Some reflections on UFOs and related phenomena.
See part one of this post for more. (I decided to split it since the first post became longer than expected.) This second part is started on May 18, 2016, although I back-dated it so it would show up next to the initial post.
Magic wand. If I could wave a magic wand, how would I like the UFO topic to be approached? Not so different from what most would like to see, I think. Taken seriously by scientists, media, and politicians. Approached in a sober way using scientific methods. Open minded. Open to a wide range of possible answers and findings, and actively practicing generating and exploring multiple possibilities. Being comfortable with knowing we don’t know. (Until we do know more.) Studying the phenomenon from multiple angles and within and across multiple disciplines.
As it is now, the topic is taboo in mainstream science, media, and politics in many countries, perhaps especially the US. That leaves a vacuum that’s filled by amateurs (which is OK since most professionals currently won’t touch it) and by people with a less than sober and scientific approach (which understandably tends to further scare off the mainstream).
It does seem odd that we (a) know something is out there we don’t understand (from a few seemingly good cases), and (b) the answers are possibly very important and may change our worldview dramatically. And at the same time, the field is shunned by most professionals. It’s a strange situation we find ourselves in.
Aliens that look like us. I was very interested in astronomy as a kid and also the possibility of alien life. I read a good deal of books on the topic (mostly by Carl Sagan) and watched sci-fi movies as I still like to do. Even early on, it didn’t make sense to me that aliens were depicted as very similar to us. Why would they be? Of course, in fiction it makes sense. As someone said, central casting is short on actual aliens so in older movies humans in costume had to do. We find it easier to relate to stories about humanoids not too different from us. And even alien infections, which requires them to be similar to us to be plausible, do make for good fiction stories (Andromeda Strain).
But outside of fiction, why would anyone think that aliens would be anything similar to us? It seems extremely improbable that they would be similar to us in real life. They developed in an environment that’s likely to be different from ours in significant ways. They developed among other creatures likely to be very different from the creates we co-developed with. The innumerable accidents of evolution, and their particular path of evolution, must have been quite different from ours. So why would they end up so similar? It really doesn’t make sense. And the possibility of being infected by their infections seems close to zero. Our biology would have to be extremely similar to that to be within the realm of the possible. (Even among closely related mammals, only some germs infect across species.)
Only a few answers make some sense to me. (a) The aliens visiting, if they exist, are created specifically to visit our planet and us. They are bio-engineered for that purpose. (b) There are so many different ones out there that some of them happen to look like us, and these are the only ones visiting us. (Seems very implausible.) (c) There is some galactic panspermia going on where the seeds of life are spread among planets in different solar systems. (Seems unlikely, and evolution is still likely to be very divergent.) Or (d) they are all created for us in some other way, which includes through human imagination.
To me, this is one of the big questions in ufology and one that’s not addressed nearly often or seriously enough. Among those who do address it is Richard Dolan who suggests the bio-engineering possibility, and Jaques Vallee who talks about it as possibly a display or performance created for us for an unknown reason. Of course, the easiest answer is that it’s all created by human imagination, but that doesn’t account for the stories that do seem to have some basis in reality.
The likelihood of anyone visiting us. Even conservative estimates suggest a large number of civilizations in our galaxy. So why is it so impossible that some will co-exist with us in time, and have the technology and inclination to find and visit us? Even accounting for the factors that speak against it such as timing, technology, and motivation problems, the starting number of civilizations may be high enough for at least some plausible visitors. (We can’t use our current science and technology as a measuring stick, since what we are capable to doing today was unimaginable even a few decades or centuries back.)
Contact with alien civilizations. Some years ago, Stephen Hawkin said publicly that contact with an alien civilization would likely be disastrous for us. Many took it to mean that they may be hostile to us, and that may be true or not. I would think it’s more likely they would be somewhere on the indifferent to sympathetic end of the scale.
The real issue is that independent of their intentions, an encounter may still be deeply disruptive to us. Historically, whenever a technologically less advanced culture has met a more advanced one, it’s been very hard on the less advanced culture. In most cases, we can say that it destroyed their culture as it was.
We can have different opinions of whether and how that’s been for the better or worse. But we can’t deny it’s been deeply destructive to the original culture.
