The world is a pretty weird place.
In a world governed by natural laws and physics, some things defy logical explanation.
A two-headed anything.
This is a two-headed calf:
This is Sister Wives.
Seriously, can someone explain the appeal of this show to me.
Ordinary events on planet Earth may seem strange enough to the casual observer, but when things get really weird, earthlings often look to the sky for explanations (and maybe for a little bit of comfort) for everyday weirdness of life here on planet Earth.
Some people look to the heavens for God.
Some people look for aliens.
Lots of folks are into aliens.
Lots of ’em.
Maybe too many.
Whether we’re talking about flying saucers,
Or alien abductions,
We’re talking about these guys.
Whether you believe we’ve been visited by benevolent E.T.s, evil reptilians infiltrating world governments, malevolent xenomorphs, or in little green men…
Or even your own first-hand account of an encounter with anal-probing, intergalactic sex perverts,
We’re hooked on tales of human encounters with alien visitors.
Did you know that half of all Americans believe life exists on other planets?
And a quarter of all Americans believe that Earth has been visited by extraterrestrials.
I’m a philosopher.
Philosophers, by nature, are supposed to be into philosophy.
We’re not supposed to be into aliens.
We look to the sky only when we’re contemplating the meaning of life and the universe.
We definitely don’t look to the sky for something like this:
I have to admit, I’m not too familiar of any alien philosophers other than the great Vulcan philosopher Surak.
If you look around (especially on the internet) there’s plenty of evidence that Earth has indeed been visited by aliens. From first-hand encounters to film footage of aliens. Stories of the alien spacecraft crash at Roswell, crop circles, cattle mutilations, unexplained phenomena, and ancient texts and monuments – it’s fairly reasonable to conclude that some of the things that cannot be explained can be explained if we consider the possibility that the explanation is that Earth has been visited by extraterrestrial life.
The possibility that Earth has not only been visited, but that aliens have played and continue to play an active role in human events, explains the popularity of shows like Art Bell’s Coast To Coast, films like E.T., the Star Trek franchise, the Predator series, and the History Channel’s Ancient Aliens.
The search for extraterrestrial life is the reason behind SETI. It’s the reason why NASA wants to send a manned mission to Mars.
And it’s the reason why I know when exploring a space colony that has suddenly and inexplicably lost contact with Earth to stay clear of anything that looks even remotely like this:
Besides, if aliens aren’t real how does anyone explain this?
Stroll the aisles of any bookstore (if you can find an actual bookstore) and you’ll find books full of testimonials of alien sightings, contacts, and abductions. Really, you don’t even need to leave the comfort of your own home to find material about aliens. A Google search of the word “alien” will yield enough web stuff to keep a person busy for days.
Stories of alien contact, like the account of Travis Walton, who claims he was abducted by aliens in November, 1975, are compelling if not convincing testimony that claims of alien encounters.
With the exception of a few obvious hoaxes, we must admit that evidence gives us reason at least to question whether we are alone in the universe and wonder if any intelligent life has indeed visited Earth.
Ok, I know what the assholes experts will say – sure, there’s a lot of “evidence” for believing in the existence of non-earthling beings, but when it comes to down to reliable evidence, most evidence of alien visitations is un-definitive at best and downright suspect at worst. Evidence is either purely anecdotal or the worst shaky-cam footage since Cloverfield.
Weird stories of cow mutilations and anal probing may make for entertaining television, but for many these accounts remain subject to skepticism.
What we want is proof.
And if you’re a philosopher, our beliefs not only demand proof; they demand justification.
You see, even if I find someone’s evidence of an alien sighting, encounter or abduction convincing, I may still have no business believing what they say. I don’t just have to take into account the fact that I believe their claim, I have to think about what reasons (i.e. justification) I have for believing the claim.
As a philosopher I must demand more evidence – better evidence.
Certainly more evidence than some stories and bad camera work.
As a philosopher, I’m not allowed to simply say,
According to the English philosopher William Clifford (1845-1879) I am accountable not only for my beliefs but also for my justification of my beliefs.
This is William Clifford.
In his famous (well, famous of you’re a philosopher) essay a “Ethics of Belief”, William Clifford states:
To sum up: it is wrong always, everywhere, and for everyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence.
