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.

Concerning the Unreal Reality and Real Unreality of the UFO

In the Preface to the First English Edition of his Flying Saucers:  A Modern Myth of Things Seen in the Skies, Jung writes

…I have made an interesting and quite unexpected discovery. In 1954, I wrote an article in the Swiss weekly, Die Weltwoche, in which I expressed myself in a sceptical way, though I spoke with due respect of the serious opinion of a relatively large number of air specialists who believe in the reality of Ufos…. In 1958 this interview was suddenly discovered by the world press and the ‘news’ spread like wildfire from the far West round the Earth to the far East, but—alas—in distorted form. I was quoted as a saucer-believer. I issued a statement to the United Press and gave a true version of my opinion, but this time the wire went dead:  nobody, so far as I know, took any notice of it, except one German newspaper.

The moral of this story is rather interesting. As the behaviour of the press is sort of a Gallup test with reference to world opinion, one must draw the conclusion that news affirming the existence of the Ufos is welcome, but that scepticism seems to be undesirable. To believe that Ufos are real suits the general opinion, whereas disbelief is to be discouraged.

Surely the same holds true today. For the general public, whether UFO sightings are in fact on the down- or up-swing, they are reported on in some part of the world daily, and dramatic sightings (e.g., the Nimitz Encounter) are given press both proper to and amplifying their singularity. This ready fascination extends to the belief in Extraterrestrial Intelligence (ETI):  astronomical anomalies (e.g., the Fast Radio Bursts recently recorded by a radio telescope in Canada or the recent passage of the Oumuamua object through the solar system) seem invariably to evoke some reference to ETI, even jokingly, while the entertainment industry and its audience never seem to tire of fictions inspired by what ufologists term the Extraterrestrial Hypothesis (ETH), that UFOs are spaceships piloted by almost invariably humanoid ETIs. Even in the rarefied world of ufologists and ufophiles the ETH along with vast, complex speculative universes inspired by insider testimony stirs an inordinate amount of interest compared to more careful if not sceptical “scientific ufology” or psychosocial approaches to the phenomenon. This drama is presently being staged after a fashion in the reception of History’s Project Blue Book. The series premiere was well-received by those who find in it their fascination with the reality of flying saucers and the suppression of the truth of ET visitation played out (again), while “serious” ufologists have for the most part proven vociferously critical of the dramatic freedoms the series has taken with the historical facts.

Carl Jung

“This… surely merits the psychologist’s interest” Jung went on to write concerning this tendency. In pursuing a purely psychological angle, Jung adopts a quasi-phenomenological approach, bracketing the question of the being, reality or nature of the UFO to concentrate on its purely immanent, subject-oriented, if not subjective, meaning. Jung was able to have insights and draw conclusions independent of any claims concerning the ontological status of the UFO. In taking this approach, he sets an example for psychologists, sociologists, and researchers in related disciplines or of like orientation to explore the psychosocial aspects of the UFO phenomenon independent of controversies about whether or not “the flying saucers are real”. This dimension of the UFO phenomenon apart from the question of the reality of UFOs might be termed “the UFO Effect”.

Despite adopting this phenomenological stance, Jung’s position was also curiously (if sagely) ambivalent, for, at points, he ventures the possibility that UFO sightings and close encounters might find their explanation in purely psychological, if nonpathological, terms. He refers to what he sees as analogous occurrences, collective visions experienced by soldiers in the First World War and, more problematically, by thousands of witnesses at Fatima. In attempting to explain the reality or nature of the UFO as ultimately a purely subjective if possibly collective phenomenon, he sets ufology on the path to the Psychosocial Hypothesis. This “psychosocial ufology” as practiced embryonically by Jung, then, has two arms, one that explores the UFO Effect, another that seeks to solve the UFO mystery by explaining its nature in terms immanent to the psyche, society, and culture; the UFO is not caused by a real object but by subjective mechanisms, personal or communal. Jung, of course, also kept an open mind as to whether or not the flying saucers might not prove to be real objects, as well.

