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The UFO Problem: Science, Social Movements, and Theory of Knowledge

The aim of science, as is generally accepted today, is to organize knowledge gleaned from what we observe in nature. We take what we observe, and we structure it by using testable explanations, which thereby help us make future predictions about new things we may eventually learn about our universe. Hence, with regard to our study of nature and the cosmos, a good question that comes to mind from time to time is this one: What criteria would define a subject that science does not seek to address?

When we ask what things science doesn’t aim to study in our broader quest for knowledge, should that necessarily mean that these kinds of things, esoteric though they may seem, cannot be “known” or studied at all? This has long been among the questions that philosophers have asked; after all, in the modern sense of the study of things around us, such issues surrounding concepts that fall “beyond” the scope of the physical sciences generally are left out altogether, if not left to the philosophers among us.

One might argue that, when it comes to the study of the unexplained, one way of seeking to understand certain “paranormal” subjects would be to subject them to some degree of logical philosophical thought, particularly in areas where science has either dismissed them (i.e. these aforementioned subjects that science does not address), or where there is not enough physical data that a proper scientific assessment can be rendered.

This brings us to epistemology, which, defined roughly, involves the “theory of knowledge”, or study of how we know what we know (more broadly, it is an assessment of what knowledge is, how it is acquired, and the study of limitations on how knowledge pertinent to a particular subject can be acquired). Recently, Michael, a reader and listener of my weekly podcast, wrote to me with a question about epistemology, and how our philosophical theories of knowledge might relate to the study of the unexplained.

Michael writes, and takes us “down the rabbit hole”, thusly:

What I would like to get your opinion on is a matter of epistemology, and how one who is exposed to such a myriad of ideas and thoughts, often times conflicting ones, can come to know the truth. I reject rigid relativism and subjectivism in favor that there is objective truth. It’s quite possible for there to be objective truth and due to our human limitations we simply cannot know or ever be certain (the skeptics position), but one cannot assume that because something is yet to be verified or unverifiable empirically it is untrue. I find the latter to be an irrational position, but therein lies the problem. What method or means can we rely on outside of sensory experience to give us truth?

Without the dogmatism that science holds today, the ancients may have trusted some other means of truth finding that we have either dismissed or lost. You might think this other method would need some verification process like science has with experimentation, but isn’t that just a scientific bias creeping through? True things, especially events, can certainly be unique instances and unrepeatable. What then is to be said of truth dependent on verification and verified by what means? Divorcing empiricism and verification from truth can obviously lead to a number of errors, so it’s unwise to dismiss these methods entirely and in all cases.

What I am proposing is that outside the realm of things which lend themselves to be subject to science, there is truth to be realized and possibly a way to arrive at it. I know you’ve addressed this kind of issue a number of times, but I think it is worth reiterating and revisiting from time to time because it really underpins nearly all conspiracy and paranormal related topics.

Michael’s discussion of epistemology here is esoteric indeed by today’s standards (and especially as it relates to the “popular” study of the unexplained). Deep though it is, his observations, I feel, may bear fruit for those patients enough to pose similar contemplation; they also mirror, in many ways, my own notions and perceptions about certain alleged “paranormal” phenomenon.

This is particularly the case with UFOs, and I feel that this subject, while representative of something that is also a very tangible mystery, has similarly been deemed “outside the area of questions that science seeks to answer”, as physicists like Stephen Hawking might phrase it.

For me, such matters that science will not (or cannot, at present) address likely should enter the realm of philosophy. The problem, however, is that in many cases, the modern scientist views philosophy as being “dead”, and having not kept up with the progress of science, especially since the time Einstein arrived on the scene with his revolutionary theory of general relativity. Therefore, if philosophy is dead in the minds of some scientists, then those things relegated to philosophy are thus unimportant (or “dead”, as it were) as well.

Hey, even Einstein enjoyed reading the philosophy of Kant.

This ongoing debate over which things are “dead” or otherwise unimportant in relation to the schism between science and philosophy is an interesting logical conundrum unto itself, in my view. However, as far as Michael’s line of thought expressed in his question above, in which things resting “outside of science” may still be knowable in some manner, I do believe that part of understanding this problem involves understanding the nature of individual specialization.

To return to Hawking again, the great physicist has often said that serious advances in the sciences are now relegated to specialists in the field, unlike the old days when many “untrained” individuals who proceeded logically could render new discoveries. Here, I would argue instead that the latter is actually still the case as well, although the specialization Hawking refers to allows new kinds of discoveries, as a result of the deep thought, scientific training, and complex systems that are employed. Such things might have been “knowable” much earlier, had the tools and practices that allow for their study today already been in place at an earlier time. This does not mean, however, that all things are “unknowable” without the use of such tools, training, and practice that the modern specialist employs. Indeed, I think the right non-specialist, looking at the right subject, may indeed stumble onto discoveries in the everyday that are scientifically meaningful.

