Prolegomena for future UFO science

Formally, a “prolegomenon” is defined as “a critical or discursive introduction to a book”—which isn’t saying much. Centuries ago, Kant (possibly the greatest philosopher since Plato—unless there are great ones after Kant) employed the term to describe a shorter summary of his much more expansive Critique of Pure Reason, in which he charts the very limits of human knowledge, famously circumscribing it within the bounds of possible human experience. The object of both the longer Critique and the shorter Prolegomena was “metaphysics”, which aspired to be a kind of science—a definite human knowledge—of things like substance, necessity, possibility and other such abstracta. Its classic subjects were said by Kant to be: God, immortality of soul (life after death)—and human freedom. Kant asks: is a “science” of such subjects even possible? If so, what are its conditions of possibility? These works tried to answer those questions. What resulted was a radical, yet rather humble (and humbling) work of philosophy—possibly never surpassed. And I think Kant’s use of ‘prolegomenon’ has since come to define this once-familiar term.

The full title asserts that this is to be a Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics That Will Be Able to Present Itself as a Science. But in the German, the word translated as “science” is “Wissenschaft”—something that is much more general than our ‘science’; it most definitely doesn’t have to do with the various special sciences (biology, physics, etc.). It means something like the general craft of knowing, epistemic procedures that yield truth. What Kant wanted to determine, and sets out to definitively answer, was whether metaphysics could so be understood: as a “science” … as a procedure of human knowledge that could possibly yield truth. The Prolegomena To Any Future Metaphysics were, then, preliminary analytical exercises to determine this.

What results if we apply the same line of thinking—but perhaps not exactly the same Kantian philosophy—to the problem of the UFO phenomenon? That is what this blog hopes to be all about: notes towards the possibility of a future science of UFOs: something beyond mere collections of UFO data; fanciful (if imaginatively creative) speculations on possible explanations of the UFO phenomenon; stories of abductions; and reports of associated “paranormal” phenomena in connection with UFO sightings or encounters with them. (This is a topic also specifically broached by one of the best UFO blogs that exist: Bryan Sentes Skunkworks project.)

Kant’s method involved neither uncritical acceptance of “metaphysical” assertions, doctrines or beliefs—nor their outright rejection. Neither accepting nor rejecting metaphysics, Kant wanted to discover something beyond the “dogmatism” of both positions. What resulted was nothing short of a transcendence of such a narrow axis of conceptualization: a “critical” reappraisal of metaphysics as such, carving out a legitimate form of it within the bounds of possible human experience, which, according to Kant’s enlightenment philosophy, was the only means by which we—living, human beings—could be said to know anything about the world around us. As we exceed this horizon, can we really say that we legitimately know anything? Kant’s answer is rather honest: we can neither prove an affirmative metaphysical thesis (say, that we are immortal), nor its opposite (that we are not immortal: that our existence will finally terminate). Outside of this horizon, we’re in a kind of epistemological limbo: we can neither affirm nor deny, prove nor refute. We are therefore consigned to endlessly hover in rational deliberation over questions such as whether the universe is infinite or not; whether God (an infinite Being) exists or not; whether there is a soul that is immortal or not; and so on. (Think of it: suppose when we die, we do experience a kind of second existence apart from the body—how can we be certain that there is not some end to this existence, in some way, for some reason? Death may bring more existence, but not epistemological finality—just another horizon relative to which we ponder these questions anew.)

The UFO phenomenon is, to state the obvious, a deeply (even profoundly) challenging one. But we are in a curious position. As the name indicates, we are attempting to understand “unidentified” objects in the sky, sometimes which also appear to land or to enter and exit the sea. But the totality of the phenomenon itself—“the UFO phenomenon”—includes much more than this. There are not just enigmatic (flying) objects to be explained and understood, but also unexplained effects and associated strangeness in connection with the UFO sightings and encounters themselves. (In the course of this blog, we hope to provide examples of this cluster of associated strangeness.)

We ourselves must be careful, then, to avoid the various dogmatisms that threaten our open and honest study of this problem, while being accepting of the facts such as they are, without prior adherence to a specific thesis as to what explains them—not at least before we take proper account of the facts as a whole. We cannot allow prejudice stemming from our prior metaphysical convictions (about the specific nature of reality: materialism, spiritualism, and so on), or bias towards conventional wisdom (that paradoxical barrier to true scientific progress) to determine what we do or do not accept as fact. Both must be “bracketed” (to borrow an expression from the phenomenological tradition of philosophy) in order to allow the things themselves to speak.

