Sightings of UFOs may challenge our entire worldview, but the facts are too compelling to ignore, and they’re not going away. So, it’s time to wash off the sticky stigma and engage in serious discussion about the evidence, and its implications.
Most UFO sightings are attributable to man-made objects like experimental aircraft or satellites, innocent misidentifications of Venus and other celestial objects, or outright hoaxes. However, we now know that in a minority of cases, there appears to be something else going on: something quite extraordinary and beyond our current comprehension.
According to the U.S. Department of Defense, there are objects of unknown origin, evidently under intelligent control, which behave in ways that seem to challenge our understanding of physics. These objects don’t just “fly” without any apparent lift surfaces or means of propulsion; according to some military testimony, they would appear to be the fastest technological objects on Earth, capable of accelerating so quickly that they should create sonic booms, superheat the air around them into a glowing plasma, and instantly kill any occupants on board.
Instead, they silently maneuver with perfect agility through the atmosphere and, according to some eyewitness reports, underwater, as if basic rules of inertia and friction simply don’t apply to them.
Today, serious researchers are beginning–sometimes grudgingly–to admit that UFOs (or UAPs if you prefer the rebranded version) are a valid area of study, and pockets of scientific enthusiasm are emerging. After the New York Times made the revelation of a secret Pentagon UFO study their front page story, the Department of Defense subsequently admitted that leaked UFO videos were in fact real (and that it has others it’s not showing us). Since that time, a NASA UFO research initiative headed by Princeton’s former chair of astronomy has been launched, former Harvard astronomer Avi Loeb’s Galileo Project wants to determine if the strange phenomena are extraterrestrial. The Pentagon’s All-domain Anomaly Resolution Office is now investigating UFO phenomena across all the branches of the military; the US Navy has revised its protocols to counter stigmas against UFO reporting and encourage sighting reports by pilots (like this one); and there have been briefings in the US Senate and House regarding the more than 650 sightings now being studied by AARO, marking an almost singular point of bipartisanship in a traditionally fractured Congress.
This explosion of interest and influx of expertise, credibility, and funding into UFO research will create a flow of ideas between old-hat UFO researchers and establishment newcomers to the subject. As some scientific communities shift to incorporate the nascently-legitimate subject of UFO research, they may have to accommodate elements of the other’s conceptual frameworks, methodologies, and research agendas, and this will require questioning old assumptions about what sort of evidence actually exists and how to interpret it. Likewise, it is the perfect moment for UFO-interested folks to pause and evaluate their own assumptions about the subject, many of which seem to have been in place since the very beginning of the Flying Saucer craze that in 1947 began simultaneously in both America and Canada. As career researchers and academics (like me) join the conversation, the contours of the conversation itself will inevitably shift–I think for the better.
How I Came to the Subject, and What I Noticed as a Newcomer
My own journey down the UFO rabbit hole began one day early in 2019. As I flipped through a catalog from Oxford University Press, one title, in particular, jumped out at me: American Cosmic: UFOs, Religion, Technologyby Diana Walsh Pasulka, a tenured professor of religion at the University of North Carolina. What surprised me most was that the blurb in the catalog suggested the author thought that it was not merely the UFO believers that were interesting, but that the phenomenon itself was worth serious attention. I promptly ordered a copy, and once it arrived I spent the next few days absorbed in the most bizarre piece of nonfiction I’d ever read.
The UFO enthusiasts Pasulka spent the most time with–two men she dubbed “James” and “Tyler” to preserve their anonymity–were both experiencers of the phenomenon. However, they weren’t tinfoil-hat-waring obsessives; they were scientists and academics, and not long after her book was published, a prodigious Stanford biomedical scientist named Garry Nolan revealed that he was the man referred to in the text as “James”. Around the same time, members of Reddit, by perusing the Vatican archive visitors’ log for the days Pasulka and “Tyler” visited, discovered that the latter appears to have been Timothy Taylor, founder of Endius.
What I found as I slipped into the deep end of the pool of UFO research was that, first, there is no shallow end. It’s deep ends everywhere you go, and once you clear away the debris of obvious hoaxes and non-evidential sightings, every drop in the pool–that is, every case warranting sustained attention–is a little ocean with its own perplexing depths where nothing is what it at first seems to be. The important facts of each case are often so embedded in the commentaries and interpretations that have grown around them that it’s difficult to consider them separately from the belief systems of the UFO community itself.
