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.

Point of order: meta-logic in Jacques Vallée’s The Invisible College

Robert Sheaffer recently reshared his review of Jacques Vallée’s The Invisible College. As one might well imagine, Sheaffer is not very impressed by Vallée’s book. Sheaffer’s review is titled “Jacques Vallée’s Invisible College Teaches ‘Meta-logic'”. As student of philosophy and logic, the expression “metalogic” twigged my interest: Vallée’s being a programmer, I imagined he might well understand the expression in its mathematical or logical sense, and he recently spoke of the UFO phenomenon as a “metasystem”, so I was moved to look into just what he had written concerning the metalogical in the pages of his book.

Sheaffer represents what Vallée in fact writes on pp. 26-28 of the Dutton Paperback edition (1975) as follows:

Monsieur Vallee, computer scientist, astrophysicist, and member or the scientific board of Hynek’s Center for UFO Studies, has a unique way of looking at the universe. It’s called “metalogic.” For those or us not familiar with that term, he explains that it means quite the same thing as “absurd.” So should we protest that Vallee’s theories are “absurd,” he will correct our usage: they are merely “metalogical.” That’s the next level above common sense, just beyond the “edge of reality.” …

Sheaffer’s review continues in this vein, governed by this initial reading. However, Vallée seems to mean something quite other by the term in question. He writes: “What do we know of the nature of the communication that is reported to occur between human witnesses and the UFOs they perceive? I have earlier commented that, on the surface, such communication appears to be simply absurd. The word ‘absurd’, however, is misleading; I prefer the expression ‘meta-logical'” (26). “Metalogical” therefore is clearly not “a unique way of looking at the universe [my emphasis]” but a way of understanding what witnesses report experiencing or having communicated to them by the occupants of UFOs. Nor does Vallée write that “metalogical” “means quite the same thing as ‘absurd'”: in fact, he claims the experiences and communications are not properly or most illuminatingly described as absurd (“The word ‘absurd’, however, is misleading…”), but, better, as metalogical. Moreover, if we actually read Vallée’s words, nor does “metalogical” describe his own theories or speculations.

So, just how, then, might we understand Vallée’s use of “metalogical”? He provides a number of examples, but explains their significance in the following terms:

Situations such as these often have the deep poetic and paradoxical quality [my emphasis] of Eastern religious tales [Vallée means koans] (“What is the sound of one hand clapping?”) and the mystical expressions of the Cabala, such as references to a “dark flame”. If you strive to convey a truth that lies beyond the semantic level made possible by your audience’s language, you must construct apparent contradictions in terms of ordinary meaning. (27)

Now, I’ll be the first to observe Vallée’s expression does him no favours in getting what I take to be his point across. I take him to mean, first, that, just like a koan or oxymoron, the UFO event deflects attention from its obscure, puzzling surface to something beyond itself: Vallée seems to be saying that, like these forms of expression, the UFO event is, in a sense, ironic or metaphorical: the UFO is not an extraterrestrial spaceship, but its appearing so is, to some extent, merely (ironically!) a vehicle (the metaphorical, figurative aspect of a metaphor) whose meaning is something other (what rhetoricians term the metaphor’s tenor); but more to the point, like a paradox, the event is in some respect reflexive or “meta”, at the very least in the way the metaphor’s vehicle must be grasped as a vehicle in order for it to be negated or transcended to some tenor.

The French critic Roland Barthes, in his aptly titled Mythologies, provides an apt example:

I am a pupil in the second form in a French lycee. I open my Latin grammar, and I read a sentence, borrowed from Aesop or Phaedrus: quia ego nominor leo. I stop and think. There is something ambiguous about this statement: on the one hand, the words in it do have a simple meaning: because my name is lion. And on the other hand, the sentence is evidently there in order to signify something else to me. Inasmuch as it is addressed to me, a pupil in the second form, it tells me clearly: I am a grammatical example meant to illustrate the rule about the agreement of the predicate. I am even forced to realize that the sentence in no way signifies its meaning to me, that it tries very little to tell me something about the lion and what sort of name he has; its true and fundamental signification is to impose itself on me as the presence of a certain agreement of the predicate.

