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Columnists

Alien thinking

Agnostics anonymous

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When an RAF plane had a close encounter with a UFO in 1942, Winston Churchill exclaimed that 'this event should be immediately classified since it would create mass panic among the general population and destroy one's belief in the church.'

As it transpired, Churchill needn't have worried. UFO sightings have declined since the Cold War, and our Earth seems to be as alone in the universe as ever.
On the other hand, if we were to encounter alien technology, we might not realise it. Our expectations of how it might appear are based on our local view of the universe. We assume aliens would be carbon-based, roughly humanoid or at least animaloid, and have something like personalities. Maybe avant-garde animaloid bodies, maybe eccentric personalities, but still not that different to us.

However, it may be that aliens are so different from us that we lack concepts to express how different they are. The Eerie Silence by Paul Davies, head of SETI, set out these ideas earlier this year. Davies argued that we might have to think several parsecs outside the box to imagine what an alien might be.

He says we perceive two levels to physical reality: stuff and organisation. All matter and energy is stuff. Organisation is how it's arranged. Everything we know falls into one of these two categories. But, Davies urges, there may be other categories, other levels to reality.

What could that third level consist of? What could there be that isn't stuff or organisation? We have no idea. Perhaps there are things we can't conceive of - even calling them 'things' is a false reassurance.

I welcome this radical thinking. Alien enthusiasts often have a scientifically literalist turn of mind. There isn't enough recognition that our assumptions are parochial. If the universe is not only stranger than we imagine, but stranger than we can imagine, the same may apply to other creatures that live in it.

The thought inspires humility and awe. It might incline a religious person to say, 'If you admit that our knowledge is limited, and there is more to the universe than we can understand, then you've opened the way to God. God is precisely that which we can't comprehend.'

To which the answer is, if you're an agnostic, yes, there is more than we can understand, and that could be called 'God', if you like.

However, if you find God that way, then you should admit that the primary thing we know about God is that we don't know anything about God. God is the great black space that no telescope can magnify, the ultimate unbridgeable gap, the most opaque nebula of unknowing, the most alien of aliens. Claiming any particular knowledge about God, as all religions do, is absurd. God is the ultimate eerie silence.