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How french ufologist and thinker Aimé Michel formulated the incommensurability problem in the seventies.

The banality principle, by Aimé Michel, 1973:

Twenty-five years after the first rumours, flying saucers are still a subject of discord between the scientists. This in itself is a matter of thought.

When a new scientific problem arises, and even if its solution is not forthcoming, at least it does not take very long for an agreement to be reached on its nature and the possible ways to describe the problem. And if no agreement is reached on this, everyone soon recognizes that the problem was not likely to be solved using the scientific method. One then gives up, until the nature of the problem changes or until new methods are discovered.

Nothing like that occurred with the flying saucers. Although no agreement was reached neither on their nature nor on the way of studying them, the researchers are increasingly numerous to ignore the discredit which sticks to it, and to devote a share of their time and their reflexions to this subject.

This situation seems to be unprecedented. Everything happens as if what started as a mere rumour now announces a developping change of mentality, not only in the Western world, but in socialist countries too, and even, it has been said, in China, since the fall of 1970.

To understand what this change consists of (and perhaps to understand where it leads), it is first necessary to remind the various assumptions advanced since 1947 to explain flying saucers reports, and the dead end which resulted from it. These assumptions were four:

It is on these assumptions that the scientists were summoned to decide. And because they indeed decided within the framework of these assumptions, they settled in the spirit of the public, which, more than one quarter century later, remain their prisoner. And at the same time as these assumptions settled in the spirit of the public a certain number of simple and apparently obvious reasoning led the problem to the dead end where it is now. Let us briefly summarize them:

Initially (and this answers the assumption No 1), it is now quite certain that flying saucers are not terrestrial secret machines. First because we know, thanks to astronautics, of the achievements that the great nations are capable. Nothing, in their arsenal, resembles even by far the descriptions (wrongly or rightly) of the alleged witnesses. It is quite obvious that if the Russians or the Americans had machines capable of the performances described by the police officer of Socorro or the peasant of Valensole, they would not ruin themselves launching million dollars rockets, which, in addition, can miss their goal or explode. The Americans would have liked to have aircraft able to fly silently at Mach 10 and to be land vertically, noiselessly, in the Vietnam conflict.

An even more convincing reason is that very detailed testimonies going back to one century or more have been found later. It is thus necessary to give up the first assumption.

Assumptions 2 and 3 are certainly satisfactory for the mind. They do not require any scientific acrobatics, no psychological revolution. They provide a suitable explanation for what is published in the newspapers, that one should not accept as true as soon as they provide extraordinary tales.

But on another side, these assumptions never gave satisfaction neither to the witnesses nor to the scientists having inquired directly with the witnesses. Whatever the reason for which neither these scientists nor these witnesses find the two assumptions of the psychosis and the faulty interpretation satisfactory, their skepticism is a fact facing in an irritating way the researchers sincerely eager to clarify.

The most known illustration of this dilemma is the Condon report (1). Condon, himself an eminent physicist, judges on documents, without even interviewing one single witness, without going on location even once. He concludes in the inexistence of any strange phenomenon, and anyone who follows his steps (i.e. which believes in his capacity to decide without direct study) follows him almost infallibly in his conclusion: there is nothing.

But Condon had a team of investigators made up of scientists just as qualified as he was. At the head of this team, was Saunders (designated in the "Condon Report," p. 941, as the "main investigator"). Saunders was, and is still now, professor of psychology in the same University of Colorado where Condon is a professor of physics. He has a thorough experience of the investigations. He thus investigates. And he comes at an exactly opposite conclusion with that of Condon, whom he disputed with glare. Following the incident, he publishes a book rejecting the "Condon Report."

Previously, the fight against the "judge" delivering his verdict based on documents and the investigator who studied the phenomenon directly had already occurred: in 1952, major Ruppelt, the person in charge of Project Blue Book, had made a positive verdict, while Robertson, president of the jury, studying Ruppelt's reports, issued a negative verdict. Same contradiction between the higher authorities of the Air Force and the astronomer Hynek in 1968, in front of the ad hoc congressional panel.

