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March 10, 2011 / The Frogweb

Meeting the Alien – Bryan Appleyard interviewed

When leading journalist and science writer Bryan Appleyard turned his attention to extraterrestrials and abductees for his book Aliens: Why they are here, many readers must have wondered if he knew what he was letting himself in for. In the first of a two-part special, Jack Phoenix (James Nye) meets the author and finds out how he became interested the subject. [First published in Fortean Times 197, June 2005, pp 54-57.]

What inspired and motivated you to write the book?

I was babbling to my agent and said something about aliens, and he said “What do you mean?” The answer was that, initially, I thought of it as a kind of cultural thing – science fiction films, books, people’s fascination with them and so on.

I’d always liked science fiction. I was vaguely aware of the culture of real alien experiences, not fictional experiences, and I just didn’t know what to make of it. I don’t have any strong feelings about it; I’m not ultra-sceptical, and I’m not an ultra-believer. But I am absolutely convinced that people have experiences, and those experiences simply cannot be dismissed.

Bryan Appleyard

Bryan Appleyard – photo (c) James Nye 2005

I set out to do a sort of cultural essay, and it unexpectedly turned into a kind of psychodrama. After meeting a few people, I began to realise how deep it went in certain people’s imaginations, and how complex it was as a phenomenon. At first I’d thought that it was a bit of an off-the-wall book for me, but in fact it wasn’t: it’s what I do, it’s what I think about – that received interpretations of reality aren’t necessarily correct. We’re never going to escape the fact that that’s how human beings think and live. We all live in these irrational, almost dream worlds –  the people who experience these things attach these dream worlds to very specific ideas. Those ideas are gripping – very gripping.

You reference Charles Fort two or three times, and I think it’s a very fortean book. Fort was a true sceptic in that he neither believed nor disbelieved in what he researched; he just saw that it was significant – these things that the scientific establishment tends to ‘damn’ as inconvenient because they don’t fit existing scientific paradigms.

I think his point about the French Academy and stones falling from the sky is a very good one. They said it wasn’t possible, but of course science now acknowledges these stones as meteorites. I don’t think people realise this, because their only conception of the world is often narrowly scientistic, so that there are certain people who act a censorship role. People like Richard Dawkins (who is actually a friend) and Lewis Wolpert, have a censorship role. And that’s fair enough within the context of that particular kind of establishment. But we must remember that it’s a very narrow domain, and that the standards of evidence needed to be in that place are very high, and very tightly drawn, so that things may well happen that may never be given scientific credence because they cannot fulfil those scientific standards. I’m not saying that the specific narrative of UFO arrivals, alien abduction and genital experimentation and so on is necessarily factually correct. But I am saying that it refers to something – that it doesn’t refer to nothing. That’s what grips me. And people like the late John Mack – a psychiatrist who was interested in the abduction phenomenon – are highly intelligent people who are gripped by a fear that the world has somehow been stolen from us. I understand that.

One of the interesting things about Richard Dawkins is that he proclaims himself an atheist. Surely his atheism is just as much a matter of faith as someone’s belief in God?

I think atheism is a very odd faith, because it exists solely to deny something, and I find that peculiar; its existence is defined by that which it most hates. It’s a kind of late Christian cult, and an odd one in that it assumes that we’ve reached an end-point in knowledge and know that God or gods do not exist – and I just don’t think we have.

I think that this is something that comes from Fort as well, but also from Robert Anton Wilson, one of the most significant inheritors of Fort’s tradition. He points out that science is a project that is not complete, and probably can never be complete because the Universe isn’t a static entity – it evolves through time, and you can’t have a definitive map or model of something that’s not static. Except perhaps in the most vague – and therefore limited – sense.

In 1988 I interviewed Stephen Hawking just before A Brief History of Time came out. I come from a scientific family, but I wasn’t particularly interested in science as such.

“I thought the man was bone-headedly wrong about everything!”

I’d been writing a book about post-war British culture and I’d vaguely, without thinking about it, assumed that science and the humanities had accepted some sort of deal: science ‘explains’ one type of thing, and religion and so on ‘explained’ other things. When I interviewed Hawking, my complacency fell apart. I thought the man was bone-headedly wrong about everything!

