Good times). Nostalgia for unanaesthetized human heart extraction aside, it turns out that for a brief period of time, corresponding to the era in the United States called The Second Great Awakening (roughly 1840-1920 A.D.) and the Victorian Occult Revival in the British Empire (1830-1900 A.D.), a religious-philosophical movement known as Spiritualism spent a bunch of time considering elusive “other intelligences” and what they might represent.
I blame it on Protestantism. Not in the Catholic Church sort of way, which historically entailed sending out a bunch of dubiously devout mercenaries to bust heads, rather in the new perspective on understanding the universe that Protestantism afforded. Once Martin Luther got a bee in his about the evils of mediation between god and man, people started wondering about whether direct contact (for people other than saints) with some sort of universal intelligence was truly possible. Once that seed was planted, the concept of spiritualism inevitably arose, exemplified in the early 18th Century philosopher, scientist, all-around Macgyver, and Christian mystic Emanuel Swedenborg, and his lengthy conversations with disembodied intelligences that he presumed to be floating out there among the planets. Swedenborg’s ethnographies of the spirit world would certainly contribute to the later development of Spiritualism in all its flavors, but are notable in so far as they constitute an attempt to think about how an intelligence wholly different from our own would interact with us. Of course, he might just have been nuttier than a fruitcake, but few would argue that there wasn’t a brilliant mind locked inside the body of a Swedish engineer. The same way Ikea universalized furniture, Swedenborg universalized speculation about non-human intelligence. And I hear he made a mean meatball.
The real earth or planet Jupiter does not indeed appear to spirits and angels: for to the inhabitants of the spiritual world no material earth is visible, but only the spirits and angels who come thence. They who are from the planet Jupiter appear in front to the left, at a considerable distance, and this constantly; there also is the planet. The spirits of every earth are near their respective earth in consequence of having been inhabitants thereof, for every man after death becomes a spirit, and in consequence of being thus of a similar genius and temper with the inhabitants, and of being in a capacity thereby of associating with and serving them (Swedenborg, 1875, p28).
Now, I’m not trying to sell you on Swedenborgianism (It’s a real Church, look it up, and the guy wrote volumes of this stuff), but the point is to demonstrate that even as early as the 18th Century, folks were thinking about intelligences of an entirely different order, and how they would relate to us. The spirits of Jupiter couldn’t even see the material world of Jupiter (or Earth, for that matter), but were presumed to relate to us on some sort of spiritual level. Incidentally, if you ever were to meet any of Swedenborg’s disembodied interplanetary spirits, you better hope they are from Jupiter, since he mentions that they are the coolest and kindest of the lot. Earth spirits are kind of sordid and don’t play well with others. This influenced later spiritualism, in character, if not in content.
Spiritualism has come to be associated with an obsession with séances, mediumship, table-rappings, automatic writing, and assorted parlor tricks designed to convince gullible Victorians that they were communicating with the dead, but these are just the elements that were later used to discredit some of the more ostentatious spiritualists focused primarily on chatting with the recently deceased for fun and profit. Philosophical spiritualism had a somewhat more expansive view, and was deeply concerned with who we might be talking to and how to understand them. Stripped of its necromantic qualities and characteristically Christian overlays, Spiritualism was actually fascinated by, at least on a theoretical basis with (1) the possibility of communicating with non-corporeal spirits; (2) the idea that consciousness and will need not be attached to a physical manifestation; (3) that even disembodied spirits had a desire to learn and improve themselves; and (4) that existence in the natural world in whatever form one took, involved a participation in an “infinite intelligence” (by which of course, they meant God, culturally rooted as they were), but we can easily interpret as the notion that intelligence, regardless of its repository, strives for something approaching a transcendental rapport. To me this sounds a lot like folks who wanted to hypothesize about how to comprehend a non-human (and often non-physical) intelligence for which we could find almost no common ground, except a sort of mentation. That said, if we’re concerned that we might miss intelligent life out there in the universe, simply because we’re encapsulated in this pesky carbon shell, our thoughts trapped in squishy grey matter, and we consider a body an important part of our lifestyle, it behooves us to examine what various learned folks of the spiritualist bent might have to suggest since they seem to have spent a lot of time hanging with the recently deceased and the never-corporeal.
Sir Oliver Joseph Lodge (1878-1955) was a British physicist and renowned spiritualist that served as president of the Society for Psychical Research from 1901-1903, and it is no doubt that his work in wireless telegraphy started him down the road to asking why we need presume, since information can be encoded utilizing electricity and magnetism, that cognition and intelligence should be ultimately limited to our dirty fleshiness. At a macro level, he suggested that there was no clear reason to assume that what intelligences we might encounter would be dependent on the existence of a “carcass”.