Donald H. Menzel

Nevertheless, the line of argument developed by sceptics and debunkers around the time Jung was thinking about and writing on the Flying Saucers might be understood as a version of the Psychosocial Hypothesis. Sighting reports of UFOs and close encounters were not so much explained as explained away as being so many misidentifications, hallucinations, or outright hoaxes inspired by the anxieties of the early Cold War, i.e., UFOs were not real, physical objects, but various errors and failings on the side of the human observer or agent. The efforts of the sceptics make common cause with what I will call “scientific ufology”, not so much because of the latter’s methods of research (which only rarely approach the scientific) but because of the focus and assumptions of that research. The scientific ufologist seeks either to solve or dissolve the mystery of the UFO by discovering or otherwise determining one or more identifiable entities (objects) that explain it, to make the Unidentified Flying Object into an identified object or set of objects. Tendencies in scientific ufology echo Jung’s experience: the ETH “suits the general opinion”, while more cautious, careful research receives short shrift from the general public or derisive rejection institutionally to the point that most of it might be said to be pursued by an “Invisible College”, though with some exceptions.


J. Allen Hynek (l) & Jacques Vallée (r)

The psychologically interesting way the fascination, if not belief, in the reality of the UFO—what I will term “ufophilia”—takes precedence over more sceptical approaches reveals how ufological (if not more general) interest in the phenomenon orbits the question, as it might have been posed in Jung’s day, “Are the flying saucers real?”. But this question cannot be said to govern ufology as a whole, i.e., the field is not accurately divided between what is characterized here as the psychosocial and scientific approaches to the question of UFO reality. A distinction that would schematize the field rigorously would distinguish those who pose the question of UFO reality from those who do not, i.e., those who seek to identify or otherwise explain the UFO (let me call them “UFO Realists”), those who take the UFO as the object of their research, as opposed to those who bracket the question of the reality of the UFO altogether, the phenomenological ufologist, whose object of investigation is the UFO Effect. A rigorous division of the field is therefore one based not on method but object.

One consequence of this reorganization of the field is that it inverts the valuation of the “the general opinion”. Where “the general opinion” is most concerned with the reality of the UFO, phenomenological ufology is focussed exclusively on the UFO Effect. Indeed, the ufophilia of “the general opinion” is itself an aspect of the UFO Effect, a topic for (methodologically phenomenological) psychosocial research. Moreover, by extension, scientific ufology, as a ufophilic institutional (or para-institutional) practice and discourse, is itself yet another aspect of the UFO Effect. UFO Realism is therefore subsumed by the UFO Effect. It, further, follows that phenomenological ufology is itself part of the UFO Effect, entailing the possibility of, if not a duty to, a philosophical self-regard, a demand inessential (though not without value) to investigations focussed on UFO reality. An unsettling irony is implied:  where the ufophile and scientific ufologist, UFO Realists both, focus on an object whose objective reality and nature remain questionable and mysterious, unreal until proven real, the object of the phenomenological ufologist (the UFO Effect) is unquestionably real. The one seeks the real and misses it, while the other surrenders the real and finds it. In this regard, the generally held prejudice that values the natural sciences and STEM over the social sciences and humanities is overturned. As the existing scholarly literature shows, it is in fact possible to study the UFO in its guise as the UFO Effect in the disciplines of anthropology, cultural studies, ethnology, history, political science, psychology, religious studies, or sociology whereas to pose the question of UFO reality in the natural sciences is by far and away anathema.

Edward. U. Condon

But are researchers in these disciplines the French conveniently call les sciences humaines in fact “phenomenological” in the way I sketch here? Hardly! John A. Saliba describes the situation in his still-valuable study “UFO Contactee Phenomena from a Sociopsychological Perspective” (1995):

The disagreement between sociologists, psychologists, and psychiatrists on the one hand, and ufologists and UFO contactees on the other, is both theoretical and methodological. Like natural scientists, behavioral scientists cannot accept the flying saucer theory because it has not been verified by or subjected to definite empirical and objective tests. In other words, they can study UFO reports and analyze human psychological conditions, but not the objects and sightings that are said to have triggered the experiences that led to the reports. Ufologists do not follow rigid procedures that are universally accepted in the scientific world. They unfortunately leave the impression that they are relying more on the individual’s subjective experience… (238)

Saliba’s estimate of the situation is revealingly accurate. He distinguishes behavioural scientists from ufologists and UFO contactees based upon their respective rejection and acceptance of the “flying saucer theory”, i.e., the ETH. However, self-professed scientific ufologists, J. Allen Hynek and Jacques Vallée, had already explicitly rejected the ETH in the 1970s. Moreover, the statement that the behavioural scientist “can study UFO reports …, but not the objects and sightings that are said to have triggered the experiences that led to the reports,”  ironically echoes a statement from the Preface to Vallée’s first book, Anatomy of a Phenomenon:  Unidentified Objects in Space—A Scientific Appraisal (1965):

