Monday, December 1, 2008

Interim Summary and First Draft of an Analytical Model – Part 1

I have covered some ground in terms of what is out there. It is time to do a summary what is emerging so far. However, it is first important to underline an obvious conclusion: UFO and alien sightings might be single events, but from an analytical standpoint they are multi-level realities. Hence, to propose a meaningful summary and a first draft of an analytical model, I need to firm up this preliminary conclusion. To do so, I decided to borrow from Cornelius Castoriadis, a French philosopher of Greek origin, who was very influential in the social sciences in France, and indirectly in North America when the ideas of the post-structuralist (or postmodern) thinkers were massively “imported” to the new world during the 1980s and 1990s (e.g., Michel Foucault, Jacques Lacan, Jacques Derrida, Gilles Deleuze, Jean Baudrillard, Jean-François Lyotard, etc.).

Ontological Levels

Castoriadis proposed an interesting theory of ontology (the nature of reality). For him, “being” is what can exist because we can imagine it. For an object to exist, it has to exist in our mind. To exist in our mind we have to imagine it first. Hence, for Castoriadis the human mind is constantly creating reality. This idea is in many ways similar to Immanuel Kant’s idea that our relationship with reality is always mediated by our language, culture, preconceptions, etc. Direct access to reality is not possible because we need all these mediating elements to access reality, to make distinctions between different objects so that reality is not just mass of confused stimuli; in other words, to make sense of reality we need lenses. Without language and culture we cannot name things, and if we cannot name them then we cannot understand them. An important point here, this is not to say that there is no independent or objective reality out there, it is simply that such reality cannot be grasped without our subjectivity. For both Kant and Castoriadis, a better understanding of our subjective tools to apprehend reality is therefore the key to generate better knowledge.

Castoriadis, however, adds that there are four fundamental levels of ontology that are not reducible to one another, and this constitutes an inherent characteristic of reality. These levels are: the physical, the biological, the psychological (or psyche-soma), and the social-historical. Castoriadis recognizes that this reality out there “reacts” to our gaze and our scrutiny, and that our imagination faces constraints; our creative capacities may be unlimited in theory but when it is time to understand how our environment works we have to answer to reality’s unforeseen “reactions”. The famous French anthropologist of science, Bruno Latour who borrowed a lot from Castoriadis, stated in the same spirit that “reality is what resists” our imagination. In other words, reality tends to contradict what we imagine so that we have to work harder at it.

This is a bit of a long detour, but I wanted to be sure that this distinction in four ontological levels is not perceived as being arbitrary. It is based on serious ontological and epistemological foundations. This categorization of reality in four levels will be useful to classify what I found so far, and it will be useful to establish linkages between findings. It is also useful in order to be reflexive. Reflexivity appears to me as being critical when one studies the paranormal; pseudo-scientific attitudes created out of mimicry, or out of 19th century naive scientism attitude are still transmitted in present-day high schools and universities. It is also useful to deconstruct the excesses of positivist, empiricist and reductionist attitudes found in the scientific community at large, without falling into the trap of the New Age’s extreme relativism.

The classification of the information thus far amassed will be put through two usual epistemological tests. The first one is the external validity, by asking if there are empirical evidences to support the assertion. The evidence can be directly related or indirectly related to similar situations. The second test is about internal validity. Are the findings coherent with other findings? Or is it logically consistent with what is known, or does it requires a separate special explanation? Any special explanation would then require special justification.

The Physical Reality of UFOs

The physical evidence about UFO all points towards balls of lights in their various guises, which tend to be highly charged from an electromagnetic standpoint. As the Hessdalen project has shown, balls of light can be invisible to the eye, and yet producing a radar echo. When they are visible they look like nocturnal light (NL, in the Hynek classification), and silvery discs or balls during daylight (DD, diurnal discs). If we accept the rule-of-thumb that about 95% of all UFO sightings can be explained by more mundane sources (airplanes, meteorites, satellites, optical illusions, etc.), then we have also to underline that the vast majority of the 5% remaining is made of NLs and DDs. This is true for both single UFO observations and UFO waves.

