All the Aliens on Netflix

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Behold, mini-reviews!

Aerials: An alien invasion plot set in Dubai. It’s mostly about how people react when they are forced to hide out inside their houses, not knowing what is going to happen. (They mostly do nothing and argue a lot.) I enjoyed it for the glimpse of Dubai itself: the beautiful inside of the couple’s apartment, and how the main character relates to his wife versus to his men friends in the tea shop. Interestingly, the Burj Khalifa (the tallest building in the world) is featured in this movie. The alien spacecraft hovers directly above it, and the title would seem to imply that they showed up there because they took it for a huge antenna. But this point is never developed. It’s more a character study about the people.

Ancient Aliens: A nothingburger. The worst “documentary” I have ever seen.

The Darkest Hour: Two friends who arrive in Moscow to check out the club scene find their trip interrupted by aliens. Great views of Moscow in the summertime, and for once, a really creative kind of alien that is not organic.

Revolt: An American soldier and a French aid worker deal with an alien invasion in Kenya. Really disappointing. I want to see the actual aliens, not just their machines.

Rim of the World: I watched this a few years ago, so I don’t remember it very well, but I remember it being a good apocalyptic film with teenaged protagonists and satisfyingly horrible aliens.

Battle: Los Angeles: O.K. Kind of meh. Running around and getting killed. It’s a little bit better than Revolt, but the same type of thing.

The Fourth Kind: Supposedly, these are aliens, but they are obviously actually demons.

Stargate (the original movie, not the series): I will never not love Stargate. The nerdy linguist hero, the spaceship that fits down over the pyramid …bliss.

A Weird Post (Because Aliens)

You’ve been warned, friends. If you don’t want to read a post about possible space aliens, you are welcome to leave the room with no hard feelings. Goodbye, and I’ll see you back here next week!

Finally Facing the News

You guys may have noticed, there has been a spate of news articles and videos about U.S. Navy pilots sighting what appear to be UFOs.

U.S. Navy videos declassified last year

60 Minutes interview with Navy pilots

Former head of the Pentagon’s UFO program says they have “exotic material” … what???

I’ve ignored these news items for a long time, mostly because I didn’t know what to do with them. Now I’m ready to give my analysis. It will be just as expert as anyone else’s, and no more expert than any comments you may leave.

Problems with all the Possible Theories

  1. This is all just a big hoax by our government, to distract us from the attempted power grab by [fill in your favorite villains]. The problems: First of all, it’s not working if that was indeed the plan. The media have not camped on this nearly as hard as on some other, less sensational things, and even when they have run stories, the public (including me, I might add) seem much more interested in their own problems. The government and media are not using these reports to whip up fear or preparations for an intergalactic war, nor are they trying to turn this into a scandal about past administrations’ lack of preparedness on the space alien issue. They have just kind of thrown out all this newly declassified information with a clunk, a shrug, and a big trombone slide. Secondly, the pilots who were interviewed seemed like sane, professional people. They did not seem like people who “want to believe” in space aliens. Thirdly, some of these reports and videos go back for decades.
  2. These aircraft belong to another world power, such as China, which has developed technology far more advanced than we suspected. Possible but implausible, because again, these sightings go back for decades. It’s hard to imagine a geopolitical rival having advanced millennia beyond us in terms of their technology, and not having already used it to conquer us. Regular earth people don’t have that kind of self-control.
  3. The aircraft belong to a private, independently wealthy genius, like Elon Musk, who does not want to take over the world but just zips over the Pacific Ocean as a hobby. Possible. Very possible. Although again, it would take phenomenal humility and self-control for a private organization to have these capabilities and not try to leverage them for whatever their own pet project is: fame, space travel, stopping perceived climate change, etc.
  4. The aircraft belong to an advanced civilization of space aliens. The first problem with this is that, if this is an invading force, they are taking their time. At the risk of repeating myself: these sightings go back decades. So if these are space aliens, they frankly don’t seem super interested in us. Perhaps they are just here as tourists. The Pacific Ocean would certainly be a worthy destination for tourism, and perhaps it is more interesting to them than humans. But there is another huge problem with the space alien theory; that is, if we are imagining these space aliens as they are usually conceived of: physical beings, designed to live in three dimensions, like us, physically inhabiting a very different ecosystem on a distant planet or planets in a distant solar system. The problem is this: any possible life-supporting planets in our universe are prohibitively distant for vehicles traveling at normal speeds. The time (and, if I may say so, the risks) involved are not at all practical for tourism or warfare, or even for beings not designed for space to survive the journey probably. Of course, there is a that hoary sci-fi trope of hyperspace (going faster than the speed of light). But everything I’ve ever heard about this indicates it’s either not possible, or would almost certainly destroy any object that accelerated to that speed, and would certainly kill any physical being, designed to live in three dimensions, that tried it. All of this makes it impossible for me to swallow a Star Wars or Avatar-like scenario where there are physical aliens living galaxies away, who have traveled through hyperspace to get to Earth. But there is another possibility.

