How Science & Society Respond to Extraordinary Patterns
  by Michael Zimmerman
From P.E.E.R.

Philosophy professor Michael Zimmerman spoke to clinicians at PEER's August 1997 conference, held at the Omega Institute in Rhinebeck, New York. He showed how science has, throughout it's history, vigorously resisted evidence of anomalous events. He explained in detail the historical origins of why our modern society fears the idea of beings that might originate in other dimensions or other solar systems. Prof. Zimmerman teaches in the philosophy and psychiatry departments of Tulane University and has written books on Heidegger, psychology, and ecology. He is a member of PEER's board of advisors.

Science's Reluctance

"Haven't most of you noticed, even when you were children, that the outlines of South America and Africa seem to fit into one another? In the 1920s, when a German meteorologist, Alfred Wegener, proposed that the reason for this apparent coincedence was that the continents were once connected and then had drifted apart, the idea was considered so bizarre in terms of what geologists 'knew' in the 1920s that Wegener was scoffed at. Finally he died in obscurity in Greenland pursuing some of his meteorological research. (1)

"Then in 1945, after the war when scientific research again became possible, people from different disciplines noted that there were similar rock formations and similar species along these places where the continents' outlines were so closely matched. And they started speculating about how to explain that. They also started doing lots of research on the ocean floor and discovered the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, where land comes out of the mantle of the earth and spreads out, pushing the continents apart. The Himalayas were formed when India - the part that looks like an ice cream cone - slammed up against Asia and pushed up those mountains that are still rising an inch each century. This is called plate tectonics and the continents really do drift around.

"Now no one would have believed that eighty years ago; it was considered just total nonsense. It took a number of courageous scientists paying attention to anomalies - such as the shape of the continents, which is the most obvious clue - and then subsequently paying attention to other phenomenon associated with it that gradually convinced the scientific world that this is in fact the explanation. Now it is frequently cited as one of the most important scientific revolutions of the 20th century.

"Yet when I was researching this I came across a remarkable and highly disturbing fact, and that is when plate techtonics is taught nowadays, it is taught as if it were 'God's Truth,' and all the remaining anomalies - and there are a bunch of things that plate tectonics cannot explain - are generally ignored in the graduate schools. In other words, the leaders of the previous revolution have now replicated the same sort of hidebound attitude of the old school that they pushed out. And the reason this is disturbing is that it tells us something about our human proclivity for seeing things with a kind of tunnel-vision, especially if what's outside that tunnel threatens our social position and our hard won academic or other standing.

"If a graduate student, let's say a female graduate student at that, finds something startlingly new and totally unpredicted, an anomalous phenomenon that doesn't fit, do you think it will be difficult for her to persuade those people who govern her field that this really is a legitimate phenomenon worthy of examination? Yes, it will be very difficult. The people who are in charge of the scientific establishment run the journals, they run the graduate schools, they are the peers who are in the peer review process and they are the ones who determine whether a research project is worthy of funding. So if she comes up using a new device or a concept that doesn't fit anybody's expectations, doesn't fit into the current outlook at all, it's going to be very difficult for her to get the funding and the acknowledgment that is necessary for this research to go forward. This happens all the time, and there are probably phenomenon that have been discovered by people that may never be rediscovered because whoever discovered it either lacked the courage or ambition to carry through the research project.

Modernity Doubts the Non-Material

Prof. Zimmerman then explained how our society's overall worldview similarly limits what each of us is willing to believe.

"The Great Chain of Being is an ancient concept, from at least 2500 years ago, probably much longer, that presents a hierarchical ordering of all known phenomena in the universe. (Many of you may already be familiar with its ideas, but didn't know it by this name). Everything in the universe is given a place on this scheme.

"In the medieval European version, the Great Chain of Being refer to things that are creatures made by God, that are produced by God. So God is sort of honorifically at the top but not really included in it. (I have a double line there to indicate that God if off the charts. God is not part of the Great Chain of Being because God is not a creature.) So in the middle ages, you start in Immaterial Creation, that is, the range of angels and what St. Paul in the New Testament refers to as 'principalities and powers'. You could also probably fit in here devils and spirits and demons of all sorts which in ancient times were regarded as part of the fabric of reality. They were just taken for granted. Then, the dotted line, because we're moving to Material Creation. There you have men and women - yes, in the middle ages men were on top, alright, as it were - then animals, plants, and rocks. And finally chaos, the undifferentiated stuff out of which everything is made.

"This is something you may know. Today of course we put men and women on the same plane, but otherwise this is how we tend to organize the worth of things. A plant is worth more, not financially, but in terms of its own inherent value we say it's more valuable than a rock. And an animal is more important than a plant.

"In some ways the Great Chain of Being is very comforting, because it gives us a sense that the cosmos has some kind of ordering to it, that it makes sense, that there's some kind of coherent scheme to it. Everything has its place and its purpose.

"In this medieval hierarchy, all creatures have beauty, truth and goodness without exception. Everything is alive in some important sense. Humans are important but flawed. Sometimes humans are put above the angels, because humans mediate between the material and immaterial world; we're both body and spirit. With respect to their views about extraterrestrials, they were considered possible but not emphasized. Certain medievals believed there were immaterial creatures, but whether there were physical beings living on other planets, this is something no one really knew about. They didn't talk too much about it at that time.

