Harvard Scientist Speculates about Ancient Astronauts as Surrogates for God, Asks If Their Existence Would Make Humanity More Moral and Responsible
Note: Due to a number of obligations I have this week, my blog posts are going to be briefer than usual several days this week. I hope you don’t mind too much.
Today I wanted to discuss a blog post on the Scientific American website by Abraham (Avi) Loeb, the chair of Harvard University’s astronomy department and a bunch of other impressive titles related to astrophysics. However, despite his extensive career, he is best known to the public for his 2018 claim that the anomalous interstellar object ‘Oumuamua could be a piece of alien technology. He wrote this weekend about the idea—so popular among ancient astronaut theorists—that advanced extraterrestrials would be indistinguishable from God. While he attributes the idea to a variation of Arthur C. Clarke’s third law (first proposed in 1973), regular readers will know that H. P. Lovecraft wrote stories about humans mistaking advanced space aliens for deities in the 1920s, and antecedents of the idea can be found in Theosophy decades before.
More specifically, Loeb is concerned that humanity may not be prepared to recognize the space rock ‘Oumuamua as a piece of extraterrestrial technology, even if it were one, much as early humans would only have understood an iPhone as a shiny rock due to their lack of a suitable frame of reference. This is of course the same argument Erich von Däniken made in Chariots of the Gods when he suggested that humans did not have the vocabulary to correctly understand the wheels seen in Ezekiel’s divine vision as a flying saucer, and Loeb’s thought experiment is basically the same as von Däniken’s in Chariots imagining how primitive aliens might interpret NASA astronauts. It is also almost exactly the inverse of the crazy claim made by Jacques Bergier in Extraterrestrial Visitations from Prehistoric Times to the Present (1970; English trans. 1973) when he alleged that he had correctly understood a fragment of meteoric iron known as Dr. Gurlt’s Cube as “data collectors of the same type as magnetic bands, but much more highly perfected.”
But as weird as it is to see a Harvard astrophysicist turning to the argument style of ancient astronaut theorists to speculate about ancient space alien technology, I was more concerned to see that Loeb doesn’t really seem to see the science as enough on its own. He repeatedly casts the questions of panspermia and interstellar colonization in moral terms. In one passage, he advocates for humanity “seeding” other planets with “life as we know it” to preserve “things we care about” from the destruction that nuclear weapons, climate change, etc. might bring about. That this pipe dream is a jeremiad about contemporary civilization rather than a plan for the future can be seen in the rather obvious fact that even if we did “seed” other planets, thanks to natural selection and the different environments found on even the most earthlike planets, whatever grows there over time will not be “things we care about,” unless you’re really hot for the four bases of DNA and some highly general biological principles. You can’t shoot seeds into space and get a planet of puppies and bunnies.
But look at how he closes his post:
If life was seeded artificially on Earth, one may wonder whether the seeders are checking on the outcome. And if so, the fact that we have not heard from them may indicate that they are disappointed. The experiment may have failed, or we are simply too slow to mature. Well, this may not come as a surprise given the irresponsible way we behave sometimes. Perhaps if we only knew that someone is looking over our shoulders, we would do better. It is not too late for us to find out, by using the best telescopes at our disposal.
How would you know aliens are disappointed? Or that they could be? Maybe they are just dead. Or never existed in the first place. This isn’t science but morality. Loeb is openly stating that the aliens aren’t just indistinguishable from gods but a substitute for God. He seems to be projecting into the heavens a discontent he feels with the social and political challenges on the Earth, and is all but looking to recreate a disapproving Sky Father to provide a supernatural justification for the social and political changes that are not occurring by normal means.
Everyone knows scientists are human rather than purely rational robots, but it is weird to see the quasi-religious underpinnings of the search for aliens so openly acknowledged by someone who really ought to know better than to mix the facts about extraterrestrial life with an emotional longing for supernatural parental figures to solve humanity’s problems.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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