Interdimensional Beings

In the short satirical novel Flatland, the protagonist is a square who lives in a two-dimensional world of geometric beings. These two-dimensional beings are visited by a sphere. The sphere shows himself to them by intersecting his body with the plane of their universe. The way this looks to the two-dimensional beings is that a point appears out of nowhere, then becomes a rapidly growing circle as the sphere inserts more of his diameter into their plane of existence. When he wishes to, the sphere can move out the other side. This looks to the two-dimensional shapes as if the circle shrinks and then vanishes. The sphere can then move to somewhere else on the two-dimensional plane and appear there, again giving the impression that he has appeared out of nowhere. Later, the sphere takes the square on a mystical journey to observe lower dimensions, so as to give him an idea of how higher dimensions might exist. There is a one-dimensional world (a line) where the inhabitants are all line segments. Each can only see the end of his neighbor (he or she looks like a point), but they can hear one another and communicate by harmonizing. The square is also shown a universe that consists of a single point. This point is the only being in its universe and thinks it is God. It is impossible to communicate with this point. If it hears a voice not coming from within its own universe, it imagines that it must be having auditory hallucinations.

Returning to the vehicles in the section above, I’m sure you can see where I’m going with this. If these mysterious vehicles turn out to be piloted by nonhuman beings, it seems most probable to me that they would be creatures designed to live in more dimensions than we do. Creatures in a higher dimension can do things that appear miraculous in lower dimensions, such vanishing abruptly or appearing to defy the laws of physics. Though wild, the “higher-dimensional beings” theory seems to me more plausible than the idea of three-dimensional beings who are subject to the same laws of physics that we are, yet somehow have managed to pull off intergalactic travel and vanishing through “technology.”

And, by the way, notice your own reaction to this. Did you breathe a sigh of relief? Does the phrase “interdimensional beings” sound way more intelligent than “space aliens” or “angels”? I confess it rolls off my tongue much more smoothly. (More syllables = better?) Some people might say that interdimensional beings was what they meant all along by “aliens,” and moving through multiple higher dimensions was what they meant by “technology.” O.K., that’s fair. Such beings would certainly be alien to us. Still, I think it’s a helpful distinction to make, because I don’t think “creatures designed to live in a higher dimension” is the first thing that comes to most people’s minds when they hear “aliens,” or especially “space aliens.” We might think of aliens as having the ability to mess with higher dimensions than we can, but I think most people think of that as a sort of extra, while conceiving of the aliens as primarily creatures like us (perhaps smarter and uglier), who make their primary home on a physical planet and are anchored in the three dimensions (four if you count time).

The Third Circle of Weird

Ready to get even stranger with me? Let’s go.

On this blog, I have in the past reviewed the excellent, very odd, very mind-blowing Collision Series, which consists of the books The Resolve of Immortal Flesh and The Formulacrum. That series is a lot of things, including a hilarious, Hitchhiker’s Guide-style romp … but more than anything it’s an extended exploration of this idea of interdimensional beings. Human characters in the series get ahold of a vehicle that can travel in higher dimensions. They exploit their access to higher dimensions to move through walls, travel the depths of the sea, and vanish when there’s trouble, and they do it a lot. Of course, the convenience of this is limited by the fact that throughout the books, the human protagonists are at different times being hunted by beings who also have access to these higher dimensions.

A major thesis of these books is that the beings we are used to referring to as angels and demons are actually interdimensional beings whose goals intersect with human life in complex ways. One interesting thing that comes up is that humans do in fact move through some of these higher dimensions, but we do so without knowing it. We experience our interdimensional blunders as intuitions, insights, creepy feelings, etc. This makes sense. After all, in theory there’s nothing to stop a two-dimensional creature from blundering through the body of a three-dimensional creature, right? Anyway, that’s an interesting detail but I’m getting off track here.

Helped by Rich Colburn, the author of The Formulacrum, I am now ready to cap off the weirdness by integrating this interdimensional beings idea into the world view of my own book series.

The Long Guest and The Strange Land both proceed on the premise, taken from Genesis 6, that in ancient times “the sons of God” (interdimensional beings?) walked the earth in some kind of physical form that allowed them somehow to reproduce with human women, thus producing a race of monsters. The resulting chaos was in fact the main reason for the Flood: God was doing triage to save the human race as originally created. This horrifying period in history was also the source of the all the legends and origin stories about gods, giants, and monsters that we find in cultures worldwide. For more on this theory, see my post, here, or the book Giants: sons of the gods by Douglas Van Dorn.

