UFO Realism and the Uber-Umwelt
A Model for the Ultraterrestrial Hypothesis
“‘People mistakenly believe, he said, that a myth is an untruth. But myth is not that. A myth is that which is TRUER THAN TRUTH.’ It may not be that flying saucers represent visits from outer space. But if large enough numbers believe it, then in some sense it will become truer than true, long enough for certain things to change irreversibly.”
— Jacques Vallee, The Invisible College: What a Group of Scientists Has Discovered About UFO Influence on the Human Race
“The aim of philosophy, abstractly formulated, is to understand how things in the broadest possible sense of the term hang together in the broadest possible sense of the term. Under 'things in the broadest possible sense' I include such radically different items as not only 'cabbages and kings', but numbers and duties, possibilities and finger snaps, aesthetic experience and death. To achieve success in philosophy would be, to use a contemporary turn of phrase, to 'know one's way around' with respect to all these things, not in that unreflective way in which the centipede of the story knew its way around before it faced the question, 'how do I walk?', but in that reflective way which means that no intellectual holds are barred.”
— Wilfrid Sellars, “Philosophy and the Scientific Image of Man”
“Stepping between Umwelten, or at least trying to, is like setting foot on an alien planet.”
— Ed Yong, An Immense World
Jaque Vallee is a disciplined thinker. He is not given to extravagant speculation, and he seems throughout his vast corpus of published writings, lectures, and interviews to afford himself no more nor less in the way of conclusions than what is strictly implied by the premises of his arguments, and he doesn’t help himself to premises frivolously. I’m not aware of any place where he indulges unrestrained speculation.
It might be surprising to hold up Vallee as a living paradigm of epistemic discipline, as he is one of the deans of the field of UFOlogy (if not The Dean), an arena of research associated in the popular imagination with phantasmagoric speculation, cults, conspiracies, wishful thinking, manipulation by intelligence agencies, mental illness (“tin foil hats”), pop-culture grifting, Hollywood sensationalism, etc. In other words, though this has begun to change, the world of UFO studies is not typically thought of as a hotbed of laudable epistemic and evidentiary scruples. The fact, however, that a scientist with the highest academic credentials would suffer the consequences for his reputation by entering into such a fray (and publish accounts of his doing so) is part of my point: Vallee is one of the most “follow evidence” people you could ever find. If the data take us into a weird world of abductions, government psy-ops, and even elves and fairies (these are all topics he has considered rigorously at various points in his long career), then Vallee is willing to go there, even when doing so may lead to his being scorned or vilified by his elite peers. Encountering the rigor, honestly, and circumspection of Vallee’s work is part of what led me to start taking the Phenomenon seriously as an avenue for philosophical reflection.
Vallee has been steadfast for decades in claiming that the data show almost unquestionably that something significant is going on regarding UFOs. The sheer quantity of reported sitings and the non-negligible proportion of those that defy ordinary explanation together demand serious explanatory inquiry rather than a dismissal as mere aberrations or background noise in the data. As Vallee puts it in one of the canonical texts of UFOlogy:
There is one haunting thought underlying the UFO phenomenon: something mysterious seems to be manifested in our environment — the “things” have been seen by thousands of people in all countries. They have been tracked on military radar, and they have been photographed by astronauts, leading many to the belief that they originated in outer space. They have been filmed by rocket-borne cameras and touched by farmers. They have been adored by simple people, denied by scientists, prayed to by the devout, cursed by primitives and celebrated by poets. They have been called Flying Saucer, Unidentified Flying Objects, Uncorrelated Targets. (The Invisible College, p. 11, author’s emphasis)
For Vallee, the empirical question of whether there is a UFO phenomenon was already settled affirmatively when he wrote those remarks in 1975, and that case has only become stronger in the intervening decades. Thus, let’s take it that there is a UFO phenomenon as our point of departure, and turn to the question as to what that phenomenon might be.