The curious position we find ourselves in, then, is that we are attempting to first establish that there are phenomena about which we are radically ignorant of their nature, origin, purpose and/or meaning. That is: we are trying to establish our definitive ignorance, our definite lack of knowledge about something that has, frustratingly, entered into the purview of our otherwise ordinary experience. As a result, we are in a situation of epistemic breakdown, a failure of our cognitive resources to adequately identify and explain what so clearly exists before us in the midst of our ordinary affairs. But it is a lack that, if it exists as such, shows us where our knowledge and understanding must grow—into which space it must expand. This is the paradox of the truly unknown, the “known unknowns”…

If something is truly unknown (and such must be established definitively for there to be a genuine “UFO”), then (by definition) is has not been assimilated by our existing categories for understanding things. But the question is: can it be so assimilated by existing categories? If everything can always be assimilated to existing categories, this suggests our knowledge to be trivial and necessary—even infinite. But surely those categories themselves had to have been created. But how? Thus, if we allow that we do not possess infinite knowledge (which surely we don’t), and allow that our categories by which we come to know the world (and ourselves and others) have somehow been created (a creative, perhaps even imaginative, response to the spontaneity of things themselves), then every instance of a truly unknown phenomenon affords us with an epistemologically creative moment—a decisive one, to be sure, where we are forced to conjure into being appropriate categories that are adequate to the phenomenon (especially when that phenomenon fails to be adequately assimilated to existing categories). Knowledge is, then, a matter of negotiation: between ourselves (and our limited resources) and that which we attempt to know. (The situation is a good deal more subtle and complicated than this simple image of knowledge suggests; but this simplicity will have to do for the moment.)

We have, then, potential for a phenomenon to not only be unknown, but, given the inadequacy of existing categories, unknowable. Yet, the mere fact of the phenomenon’s existence before us as an unknown means that it is possible to know it in some definite way or other. It is we who must adapt to the unknown for it to become known—the very opposite of the Kantian “Copernican” Revolution in which the world is seen to conform to our existing categories of understanding for there to be the possibility of human knowlege at all. Unknowability is a necessary but temporary stage of epistemic lack that calls for a creative response to an unfamiliar phenomenon that breaks through our existing epistemology. Such (temporarily) unknowable phenomena, then, are “liminal”: transitional objects of knowledge that resist satisfactory epistemic assimilation (perhaps with one foot in the realm of the known—a knowable “edge”) while simultaneously representing an opening to an expanded realm of knowledge by the creation of the appropriate categories by which to make sense of the object. Kant calls this moment a “reflective” as opposed to a determinative judgement, and it was Bryan Sentes who first brilliantly saw the UFO as what Kant might have called an “aesthetic” object—one that precisely calls for the creation of new epistemic categories.

As “liminal” objects, with UFOs we are therefore in the realm of what I will call “liminal epistemology”, and we may on this basis conceive of the problem of a science of UFOs as also being a problem in the history of scientific theory change, which involves the confrontation of new, but profoundly anomalous, observations and experiences (and here we should pursue Kuhnian themes). If Kant’s critique of metaphysics worked on the problem of assimilating our experiences by means of existing categories of our understanding, without specifically addressing the originating moment of those categories themselves, then our work is thusly set apart from Kant’s: our “critique” works just as and when we are confronted by an object that necessitates the creation of new categories of the understanding. (Arguably, Hegel, one of Kant’s immediate successors, was to have pursued this problem of conceptual origination, but such considerations are beyond the scope of this present reflection. We might remark in passing, however, that Hegels project, as was to become the project of later phenomenologists, was to recover the originating creative moment, and complete logic, of the categories we already have, not in the exploration of the problem of liminal objects that seem to require the creation of radically new ones. Especially with Hegel, anything new” would be nothing more than a further iteration of this (now known) logic of creation. The danger with a philosophersystem, like Hegels, is to come to the conviction that everything prior or afterwards could be anticipated by, and assimilated within, the systemyet another prejudice we must be careful to avoid.)

This is the work of liminal epistemology, and it is preliminary to any future science of UFOs as such (that is, as unknown and temporarily unknowable). From the standpoint of our liminal epistemology (which, like Kant’s transcendental philosophy, is “critical”—but in a new sense) we can, then, reassess the traditional approaches to the study of the UFO phenomenon that currently exist, and offer a new critique. Following this, we may then address the question of whether a science of UFOs is possible, and if so, what that science might look like.

In these pages, we hope to offer sketches, notes, and suggestions along these lines…


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