Part One: UFO Club
“In the end, the future may well be decided by the image which carries the greatest spiritual power.” —Fred Polak, quoted in epigraph to Changing Images of Man
Once more unto the breach, dear friends.
American Cosmic: UFOs, Religion, Technology was released in early 2019, by Oxford University Press. It is by Diana Walsh Pasulka, a Professor of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina, Wilmington, and Chair of the Department of Philosophy and Religion. Pasulka’s research focuses on “supernatural belief and its connections to digital technologies and environments.”[i] She has co-edited two upcoming books: Believing in Bits: New Media and the Supernatural, from Oxford University Press, and Post Humanism: The Future of Homo Sapiens, from Palgrave MacMillan.
Probably the most famous living Ufologist, Jacques Vallee, had this to say about the book:
From a solid base of scholarship Dr. Pasulka introduces us to the players at the frontier of biological and physical research. Her sharp insight is drawn from her research into spiritual phenomena, updated by her travels from the purported UFO crash sites of New Mexico to the archives of the Vatican. The result is a timely introduction to the revelations in our collective future.
The narrative of American Cosmic is fairly simple and revolves around Pasulka’s relationship with two “insider” scientists who are supposedly investigating “the UFO mystery” anonymously, as part of the “Invisible College” of super-scientists, which J. Allen Hynek and Jacques Vallee first wrote about in the 1970s. As well as endorsing the book and inspiring many of her observations, Jacques Vallee is also a peripheral character in the book, as is Pasulka’s colleague, Jeffrey J. Kripal. Whitley Strieber also gets a few mentions as an ally on the not-so-secret team. Accordingly, as will surprise none of my regular readers, I approached the book with a degree of skepticism.
Not of this Universe
“The logic of camouflage works partly because the element of the absurd keeps what is camouflaged underground and hidden, and the absurdity of UFO testimonies ensures they are not studied in any official or public capacity.” —American Cosmic (p. 161)
For her part, Pasulka is a devoted disciple of Vallee and includes some of her interactions with him in the book. In an early chapter that didn’t make the final draft, she sums up his influence and position within both ufology and greater science, citing his work as a computer scientist (with a Ph.D. from Northwestern University) engineering ARPANET, the Advanced Research Projects Agency, a precursor of the internet. She goes on to describe him as “a successful venture capitalist, funding startups of innovative technologies that have changed the daily lives of millions of people.” Referring to Vallee’s “unorthodox history,” she mentions his work with the Stanford Research Institute, now SRI International. “Today,” she writes,
the group’s activities are largely unknown to the public. Yet declassified documents from the 1970s and 1980s indicate that it was a research site for the extraordinary. Jacques did his work on the fledging internet there under a program that, as Jeffrey Kripal writes, was probably called “Augmentation of the Human Intellect.” Before cognitive scientists and philosophers wrote about extended cognition in the 1990s, the United States military, through groups like the SRI, was already involved in experiments to extend the mind in tangible and potentially practical ways. The internet was conceived of as just such an extension. Strangely, this research was being conducted at the same time, in the same place, and at the same institute as the study of remote viewing, pre-cognition, and extra sensory perception. In this approach to extended cognition, the mind seemed able to be extended beyond the boundaries of the earth and even the solar system. These strange skills were developed under a classified program called Project Stargate, which was funded by the U.S. military in partnership with the SRI.[ii]
One of the lesser known projects of SRI was outlined in the obscure 1974 study, Changing Images of Man, the aim of which, was “to change the image of mankind from that of industrial progress to one of ‘spiritualism.’” This is from the introduction:
Images and fundamental conceptions of human nature and potentialities can have enormous power in shaping the values and actions in a society. We have attempted in this study to:
Illuminate ways our present society, its citizens, and institutions have been shaped by the underlying myths and images of the past and present.
Explore the deficiencies of currently held images of humankind and to identify needed characteristics of future images.
Identify high-leverage activities that could facilitate the emergence of new images and new policy approaches to the resolution of key problems in society.
The SRI and CIM have been credited by many with the inception of the New Age movement.[iii] I include all this background information (including quotes from the chapter that didn’t make it into the final version of American Cosmic) because it provides some additional context to Pasulka’s arguments, and because it serves as a reminder of the sociocultural and parapolitical nexus within which her work is embedded, and the lineage to which she openly belongs.