Vallee’s take on this question has been remarkably consistent throughout his decades of confronting the issue, even though he is ultimately non-committal as to the nature of the UFO phenomenon (epistemic discipline!). He gives what I take to be the most concise statement of his subtle position in “Five Arguments Against the Extraterrestrial Origin of Unidentified Flying Objects,” a paper he first published in 1990 and later appended to his book Revelations: Alien Contact and Human Deception. (In the following, I will refer to the latter version). Let’s call anyone who believes that UFOs are actual entities that defy our ordinary categories of explanation UFO realists. The UFO realist is then claiming that the phenomenon demands an increase in our ontological commitment. That is, in addition to the the things we ordinarily enumerate on our list of real beings, e.g., bears, mountains, trees, human beings, electrons, love, viruses, wrestling matches, the UFO realist will also count UFOs as an additional category of beings. (Of course, this doesn’t mean that all the items on our ontological list are the same kind of thing, but they are all real things, e.g., love and mountains are different kinds of things, but they are both realities.) A UFO anti-realist is then anyone who denies UFO realism, i.e., she does not believe that UFOs demand our positing another ontological category. For example, the most common version of UFO anti-realism is what Vallee calls the “natural phenomena hypothesis,” according to which
all the reports can be explained as a combination of observing errors, classical atmospheric phenomena, and man-made objects, and possibly combined with little-known psychological illusions which are of no relevance to physics. (Revelations, pp. 240-241)
On this view, since we already have such things as atmospheric phenomena (swamp gas!), projective illusions, secret government technology, etc., in our accounting of things, the UFO phenomenon does not demand that we add another ontological category. According to the UFO anti-realist, the UFO is merely an appearance of or construction from things already in our inventory of the universe. All that is needed, for the UFO anti-realist, is an account of how the phenomenal appearances of UFOs can be reduced to standard elements of our ontology.
Ockham long ago wisely advised that we ought not generate ontological categories frivolously, and Vallee would certainly be inclined to err on the the side of anti-realism, if the evidence allowed him to do so. Nevertheless, despite his well-placed ontological stinginess, Vallee believes that the ship has simply sailed with respect to UFO anti-realism. Vallee has a great deal of sympathy for an explanation of the UFO in terms of psychological and archetypical projection, but that does not account for the empirical nitty-gritty of the phenomenon (see The Invisible College, pp. 15-38). Even Carl Jung, the master of projective explanation, resisted resting comfortably in such a conclusion, because the phenomena leave such clear physical traces and therefore support some sort of realist interpretation. (See Jung, Flying Saucers: A Modern Myth of Things Seen in the Sky, pp. 109-111.) Moreover, Vallee does not deny that many of the reports are occasioned by encounters with secret government technology or even intentional psy-ops by intelligence services (See Vallees Messengers of Deception: UFO Contacts and Cults and Revelations), but here too these explanations do not address the most salient cases. Thus, UFO realism should be our grudging conclusion; it is implausible to suppose that we can reduce the UFO phenomenon to anything in our standard, everyday ontology.
Does all this then commit the UFO realist to the claim that we have been visted by intelligent beings from another planet? Vallee believes that the inference to an affirmative answer is something of an unquestioned intuition among many UFO realists, but it is a product of a hasty and unsound line of reasoning. This is not Vallee puts it in his paper, but I believe it is a fair reconstruction of the implicit argument he is criticizing:
(1) Either UFO realism or UFO anti-realism.
(2) If UFO realism, then the Extraterrestrial Hypothesis (ETH) is very likely true.
(3) UFO anti-realism is untenable.
Therefore: (4) UFO realism is most likely true.
Therefore: (5) ETH is very likely true.
That’s a fine argument, except that there are very good reasons to doubt premise (2). Vallee defines ETH as the claim that “UFOs are physical devices controlled by intelligent beings form another planet who are visiting earth as part of a scientific survey, very much in the fashion we ourselves plan to follow in exploring remote planetary environments” (Revelations, p. 241). In other words, ETH is the standard “It’s little green men from Alpha Centari” explanation. Certainly, (2) is strictly false, i.e., there are other possible versions of UFO realism such that a commitment to UFO realism as such does not itself entail that one must accept ETH. For example, Vallee himself seems to have some sympathy for the proposal that UFOs are interdimensional or wormhole travelers (Revelations, p. 254-255) and he is very suggestive of what he calls the control system hypothesis (see The Invisible College, pp. 194-206 - though this proposal is less a claim about the ontology of the UFO as it is an account of its function or motivation). Moreover, in “Five Arguments Against the Extraterrestrial Origin Unidentified Flying Objects,” Vallee makes a very strong case that ETH is highly improbable given the data we have about UFOs as they appear to us. Thus, it is hard to say that (2) has anything going for it.
