Anomalies, Materialism, and the Liberating Death of Ufology

On November 4, The Telegraph reported that the field of ufology, at least as it’s viewed and practiced in Britain, may be dead or dying:

For decades, they have been scanning the skies for signs of alien activity. But having failed to establish any evidence for the existence of extraterrestrial life, Britain’s UFO watchers are reaching the conclusion that the truth might not be out there after all. Enthusiasts admit that a continued failure to provide proof and a decline in the number of “flying saucer” sightings suggests that aliens do not exist after all and could mean the end of “Ufology” — the study of UFOs — within the next decade.

– Jasper Copping, “UFO enthusiasts admit the truth may not be out there after all,” The Telegraph, November 4, 2012

This assessment comes from several expert sources, including Britain’s well-regarded Association for the Study of Anomalous Phenomena, which has scheduled a meeting to discuss the issue:

Dozens of groups interested in the flying saucers and other unidentified craft have already closed because of lack of interest and next week one of the country’s foremost organisations involved in UFO research is holding a conference to discuss whether the subject has any future. Dave Wood, chairman of the Association for the Scientific Study of Anomalous Phenomena (Assap), said the meeting had been called to address the crisis in the subject and see if UFOs were a thing of the past. “It is certainly a possibility that in ten years time, it will be a dead subject,” he added. “We look at these things on the balance of probabilities and this area of study has been ongoing for many decades. The lack of compelling evidence beyond the pure anecdotal suggests that on the balance of probabilities that nothing is out there. I think that any UFO researcher would tell you that 98 per cent of sightings that happen are very easily explainable. One of the conclusions to draw from that is that perhaps there isn’t anything there. The days of compelling eyewitness sightings seem to be over.” He said that far from leading to an increase in UFO sightings and research, the advent of the internet had coincided with a decline … The issue is to be debated at a summit at the University of Worcester on November 17 and the conclusions reported in the next edition of the association’s journal, Anomaly.

These developments are in turn linked to the recent closing of the UK’s official investigations into UFO phenomena:

The summit follows the emergence earlier this year of the news that the Ministry of Defence was no longer investigating UFO sightings after ruling there is “no evidence” they pose a threat to the UK. David Clark, a Sheffield Hallam University academic and the UFO adviser to the National Archives, said: “The subject is dead in that no one is seeing anything evidential.”

Obviously, this is all quite interesting. But more than that, it’s highly significant, and not just for people who are directly interested in UFOs. Despite the fact that the Telegraph article perpetuates the perennial rhetorical and philosophical foolishness of dividing the UFO-interested community into “believers” and “skeptics” (and also uses the word “enthusiasts” to maddening effect), it’s a very valuable piece of work, because it points to a deeply meaningful cultural moment for the study of anomalous phenomena, and also, more broadly, for our collective understanding of the relative meanings and statuses of anomalies, paranormal events, and material science.

The line of thought I have in mind goes something like this: Is it really true that, because of the factors described above, ufology is dead in the water, over, done, finis? Or is it instead the case that a particular cultural inflection of the field — specifically, the mechanical, extraterrestrial, objective-materialist conception of the weird things that have always inhabited the skies throughout the history of human experience — has now entered a state of terminal crisis? If ufology as we have known it is seeing the writing on the wall, then is it possible that the idea and, more crucially, the experience of witnessing anomalous lights, shapes, and presences in the sky is now due for a return in popular consciousness to its former association with the wider phenomenon of apparitions and visions in general?

Far from meaning the end of belief in and experience of UFOs as such, would (or will) the death of ufology as a materialist scientific endeavor that is devoted to searching for objective confirmation or disconfirmation of physically existing aerial craft and extraterrestrial visitors to earth actually constitute the liberation of an ancient and persistent anomalous human experience from an exceptionally restrictive cultural straitjacket? Beyond even this, is such a development isomorphic with developments that are presently occurring in other fields where reductionist mechanical and material interpretations of reality are being called into question?

Item: Thomas Nagel has now put his reputation as a highly respected academic philosopher on the line with his new book Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False (included along with a perceptive reviewer’s defense in our last Recommended Reading report), in which he argues that the purely materialist-reductionist approach of current science in general and evolutionary biology in particular is categorically inadequate for explaining consciousness and nature.

Item: Jeffrey Kripal is using his prominent platform as chair of the religious studies department at Rice University to argue for the reality of paranormal and anomalous phenomena, their validity as a respectable intellectual and academic field of study, their centrality to human experience, and their weight in indicating an aspect or realm of reality whose intrinsic nature categorically eludes conventional scientific observation and analysis but is no less real for doing so.