He wasn’t even right about the stuff he put in his book. He misunderstood Wittegenstein. I tried to explain this to him, but he just wheeled himself away. I was shocked. He had this view that science was ‘completable’, that it would have this Theory of Everything within weeks. I just thought that was irrational. After all, every physicist who has ever lived has thought they were on the verge of a Theory of Everything. Also, we know from the Incompletness Theorems of  Gödel that mathematics is not completable. Finally, how would we know we had the Theory of Everything? There are various answers to that, but I think they are all likely to be wrong.

I then wrote a book called Understanding the Present (1992) about scientific attitudes. I realised that these had got out of control, just as they had in the 1930s when people started saying that the world should be run by an elite community of scientists on a South Sea Island or something. That led, via various detours, to this book. I’m pointing out that there are various aspects of the world about which science has so far signally failed to say anything – a real science of psychology and sociology for example. But also there are areas of the world that don’t behave ‘properly’ for people, that don’t submit to easy analysis or explanation. And once you start telling that story, you start to ask why this is, and what does it mean? It’s not part of the dominant paradigm of our time, and yet it’s very much of our time.

Arnold’s 1947 sighting later led to James Easton’s accusation that he had misidentified flying pelicans. Jerome Clarke responded by defining ‘pelicanism’ as “the practice of ascribing any explanation, however scientifically unsustainable, illogical, or fantastic, to a UFO event or experience, in a desperate effort to deny that anything seriously anomalous may be going on”

I think the key point at which the phenomenon became a story was Kenneth Arnold’s sighting of 1947. It had happened before, and there were accounts of it before, but it hadn’t become the kind of story that pervades our culture in the way it has ever since. You have this distinct narrative, which suddenly emerges, and it’s very important. Jung was onto something when he wrote about it, but was crushed by a lot of scepticism – which may have been well founded, but which didn’t satisfy me, or explain anything.

It goes back to Fort’s idea of damning or explaining away things rather than actually examining and really explaining them. And I think, underlying the need to explain things away, or ignore strange phenomena, there is a simmering anxiety.

As regards the anxiety of science regarding the anomalous, it is certainly true that the hard scientistic thinkers like Dawkins, Wolpert and Hawking are clinging to faith as fervently as a fundamentalist Islamist or Christian. They are clinging to a faith that gives meaning to their lives. That faith has many elements, some of which are inarguable: evolution probably happened. Others are very arguable, such as the idea that science is complete or completable, that the human species is capable of sustained progress, and so on. Different elements of that faith are saner than others, but when these guys get into the public realm they become increasingly insane. I think they should stick to what they know. Certainly Hawking simply doesn’t know what he’s talking about in certain areas and is factually incorrect.

Jung’s “Flying Saucers – a Modern Myth of Things Seen in the Skies”

And they get upset about very funny things: horoscopes for example. I can’t imagine why anybody in his right mind should get upset about that. Stephen Weinberg, who’s a Nobel-winning American physicist, wrote an article in the New York Times (which was attempting to get funding for a super-collidor) in which he said that once we have the Theory of Everything, people will stop reading their horoscopes. I thought that was the daftest thing I’d ever read in my life. I don’t have any particular interest in horoscopes myself, but I can’t see why they should trouble scientists!

I think it’s a general fear of the irrational – of things that can’t easily be pigeon-holed or understood, and therefore represent a threat to a worldview which insists that everything is explainable.

Well, it shouldn’t threaten them! I don’t doubt that what these scientists do is very interesting but I do doubt almost everything else the say, and I ask myself why they have to say it. The answer seems to be that they feel they must extend the principles of their own belief system to that of the whole world.

So science pretends to a universalism that it can’t actually achieve?

Yes. And you’ve had this with physics for a long time – up till about 1990, when it started to become clear that they weren’t going to get the Theory of Everything. Physics is intrinsically fundamental. It seems to be the basic science – so everybody thinks you can explain everything through it. Biology then seemed to be coming closer and closer to the basic life processes and a clear account of these. So you do have these huge claims made in both physics and biology – and science in general.

