Contemplating Phenomenology: A review of
American Cosmic: UFOs, Religion, Technology by D.W. Pasulka
18th August 2022
A spirit of intellectual exploration, underpinned by rigorous scepticism, can help us approach some of the most mystifying questions facing humanity, writes M.L.R. Smith in his reflections upon both American Cosmic and the life of his father.
For the first time in over fifty years, in May 2022, a United States House subcommittee opened a congressional hearing to receive testimony on ‘unidentified aerial phenomena’, or ‘The Phenomenon’, as initiates term it. Although the committee did not draw any inferences, it examined the growing body of photographic and video evidence, much of it accumulated by the US Navy and Air Force, of aeriform objects which appeared to defy the known physics of gravity, speed, and movement. These phenomena could not, moreover, be rationalised with reference to alternative explanations, such as the secret testing of advanced military technology, drones, the operations of hostile states, optical illusions, or hoaxes.
Unidentified Flying Objects (UFOs) or Unidentified Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) are, of course, the stuff of myth, legend, science fiction, and much else in popular culture from films and TV series in the mould of Star Wars and ET, to the X-Files. No doubt a great deal of hokum surrounds the subject, and UFO enthusiasts are still routinely stereotyped as fantasists prone to outlandish conspiracy theories. Yet, the congressional hearings for the first time in decades acknowledged that there was a legitimate discussion to be had about some of the most intriguing questions of all time: what may be ‘out there’, and are we alone in the universe?
Indeed, that congress was prepared to consider the implications of ‘The Phenomenon’ in an evidential, dispassionate, manner was itself testament to a growing body of scholarly endeavour that has sought to bring a degree of intellectual rigour to the study of ‘Ufology’. American Cosmic: UFOs, Religion, Technology by D.W. Pasulka is one of the most engaging of these recent works because it is premised on two central ideas. The first is that UFOs do not appear only to ‘cranks and wierdos’ but to highly intelligent and successful people. Not only does Pasulka converse with high achieving ‘believers’ throughout the book, but she points out that pioneering figures of Soviet and US rocketry such as, respectively, Konstantin Tsiolkovsky and Jack Parsons, believed in ethereal beings and non-human intelligence. Others, like the psychoanalyst, Carl Jung, felt that the UFO phenomenon should not be dismissed but studied seriously.
The second underlying premise is that the way people understand UFOs can provide insight into how technology and religion often intersect. British science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke was acutely aware that the dimensions of the ‘The Phenomenon’ represent a ‘fusion of magic, or the supernatural, and the technological’. As the co-writer of the screenplay for Stanley Kubrick’s epic 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), he remarked: ‘MGM is making the first ten-million-dollar religious movie, only they don’t know it yet’.
American Cosmic digs into the ways in which social and technological infrastructures shape quasi-religious practices. UFO phenomena are considered by ‘believers’ to be advanced technology/intelligence that allows humans to connect with other minds, both human and extra-terrestrial, and to places outside current scientific understandings of time and space. Pasulka draws attention to the existence of an ‘invisible’ college of scientists and academics who study UFOs but who do not make their work public and receive no wider scholarly recognition, either because they are associated with classified government programmes, or because they fear ridicule for touching the subject, let alone suggesting that UFOs might comprise real phenomena under intelligent control.
Within this invisible college, according to Pasulka, there exists two main schools. The first emphasises the study of material evidence (namely, the object and empirical effects of ‘The Phenomenon’, such as UFO sightings, radar traces, radiation burns), while the second school addresses the subjective and spiritual implications, with a focus on the ‘experiencers’ and ‘contactees’ (that is, of those who claim to have interfaced in some way with ‘The Phenomenon’).
