Almost all of us would hear such stories if we bothered to ask. People are willing, if somewhat reluctantly, to report experiencing an anomaly of some kind - a strange coincidence, an uncanny premonition, a peculiar encounter, a strange light or object in the sky, an out of place animal figure. Many more report such stories second hand.
Those of us who believe we are rational deny anomalies exist, or set them aside, or speak about them with a shrug or a laugh. They are, after all, mostly urban legends, aren't they? Surely there's an explanation. We just don't know it. Yet. So we forget about it, or tell it over dinner to friends. Ghost stories. Near death experiences. Unidentified Flying Objects. Spooky stuff.
When Jacques Vallee was a young astrophysicist at the Paris Observatory he uncovered some data in the files, sightings or tracking of objects that should not have been there. He was instructed to throw away the data because data without explanation must be bad data. The protocol was to destroy whatever the science couldn't explain.
Vallee contacted other scientists interested in anomalies. This resulted in what he called the Invisible College, a group of investigators willing to examine phenomena that don't fit the scientific (or, rather, scientistic) paradigm.
How did we come to this? What in our psyche is so desperate to debunk or deny anomalies? Although many of these phenomena are subject to scientific explanation if we dig deep enough, those that aren't so amenable should surely be worthy of our attention.
We and our immediate ancestors evolved over millennia in an uncertain environment. We moved around a lightly populated planet in relatively egalitarian bands of no more than 150. Over the past 800,000 years we perfected the long-term use of fire and a suite of highly sophisticated stone tools. We made clothing. We cooked our food. Threats existed everywhere, but we had ways of cooperating and a profound knowledge of our environment.
The world then could be rough. It was cold. There were predators. But we were smart. The world was alive with unseen entities, hidden events, surprises. We lived with seasons and scarcity and spirits.
What changed for us was civilization. We became citizens of cities. We lived with strangers. Our food came from farms. We learned how to fight in large groups. We have come to value selfishness and greed.
Our consciousness changed. The material world grew ever more familiar. Mystery receded, hidden in the dark corners of our unconscious. We believed the rational mind could discover everything, could explain everything.
Of course we are now learning this simply isn't so. Emotion is more important than we thought. Because we desire certitude, we are not only willing but compelled to believe things that may not be so. What challenges our beliefs makes us uncomfortable, and because many of us believe a scientific approach can - over time - reveal all secrets, we deny or repress what doesn't fit neatly into our comfort zone.
Of course a substantial proportion of the human species today still clings to revelation, not science. This attitude requires little energy. Science is there, but they prefer to believe in magic, or luck, a holy book, or God. After all, science is hard and can't always offer simple, clear explanations.
Between the scientistic approach (science can explain everything) and those who deny facts and cling to fantasy (evolution is "just a theory," climate change is a left-wing conspiracy) are a few people willing to take on the hard task of looking critically at outlier phenomena, events and experiences that don't fit any known paradigm, things science has (so far) been unable to explain. Such explorations lead us into the realms of folklore, sociology, group psychology, optics, particle physics, and the study of that most difficult of subjects, consciousness itself.
In these three books, we have a glimpse of the ways our consciousness has come to impede this kind of exploration. Conventional wisdom would tell us that such phenomena aren't real. They don't exist because, well, they don't exist. They can't.
The problem with conventional wisdom, and the reason we should beware of it, is that it is nearly always right. Because it is nearly always right we tend to believe that it is never wrong. Yet those times it is wrong should arouse our interest, for that is when we learn something new.
The authors under discussion deal with strange aerial events, alien contact (what Vladimir Rubstov calls "visitology"), and other paranormal experiences. Such phenomena might include temporal dislocations, near death or out of body experiences, ghosts, angels, precognition, telepathy or remote viewing (clairvoyance or what some researchers call non-local consciousness). They move into "the heart of the fringe," the things orthodoxy either looks away from or harshly rejects.
Jeffrey Kripal is an historian and scholar of religion, author of many books (The Serpent's Gift,Roads of Excess, Palaces of Wisdom, and notably Esalen: America and the Religion of No Religion). He is considered daring because he looks for religion in unusual places: comic books and popular culture, or in Jacques Vallee's writings. He has discussed the X-Men as a contemporary mystical community.
The bulk of Authors of the Impossible is taken up by four long essays about men (yes, all men) who dared, or were crazy enough (depending on who you ask) to confront the uncomfortable things people have reported since we started keeping records, and presumably long before.