Time travelers? Some suggest that the UFO occupants (if there are any) are time travelers. It does fit some characteristics of some observations, but not the characteristics of others. Time traveling is great for fiction stories and thought experiments. At the same time, it doesn’t make sense to me for a very simple reason: It requires time to be “stored” somewhere and accessed. And the past and future is really nowhere to be found, apart from in our imagination. What’s happened is – as far as we can tell – not stored anywhere apart from through its consequences and in our memory. In our memory, it’s easy to access something that looks like the past, but in reality, it’s nowhere to be found. And what will happen is not here yet. I know this sounds like a naive argument, and I haven’t heard many (if any) talk about it, but it does go to the core of the question.
We are brought face to face with ourselves. This is very predictable, but I think one of the most interesting things about the UFO and related phenomena (abductions, parapsychology, cryptozoology, faerie encounters, synchronicities etc.) is that it brings us face to face with ourselves. It’s something we can’t figure out, it doesn’t make sense to us, so we are brought face to face with ourselves. Life is like that anyway, but it’s even more inescapable with these type of phenomena.
What do these phenomena say about me? (I am not in control? I am helpless? The world is far more mysterious than I thought?)
Do I go into fears or hopes? Do I see it as a threat, or something that can save me or us? What do I find when I explore these perceived fears and hopes?
How do I cope with the fears it may bring up in me? (Do I try to escape the uncomfortable feelings by trying to understand? Telling myself I know?)
What beliefs do I have about these phenomena, me in relation to them, or a world that seems to allow them? What do I find when I explore these beliefs?
Another aspect of this is archetypes. As CG Jung, Jaques Vallee, John Mack, and others have pointed out, this field is rife with archetypes. We see similar stories and themes running through mythology, fairy tales, dreams, and current tales of UFOs, abductions, mysterious creatures, ghosts, fairy encounters and more. These themes say something important about us and how we relate to ourselves and the world, apart from what it may say about the world in a more “consensus reality” and science type of way. (There is little doubt that the UFO phenomenon has a lot to teach science, and it has the potential to expand our modern science-based worldview if it’s taken seriously by science.)
I want to believe? Some folks seem to want to believe in everything: UFOs, aliens visiting, alien abductions, cryptozoology, government cover-ups, prophecies, and that things easily be explained as something conventional really is something extraordinary. There seems to be a compulsion to believe these things, and that suggests trying to escape fears and deficiency stories. What would I have to feel if I didn’t go into these stories? If I didn’t try to find excitement, distraction, hope, drama in these stories? Since the UFO field is mostly shunned by those with a more grounded and scientific approach, it’s left wide open for folks who tend to want to believe just about anything. And that makes it even more difficult for those with a grounded approach to enter.
SETI and aliens visiting. People in the SETI community tend to shun the UFO field entirely. And that’s understandable. They want to be taken seriously, and they do not want to be associated with the stereotypically unscientificly minded UFO enthusiast. (I am not saying all or even most are like that, just that it’s the stereotype. And, sadly, there is something to it.) They are already sufficiently on the fringe. The cost is that they have to ignore the real mysteries happening right here. That’s OK since SETI has its own focus (finding civilizations other places in the galaxy), and others focus on what’s happening here. I only wish the UFO field had its own institute, its own centers at different universities, and its own funding, as SETI does. The serious and acknowledged SETI world is very small, but it does at least exist. (Another side to this is that the UFO phenomenon seems much stranger than simply beings from another part of the galaxy visiting, and that’s another good reason – for now – for SETI folks to shun this field.)
Conspiracy theories. Some people in the UFO world seem attracted to conspiracy theories. When anything becomes a bit compulsive, I wonder what’s behind it. When it comes to conspiracy theories, I imagine it may be because it feels neat and simple to blame problems on a conspiracy and the group behind it, and it also promises a relatively simple solution: just expose it and it will be resolved. Conspiracy theories make the world simpler. Sometimes, there may be something to it. But a lot of popular conspiracy theories, including in the UFO field, seem to have very little to back them up apart from flawed logic and sometimes “insider” info of questionable validity.
