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.

Facts, Truth, Meaning, and the “Metamodern” UFO

In a recent screed, Chris Rutkowski bemoans the fact that ‘”hard science” ufology has been relegated to the back seat, [replaced by a]…populist ufology [that] almost always has a core of mysticism and “New-Age” beliefs,’ beliefs that include, for example, that “the Galactic Federation [contacts people] personally, ” or that “thoughts can vector incoming spacecraft.”

Rutkowski blames the ascendancy of such irrationality, not only in ufology but in the general culture as well (witness the viral misinformation debunked daily by sites such as Lead Stories or Politifact), on what he terms “metamodernism”, what he describes as a kind of thinking that freely revises and reconfigures material with no regard to the original significance of these materials or their potential contradiction. Aside from the examples he cites (‘a “remix” in current music, “modding” a video game so it plays differently, and a “reboot” of a film’), what he describes also brings to mind the various ways quantum mechanics is brought to bear on matters of spirituality or consciousness. He links such thinking to the following consequence:

Nothing I can say or do can possibly shift you from any of those views or claims, regardless of any evidence that exists to show you are in error (“wrong”) or that your belief is false, even if your own evidence is disputable or comes from doubtful sources or it has alternative possible explanations.

See? Nothing is true, but conversely, nothing is false.

Anyone who’s engaged in even a patient, respectful dialogue with, e.g., an anti-vaxxer friend is likely to recognize what Rutkowski describes. On another hand, the kind of thinking he calls “metamodern” is arguably not as irredeemably irrational as he seems to believe.

Scholar of philosophy and religion, Jeffrey Kripal, addresses precisely that “metamodern” mashup of quantum physics and reflections on consciousness in a recent interview. Referring to a recent debate on the topic between Deepak Chopra and Sam Harris, he remarks:

So, first of all, I don’t think Deepak is offering anything particularly dogmatic. I think he’s trying to bring worlds together. And why not? As for Sam’s reply, I think this is how this desperately needed synthesis is resisted, frankly. It’s as if he were saying: ‘Only quantum physicists should talk about quantum mechanics.’ But why? That assumption seems to me to lead to cultural disasters, if not to open cultural schizophrenia. Now, of course, people who are going to talk about the implications of quantum mechanics are going to make mistakes about what quantum mechanics is. That’s OK. So correct them and help them get in on the conversation. But don’t tell us that we can’t have this conversation. We’re made of quantum processes, too, you know. If we can let that conversation happen, I think it will eventually lead to a future answer, or set of answers, and in all kinds of genres, including and especially artistic and science fiction ones. We need a new imagination.

Aside from how high or low one holds Sam Harris or Deepak Chopra, Kripal (a thinker not above criticism, either) is, I think, arguing in favour of a kind of “metamodernism”, a thinking that will bring into conversation discourses hitherto seen as distant if not incompatible. Neither Kripal nor Rutkowski know, I think, that such recombinant, synthetic thinking can claim an older and more respectable ancestry in that foment of reflection, speculation, and creation following in the wake of Kant’s Critical Philosophy, namely Jena Romanticism and German Idealism.

The history of thought that leads from the cultural crisis attending the decline of Renaissance, Classical culture, the advent of the Scientific Revolution, Descartes’ response to these developments, to Kant’s Critical Philosophy is one hard to do justice in a short space. What’s important is that the questions and problems raised by Kant’s attempt to ground knowledge in the wake of the disappearance of a ready-made world reflected in true thoughts and judgements underwritten by a Creator God and in response to Humean skepticism result in an encyclopaedically synthetic thinking that finds its prime example in the German Romantic concept of the novel as the work that contains all genres and seeks to engage if not incorporate the wildly proliferating fields of knowledge being cleared by the nascent sciences. It is the same spirit in a different guise that inspires the various recent attempts at interdisciplinarity in the academy, both rigorous and less so, that are themselves a response to the drawing of rigid, well-guarded, not always purely rational, disciplinary borders (what Kripal calls above “cultural schizophrenia”) within the modern university, an institution invented by German Romanticism out of precisely that drive to inclusivity that underwrites the idea of the Roman (novel) and Novalis’ unfinished Das Allgemeine Brouillon (Notes for a Romantic Encyclopedia). The point is that such thinking, meta-, post-, or just plain modern, need not entail the absolute demise of truth Rutkowski sees in post-truth ufology or society in general, however much it might run the risk of falling into nonsense in its gamble for new insights. The “metamodern” is hardly alone in this regard: not even the natural sciences posit that they are subject to an underlying or overarching unity; a blithe acceptance of ultimate incoherence accompanies the undoubtedly valid successful practice of every science.