Pasulka keeps her primary sources anonymous and refers to them as “Tyler” (after Tyler Duren of Fight Club) and “James” (an associate of Pasulka’s). Tyler has since been identified as Timothy E. Taylor,[iv] who worked on the space shuttle program for NASA, wrote a book called Launch Fever, and went on to run several companies involved in “biophotonics . . . the application of lasers and light to biological tissues and cells to shift their contents and their information.”[v] Whether Taylor (or James) ever worked at SRI, or whether they belong to the same insider clique that Peter Levenda and Tom DeLonge recently claimed as their anonymous source for the 2016 Sekret Machines (an ongoing series), is something Pasulka doesn’t take the time to wonder. In fact, she makes no reference to this previous literary “disclosure” project at all, just as she dedicates no space to the shadowy history of SRI.[vi]
With apparent trepidation, Pasulka travels to New Mexico with James to meet Tyler. They are blindfolded and taken to a UFO crash site (not Roswell), where they find some left over fragments from seventy years ago. The experience is shrouded in mystery and intrigue and initially, Pasulka seems to keep her head about her, as when she mentions how Tyler’s powerful charisma puts her on her guard. But as the narrative proceeds, her reservations rapidly dissolve, until by the end, as she and Tyler travel to the Vatican to dig through ancient archives, she is comparing her insider scientist to Copernicus.
This is rather reminiscent of Kripal, in The Super Natural, describing Strieber as a prophet and placing him in the religious context of Moses and St. Paul. In American Cosmic, Pasulka appears to be intent on demythologizing, or at least on deconstructing the technology—literal and figurative—by which modern myths are generated. But apparently the myth of the lone visionary pitted against the ignorance of the world is one Pasulka is not interested in deconstructing. This might seem like a minor oversight, except that her book is about the generation of religions, and religions are generated around seemingly transcendental authority figures, representatives of the divine. In today’s technological society, such figures are perhaps most likely to take the form of scientists.
In the conclusion of the book, after one of the fragments she and James discovered in the New Mexican desert is analyzed, another anonymous research scientist tells her: “It could not have been made in this universe” (p. 240).
The Unusual Suspects
“The phenomenon is a meta-system, not a bunch of spacecraft. It adapts to its environment, like the cinema does. Think of the movie industry as a meta-system. We just need to find the projector.” —Jacques Vallee, quoted in excised chapter of American Cosmic
The first four chapters of American Cosmic are compelling and rich with insights. Of particular interest is how Pasulka lays the groundwork for her thesis by discussing (with reference to 2001: A Space Odyssey) how media technology interfaces with our consciousness and, by internally reconfiguring our perceptions, alters our relationship to reality.
I have made the case that belief in extraterrestrials and UFOs constitutes a new form of religion. Media and popular culture have successfully delivered a UFO mythos to audiences through television series, music and music videos, video games, cartoons, hoaxes, websites, and immersive and mixed reality environments. New research in digital-human interfaces reveals that it doesn’t matter what a person might consciously believe, as data delivered through the screens shoots straight into memory, which then constructs models of events (p. 216).
For Pasulka, UFOs represent “more than an ideology, a philosophy, or the social imaginary.”[vii] She compares the phenomenon to “a process of translation—the translation of an imagined technology into an operational and tangible reality” (ibid). Citing the German philosopher (and Nazi supporter) Martin Heidegger and his essay “The Question Concerning Technology,” she describes the UFO phenomenon as “about the processes of translation, the translation of imagined future technologies, into present, viable, technological realities” (ibid).
As a concrete example, she allows (along with the UK Census) that “Jediism” (Star Wars worship) either is now, or soon will be, a genuine religion:
Jediism exists within a milieu of beliefs and practices about extraterrestrials, galactic visitors, and UFOs that posits their realism, if not as contemporary reality, then as a future one. They are as real to some people as gods, Jesus, and the various Buddhas. . . Jediism [and UFO-based religions] incorporate the realism of historical religions and project it into the future (p. 136).
Her premise is that even fantastic fiction might eventually become the basis for a genuine religion (as distinct from a geek fanbase), if the elements that constitute it (ETs, spacecraft, the Force) become a tangible part of our reality at some point in the future. Nor does she dodge the maddening conundrum that, to an incalculable degree, such fictional elements might only be entering into consensual reality because more and more people are acting as if they were real, thereby creating the technology that reproduces effects first seen in fantasy.
In passing, it’s worth noting that Joseph Campbell, a primary inspiration for George Lucas when conceiving Star Wars, was also one of the authors of Changing Images of Man.
“These flying saucer cults are all quite insignificant, but one like them could well rise to prominence in a future decade. We need several really aggressive, attractive space religions, meeting the emotional needs of different segments of our population, driving traditional religions and retrograde cults from the field.” —William Sims Bainbridge, co-director of Cyber-Human Systems at the National Science Foundation, Senior Fellow of the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies
In the final chapters of the book, Pasulka shifts her focus from a meta-analysis of myth-generation to actual case studies, and finally to her own direct experience. Firstly, she discusses the overlaps between UFO data and Catholic history and culture, also explored in Vallee’s Invisible College. She emphasizes the subjective nature of these experiences. She compares the emergence of a UFO-religion with that of early Christianity, and acknowledges the element of the absurd as central to both. (Credo quia absurdum.) She speaks of “the logic of camouflage” and asks, “Could the UFO phenomenon be a mass koan, working on millions of people?” (p. 161).
