Tag Archives: Aliens

Paranormal Investigations

When I was a kid my friends and I did lots of camping. We’d sit around the campfire late into the night, talking. Without fail, my friend John would capture our interest with some really engaging story. It would go on and on, getting wilder and wilder until we’d all eventually realize we’d been had. He was just messing with us again, having fun seeing just how gullible we could be. And somehow we all fell for it at least once on every trip.

In the 1970’s author and anthropology student Carlos Castaneda wrote a series of books detailing his tutelage under the a mystic Yaqui Indian shaman named don Juan Matus. The first books were fascinating and compelling. But as the books progressed, they became increasingly more fantastic. Eventually these supposedly true accounts escalated into complete and utter fantasy. Despite this, or because of it, hundreds of thousands of people reportedly made trips to into the desert in hopes of finding this fictional don Juan Matus. In fact, Castaneda was awarded a doctoral degree based on this obviously fictional writing.

Castaneda never admitted that his stories were made-up. We once had “mentalist” Yuri Geller who refused to admit that his fork-bending trick was only just a trick. We have long had horror films that purport to be “based on actual events.” These sort of claims were once only amusing. But now these kind of paranormal con jobs have escalated, like one of John’s campfire stories, to a ridiculous and frankly embarrassing and even dangerous level in our society. This kind of storytelling has become normalized in the prolific genre of “paranormal investigations” reality television shows.

We need to say – enough already.

Sadly, we see dozens of these shows on networks that call themselves “Discovery” or “Learning” or “History” or (most gallingly) “Science.” There are hundreds of shows and series on YouTube and elsewhere that purport to investigate the paranormal. These shows do us no service. In fact they are highly corrosive to our intellectual fabric, both individually and socially.

They all follow the same basic formula. They find some “unexplained” situation. They bring in experts to legitimize their investigations. They interview people about how they feel apprehensive or fearful about whatever it is. They spend a lot of time setting up “scientific” equipment and flashing shots of needles on gauges jumping around. They speculate about a wide range of possible explanations, most of them implausibly fantastic. They use a lot of suggestive language, horror-film style cinematography, and cuts to scary produced clips. And they end up determining that while they can’t say anything for sure but they can say that there is indeed something very mysterious going on.

These shows do tremendous harm. They legitimize the paranormal and trivialize real science. They turn the tools and trappings of science into cheap carnival show props.

Some of these shows are better than others. They do conclude that the flicker on a video is merely a reflection. But in the process, in order to produce an engaging show, they entertain all sorts of crazy nonsense as legitimately plausible explanations. In doing so, they suggest that while it may not have been the cause in this particular case, aliens or ghosts might be legitimately be considered as possible causes in other cases. By entertaining those possibilities as legitimate, they legitimize crazy ideas.

There would be a way to do this responsibly. These shows could investigate unexplained reports and dispense with all the paranormal theatrics and refuse to even consider paranormal explanations. They could provide actual explanations rather than merely open the door to paranormal ones.

MythBusters proved that a show that sticks to reality can be entertaining.

I am not sure what is worse, that this is the quality of diet that we are fed, or that we as a society lap it up and find it so addictively delicious.

What Aliens Look Like

We aren’t likely to ever meet an alien. As I argued in a previous post, although it is a statistical certainty that alien life must exist, the laws of physics simply make it implausibly improbable that they could ever visit us or we them (see here). The most likely way we might learn what aliens once looked like would be if we happen to pick up an interstellar message in a bottle from some distant ancient civilization, their own version of Voyager with candid snapshots and videos from back home.

But we can make educated guesses based on the fundamental design constraints of the elemental building blocks and physical processes that apply throughout the universe. For example, intelligent aliens must have a lower and upper size limit based on fundamental constraints of molecular dimensions and gravity.

We can similarly surmise much more. For example, any intelligent alien species is likely to be highly mobile – for that they require large bursts of energy – for that they require a fluid chemical transfer system – for that they require a variable speed pump controlled by a central nervous system that adjusts the amplitude and frequency of pumping based upon a large amount of sensor data – and that control mechanism would have to be autonomic so that the pumping controller is highly responsive and unaffected by their state of consciousness.

