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Alien Disclosure – Is Ignorance Bliss?

image of ufo hovering over desert road

This week – in scenes straight out of an episode of The X-Files – a House Oversight subcommittee has begun hearing testimony regarding an alleged alien cover-up by the U.S. Government. According to retired Major David Grusch, the U.S. has been retrieving and reverse engineering unidentified flying objects (UFOs) since the 1930s. Among the claims made by Grusch, the most audacious – and, perhaps, most unsettling – is that this government activity has included the recovery of non-human biologics.

Put simply: Grusch claims that aliens have visited Earth, and that the U.S. government is well aware of this.

It’s obvious that UFOs exist: I see one every time I spot something in the sky that I’m incapable of identifying. What is controversial, however, is the claim that some of these UFOs are of alien origin. As famed astronomer Carl Sagan noted, however: “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” And while Grusch has provided a great deal of testimony relating to the alleged cover-up, this has been exclusively in the form of second-hand reports from other government officials. Grusch himself has not seen these alien spacecraft or biologics first-hand, nor has he yet provided concrete evidence of their existence to the subcommittee.

But suppose that Grusch is right. The possibility of the government covering up evidence of alien visitations raises all kinds of ethical questions – especially when it comes to a government’s duty to disclose information to its citizens. Would it be right for the U.S. to keep such a revelation from its people?

Governments keep secrets all the time. Ostensibly, this is done for the benefit of those they govern. We can only assume that something similar would be true in this case. Incontrovertible evidence of the existence of alien life would be an unprecedented turning point in human history. It would shatter the worldviews of many, and have far-reaching implications for many of our religious and philosophical beliefs. It’s conceivable that, despite our best cognitive intentions, this revelation would be accompanied by widespread fear and anxiety.  As the protagonists of Men in Black so eloquently put it:

James Edwards: “Why the big secret? People are smart. They can handle it.”

Agent Kay: “A person is smart. People are dumb, panicky, dangerous animals and you know it.”

The reason for government non-disclosure, then, might simply be to avoid such panic: that is, to maximize the welfare of the citizenry. But how do we measure welfare? Put another way, how do we establish what makes a life go well? One obvious answer is “happiness.” Indeed, this is what the Hedonists believe – that how well a life is going can be measured purely in terms of pleasure and pain. What this means is that if the disclosure of alien life would, on balance, make people’s lives less happy, then the government is maximizing welfare (i.e., doing the right thing) by refraining from sharing that information.

But is pleasure really all that matters? Robert Nozick poses a famous thought experiment to challenge this idea. Imagine that there is a machine that can give you any experience you want. You can program it with whatever will bring you pleasure, and avoid anything that brings you pain. What’s more, upon entering the machine, you will lose any memory of having done so – meaning that your experiences will not be ruined by the knowledge that they are illusory.

The question: would you choose to hook up to this machine for the remainder of your life?

When I pose this thought experiment to my students, they often raise one of several concerns. Many worry about the friends and family they would leave behind. But suppose that these people also have the option to enter their own experience machines – something which they happily do. Others worry that a life filled with constant pleasure wouldn’t be as good – that is, that without the bitter, the sweet wouldn’t be as sweet. But we can take care of that too. If it helps your appreciation of the pleasure, some small amounts of pain can be programmed into your experience too. Ultimately, all that matters is that your life in the experience machine would be one that gives you a greater balance of pleasure-over-pain than your ordinary life.

Yet, despite this, many would be reluctant to enter the experience machine. The most often cited reason for this is that there is more to our welfare than happiness. Sometimes, what’s best for us isn’t what brings us the most pleasure. That’s why we go to bed early, visit the dentist, and read dry philosophical treatises.

And the very same reasoning applies to knowledge. Suppose that you’ve just bought a brand new outfit and ask a trusted friend how you look. Suppose, further, that the outfit is atrocious and makes you look absolutely ridiculous. Which would be better for you: To be told a flattering lie that makes you feel good about yourself? Or to receive the harsh truth – a truth that might allow you to make better decisions going forward? While the former might bring about greater pleasure, there are good reasons why many of us might prefer the latter.

There are many cases where it might be good for us to be given certain information, even when that information brings us sadness or anxiety or fear. Consider, for example, a cancer diagnosis or evidence of the infidelity of a spouse. The question for us is whether or not evidence of alien life is one such example. It’s undeniable that while some would be thrilled by government disclosure of the existence of alien life, many others would suffer from a raft of negative emotions. Given the considerations above, however, it’s no longer immediately obvious that these negative responses justify non-disclosure. It may very well be the case that our lives will go better knowing that we are not alone in the universe, even if that prospect doesn’t make us happier. Maybe, when it comes to evidence of aliens, ignorance isn’t bliss.