She then covers some familiar ground by recounting the famous Fatima sightings of the Virgin Mary and the parallels to UFO encounters, after which she returns to 2001 and suggests that technology is becoming autonomous: “Media technologies inhabit human consciousness in ways that have been largely unacknowledged and in ways that are disturbingly autonomous” (172). She returns to Tyler and describes his belief that “the phenomenon is technological [and] interfaces with humans directly through biotechnical antennae—cellular functions and even human DNA” (179).
Tyler compares this with how “humans interface with God through the practice of worship and prayer with a mechanism called the Holy Spirit” (180-81). He compares the human body to a computer, with the prefrontal lobe as the RAM and the skeleton as the motherboard. “The mouse has already become our middle finger” (181). Pasulka takes up this metaphor and runs with it, comparing the internet to “the divine universe,” thereby equating God to a great information system.
In the next chapter (chapter seven, “The Human Receiver”), she brings in the case study of an “experiencer” (Rey Hernandez) who shifted his belief from atheist to agnostic via a series of encounters with UFO beings. Hernandez received a “download” of extraterrestrial information and a telepathic message that told him he had to inform humanity of their presence and seek help from others to do so. That help came in the form of Mary Rodwell (“a researcher who claims to have supported over three hundred thousand experiencers”), and Harvard professor of astrophysics Dr. Rudy Schild, who introduced Hernandez to Dr. Edgar Mitchell. Together they founded FREE, the Foundation for Research into Extraterrestrial Encounters.
Pasulka writes about Mitchell’s alleged experience as an Apollo astronaut of seeing the Earth from space, and how it seeded his 2001-like vision of a cosmic humanity (all of which I discuss in depth in Prisoner of Infinity). She describes a meeting with Mitchell and is “surprised to learn that, just like the other scientists I had interviewed, he had been involved with the Stanford Research Institute.” Like Tyler D., she writes, Mitchell “was part of the hidden and unofficial history of the American space program . . . who believed in extraterrestrial or nonhuman beings that interacted with humans with the goal of helping them achieve space travel and . . . peace on earth” (204-5).
She recounts her interview with Mitchell, describing his theory of telepathy, matter-as-energy-information, brain-synchronization, and attaining mystical states of ecstasy and oneness with existence. She describes him as a pioneer of consciousness and places him in
a lineage of esoteric cosmonauts and rocket scientists, such as Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, John (Jack) Parsons [a Crowleyite and self-proclaimed Antichrist], Tyler D., and many others—people whose ideas and beliefs appear to be on the fringe, and are. They may be on the fringe of our future (p. 209-10).
Into the Pyramid
“Thus, science has acted as a kind of validating filter through which events in the ‘real’ world had to pass before they could become accepted. However, in performing this function, science has often ended up rejecting as unreal or illusory many aspects of subjective experience of phenomena which cannot be explained by its own paradigms—psychic phenomena, UFOs, religious experiences—as well as some of the taboos listed earlier. In recent years, major institutions of science have begun to recognize that they can no longer refuse attention to aspects of human experience having high currency in society, and that to continually deny existence to widely experienced realities is to eventually destroy their own authority.” —Changing Images of Man
American Cosmic is brilliant and depressing in equal parts. It’s like watching a magician demonstrate in painstaking detail how she performed her tricks, then realizing it was all just part of the show, meant only to soften us up for the next level of deception.
For the final chapter, Pasulka provides the coup de grace, when she and Tyler take an unexpected trip to the Vatican, Rome. Pasulka explains that she was invited there to share her research on the question of the canonization of two saints. She decides to combine her trip with looking for any old documents in the archives relating to the search for extraterrestrial life, and invites Tyler to join her. It turns out that Tyler—who we have already seen can move through airport security and immigration like a spook through solid walls—has a reputation that carries weight even with the Vatican security, and via his influence they gain deeper access to the vaults.
At this point, the book becomes full-on narrative nonfiction a la Whitley Strieber, by way of Dan Brown. (In passing, the Vatican was also the location for a turning point in Strieber’s abduction narrative, in 1968; see Communion and/or Prisoner of Infinity.) Yet rather than being a detective story, American Cosmic turns into an inspirational, as Tyler is so moved by his brief interaction with Catholic priests and nuns, and their selfless dedication to God, that he undergoes a full-blown conversion experience.
