Transcendental Skepticism

Among the many, endlessly distracting videos pumped by nameless algorithms into my Facebook feed was one that alleges to be of an airline pilot’s encounter with what, upon first glance (prompted, of course, by the click-bate title itself—something about a pilot and unexpected UFOs suddenly appearing) appears to be a mysterious, seemingly cubical UFO soaring by the airliner at a somewhat lower altitude. This affords us an occasion to meditate on a number of issues that must be faced as we withdraw to the epistemic safety of the familiar, and try to approach the unfamiliar or the anomalous without credulity. The first voice that speaks to us here is—and perhaps should always be—the voice of the skeptic. But, if we are to be true to our commitment to absolute honesty and open inquiry, we must also be uncommitted to skepticism as a fundamental position one adopts. Skepticism is a means to an end. What end? Truth. Surely ... but (quoting Pilate to Jesus) what is truth? Here is where we are stopped in our tracks. Every time this question is posed, I feel a bit like Augustine when asked about time: If nobody asks me I know; but if I were desirous to explain it to one that should ask me, plainly I know not” (an oft-cited passage from his Confessions). We can surely say that truth is something we, who adopt a skeptical standpoint, are interested in when it comes to the UFO question: we would like to know whether this or that particular UFO claim, or bit of evidence, is true. That’s fine as far as it goes; but how far does it go? Pilate’s question, as it turns out, is quite practical: when there is a dispute over the truth of this or that claim, what is usually at stake are the standards one adopts (or has implicitly adopted) to establish that something is true, and whether those standards are plausible ones for the phenomenon in question. But more fundamentally, however, we must face a deeper question: whether we’re actually seeking the truth, or just seeking to secure the truth of our skepticism.

Truth, when it comes down to it (and despite what we might want to say in a fit of heady principled grandstandingin debate, for example) is nothing but a negotiation, an endless experimentation, a trial in which our practices and beliefs get tested against the spontaneity of things themselves, things clothed for a moment in our notions of them. Removing ourselves, then, from any self-serving notions of truth leaves us in a place of radical openness, the place of the question in which the poet Rilke enjoined us to live. Such a standpoint of radical openness (of honest questioning) suggests that it is skepticism, too, from which we must withdrawto have the fortitude to even, at times, be skeptical of our sometime skepticism. Shouldn’t we be absolutely vigilant that our skepticism (perhaps through habit) won’t transform from method to position, from means to end? But my intention here is not to wax poetic or unduly subtle about truth. Rather, my aim is more practical, if at the same time it is philosophical: to examine the limits of skepticism, and to ask at just what point does skepticism end, and, when it does (surely it must?), what comes after skepticism...

For the video I mention above, do we have a sense of how credible the footage is? My first impression is that of course it isn’tthat it’s either a click-batey hoax, or worse: a video clipped out of context and made to appear to be just what the producer, looking for mere views, wants us to think it is, which is a compelling video of a mysteriously-shaped UFO caught on camera by an airline pilot. After submitting the video to a more serious-minded group of UFO researchers and enthusiasts, their initial and very preliminary assessment was rather sober-minded and fair: if it is at all an actual object in space (the suggestion: perhaps a balloon of some kind?), then its rapid motion is likely largely apparent: a parallaxic effect, not a consequence of a mysterious propulsion system. But this is likely too generous: the video is of a sort that is rather easily faked (just take a look at this website which complies numerous faked or falsified videos). Still, taking such a skeptical position against the view that this is a “true” UFO (an object, that is, which definitely cannot be explained by means of conventional or common-sensical premises—something we must, of course, interrogate carefully) is surely a sound one to take, especially when all that we have here is but one random and unanalyzed video. We know little to nothing of its provenance. We know little to nothing of the context within which it was produced. We don’t even really know (without further investigation) who produced this video (so far as credibility of the source or witness is a factor to consider: it is surely possible that some good evidence comes from bad sources). In other words, this particular video has little to no evidential value as far as the UFO phenomenon itself is concerned. It is an occasion, rather, to practice intellectual restraint, to allow skepticism to rightfully make its appearance in the name of truth. But what this (most likely falsified or even faked) video does also demonstrate is a curious gap in, or failing of, the very skepticism that, in this case, saves us from too much worry. (Though in the spirit of absolute honesty, due diligence requires a rigorous follow-up on both the provenance and content of this video, implying that something approaching a final judgment must await this more complete analysis.)