Now the irrational, as categorized by science, would simply be excluded on the basis that it was irrational. For me, the irrational is not so clear a category as it appears to be. It’s not simply ‘that which is not rational’ any more than the rational is simply ‘that which is not irrational’. The rationality seems to vary from person to person and from culture to culture. If you wanted to take a rational view of people seeing things in the sky, or meeting strange beings, or thinking they’ve been abducted, you’d have to say: “Well, it appears to happen”. The reported evidence is overwhelming, and as has often been said, you could convict a man of murder on just a couple of these accounts if they were accounts of murder. But since we have probably hundreds of thousands, possibly millions of these accounts, then this is pretty substantial stuff.

Horror writer Whitley Strieber’s 1987 best-selling book Communion and its sequels describe his experiences with non-human visitors. Along with artist Bud Hopkins’ abduction reasearch, Strieber’s puzzling books typified (and perhaps fuelled) the 1990s alien abduction wave.

It’s interesting that sceptical psychologists, not believers, have become fascinated by these ‘aberrant psychologies’. And it’s interesting because they think that the one thing we know for sure is that people don’t get abducted by aliens. They study these states of mind in which people become convinced they are abducted precisely because they think it can’t possibly have happened. Now that’s a better state of mind than the one that says: “These guys are nuts and we don’t want anything to do with the phenomenon”. It’s a more humane state of mind. So I think there has been some development and broadening of scientific thought. So at least some scientists are asking themselves what actually happens in these cases.

When you get into actual study of the phenomenon itself – like Michael Persinger’s work, for example – you get into questions about the involvement of electromagnetism on brain processes, and ideas about ‘transient plasma vortices’ and so on. But whatever the scientific truth of these ideas, the way science is going now makes it clear that we don’t see the world quite as clearly as we thought we did. You can see this in neuroscience, and in evolutionary psychology for example: you see a highly specific world tuned to what we need to see. Now it’s got out of control: the brain does far more than it strictly needs to do for survival – in fact, we constantly act against our best survival interests. Nevertheless, you can see that the brain is a highly specific organ that is not the universal organ of reason that we might like to think it is. And if you think about it, it was never very likely to be that anyway. That leads on to the idea of the truly alien – which I think is a very profound development in thought which has been expressed, for example, in Stanisław Lem’s books.

I mean ‘truly alien’ in the sense of ‘that which we could not understand, but which we could identify as an intelligence’. Lem is the best example of that, but Douglas Adams played with it a lot. The ‘super intelligent shade of the colour blue’ for example. It’s a wonderful idea. So at that point the study of aliens intersects with the growing sophistication of our thought about the human mind.

One of the things about artificial intelligence research and attempts to model the brain is that they’ve been spectacularly unsuccessful – staggeringly so considering Artificial Intelligence (AI) has been on the agenda for 40 years. People in the early 60s thought we’d have functioning autonomous robots by the mid 1970s. We have nothing like that. The original thought about the brain tended toward a highly mechanical model – which was related to the discovery of DNA, I think. Because it seemed so beautifully simple, they thought it seemed so easy. The fact that we’d apparently kicked God out of the equation is just so simple. But gradually that simple, mechanical interpretation broke down. At the same time you got neuroscience and AI problems arising, so that now we’ve got to this point where people are thinking in highly sophisticated ways about what the brain actually does. They’re realising it doesn’t have anywhere in it the module of recognisable rationality that we thought it had. I think that’s where the problem of aliens becomes interesting, because you then have to admit that if our knowledge is incomplete – that we only know our world, and then only partially – then the idea of an alien world becomes culturally important, but also scientifically interesting.

The biologist Dr Jack Cohen says that if anyone claims to have seen an alien and it looks like a rabbit, monkey, reptile or anything else terrestrial, the it’s likely they are imagining something rather than meeting an actual extraterrestrial, because the conditions that have produced those particular life-form characteristics on this planet are extremely unlikely to arise in exactly the same way on any other planet. A counterargument might be that they may still be genuine aliens, but they have to either adopt a form which is recognisable to humans, or that humans somehow project onto them recognisable characteristics in order to experience them in a way that our brains can understand.