As the title of his article indicates, Vallee makes five arguments against ETH. I find all of these arguments fairly strong, but the most important for me is the case he makes based on the reported physiology of the beings (organisms?) supposedly operating these craft (a case Vallee continues to make this case even in his most recent work, see Trinity: The Best-Kept Secret):
The vast majority of reported “aliens” have humanoid shape that is characterized by two legs, two arms, and a head supporting the same organs of perception we have, in the same number and general appearance. Their speech uses the same frequency range as ours, and their eyes are adapted to the same general segment of electromagnetic spectrum. This indicates a genetic formulation that does not appear to differ from the human genome by more than a few percent. (Revelations, p. 248)
It should be kept in mind that the human shape has evolved in response to an extremely narrow set of constraints. . . . How, then, can we expect that extraterrestrial visitors form a completely different planetary environment would not only resemble us, but breath our air and walk normally on the earth? (Revelations, pp. 248-249)
All of that is to say the notion of an entirely separate evolutionary process producing bipedal, forward looking, oxygen breathing, featherless, rational animals is so improbable as to strain credulity. Maybe there are as-yet unknown principles of evolution that pipeline things toward bipedal, featherless, and very smart animals. Or it can’t be ruled out that the aliens might be so smart that they could genetically manipulate themselves to be adapted to our environment. I’m in no position to dismiss such ancillary hypotheses for ETH in principle, but I do worry that without some independent evidence for these claims we are coming close to rendering ETH unfalsifiable. When one gets to positing extra principles of evolution and omniscient/omnipotent aliens for no other reason than to defend her hypothesis, her position is starting to lose traction in the real world. What could even count as counter-evidence, if one is willing to posit special powers or principles to account for it? Avoiding the falsifiability problem increases the evidential demand for ETH, i.e., we are owed some reason to think evolutionary options are so limited and/or aliens really would be so smart and powerful. In other words, these ancillary hypotheses need independent evidence to keep ETH from spinning into unfalsifiable triviality, and I fear that evidence is, as yet, still outstanding (though I could be corrected!). Thus, we do well to look elsewhere for a UFO realism model.
Maybe we can find such a model a bit closer to home. Indeed, some UFOlogists entertain various versions of the ultraterrestrial hypothesis (UTH), according to which “sequestered terrestrial cultures . . . existing alongside us in distinct stealth” are responsible for the anomalous phenomenon we are encountering in UFOs (H.E. Putoff, “Ultraterrestrial Models”). Some of the ideas here are that UFOs are technology wielded by a breakaway civilization of human beings or even some other species that evolved before us (that’s why they’re far ahead of us in terms of technology). Maybe these ultraterrestrials have always been in our neighborhood while perennially keeping an eye on us, or maybe they they were alerted of or become more concerned with our presence since we got our hands on nuclear weapons. In any event, the point of the ultraterrestrial model is that the “visitors” are not that distant from us on the evolutionary chain — they are earthlings! Thus, it is not surprising that we share much the same gross anatomy and biochemistry and that they construct what we can recognize as artifacts and technology.
Notice, however that UTH, like any hypothesis, is going to come at the expense of further auxiliary hypotheses, which will likewise raise the evidential price for this conclusion. For example, the advocate of the UTH will owe us an explanation as to how the ultraterrestrials have managed to remain hidden form us for so long, why they are showing themself now (or being detected), etc. etc. We will be forced to account for their intentions and their nature, though they are, according to the hypothesis, hidden from us. Any attempt to answer these questions by positing special powers or intentions on the part of the ultraterrestrials will get us into similar problems to what hampered the ETH advocate’s attempt to defend her position: it will render the claim either unfalsifiable (omniscient/omnipotent ultraterrestrials or special natural processes that cannot be disconfirmed) or call for independent evidence for the ancillary hypotheses that is not forthcoming. Thus, as it stands, I’m not convinced the UTH really buys us much over ETH.
