The Superhumanities Avant le Lettre and other Observations: Notes on the Introduction to Jacques Vallée’s The Invisible College

Robert Sheaffer’s recently posting his 1977 review of The Invisible College prompted me to “text-check” (if not fact-check) some of his claims. This exercise prompted me to read, at least, the nearly fifty-year-old book’s introduction, which remains strikingly contemporary.

Vallée’s book is remarkable, first, because of its then-novel approach to the question of the UFO, one with analogues, here. Where, in his first three books (the first two co-authored with his wife, Janine)—Anatomy of a Phenomenon (1965), Challenge to Science (1966), and Passport to Magonia (1969)—his focus was the Unidentified Flying Object, in The Invisible College he examines “the role of this phenomenon and its impact on each of us.” That is, to speak philosophically, he shifts attention from the object to the subject. Vallée clarifies this switch involves setting aside both the strictly scientific, “nuts-and-bolts” approach (which he terms the “technological”) usually associated with the Extraterrestrial Hypothesis (that UFOs are alien spaceships) as well as the “psychological”, that “UFO reports [are] archetypes or…the fulfillment of a psychological need”; and, by the same token, he also rejects the sceptical explanation, that UFOs are nothing more than “the result of misidentifications and hoaxes”.

Rather bracingly (and I had forgotten this) he claims to “approach this inquiry within the framework of descriptive phenomenology,” which his model, social scientist Cynthia Nelson, defines as the attempt “to communicate the quality and structure…of any concrete phenomenon in experience.” Vallée quite correctly in our view observes that Nelson asks “the question of the meaning” of religious phenomena “in a way that is directly applicable” to UFOs, quoting her important point concerning the consequences of this approach for the question of the reality of the phenomenon: “As phenomenologists we suspend judgement as to whether the apparition is really real (a question for scientific naturalism) and attempt rather to understand what people do when confronting stress. If [human beings] define situations as real they are real in their consequences.” In this spirit, Vallée lays out a threefold task for himself: to “review what is experienced by the witnesses; …observe what they do as a result of these experiences; and …attempt to correlate them within a total framework.”

Vallée’s distinctions here are much finer than one usually finds made among the ufophilic or ufomaniacal. Those convinced of UFO reality will dismiss Vallée’s whole enterprise, here, while the sceptical, I imagine, would all-too-quickly point out that the psychological explanations for the UFO are already oriented to the subject (i.e., the witness). But such criticisms miss the mark, for, at least in his espousing “descriptive phenomenology”, Vallée sidesteps the debate between the believer and sceptic, taking neither side for the sake of attending the effects of a UFO experience on the witness in particular and society at large in general. As Nelson observes, if a phenomenon is experienced as real it is real in its consequences, which Vallée affirms: “In this sense the UFO phenomenon is undoubtedly real.”

Vallée’s approach itself, however, calls for some scrutiny as a particular confusion, evident and consequent to this day, deflects the promise of his adopting a phenomenological framework. After distinguishing the “technological” and “psychological” approaches, he continues:

Modern science developed on the premise that these two domains of the physical and psychological must always be carefully separated. In my view this distinction, although convenient, has been arbitrary. The UFO phenomenon is a direct challenge to this arbitrary dichotomy between physical reality and spiritual reality.

Attentive readers, along with those not unacquainted with the history of science, will likely balk at the semantic drift from “physical/psychological” to “physical/spiritual”. The division Vallée refers to is, more strictly, that between, as Descartes expressed it, the res extensa and the res cogitans: roughly, “things” or “stuff” with spatial dimensions and cognizant or conscious “things” or “stuff”. The former is amenable to observation and experimentation in ways the latter is not. This division, hardly “arbitrary”, bred the Mind-Body Problem (how do two such radically different substances interact?), its physicalist, materialist solution (conscious states are brain states), resistance to such reductionism (whether “the hard problem of consciousness” or Bernardo Kastrup’s Analytic Idealism, for example), and, most pertinently, those who see in the UFO phenomenon a solution to what they call the mystery of “consciousness”. Vallée, arguably, fails to escape certain consequences of such dualistic thinking to this very day, due, here, to his conflating the post-Cartesian res cogitans with the more rigorously thought-out and markedly non-substantial concept of consciousness as developed in the phenomenological tradition.