Questioning Common Sense With Relation to UFOs
Like all communities defined by a belief system, over time the most important beliefs become accepted so widely that they eventually feel too obvious even to mention. It’s similar to the way we don’t ever point out that murder isn’t nice; beliefs like these are accepted so widely and deeply that they pass out of consciousness altogether to some deeper place, where they operate out of sight.
We are born into an atmosphere of these powerful but unspoken beliefs, and we adopt them not by reasoning about the evidence for or against them; rather, we simply accept them as part of the foundation of beliefs that we need in order to do any reasoning at all. If reasoning were a game of chess, these beliefs wouldn’t be pieces in the game or moves made by players: they’d be the board.
These beliefs–the ones paradoxically so obvious that they’re invisible–are what some people in my field call ideology. The word is sometimes used pejoratively, but the fact is that everyone has an ideology. Questioning a person’s foundational beliefs can be so uncomfortable that it feels like an existential threat, and we respond defensively, even violently. Likewise, if we encounter any idea that flatly contradicts our foundational beliefs, it will seem patently false and absurd.
These responses to strange new ideas are, of course, mistakes. Different people can have wildly different belief systems. And our familiarity or comfort with a belief is not evidence of its truth.
If we’re concerned with uncovering the actual truth of the world outside our skulls, it’s essential that we sometimes do the very uncomfortable work of identifying and questioning the assumptions about the world that feel most comfortable and sensible to us. It’s the only way to ensure we’re not trapped in an echo chamber, looking for a truth hidden in one of our ideological blind spots.
What I’m proposing we all do regarding our ideas about UFOs is not so much taking a new perspective or “thinking outside the box”, but thinking about the box itself, by turning our eyes away from the problem at hand, to take a look at the constraints, expectations, and assumptions we bring to the problem in the first place, to see how they might be limiting or obstructing our attempts to solve the problem we’ve set within them, and to ask how we might construct a better box. As with most good ideas, the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche said it best, capturing my suggestion in his dictum that “Whatever wobbles, you should push.”
And this is exactly what I think the UFO community should do right now, in light of the growth of attention and collaboration regarding the topic. Shaking up the community’s ideology, and pushing at the wobbly bits will help identify areas ripe for creative thought, and will make collaboration more smooth and transparent. We may even surprise ourselves once we all lay our ideological cards on the table.
To us take a few first steps in this direction, I’ve identified four assumptions that seem to me to act as a kind of ideological orthodoxy among experiencers and researchers, and even among everyday people who maintain a quiet interest in the subject. These assumptions, I think, have their roots in our shared experience of Western culture and its worldview with relation to UFOs, from our suspicions toward governments to familiar tropes from science fiction stories to Hollywood’s speculative depictions of our intergalactic neighbors. When it comes to asking serious questions about the unknown, though, we need better foundations than these, and building those foundations starts with deconstructing our current ones.
Four Assumptions About UFOs Worth Prodding
I’ve noticed four basic assumptions prevalent among UFO researchers and enthusiasts, as well as the general public that, as a philosopher, I think deserve some prodding.
Assumption One: The Supremacy of ETH
The first culture-wide assumption that, as a philosopher, I think deserves a close look is the one that, at first glance, seems most sensible; this is the assumption that the most obvious explanation for real UFOs is also the best one: that they’re extraterrestrial craft, under the control of intelligent extraterrestrial beings. This idea, often called the Extraterrestrial Hypothesis (or ETH for short), seems to come to mind spontaneously for nearly everyone when they think of UFOs (including me). But, after a lot of reflection, as far as I can tell, it’s not our brains’ automatic first choice because there is really strong evidence that ETH is a better explanation than any other. Rather, I think it’s our default assumption because most of us don’t think outside the possibilities presented to us in science fiction.
