SEEING THINGS (2008)

In the kingdom of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.
– Erasmus, 1536

In 2004, a woman in Florida made $28,000 on eBay selling a cheese sandwich that she said bore the image of the Virgin Mary. In July of 1997, a woman in north England sliced open nine aubergines for a curry and was amazed to discover the Hindu symbol for God on every slice. In 1996, just before the Feast of Ramadan, a farmer in Senegal discovered a watermelon upon which the name of Allah had appeared.

When CNN broadcast the stunning photographs of the Eagle nebula from the Hubble space telescope in 1995, many viewers in the US claimed to see the face of Jesus in the glowing columns of interstellar gas. CNN anchors nodded sagely as viewers called in to express their wonderment at this heavenly high-five from the Lamb of God.

Such are miracles in a time of diminished expectations. If you are a Supreme Being with time on your hands, why go to all the effort of parting bodies of water or speaking from a burning bush, when you can wow the flock with decorative techniques straight out of Martha Stewart Living or move mysteriously through the cable news channels?

Whether it’s foodstuffs with a blessed-before date, or messiah-marquees in space, most of us find claims of this sort either amusing or appalling. Magical thinking is for the literalists in the megachurches and madrasahs. We, after all, are the educated ones with literate minds that accurately reflect and report on the real world.

If only things were that simple. Even at the best of times, our everyday perception is distorted by temperamental prejudices, unconscious biases and cultural conditioning.

Last year, Ohio Congressman Dennis Kucinich was questioned at a Democratic presidential debate in Philadelphia about a passage in a new book by Shirley MacLaine, who happens to be the godmother of Kucinich’s daughter. In
Sage-ing While Age-ing, MacLaine claims Kucinich saw a UFO above her home in Washington state. “It hovered, soundless, for 10 minutes or so and sped away with a speed he couldn’t comprehend. He said he felt a connection in his heart and heard directions in his mind.” Moderator Tim Russert quoted MacLaine’s description of what Kucinich had seen: “… a gigantic triangular craft, silent, observing him.”

“Now, did you see a UFO, sir?”

It was an unidentified flying object, OK? It’s, like, it’s unidentified,” Kucinich replied as laughter rippled through the studio audience. “I saw something.”

The Democratic presidential candidate tried to salvage some dignity during this exchange, telling Russert that many Americans have had similar experiences and that former president Jimmy Carter had a UFO sighting of his own. But the damage was done. It’s one thing to see religious icons in your lunch. There are folks who will buy that, literally, on eBay. But a UFO over the home of Shirley MacLaine? That’s a bit much.

By signing on to a no-win acronym, “UFO” Kucinich was abucted by the tabloids and prepared for a tinfoil hat fitting by Fox News. There was no time available in the 24-hour news cycle to address what the congressman might or might not have actually seen. And although he did not specifically claim he had been taken on a ride on a spacecraft or been anally probed by The Simpsons’ drooling, tentacled terrors, Kucinich was now officially the candidate from space.

“UFO” is not a contentless placeholder,” noted Jeff Wells, commenting about the Kucinich case in his blog, Rigorous Intuition “UFO is identified with little green men, ET and Mars Attacks. There is no meaningful way to speak about the subject in the English language without reference to its debased and comic acronym, and if language shapes our view of reality, then it may take an effort of will or a boundary experience of our own to see that there is more to the phenomenon than a punchline.”

American citizens have been seeing things in the skies for a long time and some of the weirdest sightings don’t involve space creatures at all. One of the most compelling cases dates back to 1905. As a strange object glided above a field in Dayton Ohio, the general manager of Dayton’s rail line and his chief engineer ordered the conductor to stop the train while they and all the passengers on board watched in amazement. Piloting the strange object – one of the world’s first flying machines – was a man by the name Orville Wright.

Writes Richard Milton in his book
Alternative Science: “From December 1903 to September 1908, two young bicycle mechanics from Ohio repeatedly claimed to have built a heavier-than-air flying machine and to have flown it successfully. But despite scores of public demonstrations, affidavits from local dignitaries and photographs of themselves flying, the claims of Wilbur and Orville Wright were derided and dismissed as a hoax by the Scientific American, the New York Herald, the US army and most American scientists.”

It’s especially odd considering that Dayton bank president Torrance Huffman had allowed the brothers to use a large tract of farmland he owned for conducting their experiments. A main road and a rail line bordered the land and their flying experiments had been witnessed for years by hundreds, if not thousands, of people.
Respectable society looked the other way. Heavier-than-air flight was deemed impossible by scientists, so there was no necessity to investigate the brothers’ claims. Two years after the engineer and his conductor witnessed Orville in his spindly craft, President Theodore Roosevelt ordered public trials at Fort Myers in 1908, to settle the claims once and for all. The Wrights were able to prove their claims with finality, with the army and scientific press accepting their flying machine as a reality.

