Alien Experience and the Religious Argument from Testimony

Alien Experience and the Religious Argument from Testimony

Purported miracles and the testimonies concerning them are essential to many religious traditions. They can not only define a religion’s conceptual content, but can also serve as evidence for that content. For example, consider the following early Christian credal formulation recited by St. Paul:

“Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you… For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that the appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles” (1 Cor 15:1-7 ESV).

Note how Paul defines the content of his message (i.e. that Jesus died, was buried, and rose again) in terms of a testimony that has been passed down to him. This testimony serves not only to define his message, but also to evidentially support it. If one wanted to challenge Paul’s gospel (as many in his day were doing), he could point out that many had seen the resurrected Christ and were willing to bear witness to what they saw.  

In its most naïve formulation, the argument from testimony would look something like the following:

1) x is a trustworthy person.

2) x claims to have seen F.

3) Therefore, there is prima facie reason to believe that F.

We frequently make these kinds of arguments in our everyday life. For example:

  • 1) My roommate is generally honest. 2) He tells me that the power is out at the apartment. 3) Therefore, I have reason to believe that the power is out at the apartment.
  • 1) My co-worker is not a liar. 2) He tells me that there is a great lunch special at the nearby noodle house. 3) Therefore, I have reason to believe that the noodle house has a lunch special. Etc.

Of course, things get trickier in the religious case. After all, it is one thing to use testimony as evidence that there is great deal on noodles nearby, and quite another to use it as evidence that someone rose from the dead. Because the latter strikes us as out of the ordinary, further evidence appears to be needed. Perhaps, for example, it is necessary to examine possible defeaters for the reliability of the witness. If so, the argument would need to be strengthened by showing that the witness was of sound mind and character (e.g. not insane or a con-artist) and that there were no likely grounds for illusion in the environment. The argument could then be further strengthened to appealing to other trustworthy witnesses. This is all well worn ground in religious epistemology and I will not attempt to rehash the arguments here.[1] In what follows, I will not attempt to evaluate the epistemic virtues and vices of the argument from testimony. I will, however, attempt to extend this argument to a different domain of contemporary culture: the purported experience of UFOs and aliens.

1. Similarities to the Religious Argument

The similarities between the religious argument from testimony and the arguments from the testimonies of those who purport to have experienced UFOs and aliens first struck me upon reading the works of John Mack.[2] John Mack, a psychiatrist, was initially a dogmatic naturalist, but he later abandoned that worldview in light of his interactions with people who purported to have been in contact with aliens. Dogmatic naturalism maintains that material reality is the only reality, that this reality operates under a closed system of natural laws, and that, as a result, consciousness is a mere byproduct of the brain. Mack notes that he was initially incredulous of his clients’ reports, since the events recounted therein—such as shape shifting, floating through solid objects, telepathically communicating, and possessing a dual human-alien identity—“simply could not be”[3] within his naturalistic perspective. But, as he kept working with his clients, he began to not only countenance the possibility of such experiences but also to question his previous worldview. The reasons he offers for moving away from dogmatic naturalism and towards a more spiritual conception of reality closely mirror traditional religious arguments from testimony.

For ease of designation, I will henceforth call the religious argument from testimony RT and the alien experiencers argument from testimony ET. As Mack articulates it, ET displays several parallels to RT. First, Mack observes that his clients presented a consistent narrative, even though they had no prior contact with each other and the details of their accounts had not yet been portrayed in the media or popular press.[4] Since the experiencers could neither copy each other’s stories nor adopt them from the wider culture, Mack contends that the best explanation for the consistency of their accounts is that they really encountered what they claim to have encountered. As in the case of the religious argument from testimony, this inference is rooted in our everyday epistemic practices. For example, if multiple people who don’t know each other were to report that there is a traffic jam on the freeway when that announcement has not yet been broadcast on the news, it seems plausible to think that there is in fact a traffic jam on the freeway. It seems that the consistency of the witnesses’ testimony is best explained by their direct experience of the traffic jam. Similarly, Mack argues that experiencers all report a common story involving early childhood alien contact, transport into a ship, invasive medical and reproductive experiments, and the reception of information about the fate of the earth. Since they had no knowledge of each other’s stories or access to these accounts through other sources, Mack suggests that the consistency of their accounts is best explained by their actually having had such experiences.

As in the case of RT, the skeptic is likely to object to ET at this point and contend that given the extraordinary nature of their claims, further evidence for the reliability of the witnesses is needed. These people may, after all, be insane or lying for some reason. But, just like the advocate of RT, Mack attempts to rebut these objections to ET by noting that “none of the experiencers seemed psychiatrically disturbed…There was little to suggest that their stories were delusional, a misinterpretation of  dreams, or the product of fantasy.”[5] Likewise, he concludes that there is little reason to think they are lying. They had come forth only “reluctantly, and feared the discrediting of their accounts or outright ridicule that they had encountered in the past.”[6] According to Mack’s evaluation none of them “seemed like people who would concoct a strange story for personal gain or purpose.”[7] Thus, if Mack’s professional assessment of their character is correct there is no reason to impugn their testimony on these grounds.

