High Strangeness: An Atavistic Fear of the Unknown

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

An Atavistic Fear of the Unknown



            In the wake of the news that Tom DeLonge will at last reveal his Big UFO News on October 11 (a.k.a. tomorrow), I find myself reflecting on why stories like this always grab headlines and stir our deepest yearnings to learn who or what is behind the UFO phenomenon.

To most people who were alive in the 1960s, the most significant NASA space mission of that decade would likely be the Apollo 11 moon landing. Neil Armstrong’s “small step” onto the surface of the moon, which took place July 16, 1969, marked the first time that human beings had ventured beyond Earth orbit and landed safely on another celestial body, and it forever altered our perception of our place on the cosmos.

The most important NASA mission of the '60s? Not this one.
It also completely overshadowed an earlier NASA mission that, it can be argued, played a much more significant and lasting role in defining the human identity. For, while Neil Armstrong’s and Buzz Aldrin’s dusty lunar footprints established the human race’s status as space explorers, the Mariner 4 Mars fly-by mission of 1964/65 taught us the meaning of loneliness.

It is startling to be reminded that just over 50 years ago, well within my lifetime, it was a commonly-held belief among sane, educated humans that intelligent life existed on Mars. This was not a crackpot idea; it had been promulgated, promoted and reinforced for decades by sober scientists and journalists (and, admittedly, the occasional science fiction writer). Ever since Milanese astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli had first described the “canali,” or channels, he saw on the Martian surface in 1877 and American astronomer Percival Lowell then deduced in 1894 that Schiaparelli’s canali could only be irrigation canals constructed by intelligent Martians, we Earthlings have been intoxicated—indeed, madly in love—with the notion that life exists on other worlds, that we are not, in fact, the one and only, nature’s supreme accomplishment.

Yet Mariner 4 dashed our hopes, permanently (or so we thought at the time). Mariner 4, an unmanned probe resembling nothing more than an oversized ceiling fan, passed within 6,000 miles of our nearest planetary neighbor on July 14 and 15, 1965, and transmitted to Earth 21 “close-up” photographs (and a partial 22nd photo) of the Martian surface. It was at that moment that the human race learned, absolutely and definitively, that there were no Martians on Mars. For generations who had grown up wondering about the canals on Mars and reading the speculative fiction of Ray Bradbury and H. G. Wells, it came as a lonely shock to discover that the bleak, dry Martian landscape was incapable of supporting life, and that we had the solar system to ourselves. “There was disappointment among some scientists, and the public alike,” reported space.com with some understatement.

On the surface, this disappointment makes little rational sense, as the prospect of encountering alien life in any form tends to bring the worst, most primal type of human fear and loathing to the surface. Ever since the H. G. Wells’ 1897 novel The War of the Worlds introduced the concept of the alien invasion narrative to the human psyche, and the 1951 science-fiction film The Thing from Another World brought that horror to life on the big screen, humans have harbored a deep and abiding fear of alien life. And it isn’t just pop-culture narratives stoking the fire, either: for every space scientist today searching the skies for incoming messages from the stars or transmitting friendly radio greetings beyond our solar system, there is another warning us that attracting the attention of an alien race on some distant planet may not be our wisest move. “If aliens visit us, the outcome would be much as when Columbus landed in America, which didn't turn out well for the Native Americans,” physicist and cosmologist Stephen Hawking famously warned in his 2010 Discovery Channel TV series, Into the Universe with Stephen Hawking. “Such advanced aliens would perhaps become nomads, looking to conquer and colonize whatever planets they can reach.”

And yet we humans keep longing for that contact.


            How do we recognize this ever-present yearning? Consider the fact that today UFO-

themed reality television shows crowd the cable TV listings, and amateur UFO investigation 

groups receive hundreds, if not thousands, of UFO reports every week. Consider the fact 

that when science fiction films came to the fore in the 1950s and 1960s, they became so 

immensely popular that film historian Patrick Lucanio wrote, “One might argue convincingly

that never in the history of motion pictures has any other genre developed and multiplied so 

rapidly in so brief a period.” Consider that the return of FBI special agents Fox Mulder and 

Dana Scully in a recent six-episode X-Files “reunion” was one of the top ten rated TV 

shows of 2016, and the series is coming back by popular demand in 2018. None of these 

cultural barometers operate in a vacuum; aliens repel us, yes, but they also 

attract us with a power that is a wonder to behold.

I was first alerted to this strange attraction when researching the life and work of Dr. Hynek (1910-1986). Hynek's call for rigorous scientific study of the UFO phenomenon—a study that called for categorizing UFO events and identifying potential patterns in the most phenomenal cases—put him in an awkward position as a scientist, but he never allowed fear of ridicule to divert him from his mission.