Well that’s always a good joke, as in the vastly underrated film Galaxy Quest where the aliens accidentally forget to put on their image transformers so that they don’t appear humanoid but appear as these hideous monsters. It’s always a good joke that aliens would have to appear like us in order not to shock us.

In the book you also mention the idea of aliens not appearing at all but projecting something into the brain which triggers human expectations of how they should appear . . and those expectations are formed by cultural ideas of alien appearance, perhaps lodged deep in something like Jung’s Collective Unconscious.

You can broaden that idea, and it’s actually quite a profound one. There’s the fairly familiar SF scenario where an alien would appear simply by manipulating your brain to see it. When we’re apprehending the world, if there’s an anomalous incident of any kind (it may be a flying saucer or something else that ‘doesn’t fit’), we can’t necessarily bring ourselves to an understanding of what it is. It may be a physical problem with the brain, or an anomalous interaction in the brain, it may be ‘transient plasma vortices’, or whatever. There is no particular reason to say that it is an alien, but people might interpret it as an alien. That would be just a way of interpreting an event that wasn’t translatable into something more familiar.

That brings in being hypnotised – something I experienced and wrote about in the book. I saw a flying saucer when I was hypnotised, presumably because I was thinking about it. If I hadn’t, I might have seen something else. But I would certainly have seen something when the hypnotist asked me if I’d seen anything odd. I was so deeply under that I was utterly suggestible. What is clear is that something happened, and that it’s too easy to say that you’re merely suggestible. It was something more than that: a change in my state of mind. I saw a flying saucer, and I had no doubt it was real when I was under hypnosis – no doubt at all. There wasn’t an ounce of scepticism in my mind in that state. That’s very interesting in itself – that my brain can get into that condition. As far as I know, I’ve never actually seen a flying saucer, and I’ve never been abducted.

Personally I am usually quite doubtful. But most people I know walk around with a kind of peculiar certainty about what they think and believe.

Well I’ve never been certain about what I think. It’s one of the enjoyable elements of my job – I try and do ‘journalism in the round’ as much as possible. I appear to have opinions, but to be honest I don’t have much faith in them. I don’t necessarily think opinions are very interesting – they’re very transient things. What’s interesting is to try and talk around opinions and examine why these particular opinions exist. It’s difficult in journalism, because people expect you to have a very firm opinion. I cheat. I find ways of writing in which I’m not actually expressing an opinion, but working around it. So I don’t have great views about my wisdom or knowledge or insight. I only know that people who, are, by and large, wrong.

Once you have a belief system that’s entrenched, you are almost closing yourself off to any new information that might actually alter your opinions or beliefs. You automatically filter out and exclude things.

It’s a very odd thing to have a belief system. I mean, in many ways religious belief systems are the least odd of all. It seems to me that a religious response to life is wholly realistic and natural. I’m not surprised that every human society has been religious. The human predicament is so bizarre, so unfathomable – this sense of being thrown into this world and expecting to make sense of it – that it seems to me that a religious response to it is utterly natural, and so on that level is the least strange. They become highly specific and therefore increasingly strange as they are elaborated farther, but there are other equally odd belief systems, and scientism is one. Secularism is a bizarre belief system. Human progress is a bizarre belief in a particular view of history. I think it’s a very odd thing to do, to cling to one of those as a belief system. I understand it. People are naturally religious and tend to transform other belief systems into religious ones while pretending they aren’t. You necessarily filter out aberrant evidence – anomalies that don’t satisfy the demands of your belief system.

There is a simple point here, which is that we talk about aliens as sceptics or believers or whatever, but actually putting yourself in somebody else’s mind – even just trying to imagine what it’s like to be another person – is beyond us. So we’re living with ‘aliens’ all the time – we’re alien to each other. Great novelists do it to some extent, but they don’t actually give you the full flavour of the other person’s experience, the texture of it. That’s another thing, you just go through life assuming that other people are more or less like you, and that’s a necessary adaptation to make ourselves coherent to each other. But we don’t actually know very much. As I get older, there are people who I’ve known for years who suddenly stun me by seeming to think something utterly different from what I expected. I just stare at them and think: I don’t know you at all! I don’t know anything about what goes on in your head. I think it’s (and I hesitate to use the word) a spiritual necessity that people become aware of that.

