Ancient Aliens: Evidence of Stephen Hawking’s Claim that “Philosophy is Dead”
Note: This article was cited in the New York Times (July 22, 2018) as an intellectual counter to the emerging religion of “Ancient Aliens.”
For more of my critiques of conspiracy theory in Medium:
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 death began with the crash of Apollo 8 and Earthrise.
This cosmic and philosophical 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. Here we are fifty years after Apollo and thirty years after the Hubble telescope, and the dominant ideologies are still based in cosmic narcissism and human super-specialness—pretending to be the center of the universe or under the delusion that a Creator or Ancient Aliens are looking out for us.
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)]. That said, it is highly unlikely we have been visited, precisely because the distances are so vast, the universe is so gigantic, and our planet is so tiny.
Yet, such a possibility (however slim) 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, 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. Chariots of the Gods provided the “space philosophy” notably lacking in the aftermath of Apollo. This book is the starting point for all “Ancient Astronaut” theorists.
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 of Star Trek, looking rather hip in a green turtleneck and black velour blazer and sporting long sideburns and a 1970s-style toupée. In the film, Shatner confers with real scientists and psychics and other so-called experts, thus blurring the line between science, superstition, and sheer stupidity.
Without a doubt, 2001, Planet of the Apes, 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 Peru 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.
The above assertions are among the most ludicrous and illogical interpretations of human artifacts made by the ancient-astronaut theorists, and all are wholly unproven. In many ways, the series is an attack on logic, rationality, and the nature of evidence. That Ancient Aliens has been on television for seven seasons suggests there are sizable audiences who are quite gullible, unable to think logically, and scientifically illiterate. Plus, there are irresponsible and intellectually bankrupt television programmers, but that is nothing new either.
In the wake of the Trump presidency, there has been much discussion of “alternative facts” and “fake news.” These phenomena are just the tip of the iceberg for the 24/7 electronic consciousness and its “alternative epistemologies.” Alternative facts and epistemologies are necessary to maintain the regimes of domination, as Orwell understood. In Chariots of the Gods? and Ancient Aliens, virtually all of the so-called evidence and arguments provided by the theorists are myth, superstition, hearsay, anecdotal, or involve an inference or conclusion that is fallacious, implausible, or unknowable. The “evidence” and arguments also contain inaccuracies, mistaken assumptions, unrelated facts, and false similarities. The few remaining pieces of “evidence” — which are a tiny fragment of the absurd claims — are simply mysteries yet to be solved or mysteries that will never be solved.
Virtually all the claims of extraterrestrial influence made on Ancient Aliens assume that human consciousness and civilization have little creativity, originality, or ability to innovate. The general idea is that, without assistance from the ancient astronauts, humans would be helpless and could never build such great structures or make profound scientific discoveries. Plus, the show assumes there is no room for chance, surprise, emergence, singularities, or any of the insights of chaos and complexity theory. In the end, the series represents an assault on rationality and scientific methods, not unlike all other paranormal movies and television shows.
A New Religion
Where are the Chariots of the Gods? In the minds of the believers. Chariots of the Gods? has given birth to what amounts to a new cosmic religion narrative, with von Daniken as the first great prophet and his followers serving as the scribes. The claims made by the ancient-astronaut prophets and scribes are much like the standard Creator narratives, in that they assume most everything humans have done must follow from a pre-ordained grand plan, with a mysterious or hidden final purpose, effected by an all-powerful force from the sky, a force that remains unseen and has yet to return to prove it exists. Like the Creator narrative, we humans must have been special beneficiaries. After all, the ancient astronauts supposedly have taken the time to leave their part of the vast cosmos to visit our tiny planet, thus caring enough to build some stone structures, design some ancient batteries, and create some cool petroglyphs before cruising to the next galaxy or star system.
This is why I predict this narrative will continue to grow, precisely because the prophets associate the ancient-astronaut narrative with mystical and magical beliefs that mirror narratives with Creators at the helm of the universe. After hijacking the 2001 narrative, von Daniken and his followers have built the ancient-astronaut theory into a new religion, filling the void left by contemporary philosophy as it shrinks before a massive and expanding universe.
Death of Philosophy?
Does Ancient Aliens support Hawking’s claim that “philosophy is dead.” In my view, yes. Ancient Aliens illustrates the absence of a cosmic/space philosophy that situates the origins and destiny of the human species in the universe as revealed by contemporary cosmology. Why else is paranormalism proliferating in pop culture, TV shows, and Hollywood movies?
Why else are fundamentalists (of all stripes) running amok in their assaults on modern science and modern civilization, seeking to roll back rights for women, minorities, and all marginalized groups — all while claiming an imaginary Creator has delivered them a cosmic behavioral plan for a single species on a tiny planet in one galaxy among 2 trillion galaxies? Given the discoveries of contemporary cosmology and the Hubble Space Telescope, it’s clear there is no Creator looking out for us. If there was a Creator, surely it would have photobombed a Hubble Deep Field image.
