Explaining Stylized UFO Facts

In my last post I summarized some key stylized social facts that a theory of UFOs-as-aliens would need to explain:

Any aliens behind UFOs would be amazingly long-lived creatures who have somehow coordinated to limit any small part of themselves from expanding and remaking the universe. This gets easier to believe the smaller and rarer they are. (They also seem to have limited their tech.) Yet they’ve overcome their self-limits to travel to be here now, so they must be close enough to come quickly once they saw signs of advances, or they saw signs of interest very early and traveled very far.

We can see practical reasons for them to come here, at least if they can coordinate to achieve such plans. But most such motives seem better served by destroying us than by the usual reported UFO encounters, which seem to accomplish little. Yes, humans today do many things for indirect “symbolic” motives, and lazy organizations often pretend to achieve more than they do. But these require slack, and fig-leaf stories to justify them. So from whence comes alien slack, and what could be their justifications?

My tentative explanation for all this has four main supporting elements: panspermia siblings, world government, moral ideology, and complexity rot.

1. Panspermia Siblings – Imagine that life started on some previous planet Eden, where it went through some very hard steps. Life then spread from Eden to Earth, as well as to some other planets. Even if it were hard for life to spread between planets, the Eden-to-Earth scenario could still be statistically favored compared to the Earth-only scenario, as Eden can start much earlier and can be in more places. This is because Earth had to have a much calmer environment than Eden to host the last half-billion years of fragile multi-cellular life. These few seeded planets might be the only ones with life in the million nearest galaxies.

Once seeded, Earth and its sibling planets would then compete to complete the remaining hard steps required to reach advanced life. If one of those planets succeeded before Earth, then it would host close but rare aliens, who share a lot of biology detail (e.g., DNA) with Earth. Those aliens could have then searched out their sibling stars (which have a clear signature that we can see even now), found Earth around one, and then waited perhaps millions of years for civilization to appear here. These aliens had several good and practical possible reasons for coming here in time to see us now up close.

Positing that the aliens behind UFOs come from just one nearby sibling planet, with the nearest other aliens many galaxies away, makes it easier to believe that these aliens have successfully imposed sufficiently-strong self-limits on expansion and on tech advance, leaving the empty universe we see.

2. World Government – Over the last few centuries, one of the most consistent world trends has been an increase in human organization size and complexity, with more functions and decisions drifting up to higher levels. We have developed both better networks and better hierarchical organizations. Plausibly this trend is behind most others; it seems to be the main driver of faster innovation, which is the main cause of more wealth, which drives most other trends.

A straightforward long-term prediction from this trend is “world” (really “civilization-wide”) government. After all, a few have come close to creating this via force, we now have a United Nations by consent, and regulators worldwide share an elite culture that creates a de facto world government on many issues. Stronger, more formal versions seem likely within centuries.

Within a star system, talk delays are modest, and it is easy to see and shoot at most anything, making a world government quite feasible there. However, world government is quite hard to start (and if started harder to maintain) once independent self-sufficient colonies at other stars can grow as fast as at the home star system. Thus the existence of such colonies becomes a deadline for the creation of a world government. As near Earth this deadline seems likely to be met, that may also have happened for sibling star aliens.

The advantages of a world government will seem clear and compelling: a civilization that can better coordinate on global problems like war, pollution, and innovation. And that can better enforce widely-liked regulations. Also, global majorities will be eager to impose their will on global minorities, and to lock down their temporary advantages via a permanent world government.

By its very nature, a world government reduces innovation and adaptation in, but also promotes the stability of, the largest scale civilization structures. An advanced star-system-wide civilization probably has a large enough base of knowledge and resources, and a stable enough environment, for this tradeoff to allow for stability over many millions of years. Thus the fact that aliens have lasted for millions of years weakly suggests that they have a world government.

3. Moral Ideology – While pre-human primate groups were held together mainly by kin and alliances, human groups could be larger due to social norms, which were enabled by human weapons and language. Social norms have also aided our other more recent methods of social organization. As norms matter more in collective politics than in private life, a world government would gain legitimacy and stability by more strongly supporting widely-held moral norms.