Although I think we need to accept that we can never know, it’s vital to try to conceptualise what it’s like to be someone else, otherwise there is no empathy, no society or co-operation.

Jim Schnabel’s 1994 book exploring abduction culture

We have to try, but we also have to be humble about it. The present human atrocities on the top of the menu are kidnaps and beheadings in Iraq, but it’s more or less history as normal. These things go on all the time, and these are just the ones we notice at present. So if you put your mind into one of those people hacking someone’s head off, you ask how they could do that. They do it because of a particularly harsh interpretation of the Koran. So trying to put yourself in their minds, you get somebody who refuses to put themselves in someone else’s mind. That’s precisely what defines them, and defines all extreme human cruelty: they refuse to believe in the world that’s in the other person’s head.

Doesn’t it also define the way sceptics ignore anomalous experiences – that they refuse to put themselves into the minds of those who experience them as ‘real’?

The new bible for the atheist faith?

No, because they’re not evil. Dawkins for example, because he’s rather hot-headed when he gets into the public realm, tends to get a bit misrepresented – even by himself. He sometimes says things he doesn’t actually mean. I told him it was madness to speak against the teaching of creationism in schools, because if you don’t teach creationism no one will ever understand Darwinism. The Hindus, Taoists and Buddhists don’t find Darwinism remotely sensational or difficult. So the only way you could understand why Darwinism is such a big subject for us is by understanding creationism. There is no other way. If you teach a child Darwinism only, he will not understand its cultural significance. You have to say that Darwinism superseded creationism, and the reason we nowadays adopt it is because of evidence we can present in its favour, whereas we don’t think there is any evidence for creationism. There’s nothing wrong with saying that, but to try and stamp out creationism from teaching would end up with a society completely baffled. My only criticism of Dawkins and Hawking is that in the public realm they extend their points too far, and they say things that to me are wholly irrational. They are censorious, but not evil.

Science as it is practised now is a very censorious business, but it’s one of the few institutions that can oppose censorship. I think there have been very dangerous elements of scientism. For example, I think Marxism is a very dangerous and scientistic idea that labours under the illusion that there is a ‘science’ of economics. This can turn murderous when you get this censorious, dictatorial claim to rationality – and that’s a very serious issue. One of the reasons I wrote Understanding the Present is that it’s very important that we don’t fall for this. Because we’ve done it before, and it always goes wrong – you always end up counting bodies. Dawkins’ answer might be that if science gets it wrong, then the answer is more science – which is fair enough if you’re talking about weed-killers or something, but not necessarily if you’re talking about human society. FT © Jack Phoenix / James Nye 2005, 2011

The Alien Within

an interview with Bryan Appleyard

In the second instalment of this two-part interview, Jack Phoenix (James Nye) meets leading journalist and science writer Bryan Appleyard to discuss the iconography of aliens, the otherness of childhood, and the voices in our heads . . . [First published in Fortean Times 198, July 2005, pp52-54]

Many years ago I went to a BUFORA (British UFO Research Association) lecture by veteran researcher Hilary Evans. He was dismayed by the emergence of the American abduction phenomenon and its themes of sexual interference by reptilian aliens. His argument was that because we know that, for example, glue-sniffers have reported hallucinations featuring reptilians, abductions could probably be discounted as a special case of hallucination. But you could argue that if these alien visions are experienced in such different contexts, they suggest a common fund of imagery that the brain draws on under situations. And so we’re back with something like Jung’s Collective Unconscious again . . .

Yes. My point would be, while both scenarios are very interesting, why do people see these particular things? They’re fairly consistent through time. Why have we got brains that are prone to seeing such things? On the face of it, it doesn’t seem a very advantageous thing. So you’re right: what’s interesting is that these things are there at all.

One of the things that started me on this book, Aliens:Why They Are Here (2005), was that I was lying on the sofa a couple of years ago watching television, half-asleep. It was an episode of Steven Spielberg’s Taken. I was dozing, and began to realise that I had been watching it as a documentary! That was because all the imagery in the series is absolutely mainstream now – the crashed saucer, the little grey beings and so on. It was extraordinary how I accepted it in this hypnagogic state. (See FT163:42-46.) I realised then that this stuff had gone in so deep – that I’d become part of the consensus of what aliens look like and what they are without making the decision about whether I believed in them or not. I think we’re all in that condition: we know what they’re supposed to look like, and that cultural consensus is an extraordinary phenomenon in itself.

