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Incommensurability and the metaphysical temptation:

About "Incommensurability, Orthodoxy and the Physics of High Strangeness" by Jacques F. Vallée and Eric W. Davis

The paper [1] I discuss here defends that the continuing study of "UAP," for "Unidentified Aerial Phenomena," which includes "appearances" of a religious or spiritual nature, may bring forth a new theorem for new models of physical reality. It is proposed on one hand that physics is unable to deal with this, and on the other hand, that the UFOs are not "nuts and bolts" for they violate the laws of physics. The authors see a "psychic" component in the UAP phenomenon.

The problem with this paper is that Vallée seems to have understood the consequences of the question of incommensurability very differently from what I understood of it, and from there, draws conclusions; which are opposed to those that in my opinion and perhaps other opinions the notion of incommensurability infers. [2], [3]

Incommensurability is the notion that if certain UFOs are extraterrestrial machines, if there are encounters with their occupants, it is only sensible to think that human witnesses cannot really correctly interpret neither correctly perceive neither understand the physics of the machines at a glance, and cannot comprehend neither the behavior nor the intentions of the occupants.

We are in the position of the native of Papua-New Guinea in their first encounters with the western explorers. For the natives, a Land Rover is "the mother" of its occupants, it "gives birth to them" when they open the doors and come out of it, their clothing are "a strange skin inside of which they can introduce their hands without bleeding" (the pockets), their power unit is "an animal with a monstrous growls, which never sleeps," the explorers may be their own dead people returned from the "country of the dead," etc. [4].

And in this case, we have a meeting of two civilizations; which share the same biology, the same environment. If other civilization not sharing the same biology nor the same environment are encountered, it is not even possible to imagine how hug the incomprehension, the impossibility of understanding their technology, their intentions, the functions of their objects and equipment would be.

This, is incommensurability.

It is this incommensurability which was evoked by science fiction author A. C. Clarke [5] when he wrote that appearance of extraterrestrial visitors (in which he did not believe with the argument that he never saw any) would appear to us as an act of magical characteristics. It is this level of incommensurability which French sociologist and ufologist Pierre Lagrange tries to indicate when he recently explained on national TV that extraterrestrial beings would be, for us, almost "invisible." Parts of the paper I comment here precisely develop this concept, I think that this is the part of paper ascribable to Eric Davies. What I fear, is that this fundamental part of paper goes unnoticed or misunderstood, to the benefit of a reading of the paper as an argumentation against an extraterrestrial origin of some UFOs.

One among the most speculative variations of this is to support that "nuts and bolts extraterrestrial beings" are illusions forged "to fool us" by "an intelligence" which is supposedly not of extraterrestrial origin but of some "metaterrestrial" or "ultraterrestrial" nature, whatever this may mean.

This is a concept there that Vallée inter alia [6] often proposed [7] elsewhere, and it appears in this paper again. I think that it is speculation at its worst, seemingly the elaboration of a more refined theory than that of "ordinary" extraterrestrial beings; but it is actually not a good theory: it is merely the explanation of a problem with a mystery. It is a bad theory because its explanatory capacity is null. On the contrary the notion of incommensurability is precisely that which makes it possible to avoid such ad hoc constructions: extraterrestrial machines and their occupants do no appear familiar enough to us, seems to violate certain "laws of physics?" Well, how could it be different? How can anyone seriously think that extraterrestrial ships and occupants from another planet should necessarily appear and behave simply as we expect?

Vallée, on the ground that the UFOs and occupants do not comply to a certain credo of human conception, claims that the UFO phenomenon is strange and absurd, and that thus it cannot have any straightforward extraterrestrial origin.

On the contrary, I claim that if there were neither strangeness nor absurdity, then, it could not be extraterrestrial.