That being said, I want to aver a proposal in the vicinity to UTH, though with far less evidential commitment. The following proposal, what I call the Uber-Umwelt Terrestrial Hypothesis (UUTH) is a version of UFO realism, i.e., it claims we are bumping into something real and sui generous with respect to our other ontological categories when we encounter the phenomenon. Nevertheless, UUTH is based on a well known explanatory concept (the Umwelt) employed fruitfully in biology, phenomenology, cognitive science, and the philosophy of mind, so it comes already armed with some good bit of independent confirmation based on its explanatory success in those fields.In short, the central explanatory concept of UUTH is both non-trivial and the benificiary of independent evidential backing. Thus, I think we can avoid the problems encountered by ETH and standard versions of UTH by taking UUTH seriously. Notice, however, this is not an attempt to demonstrate UUTH. That work can only be done by painstaking empirical investigation, and that’s nothing that I can do from the comfort of the philosopher’s proverbial armchair. I am only attempting to show that UUTH is plausible and circumvents the shared problems ETH and UTH.
In the early twentieth-century, biologist J. von Uexkull introduced the notion of the Umwelt (literally, “around-world”) into sensory biology, which is typically, though maybe infelicitously, translated as “environment.” Cognitive scientist Andy Clark unpacks what Uexkull has in mind by Umwelt as “the set of environmental features to which a given type of animal is sensitized” (Clark, Being There: Putting Brain, Body, and World Together Again, p. 24).Uexkull’s famous example is a kind of tick whose sensory system is solely attuned to butyric acid (emitted by the skin of mammals), surface pressure (good for detecting when one has landed), and heat (good for detecting when one is close to a blood source). These three sensory factors allow the tick to time its jump onto an approaching mammal, find a good place to bite, and get the blood it needs to survive. The important point is that the full richness of the sensory factors available in the physical world is narrowed to three affordances that matter to the tick. The tick’s perceptual capacities are not ordered to getting the whole world, but only the world in the aspects that make a difference for it, and that means the tick’s perceptions leave behind more than they take in. Perception sorts for relevance. The tick’s environment (Umwelt) of perceptual concern is then determined by the interplay between its needs and strategies for serving those needs. The whole world-for-the-tick is the collection of objects as defined in terms of butyric acid, surface pressure, and heat. That is not to say that the world beyond butyric acid, surface pressure, and heat don’t exist until something needs them. The tick’s physiology and behaviors (even its very needs) are formed by a dialectical history of interaction with these present factors. The idea is that the broader world is is not part of the tick’s perceptual environment, because it isn’t relevant to its needs (or at least plays no role in its survival strategy - for good or ill). None of that vast beyond is really a concern for the tick, so it’s off the tick’s radar. Certainly, the tick could be eaten by a non-butyric-acid emitting being, say, another insect, but that object would be an irruption into the comfortable Umwelt of the tick.
The tick-eating insect would be from the Uber-Umwelt (super-environment) of entities utterly alien to the tick’s Umwelt. The tick-eaters are “out there,” but they don’t matter much to the ticks in the sense that they don’t show up in the ticks sensory environment it can proactively deal with. There are also all sorts of non-threatening factors in the Uber-Umwelt relative to the tick, e.g., the green of the blade of grass on which it sits. The only world available to the tick is the butyric acid-surface pressure-heat world, which is certainly a mere sliver of what there is. Here is how Clark puts it well:
Von Uexkull’s vision is thus of different animals inhabiting different effective environments. The effective environment is defined by the parameters that matter to an animal with a specific lifestyle. The overarching gross environment is, of course, the physical word in its full glory and intricacy. (Clark, Being There, p. 25)
The point of all this is that an organism’s framing of the world in terms of its perceptual capacities (its Umwelt) is limited to those factors that are relevant to its survival strategies, which always results in something of a narrow caricature of the full richness of a perceived object. For example, when the tick senses a human being, its framing of her is entirely in terms of butyric acid, surface pressure, and heat. What a crude reduction! These factors are far form exhausting the being of a human, but that is how the tick frames us. The fullness of our being is in the Uber-Umwelt with respect to the tick. That is not to say that the tick gets us wrong (our butyric acid, surfaces, and heat are perfectly real), but only that it has a narrowly skewed picture bent toward its needs, and this skewed framing (though effective) is far from the whole story.
