The Everywhere Psyche, the Nowhere Alien, and the UFO In-between
“Now whether you believe in a demon of the air or in a factor in the unconscious that plays diabolical tricks on you is all one to me. The fact that man’s imagined unity is menaced by alien powers remains the same in either case.”
—C. G. Jung, The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious
1: What Does a UFO Look Like Once We Stop Believing In it?
“When an inner process can not be integrated it is often projected outward. [T]he notion of a materialized psychism opens a bottomless void beneath our feet.”
—C. G. Jung, Flying Saucers
I don’t even remember when I first heard about UFOs. Who does? Even in the 1970s (when I was growing up), they were so much a part of our culture that most of us were probably exposed to the imagery, and the ideas, before we could even talk, much less have an opinion about them. One of my earliest memories is of watching The Day of the Triffids with my mother, at around six years old (the film is based on John Wyndham’s novel about an invasion of alien plants). One of my first memories of the cinema is watching Close Encounters of the Third Kind, when I was ten. I remember at about fifteen being told by an uncle (not blood-related) that UFOS had started appearing in the skies after the first atom bomb was exploded, drawn by an interest in our newly destructive technology. I grew up accepting these things as part of reality before I could think about what they might be or whether or not to believe in them.
Belief is a funny thing. It can end lives and bring down empires, but it doesn’t have any real existence outside of the human mind (and “the human mind” is itself a questionable reality). Animals do not have any use for belief. Plants sure don’t (except maybe Triffids). I am just guessing, but highly advanced extraterrestrials probably would have evolved beyond it too. Philip K. Dick famously quipped that reality is whatever’s still there once you stop believing in it.
There’s no doubt that, when it comes to UFOs, alien abductions, and the paranormal, something is happening. But there’s also no way to avoid the fact that, after over sixty years of sightings, investigations, testimonies, and all the rest, we do not appear to be any closer to understanding what it is. In fact, an argument could be made that we are further away from it, since we not only have a lot more evidence to study, we have an enormous amount of totally unnecessary and largely unfounded beliefs to get past. In my opinion, attempts to solve the UFO riddle are not being prevented by a lack of data—or by so-called “official denial”—but by an excess of data and a covert, but undeniable, form of official endorsement—albeit through fringe outlets and popular fiction, combined with a serious failure to understand and apply the rudiments of psychology.
Beliefs about the UFO have formed around the evidence and sprouted from it, like creeping ivy around a mansion, making it all but impossible to see the shape or features of the thing we are studying. As soon as we are dealing with the unknown, there’s an almost irresistible urge to interpret the data in order to relieve the tension of not knowing, to drag whatever “it” “is” into the parameters of the known. This results in superficially “new” models, such as “the ET hypothesis,” which are really just shiny repackaging of old beliefs. Isn’t that the UFO model in a nutshell: just the same old vinegar in a new bottle?
Outside of the fictionalized accounts (even if inseparable from them), UFO-sightings have been reported throughout history. Most of these reports can’t be verified, and nor should they be taken at face value. Once again, something is happening, being perceived and described, but we have no way of determining how accurate the perceptions are, how close the descriptions match them, and how much the reports passed down to us are faithful to either. This is true of history in general, but it’s much more so when no one can even agree as to the precise nature of the phenomena being reported.
I would question all UFO accounts for several reasons. First, because we have no idea of the degree to which the phenomenon is being invented, or at least framed, by so-called “trained observers” working for hidden government or other agendas. That might seem like a leap, and I’m not stating that such agendas exist, merely that they may exist, that there is evidence they do, and that to assume they don’t is therefore foolish. Nor is the popular idea of a “government cover-up” of UFOs at odds with such agendas, since one way to strengthen belief is to appear to be suppressing facts which support it (perhaps another essay into itself).
Secondly, an overall view of the paranormal material available suggests that, alongside UFOs, ghosts, and other seeming anomalies “out there,” there are such things as “psychic manifestations,” namely projections of the human psyche into a quasi or semi-physical apparition, even to the point of unmistakable physical effects (poltergeist phenomena is a well-known example). As Jung wrote in 1959, this idea opens up a bottomless void beneath the UFO investigator’s feet. Right away, he or she has to consider that there is no easy way to distinguish between an observation of a seemingly “objective” phenomena (the UFO) and something that’s being created, or at least co-created, by the observers themselves. Nor can we cite physical evidence such as radar traces as final “proof” of an objective reality. How many of our observers, both trained and untrained, would be able to recognize the elements of their own psyches projected outward? I would say this is something very few people are ever trained to do—or even consider as a possible interpretation of what they are seeing.
So the mere fact that there are mysterious objects being seen in the sky need not lead us—in fact must not lead us—to any particular conclusion about them. There’s no need to attribute any sort of nature to such phenomena, unless we assume that they are part of the known. And if we do, it is an entirely unnecessary leap to say they must be nonhuman (much less extraterrestrial), a leap dependent on the assumption that we already understand everything there is to understand about human beings—which, quite palpably, we don’t.