As I explain in my new book, Specter of the Monolith, the human species is desperately in need of a new philosophy that provides meaning and hope in a vast universe of which we are not central and not significant. It’s time to give up the pre-Copernican worldviews and the obvious cosmic narcissism in believing the Creator of the universe has a special plan just for us.
It’s the same with ancient astronaut theory, in which the aliens are the all-powerful creaters of our destiny, with the theorists
With people gazing at screens 10 to 14 hours a day, the 24/7 media spectacle produced a pre-shrunk consciousness for a world of endless consumption and nonstop entertainment, leaving little room for enlightenment or cosmic/space philosophy. Celebrated on our TV and computer screens is a culture populated with a virulent mix of tribes (racists, patriots, nationalists, theists, soldiers, fans, sports teams, celebrity worshippers, etc.) and bigots (sexists, homophobes, xenophobes, etc.). Our screens also feature talking heads, movie heroes/heroines, sports heroes/heroines, rich people, trash talkers, warrior cops, teen moms, catfishers, flag wavers, border patrollers, doomsday preppers, evolution deniers, ghost hunters, paranormal believers, the paranoid and conspiratorial, the delusional and delirious, the evil this and evil that, and, of course, bogus ancient alien theorists to develop our cosmic narrative from outer space. The spectacle has overwhelmed philosophy as the dominant mode for interpreting and understanding the world, while also re-tribalizing the human species in echo chambers of cosmic narcissism.
Well-known scientists like Hawking, Richard Dawkins, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Lisa Randall, and Brian Cox have written popular books explaining the human origins and/or the evolution of the universe. Tyson, Hawking, and Cox recently hosted science documentary series for television and are among the “celebrity scientists” who have crossed from academia to pop culture, nightly talk shows, and elite status in the 24/7 media spectacle. Certainly, it is great that scientists can be celebrities like movie stars, explain scientific concepts in sound bites for entertainment consciousness, and have millions of followers on Twitter (Tyson, Dawkins, and Cox). But it’s one thing to write a popular book about science and be hip with tweets and quite another to integrate the big bang and the sublime universe into a meaningful cosmic and cultural narrative that will be embraced by the human species. Science alone is not enough, for it must be complimented by art and philosophy.
Wishing for an Extraterrestial to Land on Earth
Frankly, I would love for any real-life extraterrestrial astronauts and space voyagers, to visit Earth and land their spaceships on the lawn of the White House, at Moscow’s Red Square, in Mecca, or maybe beside the Vatican, the Pentagon, the Great Pyramids, or the Great Wall of China. (Perhaps the most appropriate sites of all would be Mission Control in Houston and the Yuri Gagarin Monument in Moscow.) Such a visit might wake us from our delusion of cosmic centrality, which has caused so many nightmares on Earth and will eventually cause more in space. Perhaps it would be someone like “Klaatu,” the extraterrestrial philosopher from The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951).
What would enlightened extraterrestrials do if they visited our planet? Stephen Hawking thinks members of a highly advanced civilization might annihilate humanity and not think twice about it as they journeyed through the Milky Way. But maybe not. Maybe they would be more like the extraterrestrials in 2001 who dropped off the monolith for inspiration and returned to see how their experiment turned out. If so, the extraterrestrial might see that we have not achieved the space odyssey of 2001 because we are still battling on the Planet of the Apes.
When are we going to evolve? When are we going to grow up? It’s time for a new philosophy that embraces the cosmic narrative revealed by modern science and our actual place in the cosmos.
 John T. Omohundro, “Von Daniken’s Chariots: A Primer in the Art of Cooked Science,” Skeptical Inquirer, vol. 1.1 (Winter 1976), accessed April 5, 2015; and Ronald Story, The Space Gods Revealed: A Close Look at the Theories of Erich von Daniken (New York: Harper & Row, 1976).
 “The Case of the Ancient Astronauts,” Nova, BBC Horizon/PBS, 1977.
Keep in mind, this a 14-minute essay about Ancient Aliens — excerpted from my 2017 book, Specter of the Monolith. If I wrote a super-long essay, few would bother to read it. Since everything I know about philosophy, science, film, and media cannot be included in a short essay, I have written an entire book detailing a new philosophy based in science, aesthetics, ecology, cooperation, technology, and our place in the universe of two trillion galaxies spanning 100 billion light years. Inspired by 2001: A Space Odyssey, the book is called Specter of the Monolith and it is where I tackle Hawking’s philosophical challenge. And I use 2001 and the monolith as starting points. If you read that book and still think I do not understand 2001, the monolith, or what philosophy is, then so be it.
If you want free shorthand versions, I have posted other essays in Medium. Here are three:
“Explosion of Awareness” — Kubrick, Nietzsche, Hubble, and the Starting Point for a 21st Century Space Philosophy
Honoring the 50th Anniversary of 2001: The Monolith and Hope for the Human Species