And so forth. The list of similar individuals and trends leading in the same direction could easily be expanded, with the whole thing pointing toward the same set of questions and implications for our understanding of science and anomalous phenomena in general and, in the present context, ufology in particular. If ufology as it has been viewed and practiced up until now is dying, then perhaps this is because the reality of anomalous aerial phenomena was never really, ultimately amenable to objective scientific investigation in the first place. And the undoubted continuance of such phenomena in the wake of ufology’s demise may begin to clarify this in a way that lines up with the message coming from Nagel, Kripal, and others: that there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in our reigning scientific materialist orthodoxy.

“Far from meaning the end of belief in and experience of UFOs as such, would the death of ufology as a materialist scientific endeavor actually constitute the liberation of an ancient and persistent anomalous human experience from an exceptionally restrictive cultural straitjacket?”

In the introduction to Daimonic Reality, Patrick Harpur notes the division of the ufology community into two loose camps. The first, he says, regards UFOs as “extraterrestrial spacecraft inhabited by aliens from another planet. This is such a popular hypothesis, especially in the USA, that the acronym UFO (Unidentified Flying Object) has come, quite erroneously, to mean ‘a flying saucer from outer space.’” The second camp is composed of “those who entertain a wide variety of theories about the nature of UFOs. An open-minded, often ingenious group, their chief aim, it seems, is to persuade scientists to take them and their subject seriously. In this they are like the psychical researchers of a century or so ago who sought, and failed, to convince Science of the truths of Spiritualism.”

Harpur also observes that scientists themselves are likewise divided into two general camps. “The first,” he writes, “comprises the devotees of scientism who cling, like old Stalinists, to an outmoded cult of dreary mechanistic materialism. Theory has long since hardened into dogma, as rigidly upheld as that of any entrenched extraterrestrialist.” And yet, oddly, the second group, comprised of “honest, open-minded, reasonable” individuals, is just as negatively inclined and closed-minded as the first group when it comes to evidence that appears to line up in favor of the paranormal. Why the negative prejudice on both sides? According to Harpur, it’s because even though “No one who reviews the evidence for, say, UFOs for an hour is likely to deny that something strange is being seen,” a deeply entrenched cultural bias, lying at the heart of modern secular scientific civilization, has actually transformed our collective psyches and sensibilities: “The trouble is, few people who have been brought up with strict rationalistic principles can concentrate on anomalous phenomena for an hour. They are like classically trained musicians who cannot listen to pop songs. A terrible ennui sets in immediately.” And so anomalous phenomena are actually screened out of the conscious experience and intellectual sense-making that end up constituting our modern scientific-technological culture’s official narrative of reality.

Thus, I think it’s conceivable, and also hopeful, that the possible death of ufology — a field that stands as one of the few to have actually devoted sustained attention to an age-old anomalous phenomenon — may actually end up reviving and deepening a truer appreciation and understanding of UFOs themselves. “I would like to remind people,” says Harpur, “that there have been in the past ways of making sense of weird apparitions and sudden bizarre visions — ways which our age no longer understands. In fact, I shall be suggesting that, if these strange visitations have any purpose at all, it is to subvert the same modern worldview which discredits them” (emphasis added).

It seems we’re truly living in an age of philosophical vertigo, a historical transitional epoch when fundamental assumptions about the nature of reality, consciousness, and human experience — assumptions that were established by a centuries-long mainstream narrative of secularism and objective scientific explanation — are increasingly been called into question. Given the well-established trickster-like nature of UFOs, aliens, and associated phenomena, I can’t help but think — in metaphorical fashion, of course (except the metaphors are real, and living, and dangerous) — that the aliens, whoever or whatever they may actually “be,” are watching us even now from the immanent transcendence of their liminal-daimonic ultraterrestrial dreamzone, and are laughing heartily at this latest stage in the unfolding of their master plan, which has never really been off track for even a split second during the entire length of our heady human experience, not even during the long span of our collective denial of it and them, since that period of ontological amnesia will inevitably turn out to have been just another sub-gambit in their eternal mission of screwing with us.

Image: “Alien and Lights” courtesy of Victor Habbick / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

About Matt Cardin

Teeming Brain founder and editor Matt Cardin is the author of DARK AWAKENINGS, DIVINATIONS OF THE DEEP, A COURSE IN DEMONIC CREATIVITY: A WRITER'S GUIDE TO THE INNER GENIUS, and the forthcoming TO ROUSE LEVIATHAN. He is also the editor of BORN TO FEAR: INTERVIEWS WITH THOMAS LIGOTTI and the academic encyclopedias MUMMIES AROUND THE WORLD and GHOSTS, SPIRITS, AND PSYCHICS: THE PARANORMAL FROM ALCHEMY TO ZOMBIES.