That there are living terrestrial people we know; we also know that there is an immense variety of other terrestrial life;—though, if we were not so familiar with the fact, the luxuriant prevalence and variety of life would be surprising. The existence of a bat, for instance, or a lobster, would be quite incredible. Whether there is life on other planets we do not know, and whether there is conscious existence between the planets we do not know; but I see no a priori reason for making scientific assertions on the subject one way or the other. It is only at present a matter of probability. Just because we know that the earth is peopled with an immense variety of living beings, I myself should rather expect to find other regions many-peopled, and with a still more extraordinary variety. So also since mental action is conspicuous on the earth I should expect to find it existent elsewhere. If life is necessarily associated with a material carcass, then no doubt the surface of one of the many planetary masses must be the scene of its activity; but if any kind of mental action is independent of material or physical environment, then it may conceivably be that the psychical population is not limited to the surface of material aggregates or globes of matter, but may luxuriate either in the interstellar spaces or in some undimensional form of existence of which we have no conception (Lodge, 1909, p118-119).
The notion that lacking even corresponding senses, we could somehow communicate was taken up by Isaac K. Funk (Co-foudner of Funk and Wagnalls Company, in short, a wordy dude, and the bane of all people who hate dictionaries). He pointed out that even Helen Keller, who could neither see nor hear since birth, and many thought would forever be trapped in a sort of non-communicative isolation (unable to share in a common experience of reality, as her sensory world was different from ours), was able to assert her intelligence and blossom, when an attempt was finally made to establish a meeting of the minds.
It was very, very hard for Laura Bridgman and Helen Keller to grasp the thought that there was another world that beside their world of touch and smell and taste, there was a world of sound and sight and of intelligence far greater than their world and that interpenetrated their own. When the walls of darkness first began to give way the thought quite likely seemed to them uncanny, unreal. But then other intelligences did exist, and it was a complicated matter for father, mother, friends, to make themselves known, to communicate with these unfortunates, to enter their world. Why then should the thought be an a priori absurdity that we too are in a dungeon, and that another world of intelligences is in contact with our own—a world of men and women like ourselves, with other senses doing duty, senses which we have in rudimentary form—a world that interpenetrates our own? (Funk, 1904, p49).
James Frederick Ferrier (1808-1864), the Scottish metaphysician and inventor of the term “epistemology” (without which many college essays would have sound far less erudite), attempted to wrestle with the relationship between our senses and our cognitions, speculating that we need not regard our specific senses as essential to consciousness, suggesting that the defining quality of intelligence, other or otherwise, is a cognizance of a subject-object relationship. As somebody who works in the wonderful world of ontology for a living (although, I mostly oppress computers into doing the work for me), I can tell you, pretty much all the information in the universe can be communicated as long as you have a syntax that expresses the relation between subject and object.
Our five senses are the accidental part of the absolute in our cognition: they are not a necessary part of the Absolute in all cognition, and therefore they are not a necessary part of every absolute existence. Other intelligences may be cognisant of themselves – apprehending- things – in-other – ways-than-we-do. In which case their Absolute, both in cognition and existence, would be different from ours, in its accidentals, but not in its essentials. So that all that the ontology professes to have proved in regard to absolute existence is, that every Absolute Existence must consist of the two terms—ego and non-ego—subject and object—universal and particular; in other words, of a self, and something or other (be it what it may) in union with a self (Ferrier, 1856, p518).
Dr. Edmund Fournier d’Albe was a skeptical physicist that nonetheless spent some time investigating spiritualist mediums, debunking a few of the more egregious con men, but nonetheless considered the possibility that other intelligences might be involved, suggesting that the heightened “externalization” of emotion might be a means by which a completely foreign kind of consciousness would recognize our sentience and attempt to communicate. This has no doubt been taken up by various hippie communities intent on broadcasting thoughts of peace and love into the universe in order to assure the other intelligences out there that we are relatively harmless, but it’s not as ludicrous as it sounds at first. We affect each other through our emotions. Try telling your wife that your deep and abiding love is actually just biology, and has no independent reality in the cosmos. Hope you like sleeping on the couch.
It is easily imagined why the meeting of a number of people under agreeable social surroundings should be particularly favorable to such phenomena. There is then a vivid interchange of thought and emotion, a certain amount of “externalization” of the soul which is no doubt provocative of a number of phenomena in which such externalization assumes extreme forms. Besides, such communion brings the higher link (or “knot”) which links up the community into play, and probably has the power of attracting other intelligences of a similar character (Fournier d’Albe , 1908, p307-308).