So, intelligent alien species are likely to have circulatory and nervous systems that are mechanically and functionally quite similar to our own. For vision they are likely to have two sensors placed up high for optimum line of sight and depth perception. They are likely to be similarly similar in the design of their other major systems. In short, after looking past superficial differences, alien life would almost certainly be quite familiar to human physicians and biologists.

It would be foolishly egotistical to imagine that all alien life will be exactly like us and the other species present on Earth. Certainly there would be dramatic and astounding variations that we cannot begin to imagine. But it would also be equally foolish to imagine that the bulk of species in the universe would not evolve following much the same processes with much the same results as life here. A human exobiologist could almost certainly be trained to understand, diagnose, and treat almost any form of alien life.

hortaIn Star Trek, after Doctor McCoy got over his initial revulsion (You expect me to treat that thing Jim?!?), he was able to patch up even the exotically alien silicon-based Horta with some simple spackle compound.

But apart from exceptions like the Horta, Star Trek and most every science fiction universe depicts very human-like aliens. This implicit assumption of similarity is made mostly so that alien creatures will be relatable and to make them playable by human actors with minimal make-up and costumes.

AlienBut we create human-like creatures even when there are no technical constraints. The astoundingly terrifying alien created by HR Giger is remarkably human-like with 2 arms, 2 legs, a head, a tail, a mouth, and so on. Despite having acid for blood, his alien follows the evolutionary design model of a human quite closely. It is likely not the case, as many imagine, that such alien depictions represent an unimaginative human conceit and lack of imagination. Rather, it is likely that such physics-defying aliens are actually much more fanciful than evolution is mechanically capable of producing – on any planet.

And let me be clear. Its unfathomably unlikely that any alien could remotely pass as human and walk amongst us undetected – that’s purely a movie fancy as unrealistic as aliens with acid for blood that can eat through feet of metal. However, they will be biologically similar in function if not form. They will not have any superpowers or godlike abilities that defy basic chemistry and physics because they can not. If they can fly they will need wings. And as any dolphin can tell you, there is a fundamental limit to how far they could advance without appendages that allow them to manipulate their environment.

Even many of us who are wise enough to understand that god cannot exist are still far too willing to remain agnostic in insisting that there might be aliens out there with what would effectively be godlike powers.

If my hypothesis of fundamental similarity is true, and I suggest that it must be more true than not, it should encourage us that we’re not actually missing out on as much as we might imagine because we are effectively bed-ridden here on Earth. Aliens would be marvelous to see, but evolution has offered us a pretty representative sampling of the range of life typically found in the universe.

Unless a message in a bottle lands on our Earthly beaches, we’re unlikely to ever know for sure how typical we are. Even then, that would give us only one more example of life. But we can make some pretty good assumptions about the nature of life in the universe without direct experience. And it is likely that the range of actual life in the universe is no where near as wide as our unconstrained imaginations.

So what do aliens look like? Probably a lot more like us than we might imagine.


Alien Life Exists!

Pollsters love to ask us whether we believe in alien life. It is an interesting topic because it straddles the line between fact and belief. So where do you stand on it? Take a minute to mentally answer the following questions with Yes, No, or Not Sure.

1. Do you believe that alien life exists?
2. Do you believe that intelligent alien life exists?
3. Do you believe aliens have visited the Earth?

Americans are pretty divided on these questions. About 50% of us believe there is some form of life on other planets (even if only akin to bacteria) while 33% are not sure. We are more skeptical about the existence of intelligent extraterrestrial life with about 38% believing they are out there while about 42% are unsure (see here). Polls also generally report that roughly a third of us believe aliens have actually visited the Earth. Apparently most of us who believe in intelligent alien life also believe that those aliens are capable of reaching the Earth.

How did your answers compare? This may surprise you, but I am completely confident that the 50% of Americans who are believe that alien life exists are completely…. right! Regardless of what you believe, it would be understandable for you to ask, how can you be so certain? Have you seen aliens? Can you show me scientific proof of alien life?

