Science will never explain everything. (Getty Images)

January 18, 2024   6 mins

In 1950, Enrico Fermi, the man who built the first nuclear reactor, was having lunch with some other scientists when the discussion turned to aliens – and he first articulated what’s become known as “the Fermi paradox” by asking: “Where is everybody?

In other words: the universe has been around for some time, and is a very big place. Human life has only existed for a fraction of that time, and only on one planet. Given the vastness of time and space, then, it seems more than likely that we’re not the only intelligent beings in the universe. So why haven’t we found any evidence of others? This question has led some to conclude that extra-terrestrial intelligent life doesn’t exist, and others to speculate — as in the long-running sci-fi show The X Files — that aliens do exist, but that their existence is covered up by mysterious government agencies.

Recently, The X Files seems to have escaped into real life. US Congress was reported last week to have received a secret briefing on UFOs — or, as they are known these days, UAPs: Unidentified Anomalous Phenomena. This follows revelations last year from David Grusch, a former US Intelligence official turned whistleblower, who alleged that the USA is in possession of “partially intact” alien vehicles and other evidence of extra-terrestrial life.

According to Grusch, governments have, since 1945, been engaged in a sub rosa technological race to reverse engineer alien technology. In the wake of the media storm this caused, pressure has mounted on US authorities to reveal the truth. What, then, is going on? Are aliens trying to make contact? If not, why are they creeping into the public consciousness now?

I suspect the truth may be less “out there” than in here. That is, the phenomena we have for some time called “aliens” were always real, and what’s changing is our shared relationship to reality. When I suggest “the aliens were always real”, I don’t mean little green men in spaceships. I mean that the world has always been stranger than the dominant Enlightenment-style scientific paradigm allows.

The scientists and researchers of the Age of Reason, which began with Francis Bacon and reached its high point in the 19th century, imagined the universe as a kind of giant clockwork mechanism. Its inner workings could, they postulated, be made intelligible, if dismantled and analysed. But as it turned out, once you dismantle things to the smallest possible level, it all goes weird.

Since splitting the atom, theoretical physics has got progressively less intelligible, and more — to laypeople, at least — mystical-sounding: an arcane place of multiple parallel dimensions, space-collapsing quantum entanglement, and things that aren’t real until they are measured. I don’t pretend to grasp any of these concepts at any level beyond pop-science. But the aggregate takeaway, for the casual observer, is surely that the fabric of reality is much more mysterious than Newton or Descartes imagined.

Given that actual physicists largely abandoned Newtonian physics a long time ago, perhaps this shouldn’t be shocking. But despite these (albeit not widely understood) scientific advances, Fermi’s question remains unanswered. Where is everybody? Why haven’t we encountered other intelligent life?

But here, the most obvious answer is surely: we have. We’re just looking at it wrongly. If, as some theoretical physicists now argue, there are not four dimensions but at least 10, that’s six we can’t perceive directly, but that might well be populated by intelligent life of some kind unimaginable within our familiar dimensions.

Should such hypothetical entities ever intrude into the human field of perception, you’d expect us to struggle to make sense of the experience. You’d also expect such an encounter to be interpreted in whichever terms give the best account of it, according to the perceiver’s culture and mental framework — interpretations that would vary a great deal over time. In other words: what if “aliens” is simply one of many conceptual frameworks humans have adopted, over time, to talk about encounters that happen too frequently to be dismissed as delusion, but that are too strange to be explained away in terms of everyday life?

Such encounters recur throughout recorded history: an Egyptian stele from 1450BC, for example, describes a “star” that “shot” at the enemies of Thutmose III. The Roman historian Livy recounts “phantom ships gleaming in the sky” during the Second Punic War in 218BC. And in 1566, citizens of Basel reported “celestial phenomena” overhead, as black and red balls “fought” in front of the rising sun. But Livy glosses these as religious experiences — as does the 1566 pamphlet about the Basel incidents, which enjoins readers to pray for divine assistance against the Turks.