The first section covers the career of the founder of the London Society for Psychical Research. Frederic Myers worked closely with William James in America collecting and analyzing thousands of reports of life after death, contact with the departed, ghosts, séances, table rapping, mesmerism, and poltergeists. Myers invented the word telepathy, among others. His posthumous two volume Human Personality and Its Survival of Bodily Death was the result of decades of research. The Society tried very hard to verify these phenomena. Since most reports consist of subjective interviews without material evidence this was challenging, to say the least. Much of their work thus consisted of collecting reports and categorizing them. The sheer overwhelming numbers of such reports represent a kind of data point, however. His most important contribution is in his theory of consciousness, a unified model mind including the unconscious, and direct experience and awareness of the paranormal, whatever that might be.
The study of life after death has fallen somewhat out of fashion, but interest in the paranormal has not. The Society's obsessive cataloging continues in Kripal's chapter on Charles Fort, an American writer who spent most of his lifetime culling anomalies from journals and newspapers from 1800 to the 1930s. He called these phenomena "damned" because the mainstream scientists of the day rejected them. Indeed his major work is called The Book of the Damned. Fortean societies today continue to collect such material. Fort offers some speculative assessment of the evidence, but what is most remarkable about this material is how much of it there is.
Kripal then discusses Jacques Vallee's lifelong interest in UFOs. It is important to note here that UFOs are not, or are not necessarily, we may conclude, space ships from another planet come to observe, invade, or kidnap humans for medical experiments, as depicted in popular films. They are unidentified – we don't know what they are – and so they are far more mysterious than the familiar buckets of rivets portrayed in such films as, for instance, Independence Day. For one thing, these phenomena often have psychic effects on people who have experienced them: they wake to discover they have lost several hours or may recall being abducted by alien, though human-like, creatures. Some report being fed buckwheat cakes!
Kripal thinks of Vallee and the others as authors of the impossible because they have taken on the paranormal as a subject of serious study despite the censure of their peers. None are marginal investigators or credulous enthusiasts for any particular hypothesis (space aliens being the current fashion). All, along with the subject of Kripal's final chapter, Bertrand Méheust, a French sociologist interested in mediums and somnambulism, are willing to examine closely and, more importantly, to speculate freely without being doctrinaire. They are willing to examine the impossible and write openly about it.
Forty years ago Vallee published an influential book called Passport to Magonia: from Folklore to Flying Saucers in which he examined the history and folklore around flying objects and close encounters. His latest book with Chris Aubeck is called Wonders in the Sky, a catalog of 500 reports of unusual aerial objects. Their subtitle is necessarily as long as their ambition is large: Unexplained Aerial Objects from Antiquity to Modern Times and Their Impact on Human Culture, History, and Beliefs. They have made every effort to weed out hoaxes and reports with inadequate documentation, but what remains is a broad list covering several thousand years and identified by type: lights, objects, abductions, physical evidence, entities, communication, or combinations. The first is a text from an Egyptian stela around 1460 BCE describing how a "star" helped Thutmosis III defeat the Nubians. The last dates to 1879, the dawn of human flight: Number 500, 10 October, 1879, Dubuque, Iowa: a "Large Unexplained Airship Overhead" described as a "balloon," although the only balloon known to be aloft around that time was one that had taken off from Louisiana and had fallen into Lake Michigan some ten days before.
The catalog stops at 1880, the beginning of the age of flight, for airplanes greatly muddy the data.
Reading through these reports shows how people have interpreted such events in the context of their culture. They were signs from the gods, or from God; they were angels or demons or witches. The Prophet Ezekiel (report number 4, 593 BCE) was abducted into a fiery chariot, saw a great cloud of raging fire engulfing itself, and strange beings with four faces and four wings. (Some have speculated this vision was the result of temporal lobe epilepsy.) Later unexplained aerial phenomena were often described as balloons, airships or dirigibles.
We encounter strange airships again in Vladimir Rubstov's collection of articles by scientists about anomalies inside the former Soviet Union. The book begins with an excellent assessment of what Rubstov slyly calls the authors' "off-mainstream position in science." One essay discusses what has been called the "Russian Roswell" event, essentially an analysis of a folk tale of an alien flying ship or strange airship that crashed in a small town in the Caucasus mountains some time during the Nineteenth century. Three dark-skinned men who spoke no Russian emerged, apparently suffering from something that quickly killed them. Were they aliens, Egyptian balloonists, or something else?
The book includes an account of the scientific assessment of a mysterious ball about the size of an orange made of some unknown glass-like substance. It was discovered in a clay layer dated to some ten million years ago and belongs to a class of supposedly alien objects that have been found over the years. The scientists who examined it concluded that it may have a chamber inside which, because of its weight and density, might contain antimatter (an alien engine from a crashed star ship?). The puzzle remains because the owner took back possession of the object, and it is no longer available for study.
