Part 1: The New Existentialism & Approaching the UFO Phenomenon

 

“[A] frog sees the sky as no bigger than the mouth of its well.  We think that we see the whole sky: this infinity of possibilities.  But perhaps we’re only a special sort of frog in a special sort of well?  We must seek the essence behind the appearance.”

– God’s World by Ian Watson

 

Alongside the UFO phenomena, this essay will be concerned with common existential themes; isolation, solipsism and the sense of being trapped in a meaningless universe.  It also aims to tackle these problems by using the insights of Colin Wilson’s ‘new existentialism’ – a means by which to overcome the pessimism at the heart of many of the existentialist’s dour pronouncements.  Existentialism as a philosophy has a history that goes back to Kierkegaard, and was more recently expounded in the works of Sartre – but, particularly after the millennium, it has been treated as a somewhat anachronistic affair, and as a basically irrelevant philosophical trend of the 1950s.  Yet, it is my belief, and shared by many others (but perhaps too few!), that existentialism’s essential materialism, and essential sense of futility – even syllogistically accepted without further reflection – has been absorbed into our culture, and has merely taken up the guise in more contemporary approaches such as post-modernism, post-humanism and particularly in scientific materialism.  A science moreover which rejects philosophy, but nevertheless, still takes philosophical biases on-board without examination[1].  In other words, the basic problems that existentialism presented still remain unresolved, at least in popular culture.  The existential crisis, as such, remains repressed and ignored.

I hope to challenge these basic fallacies by considering something which the above approaches essentially reject (if the UFO is accepted, it is usually seen as a literal technological object from another planet – on materialistic terms), and which may, by its very nature, offer us something with which we can evaluate the human condition in a new light.  Whether or not these discredited phenomenon, the UFO and the extraterrestrial, will be accepted on their own terms or not, in this particular essay, is not pursued – it is however pursued as a phenomenological exercise of both the imagination and reason, much like the great works of science fiction attempted to illuminate urgent issues of both society and the psyche, and the hyphen that should lie between them (as space and time became, after Einstein, space-time, being as they were, inseparable).

Yet, this essay is less concerned with social panaceas, but with what Wilson expressed as “establishing a new dimension in human freedom”, a problem which runs obsessively throughout all his work.

Indeed, this essay may be treated as a work of speculation; a ‘What if?’ scenario which aims to offer a new and unusual way of thinking about ourselves in relation to the universe and our role thereof.  And for this task I have deliberately invoked the theme UFOs and extraterrestrials, which Wilson explored in his 1998 work, Alien Dawn.

Foremost Wilson was a philosopher, and throughout all of his work he presented an alternative ‘new’ existentialism which aimed to urge us out of the pervasive philosophical and cultural nihilism.  No doubt to many readers the notion that such a philosopher, concerned with such pressing and important issues of a philosophical revolution, should concern himself a phenomena that is generally dismissed, or treated as entirely trivial and irrelevant seems to be majorly side-stepping the point.  For how could this possibly give any light on the existential position of the individual?  The notion of existentialism being discussed in the same breath as UFOs may at first appear as a folly, an impossible divergence at odds with existentialism’s central premise – mankind’s freedom, or lack of it.

But a careful consideration of the facts, and in turn, a temporary suspension of disbelief, will benefit for the time being as we develop the ‘new’ existentialism from the bottom up.  For it will soon become apparent how the spectrum of existentialism can include extrasensory powers, extraordinary human potentialities and other realities.  In its crudest expression, it is really an expansion of man’s freedom beyond the normal limitations of matter and social circumstance (some existentialists felt that freedom, of the social kind, could be found in Marxism, for example, which is materialist in the extreme).  It aims, therefore, at an almost mystical extension of the human mind, whereby freedom is not merely a material circumstance, but a state of mind whereby the evolutionary urge is further encouraged.  It is not, to use Herbert Marcuse’s term, a ‘repressive-desublimation’ of mankind’s urge, but a positive encouragement of growth, of a freedom which is essentially one-and-the-same with the expansion and evolution of human consciousness.

The ‘new’ existentialism, in short, is an evolutionary philosophy concerned primarily with consciousness, and moreover, the application of Edmund Husserl’s phenomenology towards understanding the mechanisms of consciousness and the evolutionary impulse itself.