William James (1842-1910) was a psychologist, philosopher, and medical doctor, as is often called “the Father of American Psychology”. He was also the son of a Swedenborgian theologian. For obvious reasons, the rise of Spiritualism piqued his curiosity, and he spent a lot of time studying it, positing that we are a little too dismissive of contacts with other intelligences, as man has devoted entire libraries to writing about precisely these sorts of phenomena. He considered whether there might be manifestations of what he called “permanent” vs. “temporary” intelligences arising from natural forces.
The question then presents itself: In what shape is it most reasonable to suppose that the will thus postulated is actually there? And here again there are various pneumatological possibilities, which must be considered first in abstract form. Thus the will to Communicate may come either from permanent entities, or from an entity that arises for the occasion. R.H.’s spirit would be a permanent entity; and inferior parasitic spirits (“daimons,” elementals, or whatever their traditional names might be) would be permanent entities. An improvised entity might be a limited process of consciousness arising in the cosmic reservoir of earth’s memories, when certain conditions favoring systematized activity in particular tracts thereof were fulfilled. The conditions in that case might be conceived after the analogy of what happens when two poles of different potential are created in a mass of matter, and cause a current of electricity, or what not, to pass through an intervening tract of space until then the seat of rest. To consider the case of permanent entities, there is no a priori reason why human spirits and other spiritual beings might not either co-operate at the same time in the same phenomenon, alternatively produce different manifestations. Prima facie, and as a matter of “dramatic” probability, other intelligences than our own appear on an enormous scale in the historic mass of material which Myers first brought together under the title of Automatisms. The refusal of modern “enlightenment” to treat “possession” as a hypothesis to be spoken of as even possible, in spite of the massive human tradition based on concrete experience in its favor, has always seemed to me a curious example of the power of fashion in things scientific (James, 1920, p485-486).
Scientific fashion certainly lumped all of spiritualism under the category of “hokum” and “carnival tricks”. James decided he’d rather think about the possibilities than dismiss the idea of other intelligences outright. Now this is the wise gentleman that founded the school of psychological though called “pragmatism” (that thought is not a mirror of reality, rather an instrument for prediction and problem solving). The truth is, not all spiritualist thinkers had the same regard for other intelligences, and opinions varied widely on their significance. Spiritualist Mary MacDermot Crawford expressed the common belief that other intelligences were actually trying to help us share in a more universal intelligence, and always have been, only we’ve chosen to apply labels like god or angel, in order to help us understand them. She would have been a big fan of Ancient Aliens.
I know that man is surrounded by other intelligences. If you once step beyond man there is no limit until you come to the Infinite Intelligence Himself. Once having got beyond man you go on and must go on until you come to God, but it is no strange land to which I am leading you. The Cosmos is one. We here on this planet are limited in certain ways, and blind to much that is going on; but I tell you we are surrounded by beings working with us, co-operating, helping such as people in visions have had some perceptions of, and that which religion tells us saints and angels are, and that the Master Himself is helping us in is, I believe, literally true (Crawford, 1915, p93).
Belgian poet and essayist Maurice Maeterlinck (1911 Nobel Prize Winner in Literature) and a central figure in the Symbolist art movement (anti-realism, exhibiting more interest in spirituality, imagination, and dreams) was a little more skeptical of the other intelligences, and leaned toward the idea that we were deluding ourselves if we thought they were actually trying to be of some assistance. Even in his cynical interpretation of them, he was trying to grapple with how to understand our relationship to other intelligences. I don’t think he was a very happy guy. Should have spent more time with Mary MacDermot Crawford.
It is obvious: to whichever side we turn, we find nothing but the incomprehensible. On the one hand, the pre-established, unshakable, unalterable future which we have called destiny, fatality or what you will, which suppresses man’s entire independence and liberty of action and which is the most inconceivable and the dreariest of mysteries; on the other, intelligences apparently superior to our own, since they know what we do not, which, while aware that their intervention is always useless and very often cruel, nevertheless come harassing us with their sinister and ridiculous predictions. Must we resign ourselves once more to living with our eyes shut and our reason drowned in the boundless ocean of darkness; and is there no outlet? (Maeterlinck , 1914, p173-174).
French parapsychologist Emile Boirac (1851-1917) conducted intensive experiments on mediums and studied the relatively new phenomena of hypnosis wasn’t particularly sure about the possibility of other intelligences, but not entirely dismissive either, pointing out that we simply can’t take for granted that the manifestation of another intelligence operates under the same laws as the observable affects in action of human cognition. This does not rule out the possibility that there are indeed other mechanisms by with such intelligences might operate.