As the author argues, the two schools are sometimes antagonistic, with the former endeavouring to bring the methods of scientific scrutiny to UFO occurrences, which invariably stresses the ‘debunking’ of fakes, and the ruling out of alternative explanations in pursuit of the truth. In that respect, this ‘nuts and bolts’ school rests on the disavowal of the ‘weird’ and the psychic dimensions of ‘The Phenomenon’. Even though this school remains hidden and marginalised, the hope is, nonetheless, that mainstream science will one day embrace its findings.
The second school, however, embraces the psychic and extra-sensory facets associated with ‘The Phenomenon’. Pasulka demonstrates how this approach possesses profound religious parallels because ‘experiencers’ invariably interpret UFO events in a spiritual context, causing a fracturing or reinterpreting of prior belief, or non-belief. For most experiencers, she observes, UFO events do not begin as UFO events. They become UFO events via a process of interpretation. No experiencer she has met, Pasulka states, has automatically felt that a UAV was a UFO. No-one wants to be known as a crank, so they look first for the obvious explanations. When the obvious cannot account for the event, this starts the interpretive process that sees the experiencer coming to terms with an epistemic shock to their fundamental understandings of the world and the universe.
First contact, then, is usually not experienced as a religious event and a UAV is not interpreted as a UFO event: they become so through a process that shapes and solidifies experiences as a religious or a UFO event. In turn, these craft cultural and/or media representations that both create and nurture belief. The parallels between UFO and religious experience are significant because the history of religion is frequently a record of perceived contact with supernatural beings, which descend from the heavens in some form of miraculous way. The remembered effects of these experiences are absorbed by social processes and fashioned into elaborate myths and rituals that we call religions. Religions arise because adherents believe in their truth without overt evidence. Religious truth therefore exists independently of belief or disbelief and sustains the notion that the truth postponed does not, of itself, make the religious proposition false.
Pasulka argues that a great deal of Christian thinking encompasses many of the interpretative/evaluative aspects that characterise the evidence-based approach of the first school of Ufology. In Catholicism, for example, any hierophany – the technical term for a manifestation of the sacred where a non-human entity, say, in the form of an angelic host, descends from the sky – is subject to scrutiny from the Church to determine whether there is sufficient confirmation from other sources to warrant recognition as a general revelation of the divine, which can be publicly venerated, or a matter of ‘private revelation’ that cannot be validated beyond the experience of an individual receiver of a heavenly message. Assessing the credibility of witnesses, sifting the evidence of revelation, is broadly similar in both cases. Where the evidence of revelation is widely accepted by a community of believers as a manifestation of the sacred/The Phenomenon, a place can become a religious/quasi-religious site. Roswell in New Mexico functions like this, complete with gift shops and alien themed restaurants. Lourdes is similar, Pasulka wryly notes: ‘Where heirophanies appear, consumerism often follows’.
The spinning of the UFO phenomenon by those wanting to commodify it, wrapping it in elaborate stories or hoaxes, and selling it to a popular audience for publicity or profit is anathema to the protagonists of Pasulka’s study, who wish to scrutinise unusual events carefully, applying scientific principles to rule out contending theories and to reject advocating hypothesis that cannot demonstrate proof of non-human activity. This leaves evidence that may support the existence of the ‘The Phenomenon’ but which cannot be explained. Still, according to ‘James’ and ‘Tyler’, two of the scrupulously scientifically minded interviewees in Pasulka’s research, it is possible to study the effects of ‘The Phenomenon’ on human experiencers and the modes of interaction, namely, contact manifestations that register as anomalous, such as telepathy, random sightings, abnormal cognition, etc. These manifestations cannot be rationalised within the precepts of currently accepted scientific understanding, but they open spaces for exploration particularly in the fields of quantum theory.
Ufologists like James and Tyler are comfortable operating in a world of grey areas, not knowing how to account for anomalous events, and this, Pasulka explains, prevents them from being dogmatic: ‘They are wise because they do not know and are trying to find out’. This forms the central insight of the book. During her study, Pasulka realises that her task is not to seek, let alone reach, a conclusion about the reality of ‘The Phenomenon’. Instead, it is to recognise the integrity of the process of intellectual exploration that motivates serious-minded individuals to grapple with some of the most mystifying, yet important, questions that humankind can pose.