Turning to Vallée’s tripartite approach brings into view how groundbreaking The Invisible College was and, to some extent, remains, for what is experienced by the witness is often parapsychological phenomena: spacetime distortions (“missing time”), materializations, telepathy, poltergeist phenomena, and Out-of-Body Experiences (OBEs) among them. The case of an unnamed engineer Vallée recounts includes, too, physical changes: hyper- and hyposomnia, quickened mental capacities (e.g., comprehension and retention), hyperimmunity to infectious diseases, and changes in eyesight. Vallée, of course, widens this focus on UFO reports to include those stories of miracles and apparitions studied and catalogued in Passport to Magonia. When he demands ufology expand its field to include both such psychical effects and premodern cases he inaugurates “a Unified Theory of Apparitions” or what I have come to call a Unified Field Theory of the Paranormal (doubtless hardly the first), an important theme given expression most recently in the various talks delivered at Rice University’s Archives of the Impossible Conference.

It’s this dilation of the field of investigation that is one connection of Vallée’s argument here to what Jeffrey Kripal has recently termed the “superhumanities“. There are, however, other points of contact between what Vallée envisioned nearly five decades ago and these superhumanities. As an argument to link the humanities to the paranormal, Kripal notes the hermeneutic dimension of these disciplines, that they deal essentially with understanding and meaning. In this regard, he notes how paranormal experiences often seem hypercharged with meaning; the experiencer often speaks as if they were in a story or movie. It’s a curious (at least) coincidence that Vallée describes his anonymous engineer’s experience in the same terms: “As in a dream or a movie” he is transported from his friends to an indeterminate locale where he is faced by huge, computer-like machine. At present, we must wait for a fuller articulation of just what exactly Kripal has in mind by the “superhumanities”, which we trust will be spelled out in his forthcoming book from University of Chicago Press, but it seems an educated guess that, since the paranormal occupies an ontological space both/neither matter and/nor mind, its investigation demands a super-interdisciplinarity, drawing on both the natural and human sciences, a sentiment echoed by Vallée, when he observes, concerning the witness effects addressed in his book, “It is not possible to study such data with techniques of statistics or physics alone. The cooperation of a much larger group is needed…”.

There is, however, a more fateful and problematic shared feature of Vallée’s and Kripal’s thinking, their position that “The UFO phenomenon [and the paranormal in general] is a direct challenge to [the]… dichotomy between physical reality and spiritual reality,” or matter and mind. Kripal, like Vallée, arguably thinks in Cartesian terms, that being is made up of two kinds of substance, material and mental, a presupposition whose remaining unthought and unreflected constitutes a fatal flaw in the foundations of much of the discourse about the paranormal. As I’ve observed in coming to terms with Kripal’s proposals concerning the superhumanities, there’s “material” (both as classical materialist philosophies (e.g., that of Epicurus) and contemporary natural sciences conceive of it) and “material” (as in the expression “historical materialist”), “meaning” (in the object of the hermeneutic disciplines) and “meaning” (as in that profound meaningfulness of a mystical or entheogenic experience). As well, there is “consciousness” (as in “consciousness studies”, which seems a synonym for “mind” or the res cogitans) and “consciousness” (the investigation, structure, and problem of which is a vital problem for philosophy, from Kant on down to Dieter Henrich and Manfred Frank, among others). The failure to distinguish (at least!) these senses of concepts basic to the discourse, it seems to me, undermines its potential, future success.

Finally, I was struck by a dimension of Vallée’s thinking that should have been obvious but, because it might be said to inform his approach in general, had gone unnoticed by me. Vallée begins the introduction to his book by referring to “the statistical facts”, that the patterns of UFO reports “follow definite laws for which no explanation has been found.” These “statistical facts” are those reported in the Vallées’s first two books, whose laws were arrived at by the compilation of data bases and their being subject to various algorithmic investigation or computation. Given Vallée’s background in what in French is termed informatique, we should not be too surprised to find a cybernetic systems-oriented thinking underwriting his work. Indeed, the central thesis of The Invisible College, that the UFO phenomenon “constitutes a control system” like a thermostat, that is, a reflexive, self-regulating system, is cybernetic through and through. In 2022, we are so immersed in digital technology and media it is difficult even to perceive them and their effects on us; “That which is nearest is farthest away” to paraphrase Heraclitus. It would be an interesting exercise to review Vallée’s corpus to date with an eye for the presence and function of the cybernetic. One wonders just what meaningful patterns might not be brought to light.

Many readers might at this point be thinking that this blog post, if not as long as the introduction to The Invisible College itself, is longer than most reviews of the entire book! But what I’m up to here is only a preliminary (!) taking stock of a work that, on review, has proven prescient and influential, a fact that can only come into view in hindsight, an exercise that demands to be periodically performed. Or one could attribute these findings to the synchronicity of Robert Scheaffer’s posting a review from 1977. In either case, Vallée’s writing has shown itself to be saying more than was originally heard or than is understood by his readers even today.

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