Jacques Vallée and Jeffrey J. Kripal challenge the limits of knowledge

The scientist and scholar discuss UFO sightings, AI utopias, and top-secret projects for Document’s Spring/Summer 2024 issue

On December 17, 2017, the front page of The New York Times read “Real UFOs? Pentagon Unit Tried to Know.” Its results: inconclusive. But this and countless subsequent articles might suggest that UFOs or UAPs (unidentified anomalous phenomena) have gone mainstream. With newly established official Department of Defense offices researching them and congressional hearings discussing recovered non-human “biologics,” as NPR reported last year, one might think the truth is approaching.

French scientist and inventor Jacques Vallée isn’t so sure. A principal exponent of taking UFOs seriously since the 1950s, Vallée doesn’t doubt that these contacts happen. His research—as published in books such as Anatomy of a Phenomenon, Passport to Magonia, and The Invisible College—shows humans have attested related experiences for centuries (take Celtic fairies, who, stories claim, abducted humans for reproductive purposes and left magic circles). He’s worked on classified projects, helped make the first digital map of Mars, and inspired the character played by François Truffaut in the film Close Encounters of the Third Kind. He’s dug in the dirt; he’s looked through telescopes; he’s interviewed countless witnesses. He also, as a teen in France, saw what presented itself to him as a saucer.

I say “presented” because, through his combination of scientific, historical, and interpersonal research, for much of his career Vallée has suggested that rather than beings from space, UFO witnesses might be facing interdimensional humans, or some other such phenomena, in disguise. UFOs’ radical weirdness, he argues, suggests our current modes of “understanding”—scientific, political, spiritual—aren’t prepared to handle these experiences. “Are the UFOs ‘windows’ rather than ‘objects’?” Vallée wrote in 1969. By this, he means that there is something bewildering in their nature—that whatever they are, another reality lurks behind the experience of them. There’s contact, but the fantastical visions—inflected by people’s cultural specificities—may not be the things themselves. Perhaps, he’s suggested, the UFOs are even intentionally deceptive. Perhaps they are teaching us to look beyond this deception and into the mechanism of perception itself.

According to scholar of religion Jeffrey J. Kripal, Vallée “makes the impossible possible through the sophistication of his suspicions,” using his “comparative imagination” to see new patterns in the data. He is thus, as Kripal described him in a 2010 book of four biographical essays, “an author of the impossible.” Such figures have long fascinated Kripal, and though in his modesty he’d likely deny it, he may be one himself: Kripal launched his career using Tantra and psychoanalysis to resituate texts around the Hindu saint Ramakrishna. He went on to study mysticism and eroticism in a variety of faiths, as well as to challenge the boundaries of scientific and humanistic research with The Flip and The Superhumanties.

Taken together, Kripal’s 11-book oeuvre is an enjoinder to a comparative, multiphonic model of holding global beliefs both historically and in the present. He retains a non-dogmatic commitment to something beyond everyday experience—a vertical dimension that intervenes on the horizontal material world, as he puts it.

As the J. Newton Rayzor Chair in Philosophy and Religious Thought at Rice University, Kripal also guards the Archives of the Impossible, where he’s amassed 15 collections of material relating to not only UFOlogy (including Vallée’s papers), but also parapsychology, remote viewing, and life after death. This massive collection informed Kripal’s trilogy The Super Story: Science (Fiction) and Some Emergent Mythologies, wherein he links physics, evolutionary biology, emerging technology, entheogenic molecules, and, of course, UFOs.

The UFO, Kripal writes in his essay on Vallée, is a “technological koan in the sky. A metaphysical joke.” Dead serious when meditated upon, this “joke,” both men suggest, may offer an entirely new way of seeing what we take to be our reality. This meditation doesn’t end with, but begins with, such as-of-yet unexplained phenomena. Over the course of three conversations, condensed for length and clarity, Vallée and Kripal breach the illusory surface of the present world in search of a vertical dimension.

“I had the advantage of having a proof of concept very early. And I felt that if I was going to be a scientist, here was a problem.”