Further, ufology, from the start, has been interdisciplinary: “‘hard science’ ufology’ draws on forensics, psychology, physics, meteorology, and a small library of other disciplines. The contemporary study of UFO culture is also undertaken by the human and social sciences, as well, social psychology, religious studies, and philosophy among them. The stubborn recalcitrance of what might be termed “the Hard Problem of UFO reality” has persuaded no few researchers that a more promising line of research lies in opening the problem to modes of inquiry aside from the strictly physical sciences. Here, ironically, the significance of Jung’s Flying-Saucer-as-mandala appears again, the archetype that invokes an encompassing unity of the kind posited by the Romantic novel and housed in the idea of the university.

The attentive reader will have noticed, I wager, that it’s not so much the recombinatory, synthetic character of what Rutkowski calls “metamodern” thinking that necessarily leads to post-truth so much as whatever might underwrite the post-truth mind itself and its departure from the more generally accepted canons of reason and logic. Some few distinctions might lead us to an understanding of the post-truth ufophile. We can distinguish, after a fashion, facts from truth. For example, it may not be a fact that when told the poor had no bread Marie-Antoinette answered, “Let them eat cake!”, but the anecdote no less reveals a truth about the ruling class of the day for all that. We can distinguish, further, between fact, truth, and meaning. Regarding the search for truth, the facts of nature, in his own day, whether philosophical or scientific, the German Romantic Friedrich Schlegel observed, “In truth you would be distressed if the whole world, as you demand, were for once seriously to become completely comprehensible.” Schlegel is very much our contemporary here, for his point is that even if physics attained a final, unified theory and all the sciences arrived at a correct and complete description of how the world is such knowledge would still fail to illuminate the fact that the world is, that is, the question of the meaning of what is would stubbornly remain.

In this light, if we return to Rutkowski’s beef that ‘”hard science” ufology has been relegated to the back seat, [replaced by a]…populist ufology [that] almost always has a core of mysticism and “New-Age” beliefs,’ another dimension of the UFO phenomenon might appear. The “metamodern” “ufologist” is less moved by the factual truth than the meaningful truth of the worldview they conjure in so freeform a way. Indeed, from the very beginning, the UFO has inspired religious sentiments and the kind of thinking Rutkowski so deplores, as any reader of Desmond Leslie’s introduction to George Adamski’s first book will know. Rutkowski’s feelings echo the disdain “serious” investigators of the phenomenon in those early years felt for the Contactees. But scholars of religion and other sociologists will be quick to point out that the Flying Saucer and, later, the UFO have always been a phenomenon of meaning apart from the undetermined facts of their physical reality. That scientific ufologists come to compete with their post-truth counterparts springs from the same fatefully confused cultural context that leads to evolutionary biologists debating believers in Intelligent Design. They may seem to debate a shared matter, but the fact of their stalled, pointless dialogue reveals otherwise.

“I’m not interested in ufos, I’m interested in what’s inside, by the message they gave me” declares a recent meme from the Raelian Movement, quoting its founder. If only those who claim that “the Galactic Federation [contacts people] personally, ” or that “thoughts can vector incoming spacecraft” were as self-aware. I agree with Rutkowski that the post-truth “ufologist” is of another order than the scientific one, that the two simply cannot enter into a mutually informative dialogue, and that any confusion between the former and the latter is lamentable, but so it has always been. What’s important, I think, is how post-truth ufologists embody a more general, no less concerning social development in their adhering to a post-truth irrationality, whose diagnosis and cure are a pressing concern, within and beyond ufology. And that’s a problem that demands a multipronged approach.