The consequence is that most of us aren’t even aware that the Extra-Terrestrial Hypothesis (ETH), with its either/or logic of “ if it’s not humans, then it must be ETs”, is certainly not the only plausible explanation for these phenomena. There are other views that deserve serious consideration. One possibility is that there is some natural process that occupies some unknown area of physics, and that can mimic intelligent behavior. This may sound far-fetched, but we already know of other natural phenomena that seem to behave in inexplicably intelligent ways: unintelligent slime molds can solve mazes and can even reproduce maps of Tokyo’s railway system. Similarly, totally blind evolutionary processes produce biological objects that seem like the product of design by intelligence. Perhaps some UFOs are themselves natural phenomena that simply seem to behave with intelligence. This of course leaves the question of how they defy our understanding of physics, but it’s a start.
Another possibility is that UFOs are a special kind of mental phenomenon that can manifest in visible, external ways. Some Renaissance scientists studying the eye pointed out that it had the same structure as a projector, and reckoned that the eye might sometimes work in reverse, projecting light to create external images, rather than receiving light and turning it into mental images.
We can be confident today that this particular phenomenon isn’t real, but arguably stranger phenomena are now well-established realities. From robots controlled entirely by brain waves to machines that can render our dreams in visible images, technologies are allowing the contents of our minds to have a powerful presence in the world outside our heads. None of this even mentions theories of reality that totally throw into question the distinction between the “internal” and “external” world–ideas like the Simulation Hypothesis and holographic theories of the universe.
Another alternative to the ETH put forward by one of the most credentialed and intellectually rigorous UFO investigators out there, Jacques Vallée, is that reality itself has within it some fundamental mechanism for disrupting our certainty about the world. This mechanism, he theorizes, kicks in at opportune moments to manifest weirdness that is calculated, often humorously, to mystify us into wonder or incomprehension. For Vallée, who calls his theory the “Control System Hypothesis”, reality itself may be a trickster whose purpose is to nudge our collective consciousness in ways that encourage society to develop in particular ways.
As bizarre as this idea sounds, it’s not one that Vallée brought into his research into UFOs, but rather a notion he began to formulate after decades of flying around the world, personally investigating reported encounters and interviewing experiencers. By his own account, he was initially persuaded by the ETH, but case by case, he became convinced that the details simply didn’t add up to an extraterrestrial explanation. He found that, when experiencers were allowed to describe the details of their encounters as they experienced them, rather than simply responding to standard data-collection questions about the size and shape of craft, number, and arrangement of lights, etc., these sane, intelligent experiencers who shunned publicity and sought no personal gain, recalled details that are flatly absurd. The occupants of UFOs disembark for no other apparent reason than to argue with witnesses about what the time is, or to offer bystanders pancakes. Such encounters seem intentionally surreal to Vallée as if they were constructed in order to mystify experiencers with their absurdity.
Another category of (quasi) encounters with UFOs that is rife with the absurd is the category of reported alien abductions. Abduction reports often describe beings who, despite obviously possessing ultra-sophisticated technology, inflict pseudo-medical “examinations” upon abductees using tools and methods that would be laughable for their medieval silliness if they weren’t so traumatizing for those who report these experiences.
The bizarre details of abduction encounters make them easy to dismiss out of hand, but it’s probably a mistake to ignore these reports. Pulitzer Prize-winner and then-chair of psychiatry at Harvard, John Mack, spent over a decade conducting hundreds of hours of interviews with self-identified abductees. In the end, he published collaborations with other psychiatrists, and severalrelatedbooksin which he reached three firm conclusions: 1) the people he interviewed were not crazy, 2) they were not lying, and 3) the only thing they seemed to have in common was the fact that they reported being abducted. Simply put, these sane, otherwise normal people really believed these things had happened to them.
You may, at this point, decide that we have strayed too far from respectable scientific speculation; Mack’s colleagues at Harvard suspected the same of him, and, in an attempt to oust him and formally discredit the incredible conclusions he drew, they descended upon his work with a formal investigation, the first Harvard had ever conducted upon one of its own faculty members. Their investigation alleged that Mack had committed gross professional irresponsibility by “communicat[ing], in any way whatsoever, to a person who has reported a ‘close encounter’ with an extraterrestrial life form that this experience might well have been real”. For fourteen months the team of Harvard professors pored over piles of Mack’s notes, data, and recorded interviews before they were finally forced to conclude that, despite a few methodological criticisms, there was no basis to deny the credibility of his work. Harvard subsequently declared that Mack–a man who publicly argued for the reality of abduction cases– was, and always had been, a member of Harvard’s faculty in good standing and that his scholarship was worthy of one of the greatest universities in the world.