Tyler’s conversion experience is the capstone of the book. Perhaps I am hopelessly jaded by over-exposure to cynically created fantasy narratives around this subject, but to me it felt like being closed off inside an ancient pyramid. In the lead-in to her account, Pasulka writes:
the perceived contact with a nonhuman intelligent, divine being is simultaneously imagined and real. I am not making an ontological claim, that extraterrestrials are real in the sense that couches are real, although they could be. I am arguing that perceived contact has very real effects with powerful social implications (p. 216).
This may be a form of unconscious hedging on her part. At the very least, she is making an explicit ontological claim, via her choice of adjectives, that, whatever their status, “extraterrestrials” correspond with divine intelligence. This may be a quantum leap of faith unto itself, and it is surely no mere coincidence that Pasulka—herself a Catholic—ends her search for extraterrestrial life inside the Vatican, with a tale of the miraculous. By its finale, American Cosmic seems to be no more nor less than a delivery device for this “catholic” message.
It is hard to say at what precise point this happens, because the line between speculation and belief is often invisible, even to the subject. But it became steadily more apparent to me that Pasulka had taken the postmodern, quantum leap from arguing that technology, narratives, media, and belief influence how we perceive reality, to the New Age notion that this is how we generate reality. At no point does she raise the question of whether all realities are created equal, or of how a reality generated by belief, persuasion, media technology, Hollywood entertainment, and sophisticated forms of perception management is anything but an elaborate deception—hence not reality at all. Like her colleague Jeffrey Kripal, only with considerably more skill, Pasulka plays to both sides of the auditorium, the skeptics and the believers, including religious believers.
According to her account, sustained exposure to the UFO primed Tyler, the hard-nosed esoteric cosmonaut, for a more conventional encounter with the divine. Via his epiphany, we are led to understand, Tyler D. reaches a deeper and more devout understanding of the UFO mystery he has been researching. His “understanding of the ‘beings’ was being transformed by his experiences (p. 237). In interview, Pasulka described Tyler’s transformed view that the ETs are “below God but above humans.”[viii] It’s a view that seems remarkably in accord with the Vatican’s own official position on ETs—that they exist and are part of God’s creation—as has emerged over the past few years.[ix]
After describing this remarkable turn of events, Pasulka emphasizes what constitutes a true religion: “One cannot put an angel under a microscope,” she says. One wonders why not, if they are ETs. Isn’t that partly what her book—via people like Mitchell and Tyler—is proposing: a materialistic basis for the divine? She continues: “It is this aspect, the mysterious sacred, that distinguishes religion from other organized practices like sports or fandoms. In religion, one finds the inexplicable, sacred event, or a mysterious artifact.”
So much for Jediism then. Why the apparent backpedaling? At this stage of her discourse, Pasulka is presenting a “legitimate” religious experience, and she may want to avoid any suggestion that Tyler’s conversion could be an overly subjective event—or in any way comparable to a kind of internally generated movie. Somehow, she argues, Tyler’s belief has generated his experience, and, in a kind of cosmic rapport, experience has validated his belief. We scratch God’s itch and He’ll scratch ours.
Pasulka wants to make science compatible with religion via a mix of quantum indeterminacy, postmodernism, Buddhism, and New Age spirituality, but she may be too divided in herself for building such a heavenly ladder.
For a Catholic, the idea that God needs our belief to act is nothing less than heresy.
Continued in Part Two, “Pawns of Disinformation“
[iii] See Ty Brown’s “10,000 Heroes—SRI and the Manufacturing of the New Age.” See also: https://isgp-studies.com/bio-of-jacques-vallee
[iv] https://www.reddit.com/r/ufo/comments/arp0q0/tylers_identity_has_been_found/ His name is listed next to Pasulka’s in the Vatican 2017 annual: http://www.vaticanobservatory.va/content/dam/specolavaticana/documenti/Download_AR2017/AR2017.pdf
[v] Diana Pasulka, “The Spectrum of Human Techno- Hybridity: The Total Recall Effect,” https://www.academia.edu/34657518/The_Spectrum_of_Human_Techno-_Hybrid_The_Total_Recall_Effect
[vi] There is another recent book that claims to be based on insider sources, Area 51: An Uncensored History of America’s Top Secret Military Base, by Annie Jacobsen. Jacobsen claims that the “alien bodies” found in the Roswell crashed disk were surgically altered humans as part of an elaborate War of the Worlds black propaganda campaign by Stalin to prove to the US military that the Russians not only had better technology but a better propaganda department also. The fact that Jacobsen’s book, despite being released in 2012, is currently at the no. 1 position of UFO best sellers on Amazon Canada, suggests that the UFO narrative is anything but nailed down. The author sums up the book to Joe Rogen, here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IP_BFT-UPEc
[viii] Expanding Mind – “American Cosmic, Part 2,” Jan 2019. https://expandingmind.podbean.com/e/expanding-mind-%E2%80%93-american-cosmic-part-2/