What are UFOs? It is a surprisingly emotional subject. A large percentage of people who come across this article will read very little of it, having already assumed their preferred conclusion, and not take seriously the argument I am presenting. I hope that does not include you, dear reader. I wrote this to try to have a discussion about the issues rather than the current non-discussion of entrenched ideologies and people talking past each other. UFOs are real phenomena that we should be exploring, but we aren’t. I am exploring why that might be.
I’ve been interested in the UFO phenomenon for decades. About the UFO phenomena, in general, I’m a believer, but about any specific case, I am a bit skeptical until I hear the whole story. I’m convinced there’s something real behind UFOs, but need to be convinced that any specific case is real. I agree with John E. Mack that we need to account for the whole phenomena. I would extend that holistic approach to the entirety of the phenomena of UFOs and belief in ETs. We need to look at how people are experiencing and thinking about UFO phenomena.
How do we think clearly about UFOs? I suggest two steps. The first is being honest about how we experience, perceive, and gain knowledge about UFOs. The second is letting go of the Cold War narratives that prevent people from properly assessing UFO phenomena. Overcoming anthropocentrism and ethnocentrism is at the core of both steps.
Step One—Being Honest about Experience and Perception
How do we think about UFO sightings if we want to start to figure out what’s going on? One thing that has always struck me about UFOs is how anthropocentric the response to them is. The topic may seem on the surface to be about the possibility of extraterrestrials, but it’s really all about people’s perceptions of themselves. People’s assumptions, understandings, and emotions affect how they interpret what they experience. People also have a strong tendency to assume that human beings are the measure of all things—the prejudice of anthropomorphism.
Ironically, to overcome anthropocentrism, we need to start by looking more closely at how people are. UFO sightings are almost always experienced by people (a few are imaged by automated cameras), but every UFO sighting is interpreted by people. Ultimately, every UFO sighting is about people. I’m not saying there’s nothing to UFO sightings and experiences. There is a there there, but the nature of the phenomena is ambiguous enough that it leaves many gaps that people need to fill in, and they do.
In all of our experiences, we see what our knowledge tells us we see, and by “knowledge” I mean the dynamic combination of our past experiences and current expectations. A concept in philosophy I like is “semantic resources”—that we need to learn concepts and words to understand our experiences and speak about them. I think this concept is especially useful in helping untangle UFOs.
I agree with those who have pointed out that people’s experiences and thoughts of UFOs change in tandem with current events. Around 120 years ago, people described what they saw in the sky as dirigibles, because that’s what they knew. As technology has evolved, so has how people think about and describe what they experience.
Movies have also provided resources for people to interpret their experiences. The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), became the narrative in the U.S. of how to interpret UFOs. “They are spying on us because of our nuclear weapons.” It is a height of human hubris to want to believe that advanced extraterrestrial civilizations would feel interested in us much less threatened by us and our weapons. But that was the American Cold War mentality, a self-delusion that still dominates thinking about UFOs today.
That’s one expression of our general anthropocentrism. Another is that we assume that aliens would be like us. Carl Sagan once said that when we meet extraterrestrial life forms, they will look beyond what we could have imagined. But instead,, people assume that extraterrestrials will look a lot like us, just a different size and color, and behave a lot like we do, only more sinister or enlightened or whatever one’s preferred imagination.
It is natural to see something in the sky and interpret according to what we know. “Looks like a very advanced aircraft, must be a spaceship with pilots and passengers, only extraterrestrial ones.” We do not know what extraterrestrials look like. We do not know how they think. We have no clue how they would act if they ever came to Earth. We can’t assume they are like us. We can’t assume they will like us or hate us. We need to shake off our preconceptions and look, actually look at UFO phenomena, if we are to start to understand what is going on.
But looking at any phenomena brings in the human element. Different individuals experience things differently. I ask my philosophy students, “how many trees are there outside the window?” and they answer “one.” I say no, there are as many trees plus one as there are people in this room because we all experience everything differently.
What is it that people experience in a UFO sighting? A collection of things—different interpretations of various experiences. We should look at the “nuts and bolts” aspects of UFO experiences with regard not only to the physical questions of whether people are seeing something known or something unexplainable, but also with regard to the psychological questions of whether people are having more internal or external experiences. In other words, how much of the content of what a person reports comes from outside stimuli and how much from their own personal interpretation and psychological needs? We understand that some experiencers are in some way seeking attention, and in acknowledging that we make no more judgment than we do when we acknowledge that an experiencer mistakes a natural phenomenon for a UFO.