Jeffrey J. Kripal: What drew me to your work was the combination of a humanistic sensibility and scientific training. You approached the UFO phenomenon as both a historian and scientist. That was a new idea to me when we first met in the late 2000s. But over the years, it has become the center of my professional life. In 2014, you broached the topic of donating your files and case studies to what became the Archives of the Impossible, and those archives now are 15 collections—well over a million documents. Your impulse to preserve and carry on your work into future generations and worldviews is important.

Jacques Vallée: I always thought of my role as part of a team—a team that obviously would include scientists and physicists, but also scholars, philosophers, finance experts, and experts in religion. As I saw the collection I was accumulating, I got scared that the data was so fungible and very few people were aware of it. It could evaporate very quickly; it had to be saved in some way. All along I’ve been saving what I thought were the best observations, and also the articles, the expressions, or the methodologies that I thought were important at a particular time. Meeting you opened up the opportunity to make this work much more effective and much broader and to ask, ‘What is this world where we live? To what extent is this phenomenon questioning our basis for what we think of as reality?’

Jeffrey: Let’s put aside the word ‘religion’ because it turns people off. People think of sitting in pews and being bored out of their minds and feeling guilt about their bodies. That’s not what we’re talking about. We’re talking about some kind of access to reality that is intimate and direct. And this is something that lies at the core of your work, Jacques: an esoteric conviction that human beings are somehow cosmic beings and that we can tap into reality in a very direct way. But generally, what happens when human beings encounter this [UFO] reality is a science-fiction movie goes off in their minds. Religions are born out of these science fiction movies, essentially. We tell stories about it because these are the stories that appear to us.

Jacques: As you may know, when I was about 15, I saw something that wasn’t explained at the time. My mother saw it first. It was over the little town where we lived—a bright afternoon, very clear blue sky. It was just standing there about half a kilometer away. And it was very clearly a disc with some superstructure. The next day, I spoke to a friend of mine who’d seen it from his house. He had looked at it with binoculars, and he drew it at my request. It was exactly what I had seen.

So I had the advantage of having a proof of concept very early. And I felt that if I was going to be a scientist, here was a problem. For a while, I pushed it out of my mind, which is what many witnesses do. This was the ’50s, and many new airplanes were coming up and so on. I almost convinced myself that I had seen a prototype of some new device that would become common. Well, it didn’t become common.

A few years later, I was working at the Paris observatory, tracking the early satellites—like Echo and others—and computing orbits, which was my first exposure to serious computers. Working for the government, we were getting observations from the public that we had to respond to. Some of those matched what I had seen. I reinvestigated the whole thing. I had access to the files of the French Air Force at that time and found that yes, there was a mystery. Astronomers didn’t want to talk about it because of their scientific reputation—which is still true today, by the way. There was a lot of data that the public didn’t know about. And I thought, Well, I have a computer. I can start looking at this.

Jeffrey: But Jacques, at the same time, one of your early books is called Challenge to Science. Your challenge to science is that reality is not what it appears to be. The UFO is somehow tied up in this illusion—in this deception—but also in this access to the behind-the-screen reality.

Jacques: Yes, but you have to do the homework first. And the homework is within science. That’s one thing that the skeptics have missed completely or have hidden. You can go outside with a small telescope. You can measure electric fields. You can pick up the dirt and you can analyze it. Research very often starts in a corner, hidden away in the basement until it blossoms.

Jeffrey: This is what I’m hearing: We shouldn’t tell a new story, we should do the damn research. We should stop the nonsense and look at what’s actually happening. Invest in scientific and, I hope, humanistic research that will get us to a place where we can tell a better story. Certainly my own work is based on the conviction that there are human beings who can access the truth, so to speak. And that it would do us well to listen to these individuals [who] largely have been rejected by society. But they’ve also become prodigies in different religious systems. They have learned to step out of the system. They’ve learned to not think their thoughts, to not believe their beliefs.