Mack openly acknowledged that the abduction phenomenon is “some kind of psychological, spiritual experience” that is “both literally and physically happening”, and speculated that the events were “originating, perhaps, in another dimension.” He never made the surreal absurdities of abduction encounters a focal point of his study, but he left us with good reasons to believe these experiences were genuine–absurdities and all–which means the absurdity at the heart of many UFO and abduction encounters still requires an explanation. Vallée’s hypothesis seems, to a degree, like an attempt to address some of the questions raised by Mack’s research.
A totally different approach to understanding the incredible and sometimes absurd facts of the UFO phenomenon–an approach I call the “missing concepts” view–would be to consider that, if UFOs are the work of other intelligent beings, they are almost certainly the product of beings who have forms of experience, conceptual categories, and kinds of activities, and aims that would be incomprehensibly foreign to us. Our current relationship to the phenomena may then be akin to a race of intelligent, but totally blind aliens who have found and are trying to understand a human-made kaleidoscope. UFO phenomena, in other words, may be conceptually incomprehensible to us both in how they work, and what their basic purpose is. Our mental toolbox may be missing some of the essential concepts that are necessary for describing the phenomena, even at a rudimentary level, the way intelligent beings without a concept of visual experience simply can’t theorize their way to a good explanation of a kaleidoscope.
Each of these hypotheses—Vallee’s “control system”, the possibility that some are exotic but natural intelligence-mimicking phenomena, that they’re somehow of terrestrial origin, or that UFOs are currently conceptually incomprehensible–all deserve consideration alongside the ETH, and we should be trying to design many other new hypotheses too, along with empirical tests to eliminate them if they don’t fit the evidence. The standard assumption that any legitimate UFOs are extraterrestrial craft shouldn’t simply be discarded, but it should be tested alongside these other hypotheses.
Assumption Two: The Unity of The Phenomena of UFOs
The second assumption that seems to underlie nearly every conversation about UFOs is the belief that these unexplained phenomena are each individual manifestations of a single root phenomenon; that they’re all ultimately the same kind of thing and so, whatever the explanation may be, we only need one explanation. Like all assumptions, this is rarely stated, but I’ve yet to come across anyone who wants to distinguish between types of UFOs for the purpose of attributing unrelated causes to them.
When we’re trying to explain a collection of distinct phenomena spread across space and time, each with its own unique, noteworthy features, the best default assumption is that there are multiple distinct causes at play. The body of documented UFO phenomena includes glowing orbs, military encounters with craft-like objects, accounts of human and humanoid creatures, massive air battles among flying objects of wildly varying descriptions, and celestial apparitions, to name a few. This raises a serious methodological question: how do we draw the boundaries to define UFOs in the first place? How, for instance, are we to distinguish in every case between religious or mystical encounters–like the 1917 events at Fatima, Portugal–and more “normal” UFO encounters, with which they share some important features? This question becomes even more complex when we consider that experiencers can interpret the same details very differently depending on their worldview.
What is needed is for us to develop a rigorous, standardized taxonomy of the different kinds of encounters according to both empirical and subjective elements, and then to consider, for each type, which explanation fits with and explains the data best. There’s no good reason to assume, in the face of so much perplexing evidence, that there’s really only one kind of weird thing going on.
Assumption Three: The Consistency of The Government
Another idea joined at the hip of nearly every discussion about UFOs is the belief that The Government (usually the US) has probably already solved the mystery, and they’re playing dumb. The reasoning is clear: how could a technological superpower with a military spanning the globe not know what’s behind these phenomena, especially given the serious national security implications of strange objects in our airspace?
The heart of this suspicion is an assumption that the government–and here it’s more like The Government–is unified enough that it can harbor within itself a kind of secret society that spans its various branches and bureaus and operates effectively, and in secret. However, take a cursory glance at any major government project (and here, again, I am thinking especially of the US Government); whether it’s an interstate system, national healthcare, public education, taxation, natural disaster response, or even passing an annual budget, one will quickly conclude that our governments very often lack the unity required for accomplish even their most fundamental tasks.