Notice, however, that there are caricatures in both directions - our picture of the tick is no less skewed to our needs. There are indefinitely (infinitely?) many available factors in any situation to which an organism can be attuned, and the whirl of perceptual possibility has to be sorted in order for any animal to be able to take effective action, i.e., animals must determine an Umwelt for themselves (through their evolutionary history), and humans are no exception. Moreover, like other animals, we are leaving much behind in the Uber-Umwelt in order to get a practically workable framing. Maybe our five senses (and subsequent conceptualizations) are richer than the tick’s, but we no-less winnow down the world to what is relevant to our needs. We’re pretty aloof to all that butyric acid we are huffing from our neighbors. Our perception of the tick is then likewise a shallow caricature of the fullness of its being. Once again, this is not to say that our perceptions (and subsequent conceptualizations) get the tick wrong, but only that they fall short of the full being of the tick, and this is true of all the objects of our perceptions: we are only scratching the surface of their being in our perceptual encounters, because our senses, though attuned to the world, are ultimately self-serving. In short, our Umwelt is a subset of the vast Uber-Umwelt that constitutes the world, and we can rule out neither that there is much more to those objects we do perceive nor that there are objects far beyond our convenient framings.
Maybe that conclusion is a bit troubling. What else, hiding in the Uber-Umwelt, might be in this room with me right now? Think of ticks and the tick-eating insects. Such bugs might be hidden in the Uber-Umwelt relative to the tick, even though the latter might be prey for the former. We aren’t necessarily attuned to all the threats we could suffer. What might my desk really be up to in its far richer being in the Uber-Umwelt beyond my limited perceptual access to it? The tick has no idea as to what we are up to in the Uber-Umwelt when it caricatures us in its Umwelt by sensing our butyric acid and heat. Who knows what goes on in the Uber-Umwelt?! At the very least, we should not be surprised now, if the world is quite surprising. The factors in the Uber-Umwelt are “out there,” but they are inaccessible to us under normal conditions, and I expect there are a lot of marginal cases. For example, clearly humans and the Portuguese Man of War can show up on each other’s radar, but these are fairly rare occurrences, and we are very foreign (alien!) to each other. We aren’t part of the mainstream of each other’s Umwelten, so our encounters are as though we bumped into something from another world (Welt!). (For a full-blown, systematic metaphysics in this spirt, see G. Harman’s The Quadruple Object.)
There are occasional irruptions from beings whose Umwelt and ours just barely overlap, and that is likely distressing. Think of the case of sharks. In their ordinary everyday Umwelt, they are are pretty much top-dog. Outside the odd hapless surfer, I suspect we’re mostly hiding out in their Uber-Umwelt. That is, until we show up in steel cages with dart guns in order to tag a shark or take it back to the lab. None of those factors have any ordinary role in the shark’s Umwelt - we’re reaching out to them mostly from the Uber-Umwelt. The same might be true for a naive surfer who has strayed into the shark’s territory. Sharks’ and human beings’ evolutionary history probably didn’t overlap all that much, so our perceptual capacities are not all that attuned to each other. When we do encounter each other, often something is irrupting into our worlds from a much broader reality, which doesn’t make sense in the framing we have evolved to manage things. I suspect, in our own incommensurably different ways, we both have a “What the hell is that?” moment, and there are very likely other far more alienating inter-Umwelt encounters than shark-human interactions.