Religious visions. In some overviews of possible pre-modern UFO or alien encounters, I see that they include religious visions. It may indeed be that occasionally what’s been traditionally seen as religious visions may have been something else. But religious visions is also its own phenomenon, and it’s not even that rare and very much exist today. (I personally know people who have encountered Jesus or Ramana Maharshi in ways that were very real and tangible to them.) We need to be careful to not automatically interpret one set of phenomena as another, in this case religious visions as UFO related.
Is it all a hoax? I think the majority of the unexplained phenomena are either misidentifications or hoaxes. Some are even known to be intentional hoaxes created by the military or intelligence services. But there are still some left that seem real and genuinely unexplainable, such as the Hessdalen lights in Norway.
A practice in critical thinking. One of the reasons I am drawn to this topic is that it’s a practice in discernment and critical thinking. It’s also a practice in recognizing and being open and honest about our own biases, and being willing to let go of our pet theories if data seem to go against them. And it’s a practice in generating as many theories as possible, holding them all lightly, always being open to new interpretations, and also seeing which ones appear to fit the data the best.
Witness testimony. Some people in the UFO field say things like I have no reason to doubt this person, he seemed very honest and trustworthy, witness testimonies are acknowledged in a court of law etc. To me, those are weak arguments. For instance, people in the military or secret services are often trained to appear very sincere and honest while passing on false or misleading information. And people in general may have all sorts of reasons for telling stories not founded in reality, while appearing very sincere while doing so. When witness testimony is presented as gospel truth by UFOlogists, it seems naive and a little desperate to me. In my mind, I imagine they are thinking there is such a lack of good data in this field so I really want what they are saying to be true. Don’t remind me that I can’t really trust it. I don’t even want to remind myself that I can’t really trust it.
Nuclear age and UFOs. It’s common to point out that the modern interest in UFOs coincide with the nuclear age. Some think it means that aliens took an increased interest in humanity due to the risk of a devastating nuclear war. The other way of looking at this is that we (rightly so) scared ourselves with the risk of nuclear war, so we got interested in the possibility of aliens coming to our rescue. A third possibility is that modern media and the entertainment industry recognized the entertainment value in stories about aliens, and that fueled the general interest in the topic.
Entertainment. Stories about UFOs and aliens are obviously very entertaining. They are entertaining as pure fiction, and even when they are presented as fact, they are still entertaining. It’s exciting, it helps us see ourselves as if from the outside, it helps us explore role reversals, we can highlight some of our own characteristics by seeing them in the aliens, and more. I would think that most people interested in the UFO phenomenon see it as entertaining, including me. Many of us may not even consider the actual implications of real aliens visiting us, partly because that would have serious and perhaps not so enjoyable implications and ruin the lighter entertainment value of the topic.
Why do they not reveal themselves? If aliens are visiting us, why do they not reveal themselves in a more open way? There are many possible answers.
(a) Nobody are visiting us.
(b) They see us as too primitive to be worthy of open contact. (Unlikely, I think. If there is a possibility of communication, which there probably is, then it’s likely they would be interested.)
(c) They want to wait until we are ready, whatver they see as ready. (If they are waiting for us to be more peaceful and less xenophobic, they may have to wait for a long time. If they are waiting for us to be more comfortable with the idea of aliens, at least at an entertainment level, then perhaps not so long.)
(d) They are up to no good so don’t want to reveal themselves.
(e) They know that open contact would be harmful to us, so are waiting indefinetely. (Similar to c).
(f) They are too different from us to see contact as possible or helpful. For instance, they may not be physical beings from another planet but something far more mysterious to us.
The (e) option makes a lot of sense to us in an ordinary and familiar way. As mentioned earlier, whenever a technologically more advanced civilization makes contact with a less advanced one, it often ends up destroying the traditional culture and way of life of the latter, no matter how well intentioned the first one is. Also, if aliens do contact us, a good portion of our population will probably go into paranoia and suspicion, no matter how friendly and well meaning the aliens appear. (And perhaps for good reason since we won’t know anything about them apart from what they tell us.)