Posted on November 5, 2012, in Liminalities and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 12 Comments.

  1. Matt, thank you for this commentary. I agree with your sentiments, and would piggyback on them to say that it is also interesting that a false dichotomy is assumed in that the UFO phenomenon is presumed to be either alien visitation, or in the absence of evidence for alien life, then the result must be a phenomenon with no veridical support. This is curious in light of the views of several researchers, from John Keel and Jacques Vallee to Jeffrey Kripal that the extraterrestrial theory is troubling both in terms of the challenges from astronomy and physics, and that a paranormal interpretation paralleling that of mystical religious experiences better fits the data. I am glad to see you bringing such issues to the fore for our consideration.

  2. “If the round shining objects that appear in the sky [UFOs] be regarded as visions, we can hardly avoid interpreting them as archetypal images. They would then be involuntary, automatic projections based on instinct, and as little as any other psychic manifestations or symptoms can they be dismissed as meaningless. Anyone with the requisite historical and psychological knowledge knows that circular symbols have played an important role in every age. There is an old saying that “Deus est circulus cuius centrum est ubique, cuius circumferentia vero nusquam” (God is a circle whose centre is everywhere and the circumference nowhere).”
    Carl G. Jung, “Flying Saucers – A Modern Myth of Things Seen in the Skies”.

  3. I don’t know if I would have come across shamanism later in life if I did not read Communion and Transformation by Whitley Strieber, and spent my nights glued to Unsolved Mysteries. Whitley described his alien as being Ishtar. I would have had no yearning for the unexplained at all.

  4. Well, horseshit.

    The line of scientific discovery is in constant motion. Just because we don’t understand some aspect of reality at the present moment is no reason to assume we will never understand it. We have reasons to be somewhat confident in our abilities not least of which is the long list of past ideas someone once was absolutely convinced that science would never explain.

    It is astounding to read Thomas Nagel and realize what this “highly respected” philosopher knows about science could be easily placed in a thimble with room to spare. Has the field of academic philosophy become so moribund?

    And I would say to Mr Harpur that just because his pet theories can’t survive a few moments’ rigorous scientific examination is no reason to imagine these conspiracies and form these absurd rationalizations. Perhaps it’s simply that there is no there, there. Perhaps it’s just that I prefer real mysteries to phony mysteries.

    Friends, isn’t it time to put aside the tea leaves and Tarot cards and come to live in the awesome world revealed by observation and experiment, and speculation disciplined by recourse to evidence?

    • Ezra, you’re conflating “science,” which is a highly specific type of knowing, with “knowledge” and “understanding” as a whole. Science is a rigorous and limited (and therefore extremely useful) method of interrogating and knowing the world based on filtering out and excluding certain types of experience and evidence in order to call out other things much more clearly. Naturally, this results in a partial picture of things when one attempts to use science to build a worldview, which is why using science to build a worldview — as in, say, the worldview of scientism, which says that only what can be known through science is real — is a mistake.

    • “… tea leaves and Tarot cards”?!

      Your comment says a lot about YOU, Ezra, not about what real and total knoweledge means. Science is just one of many worldviews, not less (and not more).

      TWO SUITORS: A PARABLE

      (from the book ‘Cosmos and Psyche’ by Richard Tarnas).

