On a camping trip earlier this year, a friend turned to me and somewhat incredulously said, "You believe in aliens and UFOs, don't you?"
"Well no, not exactly, " I answered.
What followed was a nuanced discussion on the nature of "belief." And while we were talking about UFOs, the same arguments apply to what might be called "my religious beliefs," as well. But let's stick with those aliens first.
It is more accurate to say I would liketo believe that UFOs are extraterrestrials visiting our planet. But I don't have any evidence that confirms that such is the case. And so for me, it is an open question.
I grant that most of the so-called evidence for alien visitation is thin on the ground. I admit that many of the "believers" are very lacking in credibility. But an absence of credible evidence is not proof of an assertion, either way.
I also think that some of the skeptic's arguments against alien visitation are kind of skewed, too. Consider two of the leading arguments against.
1) The great void of space would make interstellar travel highly unlikely if not impossible.
Forgetting for the moment that theoretical physics has begun to consider how to overcome such an impediment, let the skeptics acknowledge for a moment that we mere humans perhaps don't know everything. The hypothesis of alien visitation posits a more advanced being than we are. To assume that space is too big to travel through is not unlike Native Americans in the 15th Century imagining that no humans could cross the Atlantic Ocean (or whatever they called it) because it can't be done in a canoe.
2) Even aliens would be a natural phenomenon, and so there should be physical evidence of their presence.
Without participating in a false binary between "intelligent" and "natural," again what this argument glosses over is that the hypothesis posits a superior intelligence. We humans are very proud of our covert operations. We increasingly espouse an ethic of "leave no trace" in our own explorations of nature. Why is it so hard to consider that a more advanced species might work very hard and with a high degree of success to hide evidence of its visits? Add to this consideration our inability to necessarily recognize or collectively accept that physical evidence should we find it. I think these points offer at least a reasonable amount of doubt for this skeptic's position, and I haven't even turned to conspiracy theories.
For me, the best position on this issue is to leave it an open question. I do not know that aliens are visiting the planet. I do not believe that they are, either. I do not know that UFOs are aliens -- I accept that they are, as the acronym says, "unidentified." I would be thrilled to learn that the 5% of UFO sightings that cannot be currently explained turned out to be something other than aliens (see Leslie Kean's recent book on the topic).
There are questions and wonders that science has not yet explained. That's kind of what makes it science. But I also think there are aspects of the human experience and the nature of the universe that science (at least as we currently do it) cannot answer. Put in academic terms, there are some epistemological limits on science.
For similar reasons, I've always been more comfortable calling myself an agnostic than an atheist. In too many atheist's positions I see, ultimately, a "leap of faith" in the assertion that "there is no god." I am more sympathetic to atheists who claim "I see no evidence for the existence of God." And I have little patience for those who cannot see the difference between those two claims. An agnostic, on the other hand, leads with "I don't know." And I don't.
A lot of harm is done in this country and on this planet by folks asserting the superiority of their beliefs, the exclusive rightness of their particular religion. To me, though, the real crime is the assertion of certainty in order to fill an uncomfortable void of uncertainty. For many, the unknown is just too scary.
But does it have to be? I try very mindfully to be at peace with the unknown, to accept and acknowledge uncertainty. Whether the existence of god or aliens, I just don't know. I imagine at some point in the future the population of this planet will hopefully figure out what those other 5% of UFO sightings are. We may also learn interesting things about extraterrestrial life. Maybe we'll even answer with definitive proof the god question. I guess I'll get my answer on that day that I die. In some ways, the possibility of finally knowing makes me look forward (but not in a way that makes me want to hasten it) my death: a void, a white light, a tunnel filled with dead relatives, St. Peter, reincarnation, a flaming lake of fire, or something no one ever really imagined?
Meanwhile, I think I'll keep looking up. What can it hurt?