Thus a world with a world government is likely to impose more stronger regulations in support of widely-held moral intuitions. And in an era of rapidly changing technology often in tension with moral intuitions that evolved in prior eras, that may result in substantial limitations on tech. Sibling star alien world governments might ban advanced artificial intelligence, brain emulations, or nuclear-powered space ships. They might also insist on preserving their biological bodies.

By using strong surveillance, embedded political officers, and using the threat of destruction from a distance, a world government might hope to keep control over a rapidly expanding sphere of interstellar colonies. But surely such control is far easier if substantial interstellar colonies are simply banned. Independent colonies would threaten not only the relative status of the current world government leaders and polity, but they’d also threaten to allow evasion of morally-treasured regulations.

Thus aliens with a world government might limit expansion, and also tech, not just to support environmental and anti-colonialism type ideologies, but also to preserve the relative status of locals and their ability to impose civilization-wide regulations. We have often seen similar behavior in human history, when secure isolated local regimes have discouraged contact with outsiders. The fact that aliens have not yet destroyed us also suggests that they have moral ideologies.

In a very long-lived civilization with a stable world government, the high-level organization of government and its key principles and regulations might become so stable that other structures of that civilization evolve to match them more often than the government evolves to match other structures. The government becomes like a mountain, where life adapts to behave differently at the mountain’s foot versus near its peak. So over millions of years the intuitions and practices of individuals and local groups may well evolve differently to match different parts of the stable world government with which they most strongly interact.

And if their world is more stable than our ancestors’ worlds have been, their minds might become less general, being adapted more to a particular range of situations.

4. Complex System Rot – Since the origin of life, competition has been the main driver of adaptation and innovation. Yes, cooperation has been important, but it is competition that has designed and promoted cooperation. While genetic forms of competition once dominated, cultural competition now matters more. Individuals and their practices compete within organizations, while organizations and their practices also compete for members, customers, investors, and more.

Across this long history, individual organisms, species, human organizations, and even empires have consistently tended to “rot”. That is, their long-lasting materials and structures slowly decay, becoming less flexible or general and more fragile, until they simply die or are eaten or displaced by rivals. This continues to happen today even with software and legal systems, as they try to adapt to new circumstances, and it happens even when their materials do not decay. It is competition that has corrected for this tendency to rot, by ensuring that simpler more general robust structures are available to replace failing fragile versions.

A civilization lasting for millions of years with a stable ideological world government preventing most expansion and tech innovation seems to me a recipe for high level system rot. New agencies, rules, and regulations would slowly accumulate on top of old ones, instead of being sufficiently culled, refactored, or reorganized. Agency growth and changes would have been often made to suit local ambitions instead of external needs, often using newly invented moral imperatives.

In our limited Earth history, we have often seen spectacular waste by stable secure empires, religious authorities, and secure monopolistic firms. Each example has found ways to spin stories justifying its waste, stories accepted by many observers. Many observers have also often believed decaying organizations who claimed that they had not yet lost any flexibility or generality, claims only clearly disproved when they were displaced by rival competitors.

Over millions of years, an ancient alien world government would accumulate far worse wasteful habits, and yet always offer semi-plausible if tortured justifications, stories not yet clearly disproved by competitors, who are not allowed to exist. Such governments would proudly tell themselves that they are still flexible and general, and up to most any challenge. But they’d be lying to themselves.

5. Putting it all together – So here is my best scenario to explain UFOs as aliens. I’m not saying it is good enough to let us believe that some UFOs are more likely than not aliens. I’m just saying that it is the best I’ve been able to come up with. You judge how good.

Life started long ago on Eden, which then seeded both Earth and our siblings’ home planet. Their home is somewhere in our galaxy, and yet they are the nearest advanced aliens for a million galaxies. For many millions of years, they’ve had a stable world government enforcing ideologically-justified regulations limiting expansion, tech innovation, and perhaps much more. Local intuitions and practices have long since adapted to this stable mountain; it feels to them very legitimate.

This world government made an exception to its expansion bans to allow trips to sibling planets hosting life, and allowed the development of whatever tech that required. This was done in support of key ideologies, which is probably why they haven’t destroyed us, and yet they plan to make sure we obey their regulations on expansion and tech innovation. And data on us may help prepare them to meet other aliens. (They may or may not believe they will eventually meet future grabby aliens.)