So, yes, strange as it sounds, I am speculating that your “aliens” might be what the ancient world called “gods” … but only if we specify that they were not regular “space aliens” but interdimensional beings who could probably appear as people or animals or whatever they wanted to look like (hat tip to the Greek myths).

So, Why Am I Not Terrified?

I’m not terrified because the gods ain’t what they used to be.

I see the “gods” as having less influence on human life now than ever before. I basically see three phases of this. In the first phase, they were actually here, manifesting physically, demanding worship in person. God put a stop to that with the Flood.

After the Flood, people still remembered the gods, and they seem to have continued to be pretty active on earth, but unable to manifest physically. So, each nation had a god that was responsible for it (or that it was responsible to). They built altars to these gods, identified them with different stars and constellations, and kept trying to get in touch with them physically even though that door had now been closed. “In the past,” Paul says, “God let all nations go their own way.” He picked one people and told them not to worship false gods (gods which were not the Creator and which, in many cases, didn’t even try to hide the fact that they were evil). If we look at legends and even recorded history, it seems to me that often these gods were actual spiritual presences who, though they could no longer manifest physically, could have quite an influence on human life through things like visions, possessions, illnesses, and disasters. For example, in Palestine in Jesus’ day we see many cases, unironically reported, of people being possessed by “unclean spirits.” This is in a region that had been heavily Hellenized, and where people were definitely still worshipping the Roman gods, the Greek gods, and the pre-Hellenistic local deities such as Artemis of the Ephesians. In this second phase, it was truly a dangerous thing to turn from your local deity to worship “the living God,” the God of Israel. Local deities perhaps could actually harm people they took a hate-on to. God spends a lot of time in the Old Testament reassuring the people that if they forsake the fertility and rain gods, and worship Him, He will bless their households and crops and will take care of them.

So, in phase two, God has set some limits on the interdimensional beings but there are still lots of manifestations from other dimensions and lots of communication (or attempts at such) between them and humans.

In phase three, we get Jesus. He opens the way for all human beings to relate directly to the living God. When people turn to Him, they turn away from the worship of the lesser gods. And when people do this in large numbers, a funny thing happens. Paganism no longer works any more. It’s as if the lesser gods have been banished — not partially, but completely now — from their traditional territories. In the Christian era, as worship of the true God spreads slowly but surely throughout the world like leaven, the world becomes less and less spooky. Now, 2000 years later, in many parts of the world, interdimensional/spooky/spiritual manifestations are so rare that we do not have to worry about them and many people don’t even believe that they exist or ever did. If we see a weird thing, we have to find some kind of physical explanation for it, whether it’s a hallucination caused by chemicals in our brain or physical, three-dimensional beings from somewhere else in our physical galaxy.

I’m OK with this change, frankly. It might make the world a little more boring … but, my gosh, it makes it so much less scary! It even means that, if these tic-tac-shaped spacecraft are being driven by interdimensional beings, we probably don’t have to worry. Probably the reason they have not used their capabilities to enslave us is that they aren’t allowed to interact with us in any significant way. Zip around a little, make us scratch our heads, yes. Manifest, show their power, attack us, no. Those days are gone. Christ is the victor. We can all breathe a sigh of relief.

UFO Footage Declassified, Produces Yawns

So, a few weeks ago, the U.S. Navy declassified some videos of their pilots observing unidentified flying objects.

‘UFO’ videos declassified by U.S. Navy

As one of my favorite misanthropic commentators observed, you would think that these videos would be met with mass hysteria and excitement. But, as it turns out, everyone is so occupied with … (no politics on the blog!) … with … with … the latest dumb thing, that these videos sank in the sea of the Internet leaving barely a ripple.

Actually, I think probably the reason no one is making a big deal about these UFOs is that most people don’t think it’s likely they were being driven by aliens. In the movies, the release of videos like this would constitute “proof” and everyone would be quickly convinced of the existence of aliens based on them and we would scramble to get a rudimentary alien defense/communication team up and running. In real life, “proof” does not convince people of anything they don’t find inherently plausible. C.f. my post on Occam’s Razor.

I have heard firsthand stories of people seeing mysterious lights up close. (I guess the stories were secondhand by the time I heard them.) I believe the people when they tell me they saw the lights, but I don’t think the event explains itself. When it happens in the U.S., it gets interpreted as angels or aliens. When it happens in Southeast Asia, it is of course the scary ball-of-light spirit.