In addition mocking ideas concerning the so-called "nuts and bold hypothesis" are proposed. First of all, as far as I am concerned there is a theory and not an hypothesis there, moreover there is no need for bolts or nuts as we figure. What I want to say, is that Vallée speculates that the extraterrestrial occupants are not extraterrestrial beings because they do not behave as extraterrestrial beings should, according to his own interpretation of a "nuts and bolts ETH." He reduces the theory of the extraterrestrial intelligent origin of certain UFOs to a simplistic and cartoonist imagery, and proposes a more "para" or "ultra" vision, as if the "paras" and the "ultras" would then be of a not extraterrestrial nature (extraterrestrial intelligence would then apply only to visitors who would be "like us" from almost any point of view (biology, technology, intentions, behaviors) except that they would originate from another planet. "para-this" and "ultra-that" would be of not-extraterrestrial, that is to say thus, terrestrial (?))

Another mechanism is at work with Vallée, that of the mixture of sorts and the levelling of the facts. The mixture of sorts, is that if any people claims to have seen a ghost or the Virgin Mary, or if anyone is communicating with "the spirits," then, it means to him that the UFO phenomenon has components that "ETH proponents" refuse to take into account. This is incorrect; what I personally refuse to take into account as being part of facts that must necessarily be explained as part of the UFO phenomenon, is accounts without verifiable substance, legends, so-called psychic effects which either do not have anything other to support them than accounts of gullible people convinced in advance or even making commercial benefit of it, or so called facts which do not have the least characteristic in them allowing to claim that they bear the least relationship with the UFO question. The mixture of sorts also consists in suggesting that everything of a strange nature, whether verified or not (telepathy, torsion of spoons, appearances of the Virgin Mary, miraculous health recoveries, prophecies...) has a relationship with the UFO phenomenon simply because these alleged facts are strange and so is the UFO phenomenon in the eyes of many.

The levelling of the facts, is to pick up a Middle-Age story such as that of the "green children" or a crowd which mistakes an undersun for a divine demonstration, and to grant to that the same weight as that which may be granted to multiple, independent, qualified and non-believers witnesses, supported by additional, non-visual, media of observation, of the operations of a machine in the sky whose aeronautical performances exclude that it is "ours."

In fact, what I noted again and again, is the erroneous addition of nonsense to the phenomenon which should not be added at all. I want to give a short example concerning the French UFO flap of 1954. It was claimed that the extraterrestrial beings reported during this flap were a "collection of the absurd" in the sense that these reported visitors had nonsensical features and behaviors in so many cases [7]. Remembers the extraterrestrial visitor wearing an "orange frock coat" brought back by a certain witness. Admittedly that confers something nonsensical to this extraterrestrial being. The only problem there, it is that this case was explained very early: the witness had judged credible enough for an excuse of being late at work that morning, to invent that his delay was due to his encounter of a saucer and his occupant on his way to work. It is thus rightly, and not because "ETH proponents" ignore +disturbing facts" that this case must not be taken into account in the "ETH" rather than to build a hazardous speculation by adding useless psychic or ultra-dimensional components or concept of "witnesses manipulated by the phenomenon." I may also tell of some cases of hairy of furry extraterrestrial beings [8], or that of this French peasant reporting his 1954 encounter [9] with the crew of a NATO helicopter, with a loud and clear report, including the military uniform, the European language and the tap on the head of the family dog which is in a listing of "UFO landings and humanoid encounters." Admittedly, that extraterrestrial beings seemed so affectionate with the farmyard dog, asked for the direction of Paris, had the European type, could seem to be an argument for the theory of "the ultraterrestrial intelligence which deludes humanity since ages" with producing absurd aliens. But for me, "ETH supporter" and "nuts and bolt ufologist," the explanation is very different: the witness accurately reported the landing of a NATO military helicopter, which he did not correctly interpret because he knew nothing on helicopters, then a local newspaper man with no experience of what ufology is sees "Martians" there, and a ufologist would should know better concludes later that the UFO phenomenon includes such nonsenses that the explanation cannot be in extraterrestrial beings in nuts and bolts spacecraft and propose that the phenomenon is a psychic phenomenon created by an intelligence which is beyond physics but capable of creating illusions of a physical nature.

