American Cosmic is not the book that its author set out to write.
On the surface, it’s a straightforward project: religious studies professor examines the UFO phenomenon as a religion. Makes sense—about a third of Americans believe in UFOs, and UFO myths are part of our cultural psyche. It’s why there’s a new Men in Black film in theaters this month, after all.
But then the author, UNC Professor D.W. Pasulka, became a believer herself.
That’s weird enough—but the weirdest part is, after reading the book, so did I.
What happened? Three things.
First, Pasulka was seduced by the largely anonymous network of scientists who study the UFO phenomenon, known as the “Invisible College.”
Epitomizing Lao Tzu’s epigram that “He who knows, does not speak; he who speaks does not know,” the Invisible College avoids all publicity, mostly because its members fear the ridicule and loss of credibility that would result if their colleagues knew they were among the weirdos.
These people actually exist, and are actual scientists with sterling mainstream reputations, rigorous methodological criteria, and high-up positions in government and the academy.
Meanwhile, of course, the real weirdos—the conspiracy theorists, YouTube vloggers, and hype-mongers in the media (“Ancient Aliens,” anyone?)—dominate public conceptions of what “the phenomenon”—the vague, suggestive term that serious UFO people use to describe… whatever it is we’re talking about—even is.
Try this: when I say the word “UFO,” what do you think of?
For the vast majority of Americans, the answer to that is something created by popular culture or the media. Close Encounters, if you’re of my generation. Maybe The X Files. Even the acronym “UFO” simply stands for “unidentified flying object”—but that’s probably not what you thought when I said it. You thought of a flying saucer, right?
The credibility and stranger-than-fiction aspect of the Invisible College convinced Pasulka to change her project. “Halfway through my research,” she said, “I made the decision to write about this group.”
Second, Pasulka found that among Invisible College members those who actually study the phenomenon, little green men have nothing to do with it. “What is ultimately marketed to the public about the phenomenon,” Pasulka writes, “barely resembles these scientists’ findings.”
Even the actual government programs that actually study unidentified flying objects—The New York Times just ran a profile of one of them—are, by now, shrouded in myth and legend. What’s really in Area 51? What was Project Bluebook (now a History Channel series)? The answers are almost always mediated by popular culture.
So, forget all that.
In fact—ready for the red pill?—most Invisible College members believe that alien intelligences have long used “anomalous technology [that] functions as creative inspiration.” Not all of the voices inside your head are being transmitted by aliens via some unknown technology, but sometimes, in certain ways, some are.
What’s more, the Invisible College includes a lot of those believers are themselves some of the most important pioneers of the internet, aerospace, biotech, and smartphones. And many credit alien intelligence with their technological innovations.
Yes, according to some people who actually invented it, aliens created your iPhone.
One of the most compelling figures in American Cosmic is “Tyler,” an Elon-Musk-type billionaire polymath who’s patented numerous biotech inventions, flipped several companies, flies in private jets, and was a NASA engineer until the Challenger disaster shook him to his core.
Tyler is certain that several of his own patented biotech inventions were communicated to him by alien intelligence. “I know I’ve established connection [with the non-human intelligence] when the thoughts that show up in my mind don’t seem like my own,” Tyler tells Pasulka. “They are unfamiliar. With practice you can feel the difference.”
Moreover, Tyler says, “the environment also ‘wakes up’ and validates that they are speaking to you… I get a thought, and it comes out of nowhere. It comes with a certain feeling, like a hit. Then, usually within a few hours, something will happen that will validate that it was them, and that I should act on it.”
As Pasulka points out, this whole understanding of reality is not that different from very old religious traditions about inspiration (original meaning: “divine guidance”).
In the Iliad, for example, it’s clear that the gods and goddesses are what, today, most of us would understand to be internal voices that emanate from the unconscious, or memory, or wherever, and that we hear all the time. When it’s a wise voice, it’s Athena; when it’s a warlike one, it’s Ares.
It’s the same in prophetic traditions across the globe, from Abraham Abulafia’s Kabbalah to Pentecostals speaking in tongues. In one fascinating passage of American Cosmic, a couple recounts a shared UFO experience they had, but one of them is certain that it was the Virgin Mary and the other thinks it was an alien intelligence.
In fact, as a purely quantitative matter, the vast majority of people who have ever lived have thought that it is possible to be in contact with non-human intelligences, be they gods or spirits or demons or aliens.
Perhaps all of these otherworldly interactions were, as UFO pioneer Jacques Vallée first proposed, religious understandings of alien communication. (After all, how many religions describe supernal entities coming down from the sky to tell human beings important things?) Or perhaps alien communication is how the Holy Spirit is understood in an age of technology.
