In the book The Grand Design (2012), Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow claimed that “philosophy is dead” (p. 5). They wrote: “We exist but for a short time, and in that time explore but a small part of the whole universe. But humans are a curious species. We wonder, we seek answers. Living in this vast world that is by turns kind and cruel, and gazing at the immense heavens above, people have always asked a multitude of questions: How can we understand the world in which we find ourselves? How does the universe behave? What is the nature of reality? Where did all this come from? Did the universe need a creator? … Traditionally these are questions for philosophy, but philosophy is dead. Philosophy has not kept up with modern developments in science, particularly physics.” (p. 5).
Of course, philosophy is still alive in academic journals, Amazon books, and the shrinking philosophy section at the Barnes & Noble bookstores. But, as a force in popular culture, contemporary philosophy is largely dead, primarily because it has failed to keep up with the discoveries in contemporary cosmology. In the wake of the stunning achievements of the Apollo program and the Hubble Space Telescope (just two examples), philosophy has failed to generate a popular cosmic narrative that integrates the origins and destinies of the human species into the vast and wondrous cosmos—an expanding universe stretching across 100 billion light years and populated with 2 trillion galaxies and untold numbers of stars, planets, lifeforms, and black holes.
This cosmic failure is evident in our popular arts. Outside of a few thoughtful space films like 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and Interstellar (2014), Hollywood populates the expanding universe with endless monsters (ex: the Alien series) and apocalyptic warfare (ex: Star Wars), complimented by very little awe, wonder, and discovery. The recent Star Trek films are not that different from Star Wars.
In the absence of a meaningful space philosophy, the hit television series Ancient Aliens (2010-) has hijacked the cosmic narratives from Apollo and 2001 and claims to explain humanity’s origins and destiny in the universe. In Ancient Aliens, we can see philosophy’s mediated corpse, where an attempted space philosophy and cosmic narrative have crashed and are still aflame in America on the History Channel.
Two Valid Cosmic Concepts
The ancient-astronaut theory draws upon two valid cosmological concepts: 1) the reality of the immensity of space and time; and 2) the possibility of advanced civilizations somewhere in the cosmos. Given that the scale of the observable universe is immense and that the Kepler telescope suggests there may be billions of planets in the Milky Way, there is almost certainly life elsewhere in the cosmos, perhaps including intelligent civilizations. Given that the observable universe is 13.7 billion years old and it took 4 billion years for intelligent life to emerge on Earth, then it is possible the remaining 9 billion years produced civilizations that may have existed for millions or billions of years. If so, they may have developed space travel technologies that allow them to traverse the great distances with relative ease. [At least that is the “wormhole” scenario depicted in Contact (1997) and Interstellar (2014)].
Such a possibility is one reason why 2001 offers such a compelling vision of human origins and destinies. After all, it would be an epochal moment to find a black monolith somewhere on Earth or the moon, beaming out a radio signal to an alert and curious species. Such a possibility is very attractive to me, at least in theory. As the astronaut Taylor says in Planet of the Apes, “Out there, there has to be something better than man. Has to be.” Of course, if ancient astronauts have visited Earth, they would have possessed extremely advanced technologies and been viewed as gods, angels, and miracle makers by premodern humans. Much like the apes in 2001, the humans would have looked upon the technologies with amazement and fear. But have any ancient astronauts actually visited Earth?
Where’s the black monolith?
Where’s the equivalent of the black monolith in 2001 — that single artifact of indisputable extraterrestrial design or origin? Where is the verifiable evidence that ancient astronauts or extraterrestrials visited our planet to enlighten our species, perform great deeds, and guide our art, technology, and architecture? Since I think extraterrestrial life forms surely exist and it’s possible some might be way more advanced and enlightened than our species, I am open to actual empirical evidence. Unfortunately, all the ancient-astronaut theorists can point toward is a few mysterious artifacts, none of which can be connected to extraterrestrial visitations.
Recall that 2001 appeared in 1968, along with Planet of the Apes, the Apollo 8 Genesis reading, and Chariots of the Gods?, the best-selling book by Eric von Daniken. Chariots of the Gods? was soon after made into a documentary film, Chariots of the Gods (1970), and the book sold over 40 million copies during the decade. An updated version of the film, Mysteries of the Gods, was released in 1976. That version was hosted by none other than William Shatner, a.k.a. Captain Kirk, looking rather hip in a green turtleneck and black velour blazer and sporting long sideburns and a 1970s-style toupée. Without a doubt, 2001, Planet of the Apes, the Apollo 8 sermon, and von Daniken’s book and films were trying to account for human origins and destiny at the pinnacle of the space age.
Where are the “Chariots of the Gods”?
In my youth, I watched reruns or VHS tapes of 2001 and Planet of the Apes many times, along with many other science-fiction films. I also recall viewing reruns of Chariots of the Gods and Mysteries of the Gods, which aired on the local television station. The shows are currently available on YouTube, and my recent viewings confirmed most of my original memories of them. Both films clearly tried to connect ancient astronauts to Apollo and space exploration, with the Voyager space probe and starship Enterprise appearing early in Mysteries of the Gods. Viewing the above films in my youth inspired me to read Chariots of the Gods?, readily available at the time in local bookstores. I viewed the films and read the book with rapt attention, precisely because von Daniken seemed to be providing “evidence” for a human narrative that was part of a larger celestial narrative outside the theism that prevailed in Texas, where I was born and grew up (in a largely secular household). Initially, this thesis was quite attractive and seemed to reflect an alternative model for human origins and possible destinies. It seemed like a plausible attack on the cultural and historical orthodoxy of the age, especially the pre-Copernican ideologies of the proselytizing evangelicals in my suburb.
Upon later reflection, however, I found myself questioning the logic of the book’s assertions and came to realize that von Daniken’s “ancient-astronaut” thesis was deeply mistaken. The book’s flaws were exposed in a 1976 Skeptical Inquirer article as well as in a book entitled The Space Gods Revealed that featured a forward by none other than Carl Sagan. By 1977, Chariot of the Gods? was debunked in a BBC-PBS production of Nova in an episode called “The Case of the Ancient Astronauts.” The episode refuted the following claims: An image of an ancient astronaut was carved on a Mayan sarcophagus, the Nazca Lines in Chile were originally an ancient-astronaut spaceport, ancient astronauts inspired various carvings on Peruvian stones, and ancient astronauts built the pyramids in Egypt and the Moai statues on Easter Island.
Humanity’s Supposed Alien Advisors
Ancient Aliens has aired for seven seasons and eighty episodes (as of this writing). In various episodes, the ancient-astronaut theorists assert that
ancient visitors did the following:
• Consulted on the Mayan calendar
• Inspired Plato’s Atlantis
• Made possible the Great Pyramids
• Designed ancient megaliths and temples
• Caused floods, plagues, pandemics, and assorted apocalypses
• Consulted with Leonardo da Vinci
• Advised America’s Founding Fathers
• Contacted cowboys and Native Americans in the Old West
• Worked with Nikola Tesla in developing electricity
• Gave hints about relativity to Albert Einstein
• Helped design Nazi weapons
• Advised NASA on how to put humans on the moon
- Left behind clues to the “God Particle” allegedly discovered by the Large Hadron Collider at CERN.