Press "Enter" to skip to content

On UFOs and (psychogenic) perception

The recent declassification of previously secret documents by the FBI, and the availability of these on their so-called Vault website, have given the public access to, among others, the documents pertaining to the UFO “incident” at Roswell in the US, dating back to 1947. The incident in question involves, not merely sightings of “flying discs” — of which there were unbelievably many, as recorded in these documents, especially between the late 1940s and the 1960s — but the discovery of one of these “spacecraft” that supposedly crashed near Roswell, New Mexico, in July of that year.

The newly released files confirm that the disc-like craft that had crashed, contained three humanoid figures, about four feet tall, with heads that were disproportionately big for their small bodies. Even the clothes they were wearing are described, and if one googles “Roswell incident”, or “Roswell aliens”, or “Roswell alien autopsy”, you get to sites where a film, supposedly taken by one of the people involved with the autopsy carried out on (at least) one of the “aliens” may be viewed. The number of hits registered on those sites are an index of the interest generated by these “sensational” revelations.

The question is: what are we to make of it? After decades of denial on the part of US military authorities and the FBI, to be suddenly confronted by newly declassified documents that confirm, not merely the sighting(s) of UFOs, but actual, non-fictional “close encounters of the third kind” (á la Spielberg), that is, staring (dead) alien visitors in the face, as it were, puts the cat among the pigeons, to say the least. It is probably the case that the “evidence” could have been faked, constructed, and yet, the lingering doubt remains, that it could be authentic. (In the “alien autopsy” film available on YouTube, the “alien’s” feet look distinctly human, although the head, face and ears look non-human; but they could have been doctored to look that way.)

Don’t get me wrong: I don’t believe that we are the only “intelligent” creatures in this vast universe of billions of galaxies. Like Giordano Bruno of 16th-century Nola, Italy, before me, I believe in the likelihood (for him, the certainty) that other planets are populated by creatures similar to, but also different from, us. Bruno paid with his life for uttering this belief when he was burnt at the stake, probably largely because of the ecclesiastic-political situation of the Reformation and the Counter-Reformation at a time when the Roman Catholic Church was determined to eradicate all signs of so-called heresy (as if any person or institution has sole access to truth), and because he framed his “belief in aliens” in terms of a philosophical-theological argument.

We know, he said, that an effect is always commensurable with its cause. (For example, when finite “causes” like adult birds reproduce sexually, they produce the “effect” or result of chicks of their own species, and it is unlikely that they would produce a human being). Similarly, Bruno argued further, an infinite cause, to wit, God, cannot be expected to produce a finite effect or result, and hence, the universe and everything in it, being the “effect” of God’s creative act, must be similarly infinite. From this it further follows, he pointed out, that there must be innumerable worlds, similar to ours, where “rational” creatures like ourselves live. Unfortunately the church “authorities” did not like the tenor of his argument, and confined poor Bruno to the flames.

In Hystories: Hysterical Epidemics and Modern Culture (1997), professor of English, Elaine Showalter, provides some sound advice on the phenomenon of UFO sightings and “alien abductions” that seem to proliferate in contemporary society, especially in America. In brief, Showalter argues that these widespread beliefs contribute to so-called “hysterical epidemics”, and that our media-saturated society, where electronic communications enable isolated individual experiences (even if they are pathology-induced) to balloon into widespread panics of epidemic proportions, fantastical stories (partly constructed as narrative hypotheses to make sense of psychological phenomena), are easily “amplified by modern communications and fin-de-siécle anxiety”. In other words, in a society where there are many sources of psychological problems, it should not be surprising that individuals avail themselves of stories circulating in cultural space to try and understand their own troubles (which could include phenomena like sleep paralysis and a variety of sexual conflicts).

Is that all there is to it, though? Are UFO sightings, and prolonged exposure to what was allegedly (in the light of recent FBI declassification of previously confidential documents) visible evidence of alien creatures and their spacecraft, in the case of the Roswell incident, to be dismissed as psychogenic phenomena — that is, experiences “produced” by collective psychological dispositions, combined with the availability, in cultural space, of micro-narratives which are subsequently blown up into epidemic proportions? I would tend to lend credence to such an explanation of individual claims regarding “close encounters of the third kind”, but when a relatively large number of people claim to be privy to a shared, documented experience of this kind, it strikes one that something else is at stake.

