Daytrippers, demons or dolphins?

Back in 2015 I confessed to an unhealthy obsession with UFOs in my early years. I regaled my friends with the exploits of George Adamski, and even persuaded my Latin teacher to have the class translate an allegedly mediaeval UFO report. Even now I still remember the Dewey Decimal code for the relevant section of our public library (629.1388).

Ironically, it was the idea of Jesus as peaceful interplanetary ambassador that got me interested in Christianity, only to find that he is actually the Son of the Living God. Thereafter, UFOlogy gradually fell off my radar, and I developed the total rejection of my former error with the typical convert’s vehemence.

There was, of course, much justification for this disillusion: Adamski turned out to be a fraud, the Latin text was a spoof sent to a newspaper by schoolboys at Ampleforth Abbey, swallowed whole by gullible believers, and so on. Meanwhile, the “Men in Black” became a Hollywood clichĂ©, UFOs became mainstream fodder for rock bands from Yes to the Stranglers (I’ve often wondered if Jean-Jacques Burnel picked up the seeds of that from me in French lessons), and, in short, fifty years on there is a neatly circumscribed “UFO nut” category that even includes a standard physiology for aliens. This form of “We are not alone” is seen as quite distinct from NASA’s equally formulaic “Next week we may really find life” trope.

The Hump article linked above is about how early Copernican Christians embraced the idea of extraterrestrial beings, so that contrary to common assumptions, there is no intrinsic reason why as a Christian I should not believe aliens visit the earth. But there is no doctrinal reason why I ought to believe, either.

Still, recent developments are fascinating. Joe Rogan recently conducted a long-form interview with David Fravor, the US fighter pilot who saw strange sights on an exercise in 2004, an event which was reported in 2017 in the Washington Post together with released weapons-system footage. FOI enquiries confirmed Fravor’s story that many other personnel had been involved, and skeptical explanations are mostly implausible rationalisations of the events, rather than denials of the accounts. Furthermore this September the US Navy confirmed that the incident was a genuine UFO sighting.

Since then, a few other comparable videos have emerged from US sources, as well as from the air-forces of Mexico and Columbia, which are revealed in all their mystery on YouTube. I’m inclined to accept such evidence as showing phenomena very much out of the ordinary rather than a global military conspiracy.

Two problems occur in connection with understanding this. The first is the infinite capacity of human beings to lie to others, and to themselves. The UFO phenomenon began, remember, from similar plausible sightings of strange things by pilots: the “Foo Fighters” of World War II, and, seminally, the sighting by private pilot Kenneth Arnold in 1947.

The initial scare was tied up both with Cold War fears of Soviet technology and the boom in science fiction and astronautics, kicking off the whole complex of ideas of hi-tec alien visitors and government cover-ups that has lasted till today. Peeling off thousands of unreliable reports of abductions and crashed saucers, and misinterpreted sightings, from the residue of sober reports like Fravor’s is not easy – even for Fravor, whose involuntary public association with the Ufology machine places him in the company of less rigorous reporters. Seeing a UFO yourself is scarcely likely to harden your skepticism.

A second problem, though, is that on which I wish to focus here. In the interview, Fravor mentions how one can only interpret phenomena according to categories one knows, and that is very true: there are Victorian reports of strange “airships,” whereas now we envisage machines surrounded by force-fields operating on gravity waves – in other words, we continue with the sci-fi understanding that kicked off in 1947. But we are always seeing in the phenomena what we expect to see, and we may be making a category error.

An example of this bias is seen in Rogan’s interview, when a mediaeval crucifixion scene is shown with two strange “alien piloted craft” in the sky. What else, after all, could the artist mean? I would have thought that the answer is obvious if one has studied any of the history of ideas – to mediaevals, comets were fiery portents in the heavens, and such portents were the work of spiritual angelic beings. But since we have forgotten about both cometary omens and angelic messengers, the first thing we see in the painting is alien spacecraft.

A similar misinterpretation happened in Erich von Daniken’s infamous 1969 best-seller, Chariots of the Gods, in which a picture of a divine being in a Mayan tomb at Palenque “obviously” shows an astronaut in his capsule. The interpretation clearly depends on memories of the primitive Mercury program with its cramped and cluttered environment – it is doubtful that the more spacious Shuttle would have triggered the idea.