What would it take to convince me that aliens exist? I think it would have be an actual invasion … not a mere landing, but an event that lasted many years and permanently changed Earth culture in ways that affected the lives of everyone. In other words, multiple, convincing proofs, that had ongoing effects which translated into firsthand experience.

What would it take to convince you?

The Diamond-Shaped Face

Who is this handsome fellow? He is Lord Pacal (or Pakal), denizen of the most spectacular tomb ever discovered from the Mayan civilization. This is the tomb at Palenque, the excavation of which reads like an archaeological thriller. The limestone slab covering Lord Pacal’s coffin is the location of the famous Mayan “astronaut” carving, the actual cosmological significance of which is explained here.

This watercolor of him is my own interpretation, done from a photograph of a sculpted head of him, reproduced below.

The Magnificent Maya, p. 85

Though I did my best, in the sculpture his face is even longer, leaner, more angular, more … well … Mayan. I took a guess about skin, hair, and eye color. I also had to interpret his hairstyle and headdress, after staring for some time at the textures in the statue. As near as I can tell, his hair has been arranged to cascade upward and forward over some sort of cone-shaped crown, which I imagined to be jade, a stone the Maya valued. The hair style is apparently meant to accentuate the tall, narrow shape of the head, which was a head shaped valued by the Maya if we go based on their other art. The headband I rendered as a buff-colored woolly material, again based on its texture, though given Pacal’s status it could have been red or gold.

I spent maybe an hour or two on this watercolor, but no doubt the sculptor spent much, much longer on his or her rendering of Lord Pacal, which was probably the most important work of his or her lifetime.

You can see that it’s a dramatic face. You can see why I wanted to paint it.

In my watercolor, Lord Pacal came out looking surprisingly sensitive and gentle. In real life, he probably wasn’t, at least not by the time he reached the age of his death. He was buried with six teenaged human sacrifices, and he came from a culture that produced statues of torture victims.

But my main concern here is with the shape of his face. I am fascinated by the wildly varying types of shape that can and do work as recognizable, and indeed attractive, human faces. Lord Pacal’s face is almost a perfect diamond. It’s widest at the brows and cheekbones, narrowest at the chin and forehead.

As I went to draw this face, I was reminded that I had once drawn another face with a similar shape.

Here is a pen portrait I did from life. This man’s jaw is a touch wider than Lord Pacal’s, but the main difference between the two faces is the nose. This model has a small, rather flat nose with a very low bridge, unlike Lord Pacal’s knifelike nose with its very high bridge, extending all the way up into his forehead, which seems to have been a convention in Mayan portrait art. Whether it this was an ideal of beauty or a real-life physical feature, I don’t know. I do know that low nose bridges are not valued in the culture that the second portrait came from … though I think both kinds can be perfectly beautiful.

And my second model for a diamond-shaped face came from … Borneo. Land Bridge, baby!

Source

The Magnificent Maya, Lost Civilizations series, by the editors of Time-Life Books, Alexandria, Virginia, 1993.

(Much more has been discovered about the Mayan civilization since the publication of this book. In particular, Lidar and UAV aerial imaging have revealed that the Mayan cities were much larger and more numerous than was known in 1993. However, though the context for their interpretation might have changed, the artifacts documented in The Magnificent Maya have not ceased to exist, so I am using the book as an introductory source.)

Occam’s Razor and ‘Chariots of the Gods’

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My First Brush with Occam’s Razor

Occam’s Razor is the logical principle that states that, when there are two competing explanations for a given phenomenon, we should choose the explanation that is simpler – i.e., is less elaborate, introduces fewer hypotheticals, conditions, or “assumptions.”

We all use this principle without realizing it (more on this later), but the first time I remember consciously applying it was in high school.

I was given an assignment to write a research paper on anything I wanted.  What I wanted was to write about this thing I had vaguely heard of, which I called “weird science.”  By this I meant wild, speculative theories, research into cryptids, and things like that.  In practice, my “weird science” paper turned out to be, basically, a book report on Chariots of the Gods

The Ancient Aliens Theory

Chariots of the Gods was published in 1968 and written by Erich von Däniken.  It advanced the theory that superintelligent extraterrestrials colonized earth long ago and were responsible for various mysterious or hard-to-explain structures built by ancient people, such as the pyramids at Giza, the pyramid/observatories throughout MesoAmerica, the Nazca Lines, etc. 