Moral Limits on State Secrets

photograph of "Top Secret" manila envelope

The topic of UFOs recently made headlines, as a purported whistleblower claims the United States government is secretly in possession of alien spacecraft. This proclamation comes in the midst of increased national attention to the prospect of UFOs in recent years. Of course, the general American public is far from having any definitive evidence of the existence of such things as UFOs or intelligent life from other galaxies, but if such evidence exists, we might wonder if the government has a moral obligation to disclose it.

It seems there are at least two distinct questions to unpack here: Under what conditions (if any) can the government permissibly keep a secret from citizens? Under what conditions (if any) can the government permissibly lie to citizens? Let’s start with the former. Of course, there is a strong precedent of the government refusing to disclose certain kinds of information to the public. For instance, most agree that certain information pertaining to military operations and national security should be held in secret due to the risks involved with leaking such intel. But the ethics surrounding state secrecy get murkier once we start talking about matters pertaining to citizens’ privacy or risks that would potentially change their day-to-day behavior. There also are clearly issues where the American public is justified in demanding full transparency from government officials, including the procedures behind elections, the allocation of tax payer money, etc.

The relevant question thus becomes into which of these categories does evidence of UFOs or extraterrestrial life most plausibly fit. It must be determined if releasing this evidence to the general public poses sufficiently harmful threats, so as to justify state secrecy. One potential concern is that releasing significant evidence of UFOs or extraterrestrial life would constitute such a paradigm shifting event, it is extremely difficult to predict how the public would react. We have strong historical reason to be skeptical that the population will respond in a fully peaceful or rational manner. If we consider all of the social upheaval and violence that came along with the paradigm shifting events of the Scientific Revolution, the Enlightenment, and the Protestant Reformation, we can safely conclude that rapid influxes of knowledge that fundamentally transform society are not always well-received. Of course, such a rationale does not provide conclusive reason for the state to keep secrets, but societal peace and stability are certainly factors when it comes to making complex ethical judgments at the governmental level.

Other reasons why the state might have an interest in keeping UFOs or evidence of extraterrestrial life a secret pertains to national security and military strategy. If, as some have claimed, the government possesses partial or even fully intact alien technology, the state is likely scrambling to understand the engineering behind such objects. This knowledge would be helpful when it comes to building superior military technology, making it clear why governmental authorities would not want to share this advantage with other nations. Similarly, the government surely does not want knowledge of how to build more effective weapons falling into the wrong hands. While there is a clear national advantage to possessing the best, most sophisticated technology, there is also a clear national disadvantage if that technology is adopted by one’s political enemy. Thus, for reasons of both public safety and military strategy, the state might possess compelling reasons to conceal evidence of life and technology from other galaxies.

So we’ve established there may be sufficiently strong reasons to justify government secrecy in the case of UFOs and extraterrestrial life, but we have yet to discuss the permissibility of state-endorsed lies. Lying is thought to be more difficult to morally justify than merely withholding the truth. Furthermore, lying also greatly diminishes institutional trust, causing lasting damage beyond the initial moral damage involved in the telling of the lie. Thus, it is probably safe to conclude that if ever it is permissible for the government to lie to citizens, such instances are somewhat scarce. They might include severe threats to the public that would cause mass panic, violence, or social unrest, especially if it is likely these threats can be resolved in a way that avoids these negative outcomes. The thought here is that lying is justified because it is necessary to promote the greater good.

However, even if we grant the state’s good intentions, some might remain dubious that the government is ever morally permitted to spin lies to its own citizens. The moral and pragmatic costs of lying are simply too high to be justified, particularly at the state-level. A philosophically interesting test case for this can be found in the domain of healthcare ethics. In a recently published paper, the author argues there are four conditions which must be met in order for public health officials to lie: (1) the risk of harm to the public is substantial, (2) the upside of telling the lie is very high, (3) lying mitigates this risk of harm to the public, (4) and lying is by far the most effective way to mitigate the risk of harm. Insofar as these four conditions are plausible in the public health case, they can perhaps serve as a more general template for judging the permissibility of lying in other domains as well.

Much of the difficulty in judging the moral status of state secrets and lies derives from our collective uncertainty of the actual risks posed to civilization by UFOs or extraterrestrial life. Assuming the existence of such entities, even the people among us who know the most, still know vanishingly little about the extent of intelligent life beyond our planet. Without more information, we can only speculate as to the nature of the risks. Ultimately the government’s decision to either conceal or share evidence with the public needs to be sensitive to a range of public goods, including that of institutional trust, public safety, and political stability, all of which might be threatened by revelations of life vastly more advanced than humanity.

