• Phil Tanny
    In an interesting recent article published on BigThink, BigThink editor Alex Berezow suggests that we are effectively alone in the universe, because even if intelligent life exists elsewhere, we're unlikely to meet them given the vast distances involved. His article has succeeded in engaging my interest and inspiring various lines of inquiry here.

    A few sentences near the top of the article may offer the best reply to Berezow's claim. He writes...

    However, outside of popular culture, few serious intellectuals took the notion of aliens seriously. It certainly was not a major academic topic. The prevailing view was that life is uncommon throughout the universe, and Earth just might be the only planet lucky enough to have it. Today, the exact opposite view prevails.Alex Berezow

    What this says to me is that, in the case of intelligent alien life, serious intellectuals have been wrong. They're either wrong now, or they were wrong in their earlier consensus. This would seem to matter, given that Berezow's article is basically based on reference to authority, to what the experts say, to what we currently know, or think we know.


    In the case of UFOs here on Earth, Berezow is correct in pointing us to the fact that various French, Russian and American military and intelligence services are now in a process of bringing considerable technical authority to UFO claims which were formerly considered the sole province of dreamy crackpot wackos.

    The wildly speculating crackpots seem to have been right, at least about the existence of unknown craft in our atmosphere. However, to be clear, even if UFOs do exist in our atmosphere, that doesn't prove anything about the existence of intelligent life across the cosmos. After all, the UFOs are being observed here, not on other planets.

    The bottom line point is that a dramatic record of failure by prominent authorities regarding UFOs should caution us against making any bold claims about UFOs, whether intelligent life exists elsewhere, and what the chances are that we may someday engage it. It seems more honest to simply admit that we are only barely beginning to emerge from ignorance on such enormous matters.

    Berekow's Argument

    Berekow's argument is that 1) life does not arise easily in the universe due to widespread hostile environments across the cosmos, and 2) interstellar travel is somewhere between impossible and impractical.

    Hostile Environments

    It certainly does seem true that most planets would not be suitable for life, as is true in our own solar system, and probably most others as well.

    However, in the one solar system we know the most about, there is at least one celestial body suitable for life, and perhaps a few others as well. And at least on this planet, life seems to insistently inhabit some quite unlikely environments.

    And, given the incredible vastness of space it seems reasonable for scientists to assume many such hospital places may exist. Thank you Frank Drake. The cosmos does of course contain billions of galaxies each containing billions of stars. That's a lot of unexplored real estate.

    Interstellar Travel

    Berezow is right that, given what we know now, interstellar travel even to the nearest star systems seems hopelessly impractical, if it were even possible for humans.

    The key phrase here is "given what we know now". Yes, according to the laws of physics the speed of light is the celestial speed limit. That is, according to the laws of physics as currently understood by human beings. Let us recall here that only a century ago before Hubble we didn't know about billions of galaxies, the overwhelming vast majority of our universe. In an era characterized by an ever accelerating knowledge explosion, all scientific certainties may be vulnerable. Certainly the history of science is full of "hard facts" which later turned out to be incorrect theories.

    The age of the universe suggests that if intelligent life does exist elsewhere, it's possible that such species will have evolved millions or even billions of years past where we currently find ourselves. When we recall how much humanity has learned over just the last century, such vast time scales would seem to pretty much demolish any bold claims we might wish to make about alien species or the laws of physics.

    The Speculation Party

    Berekow is correct that this subject of alien life is infused with a great deal of overly ambitious Hollywood speculation, most of which is likely to be proven nonsense. And it's certainly not a secret that the UFO community does not suffer from a shortage of authentic wackos.


    However, I would argue in reply that the history of science strongly suggests that when approaching subjects about which we know so little open minded wild speculation is a useful addition to the inquiry.

    It now seems clear that there are some kind of unknown aircraft navigating our atmosphere, a remarkable phenomena, made even more remarkable by the relative lack of attention we aim at it. It seems equally clear that the experts who have long dismissed UFOs as rubbish can't explain this phenomena any better than the rest of us. So speculation is really all we have for now.

    Speculative Theory #1

    My favorite UFO speculation is that such craft are the work of future human archaeologists. Who else would be more interested in us than our descendants?


    Interstellar travel is presumably not needed here, except that the Earth would be in a very different part of the cosmos thousands of years from now, so maybe travel distance is still a factor.

    The future human theory does depend on time travel being possible, which is of course unknown. The theory also depends on future humans being able to master time travel, which if given enough time seems at least somewhat reasonable. Sure, sounds impossible now, but in 10,000 years?

    Speculative Theory #2

    UFOs might be the work of intelligent life forms living within other dimensions here on Earth. To my knowledge there is no evidence of such other dimensions, but then for the vast majority of human history there was no evidence of the microscopic, atomic and quantum realms either, and yet they were still there, right in front of our face all the time. Proof of unknown dimensions? Of course not. Reasonable speculation? Maybe?

    If UFOs are real, and interstellar travel is indeed impractical to the point of being basically impossible, then we're left with theories about unknown intelligent life forms, human or otherwise, being native to this planet.

    Speculative Theory #3

    Finally, we may be looking in the wrong place for intelligent non-human life. There appears to be growing evidence that other plant and animal species on Earth are far more intelligent than we've typically given them credit for. As example, bacteria are engaged in data management operations which we label as intelligent behavior when we do it. I've been attempting to explore this in other articles on the site such as Are Plants Intelligent? and Is Reality Intelligent?.

    I certainly claim no authoritative expertise on these topics, but just as a matter of common sense logic if communicating with non-human intelligence interests us, the rational place to begin such efforts would seem to be where we already are. You know, before we get too wound up about communicating with some alien species across the galaxy that has evolved ten million years beyond us, perhaps we should first learn how to talk with elephants and whales.


    1) Yes, the cosmos are hostile. But the Earth is not.

    2) Yes, interstellar travel currently seems impossible. But we may not need that in order to communicate with intelligent aliens.

    Maybe non-human forms of intelligent life already live among us, and we just aren't quite intelligent enough yet to see them?
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