Let’s talk strategy for a moment. How are we to demonstrate that this video ought to be dismissed as a fake, forgery, hoax, or falsification? There are a number of analytical techniques open to the investigator, and here I do not wish to review them (this is an exercise best left to experts). What I’d rather like to look at is simply the strategy of refutation itself—its basic logic. There would seem to be three options to the skeptic.

In the first place, one can look at the relevant content of the video (in this case, the allegedly anomalous flying object) and try (with various analytical methods) to determine whether that content was inserted into the video—whether the relevant bits of the video are out of context, foreign intruders into an otherwise ordinary video. Certain visual anomalies or irregularities in the image (possibly found in the image data itself) might indicate such an interpretation. Here we would be accepting the general veracity of everything about the video except its anomalous content: something that wasnt native to the video was put in after the fact, making it a fake video because of that illicit intrusion. In the second place, the skeptical investigator might try to determine whether some or all of the native content itself was altered in some illicit way, yielding precisely what the author of the video wants you to believe about it: that there was a genuine UFO caught on camera for you to marvel at. Here, nothing foreign to the content of the video was inserted; rather, it was the native content itself that was changed. Failing this, the skeptic’s last recourse would be to accept the footage as is, but simply dispute the UFO interpretation of the relevant content (content which is in itself truthful).

All attempts at the refutation of UFO claims based on video- or photographic evidence are versions of one of these strategies. And of course, there is nothing wrong with any of this in principle—surely there will be cases where it is straightforwardly true that the video was either altered, contains falsified content within an otherwise authentic video or photo, is an outright fabrication (using the right software for manipulation or creative purposes), or records something perhaps easily mistaken for a UFO but which is, upon closer analysis, identifiable. But equally surely there will be videos (or photographs) of an allegedly anomalous sort that cannot be so straightforwardly refuted as being hoaxed, faked, falsified or misinterpreted. Indeed, there may be videos whose content does not lend itself to any conventional explanation.

Or are there?

This is the crucial point: to what extent is the skeptic amenable to the existence of genuinely anomalous content ... indeed, to genuine anomalies period? Is there ever a point at which skepticism is overcome, and we move beyond it to the more disorienting position of having to actually encounter the anomalous as anomalous, but yet still without the conviction of a true (or even just merely adequate) understanding of it? What comes after skepticism—and what allows us to get there?

Let us focus for a moment on a video that, by all accounts, is authentically anomalous. It contains what both pilots and now (after the June 2021 watershed Pentagon report) even the US military openly acknowledges is footage of an unidentified aerial phenomenon: the so-called “Gimbal” video. At first glance, it is not particularly anomalous, as the object appears to just hover and, according to one of the pilots, “rotate”. But when you consider that this was something seen by pilots as they flew their jets at cruising speed, at altitude, and with headwinds of over a hundred knots, it quickly becomes puzzling as to how this object is able to both keep pace with the jets and rotate seemingly effortlessly against the strong winds. What exactly are we looking at, then?

No object with this kind of (apparently closed) geometry can maintain the altitude, forward velocity and rotational oscillations in which it is observed to engage—no human-fashioned technology, in any case. What is the object’s source of lift? Of propulsion and rotational movement? A balloon (or something like it) would have to move with the wind, and could not maintain a stable rotational axis and rotate without some internal means of propulsion, let alone keep pace with the pilots filming it. In other words, assuming that the video is veridical, this is a genuinely unidentified flying object (or “aerial phenomenon” as the preferred phrase has it). Thus, the skeptic must question: is the video veridical—is it of an objectively “real” object flying out in the space near where the pilots were flying? Or, even if it is veridical, perhaps the pilots themselves have mistaken some other phenomenon for something unidentified—that is, perhaps both our interpretation of the content of the video, and the pilot’s own interpretation of what they thought they were filming, is wrong.

Is the video itself veridical? Perhaps it is not. Perhaps it was faked—but in this case, it would have to have been faked by the military, who’ve admitted it is a video of something they can’t explain. We would then wonder why … and here all manner of theories (many of which being conspiracy-oriented) are ready-at-hand in order to flesh out this more sinister possibility. But what those strategies that focus only on the (internal) content of the video lack is a full accounting of the alleged encounter, which would have to reckon with the experiences of those who were supposed to have filmed the object. A video or photograph is generally (but not always) taken by someone who is also actively seeing the object directly, without the mediation of the camera or video equipment; surely this also counts as evidence of the truthfulness of the footage captured. So, as part of an authentically skeptical investigation of video or photographic UFO evidence one must also interview the witnesses taking the footage. In this particular case (documented here), if we want to argue that the footage was faked, then we also have to impugn the pilots’ own eye-witness accounts. We’d have to either argue that there was a conspiracy involving the (military) witnesses and military officials (including the Pentagon, which has admitted to the veracity of this video and others like it) to concoct and release a faked video. But to what end? What would be the motivation, especially if the US is itself actively admitting it can’t explain what was filmed (and tracked)? We are then down the rabbit hole of interrogating the complexities of US military and government informational secrecy.