Finally, there was the hard evidence itself.
At one point, Tyler leads Pasulka and “James,” a scientist-experiencer colleague (“experiencer” is the term for someone who has experienced what they believe to be a UFO sighting or contact), to a purported UFO crash site. They find a strange object, and “James’ preliminary analyses of the materials, months later, made it hard to believe they were made on Earth. In fact, he said he wasn’t sure, given their structure, that they could be made anywhere.”
Pasulka quickly dives into third-person, religious-studies mode, observing how this finding changed the belief structures of Tyler and James, and calling the site a “sacred” site for the UFO religion—but it’s clear she is disturbed as well.
In fact, the further Pasulka delves into what conspiracy theorist (and UFO true believer) Robert Anton Wilson called “chapel perilous,” the weirder things get. Invisible College meetings with actual Men in Black, i.e., government agents. Countless personal testimonies of people who are not only not nuts themselves but who feel isolated and terrified by having to choose between all their skeptical friends on the one hand, and a bunch of weirdos on the other. Compelling narratives from Tyler and others of extremely improbable bits of information, foreknowledge, and innovation that seem to emerge out of nowhere and are later validated by objective measurement.
Pasulka even proffers significant evidence of government propaganda, or “perception management.” The real Men in Black don’t have magic zappers to erase your memories, so instead, writes Pasulka, they partner with Hollywood to fake out the public as to what the phenomenon even is. It’s even possible that Men in Black helped create Men in Black.
Remember that saying, used to great effect in the movie The Usual Suspects, that the smartest thing the devil did was convincing us he didn’t exist? Pasulka shows that official government policy has been to muddy the already-unclear UFO waters with ridiculous bullshit deliberately disseminated to attract cranks and kooks.
It’s a nice irony, if you think about it: those conspiracy theorists in the tin foil hats are, in fact, the unwitting tools of a secret government program.
Pasulka finally is (mostly) convinced. “What I observed of [the Invisible College’s] work places me in the odd position of almost confirming a myth. This is not the preferred position of the academic author of books about religion.”
This, she describes, as an “epistemological shock”—that is, a shock to her fundamental understanding of the world and its universe. For Pasulka, the shock was twofold: First, “several of the most well-regarded scientists in the world believe in nonhuman intelligence that originated in space.” And second, “rumors of the findings of these scientists inspired hoaxes, disinformation, media, and documentaries based on bogus information.”
Pasulka says that she “watched this happen in realtime.”
Now, there is still plenty of room for skepticism. As the season one finale of Westworld conveyed to a mass audience, the bicameral human brain is structured such that different parts of the brain can seem like totally separate entities. There is, phenomenologically, no perceptual difference between a “voice” from a different region of the brain and a voice from outside.
Of course, ontologically, it’s another story. Millions of Americans are certain that Jesus is speaking to them every day. Millions of Indians converse regularly with different deities from the Hindu pantheon. All of these people are clearly having their experiences; they’re not making it up. I’ve had them too, on long meditation retreats and in other spiritual contexts, and I can report that it is blindingly, certainly obvious that the “download” I received did not come from me.
Yet as John Kerry tried and failed to remind us, you can be certain and also be wrong.
Likewise, it’s impossible to evaluate the evidence for “anomalous cognition”—foreknowledge, for example—without comparing it to negative incidences of anomalous cognition. Otherwise, we’re just engaging in verification bias. We notice when the spooky sense turns out to be true and ignore it when it doesn’t.
The proof, then, depends on the objective, rather than subjective, evidence. And here Pasulka is frustratingly vague. She doesn’t really evaluate James’ analysis from the UFO crash site. She doesn’t offer alternate explanations of the visual sightings that, while convoluted, would still be less of an epistemological shock than the one Pasulka undergoes (and made me undergo).
Nor, due to the anonymity of the Invisible College, can the reader evaluate Pasulka’s claim that it really includes “several of the most well-regarded scientists in the world.” (There are two notable exceptions: Jack Parsons, a pioneer of the U.S. space program who was also a leading occultist and magick practitioner—and the subject of the CBS drama Strange Angel–and his Russian counterpart, Konstantin Tsiolkovsky.)
If only for the total redefinition of everything I thought I knew about UFOs, though, American Cosmic is a book that I cannot get out of my mind. Once you’ve eaten the red pill, you can’t go back.
Or, in Pasulka’s words, “Once you become aware that there is a phenomenon, it becomes aware of you.”