And if you look back in time at ideas about elves and fairies, it does begin to seem that our collective unconscious does contain this whole fund of imagery which may well be ancient . .

Bobo mask, Africa

Well I’m absolutely convinced it’s ancient. I think that what happened in the post-war period was that we created and agreed upon a group narrative, but it certainly existed before. And these parallels have been written about extensively. There are two extremes of interpretation. One is that these things get started and reproduce culturally – people pick up on them, so that when they have aberrant psychological experiences they seize on these images and replicate them. That’s the straightforward, ‘scientific’ explanation – the meme explanation. But that doesn’t explain to me why these particular things are the ones that people latch onto, or indeed why ‘aliens’ are the things that people experience in this context, or why they look like they do. It would explain the transmission process, but not what they are to start with. I would then ask, if they are similar to ancient visions, what does this mean? Well, you could say that it means these things are real inhabitants of John Mack’s Third Realm, or from outer space or whatever. In that scenario, the consistency of these experiences would be due to the fact that these things are ‘real’!

Zecharia Sitchin thought human culture had been invented by Annunaki from the planet Nibiru. Unfortunately no reputable Sumerian scholar agrees with his translations of ancient texts

Then there’s a middle way interpretation: the human brain is prone to such visions for reasons we can only guess at. It’s an out-of-control organ which does more than it was asked to do. It writes symphonies and does all sorts of strange things which might seem to be pointless. And it also sees aliens. And maybe the aliens are like that because there is some congruity between that appearance and something about the deep structure of the brain or our imaginations.

Neither of the extreme explanations (it’s either ‘cultural transmission or a meme’, or ‘these things are real’) is very satisfactory. If they’re real, why haven’t they left more tangible evidence? On the other hand, the cultural transmission idea is very weak.

You can see these big-eyed entities in the iconography of cultures spread wide both geographically and chronologically. Of course, cultural transmission can’t be ruled out, but it is puzzling.

Ivory figurine with lapis lazuli eyes – predynastic Egypt circa 4000 BCE

These things are objectively consistent over time. They weren’t always extraterrestrials, sometimes they were from beneath the surface of the Earth (Charles Fort was fond of this idea). The banal explanations, though, are exactly that – they don’t seem to fit the facts or deliver what we’re looking for.

I was particularly struck by the chapter in the book in which you talk about the alienness of childhood. I wondered whether, in a sense, these small, big-eyed creatures somehow represent the otherness or the child?

I think when I got to that point I began to realise that that subject is almost another book – and not necessarily one written by me – about the construction of the Other in childhood. We all know the sort of stories that psychologists tell about the child who is born as a baby and thinks it’s the entire world, begins to realise it’s not, and then differentiates and creates itself. This is so familiar now that they actually used it in a nappy advert recently.

There’s an odd time for a child when it’s not a self, and then it is. Something happens. There’s also that moment when you realise that you’re not a child. There’s the child seeing the other children and realising it’s different, and then there’s the romantic sense of losing childhood.

Books like Ronald Story’s ‘The Space Gods Revealed’ (1976) and ‘Guardians of the Universe?’ (1980) attempt to shine a rational and sceptical light on claims by authors like von Däniken & Sitchin, and Robert Temple’s popular ‘The Sirius Mystery’ (1975) but never achieve the same level or popularity

It’s very deep within us, the belief that children have access to truths that we don’t. This idea is very deep in people’s minds. It’s in Romantic literature, it’s in Wordsworth: “Not in utter nakedness but trailing clouds of glory do we come”. And these clouds of glory gradually vanish as you grow up. There’s a ‘fall’ from a state of innocence, and the innocence is a more accurate reflection of transcendent reality. Now that – and its implications – is really another book.