We are all interpreters, and it’s human nature to color experiences to suit our needs and wants. There is no privileged viewpoint, only personal ones. We need to look at each case with a critical eye, but open-minded as to what the experiencers have to tell us. Perhaps we learn how people incorporate cultural lore about ETs into their personal stories, including insane stories. Perhaps, we learn how some people try to grab attention by making up stories. We need to take each experience case by case, considering both physical and psychological evidence.
And then there are the people who have no agenda but see something in the sky and struggle to understand what they’re seeing. UFOs are real events, and UFO sightings are products of a set of objective phenomena. The difficulty is that the nature of UFO phenomena causes them to be more variably subjectively experienced than other phenomena.
A sincere investigation is needed with a neutral attitude between dismissive skepticism and the assumption of aliens. If we take on a collective effort of open-minded inquiry into UFO phenomena, we can build a set of semantic resources to understand whatever is behind the sightings and the many reactions to them. We don’t know what we will find. Worth finding out!
Step Two—Let Go of Cold War Narratives, Part One
My comments in this section are mostly about the United States. Other societies have different experiences and thus different attitudes.
From the 1951 robot in The Day the Earth Stood Still to today’s Pentagon rebranding of UFOs to UAPs, Cold War narratives have dominated thinking and perception of the phenomena. The movies in the 1950s about UFOs carrying alien invaders were very obvious allegories for American fears of a Soviet invasion sparking World War III. The Day the Earth Stood Still created the opposite theme that ETs are monitoring us and will step in to save us from World War III. These dueling themes, often repeated in books, movies, and TV, have shaped people’s perceptions of UFO sightings.
Common to both themes and most fiction about extraterrestrial visitors is the overarching presence of the military. The U.S. military ostensibly exists to keep American safe from invaders. During the Cold War years, the threat from the Soviets justified a huge military presence in American society, perhaps even a larger presence than during World War II. The country was still on a war footing, even if there was no shooting. All of American society was saturated with paranoia about the perceived Soviet threat.
People seeing things in the sky justifiably became a matter of national defense—those things in the sky could be Soviets. This led to two further ideas. One is that UFOs are probably transport vehicles for occupants that pose a threat to us. The other is that the military should do something about these crafts in the sky. Fictional accounts played off these ideas, creating a self-perpetuating synergy that shaped public perception that UFOs are a military issue. That perception lingers on and obstructs a clear perspective on UFOs/UAPs even today—specifically, the lingering, festering Disclosure narrative.
The Disclosure Narrative-The Child of the Cold War
Any military must operate with a degree of secrecy. Operational security is essential for successful military operations. The nature of the Cold War necessitated arguably the highest level of military secrecy ever. Paranoia reigned.
Understandably, the Cold War paranoia engendered the linking of these concepts:
- We are under threat.
- The military should protect us.
- The military needs to keep secrets.
Those thoughts then led naturally to:
- The military is keeping secrets about the threat from UFOs.
Seems plausible on the face of it, but what evidence is there behind it?
The idea that the military and government know something that we don’t comes from a very 1950s attitude. Watch any 1950s newsreel and you will see what I mean. The view of the government as an all-powerful, benevolent, patriarch ruled the public consciousness. The U.S. had won the war, saved the world from Nazis and the Japanese—at least that was the view in the U.S.
America was the defender of the free world, and its military was at the forefront of that march for truth, justice, and freedom. The military was busy keeping us safe so that we could go about our daily lives. So, of course the powerful and technologically advanced U.S. military knew more about the constant threats to us than we do, and that’s as it should be. If those flying saucers are real, then of course the military knows about it, because they are wiser and more responsible than us.
In the 1950s and early 1960s, one didn’t question the government. That was un-American—what are you a communist? By the mid-1970s, that attitude that the government was above questioning had changed for many people. In a post Vietnam War and post Watergate nation, the idea gained momentum that the military and government is a malicious force, a power not defending our freedom, but up to nefarious things.
At the same time, UFO sightings were increasing, and people started to ask more questions about what the government knew. The attitude about the connection between UFOs and the authorities was slowly shifting. Before, the assumption was that the military and government must know more than we do, and they are wise to keep it under wraps. Increasingly, the question was becoming what does the military and government know about UFOs and why aren’t they sharing it with us?
At some point, the Disclosure narrative started to grow. To fill in the vacuum of information about UFOs, a narrative was constructed and pushed by people selling books about UFOs. The military and government do know a lot about UFOs, and they are hiding it from us. A conspiracy theory emerged along with a crusade to force the government to disclose what they know about UFOs. The Disclosure narrative conspiracy theory basically suggests that the military and government have known for a long time that UFOs are spacecraft transporting extraterrestrial entities, and that they are holding back disclosing what they know. There are, of course, many variants on that basic suggestion, from crashed saucers to hybrid breeding programs to secret space fleets to more run-of-the-mill versions of the military has evidence of aliens.