As an interesting parallel, Hawking’s own specialization illustrates, at times, some of his own logical shortcomings, such as in cases where he begins to apply his thoughts and perspectives to other fields of interest beyond his “specialty” in the area of physics. Hawking, for instance, while not an A.I. researcher himself, seems pretty convinced that the creation of artificial intelligence would be a bad thing for humanity.

Elsewhere, his remarks about philosophy itself have generally been quite dismissive (as have his statements pertaining to UFOs, which we’ll return to in a moment). One could argue that Hawking does not possess the required “specialization” to be able to recognize the shortcomings of his own thought processes, as evidenced not only by his “philosophy is dead” remarks, but also by his observations about philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein’s assessment of language being “the only subject left for philosophy”, as related by Hawking in the final pages of A Brief History of Time. (Personally, I am amazed that there aren’t far more philosophers who have come along and challenged Hawking’s views on Wittgenstein, or A.I., or UFOs, or philosophy in general… but I digress).

I feel that discerning those things which science deems “unknowable” must require a bit more than specialization, and in fact, at times may also require multi-disciplinary efforts. For example, putting on our physicist or astronomy cap, we may look out into space for answers about things like UFOs, but would doing so really help us find any more answers than we have already managed to glean thus far? Furthermore, are there other areas of study that might help us solve the problem too, from “the ground up”, so to speak?

An interesting observation to be made has to do with the attitudes among those studying UFOs — the scientists, and believers alike — which will typically reveal one simple reality: that both “approaches” to study are actually quite dogmatic, and representative of belief-based biases that are built around, or perhaps grow from within, what are obviously social movements.

To put it another way, belief in an “alien” reality underlying UFOs is as much a social movement as modern skepticism and its “I think, therefore it is not!” approach. This is because those of similar mind on a subject will likely gather together, and when allowed to run to their illogical extremes, run the unfortunate risk of producing a very dogmatic, faith-based approach to the study of a given subject. At its worst, this bears promise for a lack of objectivity, and an approach that is generally unscientific, despite any attempts to the contrary.

Phillip J. Klass - UFO debunker

Philip Klass, widely considered an “arch debunker” of UFOs, and at times even unscientifically so

Thus, a range of new phenomena begin to emerge. Within the skeptic camp, the result has often been a move toward more “debunking” by individuals whose minds are already made up about the subjects they study at the outset of their “investigations”. This, rather famously, led sociologist and skeptic Marcello Truzzi to leave the Committee for Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP, now known as CSI) shortly after it was formed in 1976, due to the uncompromising stances of his fellow members. On the other side of the fence, from within the ranks of the “believer” camp, we find more and more reformed UFO advocates and “born again skeptics”, as I like to call them, who (like myself) have had to accept a vast change in our attitudes and perception about so-called UFO research, after spending many years of (frustrating) examination of data that, often times, is spurious at best.

That’s not to say that either side — belief (or advocacy, as some may prefer), or skepticism — is the way to absolute truth. I actually prefer a more agnostic, middle-of-the-road stance, in an effort not to be dismissive of good evidence that may be put forth by either position. However, straying too far in one direction or the other often leads to bias, just as well.

Thus, while making a good case for what a UFO is (or is not) remains difficult, we could certainly employ science of sociology to make a strong case that belief systems can, and have influenced (perhaps negatively) the serious attempts at applying science to certain subjects. In this case, the subject would be UFOs, and although this observation is fundamental, it is my belief that it is important, on a much broader scale, and not just in terms of sociological studies, but in applying a bit of philosophical logic to the breakdown between people’s thoughts and attitudes. In other words, in the epistemological sense that Michael had suggested earlier, we’re asking “how we know what we think we know.”

This is the great role of philosophy: while some will continue to proclaim that it is a “dead” practice, its proponents and practitioners view it as an important system of “checks and balances”, that if not providing new discoveries itself, might at least help guide future scientific inquiry in positive ways.

Indeed, perhaps our predicament with things “outside” science has more to do with understanding why those things are deemed unknowable through science; and asking “why” is the fundamental job of the philosopher.

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Micah Hanks is a writer, podcaster, and researcher whose interests cover a variety of subjects. His areas of focus include history, science, philosophy, current events, cultural studies, technology, unexplained phenomena, and ways the future of humankind may be influenced by science and innovation in the coming decades. In addition to writing, Micah hosts the Middle Theory and Gralien Report podcasts.
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