UFOs and Hume on Miracles

photograph of silhouetted figure shining flashlight at light source in the night sky

UFOs appear to be having a cultural moment. A Pentagon report laying out what U.S. intelligence agencies know about UFOs — or, to use the government’s preferred acronym, UAPs (unidentified aerial phenomena) — is expected at the beginning of June. A recent “60 Minutes” segment included interviews with two former Navy pilots who described their encounters with a UFO. The New Yorker ran a long piece about UFOs in its May 10th issue. And last week former Nevada senator Harry Reid penned a long reflection in The New York Times about his interest in the phenomenon.

It is relatively common to see UFOs, such as those tracked by Navy fighters’ infrared weapons cameras, described as “defying the laws of physics”; for example, flying at many times the speed of sound and then coming to an abrupt halt, without any visible means of propulsion. Being woefully ignorant about those laws, it is difficult for me to tell whether this is journalistic hyperbole or a claim to be taken literally. But if we do take it literally, then we can call on the great Scottish philosopher David Hume to help us decide what to believe.

Hume famously defined a “miracle” as a violation of a law of nature. For Hume, a law of nature obtains only when we have an extensive, and exceptionless, experience of a certain kind of phenomenon: for example, our extensive experience of human beings dying “establishes” the law that all human beings die. (As this example suggests, violations of laws of nature are not impossible or inconceivable; they are simply counterinstances to our extensive, exceptionless experience.) If UFOs really defy the laws of physics, then they perform miracles in the Humean sense.

Hume argued that no testimony — i.e., a person’s statement that something is true — can establish the existence of miracles. His argument can be summarized as follows:

1. The evidence against the existence of a miracle is as strong as it possibly could be.

A law of nature is established on the basis of experience, which is the only kind of evidence we can have for a causal proposition. And our experience is both extensive and exceptionless, so it furnishes evidence that is as strong as experiential evidence could be.

2. The evidence for the existence of a miracle from testimony, while perhaps very strong, is weaker than the evidence against the existence of a miracle.

Hume avers that it is always more probable that testimony is false — that the person giving the testimony “either deceive[s] or [has been] deceived” — than that a miracle has occurred. Put another way: to constitute stronger evidence than that which we have against the existence of a miracle, testimonial evidence for a miracle must be such that its falsehood would itself be a miracle — in fact, would itself be a greater miracle than that which the testimony is evidence for.  But for any given piece of testimony, there is always a non-miraculous possibility of its falsehood.

3. We ought to proportion our belief according to our evidence, and evidence for contradictory conclusions cancels out.

Hume here appeals to “evidentialism,” the commonsense idea that we ought to proportion our belief in a proposition to the evidence we have for it. In addition, he says that evidence for a proposition and evidence for its negation “destroy” each other.

4. Therefore, whenever our evidence for a miracle is based entirely on testimony, we ought to believe that it did not occur.

Since the evidence against the existence of a miracle is always stronger than testimonial evidence for it, when testimonial evidence is all the evidence we have for a miracle, we ought to believe that the miracle did not exist or did not occur.

We can now see how the argument can be applied to UFOs. If UFOs really perform miracles, then any testimonial evidence for the existence of UFOs is always weaker than the evidence against their existence. Therefore, we should reject the existence of UFOs if the only evidence we have for them is based on testimony.

It might be objected that we have non-testimonial evidence for UFOs, such as the infrared camera videos. However, these videos are by themselves difficult for most people to interpret or understand, as are most of the alleged photographs of UFOs. The layman must instead rely on the testimony of experts to interpret the videos or photographs for him or her. Thus, even when photographs or videos are held up as evidence of UFOs, it is really the testimony of experts, who provide authoritative interpretations of these materials, that is doing the evidentiary work. And this leads us back to Hume’s problem.

Of course, Hume’s argument is not without its many detractors; objections are legion. One objection revolves around what Hume says about the “Indian prince, who refused to believe the first relations concerning the effects of frost …” The Indian prince had an extensive, exceptionless experience of water in a liquid state. Frost is a counterinstance of the “law” that water is always liquid. Does it follow, then, that the Indian prince could not justifiably believe in frost on the basis of any testimony, no matter how strong? Hume’s response is that solid water is an experience that is not contrary to the prince’s experience, although it is also not conformable to it. The more general problem is that Hume needs to allow for progress in the sciences, including the revision of our understanding of the natural laws. Like many of Hume’s arguments, his argument about miracles set the agenda for much of the succeeding discussion, but left many questions unanswered.

Still, Hume’s argument against miracles is undeniably compelling. As applied to UFOs, the argument shows us the limits of testimony, however well-intentioned or authoritative.