Perhaps the greatest shift in civilization over the past decade is not the internet, technology, the rise of authoritarianism, bitcoin, or even climate change, but the mainstreaming of UFO discourse.
From a giggle-provoking fringe to a topic discussed with regularity by Presidents and generals, a large portion of this was driven by this woman, Leslie Kean. Who, the article notes in passing, is a Buddhist.
Obviously from a Buddhist point of view the existence of beings in other planets is to be expected. So that is not an existential issue. It’s still uncertain, of course, and for every person who thinks the evidence is convincing, there’s someone else who thinks it’s not.
The brute fact of the matter is that relativity is one of the most solidly-confirmed principles of physics, and it puts a hard limit on how fast anyone can travel. So to travel in manned craft you’d probably need some kind of way around the fundamental laws of physics. Not easy.
Not all interstellar travel must be faster-than-light, though. The most plausible model for interstellar exploration remains the Von Neumann probes. You build a sublight spaceship that is also a self-replicating robot, or carries them. You send a bunch of these out into space. They arrive at a promising-looking solar system, where they promptly begin mining materials and building replicas of themselves. Meanwhile they send out probes to explore the system. By doing this you can spread out across the galaxy using well-understood principles of physics. There’s nothing in physics stopping us from doing this right now; it’s just the engineering.
Such a project would likely be unmanned, as you’ll probably lose a lot of probes in the process. Potentially this or other forms of sublight travel might convey actual sentient beings, although it seems to me not all that likely.
Anyway, so as far as craft go, we’re more likely seeing some kind of drone rather than a piloted ship.
For the record, I remain unconvinced that these are genuine alien craft.
But if they are, their mere presence suggests that aliens—or at least these ones—are somewhat like us. They operate on a similar scale (not planet-sized consciousness). They use recognizably similar technology (flying craft; although of course they might be the flying craft). They like to travel, and presumably explore. The fact that they are so mysterious suggests that they do not want to make their presence known, so they are perhaps either observers or spies.
The Buddhist cosmology suggests that alien beings will, in fact, be recognizably like us. Not all beings, to be sure, there are obviously a great variety of sentient animals, and even such exotic dimensions as the formless realms. But in terms of intelligent, technological life, Buddhist texts envisage beings who are mostly similar in general. Of course this could just be a lack of imagination, as all past eras in Jataka stories are envisaged to be of a similar linguistic and cultural level to northern India 2,500-ish years ago.
But I also think this is supported by science. While science fiction delights in imaging exotic aliens of all sorts, in reality there are constraints, some hard, some less so, imposed by fundamental realities of the world we live in. This doesn’t apply to all life, of course, only to the kind of technologically advanced life with whom we might communicate.
For example, water. It has unique physical properties, and can’t be replaced by any other compound. Water is essential for complex carbon chemistry. And carbon itself is irreplaceable: it forms the maximum number of chemical bonds on the smallest size atom. It’s the basic geometry of how atoms work, it’s simply impossible to have another atom that will function the same way. So we’ll need carbon-based chemistry in a water solution. That means aliens have to live in a world of roughly the same temperature as us.
But then, while intelligence can surely evolve underwater, technology can’t, because you need fire. So it’s very likely there’ll be a period of evolution underwater followed by an ascent onto land, in an oxygenated atmosphere.
Other constraints apply too. Have you ever wondered why we find small creatures with all different configurations of limbs, but large creatures all have four limbs and a head? It’s because of the square/cube rule: strength is determined by area (the cross-section of muscles) while weight is determined by volume. Thus as size goes up, the weight of a creature requires thicker limbs to hold it up. Ants are super-strong at their scale, but if you scaled up an ant to human size, it’d just crush under its own weight. That’s why large animals converge on the model of four limbs.
To use technology, obviously you’ll need something to manipulate matter. For that, either you adapt by standing on two limbs and using the other two to do stuff, or you evolve some other kind of extra appendage. But that’s expensive; it seems hard to imagine an evolutionary path that retains six limbs on a large animal (like a centaur). On the other hand, we see many examples in nature of animals that are adapting to two-legged motion and use their front limbs for digging, feeding, and the like.
So most likely we have creatures with a carbon-based chemistry, with water as solution, living on a planet roughly the same temperature, breathing oxygen, walking on two legs, with two arms and hands. We can keep going: they are likely to have a “brain” of some sort, and that will be encased in a protective covering, elevated off the ground, and situated close to sense apparatus. And that’s what we call a “head”.
Again, I’m not saying that they’ll be just like us. Nor am I saying that intelligent life can’t exist in other forms. But if there is the kind of creature with whom we can have a conversation, who fly around in craft, and who like to explore other realms, it seems to me likely that they’ll be something we recognize.
Hopefully we will learn to talk with them before we start shooting.