science, UFOs, and the diminishment of humankind

The apparently intentional release of Navy videos showing strange flying objects has prompted discussion of UFOs in respectable places like Vox and Bloomberg. I don’t take the news very seriously, although I do agree that the videos are interesting artifacts and people should be able to explore all intelligible hypotheses about them, including ones that involve visitors from other planets. There should be no UFO taboo.

I’m thinking instead about the moral significance of the hypothesis of alien visitors and how that fits into the history of science. What aliens think about us would be entirely contingent on them. They might admire us, condescend kindly to us, ignore us, or view us as food. From our perspective, their stance would be entirely random. Even if the first group of alien visitors happened to be disarmingly appreciative, the next batch might decide to spray us like a nest of termites. Whatever we happen to think of ourselves as a species would have no relationship to what they think of us. Their attitude would depend entirely on what kind of creatures they were. Arrogant technocrats? Intergalactic manatees, browsing peacefully through space without a hint of aggression? Simply hungry?

Most human beings have believed in gods or a god of some kind. Our theories of the divine have varied; by no means all divinities have been seen as perfect or even as particularly good. But a common thread is their interest in us. Whether they are prone to fall in love with some of us, or give us laws, or sacrifice their only-begotten Son to save us, they seem to care about people. Although one style of religious rhetoric reminds us to be humble, trembling in the sight of a just God, a simultaneous implication is that the divine has turned its face to us and cares what we do. Therefore, most religions–Buddhism perhaps offering an important exception–have emphasized the importance of human beings even as they have compared us to something better.

Many scientists are also religious, yet science can be seen as a break with the elements of religion that tend to build us up. It investigates nature as a domain without purpose, in which each event occurs because of the events before it–not in order to accomplish any independent end. Facts are distinct from values, and only hypotheses about facts are testable. We are part of nature, determined by efficient causes that could be understood without any reference to values. Science presumes that nature exists independent of our intelligence and seeks to purge human subjectivity from our understanding of nature.

In all these ways, science tends to diminish the human. In 1963, Hannah Arendt wrote: “To understand physical reality seems to demand not only the renunciation of an anthropocentric or geocentric world view, but also a radical elimination of all anthropomorphic elements and principles.” It therefore undermines the idea “that man [sic] is the highest being we know of.” The idea of superiority is “alien to the scientist, to whom man is no more than a special case of organic life and to whom man’s habitat — the earth, together with earthbound laws — is no more than a special borderline case of absolute, universal laws, that is, laws that rule the immensity of the universe.”

She had in mind at least several epochal events that were recent when she wrote. Physicists had discovered laws and processes that allowed them to build weapons that could destroy human life on earth. Computers had begun to “supplant and enlarge human brain power.” And human beings had left the earth and taken pictures of it.

She was also concerned that physics had revealed truths about nature that were deeply counterintuitive, thus severing the traditional link between ordinary experience and the refined experiences achieved with scientific instruments and methods. However, the “the lost contact between the world of the senses and appearances and the physical world” had been restored in the most horrible way, when the insights of theoretical physics had enabled massive terrestrial explosions.

Arendt doesn’t mention the Shoah in this essay. For her teacher, Heidegger, Auschwitz demonstrated the evil of technology and what we might call a scientific view of the world. But that was itself an evil theory, since the cause of the Holocaust was actually Nazism, with which Heidegger was complicit. Arendt carries forward some of his deepest ideas about science and nature but avoids or evades this particular application of his theory.

She considers the idea that our quest for truth dignifies us–that science boosts our stature by making us the great discoverers. However, she says,

man, insofar as he is a scientist, does not care about his own stature in the universe or about his position on the evolutionary ladder of animal life; this ‘carelessness’ is his pride and his glory. The simple fact that physicists split the atom without any hesitations the very moment they knew how to do it, although they realized full well the enormous destructive potentialities of their operation, demonstrates that the scientist qua scientist does not even care about the survival of the human race on earth or, for that matter, about the survival of the planet itself. 

For her, space travel does not show that human beings can expand our knowledge and escape our limitations. It rather exemplifies the way we have turned everything we experience into products of our science:

The astronaut, shot into outer space and imprisoned in his instrument-ridden capsule where each actual physical encounter with his surroundings would spell immediate death, might well be taken as the symbolic incarnation of Heisenberg’s man — the man who will be the less likely ever to meet anything but himself and man-made things the more ardently he wishes to eliminate all anthropocentric considerations from his encounter with the non-human world around him.

It can certainly be argued that the progress of science makes us humble in a good way. We are part of nature, not uniquely valuable but deeply integrated and interdependent. Therefore, we should start treating our natural environment with more respect. The problem, however, is that science demonstrates its success even as it avoids any intrinsic values, including the value of nature or human beings. The “should” in the sentence, “We should start treating …” makes no sense for science.

Arendt thought that space travel would bring the end of our respect for ourselves, because we would be able to view ourselves explicitly and literally as science has always implicitly understood us.  “If we look down from this point upon what is going on on earth and upon the various activities of men …, then these activities will indeed appear to ourselves as no more than ‘overt behavior,’ which we can study with the same methods we use to study the behavior of rats.” Technology will no longer appear “as the result of a conscious human effort to extend man’s material powers, but rather as a large-scale biological process” (quoting Bohr). If our technology is destroying the environment that sustains us, science will explain why that outcome is biologically determined without supplying any reason for us to stop it.

I would suggest that space travel did not reorient us as much as Arendt expected, partly because it has proven rather disappointing. No colonies on Mars 57 years after her essay. But the thought-experiment that aliens are flying around our earth–and the argument that we ought to study them scientifically–this captures the moment when “the stature of man would not simply be lowered by all standards we know of, but have been destroyed.”

See also: notes on the social role of science: 1. the example of fetal ultrasounds; is science republican (with a little r)?nature includes our inner livessome thoughts on natural lawis all truth scientific truth?; and the laughter of the gods.

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.