On 15 April, PDBY ran a series of polls on Instagram focused on the subject of extra terrestrial life (intelligent or otherwise). The results revealed that 88% of the students who participated agree to the prospect of life beyond earth. Furthermore, 71% of students are not frightened by the prospect of other life forms in our universe, and only 55% of students believe in the existence of intelligent life. In a limited attempt at making sense of these results, it may be possible to take a glimpse into the peculiar space that aliens occupy in the social imagination of students at the University of Pretoria.
In the discussion concerning extra terrestrials, the perfect starting point might be a brief overview of UFO sightings. Contrary to the popular belief that aliens only ever visit the United States, South Africa has a robust history of UFO sightings. This history spans as far back as 1914 with the mystery of the Phantom Monoplane seen by South Africans across the country on the eve of South Africa’s South West Africa campaign during WWI. This history is also as recent as 2016, where in Jeffreys Bay the captain and co-pilot of a cargo plane observed what they could only describe as, “a glowing green object” rising past their cockpit. While this history of UFO sightings would come as a surprise to many, such incredulity over the sighting of UFOs in South Africa is not irrational. The polls reflect this reality as 96% of the students who participated cited never having an extra-terrestrial experience of any kind. In light of this, the same could be said about the Phantom Monoplane in 1914 and the glowing green object in 2016, which had only been “witnessed” by a handful of South Africans who the aliens revealed themselves to in a sky that all South Africans have access to. One could conclude that the first image that comes to mind when students think about the nature and extent of extra terrestrial life of the intelligent variety is not some silver disc in the sky.
The nature and extent of extra terrestrial life finds greater engagement in the abstract space. In other words, students who participated were more willing to engage with the thought of intelligent lifeforms in a conceptual space as opposed to the material space. This is reflected in the polls, with 88% of participants agreeing with the prospect of extra terrestrial life. In addition, when asked where aliens fit within established world views, a wide variety of answers emerged. The answers fit into two broad categories: the scientific perspective, which maintains a human subjectivity in its view of extra terrestrials; and the human perspective, which adopts an alien subjectivity in juxtaposition to human norms.
A key feature of the scientific perspective is that the responses are couched within a scientific paradigm that is more sceptical on the nature and extent of alien life. One such scientific thinker, Shelly, is less aspirational in her view of what extra terrestrial life could be, saying: “I think they would just be tiny microbes at most, and it (the discovery of extra terrestrial life) would inspire advancements in space projects”. Another scientific perspective emerged from John* who stated that “the presence of extra terrestrial life conforms to current theories on the origins of life”. These two perspectives maintain their human subjectivity, which is apparent through their application of science as the primary lens through which humans try to understand the natural world, which is less fun or imaginative.
In contrast, the human perspective looks to other facets of the human experience and comes to a series of radically bizarre answers. One such human thinker is Danika* who has adopted the perspective that aliens fit into our established views in that “they [are] very sexy”. In addition, Tilly had a more pessimistic take, saying: “I believe that the aliens made contact with humans, and saw how dangerous we are… [and presumably have decided to leave us alone]”. What is indicative of the human perspective is that it sees aliens as being far more autonomous than the scientific perspective would assume. In this perspective aliens either appear “sexy”, which solicits imagery of a sexually autonomous extra terrestrial, or they could be deathly afraid of humans, and rightfully so.
Another aspect of the human experience that the existence of aliens would disrupt would be the nature of the existential crisis. From a logical standpoint, this makes sense. When Copernicus opened the door to the thought of other life forms – by turning the Earth into another planet and other planets in to possible Earths, and offering the world the heliocentric arrangement of the cosmos – it was not received well. In response to this idea, prominent Lutheran Philipp Melanchthon (1497–1560) warned that this view of the cosmos would have the implication that Christ’s resurrection was not limited to the third rock from the sun. Rather, it had the potential to have occurred multiple times or, worse yet, man could be restored to eternal life without the resurrection of Christ. In other words, if intelligent life existed elsewhere, could mankind still be special in God’s eyes?
However, when confronted with the religious implications of intelligent extra terrestrial life, students were not as dramatic as old Philipp Melanchthon. Shelly* had an open-ended take on this, saying, “There is nothing in scripture against the existence of life in space”. By leaving it open-ended Shelly* suggested that it probably would not mean much to the religious canon on earth. In contrast, Kyla offers an atheist’s clinical perspective on this question, commenting, “I guess it’s just science? Which is already open to the idea of alien life, so yes ”. Perhaps the suggestions that Philipp Melanchthon constructed were his alone.
Finally, the subject of belief in aliens that the voting body of the polls seemed to be split on, participants were asked what they thought of individuals who believed in aliens. The outlooks varied but a common motif among all these outlooks was that such individuals are a little peculiar in their own way. Shelly* would say, “If they believe in full scale space ships and intelligent life, I think they may have a very large imagination”. In support of this view Kyla* said, “It makes sense but some people are really into aliens which can get a bit crazy. Another response was less polite about this brand of individual, with Mpho saying, “They have time for games”. A more positive outlook is given by Cass* who said “These are people who aren’t bound to the ego. They know that humans aren’t ‘it’. Smart!” However, the tamest perspective came from Anne*, who said, “Dismissing aliens when we know so little about the universe is dumb”.
One only wonders what a Martian version of this article would look like. From a variety of questions asked and answered, the most one can conclude on the peculiar space that aliens have in the social imagination of students is that students think about aliens more in the abstract than they do in the material space, the existence of aliens does not seem to be an existential threat for students and finally, that some people take their belief in aliens a little too far. Such is the peculiar space that aliens occupy in our social imagination.
*aliases have been used to maintain the anonymity of sources.
Image: Jaime Lamb