Saturday, March 12, 2011

ET & God

One does not wade far into the tricky currents of ufology before theological questions begin to arise. Who are the strange intelligences that ply our skies in gravity defying craft? To our enfeebled minds, they seem like gods. Or demons come to snatch our bodies, our souls, in the dead of night.

Some have observed that the study of UFOs bears elements of a spiritual quest. Close encounters with craft of apparent non-human origin evoke the mysterium tremendum et fascinans. Are those of us who study UFOs not like Parsifal searching for the Holy Grail of alien implants and unearthly technology? Or Phaeton who longed ride his father’s golden chariot across the sky? Or perhaps like Faust who traded his soul for a chance to fathom the world’s deepest mysteries? For it is the mystery that drive us — an almost primal longing to answer questions that some have said will be illuminated only when we die.

History tells us that mixing ufology and religion can end badly. Think of Heaven’s Gate where thirty-eight follower of self-proclaimed prophet, Marshall Applewhite, ingested phenobarbital washed down with applesauce and vodka in order to launch their souls to the mother ship hiding behind Comet Hale-Bopp. This mass suicide serves as a warning to those who would hitch their salvation to a theology cobbled together from contactee stories and white-robed space brothers mixed in a new age blender.

The darker aspects of ufology have led some religious thinkers to label to the entire phenomenon as demonic. Indeed, the classic alien abduction scenario — essentially a kidnapping with medical experimentation, extraction of sperm and ova and occasional interspecies sexual liaisons — does seem to traffic in the diabolical. Deception too — one of the hallmarks of the devil — is rife in the contact literature. However, it is important to keep in mind that Satan does not have a monopoly on deception, which seems to be alive and well in human affairs, frequently employed in business and war. And what sort of demon would hover over a major airport in broad daylight, shadow a commercial cargo jet carrying French wine across Alaska, or turn off the guidance and control systems of nuclear missiles?

Artwork by Bradford Evans: I dreamed I was a Bird in Flight

One can see echoes of the spiritual quest too in the contemporary fascination with the paranormal. The past decade has witnessed a high tech renaissance of spiritualism where adepts of the invisible gather in abandoned hospitals or morgues armed not with crystal balls and séance tables but EMF meters and digital camcorders. Many ufologists who start out as ‘nuts and bolts’ scientists eventually become impressed with the paranormal elements. One can see this trajectory in the careers of J. Allen Hynek and more recently, Ted Phillips. From a recognition of the paranormal, it is a short step to spirituality. Dancing orbs and singing lights aside, this is not necessarily an uplifting spirituality, but one that both terrifies and amazes, confuses and delights, and places one in a relationship with something that seems wholly other.

The god of UFOs is a trickster, who moves like quicksilver before our grasp. We look up in awe at the mercurial lights as our ancestors must have watched lightning and pictured a powerful deity pummeling the earth with fiery bolts.

As we gaze into the dark portal of the night sky, our faculty of reason may be challenged but must not be thrown aside. As we confront the limits of understanding let’s not abandon the attempt to comprehend. For reason and discernment grounds us as we approach the unknown with trembling and wonder.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Navigating Ambuity & Novelty

It’s shortly before 2 a.m., and the night is still young. Amaleen and her boyfriend (all witness names have been changed to protect their privacy) are cruising east along Highway 198. The sky is clear — the sort of night when you gaze up at the stars and see God staring back at you. Except they aren’t looking for God. They’re aiming for the slots at Tachi Palace Hotel and Casino.

As they come over a rise, the couple see an aircraft in the distance crisscrossing the highway. At first, they think it’s an airplane. Then her boyfriend says it’s a helicopter. Amaleen isn’t sure. As they close the remaining distance, the strangely lit craft turns and bears straight toward them, its six brilliant lights up front burning a hole in the night sky. Terrified, Amaleen jams her foot on the gas pedal. At the last moment, the aircraft veers up and misses them by just a few feet. Amaleen described it as a giant wing the length of two tractor trailers parked end-to-end. “I could have reach out and touched it,” she tells me later, still shaken by the encounter. The strange thing was, the aircraft made no sound. Nor was there any wind.

