It is not often that congressional hearings launch a golden week of memes. Last Wednesday, a subcommittee began questioning former Air Force intelligence officer David Grusch, who has accused the US Department of Defence of concealing a long-standing programme that retrieves and reverse-engineers alien spacecraft that crash on Earth. Congressmen are struggling to take him seriously. The tone of the chair, Wisconsin’s Glenn Grothman, was facetious, telling the capacity crowd that they were watching “the most exciting subcommittee in Congress this week”. But Grusch’s claims have inspired an enormous amount of interest, as well as a lot of jokes. 

Most professional commentators are far more interested in the question of whether a US government department has been lying to congress than in whether aliens actually exist. In a recent column, the New York Times’s Ross Douthat questioned the credibility of a long-standing conspiracy, noting that the scope and depth of the secrets involved would be too vast to withhold. For most online commentators, meanwhile, this congressional hearing is simply entertainment. Even if either camp thinks it’s proper that the US government is looking for evidence of extraterrestrial life, neither seems inclined to ask: what if they find it? Those who ask “are there aliens?” rarely seem to ask “so what if there are aliens?”.

It’s easy to see why we might not take seriously the idea that alien spacecraft have crashed on Earth, not least because the Pentagon released its much-hyped and long-awaited report on UFOs last year, maintaining that there is no definitive evidence that aliens have set foot here. But if a government department really has been withholding information, we might question the validity of that report. Still, even the late-night radio hosts who speculate about various alien species — “grays”, “reptilians”  — are more interested in the question of whether aliens exist than how we should react if they do. Should we make plans? Should we think about it in the same way as, say, the possible deceleration of the pivotal North Atlantic current system that shapes our global climate? Should we be scared?

Unlike climate change, the possibility of an alien apocalypse doesn’t seem to inspire much fear. Orson Welles’s radio adaptation of H.G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds caused a minor stir — nothing like the nationwide panic that some would later claim — and Ray Santilli’s 1995 film allegedly depicting an autopsy of an alien from the infamous 1947 Roswell crash invoked curiosity but was also debunked. Indeed, the ways in which our culture has imagined aliens are more likely to reveal human anxieties than genuine curiosity about what might exist beyond Earth. Popular dramas such as The X-Files, Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival often revolve around conspiracies or hoaxes of human origin — until the revelation of extraterrestrial life serves as a deus ex machina, subsequently obscured or left unexplained.

These narratives are often less about the aliens themselves and more about illuminating societal fears, challenging authority and questioning institutional integrity. Even Andrei Tarkovsky’s masterful 1972 adaptation of Stanislaw Lem’s novel Solaris — perhaps the most “realistic” depiction of humans reacting to an unusual planetary life form — doesn’t examine the long-term implications of our global society merging with that of another species. Introspection is easier than imagining something totally unprecedented.

The trouble is, the more knowledgeable we’ve become as a species, the less humble we’ve become about our ignorance. We too often assume that things we haven’t yet found don’t exist, and don’t take seriously the alternative. Here, we might benefit from emulating the wisdom of Epicurean philosophers. Democritus, and Epicurus himself, considered the existence and even the potential habitation of other worlds a likely outcome of the random collision of the atoms that they believed had formed the universe. Metrodorus of Lampsacus, a disciple of Epicurus, compared the idea of our world being the only one to “a single ear of wheat growing on a vast plain“, emphasising the unlikelihood of such a scenario. And the Roman Epicurean poet Lucretius proclaimed: “Nothing in the universe is unique and alone and therefore in other regions there must be other earths inhabited by different tribes of men and breeds of beasts.” Even though these ancient philosophers brought forth the concept of other worlds, they too did not directly grapple with the “so what?” aspect of the idea. Their wisdom primarily lay in recognising the limitlessness of the universe, acknowledging rather than truly grappling with the existence of the unknown.  

However, then as now, such claims failed to shake the foundations of the dominant philosophy. Unlike the Epicureans, Aristotle and his followers were fundamentally empirical in their approach, focusing on what could be observed, studied and understood through our senses. One of Aristotle’s central doctrines was the principle of noncontradiction; the existence of multiple worlds, especially inhabited ones, would have introduced paradoxes and ambiguities that his philosophy was not prepared to accept. Today, our natural inclinations lead us towards the Aristotelian perspective. We gravitate to the observable, the testable and the verifiable. Perhaps this is a constant throughout history, though — an immutable human instinct: this near-inability to engage with the truly abstract and unobservable, the preference to focus on the immediate and tangible.

It was not Christianity that robbed us of our humility in the face of other worlds. Whereas now, belief in aliens’ existence is seen as fringe, it used to be expostulated by the most elite thinkers, who were usually theological authorities. Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century and the French priest Jean Buridan in the 14th century both addressed the potential existence of other worlds, suggesting that denying their existence would limit the omnipotence of God. Giordano Bruno, an Italian Dominican Friar in the 16th century, further expanded on this idea in a somewhat heretical vein, stating, “I can imagine an infinite number of worlds like the earth… half of infinity is infinity, so an infinite number of worlds will fall from grace and there will be an infinite number of crucifixions.”

In recent years, high-ranking members of the Catholic Church, including the directors of the Vatican Observatory, have grappled with the theological implications of extraterrestrial life, questioning how the concepts of sin and redemption would apply to them. In this, they are perhaps more prepared for the arrival of UFOs than most governments. Pope Francis has even stated that space aliens could seek baptism — a benevolent thought, to be sure, but an anthropocentric one. Human theology won’t neatly adapt to beings that are out of this world.

So, the concept of extraterrestrial life brings us face-to-face with an immense intellectual challenge. St. Anselm of Canterbury’s famous proof of God’s existence — the concept of a being “of which nothing greater can be thought” — has its bounds tied to human thought. What if these extraterrestrials exist in a realm that is beyond our cognitive reach, a realm where our laws of physics and logic hold no sway? Extraterrestrial life, should it exist, may be so fundamentally different from our life on Earth that we might not even recognise it as “life” at all. We may not be sure if it appears among us.

There is also a practical question to consider: would we even be able to interact meaningfully with extraterrestrial life? Would it even be possible to communicate with them? There might be no shared basis for understanding — a possibility that Stanislaw Lem and Andrei Tarkovsky considered in their presentation of the sentient planet in Solaris. The living place interacts with human explorers by materialising their memories and deepest psychology, creating “visitors”. These ineffable interactions are barely understood by humans, representing a form of communication so alien to our ways of knowing that it remains ultimately inexplicable.

The appearance of UFOs or the confirmed existence of extraterrestrial life would likely push us into uncharted cognitive territory. Or, these beings could exist on such a scale and in such a manner that it might be completely incomprehensible to us — we couldn’t alter our worldviews because we wouldn’t even begin to know where to start.

Maybe that’s why, when we think about aliens, we think about hoaxes, created by humans, or stories of alien invasions, more often than not about human failure. Maybe that’s why it’s funny, listening to extraterrestrial life being forced into the technical, administrative language of the US government. Maybe the sheer abstraction and complexity of extraterrestrial life exceeds our cognitive abilities.

For now, we humour David Grusch, as he expostulates about a massive UFO cover-up — because we don’t know how to answer the question of: If he’s right, what then?

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