Balls of light can accelerate very quickly to reach 9,000 meters per second (32,400 km/h). They can be produced by natural sources of electro-magnetism, or by man-made ones. As they are often highly charged electro-magnetically, they tend to cause dysfunctions to electrical equipment. There are at least 3 factors involved in the creation of balls of light according to Budden, their various combinations can lead to various types of balls of light with different characteristics. They can produce high degrees of heat and leave burn marks on the ground, and cause various types of injuries to witnesses. It is also possible that square wave radio frequencies make them taking 90 degrees square turns when the conditions for such behaviour are met. They are probably also sensitive to other sources of electromagnetism, like a fighter jet locking its radar on a UFO, might just “push” the ball of light further, and give the illusion that it is engaging in evasive manoeuvres. This explanation has a basis of empirical evidence to support it, and it is coherent with Newtonian physics and what is known about UFO sightings.

The only exceptions are the Close Encounters (CE 1 to 3) sightings from Hynek’s descriptive classification. These sightings are actually the only portion of the UFO experience where the ETH has any possible traction. If we decompose the problem, however, the room left for the ETH becomes even narrower. Most of the CE3 (seeing an ufonaut) and all of the so-called CE4 (alien abduction) occur when the witness is in a state of altered consciousness (or facing the “Oz factor” to use Jenny Randle’s terminology). It is important to note also that someone in a state of altered consciousness is usually not be aware of it. Hence, CE3 are still not offering any tangible evidence for the ETH, as in altered state of consciousness reality and fiction tend to get mixed up (the Kantian issue discussed above). Such situations can be caused by known physical source of energy applied to the brain, as research in laboratory setting shows (particularly Persinger). The physical marks can also be explained by self-action of the experiencer when he/she is a state of altered consciousness, and he or she will have no conscious memory of having done it. They actually tend to attribute, wrongly, these marks to the action of what was seen during the event. Psychiatry has extended empirical evidence about this type of unconscious behaviour.

Most CE 2 (leaving physical traces) can also be explained by what we know about balls of light. The only exceptions are the relatively rare instances where geometric marks (square, rectangles) are found leaving an imprint in the ground. CE 1 that involve seeing a manufactured object can at times be construed as misperceptions caused by altered state of consciousness, but not always, especially when there are several witnesses reporting the same description. As one can see, the room for the ETH is rather much narrower than most people think. From the point of view of physical evidence, there is nothing to support the ETH in these instances, as no materiel, equipment or biological tissues “out of this Earth” was ever found. It still fails the external validity test. As it will be shown in the next post, other explanations with some empirical evidence supporting them and more in line with was is already known can be offered to explain these last elements. The ETH also fails the internal validity test. Hence, given these two test failures and its relatively limited applicability, there are no rational at this point to maintain a special explanation such as the ETH.

The Biological Reality of UFOs

There is a biological component to the UFO experience if we consider “mind postures” more likely to lead to altered state of consciousness as a biological issue. There is now substantial evidence to show that altered state of consciousness plays an important part in the UFO experience, but such states are likely to occur to people predisposed to have a lower threshold between the conscious mind and the unconscious. Such threshold is in part biological, although it can be trained (like a muscle) through various techniques like meditation, yoga, etc. According to Budden’s research, some people have a greater sensibility to electromagnetism due to prolonged exposure to electromagnetic fields. There are also people who neurologically developed dissociative personalities, oftentimes the result of a defence mechanism developed during a traumatic childhood. Lastly, there are people who seem to have an innate lower threshold, and they are oftentimes found in artistic and creative professions. The empirical evidence here is quite strong, and it is in line with what is known about UFO experiences, and parapsychology.

The Social-Historical Reality of UFOs

There is a social and historical component to the UFO experience in as much as its content can be traced back to sociological realities. UFOs are specific to our time, and appear to be closely related to our capacity of imagining flying machines. Some may argue that the Bible and ancient Hindu texts discusses flying machines, and this is quite true. The possibility of imagining flying machine is in itself not time bound, but “seeing” strange objects in the sky on an ongoing basis is unique to our time. The content of UFO sightings seems also to be related to social dynamics. From the Airship story of 1896, to the Kenneth Arnold’s sightings of flying objects wobbling like flying saucers, to the rash of contactees emerging after George Adamski published Flying Saucers Have Landed in 1953, one can only see that the content of UFO experience is at least partially socially constructed.

