How to Think about the UFO Phenomenon

Rice News sat down with Kripal to discuss the immediate impact of “Preliminary Assessment: Unidentified Aerial Phenomena” and what it means for humanity at large.

Rice News: How does a professor of religion come to be an expert on UFOs? They’re not topics one would immediately associate.

Jeffrey Kripal: Well, no one is an expert here. No one. That’s the first thing to know. For my own part, I have been thinking and writing about the UFO phenomenon since about 2004. I first struggled with it because I had to: it was simply everywhere in my historical and ethnographic sources with which I was working for a big history of alternative spiritual currents in the California counterculture that I was writing at the time. My own interests definitively began there, at the Esalen Institute.

People commonly assumed then that the UFO phenomenon was not serious or was some kind of “California” thing. But that is simply not true, and it has never been true. Some of the earliest and most dramatic documented modern encounters have been around nuclear military sites and in cultures and places like Brazil, France, New Mexico — in the summer of 1945, just a few miles from the recently radiated Trinity atomic bomb site and just a week after the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki — and New England. The latter case involved a mixed-race couple who were civil rights activists, no less. The U.S. military, the U.S. intelligence services, American space exploration, Western colonialism, indigenous American cosmologies, a major Black religion — the Nation of Islam — U.S.-Mexico borderlands, Latin America, American-Soviet and now American-Russian relations, NATO, the aerospace and aviation industries, Western esoteric and mystical currents, science fiction literature and the history of science have all been involved. And that is just the beginning.

To study the UFO phenomenon adequately is, in actual fact, to study pretty much everything. It is also to come up against, hard, the realization that the institutional or university order of knowledge within which we work and think today, an order that effectively splits the sciences off from the humanities, is simply not helpful, and certainly not reflective of the reality we are trying to understand. The difficult truth is that the UFO phenomenon has both an objective “hard” aspect (think fighter jet videos, photographs, alleged metamaterials, apparent advanced propulsion methods, and landing marks) and a subjective “human” aspect (think close encounters, multiple and coordinated visual sightings, altered states of consciousness, visionary displays, often of a most baroque or sci-fi sort, and experienced traumatic or transcendent abductions). And both sides — both the material and the mental dimensions — are incredibly important to get a sense of the full picture.

Of course, one can slice up the UFO phenomenon into the “scientific” and the “humanistic,” but one will never understand it by doing so. That, in the end, is why I think the subject is so incredibly important: it bears a particular power to challenge, or just obliterate, our present order of knowledge and its arbitrary divisions. Whatever “it” is, it simply does not behave according to our rules and assumptions. Period.

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