When in the 1970s Hynek developed his iconic “Close Encounters” categorization system for classifying UFO reports, he identified Close Encounters of the Third Kind as those involving the presence of a being or “occupant” in association with the appearance of an unidentified flying object. In the nearly four decades Hynek studied UFOs, he came across thousands of Close Encounter of the Third Kind cases, and the sheer number of these reports was deeply troubling to him, as he simply did not want to make room in his rational brain for the bizarre concept of UFO occupants.

      “I don’t know what makes me want to automatically look down upon these creature 

cases,” Hynek said in a 1978 interview in UFO Report magazine. “Maybe this involves an 

atavistic fear of the unknown, or of rivalry with another species. There is, upon closer 

scrutiny, another factor which I find difficult to sort out. It is odd that the creatures seen 

coming from these craft should resemble our own homo sapien race so closely.”


      And yet “creature” cases continued to abound, and Hynek was called in to investigate a 

great many of them. And the more time he spent with the witnesses in these CE3K cases—

many of whom claimed to have been abducted by these entities, brought onto their crafts, 

even flown off into space—the more he was forced to accept that the presence of 

unexplained, often humanoid beings in association with UFOs were a significant factor in 

the phenomenon.


      And those beings were not altogether unpleasant. In one 1959 case that fascinated 

Hynek for years, an Anglican priest named William Gill who ran a mission in Boianai, Papua 

New Guinea, witnessed, with some two dozen others, the appearance of a flying disc with 

glowing, oversized humanoid occupants visible on a top “deck” on the craft. On the second 

night the disc appeared, Father Gill and another witness waved to the strange occupants, 

and they waved back. For a few exciting moments, the disc approached the witnesses 

below, and Father Gill expected the figures to land their craft and say hello. But the disc 

reversed course and moved away, leaving Gill and the other witnesses feeling oddly 

frustrated and disappointed.


      Similarly, in the Hudson Valley UFO sightings of the mid-1980s, in which thousands of 

people reported nighttime encounters with V-shaped light formations traversing the Hudson 

Valley north of New York City, the desire to get close to an apparently alien presence 

overrode the witnesses’ common sense. In several instances, witnesses claimed to have 

wished secretly that the object would come closer to them, only to flee in terror when the 

object seemed to respond to the wish and approach the witness.


      Had a meeting between humans and aliens transpired one of those nights in 1959 or in 

the mid-1980s, what might it have meant for mankind? All we know for certain is that in 

more than one occurrence, numerous earth humans reported being at least momentarily 

giddy with excitement at the thought that they were communicating with beings that were 

quite possibly not from this earth, and that those beings might land and say Hi.


      I would argue that a great many of us—perhaps most of us—would feel that same thrill 

of anticipation at the thought of making contact with an alien life form, Stephen Hawking 

notwithstanding.


      But, why? Why was a great swath of the population of earth so at ease for so many 

years with the idea that Mars was populated with intelligent—and, let’s be honest here: 

possibly malevolent—beings? Why were we so disappointed when Mariner 4 transmitted its 

devastating photographs of Mars’ destitute landscape?


      Why do we fear being alone in the universe?


     My theory—and it’s a very simple one—is that if we are the only intelligent life forms in 

the universe, that makes us seem accidental. Believing that intelligent life has evolved 

elsewhere makes our existence—and theirs—seem intentional.

 So, yes, on a very basic level, we need aliens. We need them everywhere, and so we have them everywhere. I have an alien emoticon on my phone, for God’s sake, and I bet you do, too.

This much was obvious to Dr. Hynek as far back as the early 1980s: “UFOs are a subliminal theme in society,” appearing in “many of today’s video games, movies and in rock music,” he said in an interview. “It’s a new form of religion with some people—a dissatisfaction with the old-time religions in which people are looking for a scientific twist.” Of course, Hynek himself was a factor in these developments—he even appeared in a six-second cameo appearance at the climax of CE3K, cementing his role as a popularizer of UFO culture.

While I am not suggesting that belief in the reality of UFOs and their possible occupants constitutes a religious movement, I do agree with Hynek that there is a profound allure in finding a “scientific twist” to traditional religious beliefs. Many of us humans place as much or more faith in science as we do in our Gods, in part because for many of us science justifies our faith more often and more reliably than does religion.

And yet, science is not without its failings. When Charles Darwin placed us at the top of the evolutionary ladder, he neglected to consider that we humans have an innate drive to keep climbing. If there’s a top rung to the ladder, where do we go next? The aliens seem to know.

Maybe, then, our need for aliens is one part a need for comfort and reassurance and one part aspiration. We want company in the universe, and we want a procession of new goals, new hopes, new reasons for our existence. And the aliens just might be willing to help. Now, if only they could make their message a little more clear to all of us...

