I hope my readers who usually turn to this site for my thoughts
about politics, food, travel and culture are not dismayed to
learn that I am going to write about the so-called UFO
phenomenon (“UFO” as it is traditionally meant to stand for
“unidentified flying objects and possible extraterrestrial life”).
But I suspect that my commentary on this subject might be quite
different from what the reader has read before.
First, on the subject of “life on other planets” or “extraterrestrial
beings” I will not much comment. I am actually an agnostic or a
skeptic on this matter. With megatrillions of galaxies, stars and
planets in the known and unknown universe, it would seem that
some form of what we call “life” exists in many places, but the
very nature of existence, as we know it now, is rarely logical or
predictable. So far, there is no true evidence of any life elsewhere
in any form. It’s certainly possible, but it might also not be so.
In the past 150 years or so, however, there has been an enormous
amount of speculation that there is some kind of life beyond our
own planet. Most of this began as a literary genre known as “science
fiction” which not only included the interaction of human beings
with extraterrestrial creatures, but also predicted most of the
fantastic advances in human technology.
In the latter case, science fiction has actually been a prophecy of
science fact. Virtually all of the devices and scientific capabilities so
imaginatively created by writers in the late 19th and early 20th
centuries have become, or are becoming, realities in the latter
half of the 20th and the early 21st centuries. Miracle drugs, extended
life spans, incredible speeds of land and space travel, primitive
exploration of “outer” space itself, “ray guns,” the internet,
“miracle” drugs and cures, robots and innumerable devices to
perform innumerable tasks all now exist. Serious persons are now
discussing unlimited lifespans, extraterrestrial human settlements,
life without disease, human civilization without hunger or war, and
other future developments which, while not yet attainable, are no
longer fantasy --- and in fact, seem inevitable and relatively soon.
Several science fiction “creations” with mass appeal have appeared
in recent years. Perhaps the first to notably reach beyond the “cults”
or “fandom” of early readers was the radio broadcast in 1938 of
H.G. Wells’ “War of the Worlds” by Orson Wells during which
millions of Americans across the country were frightened by a
realistic yet fictional account of an invasion in New Jersey by aliens.
Several science fiction books had preceded it and numerous ones
followed it. There had been Buck Rogers, et al, before that and so
many Hollywood sci-fi movies after it.
In recent years, a television series called “Star Trek” (which later
became a series of films), the films "Star Wars" (also a series of
films), “2001: A Space Odyssey” and “Close Encounters Of A
Third Kind” have appeared as iconic cultural moments in the U.S.
and other parts of the world. These four science fictions have
purported to take not only technological prescience to a higher
level, but have employed the art form to at least the pretension of
a philosophical level.
And it is this phenomenon, science fiction as philosophy, that I
want to discuss. In each of "Star Trek,"“Star Wars,” “2001: A
Space Odyssey” and “Close Encounters Of A Third Kind” there
are extraterrestrial life forms contacting human beings of the
planet Earth. In “Star Trek" and "Star Wars“ as in many science
fiction stories, past and present, the relationships and issues are
really about earthly relationships and issues of today, and are not
really predictive of what we might discover in the future in outer
space. “2001: A Space Odyssey” was perhaps the most ambitious
effort of the three, attempting to understand human existence in
an ambiguous cause from some mysterious extraterrestrial source.
Considering that virtually all extraterrestrial encounters in
science fiction for the past century were ominous and threatening,
“Close Encounters Of A Third Kind” was a new attempt to cast the
first meeting between humans and extraterrestrials as positive and
hopeful. Each of these works were immensely entertaining.
None of these three really offer more than a popular and superficial
philosophical idea, but I do suggest that their impact and popularity,
along with the many novels, stories and films which preceded them
are an important cultural development. In fact, all of them as well
as the widely held belief that there is life elsewhere perhaps
represents a profound widespread psychological condition or
awareness that humanity is crossing a kind of threshold which is
dangerous, frightening and problematic.
For most of human history, at least in its past four or five thousand
years, religion served as a universal haven for the anxieties which
arise from what the human mind and experience could not answer.
At first there were multiple gods, then one god, and then various
mass forms of worshiping and understanding the religious deity
which seemed to peak in the 19th century. Many of these religions
exist today, and enjoy the membership of perhaps a majority of
persons worldwide. In most of these religions, there are movements
which attempt to recapture the original fervor of belief, but it is also
evident that for millions of others, religion is a cultural custom more
than a theological one.
As in each step of human development, originally multiple gods and
then a single god figure, a person sought some understanding and
solace about death and the unknowable mysteries of life from some
external form. As human beings begin to recreate themselves with
computers and machines, and also reach some limits, it is
perhaps only natural that some would posit a new external form of
explanation and origin.
It would seem mere egotism and species childishness to think that
if some extraterrestrial life form did exist and had the capability to
travel to our little planet, such a life form would have any interest in
interacting with us. There also might be no other life forms in the
universe, or if there are, no way for them to communicate with us
in any form. As we face profound problems of our own, as a race of
creatures living tenuously on a relatively small planet, perhaps on
the verge of technologically abolishing ourselves, the hope and
promise of some visitors from space coming either to threaten us or
save us, seems a poor substitute for the real challenges we now face.
In a future we now face, it has turned bleaker not from threats from
the stars, but by the persistence of what we continue to visit on
Copyright (c) 2015 by Barry Casselman. All rights reserved.