We are forced into making a note of these contradictions. What is called scientific certainty, it is the collective approval of the specialists on a point in their specialty. The least we can say is that there is a complete disagreement between the scientists having studied the flying saucers. Let us notice that the opinion of the others, i.e. those which decide without ever having studied the problem neither directly nor indirectly, has as much value, but not more value, than the opinion of a historian on a question of physics: a considerable value on the question of the methods (which are common to all sciences), but a weak or null about the questions of facts concerned with the specialty under discussion, and for which the scientists who are not specialists are simply part of the public and do not know anything more than the public.

It is by examining the fourth assumption, that of the extraterrestrial origin, that we can understand why the immense majority of judicious people adopted the explanation by assumptions 2 and 3.

Indeed, if one challenges the explanation by faulty interpretation and the psychosis, the extraterrestrial assumption is the only that remains available. However, it encounters insurmountable objections, as we will see.

Scientists who believe in the reality of the flying saucers precisely dispute that stupidity and credulity are sufficient to explain it all away. But is there a sufficient reason to enter their obscure research, with the risk to waste a time which may be devoted to more useful activities?

Not wanting to divert the reader from more serious occupations than hunting for saucers, we will restrict ourselves to ask him whether he ever goes to the movies, if he ever reads a novel, if he ever watches television, if he ever meditates on certain enigmas to which he well knows that he will never find an answer, in short, if he never loses a little of his time to dwell some dream.

A prominent German scientist, Nobel Prize, with whom we spoke one day about this, told me that he was too busy to waste his time in this field. In the continuation of the conversation, he told us that to distract himself, he played chess and read detective novels.

So let's have the reader thus consider this as a detective novel, a relaxation of the mind. He will then see, having read this, if it is necessary to give it more attention. The problem that we propose is as follows:

If an extraterrestrial activity manifested itself to us, how does science invite us to imagine it?

In the absence of better, this problem is a decent police enigma: the proof is that it already inspired science fiction books by the thousands in all the languages.

Let's start with the inventory of knowledge which can be used for our reflexion. They concern astronomy, physics and biology.

Let us re-examine the problem of the long space flights now.

We saw that science shows the impossibility of it. Is this demonstration final? To claim this, it would be necessary to have the certainty that the relativistic framework from where it rises determines the ultimate limits of any reality.

Everything seems as if it were really so. But it must be observed that it was always like that with science's paradigm, at any time of its history. It was in particular thus in 19th century, after Maxwell had made the synthesis of everything that was then known. No conceivable fact could, at that time, indicate the limited character of this synthesis, as the famous statement by Lord Kelvin declaring that "physics has from now on a perfectly harmonious unity, and is, essentially, completed," and that the work of the physicists of the future would be reduced "to add decimals to the already known results."

It is just as impossible to currently show the limited character of the relativistic framework than it was in 1900 to imagine a breach within Maxwell's synthesis. So, for example, it is impossible in the physics of Maxwell and Kelvin to allot a mass to the electromagnetic radiation, and with stronger reason impossible to imagine an equivalence between mass and energy.

It belongs to the physicists and the physicist alone, of course, to speak about physics. But the history of physics invites an historical and philosophical reflexion. If the philosopher and the historian do not have anything relevant to say on the on the future of today's physics, they cannot miss, even if the relativistic framework would not embrace all virtualities of the universe, it would give us the illusion that it does, exactly as the physics of Maxwell and Kelvin did. The assertion that no new discovery will never make it possible to shortcut the limits of relativistic physics thus implies an act of faith. It supposes that what is to demonstrate is certain, for it is quite obvious that nonrelativistic or ultra-relativists phenomena remain to be discovered, they are excluded by nature from the relativistic framework, exactly as it was excluded from Maxwell's paradigm that one could transform a material mass into electromagnetic waves. That did not prevent the atomic bomb from exploding. But it required the discovered that Maxwell had embraced only part of the phenomena.

The example of Maxwell indicates that if facts not compliant with relativistic physics had suddenly occurred in front of our eyes, they would appear at least as phantasmagoric and absurd as the display at Hiroshima would have appeared to Lord Kelvin, and probably much more. If, in addition, these facts occurred in a fugitive and difficult to observe manner, physics would be useful to us, not to study them, but to refute them. Common sense even would invite us to such a rejection: to question the whole body of our knowledge, one needs well proven facts. In the case of Maxwell for example, one needed that black body radiation and measurements of the absolute movement of the Earth in space contradict all the existing predictions. Nothing, therefore, is more normal than the denial expressed by so many scientists to of accounts which, taken separately, have insufficient proof to convince, for to accept only one of them, it is necessary to give up current physics.