"Now the next period we'll look at is the Enlightenment, roughly 1670 to 1800. In the Enlightenment worldview, God may have been necessary to kind of kick things off, but then God disappears from the scene not needed. He doesn't intervene, there are no miracles, the universe is a great clock work of interrelated parts. You no longer have an Immaterial Realm; you don't have angels or demons. One of the things that the Enlightenment accomplished was the purging of these nonmaterial entities from the universe. So all we're left with is physical reality. There you still have men, women, animals and plants, rocks and chaos.

"However, there was considerable interest in the possibility of ETs. Remember that the telescope had just been invented, and that led to a lot of speculation. So with angels banished, ETs are postulated to occupy vacated positions in the Great Chain of Being. Once you get rid of the angels, what's going to be above human beings? Well, maybe superintelligent ETs on other planets. You have enthusiastic response to the possibility of ETs. There's a wonderful book that came out about ten years ago by Michael Grosso from Notre Dame who describes the wonderful interest people had in the 1600-1800s in ET life. (2)

"The Enlightenment began a profound process of 'disenchanting the cosmos', getting rid of all the magic that was characteristic of the middle ages, regarded by Enlightenment leaders as just a lot of superstition. One reason to get rid of it was because it contributed to a social hierarchy of political domination. Churches, priests, etcetera, according to the great political leaders of the Enlightenment, were really in the way of progress. Voltaire and others said you needed to get rid of the power of the churches - including their beliefs in angels and immaterial beings - in order to accomplish three things. First, the achievement of full political emancipation and democratic institutions and practices. Second, the freeing of scientific research from the control of dogmatic religious beliefs. And third, the making possible of material well-being for all humans. So the Enlightenment was a tremendous contribution to human history, but at the cost of de-emphasizing spirituality.

"Now today, we are here on the right side of the chart, the 20th-century worldview. In this modern view, all that's left is physical reality. You don't even have a nod to God at the top of the chart; He-She-Whatever is gone altogether. There is no supreme being - except us. Modern man conceives of himself as potential master of all nature and as top of the cosmic heap. In other words, there's probably nothing above human beings. We are the source of all meaning, purpose, and value.

"What happened in mid-to-late 19th century to make the possibility of ETs seem incredibly remote? Darwinism. Steven J. Gould, one of the big contemporary proponents of neo-Darwinism, argues that the evolution of, not only of life, but particularly of human life on this planet is so full of contingency that it would never happen again if you were to wind the clock back and start all over. It may be an abstract possibility that there is intelligent life in the universe apart from man - but not in our solar system. This is the worldview of the late Carl Sagan. True, any interesting phenomenon is supposedly fit for scientific investigation - except for phenomena that might reveal the existence of superior, nonhuman intelligence. That is taboo.

"Therefore, discovery of ETs would in fact pose a serious threat to psychological and cultural stability, now that we're defined ourselves as the source of meaning in the universe. This is one reason why what you experiencers are reporting is so disturbing, because of its potential implications.

Government Strives to Minimize Public Fear

"In 1960, NASA sponsored through the Brookings Institution a study of the possible effects on human civilization of the discovery by NASA spaceships of either existing ET life in our solar system or of life that had become extinct. The Brookings report argued that NASA would be well advised to consider not informing the public of such a discovery. It said in particular, that the people most threatened by such a discovery would be the scientific and technologically oriented men for whom control of nature was definitive for their personalities. This is in the Brookings report now available online. (3)

"Some people argue that such analyses gave NASA justification for not revealing UFO information, and for finding ways to quash or even intervene with disinformation about phenomena like abduction. Karla Turner, in her second book called Taken, writes disturbingly of seven or eight female experiencers, many of whom reported seeing military people in underground bunkers or in desert areas interacting with alien greys.(4) I have no idea what to make of that, except that it's something we just have to deal with as one of the weird dimensions of this thing.

"However, there's a dangerous consequence to official denial. It feeds into the paranoia of extremists. Any of you who follow this know that now there is a big overlap between the militia world and the ufo world. Tales about the 'men in black,' black helicopters, government conspiracies, the UN being in league with aliens. There are people who really think like this - it's all over the internet. Who knows, maybe they're right, though I suspect they've probably gone a little too far. But the official reality invites this type of response when it provides no, or a very insufficient response to what has become culturally acknowledged as a widespread phenomenon. Thousands of people are having abduction experiences that are often very frightening, but in some cases also very illuminating. And that they cannot be heard in official reality, that there is no forum in which they can be heard, seems to me to be incredibly dangerous, because it adds to the paranoia that already exists. For the government to respond to the many abduction reports by saying merely, 'all these people are just disturbed', will not work. In fact, it invites an irrationalism of a politically dangerous kind.

Abduction Reports Provoke Individual and Societal Self-Doubt

"Now as we move into discussion of the abduction phenomenon itself, let's look at what social psychology tells us about how cultures respond to paradigm shifts:

"Social beliefs, norms, attitudes and world views constitute the parameters within which human personality can develop. Individuals can move beyond the limits of their native worldview, but adhering to some shared world view (even if it not explicit) is needed if an individual is to function socially."