In a similar way, we know that the human intelligence and the human will produce, through the medium of human organs, certain effects directly observable; but we have no proof that these same effects can be produced by other intelligences and other wills, without organs or through the medium of other organs. To suppose that this happens in certain cases is to introduce a new law, and not simply to extend an old law to these new cases (Boirac, 1918, p71-72).
Zoologist and Psychical researcher Edward Turner Bennett recognized the same problem as Boriac, focused as he was on physical evidence related to spiritualist phenomena, agreeing that defining the actions of other intelligences in our physical terms was outside the range of what he thought he could deal with, but he still maintained we should try, since there are few things in the universe that might be as interesting as chatting with something non-human, however we managed to accomplish the feat.
There were peculiarities special to each, but untouched movements of heavy articles, “levitations,” lights, and sounds, were phenomena common to both. From whence does this “chain of mysteries” come? Is the source to be sought for in undiscovered powers and faculties of the men themselves, or in the action of other intelligences? That is a problem which must be left. It is outside the scope of this inquiry, which deals solely with the establishment of physical facts. But where can any other field be found of equal interest? Difficulties and perplexities meet the explorer in abundance. But they exist in order to be overcome by the same steady persistence which has attained its reward in many another direction (Bennett, 1909, p122).
The spiritualists and spiritualist-curious, unfortunately largely dead (but possibly not out of contact) could have thrown a rockin’ party with the folks at SETI, since they have so much to talk about. The idea of communing with other intelligences is central to both their philosophies, and at the core is the idea that thoughts and feelings have a detectable existence, and that regardless of the material or immaterial form they are bounded by, the fact that a consciousness might be capable of wonder and curiosity trumps any sort of biochemical limitation in establishing a common ground upon which to relate. A Kickstarter campaign for a SETI séance might be in order.
To state the matter broadly, so as to include in a common formula the unremembered utterances of the hypnotic subject, and the involuntary writings of the waking automatist, I would maintain that when the horizon of consciousness is altered, the opening field of view is not always or wholly filled by a mere mirage or refraction of objects already familiar, but does, on rare occasions, include new objects, as real as the old. And amongst the novel energies thus liberated, the power of entering into direct communication with other intelligences seems to stand plainly forth. Among the objects in the new prospect are fragments of the thoughts and feelings of distant minds (Gurney, 1886, pLXII).
Ultimately, historical spiritualism has already offered up a rejoinder to the accusation that we are just too human to conceive of an intelligence that is not necessarily governed by the same biology or physical limitations as ourselves. So what we look for when trying to identify alternate forms of consciousness boils down to the presence of will, a deliberate externalization into the universe, the expression of emotion, and an awareness of the subject-object relationship. How do we look for these? I don’t know. Do I have to think of everything? Let’s put some of those college philosophy professors to work on this. They have that kind of free time. We barely understand human consciousness, yet we manage to get along, talk amongst ourselves about stuff that’s important to us, form communities, and build civilizations. Logical positivism in the guise of relativism unnecessarily localizes our intelligence in a soup of carbon, when in fact it is only such strict physicalism that is trapped in the mortal flesh. As William James observed, “Our normal waking consciousness, rational consciousness as we call it, is but one special type of consciousness, whilst all about it, parted from it by the filmiest of screens, there lie potential forms of consciousness entirely different”. Or maybe that’s just what the voices in my head want me to believe.
Bennett, Edward T. Psychic Phenomena: a Brief Account of the Physical Manifestations Observed In Psychical Research, / by Edward T. Bennett. With a Foreword by Sir Oliver Lodge. New York: Brentano’s, 1909.
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Crawford, M. MacDermot. Peeps into the Psychic World: the Occult Influence of Jewels And Many Other Things. Philadelphia: Lippincott , 1915.
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Fournier d’Albe, E. E. 1868-1933. New Light on Immortality. London: Longmans, Green, and co., 1908.
Funk, Isaac K. 1839-1912. The Widow’s Mite And Other Psychic Phenomena. New York: Funk & Wagnalls company, 1904.
Gurney, Edmund, 1847-1888. Phantasms of the Living. [1st ed.] London: Rooms of the Society for psychical research; Trübner and co., 1886.
James, William, 1842-1910. Collected Essays And Reviews. New York: Longmans, Green, 1920.
Lodge, Oliver, Sir, 1851-1940. The Survival of Man: a Study in Unrecognized Human Faculty. New York: Moffat, Yard and company, 1909.
Maeterlinck, Maurice, 1862-1949. The Unknown Guest. New York: Dodd, Mead and company, 1914.
Swedenborg, Emanuel, 1688-1772. The Earths In the Universe, And Their Inhabitants: Also, Their Epirits And Angels: From What Has Been Heard And Seen. London: Swedenborg Soc., 1875.