The point I’m working toward should be pretty clear. We need not think of the entities behind the appearances of UFOs as a hidden, breakaway civilization of humans (or human-ish beings) or humanoid extraterrestrial explorers. No, maybe the the entities behind the UFOs are earthly beings (terrestrials who might have a very distant evolutionary link with us and the rest of the organisms on this planet), but they are hidden and elusive because they largely exist in the Uber-Umwelt relative to us. We simply have not evolved sensory capacities to get a hold of such beings with any depth, just as great white sharks and ticks haven’t been set up to get us right in any real detail. That there are beings or aspects of beings in the Uber-Umwelt is something already strongly supported by the successes of the notion of the Umwelt as it has been employed in various other fields of inquiry (see Ed Yong’s brilliant An Immense World, pp. 3-16). In short, the UFO realist adopting UUTH is employing types of explanation that already have some good evidential support. Moreover, we would expect our encounter with these Uber-Umwelt beings to be uncanny. UFOs are indeed beings from beyond our world, not our planet but our Umwelt. On UUTH, the “aliens” have always been here, just like the sharks, ticks, bugs, Portuguese Men of War, and human beings, but our ordinary concerns (which shape our perceptual capacities) aren’t aimed at them. Thus, our marginal encounters with the beings from the Uber-Umwelt don’t make much senses to us. Maybe our lives and the lives of these “aliens” are just indifferent. (We’ve been just going our separate ways for all these eons, with the occasional very uncomfortable collision.) Maybe they hunt us. (How attuned are codfish to human beings?) Maybe they have a better or deeper take on us and they are curious. (Catch and release?) Might they be running things? (Do ants in a kid’s ant farm have any notion of their master?) Those questions are left for future empirical work, but they don’t need to be answered to get the probability of UUTH off the ground. In other words, we don’t need to come up with an additional auxiliary hypothesis to explain the hiddenness, opacity, and uncanniness of beings irrupting from the Uber-Umwelt. All of that is intrinsic to the basic concepts grounding the hypothesis. Thus, UUTH promises considerable explanatory power, but at a much lower overall evidential cost than either ETH or standard UTH.
This proposal allows us to bring all order of supernatural and paranormal phenomena into the explanatory mix, and explanatory unification is a good sign for a model. What are ghosts, fairies, DMT elves, etc? They aren’t mere constructions out of our already existing ontological categories. No, they really do come from “beyond.” They are not, however, supernatural in the traditional sense (though I would say they are “super natural” in an even older sense!), i.e., ghosts, elves, demons, and the like are a part of nature, but it turns out that nature is pretty super! Nature is not limited to the Umwelt of our mundane, practically oriented perceptual capacities, and when we are lucky or unlucky enough to run into something from the Uber-Umwelt, things get very spooky. If you think this all sounds a lot like Jeff Kripal’s notion of super nature, that is no accident. I see UUTH as a proposal that could be expanded into a fruitful way of framing Kripal’s proposed research program. We might do well to investigate all well-evidenced “paranormal” phenomena (UFOs and otherwise) as irruptions of the Uber-Umwelt into our Umwelt. I in the sequel to this essay, I will further develop the Uber-Umwelt hypothesis using the resources of recent work in Object Orient Ontology and the relate notion of a hyperobject.
Of course this presumes that we have some pre-given, settled ontology, but surely that’s not really the case. For example, a religious believer already committed to existence of angels and demons might account of UFOs as cases of such entities. Would that claim be an expression of UFO realism or anti-realism? The religious person accounting for UFOs as angels or demons isn’t adding anything to her ontology, but of course a lot of people don’t recognize angels and demons as real beings. To avoid such tough questions, let’s say a UFO realist accounts for UFOs by adding an ontological category over and above those we would expect just about anybody would to accept. I don’t think most believers in angels and demons expect just about everyone to share this view, so someone claiming UFOs are angles or demons is then a UFO realist.
What follows in both this and my next essay is an attempt to advance our understanding of the UFO phenomenon (and maybe a lot more!) by employing the tools of phenomenological philosophy, in particular Heidegger’s fundamental ontology. I would never have thought to have done so, especially in applying these ideas to Vallee’s work, had it not been for Diana Pasulka’s American Cosmic, where she frames much of her project in these terms. Any of us who are now taking the UFO seriously from the comfort of academic armchairs owe a great deal to Pasulka’s pioneering field work and subsequent analyses. Moreover, though he certainly is not operating in the phenomenological milieu, something along the lines of this model is implicit in some of what John Keel is proposing in his classic of ufology, Operation Trojan Horse.
The title of Clark’s book, Being There, is a thinly veiled reference to the notion of Dasein (literally, “there-being”) in Heidegger’s Being and Time, where the notion of Umwelt plays a central role in this influential phenomenological structure. As a mentioned earlier, this notion has been well-tested across a variety of disciplines, e.g., sensory biology, cognitive science, and phenomenological philosophy.
Or those craft could be just unmanned probes from another space-faring civilization?
Hi my name is Syed. My brother and I witnessed UAPs twice in November Canada. Since then we read Vallee and just wrote our own piece on Vallee, Jung and synchronicity. I wish I read this before I wrote my article!
Here is our experience report and how we think we saw a precognitive intelligence.