In February 2022 the Julius Maximilian University of Würzburg, Germany, became (likely) the first university to officially adopt the scientific (in German, wissenschaftlich) research of Unidentified Aerial Phenomena (UAP). As the chairman of the university’s Interdisciplinary Research Center for Extraterrestrial Science (IFEX) Hakan Kayal, professor of aerospace engineering, says, “We would like to promote the UAP-research branch into an interdisciplinary framework, carry out our own projects and seek cooperation with relevant institutions and authorities, such as the Max Planck Society, the German Aerospace Center, the Federal Aviation Office or the German Weather Service.” However venerable the University of Würzburg, its sanctioning UAP research is unlikely to get those who call ufology “ufoology” to revise their stance. Nevertheless, this development is thought provoking…
Despite Kayal’s stating he wants to culture an interdisciplinary approach to UAP research, given his own credentials, that the “IFEX focuses on extraterrestrial research projects in the context of science and technology”, and the institutions and authorities with which he seeks cooperation, the disciplines ultimately involved will most likely be restricted to what in German are termed the Naturwissenschaften (the natural sciences) to the exclusion of the Geisteswissenschaften (les sciences humaine, the social sciences and humanities). In this regard, Kayal’s proposal is in line with both the general approach to the UFO phenomenon, assuming it is essentially physical, and what Jürgen Habermas fingered decades ago as the ideology of the world’s so-called advanced societies, what today is termed technoscience.
But even within a strictly natural scientific research framework, it is arguably blinkered not to consciously if not conscientiously include various humanistic disciplines. As I have pointed out in the case of the Galileo Project, if some UAP are thought to be artifacts of extraterrestrial technology, then one must clarify what conceptual warrant would be sufficient to categorize some observation as an observation of something extraterrestrial. Since this concept precedes or grounds the research proposed by Kayal, it cannot be resolved by observation or experiment but demands conceptual analysis and reflection, which is the domain of the philosophy of science. Moreover, the implications of discovering an extraterrestrial artifact are various: to communicate with it might well demand collaboration with linguists; should the artifact prove to piloted, then the fields of ethics, jurisprudence, and political philosophy, at least, come into play. Indeed, unless one assumes that UAP are ultimately only a merely poorly-understood natural phenomenon, such as ball lighting, then one must proceed in at least a provisionally echt interdisciplinary fashion, one true to the founding principles of the modern university that sought precisely to bring all forms of human learning and knowing under one roof, as it were, to counter the growing chasm between the natural and human sciences.
Regardless of how Kayal’s project ultimately proceeds, the history of ufology—coming up empty-handed, at least from a strictly scientific point of view—prompts further speculation. Rich Reynolds recently gave vent in characteristically splenetic fashion to the frustrations attendant upon the fruitlessness of ufology to date (Frenzied Ufological Activity That Takes Us Nowhere?) synchronicitiously around the time of the University of Würzberg’s press release. Reynold’s complaint raises, among others, the question of whether the UFO phenomenon in particular if not Forteana in general is not essentially mysterious.
Here, we need bracket the question of the being of the phenomenon to attend its potential meaning. Consider how, at least since the Phantom Airship wave of 1896/7, the UAP that appear as structured craft seem to be aeroforms just one step ahead of our own aeronautical technology. Consider, too, how, in the postwar period right up to today, UAP are reported to play cat-and-mouse with various air forces around the world. A most dramatic instance of this latter behaviour is the case of Thomas Mantell, who pursued a UFO in an ascent that eventually exceeded the performance capabilities of his plane, leading to his succumbing to anoxia and crashing. One might take this pattern to suggest that the UFO and ufonauts function as a lure, leading human curiosity along a particular path, e.g., to develop a technology that mimics the apparent performance characteristics of the UFO. In this way, the phenomenon might be imagined to play a Promethean role in human culture.
However, at the same time, the phenomenon mixes its apparent being technological with an unnerving playfulness and inscrutability (about which I imagine adherents to Trickster Theory might have something to say). The enduring mystery of the UFO is a characteristic shared with other Fortean phenomena, ghosts, Bigfoot, cryptids, etc. Perhaps—again, apart from the question of the being (“real nature”) or unity or plurality of these phenomena—Forteana function as a kind of resistance to the hubris of science if not reason. They are, on the one hand, ubiquitous, but, at the same time, ungraspable. As such, their being real is a matter of belief, a belief supported by the ephemeral individual experience, tenuous evidence (ambiguous footprints, ground traces, etc.) that asymptotes toward forensic verification but always falls short or remains forever teasingly suggestive, and, most importantly, word of Fortean happenings. As such, the Fortean realm functions as a critique, a marking of limits or boundaries, to a form of knowledge whose demonstrable power at the same time puffs it with a monomania that causes it to claim a monopoly on knowledge and to aspire to godlike power. Not long back, astrophysicist Sohrab Rahvar of Iran’s Sharif University has proposed altering the orbit of the earth just a little further from sun to offset global warming….
From the point of view of this conjecture, one might imagine that Fortean phenomena, in the modern era, i.e., since the Enlightenment and Industrial Revolution, might be said to function as a kind of “compensatory antithesis” to the domination of technoscience, both epistemologically and, more gravely, ideologically, as Jung described the psychic role of flying saucers in his day, a reflexive, unconscious, collective critique of the technoscientific Weltanschauung, positing an ontological region technoscience can neither fence in nor colonize and dominate. It is sprightly where technoscience is grave; ephemeral and evanescent it eludes sustained observation and study; real, but according to a paradoxical ontology; and, no less importantly, “popular” where science is essentially specialized and therefore in a sense “elitist”. Unlike new and existing organized religions, moreover, it does not necessarily feel a compunction to work up an apologia in the face of the demands of science and in science’s own terms, the way some Protestant denominations do in articulating their theories of Intelligent Design (though many fascinated by the Fortean do just that). Even in the manner in which Fortean material is voraciously commodified and popularized, it persistently deflates attempts to imbue it with the High Seriousness Matthew Arnold, for example, saw as essential to (high) art. One might propose, along the lines of some religious studies scholars, that the Fortean inspires a kind of popular mystery religion.
Following the distinction between Nature (die Natur) and Spirit (die Geist) written into the way the German language distinguishes the two main fields of human knowledge, one might say that UFOs in particular and Forteana in general, as phenomena, flirt with appearing physically real (in a manner amenable to natural scientific investigation) only to manifest the membrane, epistemic or ontological, that separates the determinate cosmos of the scientists from the infinite, living realm of Spirit if not implying how the latter embraces and enfolds the former.