Surely such a line of inquiry is possible; but is this the most likely explanation for whats going on here? Is it even the best? Without further, more concrete and specific evidence to suggest a kind of government-military fabrication in this particular case, this sort of explanation has to remain speculative. It would not be enough to reason purely inductively, by, for example, noting prior government-military fabrications of this sort. It has to be shown that this particular case is most likely part of a more general pattern in play. In other words: since it is always possible to reason that anything coming from government/military channels that looks out of the ordinary is a signal of (purposeful) dissimulation, such an explanation would bear the burden of having to first show why this kind of a scenario, in this particular case, is plausible.

So where does this leave us? It leaves us with footage that we seem to have to accept as veridical, and with eyewitness testimony that we also have to assume is trustworthy. Thus, the only recourse the skeptic would have in this case is to challenge the interpretation of what is was that the eyewitnesses actually saw (or came to think that they saw), and which was also captured on video for us to see. In order to do this, one has to come up with at least some plausible, but conventional, interpretation. The hard question in this case is: Can we do it?

Remember, the skeptic cannot just challenge the videographic content itself, because in this case we’re assuming there was a there there, so to speak: there was an object visible both to the (infrared) camera the pilots used in filming, and to their unaided eyes. In this way we finally arrive at the main task of the skeptic: to produce an adequate explanation in conventional terms of what was actually seen and recorded on video. And of course, out there on the blogosphere, we find just that: Mick West, self-described debunker, thinks he has the explanation—not just for the video we consider here, but for almost all of the leaked or declassified Navy videos released to date (quite an ambitious wish list for any debunker). The particular form that his explanation takes is rather common in the world of debunkerism. It assumes, naturally, that these videos contain veridical content—that they capture real objects really witnessed by the pilots or military officers who filmed them. (To doubt this would be to stretch the credibility of the skeptic, as we have already suggested.) But it then goes on to argue that we are witnessing either artifacts of the filming equipment (in which case we are owed an explanation as to why that the pilots claim to have actually seen something with their unaided eyes); ordinary planes strangely illuminated (another artifact of the filming equipment?) or blurred from distance; or a balloon. (One can read a synopsis of many of Wests explanations here.)

The method of demonstrating the likelihood of many of these explanations West offers is quite curious, if not also rather common among debunkers: he shows that ordinary objects, when given the right conditions and filmed with the equipment originally used, can be made to resemble the seemingly anomalous content of the videos in question. (We might call this an argument from simulation or resemblance: argumentum ex simulatione.) But again, in this particular case, content analysis simply cannot suffice on its own: we cannot simply impugn the content of the videos alone, since we also have witness testimony corroborating it. Tellingly, West at one point admits he doesnt really know what the pilots saw, so he doesn’t (and indeed cannot) offer us an explanation of what they say they saw. At which point we must remain deeply skeptical of this debunkerism, and wonder if the skepticism is a priori...that his skeptical conclusions are driving his debunking arguments. And of course, this is all done, he seems to think, to quash the aliens are here! frenzy the videos seemed to have caused on the Net when they dropped some years ago. (So I guess now we know whats really driving the skepticism: the question-begging assumption that aliens cant be visiting, so it cant be alien/non-human technology, which means it must be human technology. In other words: it cant be, so it isnt!)

There are, then, only two real possibilities left to us—again assuming that there was an actual object with the kinematical profile on display: either (1) it was a structured craft of some technological sort (this is what it appears to us to be—although the skeptic must be wary of appearances); or (2) it is a natural phenomenon (possibly of a kind unknown to science). Now, for absolute logical completeness we must, of course, countenance at least another, third, possibility, which is the one favored by, for example, Jacques VallĂ©e: (3) that the apparently structured craft we observe is itself part of an intelligent meta-system and should therefore be interpreted semiotically or symbolically, rather than strictly physically. Curiously, the claim here is that we look beyond the ordinary appearance of a physical object, and try to contextualize the perception with a theory, as we might do as we stare down into the eerie blue glow of a nuclear reactor: what we see is a blue haze, but we are told that what we are seeing is a secondary effect of the radiation produced in the core (the so-called Cherenkov radiation). This is an interesting speculative suggestion (one considered briefly here) which, while meriting much further discussion, we must largely pass over in silence. (We will have occasion in a future post to examine this possibility more closely, and more carefully.)