How could eyewitness observations and the official view of reality been at such variance, prior to Roosevelt’s tests? According to Milton, “Many of these bewildered witnesses visited or wrote to the newspapers to ask who were the young men that were regularly flying over “Huffman Prairie” and why nothing had appeared about them. Eventually, the enquiries became so frequent that the papers complained of their becoming a nuisance, but still their editors showed little interest in the story, sending neither a reporter nor photographer.”

If that anecdote doesn’t say something sobering about the social construction of reality, and the blinkered conservatism of “experts,” I don’t know what does.

Cut from Kitty Hawk to Chicago’s O’Hare Airport a century later, and a sighting so bizarre that the local media sat up and took notice. According to the January 1, 2006, online version of
the Chicago Tribune, “A flying saucer-like object hovered low over O’Hare International Airport for several minutes before bolting through thick clouds with such intense energy that it left an eerie hole in overcast skies, said some United Airlines employees who observed the phenomenon.”

The witnesses described the object as dark grey and well defined in the overcast skies. Estimates of the object’s size ran from six feet to 24 feet in diameter and viewers noted that it did not display any lights. “It definitely was not an [Earth] aircraft,” said one mechanic. A United employee appeared emotionally shaken by the sighting and “… experienced some religious issues” over it, one co-worker said.

The O’Hare report came and went. After a few brief but straightforward reports, the broadcast pundits moved on to the more pressing issues of Paris Hilton and Anna Nicole Smith.
What was seen at O’Hare? In the absence of any scientific data, and any investigative follow-up from the media, we’ll likely never know. In any case, it’s easy to dismiss an individual report of an aerial anomaly from a congressman or even a president. But it’s more difficult to write off a whole group of professionals who see exactly the same disc-shaped object.

Of course, anything from Venus to flocks of geese to temperature inversions are regularly mistaken by intelligent observers for things they are not. Sometimes, mundane objects are magnified into motherships. The bulk of investigated aerial anomalies turn out to have close-to-earth origins. A small percentage are, in the parlance of the air force, “unknowns.” It’s these reports that give the experts the fits. Toward the end of his tenure as the US air force’s official investigator of UFO reports, Cornell astronomer J. Allen Hynek became convinced that a real phenomenon underlay a persistent fraction of “high strangeness” reports from military pilots, airline personnel, air traffic controllers and other professionals.

Once asked where the evidence for genuine UFOs is, Hynek replied, “Where do you want to park the truck?” Yet, to this day, it doesn’t matter if nearly two dozen military, intelligence, government, corporate and scientific witnesses come forward at the National Press Club in Washington to present their evidence for UFOs, as they did on Wednesday, May 9, 2001. It doesn’t matter if the scientific elite of other nations endorse the existence of UFOs, as France did with the release of the Cometa Report in 1999. It doesn’t matter that former Canadian defence minister Paul Hellyer, who has had a UFO sighting of his own, has called for an “… era of openness, public hearings, publicly funded research, and education about extraterrestrial reality.” In the US, the official line is that we’re the only advanced intelligence on or around the planet. Respectable authorities find any alternative ideas idiotic, just as their predecessors did a century earlier.

But I’m more interested in what our reluctance to investigate certain phenomenon, from Kitty Hawk to O’Hare, says about us, rather than an alleged “them.” What intrigues me is the politics of perception and how we construct the world “out there.” Human beings make perceptual mistakes all the time. We don’t just see things that aren’t there; we sometimes don’t see things that are there, editing them out of consciousness entirely. And we do that with remarkably mundane observations.

There is a famous business training film that shows people in black and white shirts passing a basketball back and forth. Viewers gathered to watch the film are instructed to count the number of times the basketball is passed. As the ball goes around, a figure in a gorilla suit walks into the scene. The figure turns to the camera and beats her chest, before walking off-screen. According to Daniel J. Simons, the psychologist who produced the film, 50 percent of instructed viewers fail to see the figure in the first screening, due to what he calls “inattentional blindness.” That’s right; half the people viewing the film fail to see a person in a gorilla suit walking across their field of vision.

We often focus on what we’re looking for, editing out any anything that doesn’t fit in. Through this process, we clever monkeys turn kitchen foodstuffs into religious fetishes or aerial unknowns into locker room jokes. We’re all hard-nosed news reporters hunting down a few local stories, while ignoring hundreds of leads for front-page features. In that sense, we’re a bit like the newspaper editors in the Wright brothers’ time, puffed up with the pride of certainty and refusing to believe we’ve missed a scoop.