To this purpose, the imagination acquires a significant position in the new existentialism. And to this end – that is of an evolutionary phenomenology – the imaginative leap is in itself at the very heart of Wilson’s philosophy.  In a very real sense, it is the imagination and particularly the active use of it, that enables one to transcend Heidegger’s ‘triviality of everydayness’, or the contingent and futile world that Sartre portrayed in his novel Nausea.  The ‘everyday’ world may lose its freshness with age or depression, but this is as much an imaginative issue as it is a problem of perception (for the two are effectively one and the same) – the imagination being inextricably a part of one’s perception of the universe.  If, as Wilson argues convincingly, this imaginative organ of perception could be invigorated, the world would not appear as flat and lifeless as it is portrayed by the existentialists, but as an alien (in the sense of eternally ‘new’) and vivifying place of possibilities and could, moreover, even usher in an evolutionary leap.

It will be wise to consider the worldview presented by scientific materialism, and just how it understands mankind’s position in the universe.

*

The German computer scientist, Joseph Weizenbaum, noted that:

“Time after time science has led us to insights that diminish man.  Thus Galileo removed man from the center of the universe, Darwin removed him from his place separate from the animals, and Freud showed his rationality to be an illusion.  Yet man pushes his inquiries further and deeper.  I cannot help but think that there is an analogy between man’s pursuit of scientific knowledge and the individual’s commitment to psychoanalytic therapy”. (p. 201: Nature of Things)

In a sense, the UFO phenomena, added to this simultaneously morbid and valiant effort of mankind to understand himself and the world in which he lives, offers itself up as a panacea.  Or at least a mirror in which to examine himself.

The alien is often invoked as a metaphorical stance, as a possible observer of mankind’s progress and follies, having with it the advantage of being impartial and exempt from the fog of subjectivity and bias.  I have often noticed this position being adopted by anthropologists or psychologists who want a context from which to observe mankind as if from outside.  For example, Steve Taylor in his book, The Fall (2005) begins his social and psychological survey of man with this insightful paragraph:

“If alien beings have been observing the course of human history over the last few thousand years they might well have reached the conclusion that human beings are the product of a scientific experiment which went horribly wrong.  Perhaps, they might hypothesise, other aliens chose the earth as the site for an experiment to try to create a perfect being with amazing powers of intelligence and ingenuity.  And create this being they did – but perhaps they didn’t get the balance of chemicals exactly right, or maybe some of their laboratory equipment broke down half way through because, although the creature did possess amazing intelligence and ingenuity, it also turned out to be a kind of monster, with defects which were just as great as – or even greater than – its abilities”. (p. 12)

Of course this is using the notion of an extraterrestrial intelligence in a metaphorical sense simply to make a point, and to bring in a larger context with which to diagnose – and generalise – large swathes of the human experience as it looks to an outside observer.  Suddenly through imagination we are projecting ourselves into the mind of a visiting extraterrestrial, and are able to simulate a modicum of self-consciousness (although this of course is basically impossible, for the alien itself is merely anthropomorphism, and would no doubt have a radically different set of criterion with which to compare its own developments and mankind’s).  Nevertheless, this is an interesting example of phenomenology in action, and particularly one of the uses of mankind’s imagination towards a degree of self-consciousness which is almost entirely absent in most animals.  We can already see that, if we were to approach the alien symbolically, we receive a reflection of ourselves – and whatever we project on to the backcloth of the concept of an alien, we are in turn given insight into conscious and unconscious drives behind our perceptions.  It is an imaginary concept by which we intend meaning upon (again consciously or unconsciously).  Therefore the alien quickly becomes a vehicle of metaphor, presenting as it does aspects of the psyche or society into which it comes into contact – that is, by the author’s conception of what the alien ought to be.  This, moreover, makes the alien a very mercurial concept that cannot be fully grasped, for it is always out of reach, being as it is, fundamentally ‘other’.