The philosopher, Feuerbach, once remarked — against Descartes’ famous “I think, therefore I am” — that “truth begins with two”, implying that a knowledge-claim can only be given credence when it has been confirmed by at least one other person. Supposing that the “smoke” of the FBI Vault-documents is authentic, there seems to be “fire”. A famous UFO-sighting case in the Eastern Cape of South Africa seems to make the same point.

Some years ago, I received a phone call from a UFO-research centre somewhere in the United States about this case. How they got my name remains a mystery to me, but the connection was simply that the centre was informed of my acquaintance with one of the families involved in this sighting, the “file” on which the research centre had apparently re-opened because of the documentation that existed. As it turned out, I could not tell them anything they did not already know, which included the following.

In the late 1970s, if I recall correctly, a group of high school boys were waiting on a hill in the Groendal Wilderness area near Uitenhage, in the Eastern Cape, for a parent, Mrs Simpson, to fetch them by car after a day’s hiking. It was late afternoon, and suddenly they witnessed a huge, shiny, spherical object descending on a hill opposite them. To their astonishment, white-clad figures emerged from this object and moved around among (or, as they later discovered, above) the bushes surrounding it for some time before re-entering it, and the object taking off and disappearing in the sky. Naturally, when Mrs Simpson turned up, the boys excitedly told her what they had witnessed. And, as may be expected, she initially rejected the story as a schoolboy prank, or at best a fantasy they had concocted on the basis of seeing something like a floating weather balloon.

However, she was eventually constrained to believe her own son, a serious boy who was not given to frivolity of any kind, probably because he suffered from an incurable disease (which later took his life while he was in his early twenties), and accompanied the boys to the spot where they had seen the object and “people” dressed in white. There, to her astonishment, they found that the bushes had been crushed, and that there were deep indentations in the ground where the “craft” had landed. Moreover, the bushes were too high for the “people” from it to have been visible, had they been walking on the ground, from which the boys and Mrs Simpson concluded that they must have, somehow, moved “on top of”, or “above”, the typical Eastern Cape fynbos and “spekboom”.

To validate their discovery, they contacted the University of Port Elizabeth, which sent scientists from the Faculty of Natural Sciences to investigate. The most astonishing aspect of their findings was that, when they checked the deep indentations in the ground, their measurements indicated that whatever had caused them, weighed (if I remember correctly, having read the account some time ago) at least 60 tonnes — a feat impossible for the boys to perform.

I doubt whether the apartheid government at the time had the capability to perform a landing and departure with a “craft” of the kind witnessed by these schoolboys, and the fact that a US research agency, which had ferreted out my acquaintance with the Simpsons, took the trouble to call me from the US because they had re-opened the file on this Groendal-sighting, confirms that it represents something of importance. Add to this that there have been more than 30 independent sightings in the Groendal Wilderness area, and one’s curiosity (and puzzlement) is exacerbated.

The words that Shakespeare put in Hamlet’s mouth, in the face of what purports to be his father’s ghost, “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than we have dreamed of in our philosophies”, pretty much sum up my feelings about UFOs. If humans — or more specifically scientists and philosophers — believed that the “state of knowledge”, at any given time, was all there is to know, there would be no reason for science or philosophy to continue in their quest for knowledge. In this sense, the sciences and philosophy are open-ended. And that means that the question of UFOs and “alien” life continues to be of interest.


  • As an undergraduate student, Bert Olivier discovered Philosophy more or less by accident, but has never regretted it. Because Bert knew very little, Philosophy turned out to be right up his alley, as it were, because of Socrates's teaching, that the only thing we know with certainty, is how little we know. Armed with this 'docta ignorantia', Bert set out to teach students the value of questioning, and even found out that one could write cogently about it, which he did during the 1980s and '90s on a variety of subjects, including an opposition to apartheid. In addition to Philosophy, he has been teaching and writing on his other great loves, namely, nature, culture, the arts, architecture and literature. In the face of the many irrational actions on the part of people, and wanting to understand these, later on he branched out into Psychoanalysis and Social Theory as well, and because Philosophy cultivates in one a strong sense of justice, he has more recently been harnessing what little knowledge he has in intellectual opposition to the injustices brought about by the dominant economic system today, to wit, neoliberal capitalism. His motto is taken from Immanuel Kant's work: 'Sapere aude!' ('Dare to think for yourself!') In 2012 Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University conferred a Distinguished Professorship on him. Bert is attached to the University of the Free State as Honorary Professor of Philosophy.