Another example I want to give is the case of Carl Higdon's encounter with a being, certainly not a terrestrial being, and its apparatus in 1974 [10]. This case is definitely very "nuts and bolts" in nature, but supporters of the UFOs purported "violation of the laws of physics" are happy with it: they insist that the spacecraft seemed larger inside than it seemed to be when Higdon saw it from the outside. Actually, there is no "violation of the laws of physics" there: Higdon does not have conscious memories from what occurred inside the machine, and it is by the doubtful technique of hypnotic regression that this impossible space dilation of the vessel was born. There again, the "supporters of the ETH" are accused to reject data, but on the contrary they are founded to reject this detail, not because they find it disturbing (the considered worms holes are things of that type indeed) but with the reason that what come into consciousness via hypnotic regression is nothing of the order of established fact. When sticking to the story of what Higdon consciously perceived of its encounter, "ETH proponents" note that there is no need to introduce neither other dimensions, neither ultraterrestrial concepts, nor psychic phenomena. They note that if one admits that the encounter happened as Higdon consciously remembered it, the theory that he met a visitor from outer space is perfectly suitable, and provides a simple and rational explanation, without requiring fundamental upheavals of scientific knowledge, even less requiring the introduction of psychic phenomena.

It is obvious that it becomes very easy to "absurdify" the "ETH" for its opponents if it is enough for them to add per hundreds stories the extraterrestrial in orange frock coats, Virgin Mary appearances, inter-dimensional gantries, extraterrestrial beings in military outfit speaking Italian, stories of travel in "the astral planes," Neat Death Experiences, channeling, torsions of spoons (it does not matter whether the spoons are or are not really bent via by some psychic capacity of the performing artist, it is enough if he claims to be inspired by the aliens). Will it become necessary that the "ETH proponents" also hold account of the Loch Ness monster? In the same order of idea, will it become an argument that the "ETH" rejects lenticular clouds, refusing to see that lenticular clouds disprove the ETH?

Let us check what the paper proposes as characteristic of the "layer II" which is meant to be some "violations of the laws of physics." The effects supposedly violating physics are quoted as:

There are in paper such a quantity of assumptions and ideas I estimate erroneous, that I will not discuss all. But here are some points:

Calling upon C.G. Jung as supporter of psychic theories is rather laughable when it is known that Jung had made this suggestion that UFOS are an "artefact of the collective unconscious" before learning on the nature of UFO reports, and had completely rejected this concept and joined the ETH followers once he did check out what UFO reports really are [11] [12].

The notion that the UFO phenomenon seems to consist of witnesses manipulation is quoted as a reason to think that the phenomenon is not of an intelligent extraterrestrial nature; in the name of what? Is this in the name of this anthropomorphism which the paper is supposed to reject? Incommensurability is precisely the principle which should encourage to remain careful at the same time on the notion that there really is a "manipulation" of the witnesses by the phenomenon and on the interpretation that it really is a "manipulation." In any event, it is not reasonable to reject an extraterrestrial origin of certain UFOs with the arguments that witnesses are "manipulated" by the phenomenon.

As for the acronym "UAP" substituted for that of "UFO," there is no need to make a case of that. This is a simple "political trick" used by NARCAP among others, in order not to frighten the scientists that they try to interest in the matter. Too many people still laugh at the suggestion to consider the question UFO as an even remotely valid question, whereas a new acronym is supposed to "sound" more "neutral," without the politically incorrect concept of "extraterrestrial occupants." NARCAP, and others, have thus by tactical convention embraced the habit to call UAP what the USAF called UFO so that supposedly "serious" people, i.e. people who normally scoff at any mention of "UFOs" get interested by the topic instead of laughing at it. Fair enough. But starting from the difference between UAP ("phenomenon") and UFO ("object"), between "Aerial" and "Flying" it will be grafted the concept that UFOs are not objects and not flying whatsoever, that they are a "mere phenomena" etc. There is an opposite risk of reduction; at the times of Project Blue Book, an UFO was not an UFO except if there were reasons to think that an object had been present and flying, with the UAP, the risk is that those which may be allured by the virginity of the acronym again reduce the phenomenon to flimsical plasmoids, aurorae borealis, undersun, will-o'-the-wisps etc. This said, I think that among those which currently scoff at the UFO question and which are supposed being allured by new name, few will be so easily deceived by this tactical trick. What will occur, is more likely that "promoters of the ETH" - to use the already reducing qualifier - will again be viewed as people for whom any report of any phenomenon in the sky is a report of an extraterrestrial spaceship flyby.