Clifford states that our beliefs are important because what we believe influences our actions. In Clifford’s essay, a ship owner believes that his ship is seaworthy when in reality it is not. The ship sets sail into stormy waters and is lost at sea. Everyone on board dies.
Worse yet, all the ship’s cargo is lost.
The problem, Clifford says, is that ship owner, despite his belief that his ship was capable of completing the voyage, had based his belief on bad evidence.* The ship owner has no epistemological right to believe that his ship was seaworthy. His belief wasn’t justified.
Ok, I know I’m truncating the hell out of Clifford’s essay, which is why you should read it.
In the case of Clifford’s ship owner, a belief based on insufficient evidence cost lives. We can clearly see the detrimental effect our beliefs have on our actions and potentially on the lives of others, but what about a belief in aliens? Is believing in the existence of extraterrestrial life – even if the evidence for believing in such is insufficient – necessarily harmful to anyone?
Surely, believing in aliens would not influence any sane person anyone to send a sea un-worthy ship into stormy weather (unless I assumed that aliens would rescue the crew and cargo). If I believe that aliens exist, even based on the flimsiest of evidence, who does my belief hurt? Am I allowed to believe some things despite the fact that my evidence may be lacking?
The short answer is no. Even our trivial beliefs matter. Clifford says that it’s wrong to hold any belief based on insufficient evidence.
Because even a seemingly insignificant belief can influence the way we act.
Perhaps even in possibly dangerous ways.
Lets say that there is someone who believes that not only do aliens exist and have invaded Earth, but that aliens have successfully infiltrated the world’s governments and alien-human hybrids are hell-bent on destroying humanity. The person who believes this has based his beliefs on photographs like this:
And like this:
These pictures, he argues, are evidence of an full-scale alien invasion of Earth. Based on his evidence he has decided to wage a one-man war against the alien invaders.
Now, let me say this – each of those photos can be used to make a compelling argument for the existence of alien life. But can these photos provide enough sufficient evidence to support the belief in alien life on Earth?
Remember, “evidence” of anything can be found on the internet.
Don’t forget that the internet is where photoshop lives.
Given the fact that his “evidence” consists of nothing more than blurry photographs or testimony supplied by a questionable (and often unverifiable) sources.
Because your undeniable evidence may be just another example of
Let’s face it folks, most “evidence” of terrestrial alien activity would not stand up to even the most basic epistemic scrutiny, let alone the kind of epistemological evidential proof that a philosopher requires. The kind of evidential proof that Clifford says everyone should require.
And if the evidence is insufficient, we cannot subscribe to a belief.
There is no good reason to believe what we believe.
We might not be aware of how beliefs negatively influence how we act.
If someone who believes the Earth has been overrun by malevolent, otherworldly beings acts violently against those he believes are the interspecies enemies of mankind, most of us would agree that his actions would not be the right (morally correct) thing to do.
We can’t just say that the evidence seems true or that we have faith that our belief is true despite evidence that contradicts our beliefs.
Perhaps if that individual had questioned the veracity of his beliefs he would not have acted so violently.
When we believe based on insufficient evidence we are deprived of truth, of how things truly are. And when we do not see things as they are, we can’t make correct moral decisions. This may seem a trivial concern, but it really means a lot. And not just to philosophers.
Beliefs grounded on a sturdy foundation are more likely to be true than false. Acting on true beliefs tends to deliver better results for us and for other people.
You see, the point really isn’t whether we believe in aliens. Or invisible pink unicorns. Or clairvoyance. Or whatever. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t believe that there is life on other planets. Chances are there is. What we should be aware of is that the consequences of holding some beliefs isn’t entirely harmless. Our beliefs influence what we do and when we act, our actions are subject to ethical evaluation.
*If you’re interested in reading Clifford’s full essay, “Ethics of Belief” (who isn‘t?), you can access it on the web just about anywhere. Seriously, all you need to do is type “William Clifford” into any search engine and “Ethics of Belief” is certain to pop up. But if you don’t want to do the search, click on the link here:
* While I was cruising the internet procrastinating researching this post, I came across this article. It seems that I may be too eager to dismiss belief in the supernatural and otherworldly things. Check it out for yourself and decide if the article is convincing.