The number fallacy. There is a lot of stories about UFOs and alien encounters. The sheer number may make some people think “no smoke without fire” but that’s a fallacy. There may just be a large number of people misinterpreting ordinary phenomena or telling tall tales for entertainment, and some may also intentionally mislead or hoax for strategic (military, intelligence, political) or financial (YouTube, advertising) reasons. The number of stories tells us nothing about whether it’s a real unknown and mysterious phenomena. But the few more credible stories actually do, at least enough for us to take it seriously and look into it further.
Too similar to us. The aliens described by people encountering them seem far too similar to us. Any lifeforms evolving elsewhere in the galaxy would be adapted to their unique environment and would be extremely unlikely to look anything like us. Why would they be about our size, have the same general configuration (or look like an Earth type praying mantice), and apparently be able to breathe our air? How could hybrids in any way be possible, considering how close our genetics would have to be for it to work, and how impossible that is if we evolved separately? And why do their technology often seem similar to ours, only a bit better? Also, if we, as some say, have used alien technology to advance our own, that suggests their technology is just ahead of ours, which again seems highly unlikely.
The UFOs and aliens described by people who say they have encountered them seem more out of science fiction movies, which by necessity are constrained by the limits of human imagination, technology, budgets, and what writers and producers see as a compelling story. This seems very odd to me.
Some attempt to explain it by saying that the aliens we encounter are really engineered lifeforms specifically created to interact with us, which is possible. Or that aliens influenced our evolution early on, which seems highly unlikely since the signs would show up in how our DNA differs from that of other species (the differences are minimal and easily explained by ordinary evolution). Most of the answers suggested seem weak, ad-hoc, and unlikely to me. And most UFOlogists don’t even address these questions even if they go to the core of what’s going on. Some may even avoid them, consciously or not, since these are questions that tend to undermine many of the standard theories and assumptions in the UFO field.
The explanation that makes the most sense to me is what Jacques Vallee and some others suggest, which is that the UFO and alien phenomenon is more akin to theater, a display and show put on for us. It’s all similar and familiar enough for us to relate and respond to, and just exotic and unfamiliar enough to draw us in and find ourselves fascinated by it.
If that’s the case, then what’s behind it? The basic answer is that life or the Universe is. (And I would say, it’s the consciousness and wisdom that already is everything.) And beyond that, we don’t quite know yet, if we ever will.
Far stranger. There does seem to be a trend of more people picking up on the strangeness of the UFO phenomenon. As Mike Clelland likes to say, what seems to be going on is far weirder than alien scientists visiting us in nuts and bolts spaceships. Too many stories involve synchronicities, archetypes, similarities to traditional tales of fairy encounters, light orbs, ESP, trancelike states, poltergeist phenomena, ghosts, bigfoot sightings, and more.
Apparently solid cases that were not. I am aware of a few cases that have been presented as solid, and then turned out to not be: Kecksburg, the Belgium triangle photo, and the crop-circle-created-by-orbs video from the 90s. These were all presented by prominent UFOlogists as among the best data we have, and then later explained as something else or hoaxes. I am aware that Kecksburg is still open for discussion, and that some question the hoax explanation for the photo and video (although their creators have themselves said they are hoaxes). I am also aware that in the case of the Belgium triangles, the overwhelming amount of data is from the military and police, and not at all dependent on this photo.
It’s easy to see these examples and think “these were presented as such solid cases and were not, so what about the rest? Maybe all of the apparently solid cases can be explained as something ordinary and down to earth?”. There is something to that line of thinking. Some of the apparently solid cases may indeed turn out to have a conventional explanation. But it’s also important to not over-generalize. There are still cases that seem genuinely mysterious and unexplainable, such as the ones presented by Leslie Kean in her book.
Emotional need. Although many take a more balanced approach, this is a field where the I need this to be true dynamic is often right on the surface. For some, there is an emotional need for something to be true or not. When we do that, it creates cognitive dissonance for us since we know we are out of alignment with reality (we know something else may be the case, and we know we cannot know for certain), and that leads to the heated arguments.
The ancient aliens topic is a good example since we know we cannot know for certain. The sources are too few and too weak, and the details often sparse. There are too many possible and plausible explanations. (Including tall tales told for entertainment, visions, stories elaborated on as they are passed on, stories deliberately created to have a particular social or religious impact, and so on.) You don’t have to be a scholar or particularly intelligent to know that these historical sources often are weak and unreliable. We all know this.