Even relatively modern strange encounters are more likely to be interpreted in mystical or religious terms, when experienced by those outside secular, Anglophone scientific culture. This is evident from the testimonies assembled by the artist Susan Hiller for Witness, a 2000 installation that compiled accounts of UFO sightings from around the world. A priest from Puerto Rico, for example, describes repeated encounters with nonhuman beings who “explain complicated ideas of space and time”. He asserts that “teachers of Light came to our planet from other planets, from other systems, even from other galaxies and realms known to us as the non-physical or supernatural realms of existence”. An Indian teacher explains a strange encounter with a glowing, airborne object as simply one of many mysterious happenings, in a place sacred to the 15th-century Bengali saint Mahaprabhu.

From this perspective, it would make sense that accounts of alien encounters seem to have intensified as religious faith has waned: a map showing UFO reports over time shows their prevalence rising over the 20th century, and clustering most strongly in the secular Anglosphere. And while we could just interpret this as meaning that Anglophone cultures are peculiarly susceptible to delusion, if we entertain even hypothetically the possibility that at least some of these reports were genuine encounters with something, there are two obvious alternative readings. One: that aliens are for some reason especially partial to British and American people; or, two, that British and American people lack any framework other than “aliens” to make sense of otherworldly encounters.

If this were all true, and government agencies know it, that would suggest the real X Files cover-up is not of aliens as such, but a broader and more disorienting insight: how much stranger the world really is than in the official narrative. But why hide this? Perhaps there are good practical reasons, not least that we’ve built an immensely complex and high-tech civilisation upon technologies premised on a mechanistic view of the universe; if that clockwork model is at best an over-simplification, if not outright false, what would happen if everyone knew? Could the masses still be relied upon to act as though the dead, mechanistic universe is all there is? And if not, would we still be able to keep the lights on? If there were even the faintest possibility that the answer to this is “no”, I can perhaps understand why leaders might deem it in the public interest to contain the truth.

And if that truth seems recently to be leaking out, I suspect this is because our faith in the mechanistic nature of the universe is now very visibly slipping, UFOs or no UFOs. We are demonstrably losing interest in the world of atoms. Public debate is fracturing, online, into competing and often only tenuously reality-based filter bubbles; conspiracies flourish; there’s been a genuine resurgence in flat-Earth theories. In brief, no one views facts or logic as slam-dunk debate-enders anymore. “Lived experience” and “personal truth” trump statistics, which in any case are viewed (often accurately) as merely another tool for politicised storytelling. Even matters once simply deemed simply self-evident, such as human sexual dimorphism, have receded in importance relative to the push and pull of competing moral narratives.

And if mass public debate has come unmoored from the material, so too has leadership. It’s hard to think of more concrete evidence than the top-down imposition of policies predicated on a belief that inner identity takes precedence over sexed physiology. Yet this shift manifests well beyond identity politics. Leaders across the political spectrum grandstand on the moral issue of the day while announcing new policies half of which never exist beyond the press release, all while salami-slicing basic, real-world services such as bin collection and road maintenance.

Meanwhile, if complex systems such as air traffic control appear to be seizing up in a concatenating competence crisis, this is not, as recent discourse has averred, the fault of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion measures — or not exactly. Rather, the shift away from hiring practices based on merit and competence, in favour of those based on supposed moral attributes, is an effect of our leaders losing interest in the material world. It’s only because of this that hiring criteria irrelevant to competence are able to creep in at all. You could apply a completely different set of moral attributes to air traffic control recruitment, that had nothing to do with race, gender and so on, and the result would be just as deleterious compared to competence-based hiring.

What, then, are these sunlit esoteric uplands, for which so many now seem willing to exchange the previous era’s scientific and technological achievements? What, or who, if anything, has been visiting us while Fermi wasn’t looking? “I want to believe so badly in a truth beyond our own,” says Fox Mulder, in the X Files episode that spawned the famous slogan. Our collective turning-away from the world of atoms, and the complex systems we built there, suggests that we do, as well.

But no one from the Congress briefing seems willing to spill the beans. Perhaps the fear is that the truth really is too uncanny to be assimilated, in a public conversation already fractiously weird. Or the hope is that, for as long as the rest of us remain in the dark, we may be able to keep the lights of the Enlightenment on a little longer.

Mary Harrington is a contributing editor at UnHerd.