We do have these resources in our histories for people who have had direct experiences with truths that we have not integrated into our society because of this materialism. I think human beings are essentially cosmic. We do have access to these greater truths, but it needs to be handled very carefully and smartly. We have dismissed the very people that can help us do that.

Jacques: The answer is we build an AI that does that. Obviously, I’m joking. But it turns out that all the jokes are now getting built. They’re real. They are operational.

I don’t know if I told you this story before, but it’s germane to this. The first summer I was at Stanford, which was 1969 or ’70, there was a science fiction seminar which Arthur Hastings organized. He invited John McAfee, one of the three or four great innovators of AI in the United States. This seminar was mostly science fiction and the future of computing. McAfee told a story—again, this was in 1969—that in the future, AI is going to optimize the economy for us because we have so much waste. You will be expected to innovate as a human being because that’s what defines a human being. AI may have trouble innovating, but turns out humans are sort of good at it.

So, in the story, this salesman gets into his car in the morning, drives to his office, and says hi to his secretary. He processes orders for things. He does some business answering letters and so on. Then he goes home, watches TV, talks to his kids, and then goes to bed. One day, he gets a letter from the Department of Optimization that says, ‘We have noticed that in the last six months, you have not taken any action that wasn’t predicted by the AI engine. So, if in the next six months, you don’t do something that’s not predicted by the AI engine, you will be replaced.’ He panics. He questions his life. He says goodbye to his family, goes off to India, climbs mountains, rolls in the snow, has sex with all kinds of women, and sails back across the Pacific. He comes home and goes back to his job. And everything is fine. He starts to relax. A few months go by and he gets a letter from the Bureau of Simulation that says, ‘In the last six months, you have not done anything that was not predicted by the simulation engine and you have been replaced.’

Coat by Issey Miyake.

Jeffrey: There are stories like that going back thousands of years. My graduate mentor, Wendy Doniger, wrote about them in one of her first books, which was called Dream, Illusion, and Other Realities. It was [based] on the concept of maya in Hinduism. Maya means something measured or magic. The stories she’s describing are thousands of years old. They’re all about people being caught in simulations.

In Asia, it’s this concept of ‘dreaming’ and waking up from a dream. So many of our world civilizations are based on that concept. The Buddha means ‘awakened one.’ It’s exactly the person who is awakened from the dream, the simulation, or the illusion that we’re caught in. We have entire human civilizations based on listening to those people who claim to be awake and who have had this ‘flipped experience,’ as I call it. We don’t do that anymore. We’re caught in the simulation. We just keep talking and worrying about maya, frankly. We don’t listen to those people who are saying, ‘I had this experience, and guess what, reality isn’t what it seems to be. There’s a there there behind this veil or this illusion.’

Jacques: We can hang everything on AI if we want to. And that’s a temptation these days. There are a couple of conferences where AI has taken over the discussion. One of those is more government-oriented. It gets into the military implications and the militaries are the first users, obviously. They ask questions like, ‘If I’m a fighter pilot my plane is, of course, controlled by AI, because if it isn’t, the other guy is going to kill me. But how do I prevent my AI from controlling my plane permanently? How do I regain control?’

Jeffrey: The history of esotericism and religion is filled with the notion that the human being is an automaton who is being controlled. In some ways, insight number one from the history of religions is that human beings are being deceived or tricked or operated on by larger systems. And you can call those AIs if you want. Plato’s cave has been around for 2,500 years, for goodness’ sake. The idea that we’re being tricked or manipulated is ancient. And I think AI is a modern version of that, for sure. I think the question is: Who’s programming this AI? This is the question behind the question.

Jacques: What people are seeing with AI now is what touches them. What threatens their livelihood, their children, and so on. I was reading an article here in a French magazine about not only declining natality but declining instances of sex among couples. Because why bother? And that’s occurring around the world. It’s as if the human race is detecting a time when life isn’t really worth it and where it is not necessary to procreate. AI is right in the middle of that.