This is just the nature of the beast: a large group comprising various ideologies tasked with pursuing multiple complexes and often competing goals is always at the risk of fracturing from internal stress, at which point it may be unable to accomplish even its day-to-day duties. Any system constantly fighting the tides of such internal stresses is almost certainly incapable of perpetrating a coordinated, decades-long, system-wide coverup of the most important truths humanity has ever known. If we consider that there are also thousands of dogged and competent journalists sniffing for corruption, ethically motivated insiders ready to blow the whistle, and hundreds of other governments with their own messy innards and competing interests, it is possible, at most, to believe that single incidents–maybe even massively important ones–could be concealed if they fell under the purview of a single office or bureau, but the possibility that large numbers of people across multiple, often-quarrelsome governments have cooperatively succeeded at suppressing monumental truths about our place in the universe for decades seems vanishingly small.
We would be better off avoiding attributing such awesome power and competence to our governments, and instead, adopt a more nuanced conception of governments that sees them not as unified wholes, but as loose collections of bureaus that cooperate or share information with one another when it serves their individual interests, but often operate with disregard or outright antagonism toward one another. A more accurate picture of the situation would then emerge, one in which the UFO phenomenon is a very large jigsaw puzzle of which each government likely only possesses a few pieces, which are then scattered across that government’s chain of island-like bureaus and offices, which are not particularly cooperative with each other, and so may not even acknowledge that they have any of the pieces, or that the puzzle is even real.
Assumption Four: The Inevitability of Disclosure
There is, however, a growing acknowledgment that the puzzle of UFOs is “real”, and this appears, at least for some within the UFO community, to confirm a long-held belief so important it verges on the prophetic: the belief that many of those in power –usually government officials– already know what is really behind these phenomena, and that a day of Disclosure is coming when the weight of the evidence and public concern about UFOs will become so great that it breaks down the wall of silence. On that day, the government will admit it has known for a long time that UFOs are real and that they’re not terrestrial in origin.
Disclosure is usually conceived as the end result of a grass-roots effort: there will come a moment when the UFO community accumulates enough of its own evidence and public demand for the truth grows strong enough. Then the veil will fall and the government will come clean to the public about what it knows and the world will simply believe because the truth will be so unambiguous that no interpretation is required to understand it.
The fourth assumption I want to interrogate concerns this supposedly-inevitable result of disclosure. The deluge of government revelations is expected by many to be a watershed moment that brings about the global realization that we are not alone in the universe and that we can no longer pretend to occupy its center. This will be a moment of enlightenment that unites humanity with a shared truth that transcends our differences. The utopian vision of disclosure is founded upon a single essential, but hidden, assumption: that there is a kind of evidence so powerful that when it is presented to any sane, reasonable person, they will be convinced and draw the same conclusion. In this case, it is the belief that there’s some kind of evidence that, upon revelation, would overwhelmingly convince the global public that we’re not alone in the universe.
There is, however, no such evidence. In fact, there never could be.
This may seem like an odd claim, and maybe you feel inclined to reply, “Look, I guarantee that if a fleet of UFOs showed up at the White House, the whole world would believe”. But this would only prove that clear evidence doesn’t compel belief the way we tend to think, because, as it turns out, sightings of UFOs have already been reported at the White House on multiple occasions. Similar cases, like the time a UFO forced Chicago’s O’Hare airport to shut down one of its terminals, led to the launch of an investigation by a civilian aviation safety organization in 2006. But events like these just didn’t seem to move the needle of public belief, perhaps because the public is committed to a version of reality that leaves little room to take seriously the hard evidence for phenomena that we don’t already have an explanation for. The result is that we shrug, assume there’s some non-weird explanation we’re missing, and go on with our business.