For this reason, some readers might be frustrated that Pasulka offers no firm viewpoint on the existence of ‘The Phenomenon’, either declaring it all bunkum or asserting sensationalist claims that ‘something must be out there’. Instead, she focuses on the ways that the relationships between UFOs, advanced technology and religious thinking can be revealed. The study of the spiritual and scientific nexus around UFOs is, thereby, capable of producing surprising emotional responses. In the case of Tyler, it leads to his embrace of religion and conversion to Catholicism. In my case, I found reading this volume highly resonant as it caused me to reflect on the legacy of my late father.
Reflections on a ‘born again’ atheist: An orbit around my father
Jim, my father, was an inveterate hobbyist. He had more pastimes over his life than you could shake a stick at. Most would be temporary enthusiasms that would subside after a few months but one of his most enduring was astronomy. Jim was fascinated by the planets and stars. He tracked them, studied them, and made notes on them. He bought refracting and reflecting telescopes. He even built a small observatory down the bottom of the garden. The imposing structure, complete with classic white dome, was sufficiently distinctive as a local landmark that it became a visual reference point for pilots landing and taking off at the nearby Elstree aerodrome. Sadly, the observatory was blown away during the Great Storm of 1987, the dome last being sighted at 200 feet over southern Hertfordshire.
Jim’s continuing passion for astronomy survived the Great Storm and lasted well into later life. He gave regular talks to the local astronomy club and gradually rebuilt another observatory. He would take up residence on any clear night, staying up until the early hours, sitting in a deckchair with his binoculars or telescopes, gazing at the night sky above.
Born into an impoverished background in Clapton, East London, in 1934, Jim’s parents were inspired by the ‘cockney dream’… to live in Essex. Slowly, his family migrated from one cramped basement tenement to another, moving northward through Hackney and the Kingsland Road, eventually ending up in Enfield Lock, where their home counties dream finally died a few hundred yards from the Hertfordshire border. You will know if you have ever been to Enfield Lock.
Afflicted by the pitifully low expectations of his background, which are regrettably still a feature of this country’s social landscape, Jim finally got a leg up, courtesy of the 11+ and secured a place at Enfield Grammar School, where he was able to reach educational heights unknown to his family: O levels. Despite not progressing further, his grammar school education provided a discipline and structure to his natural curiosity that marked him for the rest of his life. Enlisting for four years in the Royal Air Force as a radio technician, and then at his local college, he went on to complete his formal training as an electrical engineer.
Stable employment for such a restless mind was never my father’s priority. He was a prototype for today’s gig economy, changing jobs at frequent intervals throughout his career. His business model was not therefore conducive to wealth accumulation and growing up there was never much money around. Only much later in life did I apprehend how much my father and mother (a part-time dinner lady and medical receptionist) must have struggled to provide my sister and I with even the basics.
Financial difficulties aside, the household was, nevertheless, always one of healthy intellectual curiosity. That was, as I look back now, my parents’ gift to their children. Money might have been tight: expensive presents a rarity; foreign holidays occasional; a car for your 21st birthday, out of the question. But an atmosphere where you were encouraged to think for yourself and explore the world around you existed in abundance. My father set the example: try out new things; experiment with ideas; question received wisdom, were his guiding principles.
Consequently, and unsurprisingly, Jim despised virtually all forms of authority. Doctors and vicars were his particular bête noir. Local trade union busy bodies of the National and Local Government Officers’ Association (NALGO), who wanted to tell him what to do and think, also riled him hugely. Organised religion he had no time for whatsoever. He rejected his admittedly rather tepid Church of England upbringing. At best he saw the churches, and all religions, as a grift. At worst, he regarded them as mind controlling. He was the epitome of the scientific rationalist and discounted the existence of God based on a complete lack of empirical evidence. He joked that he was a born-again atheist.