If extraterrestrial beings were here, they say, they would have contacted us. We do not note nothing like that. Thus, they are not here.

We never think about the strangeness and even the unfathomable in this absence. We do not think of it for the same reason that the Romans never worried about America: by provincialism and intellectual myopia. Because we limit our reflexions with appearances and that all appearances are deformed by the prospect. For Remus and Romulus, the universe stopped with the Samnites and Albans, and the only concern of the gods whom they adored was knowledge to which of these people they were going to give the empire of the world, i.e. a small corner of the Italian boot. During this time, China and India, quite as short-sighted and provincial, were unaware that they would be one day conquered by a civilization whose very existence was unknown to them.

However, as we saw, stars as advanced as our Sun existed already there is billion years; these stars (which we see) already had the planets (astrometrical measurements show their presence), whereas our own Earth did not exist yet. If civilizations as advanced as that of our twentieth century existed already on these planets there billion years before, that happened with them since? Why haven't they spread in space? Why didn't they discover us? Why don't we see them?

Science-fiction already produced thousands of books describing the arrival of extraterrestrials on Earth. Their authors thought of everything. They imagined all the possibilities. However nobody proposed satisfactory explanation to this very stupid and well proven fact: we never saw any extraterrestrial arrive.

In 1957, I had tried to consider all the possible explanations of this extraordinary absence. Here they are in their logical order:

Of these eight assumptions, there is of course no way of knowing which is the correct one. What can be done, however, is to follow the logic of things such science shows us, to see where this logic leads to, and to then confront the result of this speculation with what is really observed.

The exploration of the Principle of banality engages us here on a way which points out something unpleasant to us.

If we try to predict how beings who by principle are supposed to be more advanced to us would appear when we observe them, won't we stumble in the same traps and become victims of the same aberrations as the dreamers of ancient Byzance disputing on the genre of the angels? Will it be necessary, in the name of science, to recover all the treaties of angelology and demonology which flowered at the Middle Age? The danger was felt by a militant spokesman of rationalism (3).

To admit the existence of beings whose psychic capacities, motives and techniques would be partly incomprehensible to the man, he write, would allow to rehabilitate God himself.

This author undoubtedly wants to denounce, not the rehabilitation of God who, in any assumption, does not care too much about that, but that of the theological speculations of which Valéry said that "they would make us believe that God is stupid."

Actually, it seems that it is very exactly the opposite. The principle of banality brings us back from the temptation to which the medieval dreamers yielded, but it is for diverting use from it and for showing us its vanity. We are warned that if beings more evolved than man do indeed exist, we have strictly and irremediably nothing to say about what is more evolved with them. If man were not an ordinary being, if it were at the very top of knowledge and intelligence, even the rationalist author referred to above could not refuse him the right to legitimately speculate about God and the angels. It is not the principle of banality which rehabilitates discussions on the angels' gender, it is the principle of Kelvin. D'Alembert gave an excellent anticipated illustration of the principle of banality when he said that if men were triangles, God would surely have three sides. But Kelvin, like the modern refuters of the flying saucers, did not know how to resist temptation to believe that the universe could be locked up forever in the three sides which limited his own knowledge.

To admit the banality of human knowledge is to recognize its relativity, and consequently to reintroduce it in the same problematics as animal knowledge. Admittedly, there is an abyss between man and the most intelligent animals. But let's not forgot that this abyss was crossed without discontinuity by the effect of an unperceivable progress in connection with the genetic changes slowly accumulated since the beginning of the life until Homo-sapiens.

If biological evolution is a banal phenomenon, the abyss which separates us from the monkey (as the one which separates the monkey from the dog) is of comparable nature with the abyss which separates us to the supposed advanced beings. To sustain that it is not no, is to cut off the man in theological definitions. We do not dispute the legitimacy of these definitions. We say that science develops another step. And we notice that certain rationalist authors are very eager to evacuate God of their cosmogony, in condition however that the man remains created after his image.

We can say nothing on what separates us to the supposed advanced beings. But there is a science which studies what separates man from the animal: ethology. If there is an abyss, this science crosses it in the direction which precisely interests us: when he studies the animal, the ethologist in the same situation as, compared to us, an extraterrestrial being is supposed to be. His science having no other object than the relations between psychisms of various complexities, let us examine some of the experiments where this diversity appears.