Following, I take it, the mathematical or logical sense of ‘metalogical’, Vallée is attempting to explain—and not for the only time in his writings—that the UFO event is not what it seems; its “high strangeness” (nonsensical conversations with the ufonauts or clocks without hands in their apparent spaceship) is the absurd, paradoxical content that puzzles and frustrates a literal-minded interpretation of the event in order to shift reflection to another level. Like the exemplary sentence in Barthes’ example, its significance is not its meaning; it operates at two levels. Whether or not we are persuaded by this view of the phenomenon is another matter, but at least we have arrived at a textually-warranted understanding of Vallée’s position.

Anyone acquainted with what I have written on Vallée, especially his last book and his keynote address at the recent Archives of the Impossible conference, will know I’m hardly uncritical, but, at the same time, criticisms that fail to hit their mark do justice neither to themselves nor what they aim to skewer.

More on Vallée’s The Invisible College (its introduction, anyway) can be read, here.

Who Knows

Håkan Blomqvist at his UFO Archives blog asks a provocative question:  “How to introduce esotericism as a profound philosophy and tenable worldview to the intellectual, cultural and scientific elite?” Blomqvist poses his question from within an esotericism for which Contactees such as George Adamski play a central role, so the question is easily extended to the matter of UFOs and ufology in general:  “How to introduce UFOs as a legitimate object of research to the intellectual, cultural and scientific elite?”

On the one hand, esotericism and ufology are topics for serious, scholarly research, only as cultural or social phenomena. Moreover, from the point of view of religious studies scholars, the various beliefs about UFOs and their pilots and the communities that form around these beliefs are, methodologically, treated as tenable worldviews. That is, as I’ve argued elsewhere, scholars can take UFOs seriously as long as they bracket the question of their reality. On the other hand, there are those both within and without the natural scientific institutions who are driven or press to have the question of “UFO reality” taken seriously, either as a topic of research in its own right or as a political / social concern, as in the case of those working toward “Disclosure”.

Since the earliest days of the modern era of ufology inaugurated by Kenneth Arnold’s 1947 sighting there have been investigators who probed the phenomenon with more than a journalist’s tools:  one thinks of Aimé Michel, Jacques Vallée, J. Allen Hynek, James McDonald, Stanton Friedman, Harley D. Rutledge, and Peter Sturrock, among others, and even professionally journalistic ufologists, most famously John Keel, have contributed. James McDonald is an important case in point:  his public interest in UFOs sullied his reputation as a senior physicist at the Institute for Atmospheric Physics and professor in the Department of Meteorology, University of Arizona, Tucson. Because of the stigma attached to the topic of UFOs, many natural scientists interested in the subject pursue their research sub rosa, constituting what J. Allen Hynek famously called “The Invisible College”.

Not all curious scientists are as tactful as their peers in the Invisible College, however. Some dare submit their theories and hypotheses to the scrutiny of their peers, as members of, e.g., the Society for Scientific Exploration do. There is, at the same time (usually related to the perceived amount of public interest in UFOs), a media phenomenon that shadows these more socially marginal efforts, purporting to present “findings” and “proof” while in fact being at best infotainment. The most recent iteration is To the Stars Academy’s limited series Unidentified: Inside America’s UFO Investigation, which promises, among other things, to

produce tangible evidence to build the most indisputable case for the existence and threat of UFOs ever assembled [and] reveal newly authenticated evidence and footage, interviews from eyewitnesses and former military personnel who have never spoken out before and extensive breakthroughs in understanding the technology behind these unknown phenomena in our skies.

Keith Basterfield at the Unidentified Aerial Phenomena blog sums up well the likely response of more conventional or institutionally-trained researchers: “While I, in general, support the work being undertaken by the TTSA [To The Stars Academy], the apparent direction for us to learn of the analysis results is hardly a scientific one—simply entertainment.” At the end of the day, the only scientific difference between History’s new series and the numberless YouTube videos of scientifiques bruts sharing their anti-gravity discoveries is production values.

But 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.