The Plurality of Worlds, Part 3. Deserts of Arid Speculation

John Harney
Magonia 9, 1982
In a letter commenting on Part One of this series, Hilary Evans suggested that I had lost myself in ‘a lifeless desert of arid speculation’ (Magonia 5). Now I think that this is quite a good phrase to use to describe ufology. My speculations in the previous articles were based on historical facts and those who wish to disagree with my opinions can do so by re-examining those facts and others which I have not mentioned, or am not aware of, and formulating their own ideas and arguments.

However, most of the speculations indulged in by ufologists are based on UFO reports taken at face value and on the pseudo-scientific ramblings of popular writers on the subject. UFO enthusiasts generally purport to be concerned with the question of whether or not we are being visited by beings from other planets. This idea is the main working hypothesis of the ‘nuts-and-bolts’ ufologists, who generally pride themselves on their rational and scientific approach to the subject.
Why do such ufologists want to believe that we are being visited by extraterrestrials? A great deal has been written, particularly in the past few years, about the psychological and sociological aspects of belief in flying saucers and the generation of UFO reports, but very little attempt has been made to explore the metaphysical beliefs of ufologists and UFO witnesses. Attempts that are made are generally tentative and somewhat confused, an interesting example of such an attempt appearing in a recent book by Robert Sheaffer. Sheaffer states: ‘UFOlogists argue that in all the vastness of the universe, civilisations far more advanced than ours must necessarily exist’. He says that this is ‘…nothing more than a restatement of St. Anselm’s eleventh-century ontological argument for the existence of God’. (1)

Sheaffer’s purpose in using this argument is evidently to imply that the ufologists’ belief in extraterrestrial space-travelling civilisations is irrational

I have read a large amount of UFO literature and I have not come across any attempt to argue that the existence of advanced civilisations elsewhere in the universe is logically necessary, although I have seen a number of other arguments presented. However, in presenting the ontological argument, Sheaffer fails to distinguish between the concepts of necessary and contingent existence. From the theologians’ definition of God it can be argued that his existence is logically necessary, but this kind of argument could not be applied to alien civilisations unless one formulated a theory which attempted to show that the universe could not exist without them. Sheaffer’s purpose in using this argument is evidently to imply that the ufologists’ belief in extraterrestrial space-travelling civilisations is irrational because they attempt to support it by employing the ontological argument, which had been originally devised to attempt to prove the existence of God.
Sheaffer here seems to presuppose that the ontological argument for the existence of God is not to be taken seriously. This is probably because he does not understand it. He states: ‘In both cases there is an attempt to “prove” the existence of something, based only upon abstract ideas of what the universe ought to contain’. It is true that many ufologists base their beliefs on abstract ideas of what the universe ought to contain, but I have never heard of any theologian who supposed that the universe ought to contain God, for God is conceived of as being the creator and sustainer of the universe and not the other way around. To suppose that the universe contained God would be as absurd as to suppose that Sheaffer’s book might contain Sheaffer. (I have flipped through all the pages but have failed to find him; perhaps he doesn’t exist.) Apart from this confusion it is obvious that Sheaffer has some kind of philosophical objection to the idea that we might be visited by beings from another planet. I think I know what this objection is, and it is an important one, so I hope to discuss it in a future article rather than give it an inadequate treatment here.
Undoubtedly the most popular kind of argument used to support the idea of extraterrestrial civilisations is argument by analogy. The Earth supports a civilisation, so many other planets probably do also, in accordance with the well-known scientific principle which states that the laws of nature are the same everywhere. This argument does not prove anything but it does at least convince many people that the existence of extraterrestrial intelligences is a possibility worth considering.
Another reason for believing in the extraterrestrials is the principle of sufficient reason, from natural theology (i.e. there would seem to be no sufficient reason for the creation of such a vast universe if there is sentient life only on Earth, which is an infinitesimally small part of the universe). For most ufologists this idea is not a consciously held belief, but a presupposition. It seems to be widely taken for granted that everything has a purpose and if the purpose is not apparent attempts are made to discover it.
The attitudes of ufologists who believe that some UFOs are extraterrestrial space-craft closely parallel the attitudes of many nineteenth-century scientists in the face of the materialism of their colleagues. They rejected conventional religion, but materialism seemed to them to point to life without any ultimate purpose. Some of them turned to spiritualism because they saw in the phenomena of the seance-room a possible means of obtaining scientific proof of spiritual reality.
In the twentieth century ufology tends to attract those who lack firm religious beliefs or devotion to secular ideologies. They are attracted by the achievements of science, but dismayed by the arid materialism evinced by many scientists. They hope that superior beings from other worlds may be able to tell them the answers to the ultimate questions and back up those answers with scientific proofs. They like to believe that there is waiting to be discovered a startling answer to the UFO mystery, which will bring spectacular changes to our way of life.

Attempts to play down the religious aspects of ‘close encounter’ reports may be motivated by a desire to make the subject scientifically respectable

Attempts to play down the religious aspects of ‘close encounter’ reports may be motivated by a desire to make the subject scientifically respectable, in accordance with the widely held belief that science and religion are mutually incompatible. This attitude can easily lead to the ludicrous idea that any aspect of a UFO ‘close encounter’ story which is not overtly religious can be taken literally. An excellent example is Raymond Fowler’s account of the investigations of the experiences reported by Betty Andreasson. (3)
Fowler suggests that Betty has rationalised her encounter with alien beings in religious terms. However, it is evident that Fowler is trying to rationalise the story by suggesting that the aliens are using Betty’s religious beliefs for their own purposes. He seems quite prepared to take the story literally but would obviously be happier if it didn’t have so much religion mixed up with it. However, near the end of the book, he comments: ‘Perhaps UFOs represent a much-needed bridge between science and religion’.
This concept of a mutual antagonism between science on the one hand and religion and idealist philosophies on the other is a hangover from the Age of Reason of the eighteenth century and the positivism of the nineteenth century. It is only one of the philosophical attitudes which affect the treatment of a subject which, like ufology, hovers on the margins of the modern scientific disciplines. The ‘hard sciences’, such as physics and chemistry, are not too much troubled today by metaphysical problems, but the more marginally scientific subjects are greatly affected by the creeds and ideologies of those who practise them. For instance, most people will not be surprised if a book on some aspect of sociology written by a socialist reaches different conclusions from a similar book written by a capitalist, even if they both base their findings on the use of the same data. If the beliefs of the writers of such books are not explicitly stated at the beginning, we need to discover them somehow before we can make much sense of what they have written.
This is even more true of ufology, with the added complication that we can not always be certain of what the author is trying to tell us, because so many UFO authors find that they have to have their original works heavily larded with catch-penny sensationalism before their publishers will accept them.
Without engaging in critical studies of the metaphysical beliefs of ufologists and without examining our own beliefs and pre-suppositions, and bearing in mind the contemporary and historical forces which help to shape such beliefs, we are indeed left wandering in a ‘desert of arid speculation’. I have touched only briefly on certain aspects of the problem in this article, as a deep and wide-ranging study would obviously fill a large book. I hope it may provide a basis for investigation and for useful discussion and argument.


1. SHEAFFER, Robert, The UFO Verdict, Prometheus Books, Buffalo, New York,
2. DOWNING, Barry H. Religion and M.I.T. ’81. MUFON UFO Journal, No. 164, October 1981
3.FOWLER, Raymond E. The Andreasson Affair, Bantam Books, New York, 1980.