In addition, Mack attempts to bolster ET by pointing to the intense emotions experienced by the witnesses. Like the advocate of RT, Mack argues that these intense emotions seem so powerful that they could not be faked. He reports:

“The intensity of the energies and emotions involved as abductees relive their experiences is unlike anything I have encountered in other clinical work.”[8] “The terror, rage, grief, and, on a few occasions, joy expressed during my sessions with experiencers are among the most powerful I have ever witnessed. For me and others who have attended the sessions, as well as for the abductees themselves, it is this intensity of recovered emotion that lends inescapable authenticity to the phenomena. Something, everyone who goes through these sessions agrees, has happened to these people, whether or not it is possible to identify the source of what occurred.”[9]

So not only are these witnesses of sound mind and character with little motivation to lie, but they also speak with more emotional veracity than others. This then, according to Mack, provides further grounds for believing their testimony.

In light of his interaction with these witnesses, Mack was ultimately convinced by ET and abandoned dogmatic naturalism as a result. He explains:  

“My own view of a secular universe, devoid of consciousness and intelligence ‘beyond the brain’ (Grof 1985), gave way little by little over several decades and now seems quite absurd. But it happened because I had what was, for me, incontrovertible experiential evidence of a transcendent reality, and I also received a huge amount of data from clients that was contrary to my worldview and for which I have been unable to find a conventional material or psychological explanation.”[10]

In this manner, Mack seems to articulate and accept something very similar to a traditional religious argument from testimony.

2. Differences from the Religious Argument

While RT and ET are strikingly similar, there are nonetheless some noteworthy differences between them. One key difference between Mack’s formulation of ET and traditional formulations of RT concerns their content. Standard formulations of RT appeal to experiences of the mystical or miraculous to validate an established doctrine, whereas ET has no traditional doctrinal core to appeal to. As a result, the claims ET is meant to establish are much more general. They tend to, at most, call on us to abandon hardline materialism, since the experiences testified to “do not respect the epistemological and ontological walls that we have erected between the unseen realms of the cosmos and ourselves.”[11] Mack does try to add a bit more specificity to this content, but it nonetheless remains general. For example, Mack believes that these experiences challenge our “exclusive concentration on the material world, whose extreme manifestation is unbridled consumerism, has resulted in the virtual atrophy of the capacity to perceive or experience the exquisite and awesome beauty, magnificence, and transcendent power of these other dimensions.”[12] And while he does think that the events testified to in ET can only be made sense of under the assumption of an ultimate creative intelligence, the nature of this intelligence is left unspecified.[13]

Although ET does not have a concrete doctrine, it does point to a concrete connection to the earth. This constitutes the second major difference between RT and ET. For the ET argument testifies to the importance of the environment and warns of an impending ecological collapse. Experiencers are often shown “images of planetary destruction,”[14] beholding “scenes of the earth devastated by the nuclear holocaust, vast panoramas of lifeless polluted landscapes and waters, and apocalyptic images of giant earthquakes, firestorms, floods, and even fractures of the planet itself.”[15] While other religions speak in general terms about the goodness of creation, the visions attested to by experiencers seem much more concrete and emphatic. Even the complicated claims about alien-human hybrids occur against the backdrop of an impending ecological disaster. Mack reports that “abductees are repeatedly informed that the hybrid project is related to the perilous state of the Earth’s ecology and is being conducted for the purpose of preserving both the human and alien species.”[16]

The third important difference between RT and ET concerns the lack of control attested to in the latter. Because RT arguments appeal to a pre-established doctrinal framework, there are certain assumptions that can be made about the entities in question. This is not the case for the kinds of experiences pointed out by the ET argument. Indeed, one of the key components of these experiences is an awareness of a lack of control. One experiencer reports “I feel powerless, and I feel like they can get me and do whatever they want to me practically any time, and I can’t do anything about it. And that’s a very terrifying thought.”[17] Another admits to the powerlessness of traditional dogma as follows, “no matter what he might believe, ‘no matter how good I am,’ those beliefs would offer him no protection from energies that might ‘crush’ him.”[18] This feeling of powerlessness even occurs for those who had extensive training in engaging with the unseen world in their religious traditions. For example, one shaman claims that these beings “possess a different energy and a higher standard of knowledge than the ancestor spirits and other beings with which he is familiar and with whom he has felt a degree of mastery. They bring to him a powerful ‘spirit force’ that he cannot control… His connection with them has brought him so far beyond his previous understanding that he has come to believe ‘that all I have learned, all the suffering moments of being a shaman—it was useless.”[19] Others have gone on to claim that experiences were a “terror absolute”, an “annihilating catastrophe of spirit.”[20] Though clearly traumatic, this experience is not entirely negative, since many claim that these extreme emotions have opened up spiritual doorways[21] and have led them to personal growth and transcendence.[22]