I remember once reading a book on science fiction as a genre, which gave a short story introduction along these lines:

“The last man in the world sat alone in his house, when there was a knock at the door.”

The author observed how in the nineteenth century that would have begun a ghost story. Now it would introduce science fiction.

Paul Cella comments on the Fravoir interview at What’s Wrong with the World, expressing cautious credence, and suggesting possible explanations within the Christian worldview. Theologically, as I’ve already said, the idea of intelligent aliens might create some interesting conundrums, but has a long history of compatibility with orthodox belief. Alternatively, Cella says, within our Christian universe the possibility of spiritual beings such as angels and demons must be considered (and there is some discussion under his post of whether demons could or would develop technology).

I agree with those possibilities. But if I try to get outside my own accustomed mindset, which goes back (as I said at the start) to before my teens, a third possibility occurs to me.

The conundrum of the more plausible UFO reports is that it that for seventy years, or maybe centuries, these things have been observed to observe us. Fravor’s “Tic-tac” responded actively to his manoeuvres, apparently taking flight when he became more “aggressive” by cutting across the circle they were both making. It’s actually a little hard to see why a machine with apparently infinite manouevrability would be spooked by that, rather than challenged to fly small circles round the jet to show who was boss.

It’s a little harder to be sure that the UFO (and the larger submarine object also seen) was actually observing naval operations, which is another part of the standard UFO mythos. They had already been seen on radar a number of times in the vicinity of the naval exercise, but generally at night when no military activity was happening. It might well be that military radar and aircraft just picked them up because they’re often there, whereas the Navy is not. As Fravor points out, why should aliens need to observe our technology for decades without interfering either for good or ill? They’d have a pretty good idea of our technology and politics by now, and in any case, would learn more by monitoring the internet than by risky physical manoeuvres.

Similar considerations apply to the idea of angels and demons. The latter’s interest in human affairs is mischief, and no real mischief ever seems to have occurred with UFOs. Angels are sent to minister to mankind… and playful aerobatics and swallowing torpedoes has little to do with that.

But what if UFOs are neither physical machines, nor semi-divine beings, but some unimagined category of sentient, but not rational, creatures? Not clever technology, but substantial forms in their own right, yet not necessarily being clever by turning up here – just doing what is natural to them.

I won’t speculate on whether they would be matter, spirit, plasma or anything else. If we knew that, we’d know how they do what they do. But much of what they actually do, stripped of assumptions about advanced civilizations, is more like the playful interactions with human activity we all know from dolphins or seals than anything else.

Once you accept the phenomena as real, and intelligent in the broadest sense, without making assumptions about high-technology, then UFOs are an interesting Intelligent Design test case. I mean that not in the sense that we are asking whether UFOs are intelligently designed technology, but in analysing their observed behaviour for signs of intelligences we definitely know not to be human, and indeed entirely unknown.

I don’t think one can deny intentional activity if one accepts the reports. Fravor’s Tic-tac clearly interacted with him, and also actively blocked his on-board radar (whilst remaining visible to shipboard radar). And we know this, I think, even though we cannot say if they are humanoids with big eyes in spaceships, demons with big egos and no bodies, or, as I speculate here, something more like the ocean-going whales of the cosmic realm, dropping down out of curiosity, or to breed, or whatever astral naturalists of the future may discover once another kingdom of life gets opened up for study.

I think it’s as cool to think of some kind of “animal” life created in deep space, basking in its hard energies, and occasionally making landfall for whatever natural reasons it might have, as it is to worry about whether large-eyed midgets mean us good or evil. Perhaps there really are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamed of in our philosophy. If that’s what extraterrestrial life means, then the whole so-called “Copernican principle” goes out the window, and we’re back to a version of the mediaeval Principle of Plenitude – a whole universe, and not just earth-like planets, teeming with many varieties of life of whose nature we know zilch.

The really cool thing, to me, is that this possibility poses no problems for orthodox theology either.

Jon Garvey

About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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