The answer is that I have a particular kind of certainty here called a “statistical certainty.” A statistical certainty is something you can be confident is true even though you may never prove it in the conventional sense. For example, I can be statistically certain that right now as you read this most excellent article, someone somewhere is thinking about bananas. Can I prove this? Obtaining clear proof, finding even one such person may be theoretically possible but practically unlikely. Still, given the number of people in the world and the commonness of bananas, I can be quite sure of it nonetheless.

Similarly, we can clearly say with statistical certainty that life does exist on other planets. Even though I’ve never seen an alien, have absolutely no scientific evidence of alien life, and no expectation of ever meeting one, I do know that the rules of chemistry and physics that gave rise to life on Earth are equally applicable on every Earth-like planet. And all available evidence tells us that there must be a huge number of such planets in our universe. So therefore, I can bank on the statistical certainty that yes, some kind of life does exist on other planets.

Is this essentially the same as a belief then? Am I simply playing word games to rationalize my belief in aliens? Absolutely not. A belief has no basis in statistical certainty. A belief exists despite of a complete lack of any basis upon which to form a even a statistical plausibility. We have no basis upon which to believe in god or ghosts or gremlins, no consistency or conformity with observable evidence, on which to base any legitimate statistical confidence.

So let’s move on now to the second question, whether intelligent life exists in the universe. I think that the 38% who believe happen to be right again – even if for the wrong reasons. (Which brings up the side question, is one truly right if they are right for the wrong reasons?)

We can reasonably bank on a strong statistical confidence in the existence of intelligent extraterrestrial life, even if it is not quite a statistical certainty. While my confidence in intelligent aliens may not be not quite as high as in alien bacteria, it is still a sensible default to assume that yes, intelligent alien life does exist somewhere. And again, this is not belief or wishful thinking, but an assessment founded upon the consistency of physical laws throughout the universe and the sheer number of life-sustaining planets that undoubtedly exist in it.

Finally, what about the third question as to whether those intelligent aliens (that we are statistically confident must exist) have ever visited Earth? On this question I go completely the other direction. There is no credible evidence that any have ever visited Earth in the past – and we would expect to find such evidence. Some alien Coke-cans littering the Nazca Desert or anything. Further, there is no logical mechanism to give one any confidence that aliens could visit us now or for that matter ever in the future. While allowing some tiny plausibility based on what we may not know yet, the tremendous gulf of time and space between us simply makes such interstellar travel diminishingly unlikely.

Many people would argue against my skepticism. Surely, they say, you’re too narrow-minded. You lack vision. Certainly a sufficiently advanced species could produce some technology to travel between solar-systems. At one time people scoffed that we could never reach the moon, and look we did it anyway!

AtomBut the problem here is our solar system is an incredibly tiny dot in an effectively infinite ocean. The gulf between stellar systems is literally astronomical. The barriers of time and space between civilizations are so fundamental that physical travel between them simply runs up against too many inviolate laws of physics. Interstellar travel is not comparable to crossing a vast ocean. It is more comparable to shrinking down to the size of a cell like Ray Palmer (The Atom) and swimming though a blood vessel. Barring some completely fantastical warp-hole technology, it is simply not happening, not ever, not for us or for any alien species no matter how advanced.

Belief that science will always find a solution to everything illustrates the fallacy of an unreasonable belief in technology. This is a dangerous belief when it delays or undermines more effective and necessary action, as it does now in the case of global climate change.

So in summary it is a statistical certainty that life exists on other planets and it would be highly surprising if some of those life forms were not intelligent. But it is extremely unlikely we’ll ever even detect signs of each other, let alone communicate or pay each other a visit. Nevertheless I fully support continuing to look for signs of intelligent life in the universe, even knowing that by the time we see such evidence they would almost certainly have been long extinct. Knowing that intelligent life existed somewhere else, even if only light-ages in the past, would change us fundamentally forever, and I think for the better.