Here we have for example an insect attracted by light (it is called "photopositive"). When it is mislaid in a container whose transparent bottom is directed towards a source of light, what does it do? If it blindly obeys its phototropism, it will fly in direction of the light, with obstination. And thus it is captured in the transparent walls, and will die without never thinking of making a turn of a few centimetres, which would free him again. It is an adventure in which we see every day: insects stupidly flying against the pane of a window lit by the sun, when it would be enough for them to temporarily turn the back to the light to be saved by the nonenlightened corridor and to find light at the price of a short turning.

The spider, which is capable of much more complex and varied behaviors than the fly, not only does not make this error, not only is able to escape its simplest tropisms (because of course, it also has some), but moreover uses its superiority to create with art the conditions according to which the fly will throw itself infallibly in its web (4).

The interesting fact for us is that the spider continues in peace its activities since million years without the phototropic insects ever to come to the idea of a turning. The superficial observer says that the fly is "stupid." He does not wonder of what its "sillyness" consists of. The physiologist knows the answer: it is that fly does not have a sufficiently complex central nervous system to "conceive" a turning. To conceive this plan would require a network of storage and data processing more complex than it has and which, unfortunately for it, exists in the nervous system of the spider (5). The flies whose spider makes its lunch are locked up forever within a behavioral framework which delivers them without defense to the tricks of their enemy.

But the spider, which lives of its skill to manufacture imparables traps to the fly, also undergoes the limitations of its own psychism and is used as prey by many sphegides whose extraordinary talent to recognize the chart of a territory astounds the naturalists.

The terrestrial living nature entirely is thus a closed field where different psychisms clash without never being able to come out of their limits, which are irremediably traced by physiological complexity that the anatomy of each particular species determines.

It is in extreme higher cases of the animality, with monkeys and dolphins, that the most instructive observations were made these last years (6).

When one puts one these animals at the catches with a problem which exceeds only by a little its capacities, it uses its more extraordinary intellectual performances to try to solve it; if on the contrary the problem exceeds its capacities too much, it is not perceived any more like a problem, but only as a threat, and the behavior of the animal develops completely randomly.

The monkeys studied by Cole (6) are well aware that the situation in which they are put by the mischievousness of the experimenter is unpleasant or threatening, but they are obstinent "stupid" (like the fly), in their attempts to come out of there, to precisely suppose that the causes of this situation does not exceed a certain degree of complexity, that which a monkey brain can conceive. They hopelessly make the inventory of their capacities of monkey and take refuge in all the more primitive and summary reactions (escape, combat) which they more highly feel the need for doing something, whereas, from our point of view, a little reflexion would be enough to abolish the difficulty.

For the monkey, the degree of complexity where the solution is located is as if it did not exist. It is irremediably inaccessible to him. We know why: the cerebral centers of integration of the monkey (the neural network of its frontal lobes) are not able to work out the models of activities required by the problem more than the calculator of a self-service store cannot calculate a derivative. It is not a matter of "sillyness," but a matter of impossibility.

We mentioned above than this psychic limitation of species is a universal fact within terrestrial lifeforms: thus, life developed on our planet to the man inclusively, by the tireless confrontation of all these limited psychisms.

Scientists know that. They hold it, and all their science theirs shows, for a fact of completely coarse obviousness.

The relation of this psychic limitation of species to the complexity of the nervous system is also perfectly demonstrated, even if it only is partially explored. Martin Wells for example could gradually reduce the psychic performances of cephalopodes which he studies in his laboratory of Churchill College of Cambridge by electively paralysing their integrating centers, one after the other, starting with most complex, i.e. by going up their paleontological order of apparition from the most recent to the most primitive. The pathology of the human brain shows the same regression of our psychism, according to whether the lesions destroy newer or older parts of the brain. It is a fact universally attested with the terrestrial life.

Nothing certainly prohibits to us, in the name of the principle of Kelvin, to claim that this psychic limitation of species, universally attested in all animals up to mankind, miraculously ceases to apply to mankind itself.

