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.