David Christopher Lane, Ph.D.
Professor of Philosophy, Mt. San Antonio College Lecturer in Religious Studies, California State University, Long Beach Author of Exposing Cults: When the Skeptical Mind Confronts the Mystical (New York and London: Garland Publishers, 1994) and The Radhasoami Tradition: A Critical History of Guru Succession (New York and London: Garland Publishers, 1992).
Exploring the lunch counter musings of Enrico Fermi and Edward Teller on Space Alien Visitations
It is scientific only to say what is more likely and what less likely, and not to be proving all the time the possible and impossible. Richard Feynman
I enjoyed Giorgio Piacenzaís passionate admonitions to me [in "There's More Than Meet's the Eye"] about the multi-dimensional reality of E.T.ís. As he boldly proclaims (going where skeptics tend not to go):
“There arenít only unidentified but genuine cases of interaction between non terrestrial intelligent beings that use a transdimensional technology combining natural physical reality and the Subtle Realm.” But Piacenza doesnít merely stop there but goes on and explains, “Sometimes these interactive events maintain a Ďhigh strangenessí of classical physics-defying behavior and require an enhanced understanding of how far the scope of Ďnatureí and Ďphysisí reaches. Sometimes there are clear, multiple witnessed, daytime, radar-tracked, objectively real observations with metallic-looking, structured craft. Sometimes, physical evidence of transformative contact experiences has been analyzed.”
Given what he believes to be overwhelming evidence of E.T.Iís (extra terrestrial intelligences), Piacenza very clearly states his thesis without any hesitation:
“Let me tell you that thereís more than meets the eye and that in many cases the extraterrestrial hypothesis is the most rational.”
Those last two words “most rational” underline precisely where I and Piacenza depart company.
While it is certainly true that the very basis of this planet is alien in origin and that our true conception lies at the heart of the big bang, it is not so certain that higher forms of intelligence have intervened (with apologies to Xenu, L. Ron Hubbard and to DC10 aficionados) in the day to day lives of humankind. I can appreciate that there will (and should be) rigorous debate over these kinds of issues and that given the vast, even if questionable, array of UFO reports from around the world we should be careful not to be too cynical or too closed-minded to occasionally entertain outrageous hypotheses on this subject.
In this regard, I think the skeptic and the believer can agree with Carl Sagan when he beautifully exclaimed,
“We've begun, at last, to wonder about our origins. Star stuff, contemplating the stars organized collections of 10 billion-billion-billion atoms contemplating the evolution of matter tracing that long path by which it arrived at consciousness here on the planet Earth and perhaps, throughout the cosmos.”
In this sense of wonder, I thought it might be useful to take a different route and go back nearly 7 decades and eavesdrop on one of the most celebrated, if not perfectly recalled, lunch conversations in the history of UFO theorizing. Enrico Fermi, the Nobel prize winning Italian physicist who did prodigious work on quantum theory and development on the first atomic bomb during the Manhattan Project, unexpectedly asked his colleagues (Emil Konopinski, Edward Teller, and Herbert York) over an informal lunch, “Where are they?" Although each participant has a slightly different recollection of what precipitated Fermiís query, they all agree that it was on the subject of space travel and the purported reality of flying saucers.
This in itself is not so surprising since there had been something of a media blitz (with the usual conspiratorial hysteria) about UFOs since Kenneth Arnoldís 1947 flying saucer sighting. However, what was unusual was the inherent implication of Fermiís quip. Given the likelihood that there are suns and planetary systems much older than ours, replete with intelligent life forms, Fermi wondered why we had yet to see evidence of their existence. Surely if there were such advanced civilizations, presumably dating back millions of year before our own evolutionary advent, then “where are they?”
Later, in 1961 Frank Drake added to Fermiís query by proposing an equation about the probability of advanced alien interaction which is based on estimating the following:
N = The number of communicative civilizations
R* = The rate of formation of suitable stars (stars such as our Sun)
fp = The fraction of those stars with planets. (Current evidence indicates that planetary systems may be common for stars like the Sun.)
ne = The number of Earth-like worlds per planetary system
fl = The fraction of those Earth-like planets where life actually develops
fi = The fraction of life sites where intelligence develops
fc = The fraction of communicative planets (those on which electromagnetic communications technology develops)
L = The "lifetime" of communicating civilizations
According to setileague.org, Drake currently guesstimates that there may be 10,000 or so “communicative civilizations in the Milky Way.”
In contrast, though, in 1975 Michael H. Hart in a widely cited paper, “An Explanation for the Absence of Extraterrestrials on Earth” extends Fermiís query into a surprising and more radical conclusion, especially among UFOists: The reason we have no E.T. encounters is because highly intelligent alien civilizations donít exist. Because of this Hart believes that electromagnetic monitoring for E.T.ís is “probably a waste of time and money” and “in the long run, cultures descended directly from ours will probably occupy most of the habitable planets in our Galaxy.”
Clearly, most of the established science community (though open to the possibility of intelligent life in the universe) is pretty much convinced that there is no overwhelming evidence to suggest that planet earth has already been touched by alien civilizations, even if they still remain quite open minded regardless of the unfavorable odds.