Jeffrey: Why aren’t people having as much sex? I think people are depressed. And personally, I think materialism is super depressing. If it’s true, and we’re just products of material forces, and consciousness is just an epiphenomenon of whatever the brain’s doing, well, fuck it. I think that’s what these young couples are encountering. And so, when I talk about a new mythology, I think AI is significant. But we have to realize that someone is [making] the AI and we have to acknowledge the consciousness or life—or whatever language you want—is not the AI itself. I think we’re so enamored by what our technology can do that we’ve thrown the baby out with the bathwater.

Jacques: There is a possibility that we go through the excitement with the AI, we apply it to lots of things, lots of things get better. People play with that over the next five or 10 years. And then they get tired of it, and they will rediscover what it’s really like to be human. With love, with pain, with sorrow—all of that. I want to be exposed to new things in addition to what I know already and test myself against that. The question is: How do I reconnect?

Why go through all the problems of getting married, buying another house, arguing with your wife about what to have for breakfast, and things like that when we’re going to have a war that’s going to, essentially, level everything? I think that’s a subtext of many conversations now. Even conversations that are not particularly about politics or the economy.

Jeffrey: I think that the reality and the consistency and the continuation of war is itself a function of what I call comparativism. We don’t know how to compare one another. We actually believe we’re different. We continue this logic because we think that’s who we are. And this gets back to the simulation thing. We believe that we are citizens of a particular country or believers in a particular religion or members of a particular ethnicity. Therefore, we will kill people who are not of that ethnicity or religion or nation. That’s an illusion. That’s a total simulation that has a history. It builds up into these identities that we then believe in because we’re caught in this simulation. We’re caught in this dream. So, I think there’s a silver lining here: We can wake up from the dream.

“I think AI could free us from a lot of redundant stuff. The question is, how do you build a world that supports that rather than the world of today that essentially supports building ammunition?”

Jacques: So here is a scenario. I don’t know if it’s encouraging or not. Once AI runs the world, the human race could mutate in the direction of those abilities that you were talking about. What is it that makes extraordinary financiers like some of the people I’ve worked with in New York? Or extraordinary scientists? Or extraordinary artists who can sense a much larger universe of things in a different way from what can be described to a machine? Maybe larger numbers of people will mutate into that state. [And people might] gain the ability to see the things that cats are able to see. Maybe the ability to see dead people. Or the ability to communicate with dead people. All the things that parapsychology has been talking about could become more common. I think AI could free us from a lot of redundant stuff. The question is, how do you build a world that supports that rather than the world of today that essentially supports building ammunition?

Jeffrey: I was just part of a conference here at my university. It was called ‘Brave New Worlds.’ And the subtitle was ‘Who Decides?’ My small role in it was to interview a novelist named Michael Rogers who wrote a book called Email from the Future. It’s based on the world in 2084. It’s a utopian novel. We fix things. AI works. We fix the climate disaster. So my point to Michael was, ‘Oh my god, this is a utopia. All we see on TV are dystopias.’ I think what Jacques just gave us is a utopian future.

Drew Zeiba: The first time we met, Jacques, you had said that if we had these conversations six months or a year ago, it would have been very different. The public was becoming aware simultaneously of the impacts of AI and UFOs, and now there’s more discourse among people in Congress or in mainstream news outlets around UAPs or UFOs. With that in mind, have your views of the phenomena changed? What is missing from the mainstream discussion?

Jacques: What is happening is not at all what we thought would happen once there was recognition of the problem. We thought there would be an opening to the scientific community and the public. That’s not what’s happening. [Jeffrey and I] just came from a meeting [at the Esalen Institute] with a number of scientists who are involved, and have very high security clearances, on subjects that the public is not told about. And what the public is seeing [about UFOs] on television and in newspapers and on the internet is entirely driven by military concerns. We’re rushing into interpretations at various high levels, including Congress, on false data. It’s partial data behind multiple shields of secrecy. This is not disclosure. My wife and I have spent two months recently in France and England, where things are happening now because they are beginning to realize that the US has been lying.