This long trip, and their management of Earth, is a task calling for great generality and flexibility, which their government mostly lacks, though it claims otherwise. Worse, their fear of allowing an expansion escape led them to tightly control this expedition. So most key choices have been made ahead of time, and aliens here at Earth are kept on a tight leash, dependent on resources and equipment shipped from home, and on tight rules of engagement.

These aliens long ago made their plans for how to monitor Earth civilization, and how to control it if that became necessary, and they built and shipped equipment and resources here based on that plan. Local alien administrators here have little discretion, are watched by local political officers, and have very limited abilities to make equipment or to collect resources beyond their pre-anticipated needs.

In drug regulation on Earth today, we have an ideology wherein conclusions drawn from observations are declared insufficient; one must also have proper government-managed “experiments.” If these aliens have a similar epistemological ideology, they would plan to observe Earth hidden safely from a distance, but they’d also need to periodically “poke” the locals and watch reactions. Alternatively, they might have an ideology of “touch”, wherein they couldn’t in good conscious control us unless they had before touched us “directly” somehow.

So, maybe, this was the safest most robust plan they could come up with to touch/poke us, when planning long ago back on their home planet: They poke us via making local disturbances in air or water usually by sending dark beams from safely hidden orbital projectors.

At a controlled distance, these beams can cause glowing balls of air, or smooth surfaces. (These can cause radar reflections, burn marks on the ground, and even sounds.) Their orbiting projectors would be safe from retaliation by Earthlings who would at first not even notice the beams, and who later would find it hard to trace those beams back to their orbital origins. And even finding those projectors probably doesn’t find the weapons by which they stand ready to destroy us if we get out of control.

So long ago these aliens sent to Earth equipment for installing telescopes, beam projectors, and weapons in orbit around Earth. All supplied with energy, covered to remain unseen, and with supports to keep them running for eons. And the main thing that aliens have done since their arrival is to maintain these facilities, and process the info collected.

These local administrators send regular and positive TPS reports back home regardless of how well things are actually going. The local aliens are likely bad at interpreting all the info they collect, their home world is bad at judging the quality of their efforts, and also at incentivizing such efforts. Thus maybe they not have learned much so far, and may not even be able to understand our electronic traffic that they can hear from space. They may not have detectors on the ground tapping into communications here. Perhaps they don’t even have language among themselves, and so aren’t capable of understanding our talk.

Maybe the fastest that their economy grew back on their home planet, before it slowed down due to regulations, was much slower than the Earth economy is growing now. So they never really planned much for how to react to the rapid change that we are undergoing here now. Local administrators keep sending TPS reports back home, doing the scheduled UFO projector runs, and keeping their fingers nervously on their weapons buttons. But like most government administrators, they are terrified of having to take the initiative to make a big decision, and so would rather wait until the choice becomes completely obvious.

If this all sounds implausibly incompetent to you, consider that if many UFOs are in fact aliens, the U.S. military and many militaries around the world have in fact been spectacularly incompetent at considering UFO reports and studying the threats that they imply. Yet these militaries existed in an era of competition and a burst of UFO reports started during a major war (WII) during which militaries had rapidly evolved to become unusually competent. Imagine how worse would be a military with a secure budget but no actual war for a million years. (Note that UFO activists have also been spectacularly incompetent in many ways.)

You might think that all this alien incompetence would give humans a fighting chance to defy these aliens and break out of their control. Possibly, but probably not. They probably do have their finger on the big kill-all-humans button, and that button probably does actually work. We might have a chance to sneak off and start a very distant stealthy interstellar colony, but that also seems damn hard.

But if the aliens behind UFOs are incompetent at understanding us and communicating with us, that sounds like bad news for our ability to learn and abide by their rules. It would be nice if they had some effective plan for integrating us into their world, beyond just pushing the button on us when we cross some line. But I wouldn’t count on that.

Note that not all of the elements of the story I’ve just told are strictly necessary to explain the stylized facts I’ve outlined. Those extra story elements are indicated by words like “maybe”, and are added to help you see how this story might be realized. If you don’t like my story, what story would you tell to explain all these stylized facts, not just one or two?

Note also that I’ve told this story thrice before, though this version is more elaborate.

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