Finally, ET experiences unlike RT experiences are characterized by what Mack calls ontological shock. While Mack is not always clear as to the meaning of this term—sometimes equating it with the denial of dogmatic naturalism and other times identifying it with the tendency to overturn any previously held belief system—its distinguishing feature appears to concern the radical disruption of our normal bodily experience of the world. Ordinarily, we encounter the world through our phenomenological body schema. We have a set of pre-reflective bodily habits by which we orient ourselves in the world and these profoundly influence our experience of space and time.[23] All of this appears to be disrupted in alien encounters. Witnesses report being pulled into “another reality of great vividness” in which they have drastically different experiences “of time, space, and dimensionality.”[24] They claim that “linear time/ space is contained within the greater perspective, but not vice versa”[25] and describe this experience as one in which a veil is lifted to reveal the true nature of reality.[26] Witnesses also report that their bodies are altered by the powerful energies they encounter. They claim to encounter intense “light, heat, sound, rapid movement, and acceleration.” One of them reports that the top of her head would feel like “molten gold” and claims that it was “like a hard-drive tune up, and then new software put in.”[27] She describes this “blowing out the nervous system” as an “electroconvulsive therapy”.[28] Another experiencer describes the process more gently, “like you are being given a gift, like a birthday present… [like] your body is finally awake. I believe we walk around in a sleeping condition a lot of us. It’s like our cells are asleep. They are not as joyful as they could be.”[29] Others associate the process with intense vibrations that shift the body down to its cellular level and describe it as a cleansing.[30] As a result of these energetic shifts witnesses claim to have various abilities such as telepathy,[31] healing powers,[32] astral travel,[33] and mediumship of a higher consciousness.[34] Some experiencers even come to have an awareness that they have a dual identities as aliens themselves.[35] While the experiences reported in traditional RT arguments may include various mystical components, none of them appear to alter the phenomenological body schema to the degree reported in  ET.

3. Conclusion

In conclusion, I find ET to be an interesting argument and deserving of further consideration. My hunch is that if RT is epistemically permissible, then so is ET, since the dissimilarities between them do not appear to undermine its epistemic standing. Admittedly, further work is required in order to bear out this hunch though. Another worthwhile question is whether ET should be classified as a subcategory of RT and the advocates of ET as adherents of an emerging religion. Mack himself, for example, concludes Passport to the Cosmos with a plea worthy of a preacher:

“Perhaps it is that we have found ourselves at a fork in the road, and we are once again faced with making a choice. Couldn’t we this time, finally, make the right one? Couldn’t we simply reach out and embrace this experience and all that it brings with it, including the terror as well as the questions, truth and beauty? Because don’t you think in doing so, we would at last learn about who and what we are? And isn’t it possible that we just might learn what it is exactly that is the nature of the connection to the Creator as well as the universe? Please, can’t we this once choose the path that will finally set us free? Free to love, laugh and cry? Because after all, it is our ultimate destiny to live in the joy of being alive.”[36]

Peter Yong, Ph.D.


[1] See, for example, Swinburne’s, The Existence of God, Alston’s, Perceiving God, and Hume’s Of Miracles (Section 10 of Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding).

[2] He develops his argument in Abduction: Human Encounters with Aliens and Passport to the Cosmos: Human Transformation and Alien Encounters.

[3] Mack, Abduction, 1.

[4] Mack, Abduction, 1.

[5] Mack, Abduction, 2.

[6] Mack, Abduction, 1.

[7] Mack, Abduction, 2.

[8] Mack, Abduction, 3.

[9] Mack, Abduction, 400.

[10] Mack, Passport to the Cosmos, 64.

[11] Mack, Passport, 309.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Mack, Passport, 312.

[14] Mack, Passport, 123.

[15] Mack, Abduction, 125.

[16] Mack, Passport, 155.

[17] Mack, Abduction, 149

[18] Mack, Passport, 245.

[19] Mack, Passport, 186.

[20] Mack, Passport, 244.

[21] Mack, Passport 246.

[22] Mack, Passport, 250-251.

[23] See Merleau-Ponty, The Phenomenology of Perception.

[24] Mack, Passport, 82.

[25] Mack, Passport, 83.

[26] Mack, Passport, 89.

[27] Mack, Passport, 96.

[28] Mack, Passport, 97. See also Abduction, 179.

[29] Mack, Passport, 98.

[30] Mack, Passport, 101-103.

[31] Mack, Passport, 100.

[32] Mack, Passport, 103. Abduction, 320.

[33] Mack, Abduction, 173.

[34] Mack, Abduction, 218.

[35] Mack, Abduction, 91-94, 174, 218, 232, 254, 320.

[36] Mack, Passport, 320-321.

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