So, can the object in the video be technological?

It is surely possible that some kind of a technology is on display in this video. But the problem is that if it is a technology, it quickly becomes obvious it could not be any known technology, for the mystery is not just how it could be hovering where it was seen, but how it could also actively move, rotate and keep pace with pilots and yet display no obvious means of propulsion. (If you dont find this convincing, and prefer Mick Wests more comforting skeptical safety, you must, again, explain what Ryan Graves and other pilots say they saw with their own eyes: what they saw, sometimes at very close range, really canbe described as conventional aircraft or balloons—at least not in every case.) So, perhaps there is an unknown technology of some kind which someone besides the US has managed to build? (Graves himself seems to accept this is as a possibility for at least some of what he saw.) If that is true, then it would be news to the entire science community, and we’d have a new problem: how could such impressive and incredible technology have been kept secret for so long? (One must also consider that objects with similar flight characteristics have been noted in UFO reports for decades, from even before the invention of the jet engine.) Yet, this isn’t even the most difficult problem. The more difficult problem here is that, even if we are able to find an existing theory of physics that can explain this kind of a flight profile (and the going belief among many in the UFO community is that it must involve general relativistic physics, with something like a warp drive), any conceivable technology based on it would seem to be hundreds, if not thousands of years in the future. No one knows how it could even be built (although some think they know what physics could be employed), and it’s hard to believe that some one country (or maybe a small and secretive alliance of nations) could have developed a technology that, given what we do know, would seem to be centuries or millennia away. If this is advanced technology, it cant be ours. Which is to say: it can’t be human technology.

So, it seems we must eliminate the human technological possibility, leaving only two remaining options: that it is a perfectly natural phenomenon (perhaps a rare one, or even a new one heretofore unknown to science)—or it is a kind of non-human technological object of unknown nature or origin. Let us consider each in turn, as we bring our reflections on ufological skepticism to a close...

Is it a natural phenomenon?

Surely the concept ‘natural’ is a tricky, perhaps slippery and loaded concept. And maybe it doesnt always mean what we think—or want it to mean. Perhaps we must nuance, or in any case revisit the concept ‘natural’ in new and interesting ways in order that it may plausibly apply to the anomalous content of the video in question. Would this not be some kind of progress, even if we are no closer to a satisfactory understanding of the (UAP) phenomenon? In any case, for the moment let us simply take ‘natural’ to be a word that sets up an opposition, as in “the forces of blind nature” as opposed to “the deliberate choices of an intelligent being”. I am surely part of nature (I am a natural being), but I am capable, as well, of deliberate choices in ways that, say, other things are not. Though I am subject to the forces of nature, as creature of it I also experience myself as having choices, and indeed can make and act on them (whether I am “really” free or not doesn’t matter here, as William James, and even Kant before him had realized: we act as though we are). A quintessentially “natural” phenomenon like a thunderstorm, for example, doesn’t seem to act from deliberate choice—or to deliberate at all. Rather, as with all ‘natural’ forces or events, it is simply there, and does its thing. It is a blind object, subject only to the laws of nature. It doesn’t react or respond, say, to me or my presence. Or, if it does, then it does so in a mostly indifferent way. Living things are precisely different: they are reactive and responsive in ways that thunderstorms, earthquakes, solar flares (etc.) are not. Beyond this, there is intelligent life—‘intelligence’, again, being yet another slippery, loaded concept. Thunderstorms are powerful, involving great forces of nature (on Earth), but in themselves they are not intelligent, like octopi or dolphins (or even lobsters). The anomalous objects witnessed by the pilots who took that “Gimbal” video seem to behave in very deliberate ways (moving against the wind, in very strong prevailing winds that would require some technological assistance in order to counter), and it’s this deliberateness that suggests intelligence behind the object, of a sort that would place it outside of the domain of the purely “natural”. And intelligence suggests consciousness of some form. In other words, this object (and the many others on record that are like it), if it is not a natural object (a production of blind nature, like a thunderstorm), is really, then, a cypher for an intelligence (and therefore a consciousness) of which we have no real understanding beyond the appearances we are able to capture on video, on radar, or recall in memory. And if we want to insist on the “natural” hypothesis (that this is a new phenomenon of nature heretofore unknown to science), then we must, indeed, revisit and radically critique our (conventional) notion of ‘nature’ (and its opposition to intelligence) in order to arrive at a sufficiently robust concept of nature that can accommodate such seemingly intelligent phenomena. We would have to enlarge our concept of ‘nature’ to give it intelligence, or enlarge our concept of ‘intelligence’ to make the natural world an expression of it. We could go in this direction, but would we want to? Does this have anything to do with this particular case, or are we just applying something we already might like to believe to something about which we have no real understanding—putting the phenomena in service to our favorite concepts or theories, and thus potentially missing what is truly anomalous about the phenomena?