The military and government, intentionally or not, fed this growing narrative. Project Blue Book was the archetype of government nonsense and misdirection. Many of the “findings” of that and other government “investigations” were absurd and often slighted people who came forward with UFO sightings. If Blue Book’s intention was to resolve questions about UFOs, it achieved the opposite, giving the impression that it was trying to cover up UFO sightings. The project was closed in 1969 and the military and government went silent. Why?
A Hypothesis Much More Likely than the Disclosure Narrative
I don’t blame anyone for believing that the military and government are being secretive about what they may know about UFOs. I do blame people who don’t engage in critical thinking about why the military is acting that way. A wise person follows the evidence and adjusts their beliefs to fit the available evidence. Let’s think this through and see why Disclosure is a myth.
The Disclosure narrative is the hypothesis that the U.S. military and government have kept secret for up to 75 years that spacecraft transporting extraterrestrial entities have visited our planet. To maintain this hypothesis, you also have to maintain that the military and government is exceptional, par excellence, at keeping to themselves all proof of the alien presence, including silencing thousands, if not tens of thousands, of people into not sharing any of that proof.
A bigger issue is that believers in the Disclosure narrative also have to explain why the military and government would go to such great lengths to keep secret an extraterrestrial presence. I will explore that issue by thinking about how the military thinks.
It is fair to say that the U.S. military and pro-military politicians have exploited to their advantage fears of foreign threats. If there were no threats, there would be no need for a military. The U.S. military has shown they are very willing to tell us they have evidence of foreign threats, even when that evidence is false. If the military knew there was an extraterrestrial threat, they would use it as a reason to bolster its funding and power, like they always do with every foreign threat, real or imaginary.
Much more likely than the hypothesis that the military and government have knowledge about UFOs and extraterrestrials that it could disclose is the opposite hypothesis: they don’t have knowledge about UFOs and they know that they don’t’ know what’s behind UFO phenomena. We’ll use a thought experiment to illustrate this.
Imagine you are in a position of authority in the military or part of the government that oversees the military. Your position makes you partly responsible for national security. You think, with good reason, that everyone believes you are the defender of the free world. You are part of the most powerful and technologically advanced military in history. Part of your job is to maintain the perception that the U.S. military is indispensable for protecting American freedom because it can defend America from all foreign threats.
Now what comes across your desk is a report on UFO sightings. Your experts tell you that they cannot explain the phenomena. They also admit that they can’t even say whether whatever is behind the phenomena poses any threat to national security. Your position of authority means you are responsible for deciding what to do with this file of information that raises far more question than it answers.
What do you do?
If you say, “I’d level with the American people that there are things in the sky that we can’t explain,” you are, with all due respect, very naïve. Your job, as an authority with decision making power, is to maintain the perception that the U.S. military could easily handle any foreign threat. Admitting that the all-powerful military might not be able to defend the U.S. and worse, doesn’t even know what is going on, would damage national security.
Besides, you are in the military. You are trained in war. The need for operational security is ingrained in your every thought. You didn’t climb your way to this level of authority by admitting you are unable to know about and respond to things. What would you do? Out of pure embarrassment, justified as the need to maintain the reputation of the military and protecting the nation and so on, you would file away the report to be forgotten.
The military and government are keeping secret that they can’t explain UFOs. That hypothesis is much more plausible than that they are sitting on knowledge that UFOs are extraterrestrial craft. The know-nothing hypothesis is more consistent with the past behavior of the military. It is also much easier to keep ignorance a secret.
Step Two—Let Go of Cold War Narratives, Part Two
I mentioned before that the Cold War helped inspire the assumption that UFOs are transportation devices. Certainly, the idea that something in the sky is an aerial vehicle predates the Cold War, but the paranoia of the Cold War, inspired the idea that UFOs are craft spying on us. People knew that the Soviets were definitely spying on the U.S. and that thought easily transferred to thinking about UFOs. The movie industry reflected the Cold War paranoia by portraying UFOs as interplanetary attack ships containing soldiers or monsters from outer space. The Day the Earth Stood Still was the more benevolent version of the aliens are monitoring us trope.
Whether people imagined there was a godlike judge, soldier, or monster aboard the spaceship, it reflected the 1950s obsessions with paranoia and technology. Certainly, UFOs could be extraterrestrial spacecraft. Of course, it is possible, but that isn’t the only possibility. It has only been the dominant assumption made by Americans since the Cold War years. It is time to get past that assumption.