"In other words, if your beliefs share nothing in common with anyone else, you might be locked up. And those of you who have experienced this strange phenomenon are in a very difficult situation, because it so much challenges the prevailing cultural ontology (that is, the way in which we think things are wired up in the world) that it is extremely difficult for you to continue functioning as a member of the normal community. Then:

"Collapse of a culture's prevailing world view can lead to the disintegration of personality structure, especially on the part of individuals most closely identified with that worldview."

"Anthropologists in the 19th and early 20th centuries learned that it was a very bad thing to show up in a primitive society bringing all of our own technology, because what would happen, typically, to these societies who had never encountered the white man was a collapse of their tribal worldview and a disintegration of personality on the part of many, leading too often to alcoholism and drug abuse. Most individuals really can't make such a sudden cultutal transition. Maybe the second or third generation can get it together, but the transitional moment is very difficult. Therefore:

"Hope for a paradigm shift leading to a better postmodern world must be tempered with recognition that such shifts are dangerous and often violent, even though at times inevitable."

"Though modern progressives may be excited about increasing environmental consciousness and globalization of cultures, there's nothing great about living through a paradigm shift. That's why the Chinese say 'spare us from living in interesting times.' Furthermore, as Patrick Harpur says in a wonderful book called Daemonic Realities, for the modern paradigm there is only one thing worse than flesh and blood aliens. And that is aliens that come from a nonmaterial realm, non-materials beings, who come from other dimensions and whose appearance therefore questions the priority of the material plane on which we live; beings who can manifest materially but then can vanish and move back into the soul or spirit or other dimensional realm they came from. That is completely unacceptable. That is so much worse than physical aliens, that it's hard to overestimate their impact, because it would negate the disenchantment of the world. (5)

"It would force us to start to reintegrate those domains which the Enlightenment and Modernity pushed out of the picture in order to clear a path for science, technological progress, and democratic institutions. It would force us to say we left some stuff out and we have to reintegrate it. And that's going to mean that all these strong atheistic beliefs, the strong denials of the soul and spirit realm, would have to go by the boards. And believe me there's a huge ego investment in clinging to those beliefs. This is going to be a tough one.


"So what are the sources of resistance to the idea of superior nonhuman intelligence? ETs, whatever they are, these entities that intervene in the lives of experiencers, certainly seem to be pretty powerful. They can do things we can't do. The reality of ETs could undermine the modern worldview, and the institutions and the social roles dependent on them. If in fact the powers that be recognize that something is really going on, they are not particularly interested in the rest of us understanding it, because if that worldview collapses, so do the institutions that make them leaders in society.

"Already many of you people who've had this abduction experience have gone through a collapse of your own worldview, because you were raised not believing in aliens or soul reality, and all of a sudden you're having experiences which ultimately become undeniable to you. It becomes self-evident that something's happening, some 'otherness' is showing up in your life. So how do you deal with that? Well, you really have to undergo a kind of personal breakdown; and then you have to rebuild a new world view that can accommodate it.

"Now there are worldviews available that help accommodate this phenomenon, but we don't have a really good understanding of it yet, so what we're dealing with right now is you people acting as our explorers trying to help us make sense out of what's happening.

"One thing I wish to emphasize. Fear of being dominated, mastered, controlled, is such a big fear on the part of a control-oriented society like ours, especially for men who are not used to being in positions in which they are not in control. And since we're still a male-governed society, the idea that we may be being intervened upon by entities that are so powerful that they can capture people right out of their bedrooms, or right out from under the noses of police and military, is just so terrifying that it really cannot be entertained seriously. It's just not possible to think about. And it gives rise to the fear that talk of aliens and ETs could lead to an outbreak of irrationalism.

"But there's no reason that science, understood as a search - how shall I say this - as an attempt to make sense or to understand experience, has to exclude this. There are ways of exploring these phenomena, ways that emphasize the attempt to become consistent and to get as much evidence as possible. These phenomena don't have to be pushed-off, deep-sixed, and called irrational. That doesn't have to be the case.


1. Wegener, Alfred. The Origin of Continents and Oceans.

2. Grosso, Michael, Frontiers of the Soul: Exploring Psychic Evolution, Quest Books, 1992

3. Proposed Studies on the Implications of Peaceful Space Activities for Human Affairs, Brookings Institute report delivered to the Committee on Long Range Studies, NASA, November 1960. Submitted by NASA to the 87th Congress, 1st Session, April 18, 1961. House Report #242, Serial Set Vol #2, #12338. Reported in the New York Times Dec 15th 1960 [see PEER's Links page]

4. Turner, Karla, Taken: Inside the Alien-Human Abduction Agenda, Roland, AK: Keltworks, 1994

5. Harpur, Patrick, Daimonic Reality: Understanding Otherword Encounters, NY: Penguin Arkana, 1995, 330 pages


Reposted from PEER | Program for Extraordinary Experience Research.
Founded by John E. Mack, M.D.

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