The part of the paper probably reflecting Vallée's ideas will certainly add more confusion on the topic. The most obvious risk come from this distinction between completely speculative "levels" of reality. The principle of incommensurability should make it clear that if a UFO "violates the laws of the physics," it is because we do not have a complete understanding of what is allowed and forbidden by these laws of physics, and that we cannot possibly know what may become possible with a technology which, if it is extraterrestrial, is necessarily in advance in comparison with ours and with all at least be different from ours. But Vallée chooses to introduce the idea again that when a phenomenon "violates the laws of physics," it is not that we do not know nor control yet all the "laws of physics" and their consequences, but it is, to him, proof that there is "another physics," or something beyond physics, ultraphysics or metaphysics of psychic. And from that, certain readers will certainly accepts Vallée's shortcut and agree that the main consequence is that that UFOs and their occupants could not be only physical spaceships and their occupants coming from another planet. Although the paper comprises a small paragraph suggesting that the "violation of the laws of physics" may be explained by our incomplete knowledge of these laws, its conclusion is different, explaining astonishing aspects of the UFOS not by our very obvious technological inferiority but by the invention of "levels" of realty beyond physics, or metaphysics, explaining a small mystery by a complete enigma. That all this is supposedly supported by the notion of incommensurability is something I cannot believe for the reasons indicated above.

Conclusion

The paper's conclusion seems to suggest that the UFO phenomenon can be investigated correctly only if it is considered that it has physical and psychic components altogether. I do not agree; I support that the so-called effects supposedly of psychic nature do not make up for a reality which would not be physical, but raise partly from a use of physics we do not yet understand, and partly are non-facts, that is, false stories or incorrect representation of true stories which should not be used in any serious UFO casebook. I support that the paper, which will undoubtedly be read without taking account of this, will succeed in consolidate part of the people interested in the problem in the speculation that UFOs are not physical or not only physical, and that all this will result in the continuation of wild speculations on "other dimensions," "astral planes" and the "ultraterrestrial," that is, a so-called explanation of the "UFO mystery" by all sorts of other unfathomable mysteries escaping scientific criticism since defined as "beyond reality." Those who take this dead end should not complain that all sorts of pseudo-scientific garbage pf pataphysical nature are spread by unqualified amateurs, charlatans, and gurus of UFO cults. Those who suggest that UFOs are more than physical or beyond physics should not wonder why most uninformed mainstream scientists do not follow them and do not see in the UFO problem anything else than a lot of crap.

Those who read Vallée' writings since the beginnings are accustomed with his deliberate exploration of any possibilities behind the UFO phenomenon (he defined himself as "the heretic among the heretics"). They are accustomed with his apparent or sincere (who can tell?) changes of mind, contradictions which are really wild speculations. They are accustomed with his habit of explaining mysteries by enigmas (crop circles are created by the military, if we never saw them doing it, that is because they use invisible planes, as he speculated [13] recently.) Others will undoubtedly accept any one or the other of the ideas brewed by Vallée as if they were "conclusion" of the UFO problem, which goes against his own idea ("everyone claims to know what the saucers are, 'they are extraterrestrial', 'they are not extraterrestrial', I am the only one to claim that I do not know whether they are or aren't extraterrestrial", he said recently. I am unconvinced that all this can bring anything really interesting. The "para" aspect as seen by Vallée in the UFO appearances is, as far as I am concerned, nothing else than the demonstration that we can neither perceive nor understand something of extraterrestrial origin correctly, an effect, precisely, of the incommensurability.

Footnotes:

Addendum:

I wrote the above text in response to a call for comment on Vallée and Davies' paper on the "Aleph" online discussion list. My answer was written in a mere 30 minutes, without second reading. I was rather trustful in the critical spirit of contributors and readers of this discussion group to be sure that if some point of mine were erroneous or criticizable, it would be said so. After having benefited from these critical readings, I did not see any point of my argumentation I should amen, and published it just as it is, adding some illustrative examples to the subject, and indicating the precise references which I called upon in my text.