      Imagine, for a moment, that you are the universe. But for the purposes of this thought experiment, let us imagine that you are not the disenchanted mechanistic universe of convetional modern cosmology, but rather a deep-souled, subtly mysterious cosmos of great spiritual beauty and creative intelligence. And imagine that you are being approached by two different epistemologies – two suitors, as it were, who seek to know you. To whom would you open your deepest secrets? To which approach would you be most likely to reveal your authentic nature? Would you open most deeply to the suitor – the epistemology, the way of knowing – who approached you as though you were essentially lacking in intelligence or purpose, as though you had no interior dimension to speak of, no spiritual capacity or value; who thus saw you as fundamentally inferior to himself (let us give the two suitors, not entirely arbitrarily, the traditional masculine gender); who related to you as though your existence were valuable primarily to the extent that he could develop and exploit your resources to satisfy his various needs; and whose motivation for knowing you was ultimately driven by a desire for increased intellectual mastery, predictive certainty, and efficient control over you for his own self-enhancement?
      Or would you, the cosmos, open yourself most deeply to that suitors who viewed you as being at least as intelligent and noble, as worthy a being, as permeated with mind and soul, as imbued with moral aspiration and purpose, as endowed with spiritual depths and mystery, as he? This suitor seeks to know you not that he might better exploit you but rather to unite with you and thereby bring forth something new, a creative synthesis emerging from both of your depths. He desires to liberate that which has been hidden by the separation between knower and known. His ultimate goal of knowledge is not increased mastery, prediction, and control but rather a more richly responsive and empowered participation in a co-creative unfolding of new realities. He seeks an intellectual fulfillment that is intimately linked with imaginative vision, moral transformation, empathic understanding, aesthetic delight. His act of knowledge is essentially an act of love and intelligence combined, of wonder as well as discernment, of opening to a process of mutual discovery. To whom would you be more likely to reveal your deepest truths?
      This is not to say that you, the universe, would reveal nothing to the first suitor, under the duress of his objectifying, disenchanting approach. That suitor would undoubtedly elicit, filter, and constellate a certain “reality” that he would naturally regard as authentic knowledge of the actual universe: objective knowledge, “the facts,” as compared with the subjective delusions of everyone else’s approach. But we might allow ourselves to doubt just how profound a truth, how genuinely reflective of the universe’s deeper reality, this approach might be capable of providing. Such knowledge might prove to be deeply misleading. And if this disenchanted vision were elevated to the status of being the only legitimate vision of the nature of the cosmos upheld by an entire civilization, what an incalculable loss, an impoverishment, a tragic deformation, a grief, would ultimately be suffered by both knower and known.

    • Dr. Wilhelm Reich .

      Seriously .

      He made real discoveries that were important about the rise and fall of empathic sexual energy.. what would otherwise be known as “kundalini energy”.. he was not speaking of electricity..

      I am not a scientist by any means, and I can’t really test his evidence myself, but I have experienced what he wrote about. For example, the idea that ‘Orgone’ (the word he ascribed for ‘ki’) is attracted to heavier of two poles.. that is to say, it goes to where there is more of it.. and that it is released through relaxation of muscular tension.. all the yoga and reiki books are found in the reflexology section of bookstores.. there is a consensus in this field of thought that they know exactly where this energy is and how it is released, acupuncture another example..

      then Dr. Wilhelm Reich is the scientist who discovered it.

      • Yoga and Reiki masters commonly tell their students not to have sex for a few days before attunement and classes etc, specifically because sex discharges the orgone from the body.

        Yes this might all sound preposterous but the millions of people who attest to this stuff having something to it such as myself should mean something in the balance of it.

        it is a real phenomenon. whether or not it has been explained.

  5. Well said, Matt, bravo.

  6. “Far from meaning the end of belief in and experience of UFOs as such, would the death of ufology as a materialist scientific endeavor actually constitute the liberation of an ancient and persistent anomalous human experience from an exceptionally restrictive cultural straitjacket?”

    We live in hope…

    (my new book in preparation might help a little)

  7. Ok first of all let me apologize for the opening profanity. If I wasn’t interested in all this stuff and a fan of your work Matt I wouldn’t be here in the first place.

    What mainly set me off was Mr Harpur and his deeply insulting blather about the evil Stalinist scientific conspiracy blah blah blah…

    Shouldn’t “knowledge” and “understanding” be rooted in observable quantifiable reality? The reason to discipline our thoughts by rigorous methodology is not to limit our perceptions but to prevent our natural inclination to fool ourselves.

    Jesus please don’t be insulted if I suggest a careful reading in classical logic might be called for? Your “parable” commits the formal logical fallacy of “begging the question”. If you start out with the idea of “a deep-souled, subtly mysterious cosmos of great spiritual beauty and creative intelligence” and then carefully exclude or misinterpret evidence otherwise then surprise surprise you wind up right where you began.

    Try this. Start with no preconceptions whatsoever about the nature of the cosmos. Take as your guiding principle that to find out the nature of the cosmos you will follow the evidence wherever it leads. Construct as best you can a methodology of “finding out” that mitigates our natural tendency towards wishful thinking and self-deception. Realize that you will never achieve absolute truth but you can build tentative models of what is going on based on observable phenomena subject to amendment and correction as the quality of your observation increases.

    “…the disenchanted mechanistic universe of convetional{sic} modern cosmology…?

    Are you kidding? I think if you really knew anything about modern cosmology it would astonish you!

  8. Hello,

    Thank you for this great article. I have a question: Why Uk peoles says that ufo are dead and french peoples says that the study must continu?

    We have a googd and famous website in France: http://www.forum-ovni-ufologie.com/

    Good day

    Julien

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