Concerning wissenschaftlich UAP research and the transcendence of the phenomenon

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.

Deep Roots of Post-Truth

When The Anomalist (3 May 2021) was kind enough to share my response to Chris Rutkowski’s “The Metamodern UFO (or UAP) (or USO) (or UAO) (or whatever)“, it hoped I might elucidate that “pressing concern” of post-truth populism that so gets Rutkowski’s goat and poses such a threat to the effective functioning of contemporary society.

Unhappily, I’m hardly sure what therapy to apply to this uneasiness if not “dis-ease” with epistemic authority if not truth itself, though if one googles “how to talk to a conspiracy theorist” one will find some proposals. I have, however, speculated as to the cultural conditions that might be said to underwrite if not cause this latter-day crisis of faith.

As I observed in my reflections prompted by Rutkowski’s complaint, ufologically speaking, the present tension between reason and irrationalism goes back to the mutual disdain between the earliest forensic, scientific ufologists and the Contactees and their followers. Not two years ago, concerning a recent replay of this division, I addressed a question raised by Håkan Blomqvist, “How to introduce esotericism as a profound philosophy and tenable worldview to the intellectual, cultural and scientific elite?”, in the course of which I sketched out some thoughts on modern-day post-truth populism. What I wrote then still strikes me as not unilluminating. In a word, the condition for the post-truth “metamodernity” Rutkowski so decries is precisely what he terms “modernism”: the more or less contemporaneous advent of the Scientific (and then the Industrial) Revolution, Capitalism, and liberal democracy (as well as the Reformation and Age of so-called Discovery…). As to what is to be done

Two years ago I wrote…underlying these differing approaches to the question of UFO reality is a profound, social fault line revealed most recently by the advent of the internet but arguably reaching back at least to the Reformation.

A froth on the wave of political populism surging across the planet in recent years is a kind of epistemological populism afloat on the ocean of ready information, fake, partial, and otherwise available on-line. This “populist epistemology” expresses itself, most recently, in the voices of Flat Earthers and anti-vaxxers, who find arguments and data in support of their “theories” primarily online. Like believers in alternative cancer cures Big Pharma keeps from the general public to generate profits, these graduates of Google U often cast a paranoid glance at the institutions of power, political, legal, and scientific. Thus, ranked on one side are those “intellectual, cultural and scientific” elites Blomqvist remarks and on the other mostly ordinary folk empowered and emboldened by their sudden access to sources of information they uncritically marshal and seem hardly able to logically deploy.

Ufologically, this conflict between elites (government, military, and scientific institutions) and ordinary citizens is a cliché, a most famous instance of which is the Swamp Gas fiasco when J. Allen Hynek in the employ of the United States Air Force was forced to debunk a remarkable series of sightings in Ann Arbor, Michigan, much to the understandable surprise, disappointment, and disgust of the many witnesses. The haughtiness of such elites goes back to those French scientists who dismissed peasants’ stories of stones falling from the skies (meteorites) up to Stephen Hawking’s statement (@5:00 in his Ted talk on YouTube) that he discounted “reports of UFOs” because the phenomena appeared “only to cranks and weirdos?” Hawking is, of course, mistaken about the social status of UFO witnesses, which famously includes everyone from US Presidents to shipyard workers with the unfortunate surname Hickson.

Thus, throughout the history of UFOs, and forteana in general, one can discern a kind of class struggle between the more-or-less uneducated general populace, whose members see ghosts or are abducted by aliens or faery folk, etc., and those authoritative institutions peopled by educated elites, governmental, scientific, or ecclesiastical, which dismiss the claims and stories of the uninformed and credulous. This conflict, though traceable at least back to the Roman elites’ dismissal of the new, barbaric cult their bored wives indulged, is imaginably not unrelated to more historically-recent developments, namely the Reformation, where the interpretation of the Bible was wrested from the monopoly of a learned priesthood and radically democratized.

Conflict over the reality of the UFO in general, then, is a site of more general social struggle whose deeper historical context is, first, the Reformation, which gave each believer warrant to interpret scripture individually, then the Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment, that replaced the authority of the church(es) with that of Reason and its new, elite representatives. Today’s vulgate, driven, perhaps, by a well-founded frustration with the impotence of its universal franchise (given a vote but no choice) and the illusion of its freedom (merely to consume), extends its otherwise unrealized democratic claim to the purely ideal realms of truth and knowledge, where the vehemence of its voice and convictions is enough to disperse what verbal tear gas or deflect what truncheons of argument might be deployed by the tribunal of reason to police it.

The Radical Romanticism of the Anomalist

Regular visitors will doubtless have noticed Skunkworks has been on a bit of a hiatus lately. This is due to October’s having been devoted to packing and moving the physical facility and the days since working on unpacking and getting the new digs functional. As the library (sorry, Nick) is presently just piles and piles of books, it hasn’t been possible to maintain the level of erudition I’m uncomfortable without.

Some of the library
Part of the library, and not even the ufological part…

Nevertheless, one chance volume on the top of one those piles provides the impetus for today’s reflection.

In a recent brief back and forth concerning how to take if not explain Deep Prasad’s recently famous experience, Rich Reynolds expressed discontent with understanding it as a variety of religious experience. He writes:

It seems to me that a Shamanic interpretation is the least interesting, not worthy of the discussion we’ve given it here.

It leads us away from a truly imaginative and possibly insightful determination that Deep’s experience invites.

I had remarked Prasad’s experience bore certain resemblances to a shamanic initiation (an insight whose grounds and implications await a functional library here in the Skunkworks…). Reynolds, however, finds my conjecture lacking interest, imagination, and insight, which is curious. Why should a variety of religious experience, archaic, perhaps contemporary, and doubtlessly global and transcultural, and, most importantly, which eludes explanation, be deemed uninteresting?

What’s thought-provoking is how an undoubtedly real anomaly (the nature and significance shamanic initiation and experience) fails to inspire, while far more tenuous possibilities (that Prasad had communicated with extra- or ultraterrestrials or interdimensional intelligences) or downright dismissive psychological explanations (e.g., temporal lobe epilepsy or “a waking dream”) are ready grist for the mill.

The German poet and philosopher Friedrich von Hardenberg (better known as “Novalis” (pictured above)) writes in one famous fragment:

By endowing the commonplace with a higher meaning, the ordinary with mysterious aspect, the known with the dignity of the unknown, the finite with the appearance of the infinite, I am making it Romantic.

The Fortean or anomalist, it seems to me, is somewhat of a Romantic in this regard. The opposite of the debunker or skeptic who would reduce every anomaly to the commonplace, ordinary, or known, the anomalist is equally dissatisfied with phenomena that are in fact already mysterious, dissatisfied with something both provocative and amenable to investigation, needing an extra aura of “the unexplained” to fire the imagination and maintain interest. One need only think of those who quite understandably wonder about the engineering that went into constructing archaic monuments but dismiss explanations that are human, all-too-human, instead, finding it better to invoke “the gods”, extraterrestrial or otherwise.

Aristotle writes in the opening of the Metaphysics that “philosophy begins in wonder.” This wonder at the phenomena of the world incites investigation. It’s just such wonder that, in the best of circumstances, drives the sciences, and it is likewise such wonder that inspires the proto-Romantic poet William Blake to urge us

To see a World in a Grain of Sand

And a Heaven in a Wild Flower

Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand

And Eternity in an hour

A kind of wonder, it seems, just not enough for whom the world and its mysteries need an added, however artificial and flimsy, glamour.