Since the publication of Chariots, this idea has made it into fiction numerous times.  There was the movie Stargate (1994), which focused on ancient Egypt, and which I love because its hero is a linguist.  (On first contact with a group of strangers, a military officer shoves him forward and says, “You’re a linguist, aren’t you?  Go talk to them.”) More recently there was Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008).  (Spoiler: it’s an alien skull).  These ideas have now been made into a TV series (Ancient Aliens), and in fact there is a whole ancient aliens interest crowd out there now.

I Knew Better, But Couldn’t Explain Why

But reading through Chariots of the Gods was my first time to stare these ideas straight in the face, as it were.  And of course, I thought they were cool, even if some of the evidence was a little weak.  Von Däniken made much of a particular Mayan sarcophagos engraving that he said “clearly” showed an astronaut reclining inside a small spaceship, complete with controls, microphone, et al.  If you’ve seen the panel, it’s really kind of hard to tell what the heck it is, beyond a human seated in an awkward position.  See this article, by a fellow WordPress blogger. There you will see a picture of the original panel, a copy of Von Däniken’s diagram and “explanation” of it, plus a convincing argument that the whole thing is far better explained by Mayan cosmology.

Things like the Nazca lines were a little harder to explain (or at least to guess the purpose of), given that it is literally impossible to tell what they portray without viewing them from an airplane.

Anyway, weak evidence or not, I thought von Däniken made a compelling case.  Compelling, but not plausible.  In other words, there was actually no way to falsify the claims.  The theory was logically consistent.  But it was also, how do you say it, a little bit … elaborate.  (Or, as Bertie Wooster describes it, “A word that begins with an e and means being a damn sight too clever.”)   It was fun to think about as a theory, but didn’t seem terribly likely from the point of view of wanting to find out what actually happened.

The Razor to the Rescue!

This was where Occam’s Razor came in.  I was relieved to learn that I didn’t have to accept Chariots’ premise just because I couldn’t find a logical inconsistency.  Occam’s Razor to the rescue!  One theory to explain ancient structures required an entire extraterrestrial civilization capable of space travel; another, equally logical, only required me to believe that ancient human beings were smarter than we give them credit for.  Problem solved.  I wrote the book report and went on my merry way.

The Razor Left some Loose Ends

Except that the problem was only sort of solved.  The overly elaborate explanation didn’t ring true, but my simpler one left an awful lot of questions unanswered.

It didn’t tell us anything about how the ancient people managed to make the pyramids at Giza; the jigsaw-puzzle fitted megaliths at Machu Picchu and Saksaywaman; the 1,000-ton megaliths at Baalbek, Lebanon; the heads at Easter Island, etc.  Whatever techniques they used, we couldn’t get the same results today. And why would anyone choose to use huge megaliths in any building project, assuming that handling megaliths was as difficult back then as it is today?   Saying “they were smarter than we are” might be true, but it just passes the mystery of how it was done from E.T. back to ancient people again, sort of like a hot potato, without really clearing anything up.

Why were ancient people so interested in astronomy?  Why did they build giant drawings that are best viewed from above?  For the “gods” to see, perhaps.  But where did they get this idea of “gods” who might actually visit?  (No, I am not going back to the aliens.  Hang on.)  Were they smart enough to lay out perfect geometrical structures that covered miles, yet dumb enough to believe in “gods” on zero evidence (assuming their evidence was the same as we have today)?

These questions are not going to go away, because the structures themselves are there.  This is not like an unconfirmed UFO sighting.  Anyone can go and look at these structures, marvel at the mathematical and engineering ability that went into them, and confirm that, in some of the cases, to this day we don’t know how the heck it was done.

Whatever theory we come up with to answer these questions is likely to sound just as implausible as a race of aliens.

When the Razor Cuts Off Too Much

And here we come up against a limitation of Occam’s Razor.  The Razor, useful as it is and cool as its name undoubtedly sounds, does not help us distinguish between plausible and implausible assumptions.  Our sense of which theory is “simpler” depends to a large extent on our sense of which theory sounds more likely.  In other words, there’s a short, slippery slope sometimes from Occam’s Razor to Confirmation Bias.

What is more plausible: that aliens visited earth thousands of years ago, or that ancient humans were at least twice as smart as we are today?  Whichever sounds more likely will look like the “simpler” explanation.  (Of course, given those options, we might start casting desperately about for a third one.)

If it is an article of faith with … someone … (I name no names) that human beings started out as, essentially, animals, and that throughout all of history, humans have been getting steadily smarter and more technologically advanced, then, in a minute … that person … might find themselves invoking aliens.  Because when confronted with the amazing engineering feats of the distant past, aliens are going to seem like a more likely culprit than those people that we think of as cave people.

There is another view of history that goes at least some of the way toward explaining these ancient mysteries without invoking aliens at all.  I’ll write about it in a later post.