As a thought experiment, assume the truth of a version of what I’ll call here, however inexactly and for my own purposes, tha Psychosocial Hypothesis, that all UFO sightings and entity encounters are nothing more than misperceptions, reports, rumours, stories, hallucinations, hoaxes, everything that adds up to the UFO mythology, that UFOs are witnessed and reported, entities seen and encountered, the whole phenomenon taken seriously at times even by the world’s militaries, only because the ubiquitous “visionary rumour”, as Jung called it, is a self-sustaining process: the rumour inspires misperceptions and fantasies, which maintain and propel the myth into the future. In this scenario, UFO reality turns out to be precisely and exclusively a spontaneous, collective, variegated (inconsistent) mythology, arguably an expression of the anxieties and compensatory fantasies (aspirations) of the present moment of our (capitalist) technological society and culture. In this case, is UFO reality nothing? Not at all.
The claim that the workings of the psyche and culture are nothing, subjective rather than objective and therefore unreal, of no account, makes the same error because it shares the same assumptions as those who dismiss the UFO as unreal because it is “only” a product of the individual or collective psyche.
Those who would suffer a loss of faith if they accepted what I call the Psychosocial Hypothesis above, if the UFO, like God, were to die, and those who express their skepticism regarding the reality of the UFO by affirming this theory are both, in a sense, positivists: they believe consciously or otherwise that whatever is “subjective” is unreal, because it is ultimately explainable in “objective” terms from an impersonal, third-party point-of-view by those natural sciences whose epistemological and metaphysical commitments are some version of physicalism (that only what is grasped and articulated by physics is real) or scientific realism.
First, one needs disabuse oneself of the vulgar confusion of the subjective with the idiosyncrasies of the individual, personal soul or psyche. Though I’m the first to resist the recently fashionable talk of the Death of the Subject (roughly, that the subjective is nothing more than an effect of impersonal social forces, such as language), it remains the case the subject is no self-enclosed, immaculate, solipsistic space. If the reality of the UFO is not physical but cultural, it is hardly “only” subjective, hardly a creation ex nihilo by the artistic genius of a personal Unconscious singular as the Abrahamic God, but is rather a condensation, rearticulation, and transformation of existing cultural materials no less “real” (impersonal, public, objective) than the putative physical reality of the UFO.
Those who would lose interest in the whole issue were the physical reality of the UFO taken off the table suffer a kind of fetishism. They imbue a Golden Calf they themselves have cast with a deity (reality) and when this hypostasized power is revealed as illusory, their cosmos is desecrated and empty. What has captured the interest of thinkers and scholars from Carl Jung to Thomas Bullard and even those with some investment in some version of UFO reality, such as Jacques Vallée or Jeffrey Kripal, is that the UFO phenomenon from an “atheist” perspective, that of a non-believer, still presents us with the rare spectacle of a folklore, mythology, or religion in the making. Little wonder then some of those moved to devote their lives to the disciplined study of such things focus their attention on the “visionary rumour” that has infiltrated the world’s imagination over the decades following the the Second World War. Imagine being able to bring to bear all the refined methodologies of the human sciences in a first-hand manner to the emergence of Christianity from the foment of the Gnostic context in the Near East two thousand years ago (regardless of the historical reality of Jesus), or those innumerable Gnostic sects themselves, or to observe the process of the emergence of Buddhism (aside from the literal truth of the moment of enlightenment under the banyan tree or the Buddha’s suicide by mushroom). To discount or disparage curiosity over such things is simply coarse and narrow.
If we turn from the speculation that the UFO is strictly a psychosocial phenomenon, lacking physical objecthood to another, that the UFO is physically real, either in a way our physics can grasp or not, does the psychosociocultural reality examined above become of no account? Not at all.
Consider just two examples. Beginning with Passport to Magonia (1969) and more overtly in The Invisible College (1975) and Messengers of Deception (1979), Jacques Vallée’s conjectures moved away from the Extraterrestrial Hypothesis to a variety of more provocative possibilities. Aside from the exploitation of the mythology by the founders of New Religious Movements (such as the International Raelian Movement or, more notoriously, Heaven’s Gate), military and intelligence services (explored in his Revelations (1993)), and shadowier private groups, Vallée has maintained a belief in a reality to the phenomenon that, however, is not what it seems. One theme that runs through his reflections in this regard is that UFO sightings and related entity encounters are staged to effect human belief and culture. He evokes this scenario in the opening pages of his science-fiction novel Fastwalker (1996) where a military agency abducts a primitive from New Guinea and shows him Star Wars in a state of altered awareness. As I’ve been led to suggest elsewhere (here and here), if we accept Vallée’s theses concerning how both human and nonhuman agents manipulate the myth, then bringing the human sciences to bear on how the myth might function would reveal no less “real” effects than those physical ones listed in the 2003 paper Vallée co-authored with Eric Davis, “Incommensurability, Orthodoxy and the Physics of High Strangeness:A 6-layer Model for Anomalous Phenomena”.
If we turn to an even more orthodox if less compelling view, that espoused by agitators for Disclosure, that governments around the world make public all they know about the phenomenon and official contact and relations with extraterrestrials (ETs), then the reality of the psychosociocultural dimension is even more pronounced. In A.D.: After Disclosure (2012), co-authored by Richard Dolan and Bryce Zabel, the authors speculate that revelations of both the physical reality of ETs and decades-long relations with them would shatter and remake every major social institution: politics, economics, science, religion, and culture (a thesis that would have been lent some weight had they grounded their imaginings in at least some scholarship relevant to their claims or the institutions they see effected…).
I am not arguing here for an exclusively “psychosocial” approach to the UFO mystery, or even that such an angle of engagement might be sufficient in itself for resolving that mystery. What I do maintain is that the relation between the UFO phenomenon and the culture to which or within which it appears is a dialectical one: no phenomenon without something “seen in the skies”, but nothing witnessed without a witness, always situated and oriented in a world always-already articulated, made sense of, by the matrix of culture out of which that witness comes to awareness of reality, of the world, the cosmos, and itself.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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….