Yet that is considering it in the form of a concept only, and if the reality of an extraterrestrial were to present itself, it would inevitably be subject to the similar misunderstandings and projections.  But this time perhaps with a clearer context of having a visible physiognomy, customs and a language which may have certain recognisable linguistic structures – there is something objective there to study, and it obeys – if it obeys at all – strict laws of matter and mind.  Perhaps the closest we can get to this, in effect, is two cultures developing in isolation, and then one finding the other, rather like the conquistadors and their conquest of the Americas.  However, meeting an extraterrestrial would have of a more disorientating quality, for it is two or more intelligent species – man and alien – coming into contact.  This would no doubt have fundamental biological, cultural, psychological and perhaps even chemical and neurological differences which makes the gap far harder to bridge – and within this gap, this essential unknowableness, man projects compensatory fictions, and again falls victim of unconscious forces, habits and pitfalls of anthropocentrism – of our minds being Earth-bound.  This sort of thing is one of the most painful effects of colonialism, and plagues us here on Earth, let alone with visitors from another solar system.

This may appear at first to be an unnecessary digression, but I think at this point we arrive at an interesting existential problem – that is, that man’s own values are entirely relative to himself, and have no objective reality out of his small domain.  If the world were to implode tomorrow, the works of Shakespeare and Beethoven would have never have left the Earth’s atmosphere – all that man knows is the work of man’s knowing. The projection of ‘compensatory fictions’ is exactly what Sartre was obsessed with, and this is the realisation behind the nausea that so plagues Roquentin in the novel Nausea.  The problem is, fundamentally, that nothing is knowable in any objective sense, for this would require what the Greek-Armenian mystic, Gurdjieff, called ‘objective consciousness’ – the ability to know Kant’s noumenon, ‘the thing in itself’ or reality as it is.

The existential crisis may have more personal origins, but the above examples are fundamentally the ‘visionary’ sort of existentialist, and has much more in common with a religious crisis.  He has something of a drive towards the impersonality of a God, of an ultimate Truth, or a standard of values which have a transcendent source rather like Plato’s forms.  When he has this crisis, he knows that now his own life – personal or otherwise – is based on false values which are entirely fictional, mere compensatory fictions which ease the pain of the realisation of man’s ultimate contingency in a meaningless universe.  In this state, it is easy to resort to solipsism, whereby one thinks that one’s own mind is the closest thing to any sort of ultimate value – for you realise that, at root, experience is an entirely personal one, shared only through the ephemera of language and the five senses.  And even those have enormous subjective ‘fuzziness’, having almost no relation to the object to which they refer.

Consciousness is accepted as essentially passive.

It is understandable that from this position man feels entirely a slave, and if he is free, he is free for nothing, for there is no transcendent purpose.  At best he can commit to a political ideal, or be concerned for the welfare of others – which is an admirable enough commitment in itself – but deep down, and in any dimension of life, there remains only death, our bondage to time and the laws of matter.  And the mind is merely epiphenomena of matter, subject to its laws, and beyond that, a limited sort of tool cursed with a dismal self-awareness of its limitations.  There is even, in a bleak sort of way, a celebration of this struggle; that in spite of this, man marches on, stoically accepting the bleak fate of annihilation – with the universe eventually cooling down, removing even the possibility of further life, or consciousness, ever occurring even in the remotest galaxy.

No one nor no thing is safe.

Hospitality, or a ‘cosmological anthropic principle’, in the universe is at best treated with contempt, dismissed – in scientific materialism – as a throwback to religious thinking, or as a fantasy dreamed up out of an inability to stare the grim truth in the eye.  In fact, I believe the latter to be a part of the appeal of existentialism (aside from its aesthetic appeal, or its often penetrating analysis of the human condition), and especially some of the more despairing writers like the Romanian philosopher, Emil Cioran (who in his work, Syllogisms of Bitterness, encapsulated his own disposition in the aphorism: “How I’d like to be a plant, even if I had to keep vigil over a piece of shit!”) or in the works of the horror writer H.P. Lovecraft, for it gives the sense that you are brave enough to look into the void – that in some way, you are valiantly accepting reality on its own terms.  Or, perhaps, a sort of masochism.

Optimism, from this perspective, seems like a weakness, or at best a poor measure of character, a basic naivety.

For Lovecraft all of us “live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not mean that we should voyage far” and even science, with its visions of technological progress and resulting social change, should come to such “terrifying vistas of reality, and our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age” (p. 61).  These philosophies of pessimism are essentially a closed-system of human values, whereby nothing ‘higher’ can enter, for it goes on the assumption that nothing ‘higher’ exists, and if it did, it would probably be malevolent or indifferent – having at its core, a merciless need to survive, fitted – like the rest of us – with an inherent Darwinism.  An extraterrestrial, from this point of view, would also be at the mercy of the cosmos to greater or lesser degrees – so in a sense, to meet one would only further entrench us in a materialistic cosmos, shared with a variety of life forms, but nevertheless still fundamentally no better off in the grand scheme of things.