In the present climate, the reason that subjects makes me slightly edgy is that it’s gone too far. The obsession with child abuse and paedophilia, including attacks on paediatricians; the pursuit of a childlike state – fat, 35-year-old men staggering around in toddlers’ clothes . . . I remember seeing Schwarzenegger and Bruce Willis on television, and they both looked like big toddlers. Somehow, the only evil we can perceive is evil done against the child. But it is absolutely true that in feeling we have lost something we become aware of our own childhood and the childhood of others as something ‘alien’ – because if we’ve lost it, we can’t get it

Kaluru the lighting man – Kalurungari, Australia

back. You can’t get back to that state of mind. It’s like trying to experience what it’s like to be someone else. We can’t do it. You look at a picture of yourself as a six-year-old, and you may get fleeting memories of what it felt like, but you can’t really get there. If you allow yourself to dwell on that, it becomes quite eerie. What happened to that person? You assume he’s there in memory, but he’s not really there. If you remember somebody who’s dead, for example, you can remember them in the sense of reconstructing their face, reminding yourself of what they looked like. But there’s another memory where their face just appears to you. And that you cannot do with your own self, or with yourself as a child. You can’t get that sort of recollection.

As children we arrive as ‘aliens’. We’re flung into this world not knowing anything about it. Most people (if they have any sensitivity at all) feel like aliens at times. We subsequently become aware that we were aliens at that time. I think we have literal evidence of the existence of the Other. When we talk about the Other – meaning something that is definitively not us – we have literal evidence of its existence in our own childhood. Not only did we feel utterly different, we can’t even get back to what we felt, so it’s not even us any more.

I’m intrigued by that. The great joke about that is in that very funny Joe Dante film Explorers. They encounter an alien but can’t understand why it’s so frivolous – until the realise it’s actually an alien child, despite the fact it’s eight feet tall! Steven Spielberg’s longing for childhood is matched by Dante’s terror of it – the idea that childhood might actually be an absolutely horrific time. We can all remember traumatic times in childhood, but we also know that children can be frightening in themselves. Because they haven’t developed an adult sense of morality, they can perpetrate the most horrific things quite innocently. But of course we usually interpret ‘innocence’ in a quite different way, as if children were the fount of all goodness. Plainly they are not. From an adult perspective, they can appear as borderline psychotic at times, and behave in the most appalling ways. Usually we can corral them into not killing each other or themselves – though not always.

Painted panel, Maprik, New Guinea

The whole thrust of the book, and of what I’m interested in, is the idea of the Other in the human imagination, and the extent to which that idea subverts our conventional sense of the world. Conventional science is slowly drifting towards the idea that there’s alien life out there. But the idea has also had this incredible potency as a myth. Take the way I just accepted it whilst watching Taken. At that time, I hadn’t read accounts of alien abduction, but I just knew them through a process of cultural osmosis. So the way that it has invaded us – I’m just trying to isolate it as a phenomenon here, to point out that it has some significance and also questions our relationship to reality. But it’s a funny place to end up!

How do you see alien channelling as fitting into the modern alien narrative?

I think the channelling type of communications have a slightly different history from the rest of the alien story, one that goes back to Victorian Spiritualism. It’s very interesting stuff. Eminent Victorians, including important scientific figures, thought that we were on the verge of establishing scientific proof of contact with the spirit world or the afterlife. And that tradition of channelling, which is now producing lots of alien narratives – like Unarius (see FT158:28-33), or disastrous one like Heaven’s Gate (see FT99:32; FT100:34-41; FT103:45; FT104:57) – came from Spiritualist roots in America. It’s consistent with an American tradition of visionary experience, which is still celebrated in some churches. The Victorian impulse was to draw this realm into science, not to use it to discredit science, but to prove that such things were amendable to scientific explanation. With these channellers you do get a much more cataclysmic, universal interpretation of the alien mythos. It can involve detailed rewriting of universal history, which of course ties in with universal conspiracy theories too. In all of these narratives we are ‘the fallen’. We’ve fallen into bad ways, we’re blocking cosmic development, or we’re fallen gods ourselves, and so on.