The book concludes with essays on the well-known Tunguska Event in 1908, an apparently aerial explosion that flattened massive numbers of trees yet left no discoverable impact crater. In an essay entitled "The Cosmic Sword," Nikolay Vasilyev, a doctor, raises the alarm about the hazard of objects from space striking the earth. He pleads that all the effort put into "Star Wars" programs be applied to this threat to all mankind. The Tunguska Event remains a puzzle. For instance, historical research discovered traces of a magnetic disturbance at the time. The readings are similar to those created by nuclear explosions. The damage to the Siberian forest was also comparable. Various theories have been offered – meteor, comet, alien spacecraft. There are problems with all these possibilities. A "natural" explanation probably exists, but we have no certainty as yet.
What's the point of all this? These things cannot be explained by science, despite decades of study. Why bother? One day perhaps we will know.
Like many phenomena in the world, they do not lend themselves to experimentation. We cannot imagine a hypothesis and then design experiments to test it. These events rarely repeat themselves, so planting instruments in hopes of a second showing is not a viable research path. One report of a UFO landing on the river Mzha, may have repeated several years later, but the second time there was no sighting. In both cases strange circles were carved or melted into the ice on the river. Was it the effect of a strange current or an artifact of the UFO? It is impossible to test.
Why are these books important?
First, the number of reports is enormous. These are not rare events we can dismiss as "temporal lobe epilepsy," as suggested in the case of Ezekiel. They have happened throughout human history. We may presume they existed before humans. They are global - from China to Europe, Africa and South America. No doubt many could be attributed to unusual aurora borealis, or meteorites, comets, or atmospheric effects like refraction off of ice crystals, but many remain without plausible explanation.
Second, if we include unusual aerial effects with other phenomena like telepathy, precognition or what is called remote viewing we can devise hypotheses and test them.
The results of such investigations appear to be ambiguous. A recent experiment by Daryl Bem, a Cornell emeritus psychology professor, hints at evidence for precognition. Fifty-three percent of trials by college students could correctly predict behind which curtain a computer would decide to put a photograph. This is statistically significant, but like all the psychic research results I have read, essentially useless. The effect is small and too unpredictable to be useful as a form of consistent and reliable communication.
An interesting part of this experiment is that it only worked when the photographs were erotic. Frederic Myers had come to the conclusion that non-physical means of communication only worked when there was an emotional connection. Bem's research seems to confirm that. Even so, his article raised a serious dust storm, with coverage in the New York Times.
The results are ambiguous, but they are also tantalizing. Something is happening, something odd, something eerie. Why can't we make progress figuring out what it is?
I believe our consciousness has evolved, veering away from apprehending non-physical phenomena until we barely notice them, and when we do notice, we marginalize. Ever since we domesticated plants and animals we have come to believe that we have dominion over all of nature. This shift in consciousness changed, fundamentally and forever, the way we interact with the world around us. The history of civilization is the story of cities, of people living in dense urban centers in close proximity with one another and our domesticated livestock, and the story of mass conflict, arms races beginning with bows and arrows, spears, from chariots and the stirrup to guns, bombs, poisons, and propaganda. Everything became first technological, as in the plow and scythe, to scientific. Our model is hyper-rational. It's no wonder people want to turn to the Bible. Rationality is so emotionally unsatisfying.
Yet there is a current of opposition, of rebellion, evident in these books and others like them. Kripal sees such phenomena as the legitimate territory for religious studies, for religion has always concerned itself with the non-physical. More than psychology, these are matters of "spirit," of the invisible world that permeates the physical. It has been the domain of philosophy, of theology.
Frederic Myers tried to put this rebellion onto a scientific footing. Skeptical enquiry and an open mind took him far. Carl Jung wrote about flying saucers and synchronicity. Freud saw religion as a recreation of the nuclear family, an extension of the unconscious. Evolutionary psychology suggests we have mental systems, neurological webs in the brain designed to incite us to believe in the supernatural.
Cognitive neuroscientists fall into two camps, those who believe all experience can be explained by chemistry and physics - neurons and neurotransmitters - and those who believe mind is enmeshed with - but somehow separate from, or independent of - the brain. Some researchers suggest that the flicker of the unknown here may represent quantum effects - entanglement, for instance - or those theoretically subtle (possibly imaginary) effects at the very edge of the perceptible universe.
I hope for the latter. Subjective experience seems to belong to an order quite different from the workings of the large intestine or the healing of a cut. The writers discussed in Authors of the Impossible lead us gently into this other realm.
How many angels can dance on the head of a pin? What are those lights in the sky? Why was I thinking about someone I hadn't seen in years and suddenly get a call from her? What caused the Tunguska explosion that flatted an estimated 80 million trees over 800 square miles? What is that damn glassy ball?
These questions reflect our nearly unconscious need for mystery. By opening our minds to anomalies, perhaps we can learn once more to access those areas of consciousness currently closed to us. If so, we may yet make progress solving these puzzles, and in the end we may integrate once more with the unseen world around us.