Why do we need to get past the alien spacecraft assumption (ASA)? In general, any investigation is hampered by preconceptions because assumed conclusions prevent an honest assessment of the available evidence. In terms of UFOs, the ASA not only hampers research, it inserts itself into the evidential gaps in UFO sightings, leading to unsubstantiated speculation and conspiracy theorizing.
The ASA dominates the UFO discussion and the interpretation of sightings. For many people, “is that a UFO?” is asking “is that an alien spacecraft?” Even the recent AATIP program and its former personnel use the assumption that UAPs are aircraft as the foundation of their investigation and then interpret phenomena to fit that assumption. Worse, every rumor gets spun to fit the ASA. Whole scenarios are concocted of crashed alien spacecraft based on little more than dubious whispers of what someone claims to have heard someone say someone may have seen.
But the ASA is not alone in corrupting research into UFOs. The ASA combines with the assumption of viewing events through the Cold War filter of militarism. Sightings are not only of spacecraft, but the military is also covering up knowledge that it’s a spacecraft.
This is why there isn’t UFO research so much as there is an industry of UFO conspiracy mongering. The combination of ASA and Disclosure narrative (the military knows) has sucked out all of the oxygen on the UFO phenomena. There is no room for actual questioning and examination of evidence. Within UFOlogy, you either accept the Disclosure narrative or you are accused of being a tool of a government coverup. No one is allowed to explore outside the established orthodoxy of the ASA and Disclosure narrative.
This leads back to my original point about anthropomorphism. The assumption that UFOs/UAPs must be the ships of extraterrestrials is more mythology than anything else. It is a human projection to assume that UFOs are spacecraft containing or directed by beings like humans only a different size and color.
UFOs could be … well, anything. To name just a few possibilities:
- Weather or energy phenomena
- Biological organisms
- Extra/ultra/alternative/multi-dimensional phenomena/beings, indigenous to existent natural systems of which we are a part but that we can only perceive to a limited extent
- Consciousness-manipulating phenomena that can make us see what we expect to see
- Phenomena we can’t yet even imagine.
People who approach UFO phenomena with the ASA and the Disclosure narrative are less open, if at all open, to these many possibilities.
Summary—Being Honest about Experience and Perceptions of UFOs
We are left with an intoxicating wealth of nuts-and-bolts UFO sightings that have at least some credibility, but what information exists is hijacked. It is hijacked on the one hand by the clown-car of buffoonish UFOlogists and con(spiracy) artists selling the ASA or wilder ideas. Powered by magical thinking as a principal guide, UFO narratives careen off the rails into the narcissisms of clownish gurus espousing the wildest theories. On the other hand, there are self-absorbed skeptical debunkers playing whack-a-mole with the clowns. The skeptics scoff at ideas rather than considering them, and studiously avoid the weighty question of what’s at the bottom of UFO sightings.
Who is actually seriously investigating the UFO phenomena? Anyone?
The UFO question is continually evolving. It seems to me to be a dynamic set of concepts that cross-pollinate and respond to world events, technological changes, and popular culture. But these swirling narratives are obscuring the actual phenomena and hampering study of the complex and varied inputs. Real stuff is happening but how do we get a clear view of it?
We need more information-based, reality-centric discussion about the phenomena. We need to gather evidence and follow where the evidence leads us, even when there is little evidence.
There is no solid evidence that anyone has definitive knowledge that extraterrestrials exist, much less that they are visiting our planet. That in turn means that there’s no solid evidence that the military is covering up knowledge of extraterrestrials. Rather than magical thinking, a sober consideration of the evidence indicates that what investigation the military may have conducted found nothing definitive, and as mentioned earlier, out of embarrassment, they have said nothing. The subject of UFOs is taboo most likely because what’s being hidden is the military’s own ignorance.
Considering the evidence, we must conclude that the Disclosure narrative is speculation at best, but more probably an urban legend. The Disclosure narrative not only assumes that if there is smoke there is fire, but it assumes that there is actual smoke. There is fog but no smoke, by which I mean, as I have written elsewhere, that there is no real reason to accept the notion that the government knows more than we do about UFOs (the smoke) much less that the government has proof of alien visitation (the imagined fire). UFOs are a real unexplained phenomena, which is the real fog, but there is zero basis for the Disclosure narrative.
There’s something real behind UFO sightings, behind the ignorance, the grifters, the attention seekers, the fake messiahs, the ill-informed, the gullible, and the self-serving skeptics.
I want to see people start to delve into the nuts-and-bolts under what people are experiencing in UFO sightings. There are many interesting possibilities, and it would be great to be as open-minded as possible.