Course Correction: On Limina’s Inaugural Symposium Part II (iii)

The first main division of my extended report on Limina’s Inaugural Symposium can be read here. The previous posts Part II: Engaging with… (i) Greg Eghigian can be read here and Part II: Engaging with… (ii) Jeffrey Kripal, here.

Part II: Engaging with… (iii) Babette Babich

Where Jeffrey Kripal’s talk challenged the understanding because of its being, strictly, an essay (as an attempt, an experiment, an exploration…), Babette Babich’s presentation “Towards A Philosophy of Science of Unidentified Aerospace Phenomena” presented a different kind of difficulty. Babich, by her own admission, is a Nietzschean, and anyone acquainted with the German philosopher’s style and, even more pertinently, Babich’s own Nietzsche’s Philosophy of Science (SUNY, 1994) can well imagine the concinnity her lecture demanded. That is to say, Babich’s discourse, like Nietzsche’s writing, keeps readers on their toes, requiring they dance along with her elusive, litotic irony that ensures we’re never sure if the various proposals and positions she puts forth should or can be taken as her own, or just how they might be taken to relate to some thesis whose “truth” she seeks to explain and defend. Thus, as in Kripal’s paper, we cannot “fix our attention on isolated sentences and topics.” Regrettably, for all its erudition, insight, provocation, and dazzle, Babich’s presentation, like a number during the symposium, was too long for its allotted time, so that she was able to get through only about half of what she had prepared.

With my characterization of Babich’s rhetoric firmly in mind, let’s essay some reconstruction of her presentation. In her Introduction, she says (to paraphrase) that a philosophy of a science of UAP is no more likely than a philosophy of the science of acupuncture, however much acupuncture, Ayurvedic medicine, and even homeopathy are “sciences”, homeopathy having a longer pedigree than the concept of the virus. In making such a claim, Babich appears to adopt a cultural relativist, anthropologically-informed philosophy of science, invoking as she does Bruno Latour and Paul Feyerabend, whose work underlined the social-embeddedness of science, a critique that was answered not in the forum of reasoned, academic debate but by their work’s being institutionally “ghosted” after their deaths (or such is Babich’s claim…), ironically lending credence to their theses. The kind of philosophy of science informing Babich’s perspective(s) is discerned in her observing that it is having a theory, a scheme of explanation, and funding that make astronomy a science vs astrology. In the same vein, Pluto’s status as a planet is merely a question of convention, not of some “real” property of the heavenly body. A possible science of UAP therefore depends upon the interest (in several senses) of the existing scientific establishment for it to be recognized as a science. However, science concerns itself with phenomena deemed legitimate by their being in certain regards always-already explained; unexplained phenomena (UAP) are therefore by definition “damned” and not a possible object for scientific investigation.

The Nietzschean logic of Babich’s talk is brought into stark relief by the title of her talk’s first section, proper: Philosophy of Science and the Proposition, If the Moon is Made of ‘Green Cheese’ What Follows? What follows and how to follow her thinking here, indeed. The point of this brief disquistion on logical entailment was, to my understanding, left hanging. It introduced or at the very least preceded a discussion of Analytic Philosopher T. Patrick Rardan’s article “A Rational Approach to the UFO Problem”, which postulates a nearby solar system and assumes that technology improves linearly as opposed to via scientific revolutions or leaps, that ETs need travel to us as we might travel to them, which is implausible, given present technology. For Babich, if ETs travel to earth, they would not do so using “technology”, especially ironically aerodynamic craft, such as those often reported (saucer, cigar, and triangle shaped). Rather, Babich imagines as a thought experiment UAP and their pilots as belonging to “the invisible realm”, transcending the visible EM spectrum consistent with observations of orbs, such as those mentioned in Kripal’s talk in his allusions to Skinwalkers at the Pentagon.

Babich’s seemingly unreflected association of UAP with “intelligent” extraterrestrial life was representative of a fairly universal inclination of the symposium’s participants and attendees. As the designated responder to Eghigian’s keynote address, she objected to his dating the advent of the phenomenon in 1947 as both classical writers and Enlightenment philosophers had all explicitly speculated about life on other worlds, but by what warrant do UAP necessarily imply extraterrestrial life? This association of ideas ran as a red thread through her presentation.

Picking up a thread in Kripal’s talk, the next section of Babich’s presentation addressed the topic of the Philosophy of Science and UAPs [sic] as a Subset of Occult Phenomena. Here, in harmony with Kripal and a number of participants and attendees, Babich stated that UAPhenomena have been documented “for centuries or millennia”. She played on the phenomenality of UAP, how phenomena as mere appearances have “weak ontological credentials” when it comes to philosophy and science. UAP, she says, are a matter of belief, though it was unclear to me how this proposition followed. The Platonic (as opposed to the Kantian, let alone the Phenomenological) distinction between appearance and true being was invoked, Plato famously rejecting the empirical as a means of gaining access to knowledge, this Platonic position contrasting with the epistemology that greeted the leaked Navy videos, which appeared as empirical confirmation of UAP, however much their acceptance as such is more an assent to an argument from authority. For her part, Babich posits that the belief in UAP is justified because of the long pedigree of their being reported (“for centuries and millennia”). However, despite our being in possession of data and hypotheses, UAP still stand in need of a scientific revolution as a condition for their finding a place in our knowledge as something that can be known.

Regrettably, as I note, around this point, Babich ran out of the allotted time for her presentation and had to cursorily summarize her remaining points. If there was any conclusion to be drawn from her performance, the sophisticated virtuosity of which my presentation here hardly does justice, it was that a philosophy of science of UAP is not forthcoming

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