The phenomenon under study is not the UFO, which is not reproducible at will in the laboratory, but the report written by the witness. This report can be observed, studied and communicated by professional scientists; thus defined, the phenomenon we investigate is obviously real. (vii)

The scholars Saliba describes collapse all interest in the UFO phenomenon into a ufophilic belief in the ETH. In doing so, they seem to be more subject to currents in the the UFO Effect than the evidence and conclusions mustered by those with orthodox training and institutional positions who have engaged in the precarious, preliminary work of a scientific ufology:  astronomers (Hynek), physicists (James E. McDonald, Harley D. Rutledge, and Peter A. Sturrock), polymaths (Vallée), and others. This prejudice has arguably more to do with the social history of the UFO, the concerted efforts of the US government to discredit all serious interest in the phenomenon, that reached its climax with the 1968 Condon Report. Peter Sturrock’s reaction to reading it is telling: “…far from supporting Condon’s conclusions, I thought the evidence presented in the report suggested that something was going on that needed study.” Nevertheless, the deep-seated, orthodox rejection of the matter need not be mendacious, as it likely was in the case of Condon et al.; Jung himself, as is well-known, adopted a sceptical stance, for which he had good reason:

as is abundantly clear from the contradictory and ‘impossible’ assertions made by the rumour. It is quite right that they should meet with criticism, scepticism, and open rejection, and if anyone should see behind them nothing more than a phantasm that deranges the minds of men and engenders rationalistic resistances, he would have nothing but our sympathy. (107)

Indeed, the majority of what would pass itself off as ufology surely deserves the harsh dismissiveness Saliba’s scholars share with Jung.

Is it the case, then, that “the general opinion” and UFO research, whether conducted by the human or natural sciences, is actually organized according to how one answers the question of UFO Reality? Yes and no. Materially, in fact, because of the modern history of the phenomenon and its reception (the UFO Effect in all its aspects) public and scholarly opinion on the matter seems to come down to an acceptance or rejection of the ETH. Such would polls and the sometimes stated positions of institutional researchers tell us, a curious fact of the UFO Effect that calls for investigation itself. In principle, conceptually, however, an argument can be made (as above) to orient research around one’s stance to the question of UFO Reality, i.e., whether or not one asks it at all, not one’s answer.

The modern history of the UFO and that of Jung’s and Vallée’s engagements with the phenomenon are instructive. The beginning of the modern era is marked by the USAF’s investigative projects (Sign, Grudge, and Bluebook), which tangled with both the question of the reality and nature of the flying dics and their social implications, in terms of propaganda and psychological warfare. Jung begins with a sceptical approach that reveals a manifold psychological content, but he ends having to admit the possibility of the flying saucers’ being real. Vallée begins as a scientific ufologist, curious to investigate the physical reality and nature of the phenomenon, but comes to realize the equal importance and mystery of the UFO Effect, from which point his work proceeds along both tracks. Ufology, then, if not “the general opinion,” might be said to have a positive and negative pole:  the UFO Effect as a plenum of constantly growing data, ready and ripe for new research; the UFO Reality as a question, a space, a maw with a seemingly bottomless appetite for new speculations.

hall of mirrors

Addendum:  (And Speaking Philosophically…)

In principle, I can see no reason a researcher in the human sciences need take a stance on the reality and nature of the UFO, however true it is that they in fact do. That a phenomenological ufology should at the same time necessarily or tacitly take a stance with regard to UFO Reality would reveal a philosophically pleasing deconstructive (in a rigorous sense) symmetry (the attempt to articulate which first motivated this post), but I cannot at present imagine a sufficiently persuasive argument in this direction. It is however tempting to propose that scientific ufology and phenomenological ufology are related in a way that is perhaps premissed on analogy to the post-Kantian understanding of Reality and Knowledge, Being and Judgement or Consciousness:  the Realists wrestle over the nature of the UFO as a thing-in-itself, necessarily, in order to debate the question at all (is there an objective correlate to the content of reported sightings and encounters?), repressing, ironically, the phenomenality of the object of their contentions if not investigations (the UFO Effect), while the ufological phenomenologists risk a strict, methodological idealism that would drain the being ([objective] reality) from the thing-in-itself that is, ironically, the condition for the phenomenon in the the first place. But this is to say too much too quickly. One can imagine, very roughly, too, a para-Lacanian view….