“we’re incredibly irritated by the fact that we’re stuck inside this skull”

It doesn’t seem to fit into the post-1947 tradition, except that it’s adopted some of the imagery: the flying saucers, the visitors from space. The problem with these mediumistic practices is that they are subject to immense fraud. People have become very good at this – the Scole Group for example, which I investigated, was convinced that it had found evidence of the afterlife (see FT132:22-23). I went along to sit in on a séance, but I was unable to – apparently because the committee on the Other Side had ordered that the experiment had to stop immediately! So I couldn’t get any evidence of my own, and the reports seemed to me to be inconclusive. Gradually it just fell apart. I couldn’t prove it, but I think that two of the people involved were obviously crooks with a very sophisticated command of electronics. Physical mediumship thrived in Victorian times, but nearly every physical medium was discredited by investigators. So it died a death and became just verbal channelling, which continues today – although often with the promise that physical evidence will soon follow.

That’s the point where it links into my next book How to Live Forever or Die Trying (Simon & Schuster 2007) which is about the idea of and quest for immortality. Channelling is an external tradition which adopted this idea of visionary communication through mental means, and co-opted alien imagery. It’s certainly very old. Most religions have some sort of revelatory discipline, such as the breathing techniques of the ancient Taoists, and the Christian Church’s ideas about achieving higher consciousness – so it’s something that’s common to human culture throughout time.

Occultist Aleister Crowley’s 1919 drawing of the entity Lam resembles late 20th century images of alien greys

I think having this brain thing drives us crazy. Not crazy in the sense of being deluded, but in the sense that it delivers so much but doesn’t seem quite up to the task of understanding reality. I think people are fantastically eager to be shown a way out, to find a key. It’s like trepanning yourself – people are apparently extremely keen to transcend the physical confines of the brain. There’s an almost hallucinatory sense of another world going on that you can’t quite see out of the corner of your eye, or must perceive mystically.

In a sense, the world we experience isn’t the real world but our limited perceptions of it. We make agreements about those perceptions in order to make life easier. But people are driven to extraordinary extremes. You could say that anything from St Peter’s to the Baalbek plateau are all testaments to that we’re incredibly irritated by the fact that we’re stuck inside this skull. It doesn’t make perfect sense. So we create these structures in order to make sense of it. We always have.

Baule pendant mask, Africa

Hearing voices, which mediums do, seems to be pretty universal. Recent research showed that many people admit to hearing voices without showing any signs of mental illness. Psychologists who’ve studied people who report alien abductions say that they are not obviously deranged people. This can be the one strange thing in their life. If I consider the way in which I think, then I too hear voices. I don’t hear voices telling me to go and kill someone, but you do dramatise the voices of other people in your head. How else could you think about things? And that’s also how we write.

It’s natural to hear voices, as mediums do – although the one medium I encountered when researching a story was very nice, but completely off the mark. She did get one thing right, mentioning a philosopher cousin of mine who had died. The messages she said he had for me were fantastically banal. Instead of telling us something that we couldn’t know on this side, the ‘spirits’ give us banal messages about loving one another. Tell us something we couldn’t know – now that would give me pause!

How Scientists Visualize the Real Flying Saucer Men

There’s a very important point to make here, which I make in the book, about machine-type aliens. We wouldn’t create machines that were conscious in the human sense, but they could do things to us – even take over our world – despite not being conscious. It’s one of the great assumptions that human-type consciousness is necessary for intelligent behaviour. But I think that’s got to be wrong, because you can perfectly well imagine a machine acting without full self-consciousness.

Often I’ve experienced in hypnopompic states a kind of ‘unconscious consciousness’. I’ve had times when I’m just hearing and seeing things replaying. And the suddenly I wake up and I realise that I wasn’t there. It was just happening before me. It’s the consciousness I imagine a dog or a baby might have. I was like a dog. And I think I could do a lot of damage if I went about like that in daily life! But the assumption that our self-consciousness is the only significant intelligent consciousness is probably wrong. There may even be states of consciousness superior in some ways to ours.

I think our concept of consciousness is extremely narrow, as is our concept of life. It’s certainly true that if we do encounter alien life it will probably not recognise us, and we probably won’t recognise it.

Bryan Appleyard’s latest book It IS Rocket Science: Why Simple Solutions Don’t Work in a Complex World is due for publication in November 2011.

© Jack Phoenix / James Nye 2005, 2011

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