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Exopsychology: The Psychology of No One We Ever Knew

The academic attempt to establish a psychology of alien intelligences — for whose existence we have no evidence — tells us something about ourselves

This month’s buzz in Psychology Today is exopsychology, the psychology of extraterrestrial intelligence.

Why’s that? There aren’t any such intelligences around. Never mind, we have been informed that studying them is good for our moral development anyway:

For instance, rigorously challenging assumptions about extraterrestrial motivations rooted in anthropocentrism (projecting human motivations onto non-humans), might help us do a better job relating to other humans who are very different from us, or to gain a deeper understanding of animal behavior.

Eric Haselstine, “Exopsychology, the Study of Extraterrestrial Intelligence, Psychology Today, November 8, 2023

It’s called anti-anthropocentrism:

Portrait of an alien male extraterrestrial on a dark background with room for text or copy space. 3d rendering

Imagining motivations and predicting behaviors of intelligent entities, who are wildly different from us, and who, for reasons of their own, have traveled here—either themselves or through probes—would be exceedingly difficult. But as noted, above, with the exception of dark-matter-based life forms who consume dark energy (I threw that in the illustrate the radical ideas that extreme anti-anthropocentrism stimulates), examples of most other “alien” forms exist right here on Earth. Explicitly non-human motivations are not only possible but probable if alien life has anywhere near the diversity of life on Earth.

Haselstine, “Exopsychology”

A 2021 paper offers

We discuss the possibilities and limitations of conclusions about extraterrestrials, which leads us to hypothesize that limited statements about them might be possible, even though still influenced by anthropocentrism. We argue that it is possible to utilize anthropocentric knowledge and distinguish between admissible and inadmissible anthropocentrism. Although the first contact between extraterrestrials and humanity might never occur, scientific thinking about extraterrestrials will improve our understanding of ourselves and our place in the universe.

Döbler, Niklas & Raab, Marius. (2021). Thinking ET: A discussion of exopsychology. Acta Astronautica. 189. 10.1016/j.actaastro.2021.09.032.

We need to stop and remember something though. Exopsychology, like exobiology (or astrobiology) is “a science without an object of study,” a discipline without a subject. Not a single exo-bacterium, let alone an intelligent alien, has ever been found.

Thus we do need to consider some hard facts about the psychology that grows up around the idea of their existence but there is no need to invent a new name for this stuff. Here are three such facts:

1. For some, ET’s existence is not under debate.

Recently a petition circulated against Sean Kirkpatrick, the Pentagon official charged with investigating UFOs. He irked ufologists by denying that the United States’ government is “covering up a decadeslong program to reverse-engineer alien craft.” He is now moving on to other duties next month (Politico) .

2. A stark truth looms anyway.

Alien life may not be discoverable, let alone discovered.

Science writer Jaime Green offers a somewhat pessimistic approach to whether or not exopsychology will ever be a discipline with an actual subject: “The detection of alien life won’t be obvious. It’ll be partial and inconclusive: a perfect task for the scientific method.” And that, she thinks is in part because

Discoveries almost never arrive as we think they will, as lightning bolt eurekas. They are slow, gradual, communal. Alien life may not be something we ever ‘find’, but instead inch towards, ever closer, like a curve approaching its asymptote. For all our desire to know who’s out there, that may have to be enough.

Jaime Green, Uncertain contact, Aeon, 6 October 2023

We may never know if we are the only life forms in the cosmos or not.

Suppose the scientific method does not produce evidence of extraterrestrial life even through such extraordinary efforts as the James Webb Space Telescope. The philosophical problem remains: It is very hard to prove a negative across a vast expanse of largely unknown space. But by itself that fact does not contribute anything toward creating a positive.

3. Despite all that,

… among science fiction fans, extenuating circumstances practically think themselves into existence. Lack of biosignatures will suggest that exobiology is very different from the carbon-based biology we study on Earth. Lack of technosignatures could mean that ET supertechnology cannot be detected by our own comparatively clumsy attempts.

And then there is Carl Sagan’s memorable rhetorical ploy: We must be the planet of the idiots if we think we are alone.

Sagan certainly raised the stakes for any who would dare say: Very well, prove we are not alone before you call anyone an idiot.

Ultimately, the best answer Sagan’s successors have mustered is something like theoretical astrophysicist Ethan Siegel’s summation at Big Think: “I think it’s very unlikely that Earth will turn out to be the only planet with life on it at all; like most scientists, I think it’s very likely that there are thousands, millions, or even a billion+ inhabited worlds by some form of life in the Milky Way alone. But so many key questions remain unanswered.”

So, yes, the underlying issue is emotional and ultimately has little to do with science. Perhaps the “idiot” would be the person who invests heavily in disciplines without a subject and then gets into a serious quarrel over the lack of evidence.

You may also wish to read: The Drake equation at 60 years: The second most famous equation. After e = mc2. New technology is improving our ability to search the skies for signs of possible extraterrestrial civilizations. Whatever the fate of current ET detection projects, a design filter of the sort proposed beats squabbling about the probability without collecting any data.

Denyse O'Leary

Denyse O'Leary is a freelance journalist based in Victoria, Canada. Specializing in faith and science issues, she is co-author, with neuroscientist Mario Beauregard, of The Spiritual Brain: A Neuroscientist's Case for the Existence of the Soul; and with neurosurgeon Michael Egnor of the forthcoming The Human Soul: What Neuroscience Shows Us about the Brain, the Mind, and the Difference Between the Two (Worthy, 2025). She received her degree in honors English language and literature.

Exopsychology: The Psychology of No One We Ever Knew