“Your theory is crazy, but it’s not crazy enough to be true” – Niels Bohr
We’re smart. We’re handsome. We have opposable thumbs and impressive scores on Candy Crush. Why wouldn’t intelligent extraterrestrials want to talk to us? Then again we have jihad, crusades, madmen threatening each other with nuclear weapons, poverty, racism, injustice, climate change, and the inexplicable popularity of reality television (apart from schadenfreude). An alien might be forgiven for assuming we are insane, and treat us the same way we treat the guy on the corner having an animated conversation about strategies for a land war in Asia with an invisible Attila the Hun, that is, as clinically interesting, but better left alone.
But look at our scientific achievements, you say? We’ve come so far, so fast. We’ve harnessed the atom, conquered numerous diseases, and invented ice cream that doesn’t melt. We’re routinely lobbing things out into the solar system, scanning the heavens for signals of other civilizations, and seriously talking about colonizing other planets (well, Elon Musk is, at any rate) – how could this not pique the interest of sentient critters out there in the great beyond?
To comfort ourselves amidst the deafening silence, we’ve come up with a lot of explanations for why we’re treated like a militant vegan on a cattle ranch who keeps screaming about “Cowschwitz”. Our hypotheses about the answer tend to place us at the center of the universe, figuratively speaking. First and foremost among these is the notion that life is rare or non-existent out there in the cosmos, let alone intelligence on par with the average human. Aren’t we special? This gives theologians the vapors. A variation on this theme suggests that while life might be common, complex life of the form that builds civilizations is the rarity, technology out in the neighborhood is really low, or life will be common in the universe, but we’re just the first instance that has arisen. In short, we’re top of the class. But before you slap that “My child is in on the honor roll at the Galactic Elementary School” bumpersticker on your Volvo, let’s consider some alternative options. Perhaps it is the nature of intelligent life to destroy itself or others. The way things are going these days, this might seem like a tenable hypothesis, although there is an element of patting ourselves on the back for not yet committing species suicide. Then again, we are getting pretty good at mass homicide. These are what I call the “dig us” arguments. Perhaps I had one too many years of religious indoctrination, but if something is too self-gratifying it probably leads to chafing.
There are a bevy of straightforward physicalist explanations for why aliens haven’t shown up. Maybe extinction level events happen more than we like to think about. Gamma ray bursts, honking big asteroids, and all manner of dangers lurk out there in the darkness waiting to lay down a can of whoop-ass on us for no better reason than “them’s the breaks”. Then there’s just plain old time and space. The universe is a big place, and it just keeps getting bigger. Maybe nobody bothers. Maybe their TV season runs longer?
Then there are the paranoid theories. And I say “paranoid” with love. Some have suggested that civilizations arise, but tend to isolate themselves, or that we are all too alien to each other to effectively communicate. Or maybe the governments have been contacted and are hiding them, or they are hiding themselves. I’m particularly fond of the notion that everyone is just being really quiet because there is something big and bad out there in the universe, and sticking one’s head up is inadvisable. And then there’s the whole vein of thinking that says it’s all just a simulation, in which case it should be a lot easier for me to learn karate than experience would suggest. This brings us to the “Zoo Hypothesis”, that is that Earth is kept deliberately isolated for reasons ranging from amusement, to fear of our aggressive nature, to some version of Star Trek’s Prime Directive. Perhaps we just smell. You’d be amazed at the impeccable standards of hygiene out there in the Milky Way. And are we prepared to answer the question of why we named our galaxy after a candy bar?
Until we get to ask an extraterrestrial, we don’t have much to go on, thus we just keep beaming our signals out into space in the cosmic equivalent of shouting “Hey, Jenny Slater!” repeatedly looking for affirmation, decade after decade. Which itself might be the reason nobody talks to us. We’re really annoying.
Nothing is more damaging to our egos than the thought that aliens just aren’t talking to us. We have so much to say. And we hate being ignored. We are much more comfortable with ideas like the possibility that we are a special snowflake, alone in the vasty vastness, or that life routinely gets wiped out in local cataclysms than we are with facing our own potential for unpopularity. We may be nasty and brutish, but we’re drinking our milk, eating our vegetables, and continuously expanding our already considerable craniums. Bit by bit our science is unravelling the secrets of the universe, we tell ourselves, and soon enough we will be master of our domain. Look at our libraries. Look at our internet. Have you seen Game of Thrones? Soon enough we may be a multi-planetary kind of critter. Maybe we’ll finally get asked to the Galactic Prom.