We know it’s all politics. The group in Washington within the DoD that has been charged with looking at the problem, the AARO [All-domain Anomaly Resolution Office, a US government office founded in 2022 to investigate UFOs], it turns out, has signed a $2 million contract with a company that is concerned with rumor control—essentially to stop people from stirring up the public with the stories about what UFOs may be. So this is a signal to many of us that the subject is about to go into a new phase of secrecy. You are not going to know what is going to be found when the scientists in those projects are looking at cadavers of aliens that have been recovered. You’re not going to hear what has been found about the propulsion system of the eight or nine or 10 crafts that have been retrieved. And you’re not going to be hearing about the 90 percent of the data, which is mostly outside the United States and is not military data. So to me, the last six months have been a big backtracking. A number of my colleagues are leaving the field.

Drew: When you say there are alien cadavers, that there are propulsion systems, are you speaking figuratively? Or are you saying that you are under the belief or that you happen to know that there are, indeed, eight, nine, 10 crafts or that there are alien bodies?

Jacques: Well, what I’m saying is that, number one, there isn’t a disclosure. I mean, there is a recognition that the problem is real, which many of us have known for 50 years, because we were in touch with witnesses and with scientists who had the data. I don’t have the security clearance anymore, but I did for years. I know the phenomenon very well. When I’m in conferences, even the last few days at Esalen, we’re talking about the subject with people who… they’ve read books, they’ve done homework, they’ve listened to testimony, but they haven’t been on site. And they have only a vague appreciation of what’s going on in the rest of the world. So their view of the phenomenon is an American view. And that view is shielded by research which is done behind a veil of secrecy.

Drew: But I did want to fact-check: Are you saying that you are under the impression that the phenomenon may be extraterrestrial when you’re referring to…

Jacques: No, no, no. All the hypotheses are open. The phenomenon presents itself as a contact with space, in a large sense… with something outside of the Earth. That may be because everybody is expecting something in space. There is a new movement by American industry to go into space. And it’s a strategic move for the US, knowing that China essentially has the capability of doing the same thing very quickly. But that’s not what UFOs are. And when you speak to the witnesses, they are not describing something that comes from the sky. They are telling us that they’ve seen things disappear on the spot. We just had a seminar where people were talking about the speed of light and how long it would take to go to another star and so on. Yes, that’s all true if you believe in the physics of the 20th century. We’re not in the 20th century anymore. Why are we re-interpreting today’s data under the mold of either quantum mechanics or general relativity when we know that those two theories are partial theories and not theories [of everything]? And in the meantime, we have new observations that are important, and we’re ignoring them.

Coat by Prada.

Drew: What are some new observations? What’s in the new data, whether international or from the US?

Jacques: What I’m saying is that we’re using obsolete historical models, both in history and in science.

Jeffrey:  What I see in the UFO phenomenon is that people are always trying to reduce it, or to return it to something they understand, which in this case, happens to be physics. And I think that’s what you’re talking about, Jacques. Or it’s some kind of social mechanism. It fills some psychological or social function. So they want to reduce everything to nature or to society. But if you listen to the witnesses, what they’re experiencing cannot be reduced to what we think of as nature today or what we think of as society today. Something else is happening. To answer your earlier question, this is what’s missing in the discourse today. They’re not listening to the experiencers. We’re just going on and on about military threats and future technologies. In other words, we’re reducing it to our science and our technology and our politics.

Drew: At the same time, one wonders then why there’s all this secrecy around this 90 percent of data that we don’t have.

Jeffrey: I think the secrecy and the obfuscation stems from deep religious principles. People who compose the government or the military are coming from an evangelical kind of Christian perspective. They see things that are intervening in the world—things that can’t be fit into those categories—as bad. It becomes a threat, which is military speak for what we used to call a demon. I don’t operate with the idea that Christian theology is all-encompassing. Of course there are other dimensions of reality. Of course there are other forms of intelligence and life. And yes, they are impinging on us. I don’t want to reduce them to my particular culture or worldview because they can’t be. There’s a general sense that [the UFO experience] is somehow bad or sinister or even evil because it can’t be reduced to our categories or our understanding of the world. To me, I find that hopeful—I hope it can’t be. Because our world sucks. And we’re in big danger of doing major harm to the planet and to ourselves. So something better be intervening in that, even if it’s us, at the end of the day. Some other form of us that’s intervening to kick us out of this culture and this worldview we’re in at the moment.