This is just the very nature of evidence though, regardless of whether it’s everyday people or professional scientists; evidence is neverabsolutelycompelling. Here I am importing a concept from the philosophy of science called “underdetermination.”For philosophers of science, it is a well-known adage that theories are always underdetermined by the evidence. This means that, while a set of evidence might strongly support one theory, there will always be an array of other, totally different theories that could account equally well for that same set of evidence. It follows that, no matter how concrete or well-documented the evidence may be, evidence cannot ever conclusively compel us to accept any particular theory over all of the others.
To illustrate, consider a theory that you almost certainly hold. You don’t believe minotaurs are real. That is, you deny Minotaur Theory (a belief in minotaurs, which we’ll call MT) in favor of No Minotaur Theory (NMT). Now, try to imagine some set of evidence that, if it were shown to you, would force you to abandon NMT and accept MT. You might say that, if a minotaur walked into the room you’re in right now and said “Hi. I’m a minotaur”, you’d give up NMT and accept MT. Maybe you would, but would you have to? Is there noother option? Couldn’t you hold on to NMT, and instead believe that something very serious had gone wrong in your brain? Or that you’d been the unwitting victim of a Darren Brown TV special? Or that someone had dosed your coffee with a potent hallucinogen? Or that you’ve died and gone to some very confusing hell?
As with minotaurs, so it is with UFOs, and everything else. While you might be able to specify the evidence that would convince you to conclude, say, that extraterrestrials are behind some UFO phenomena, there is simply no possible set of evidence that would persuade every rational person, regardless of their belief system, to accept the same conclusion
Those who’ve noticed the American public’s inability to agree on any consensus reality will understand: if flying saucers landed on the promenade of the United Nations headquarters, and lanky gray-skinned humanoids emerged with greetings from Venus, some people would believe what they saw at face value. But millions would also believe it was a hoax perpetrated by global super-elites, or a deep fake operation, or a demonic apparition, and any further evidence would only challenge them to elaborate, and thereby strengthen their beliefs.
It may be worth hoping that government disclosure will one day solve the mystery of UFOs for us all by making the truth clear, especially given how confused and divided we all are. Imagine a moment of reprieve from the turmoil of the world. But believing that it will actually happen is philosophically naive. There’s no topic or evidence with the power to cut through our ideological divisions, and ideological shifts, when they happen, tend to take generations. This is what will happen if solid evidence of UFOs continues to gain public attention, so the UFO community should begin now to reflect on how to frame evidence in ways that appeal to various belief systems so that the growth of public awareness brings more viewpoints and novel ideas into the community.
The UFO community faces a challenging paradox: On the one hand, it must maintain a kind of social unity in the face of skeptics who dismiss the subject out of hand, without considering the evidence. On the other, it must avoid the sort of intellectual unity that demands acceptance of a single viewpoint, and instead seek out new ideas and viewpoints to prevent stagnation and cultivate the diversity of ideas that make for a thriving intellectual ecosystem.
For my part, I hope the community flourishes. When it comes to exploring the unexplained, the danger is never that we will entertain too many ideas but too few. I think that reflecting on our assumptions and destabilizing the ideas that feel most familiar and sensible is the best way to spur the kind of broad, collaborative thinking that the community needs as we see more and more public acknowledgment that these exciting and bewildering phenomena are real. Because, whatever else they may be, they are undoubtedly an invitation to joyfully expand our openness to the unknown and to the possible.
Michael Glawson, Ph.D., is a writer, researcher, and consultant with extensive experience. He served as a professor at the University of South Carolina, Georgia State University, and the College of Charleston for over ten years. During his tenure, he taught philosophy courses on logic, technology, and science & religion, as well as ethics courses for medical students, and engineers.
Dr. Glawson has made scholarly contributions in philosophy of religion, philosophy of technology, pedagogy, and corporate ethics. As a teacher he co-created one of the United States’ pioneering engineering ethics curricula, which has empowered thousands of STEM students to pursue technical careers while upholding their core values. As a consultant, he developed a corporate ethics curriculum adopted by numerous government agencies and Fortune 500 companies.
Michael is a member of the Scientific Coalition for UAP Studies. In his leisure time he enjoys the company of his partner and his cats, and indulging in the exploration of strange, rare, and old books. You can follow him on Twitter @michaelglawson, reach out to him via email at michaelglawson[at]me[dot]com, or find his work at linktr.ee/michaelglawson.