Or maybe, just maybe, by Universal standards, we are considered to be insane. Nutty as a fruitcake. Non compos mentis. Half a bubble off plumb. Three bales shy of a stack. One loop short of a full knot. You get the picture. Wouldn’t that be a hoot? Hold on there, you say? In aggregate we may behave oddly, but have we not generally embraced concepts like logic, rationality, and science? We use Occam’s Razor like a bald barber. That alone should qualify us to play in the varsity league, should it not? Sometimes I feel like I’m trying to earn a Boy Scout merit badge in worst case scenarios, but my motto, like theirs is “Be prepared”. So what if those very things we put at the top of our resume are precisely the factors that make everybody else in the Cosmos think we’re wackadoodle. If only we had some sentient alien life to ask and confirm our worst nightmares. Well, at least we have Emanuel Swedenborg.
Emanuel Swedenborg (1688-1772) was a renowned Swedish scientist, engineer, and inventor way ahead of his time, somewhat akin to Da Vinci. Then he started having visions. Freaking visions always get you into trouble. By 1741 he was more concerned with theology, and penned no less than 18 works concerned with his spiritual insights, many of which he claimed to have gleaned from revelatory conversation and guided tours from angels and spirits. This particular body of revelations would later become the Christian denomination of Swedenborgianism. Among Swedenborg’s writings are telling records of his self-reported conversations with “the spirits of Jupiter”.
A little background on this whole spirits on other planets thing. Most of Swedenborg’s theological musings center on the simple concept of “Don’t be a dick”. Nonetheless, Swedenborg’s magnum opus, the Arcana Cœlestia contains some salacious details, as to why those sentient critters he encountered on his tramp about the solar system with his spirit guides avoid us like an ex-girlfriend.
The Cliff Notes version of Swedenborg’s extraterrestrial ethnography is that every celestial body is surrounded by clouds of “spirits”, the conscious remnants of the inhabitants of those planets that have moved on to their next phase of spiritual development. And the spirits of Jupiter don’t even want to associate with the spirits of Earth, let alone those dirty physical apes down planet-side. Even when we die, apparently we are “Cunning and ingenious in plotting evils… speak much and think little, and thus that they cannot interiorly perceive many things, and not even what good is.” (Arcana Cœlestia 8031). The Jovians sound pretty full of themselves, but also alarmingly succinct in their description of us. Most of all, they dislike our scientists.
The inhabitants of Jupiter make wisdom consist in thinking well and justly about the occurrences in life. They derive this wisdom from their parents, from infancy, and it is transmitted by succession to posterity, and thereby increases. They know nothing at all of the sciences, such as are cultivated on our earth, and they do not wish to know them. They call them “shades,” and compare them to clouds that intercept the sun. They have got this idea about the sciences from some belonging to our earth, who in their presence have boasted that they are wise from the sciences. The spirits from our earth who had thus boasted, were those who had made wisdom consist in things of mere memory, as in the languages; in the historical matters of the literary world; in bare experimental discoveries; in terms, especially such as are philosophical; and in other things of the kind; and had not used them as means for being wise; but had made wisdom consist in these things themselves. As these have not cultivated their rational faculty by the sciences as means, they have little perception in the other life, for they see only in terms and from terms, which there are like dust, and like thick clouds before the intellectual sight. And they who have been conceited by reason of this their learning, have still less perception. But they who have used the sciences as means for annihilating the things of faith, have totally destroyed their understanding, and see in thick darkness, like owls, falsity for truth, and evil for good. From their interaction with such the spirits of Jupiter had concluded that the sciences induce shade and cause blindness. But they were told that on this earth the sciences are the means of opening the intellectual sight, which sight is in the light of heaven, and instructs in such things as are of spiritual life; but as there reign the love of self and the love of the world, and consequently such things as are of merely natural and sensuous life, the sciences are to such the means of becoming insane; that is, of confirming themselves in favor of nature against the Divine, and in favor of the world against heaven. They were told further that in themselves the sciences are spiritual riches, and that they who possess them are like those who possess worldly riches, which in like manner are means of performing use to oneself, to the neighbor, and to our country, and also are means of doing evil; and also that they are like garments, which serve for use and adornment, and also for pride, as with those who desire to be honored from these alone. The spirits of the earth Jupiter understood these things well, but they marveled that any who are men should have set the things which lead to wisdom before wisdom itself; and that they should not see that to immerse the mind in such things, and not to elevate it beyond them, is to obscure and blind it (Arcana Cœlestia 8627-8628).
The gist of the Jovian argument is that pure physicalism, divorced from the moral and existential questions it cannot answer, except in the negative, is a recipe for insanity, an adornment for those who believe the gathering of objective facts about the natural world is the guiding light for how to live in the world, let alone the larger universe. It seems our reputation precedes us. And the conclusion of most extraterrestrials is that we should seek professional help. As Oliver Wendell Holmes said, “Insanity is often the logic of an accurate mind overtasked”, and we indeed have overtasked science with solving our ontological conundrums, where it only has epistemology to offer. We should be thankful we haven’t been visited by aliens, benign or otherwise, as we would no doubt end up lodged in a padded cell at the Cosmic Asylum.