Understanding may not come quickly or easily. Dr. Hynek knew that the universe demands that we play the long game, but he also believed that our patience would be rewarded. “I would not be prepared to defend the thesis that UFOs represent visitors from outer space,” Dr. Hynek once mused. “Indeed, I think the answer may be even more interesting than that. I think the answer will be very exotic and beyond our imagination.”

10 comments:

purrlgurrl said...

The universe is stupendously huge. So, huge that even if there were millions of civilizations in it, the chances of their ever interacting are extremely low. The distances in space between galaxies or stars or even planets in a solar system is beyond the comprehension of most.

Years ago I attended an astronomy lecture. The lecturer was trying to give us an idea of the distances between the planets in our solar system. He held up an M&M, and declared it to be the sun. Then he gave M&Ms to 12 people in the audience and ranged them holding their "planet" in relative distances from the sun (his place at the podium) and from each other. Only three "planets" were in the auditorium. The rest were ranged further and further away outside the auditorium door, down the hall and in the lobby, and the last, Pluto (still part of the solar system though robbed of its status) was outside the front door of the building and down the block. The demonstration was both mind boggling and extremely sobering. And that's just our solar system.

It's highly improbable aliens have ever visited us or that we face danger from an alien invasion (20th century science fiction literature and Hollywood movies created and deeply implanted these memes). The closest intelligent civilization to our planet is more than likely too far away to ever cover the distance.

As for Tom DeLonge, I'm not holding my breath that what he says will be anything with the weight of credible evidence or proof behind it. It will be performance art.

Mark OC said...

Your musings on the vast size of the universe call to mind Hynek's moment in "The Edge of Reality" in which he wonders whether UFO encounters are at least partially psychic experiences, and he asks "Well, what's the speed of thought?" In other words, what if those aliens could reach across space psychically and manifest in such a way that they make us think that they're here physically...?

purrlgurrl said...

Yes, the "nuts and bolts" craft explanation just doesn't hold water. I believe there is a phenomenon (or multiple phenomena) behind many, not all, UFO experiences. After we rule out earthbound explanations running the gamut from misidentifications to outright lies, we're left with a mystery that might perhaps be explained as the product of exotic physics, psychic manifestations created by the witness, and even, as Dr. Hynek suggested, telepathic contact across the universe. I'd like to think it's ETs touching our minds, but I suspect we might one day be told UFOs represent some truly weird physics that temporarily scramble our brains.

Bill Pilgrim said...

purrlgurrl, Mark,

I must begin with Doc Brown's repeated observation: "Marty, you're not thinking fourth dimensionally!"

According to OUR physics the distances and time are too vast. But who decreed we must impose our conceptions and understandings of the laws of nature on beings who might be hundreds of thousands of years ahead of us scientifically and technologically?
Modern physics admits that we can only observe and measure a fraction (about 6 percent) of the energies that are calculated or postulated to exist in cosmos. A highly advanced civilization is highly advanced precisely because of its understanding and mastery of energies.
If we can agree on one trait common to nearly all reputable UFO sightings for the past 70 years, it's the fact that the objects demonstrated flight and behavior characteristics indicating utilization of energies and forces unknown to our science. In this context, FTL (faster than light) travel shouldn't seem so implausible. Time and distance could possibly be superseded by a knowledge and understanding of universal laws we haven't even imagined yet.

Mark OC said...

Good points, all! At some point could this advanced knowledge of physics become indistinguishable (from our human standpoint at least) from amazing feats of psychic power? I'm reminded of Arthur C. Clarke's observation that advanced technology seems like magic to an unprepared mind!

Bill Pilgrim said...

Mark,

Your question ultimately leads to the realm of metaphysics and consciousness. There's an axiom in what's known as The Ageless Wisdom (or The Perennial Philosophy, or The Secret Doctrine) that there's nothing in the entire manifested universe but energy - vibrating at some frequency or wavelength. (Einstein and other physicists have demonstrated this.)
Another axiom is: "Energy follows thought." Let that sink in...and consider the colossal implications!

I'm of the opinion that an extraordinarily advanced technology isn't necessarily mechanical, as we understand it, but the manipulation and control of energies & matter & forces & their interchange by the powers of Mind.
That is all the result of a more evolved consciousness. Our science will never get to those technologies until our consciousness does.

Bill Pilgrim said...

Mark,

Regarding my last comment, I think quantum physics is - knowingly or not - moving in this direction.

Mark OC said...

I hope Tom DeLonge is reading this!

Bill Pilgrim said...

Mark,

...And I hope he's not just another dupe being manipulated for disinformation purposes.

We'll see.

Mark OC said...

Last I checked he had raised about $300K, so if he is working for the government at least he's not wasting my tax dollars :)