Owing to the fact that the man is the most advanced being of this planet, no known being can put him in the situation which the monkey of laboratory experimenter Cole are confronted with. He can thus declare with impunity that no thought could pose to him an irremediably insoluble problems by the play of his own thought. Not only he can, but his entire terrestrial experiment comes to confirm this opinion, and due, being the most advanced, he never met a more advanced being which supercedes him on Earth.

Let us notice that the tertiary primate from where the line of Homo sapiens came out could have claimed the same. He, who could neither control fire, neither manufacture a tool, neither to count the days of its life, nor understand that when he had sex with its female, she became fertilized, could also had a thought which could, without fearing a denial, declare that he achieved the completion of the highest thought, since it was the most advanced of the entire planet.

Two short million years passed, and if Cole met this king of creation, he would hasten to set up a cage for it in its laboratory to pose insoluble problems to it. Insoluble, for this former king. Not for us who we believe we cannot be beaten.

What authorizes the quaternary primate, refuter of the flying saucers, to assert the final intellectual supremacy, which the tertiary primate could assert already, but wrongly, though as persuaded than we are to be right, and for identical reasons? I do not know. But finally, our wise quaternary being claims that the assumption that there may be a thought as impenetrable to their as theirs was to the monkey is absurd and ridiculous. I submit to them: you say that it is "irrational" to admit the possibility that there are beings whose psychic capacities, mobiles and the techniques would be incomprehensible to the man. As the presence of such beings in the terrestrial environment would precisely suppose the reality of these incomprehensible techniques (since you in the same way showed the impossibility of such a presence), it follows that if, in spite of your demonstration, the Earth were visited by extraterrestrial sentient beings, it would show exactly the same relation than Cole had with his monkeys.

I do not say that the Earth is visited by such a thought. I only say, using your demonstration, that if this visit were proven by the observation (which is the only way to get a positive knowledge), the thought of our visitor could not be reduced to ours that its technique could be reduced to our rockets. As much as their science would contradict our science, as much would their psychism be advanced in comparison with ours.

Admittedly, the contact is possible between Cole and its monkey. It is possible with the help of a cage. It is bilateral on the level of the monkey, i.e. that man, with the help of a study full with traps and difficulties, can in extreme cases exchange with the monkey all the "ideas" of the monkey (7). But this exchange is unilateral on the level of the man who can explain to the monkey neither what himself, man, is doing, neither why he does it. The experiments of Jane Van Lawick Goodall in particular demonstrates that contact is established only though domestication if it does not respect the psychic limits of the animal.

Applied to man, a device of this kind would promptly end to dehumanize it, since our species holds all its dignity in its undomesticated history, and that this history was born from our efforts against the unknown and the adversity.

For what would our thought be used, if a communication with an inexhaustible source of knowledge had suddenly spared us any effort and any research? Is the adult human condition compatible with a regression to infantile dependency? Isn't the adult thought not, on the contrary, by definition, a nondependent thought?

If we follow the principle of banality until the end, the human condition must be regarded as a simple particular moment of any thought, from one end to another of the universe, namely the moment when each planetary thought discovers the vastness of space without having yet acquired the possibility of reaching to it.

A crowd, perhaps an infinity of species, must be at this step in the infinite universe.

And the species (if they exist) which exceeded this stage must have an ethics towards them.

We do not know anything of them, but we know enough about us to define, from our point of view, that the first requirement of this Ethics it is the respect of our reason and our freedom, and consequently the refusal of contact.

If a higher thought than ours knows our existence and observes us, we will be able to ever know what it is.

And if it respects us, it must leave us with our loneliness until our own metamorphosis makes us able to reach them by ourselves, without the burden of dependency.

Still considering the things from our point of view, the best that this intelligence can do is to stimulate ours by proposing problems to us, "a little higher than our possibilities," as Cole in his experiments with his monkeys.

After twenty years of studies and discussions, we believe that it is precisely what it does. And we are struck to note that what seemed to us a challenge to reason at the start appears by examination, in conformity with reason.

If nobody had observed flying saucers, we should now wonder why. We would be forced to imagine a very different universe than the one which science discovers little by little, a universe in which man would be an incomprehensible miracle, an "unsoundable joke," according to the words of the astrophysicist Schkovski.

Is man this unsoundable joke? Or does man occupy its small place, at the same time banal and priceless, in a corner of the order of the things? Perhaps, we will be able to answer this question when we know what the flying saucers are.

For a more modern formulation of the incommensurability problem, see also:

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