Here some of the points which were discussed, and the answers that I gave, including additional offline reactions and opinions.

"Physics, is limited"

Readers protested that physics is limited, or does not explain everything, or makes errors:

I did not receive a single word of answer to the latter question. Maybe physics does not have an explanation for telepathy, ghost, spoon bending and near death experiments - admitted that these phenomena are real; which I do not know - but it has many answers to many questions. It seems that paranormal, psychic, religious, mystical, whatever other non-scientific approach you may fancy, do not explain anything at all, not even the object of its own (ghost investigators may claim they proved ghosts do exist, but they do not explain or even theorize how they exist). There is zero explanation when you give up the scientific method.

I wrote: "Since you claim physics is unable to answer your requirement not to get more and more questions to solve, will you try to settle questions which are still open by pataphysical investigation, by religious faith, wild speculation, psychics? Will you rely upon very convenient unspecified "other dimensions," intelligences which control us by means of delusions, mysterious forces that physics cannot grasp nor explain? Will you trash binoculars, radar, test tube, maps, space research, exobiology, sociology etc and consult a psychic healer and other "channelers?" Under what terms? Where are the achievements of these other approaches when it comes to providing explanations?"

A critical reader wrote: it is absurd to demand that religion or metaphysics produce "discoveries," in the way that science is required to.

"Scientism is full of hubris and dogmatics"

A reader fustigates scientific pride, and finds that science lacks modesty. I answer:

This gentlemen then quoted Copernic, Einstein and Pasteur as example of daring innovators fighting against stubborn scientific dogma. My answer was:

It was stressed that "scientific hubris" will now replace religious hubris. I corrected:

"The lack of explanation should not result in the reject of a phenomenon"

It was criticized that what is not yet explained is unduly rejected, by a scientific dogma nowadays, as it was it by the religious dogma in the past.

No example of any explanation for any single UFO sighting report will ever be discovered by parapsychology to refute my position here.

Unsurprisingly to me, this reader never came up with any example whatsoever of an explanation of a UFO report discovered via parapsychology.

Incidentally, the criticism is bears no relation with the matter I discussed; I, in no way, "rejected" the UFO phenomena.

"Paranormal sciences (ie studies) are, or may be, conducted scientifically"

I am told that parapsychology, at least on certain unspecified occasions, was exerted in the strict respect of methodologies and principles of science.

I do not disagree a priori. The problem is different; it is the absence of explanations by parapsychology when it comes to UFOs in particular, the impotence of going beyond what remains attempts to "acknowledge" the reality of the phenomena (to demonstrate that psychokinesis is real using a lab and scientific procedures is fine; but the goal of science is, beyond the reporting of empirical facts, to provide a comprehensive and testable explanation of those empirical facts).

Incidentally, a parapsychology using scientific methods does not justify any more of the "para" prefix and becomes integral part of the physical sciences, contradicting the idea that the physical sciences would be insufficient to explain the UFO phenomenon, among other.

"What about spirituality?"

Since I spoke on the hard scientific approach of things, spirituality was remembered to my attention. I answered:

"Bravo."

A reader explains that he does not wish to contribute anymore to online discussion groups but he continues to follow the posts [in which a draft of my text above appeared], and he wrote "I write these few lines to to tell you that I always find your posts very relevant, and very patient." He adds, "the reactions [in connection with my comment of the paper by Vallée and Davies] prove the intellectual seduction that he [Jacques Vallée] exerts in France and what I call the "temptation of a scientific transcendence" which seized French ufologists. A UFO of a psychic, paranormal nature, or controlling time and space appears more credible to them, and intellectually more acceptable, than an extraterrestrial spacecraft using, inter alia, commonplace magnetohydrodynamics physical laws in general." He concludes, "Vallée's speech is tainted with obvious contradictions and scientific inaccuracies but one prefers to take them for evidence of his opened mindedness." (I fully share this view.)

Another reader writes, "I really agree with your argumentation which dismounts the idea of "anti-physics" aspect of the UFOs as asserted by J. Vallée." The reader also asked for references of documentation concerning the of C.G. Jung reversal, which I gave; these references are in this online version of my article.

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