Even so, the point of my father was that he was capable of metaphysical reflection, particularly on the mysteries of the universe, which his interest in astronomy undoubtedly gave him. He was a sceptic, an anti-authoritarian, an atheist, but he was endlessly curious and, like Tyler and James in Pasulka’s study, was willing to acknowledge what he did not know and that some questions, for now, existed beyond scientific explanation.
The family bookshelf mirrored this disposition. As well as being packed with volumes that reflected his hobby interests (inter alia, wood turning, boat building, beer making and amateur ‘ham’ radio – his other lifelong obsession), it was replete with many other miscellaneous offerings. It was genuinely ‘multidisciplinary’. There were books on electronics, physics, and maths. But there was also literature, Shakespeare’s works, Paul Scott’s Raj Quartet. Quite impressive for a working-class boy from Enfield Lock.
As well as all manner of books on astronomy, there were works on cosmology. Growing up in the 1970s, I remember volumes by Carl Sagan and Erich von Däniken also populating the shelves, along with science fiction novels, including Arthur C. Clarke’s Rendezvous with Rama.
And that was the crucial thing, I now realise, about my father. He was a genuine freethinker. While he could be impetuous and contrarian, sometimes willing to argue his point into oblivion, ultimately, he accepted that his view was only ever provisional and could be contested with new or countervailing evidence. He was headstrong. He was a robust debater. But he was self-critical and self-aware. Although he did have his preoccupations, he was open to new ways of thinking. You just had to be sure of your ground. He was, too, in that sense, wise.
Jim was, in other words, admirably innovative. He was, like the figures in Pasulka’s book, prepared to consider alternative explanations, examine the evidence, explore novel interpretations, and work out his own conclusions free from peer pressure, social expectation, and intellectual faddism. Although his numerous hobbies and interests often led nowhere, others did not, and in the process, he acquired a remarkable breadth of knowledge and became highly accomplished in several fields. Jim was acutely interested in the future of advanced technology. In the early 1970s he taught himself computer programming, and became one of the UK’s earliest software engineers, even going onto work on Britain’s Advanced Early Warning (AEW) defence system with GEC-Marconi.
In these respects, he was surprisingly ‘modern’, even ahead of his time. His fascination for astronomy and cosmology nourished from the late 1960s an acute interest in themes such as climatology and energy policy, long before either was considered a ‘thing’ in public discourse. Over dinner conversations in the 1970s and 80s he waxed on these subjects. He argued, for instance, that in the absence of any feasible means to harness nuclear fusion, there could be no such thing as ‘green’ energy. All energy generation involves an exchange of action/reaction forces as the basic laws of physics suggest. Only nuclear fission generated power in his view, possibly along with hydro-electricity, offered a cost-effective way of producing relatively clean energy. Looking back, his thinking on the subject seems prophetic.
Likewise, his knowledge of atmospherics and astronomy meant that he recognised that the earth’s climate and surface temperature varied naturally. However, he was scathing of alarmist claims of a ‘new Ice-Age’, and end-of-the world catastrophising, which early on he thought were merely new forms of ideology rather than scientific statements. He regarded Prince Charles’s pontifications on the environment as ignorant. He couldn’t stand the Royals anyway. When the climate debate got going from the 1990s, he enjoyed baiting the doomsters. If global warming results in the melting of the polar ice fields, what should happen, he asked? Water expands when it freezes. Since ice displaces its mass, then when it melts, technically, sea levels should fall. It’s a law of thermodynamics. Amusingly, to this day, when I have posited my father’s query to green ideologues, I have never received anything but a babblingly incoherent response.