And yet, some take these historical reports as evidence of alien space crafts, or evidence of actual exotic creatures that once lived among us. They are willing to set aside what they already know (that we cannot know for certain) and to appear a bit irrational, in order to satisfy an emotional need. We all do that in different areas of life. It’s not unusual. But it’s good to notice and be open about.
Playing it out too far, and not far enough. Say we agree that there is something in the skies we don’t understand. For a while, I accepted that there may be intelligent beings behind it and that this intelligence may well be non-human. But I didn’t accept abductions because it seemed too far-fetched. At some point, I realized that no matter how fantastic or flaky those abduction stories seemed, if we are visited then abductions are possible. It wasn’t logical to accept the possibility of one without accept the possibility of the other. Of course, some go too far and accept anything seemingly uncritically and unthinkingly.
What we (think we know) vs speculation and possibility. One thing is what we (think we) know and what we collectively can agree on (such as the cases in Leslie Kean’s book). The other is speculation and possibility. It seems a very obvious distinction, but the line between the two is a bit blurry and some seem to forget about the distinction at times.
About the blurry line: Some cases, such as the Phoenix Lights, seem pretty solid but there is, of course, a chance that it’s misrepresented. Most of us are dependent on what people write and say about it, and we are not in a position to do our own research, so we have to rely on second or third person reporting. And there is room for mistakes, exaggeration, misinterpretation and so on.
About forgetting the distinction: Some take the reports or speculation of others as true, perhaps adding their own interpretation, and runs with it. They take it as true, or at least talk about it as true. That’s what brings the UFO field into disrepute, and for good reasons. We need to be honest with ourselves and others. What are the data? How solid are they? (What’s the possible weaknesses in the data?) What’s interpretation and speculation? What’s the more fuller range of possible interpretations?
The history of changes in UFO and alien encounters. This is a topic I find interesting and that may hold a key in understanding the phenomena. How people report their UFO and alien encounters have changed over time.In the late 1800s, people across the US reported seeing “steampunk” type steamships way ahead of current technology, and today we also report ships similar to but way ahead of current technology. In the 50s and 60s, people saw flying saucers. Today, they see orbs or triangles. In the 50s and 60s, people encountered wise and kind “Nordic” type beings. Today, they encounter the greys and reptilians. A few decades ago, contactees walked aboard the ships, today, they are taken from their bedrooms and floated aboard.
Why do we see these changes? I can find three different reasons. (a) The phenomena stay mostly the same but our perception, interpretation, and reporting changes. (b) The phenomena themselves change. (c) It’s all explained by hoaxes, tall stories, wishful or fearful thinking, dreams taken as reality, misinterpretations, disinformation, and over-active imagination.
(a) We know that our perception, interpretation, and reporting inevitably reflect our background. It’s colored by our culture, our times, our experience, and our understanding of the world. This may explain some but certainly not all. Changes in perception and interpretation would not lead us to confuse discs for triangles or nordics for reptilians.
(b) The phenomenon itself may change.
(i) It may adapt and reflect back to us our expectations. This fits with Vallee’s “theater” suggestion, that these phenomena are like a theater display put on for us. On the one hand, they happen, at least sometimes, in “objective” or intersubjective reality, where we get trace evidence and shared sightings and experiences. On the other hand, they also very much reflect and interact with our psyches, and are more akin to dreams, mythology, fairy tales, archetypes, and religious visions. The close UFO and alien encounters are often intertwined with synchronicities and paranormal experiences. Just about all of the UFO and alien stories has a strong archetypal element. And – as Jaques Vallee points out – there are often strong parallels in the reports of traditional fairy encounters and modern alien encounters.
(ii) A more mundane possibility for why reports change over time is that these aliens have evolved their technology, or that we are getting waves of visits from different aliens. The “evolved technology” explanation does seem a bit absurd if we take stories such as the steam airship accounts seriously. The “different aliens” explanation is plausible although I can’t help feeling it’s a bit too convenient.