So, we seem to be left with only the technological thesis itself. We must, therefore, be careful to state it correctly, to understand clearly what it is we are saying, and what it is we are not saying. We should appreciate that we are attempting to characterize our ignorance of what the object is in some very definite, even concrete way, by positioning it partly within the realm of the familiar (by calling it technological) and partly outside of the realm of the familiar, by fully recognizing that, even though it appears technological, it is of a sort whose nature and origin is still, nonetheless, vexatious. We state this without admitting any specific hypothesis beyond what is most reasonable as a working interpretative assumption (which, again, will require us to put the shovel down somewhere: ‘reasonable’ is relative). We are asserting that it: exists; is “technological” (that is, a seemingly deliberately fashioned object from the resources available to an intelligent being); and is inexplicable (for we possess no clear or readily available understanding of how such a technology could be created, or who could have created it). It is on this basis that we assert that it is, therefore, anomalous to any number of relevant theoretical disciplines.

This admission of definite and specific ignorance, even while partly contextualizing the phenomenon within the realm of the familiar, is, then, the stage after the wholly justifiable skepticism that must at first be pursued. After skepticism, there is very specific ignorance: here is a thing which we can partly grasp, but which, even so, remains enigmatic for very specific reasons—reasons that have to do with what it is we think we already understood about things in the world, but which this object is forcing us to critically reexamine. There is here, to repeat, no belief or acceptance of anything more than our actual ignorance, an acknowledgment (after working through the possibilities) of a now known unknown. It is the actual ignorance itself—our decisive and definite inability to account for the anomalous while accepting nonetheless its reality as something appearing in some specific way to us—that is the first stage of authentic knowledge.


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At the end of the day, we who would be skeptics for a time must ask (and this is the Socratic question par excellence): Am I skeptical of something because it is of a sort that merits doubt, or am I doubtful of it just because I’m skeptical? After the conviction of many instances in which one’s skepticism is confirmed, one is tempted to generalize, and make the inductive leap: this, too, must also be a hoax, falsification, or fake. Here skepticism takes over and becomes primary—an end rather than a mere means. Thus is it hard to tell what grounds one’s doubt: the conviction of skepticism alone, or the doubtfulness of the thing itself. One must see this skepticism turned recalcitrant as pathological, not philosophical.

The true test of the UFO skeptic comes not in the many cases that fall to the skeptic’s attack, but in the few that don’t—or rather, from the mere acknowledgment that these few even exist. Otherwise, we would seem to be dealing with dogmatic (and pathological) skepticism. Underlying it is a kind of faith: that this, too, shall be explained—that every inexplicable UFO encounter or sighting or evidence will eventually fall to existing science (or common-sense). It is born of the conviction that, to use J. Allen Hyneks way of putting it, it cant be true, so it isnt—thus inverting the most basic axiom of modal logic (that actuality implies possibility). But what the dogmatic skeptic cannot see is that, eventually, it is science itself that must change to accommodate the anomalous. If it didn’t, or couldn’t, it wouldn’t be science. It would be dogmatism.

Comments

  1. An excellent analyis! More of this is needed in order to develop healthy skepticism in the service of arriving at the truth of the matter, insofar as evidence allows to assert something true about the UAP, such thst something was seen by credentialed observers and recorded by advanced technology, even if we cannot say what the UAP is beyond that. By the way, I do want to hear more about Vallee’s viewpoint.

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    1. Thanks Michael! I'm working on my analysis of Vallee now, but it's a profound struggle. I am by turns lost, enlightened, certain, struck down with doubt, and emerging triumphant ... all to realize that I might have misunderstood my own thesis. The Vallee problem is slippery! I'll hopefully be finished soon, or at least have something relatively coherent to say...

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