* * *

Fourteen-year-old Jacob, his friend and brother are tramping through the woods at night in Newberg, Oregon. Suddenly, Jacob and his friend spot a strange creature, about four feet high, running through the woods with long, hopping strides. The skinny creature has a pelt of short, dark hair and runs on two legs like a person.

* * *

One summer night I am setting up my tent on a remote hillside in Northwestern Nevada. Earlier this evening, driving north out of Winnemucca, I saw a couple lightning flashes in the distance. But here on this deserted bluff, the air is dry and the sky studded with stars. I wrestle the last set of poles into position and step back from my tent. It feels good to have shelter in this desolate place off a jeep road in middle of God-knows-where. The engine cooling in the night air crackles gently over the soft chirr of cicadas. Then I see something that defies understanding.

A golden ball of yellow light dances above the ground a dozen or so feet away. I watch for a moment, mesmerized, as the light bobs and weaves through the air like a firefly that’s lost its blinker. Tinkerbell. A smile forms on my lips as I recall the Disney movie. As I step toward it, the light recedes from me. I back away, and it follows, lingering about fifteen feet away. Do you believe in faeries? Not before this night, I say, talking to myself as travelers in the desert often do.

* * *

Gestalt psychology tell us that perceiving is an interpretive act. In part, this is because most situations present us with incomplete data. Is the person on the bus flirting with me or just being friendly? The mind fills in the blanks based on prior knowledge and/or expectation. In Gestalt psychology, this act of forming a perception out of incomplete information is called closure or closing the Gestalt.

Many of our interpretations are so instantaneous as to be indistinguishable from perception. I do not hear a high pitched noise of varying pitch and frequency; I hear a bird singing outside my window. However, when faced with novel situations, the interpretive component of perception may become more self aware. In either case, perception involves active mental engagement and construction.

One challenge for UFO witnesses — and those who interview them — is teasing out the interpretations embedded in perception. When confronted with novel or ambiguous stimuli, witnesses react in a few different ways. They may avoid closing the Gestalt, retreating into confusion — or perhaps embracing the ambiguity. Or they may come up with a novel explanation. The stranger looking at me on the bus must be the government agent who has been reading my mail. In some cases, the perceiver dismisses the novelty altogether by forcing the unknown stimulus into a conventional box. That couldn’t have been a UFO — it must have been a weather balloon. (At a conceptual level, this is the preferred method of UFO debunkers who interpret every UFO sighting in terms of mundane phenomena.)

A witness or an investigator who is primed to see a UFO — because of past experience and interest or even a need to believe — can be equally subject to interpretive bias. I have observed this on numerous occasions with those who mistake visually impressive Iridium satellite flares for UFOs ‘powering up.’

Let’s return now to the three cases that began this entry.

Amaleen was quite sincere when she told me that what she saw that night on the way to the casino was a giant wing. She perceived and described some classic features of a UFO, including the lack of wind and sound. However, upon further digging and a tip from a third party, I concluded that what she and her companion most likely saw was a crop-dusting helicopter, which tend to fly in the middle of the night because of the lack of winds (and perhaps to avoid alarming vehicles on the highway).

When teenage Jacob described the strange creature he saw in the woods, he seemed to avoid assumptions and snap judgments. He was a keen observer who described the exotic animal in fine detail. Nonetheless, at some level, Jacob must have intuited that the creature he saw was a cryptoid, since he reported it to UFOs Northwest. Here again a tip from the public seemed to close the Gestalt toward a conventional explanation. A Newberg resident reported that wallabies had escaped a pet store and were seen in the wild. Like Scully, I was perhaps a bit too ready to embrace this explanation. (Many wallabies are known to go feral, Mulder.) But then I contacted the one pet shop in Newberg. They informed me that they hadn’t sold wallabies in a couple years. Nor had they received any reports of escaped wallabies — except for some that had escaped from their owner a couple years ago and had already been caught. So this sighting remains unresolved.

* * *

Ten minutes after the faery light blinks out, I hear the crunch of tires on gravel as a vehicle skirts the hill on which I am camped. The light that danced with me atop the bluff was a truck headlight jogging up and down a jeep road miles away.

Or was it?