Jacques: I remember Walter Cronkite on television saying [in the 1960s], ‘The subject is over. This is not something that the public should be concerned about. There may be something to it, but we’ll figure it out later.’ And now we’re told, ‘Guess what? The subject was real, so, because it was real, we’re going to classify it deeper than the atom bomb.’ That’s a reality that people have to come to grips with. So let’s write an article saying, ‘Look, people, let’s everybody enjoy the opening and so on.’ There ain’t going to be an opening. And I think Jeff is right. It’s going to land today not in the realm of science, nor the realm of sociology, and so on, but straight into religion, and there, whatever is going to happen is out of control.

Drew: You’ve also mentioned secrecy that sounds related to military-industrial contracts.

Jacques: In the international realm, which I know well, there is a reappraisal. Because we had started to exchange data about materials because materials are being recovered at all those sites. They can be taken to the lab and studied. I have those samples. We’ve studied them at Stanford, and we’re studying them in Paris. But now that’s going to stop. Because when people look at the US making everything secret, they assume that they have residue or samples or data that might give them an advantage in physics. Maybe we can discover anti-gravity by looking at those materials. And then that’s an industrial revolution. Everything that’s happened to humanity is going to be changed. So not only is there renewed secrecy in the US at a very high level, but internationally, the basic scientific data is no longer going to be shared.

We don’t understand the materials. When I did that survey, you could roughly separate [the materials] into two different categories. There were things that you could describe as slag and, very often, those materials are discarded before they come to a lab because people think it’s just some piece of iron or some piece of steel. When you look at it carefully, you find that it’s not regular steel, that it has some of the components of steel, and we’ve published a couple of interesting articles about that. So the composition is known. We’ve looked at the isotopes, and there was nothing strange or funny about them. They were just regular materials mixed in strange conditions, and that came to our attention in connection with real UFOs. This isn’t just a stone somebody found somewhere. The other material is light, silvery stuff. Powders, flimsy deposits of usually shiny, light materials, like aluminum, zinc, silver, in different combinations. We don’t know why there are these two different types. As we get more materials, we may find that, in fact, there are other categories that overlap with those two.

Jeffrey: There are lots of humanists and historians and philosophers and social scientists chomping at the bit on this one. There are thousands of these people in the academy who could study these things, but don’t or won’t, because they can’t get jobs or they can’t get promoted or tenured. We have the tools to study this in the humanities and anthropology and the social sciences. We can tell you all about what happens when a worldview changes. We can tell you all about when a superior technological culture meets a culture that doesn’t have the same level of tech. But no one’s listening. This is where the secrecy is a huge issue. Because you can’t study something that’s secret.

I think there are two different models of what’s happening. One is this government military-intelligence model, which is all about secrecy and what you can’t know and can’t do. But then there’s the witness or the experiencer model, which is human beings having these experiences that are very much a part of physical reality, but also extend beyond physical reality in really perplexing ways. And those two worldviews collide. And that’s the frustration you’re hearing in my voice. For goodness’ sake, let’s listen to the witnesses and the experiencers, because this does sound very familiar to me as a historian of religions, as someone who compares what happens to cultures, what happens to worldviews.

These witnesses and these experiencers, this isn’t just one tangential thing that happened to them, like eating an ice cream cone or something. This is the most important thing that ever happened in their entire lives, and probably to the species. They’re saying: ‘This changes reality in a fundamental way. Please listen to me. I don’t understand what’s going on.’ There’s something about this experience that wants to communicate itself, that wants to change our culture, that wants to change our worldview. And so let’s listen.

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