We would still remain Nietzsche’s madman, proclaiming the unanswerable questions such as “Are we not plunging continually?  Backwards, sideward, forward, in all directions? Is there any up or down left?  Are we not straying through an infinite nothing?  Do we not feel the breath of empty space?  Has it not become colder?. . .”.  The infinite relativity undermines all of our values, of extraterrestrial origin or not.

Yet it was the same Nietzsche who wrote in 1875 that the highest reason would truly liberate “if only it could be produced consciously, [and this] would result in a still greater feeling of reason and happiness; for example, the course of the solar system, begetting an educating a human being” (p. 50 Portable Nietzsche).  In one of the earliest insights which predicted the ‘new existentialism’ by over a hundred years, he notes that: “Happiness lies in the swiftness of feeling and thinking: all the rest of the world is slow, gradual, and stupid.  Whoever could feel the course of a light ray would be very happy, for it is swift” (p. 50).

Nietzsche’s vision of the universe above is not presented as purposeless, but as a higher dimension of rationality, of meaning and in terms of relationships.  Significantly the artist, for him, represented one of the highest expressions of reason, for it is a creative force of increasing complexity and, strangely in the last note, of light speed.

At this juncture of speculation, it is interesting to note that as one proceeds towards the speed of light, time starts to slow down, when the speed of light is reached time effectively stops altogether – for a photon there is no time.  At this point, the levels of consciousness may be reconsidered, not as necessarily restricted to the three dimensions of space, but also within that of time – and beyond.  The philosopher E.F. Schumacher, for example, divides consciousness into a number of levels, whereby at the lowest level there is time:

“only in the sense of duration.  For creatures endowed with consciousness there is time in the sense of experience; but experience is confined to the present, except where the past is made present through memory, and the future is made present through foresight.  The higher the Level of Being, the ‘broader’, as it were, is the present; the more it embraces of what, at lower Levels of Being, is past and future.  At the highest imaginable Level of Being there would be the ‘eternal now’” (p. 46).

If one’s consciousness were to somehow reach the speed of light, these feelings of contingency would be seen as an illusion of the lower-state of consciousness; a consciousness lumbering behind, unable to outreach the limitations of the gravitational well of personality and triviality.

Indeed, these levels of consciousness are in themselves different dimensions of levels of freedom.

Now this is really where the ‘new existentialism’ really begins, for it recognises that there are certain levels of consciousness which cannot be ignored when taking into account human experience.  And within these higher states, the relativity of human values suddenly becomes a self-evident absurdity, and a mere problem of one’s perception.  Contingency fades away and reality loses its ephemeral, vague and subjective quality and becomes vividly real, and one becomes infused with a sense of life-force, an élan vital which vivifies our perceptions by flooding them with a re-energised intentionality (intentionality will be considered more in depth in Part 2).

In Religion and the Rebel (1957), Wilson argues that the ‘old existentialism’:

“make[s] imprisonment in time, consciousness and personality – to which human beings are only too prone – seem quite natural and inevitable.  And since this way of thought has become the prevalent way in our modern world, the Outsider must raise the banner of a new existentialism, and make war on civilised modes of thought” (1984: p. 192).

And it seems to me that the UFO phenomenon is, as good as any, making war on our ‘civilised modes of thought’ (much like Wilson’s advance into the occult later on in his career was an enormous rebuff to ‘civilised modes of thought’).  But without drifting far from the implications of Wilson’s optimistic existentialism, – indeed remaining steadfastly close to this form of phenomenological analysis – we shall now see just how this odd phenomena of strange lights seen in our skies, and hallucinatory abduction scenarios, somehow tie in to a development of a new human consciousness.  From this position some of the ambiguities of the phenomena come more sharply into focus, offering up a potential view in to the workings of mankind’s evolution of consciousness, and particularly, how the unconscious, in some instances, may be facilitating the necessary challenges of human experience.

After all, one lifelong UFO witness and abductee, Whitley Strieber, said that the phenomena “might be what the force of evolution looks like when it is applied to a conscious mind”. . .

This will be continued in Part 2 . . .

Notes:

[1] As pointed out, somewhat ironically, by the arch-materialist Daniel Dennett.

 

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