(c) Or it may all be due to human imagination and tricks we play on ourselves and others. This is the most convenient explanation, but it doesn’t account for “hard” data such as radar imaging of objects apparently under intelligent control and moving in ways far beyond human technology, nor does it account for large number of people seeing and reporting the same phenomena such as the Belgium wave or the Phoenix Lights.
I think the vast variety UFO and alien reports can be explained by a combination of these, and possibly something we haven’t imagined yet. Some are obviously misinterpretations of well-known phenomena, hoaxes, disinformation intended as a smoke screen for military or intelligence secrets, and the product of an over-active imagination. Some variation comes from our perceptions, interpretations, and expectations. I am very partial to Jaques Vallee’s “theater” explanation. Even if it’s difficult to get a grasp on, it also does make sense and can account for a great deal of the data. (Skeptics will say that it can be made to account for it all, just as Freud’s theories, and that’s true as well.) And some of what’s going on may very well be beyond what we imagine, and perhaps what we can imagine right now.
UFOs and the paranormal. This is a topic that is getting more attention these days. Many report paranormal experiences following UFO or alien encounters, and that suggests that UFOs and aliens are something more and different from just plain old scientists from another solar system visiting us.
Stranger than we can imagine. As mentioned above, what’s behind some of the UFO and alien reports may be not only stranger than we imagine, but what we currently can imagine. And in general, the world is always more than and different from our perception and understanding of it. It’s worth keeping this in mind.
Skeptics. Some people in the UFO world talk with derision about skeptics and debunkers. Of course, grounded and well-informed skepticism is essential for anyone and in any field.
If our priority is to discover what’s really going on, we need grounded skepticism. Sometimes, new information makes it necessary for us to reject some of our most cherished ideas, and that’s part of any sincere exploration and investigation. And sometimes, new information opens us up to something we didn’t even conceive of in advance. Both are part of life.
If, on the other hand, our priority is to either reject or accept certain ideas of what’s going on, then skepticism takes a back seat. We’ll just keep repeating our old cherished stories to ourselves and others, select information that supports our position, reject the rest, and in general not be very interested in a more grounded skeptical approach. The UFO field is rife with examples of both. Some reject it all as fantasies and misinterpreted conventional phenomena. Some accept it all, and the more outlandish the better, without much or any critical thinking.
I wouldn’t talk with derision about skeptics and debunkers. Often, they have good points. And even the more one-sided and adamant among them have some good points worth taking seriously. I can always find something I agree with, and some good pointers and insights.
Disclosure. It’s hard to say what anyone really knows about visiting aliens. There may be nothing to know. And if there is something to know, and someone has real knowledge, it’s likely not known widely in any government or organization. And who is to say that disclosure is the best choice? Of course, disclosure may just mean that some governments admit there is something Disclosure may just mean that some governments admit there is something going on they don’t understand. That may be all there is to it.
Disclosure may just mean that some governments admit there is something going on they don’t understand. That may be all they know, and all they hide.
If they know more, and if there is the potential for widespread, mutual and open contact, who is to say that disclosure is for the best for humanity? In our human history, when a more technologically advanced civilization makes open contact with a lesser advanced one (in this case ours!), it’s turned out pretty badly for the lesser advanced one. Even with the best of intentions, it will mean the end of our homespun human culture and civilization. Something else will, of course, emerge, some sort of mix of the two. But it will most likely be very disruptive for humanity. And the gains may not even be that great. We don’t really need more advanced technology – we already know how to create plenty of clean energy, prevent illness, and so on. What we don’t have is maturity, and maturity is not likely to happen quickly under any circumstance.
Paranormal. As Jaques Vallee and others pointed out decades ago, there seems to be a connection between a range of unexplained phenomena: UFOs, alien abductions, ghosts, fairy encounters, men/women in black, and more. And this is a view that is gaining traction today. UFOs seem to be more than just scientists visiting from another planet. It seems far more mysterious.
Systematic research on hot-spots. Hessdalen in Norway is a good example of how serious research can be done on mysterious phenomena. An obvious and good use of resources would be to do similar type of research in other hot-spots in the world. Seems that it should be possible to do crowd-funding for these projects, and find scientists interested in participating.