Having knowledge of science, astronomy, engineering, and physics, and possessing an appreciation of the vastness of the universe, and the infinitesimal role that humanity plays in it, rendered my father susceptible to the theoretical possibility of the existence of intelligent life beyond our solar system. He was a sceptic but he never, as far as I recall, dismissed those with an interest in the UFO phenomenon as cranks and weirdos. After all, I remember him once saying, we possess the technological capacity to explore the limits of our solar system with satellites and rovers. Who is to say there are no other intelligent beings out there who can do the same, and more?
Reflections upon the ‘Inconvenient Mind’
Meditating upon American Cosmic’s analysis of UFOs and its connections with technology and religion, and the disquisition about my father which it involuntarily stimulated, leads to several general observations that may, perhaps, have some bearing on our current predicaments.
The first is to reiterate Pasulka’s reflection that to be wise is not to be dogmatic, and to admit that you sometimes do not know. Just because you have an interest in something, but do not yet comprehend how to explain it, does not make you weird, it makes you inquisitive. If you are intrigued by the mysteries of the universe, the implications of advanced technology, future science, time and space, the possibility of the existence of non-human intelligence and worlds yet to be discovered, well, good for you.
A second observation is that the inquisitive mind is often an inconvenient mind, especially for those in power, be they Church or government. Authorities and elites do hide and cover up things. Preserving the arcana of power is a technique of rule. The active suppression of information derived from free thought is a path well-trodden by religions and governments. The Catholic Church, we know, persecuted the astronomer Galileo for refusing to disavow the principles of Copernican heliocentrism, lest it threaten the removal of humanity from the centrality of God’s plan. The possibility of UFOs, and the existence of non-human intelligence, similarly poses potential threats to religious and temporal authority.
We should therefore, thirdly, be wary of those in society, in the popular media and academia, who seek to do the bidding of those in power to close-down the inquiring mind. Invariably this is accomplished through the employment of delegitimising labels, such as cranks and weirdos, but also, in the current argot, the rhetorical devices of accusing others of being conspiracy theorists or peddlers of ‘misinformation’ or ‘disinformation’. Those who seek to pronounce, ex cathedra, upon what constitutes truthful information and what is falsehood, are themselves acting as religious authorities.
Indeed, a fourth observation is that perhaps we should question the existence of the notion of ‘conspiracy theory’ in its entirety. Conspiracies – to secretly plan something unlawful or harmful – occur all the time. However, a ‘theory’ in conventional science is simply a proposition that can be investigated through testable hypotheses. A good theory withstands rigorous testing. A bad one does not. Therefore, there can only be ‘good’ or ‘bad’ theories, rather than conspiracy theories.
A fifth observation, then, is that a condition of proper scientific scepticism should be the default position of anyone who aspires to a dispassionate assessment of any proposition. The tendency, especially of those in power, to treat one’s version of the truth as unfalsifiable, beyond the reach of the inquiring mind to question and scrutinise, constructs an implicit religious realm. The practice of scepticism is the antithesis to the growth of new political religions.
We are but stardust
For me at least, a final, and hopefully fitting, observation upon American Cosmic is contained in a comment my father made towards the end of his life. His words are inscribed onto the memorial plaque honouring his life that resides below a tree in a quiet corner of Dorset. In his final years, Jim was very ill. As he contemplated his condition, and the inevitable outcome it foretold, he drew upon his understanding of the cosmos to reach a consoling, philosophical, and maybe even spiritual, reflection upon life. Whatever one’s conscious problems, worries or concerns, he noted, we should appreciate that we as humans, within the enormity of the universe, are ultimately nothing but stardust.
M.L.R. Smith is Professor of Strategic Theory, at King’s College London and an editor at Cieo. His latest book is The Strategy of Maoism in the West: Rage and the Radical Left (Edward Elgar, 2022). You can purchase a copy here.
Purchase American Cosmic: UFOs, Religion, Technology by D.W. Pasulka (Oxford University Press, 2018) here.
Photo by Marek Piwnicki on Unsplash.