However, there are many others (including some scientists), as Giorgio Piacenza points out, that believe that planet earth has already had been visited. One of the most famous scientists in this pantheon was the late Francis Crick who proposed a variation of panspermia, where “small grains containing DNA, or the building blocks of life, could be loaded on a brace of rockets and fired randomly in all directions. Crick and Orgel estimated that a payload of one metric ton could contain 1017 micro-organisms organized in ten or a hundred separate samples. This would be the best, most cost effective strategy for seeding life on a compatible planet at some time in the future. The strategy of directed panspermia may have already been pursued by an advanced civilization facing catastrophic annihilation, or hoping to terraform planets for later colonization.” (cited from http://www.panspermia-theory.com/directed-panspermia/).
A couple of decades later, however, Crick and Orgel changed their view and championed a more naturalistic explanation for the evolution of DNA. As they opined in “Anticipating an RNA World,” they wrote:
“We did not seriously consider the possibility that there was a midwife, a replicating pre-RNA world of quite different chemistry based, for example, on clays, as suggested by Cairns-Smith, or an alternative organic polymer. Such a pre-RNA world would have possessed the catalytic activity necessary to start the RNA world but it may not have needed to transfer its genetic information directly to that of the new (RNA) replication system. We now find this idea attractive.”
With so many contrarian views, even from those skeptical of E.T.I., it is best to keep our options open to a wide variety of perspectives. Of course, we should also be doubly cautious since such unexplored terrain tends be an open season for all sorts of crackpot theories that only muddle an honest and reasonable discussion of the subject.
As Richard Feynman so wisely cautioned when speaking of things yet unproven,
“Some years ago I had a conversation with a layman about flying saucers because I am scientific I know all about flying saucers! I said “I donít think there are flying saucersí. So my antagonist said, “Is it impossible that there are flying saucers? Can you prove that itís impossible?” “No”, I said, “I canít prove itís impossible. Itís just very unlikely”. At that he said, “You are very unscientific. If you canít prove it impossible then how can you say that itís unlikely?” But that is the way that is scientific. It is scientific only to say what is more likely and what less likely, and not to be proving all the time the possible and impossible.
To define what I mean, I might have said to him, “Listen, I mean that from my knowledge of the world that I see around me, I think that it is much more likely that the reports of flying saucers are the results of the known irrational characteristics of terrestrial intelligence than of the unknown rational efforts of extra-terrestrial intelligence.” It is just more likely. That is all.”
Intriguingly, the subject of E.T.I. raises a very pertinent issue that underlines the sociology of knowledge itself. Isnít the debate between believers and skeptics predicated on the shifting sands of what one perceives/believes to be plausible? And isnít that very plausibility a socially mediated structure which can oscillate depending on cultural and generational contexts? As Robin Phillips lucidly explains,
“The phrase “plausibility structures” was coined by sociologist Peter L. Berger to refer to the conditions in a society that make certain beliefs seem reasonable or unreasonable. Why is it that a proposition which, at one time and place, might seem completely self-evident and not even in need of argument, will seem totally absurd in another time and place? Questions like this force us to be attentive to more than merely what people believe, but the plausibility structures that explain why certain beliefs feel normal.”
This explains, at least in part, why Giorgio Piacenzaís views can be viewed both sympathetically (as in, “Okay, letís keep open to alternative channels of information”) and dismissively, particularly when he makes such outrageous claims as “Let me tell you that some people involved occasionally begin to receive coordinates and other unique transmissions through automatic writing.” UFOís is a troublesome enough field without adding channeling and automatic writing into the mix. Indeed, there are so many vying possibilities about E.T.Iís that it is extremely difficult to differentiate what may be a potentially fruitful line of inquiry from a pseudo-scientific smattering of balderdash.
It is not surprising, therefore, that a serious researcher in this area may suffer from an acute case of informational vertigo
It is not surprising, therefore, that a serious researcher in this area may suffer from an acute case of informational vertigo. Perhaps as skeptics we shouldnít be too dismissive at this stage about borderline ideas or even nutty ones, particularly when as renowned a scientist as Francis Crick can seriously argue (during a period in his career) for specially designed exobiological rockets charged with viable DNA sent throughout space in order to seed future planets with life.
This reminds me of an old friend of mine Gene Ivash, who I first met in North India in December of 1981. Gene was a theoretical physicist at the University of Texas and an expert on the mathematics underlying quantum mechanics. In the midst of our discussions, I was quite shocked to learn that this eminent physicist, well trained in the hardest of sciences, was an avid subscriber and reader of FATE Magazine, sometimes impolitely called the “National Enquirer of all things paranormal.” Even though I had an article on the Bhrigu Samhita coming out in that very magazine within months, Gene noticed my obvious bemusement. So I asked him why he would read such a magazine given its somewhat questionable credentials. His answer was both wise and revealing. Gene politely responded that the best tool in any scientistís arsenal is his imagination and thus it is important not bury oneís self too deeply in a rut by limiting oneís reading material simply because it looks undignified. He then punctuated his purview with Einsteinís famous quote,
“Logic will get you from A to Z [but] imagination will get you everywhere.”
Years later I would recall Geneís wise counsel whenever I got too comfortable within my own skepticism. I even gave it a meme and whenever I start wielding Occamís Razor somewhat drunkenly I remember “Ivashís Caution” and realize anew that timeless quote from Hamlet,
“And therefore as a stranger give it welcome. There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”