Since we fail to see what’s going on, it’s no surprise we often fail to hear what’s going on as well. On his speaking tours, the late American philosopher Robert Anton Wilson occasionally had his audiences engage in a Sufi listening exercise. After giving out pens and notepads, he asked the people in the auditorium to sit in silence and listen intently, while writing down all the sounds they could hear: distant traffic outside the auditorium, creaking chairs, fabric rustling as people shifted in their seats, etc. When he asked for a show of hands, Wilson found the most sounds heard by any one person came to almost two dozen. He then asked the audience if anyone had heard anything this fellow had not. The author added these sounds to the list, for a total of over forty. Wilson had led this exercise plenty of times before in other talks and this was a consistent score. This proved, he said, that even the most observant person in the room was aware of only half of what was going on.

“Personally, I see two or three UFOs every week,” Wilson noted on his website. “This does not astonish me or convince me of the spaceship theory because I also see about two or three UNFOs every week – Unidentified Non-Flying Objects. These remain unidentified (by me) because they go by too fast or look so weird that I never know whether to classify them as hedgehogs, hobgoblins or helicopters, or as stars or satellites or spaceships, or as pizza-trucks or probability waves.”

But the world mostly contains mundane things that Wilson could “… identify fully and dogmatically with any norm or generalization.” After all this intellectual leg-pulling, the self-described “stand-up philosopher” got to his epistemological punchline: “I live in a spectrum of probabilities, uncertainties and wonderments.” Wilson refused to settle on one model for reality. He believed the universe continually presents us with quantum “maybes,” which our acts of observation collapse into definitive values.

That sounds more appealing to me than the hard-edged certainties offered by religious or materialist dogmatists. Wilson’s attitude toward the big questions is one of humility, awe and humour. And given the truly weird picture of reality drawn by contemporary science, that seems like the right attitude to take.

At every moment in space, both inside us and around us, “virtual particles” are popping in and out of existence, according to a variant of Heisenberg’s principle. They emerge from the vacuum and return to the vacuum, violating no scientific laws as long as they disappear in a nanosecond. Virtual particles, black holes, pulsars, quarks: collectively, these bizarro objects out-weird the denizens in Star Wars’ bar scene, or anything hatched by Disney’s “imagineers.”
Next to these officially acknowledged oddities, advanced beings visiting us from another world or dimension seem almost redundant. Such things are no more unlikely to me than the subatomic sprites conjured up by particle accelerators. (Not that this gives me any confidence about what Dennis Kucinich saw – especially considering he’s not sure what it was himself. On my personal spectrum of believability, the congressman’s triangle-shaped object has indeterminate value, although I put it closer to Orville Wright’s flying machine than the Virgin Mary’s cheese sandwich.)

If science has taught us anything, the essential nature of the universe is magical – lawful, but magical nonetheless. And although we humans are conscious creatures haunted by our imperfection and mortality, our very existence is drawn from this same ground of being. We’re the universe embodied as intention, exploring a boundless capacity to create and confound. And Hamlet’s words to Horatio still apply. No matter how much knowledge we accumulate, there will always be more things in the heavens and earth than are dreamt of in our philosophy.

In Myth and Meaning, anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss wrote of his initial shock when he discovered that “a particular tribe” of Indians could see the planet Venus in full daylight with the naked eye. He describes it as “… something that to me would be utterly impossible and incredible.” But when he learned from astronomers it was feasible, he concluded, “Today we use less and we use more of our mental capacity than we did in the past.”

Most academics would have simply said the Indian tribesmen were “seeing things.” In his book
Breaking Open the Head, Daniel Pinchbeck commented on Levi-Strauss’ discovery. “We have sacrificed perceptual capabilities for other mental abilities to concentrate on a computer screen while sitting in a cubicle for many hours at a stretch – something those Indians would find ‘utterly impossible and incredible’ – or to shut off multiple layers of awareness as we drive a car in heavy traffic. In other words, we are brought up within a system that teaches us to postpone, defer and eliminate most incoming sense data in favour of a future reward. We live in a feedback loop of perpetual postponement. For the most part, we are not even aware of what we have lost.”

It may be easy to chuckle at a political candidate who admits to witnessing something above a Hollywood actor’s home that he couldn’t explain. What’s harder for us to accept is that we regularly miss much of what’s occurring all around us and within us. As the writer George Leonard put it, “Whatever your age, your upbringing or your education, what you are made of is mostly unused potential.” What strange talents, what remarkable powers, still lie latent within us all?

Seeing things” can mean many things, from looking deeply into the heart of nature to outright hallucination. In the end, our survival on this planetary ship of fools may depend on us learning to see things as they are, rather than what we tell each other they should be.

Geoff Olson