Matter of Debate

Gareth J. Medway
Magonia 71, June 2000

In the Middle Ages it was fairly easy to hold a reasoned debate, because there were basic authorities and assumptions that no-one challenged. The Bible, the decisions of the Church councils, and the writings of the Fathers provided the fundamental guides, and from them one could logically derive an answer to most if not all questions.

Suppose that the topic of debate was: Can a demon lover make a woman pregnant? Genesis 6:4 says that “the sons of God came unto the daughters of men, and they bare children unto them”; while St Augustine in The City of God, Book 15, Chapter 23, explained that “the sons of God” in this passage meant angels who rebelled, were cast out of heaven and became demons. So it was easy to reach the common consensus that demons can make women pregnant, though there remained the vexed question of whether they use their own semen or not.

Of course, there were a few problems. St Augustine believed in the pre-existence of souls, which was later ruled to be heretical. Classical authors were a doubtful point: the protagonists in a dialogue on witchcraft, published in 1489, debated among other things whether witches could turn humans into animals. In favour of the proposition, one cited Apuleius’s The Golden Ass, in which a man is changed into a donkey by a witch’s potion, but this was held to be invalid as evidence because Apuleius was a pagan (rather than the more obvious objection that The Golden Ass is a work of fiction.) But these were minor issues.

Nowadays there is practically nothing that the majority of people will assent to. In the UFO field one might agree that at least everyone will agree that it is possible that there could be life on other planets. Yet this is often denied on the grounds that either: a) Extraterrestrial life cannot exist because it is not mentioned in the Bible; or b) That the chances of life arising anywhere are so infinitesimally small that we can be sure it has only happened once in the lifetime of the universe.

Obviously, if two peoples’ initial axioms and postulates are different, then they will reach different conclusions even if their reasoning processes are wholly logical. For example, a ufologist who begins from the premise that there is no other life in the universe will not arrive at the ETH.

Whilst half a century of ufology has not produced evidence that would convince a sceptic, from as early as the 1940s there has been enough to persuade believers, usually beyond all doubt, that we are being visited by beings from outer space. The question thus reduces to one of personal opinion. Your opinion is far more sophisticated and well-informed than that of your opponents, of course: but what is the use of knowing that, when they erroneously think the same of themselves’?

The rationalist, scientific view of the universe rests in part upon a series of negative propositions: that there is no God, or at least no perceptible divine influence upon the world; that there are no undiscovered forces; and so on. But it is impossible to prove negative propositions, which tends to place the sceptic in a weak position. In response to this fact, Kendrick Frasier of CSICOP proposed that extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof, and that the burden of proof is upon the claimant. For instance, the atheist cannot prove that there is no afterlife; but if it is said that it is extraordinary to believe in life after death, then the onus passes to the religious believer.

But what is ‘extraordinary’? To take an extreme example, in parts of the East it is not regarded as in any way extraordinary for a man to rise from the dead. Gita Mehta’s Karma Cola describes how a guru was said to have brought back to life a man who had been dead for three days. What most impressed the guru’s disciple, apparently, was not the resurrection itself, but that the guru had been able to find the body, which had been lost by the staff of the chaotically run morgue.

Now, ufologists do not of course study UFOs but UFO reports. Here, the question of plausibility become crucial. Much sceptical writing on ufology boils down to something like: “It’s more likely they were seeing Venus than an extraterrestrial spacecraft”, simply because ETs are regarded as inherently implausible. By contrast the ETHers’ basic assumption is that not only is it possible, but probable, that alien spacecraft will be monitoring the Earth. Since a plausible claim does not require extraordinary proof, they are happy with a modicum of evidence. They may also say that was is implausible is that the witnesses should have mistaken Venus for a spacecraft, so the sighting must have been of the latter.

Notice that neither point of view is testable; hence, despite claims to the contrary, neither is actually scientific. One result is that the same facts are taken to support various antipathetic conclusions. To return to the old demonic issue, consider this passage from the 13th century Jewish mystical book The Zohar: “… when a man dreams in his sleep, female spirits often come and disport with him, and so conceive from him and subsequently give birth. The creatures thus produced … appear always under the form of human beings, but they have no hair on their heads … In the same way male spirits visit women-folk and make them pregnant …”

It is easy to predict what the comments of the various ufological factions would be on this: ETHers would seize on it as proof that aliens have been cross-breeding with us for centuries, PSHers would think is shows that the abduction scenario is just a continuation of medieval demonology; and Christian fundamentalists would say therefore the `aliens’ are demons in disguise. No amount of argument for any of these viewpoints will convince a believe in a contrary viewpoint.

(I have wondered for some time what the Muslim view of UFOs might be; recently I found a brief exposition in Ahmed Hulusi’s Allah, translated by Ahmed Baki, Kitsan Publishing, Istanbul, 1994, pp.23-5, who predictably states that they are nothing other than djinns, who also pretend to be elves, demons and saints, and whose intention is to deceive humans and lead them away from Allah. His reason for thinking this is, no doubt, that djinns are mentioned in the Koran but aliens are not. Apparently Hulusi wrote a book on this theme, still available in Turkish, as long ago as 1972.)

The split is not just between believers and sceptics. Believers suppose that advanced ETs will agree with their views on important subjects. The Revolutionary Workers Party (not to be confused with the Workers’ Revolutionary Party or the Party of Revolutionary Workers) used to believe, and no doubt still do if they still exist, that UFOs are emissaries from another, socialist, galaxy. They would certainly reject as spurious any stories about blue-eyed, blonde-haired Venusians with racist views, though some have been reported: “Some contactees who claimed to have visited Mars blandly point out that the planet is divided into zones with the Negro and Jewish Martians carefully segregated from the others” (John Keel, Our Haunted Planet, p.85.)

These are extreme cases, but there has always been enmity between New Agers whose friendly spacemen preach New Age philosophy, and the scientific ufologists who picture aliens as super-technologists, not necessarily friendly. There is not exactly perfect harmony amongst non-ETH ufologists, as can be judged by the letters page of Magonia. To a great extent these arguments arise, not from anyone’s findings, but from their differing initial assumptions.

As far as our present knowledge goes, interstellar travel is effectively impossible. Yet it is at least conceivable that things like anti-gravity drives and faster than light travel might be realised one day, since technology has achieved things which experts had said could not be done, such as moon rockets. So whether aliens could travel here from other star systems is not so much a scientific question as a question of how much faith we have in our present state of scientific knowledge.

How useful is expert opinion? The public are often suspicious of experts, sometimes on the reasonable grounds that it is hard to know when an expert is really speaking from expert knowledge, and when merely expressing an opinion. Conversely, people may readily trust an apparent expert who says what they want to hear. In any case it is doubtful if anyone can be called an expert in fields that are mere guesswork, such as exobiology or flying saucer propulsion systems, central topics in the UFO debate.

Does it matter? If aliens are visiting the Earth, then this fact will not be altered whether we believe in them or not. On the other hand, if it is true that UFOs are really demons or djinns bent on deceiving us, then people ought to be warned against them. If they are merely products of human imagination, then no doubt in time people will go on to imagining other things. But reason leads only to the conclusion that in this field reason leads nowhere.