Only one unusual sighting or experience (actually alleged sighting or experience) is enough to create a series of similar sightings that can last for decades. A case in point is the Betty and Barney Hill experience with the so-called Grey ETs. It was a first, and it became publicly known in 1966 with the publication of Interrupted Journey. Then, the Becky Andreasson case occurred in 1967. But the real “epidemic” of Grey ETs abductions started in the mid 1970s, coinciding with the broadcast of a TV film entitled The UFO Incident, aired the first time on NBC in October 1975, and relating the story of Hill couples’ experience. As well, Bertrand Meheust has provided extensive analyses to show that science fiction impacts the content of UFO experiences. The evidence for a social-historical dimension to the UFO experience is very strong and it is in line what was is known about other paranormal phenomena like the apparitions of the Virgin Mary in Catholic countries or areas, the Chupacabra in Spanish speaking countries, etc.

The Psychological Reality of UFOs

Here it is at times difficult to separate the physiological aspect of altered states of consciousness, and the actual experience. However, to provide an analytical distinction, the psychological aspect of the UFO experience is understood as the intrapsychic component, and this relates to our understanding of both consciousness and the unconscious. This is, in turn, links directly to the question of imagination, as it appears to be the bridge between the two. The conscious mind creates reality through imagining, correcting the creation as it rubs itself against reality. The unconscious processes, stores and sends back the results of the imaginary process to the conscious mind in a subliminal and/or symbolic way. Hence, the distinction between imaginary realm and reality is much more subtle that most people think. An obvious example of this is when people get into an accident and feel no pain until they realized they are injured. It is on this bridge that the question of psi needs to be understood. Psi can be construed as the reverse process described above: reality is created in the unconscious mind, and the conscious mind uses imagination to make sense of it, which in turn may affect reality. Certainly, the remote viewing process appears to work that way and there is some empirical evidence to support this.

It is quite clear that there is an important psi element in the UFO experience. For instance, altered perceptions seem to be telepathically shared when there is more than one witness. There are too many similarities in the experience for a regular psychological explanation to hold. Although there is some research on the “folie à deux”, such research shows that “folie à deux” only occur when one witness is having a particularly strong psychological hold on the other, and thus influence him/her to believe in a particular perception. It is not to say that it cannot happen in UFO cases, but when there are several witnesses, physically apart and not knowing each other, the “folie à deux” cannot be invoked.

Psi research shows that believing in paranormal increases the probability of psi effects, and there is no reason to think that it is any different with the UFO experience. This actually relates directly to the question of imagination. These beliefs play an important part in establishing a bridge between the conscious and unconscious mind, although it is not a mandatory one. Some research empirically supports this statement, particularly the Anamnesis Project.

Yet, contrary to remote viewing and many other forms of psychic experiment, UFO experiences are spontaneous and not predictable. It appears as if an external psi source is involved in creating the psi experience (in one’s own unconscious). It is also contrary to RSPKs experiences, where clearly a particular type of dysfunctional personality is usually involved. Furthermore, in the case of UFO waves there seem to be multiple or no focus persons involved in the event. Certainly, it is this aspect of the UFO experience that also keeps alive the 2nd degree ETH, and the paranormal explanations (PNH) proposed by Jacques Vallée and John Keel. Unfortunately, there is no possible evidence for such approaches. If one assumes that non-human entities are involved, then it also implies that these entities can “play” with the experience at will. Thus, it is beyond the reach of any analysis. This is the analytical position taken by parapsychology, and it paid off, as our knowledge of paranormal has advanced under parapsychology while it remained stagnant with the old fashion psychical research. Following this approach for UFO, is therefore consistent with what is known.

There are a fair amount of empirical evidence to link UFOs and psi effect, and many of the UFO experience characteristics are coherent with was is known about psi effect. However, the issue of an external source of psi appears to not fit what is known in parapsychology. On the other hand, parapsychology tend to shy away from the study of paranormal phenomena that seem to have an external source to a specific individual(s) unconscious mental processes.

Part II

In the second part, in an attempt to answer provisionally some of the questions left pending in Part I, the interaction between ontological levels will be explored.

Copyright © 2008 Eric Ouellet

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