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Epistemic Injustice, (Un)reliable Knowers, and the Phenomenon

Exciting news for UAP researchers broke yesterday as former combat officer and veteran of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA), who served as the reconnaissance office’s representative to the UAP Task Force from 2019-2021, David Grusch spoke out regarding deeply covert programs recovering partial fragments and intact vehicles of non-human origin. I think this is potentially a major moment of disclosure, and I look forward to the conversations to follow.

To truly rigorously examine the UAP mystery, we will need the testimony of intelligence officers. We will also need the testimony and accounts of individual experiencers of UAP encounters and contact. I have previously argued that the phenomenological method, which takes into account everything that appears, is a worthy framework for examining UAP experiences, especially those that contain elements that challenge current scientific understandings. In order to proceed, we also have to recognize experiencers as credible knowers, and remedy aspects of epistemic injustice that experiencers have faced.

In her 2007 book Epistemic Injustice: Power and the Ethics of Knowing, Miranda Fricker identifies two types of epistemic injustice: testimonial injustice and hermeneutical injustice. In testimonial injustice, a speaker receives an unfair deficit of credibility from a hearer owing to prejudice on the hearer's part. In other words, based on aspects of the speaker’s identity, such as their race, gender, or disability status, their testimony is given less credibility, they are seen as unreliable knowers.

One may immediately object: experiencers are not disbelieved on the basis of their identities, rather based on the content of their claims. However the reason their claims are being dismissed is directly tied to the dominant discourses which prevail at the exclusion of others. These are concerns of epistemic justice, although they are more aligned with Fricker’s second type of injustice: hermeneutical injustice, in which our collective language and conceptual frameworks do not give certain groups the language and conceptual tools they need to explain and understand certain aspects of their experience. This is discussed in the context of oppressed groups, who are often denied the conceptual frameworks and language to describe key aspects of their experiences.

At the recent Archives of the Impossible conference, experiencer and director of the John E. Mack Institute Karin Austin spoke openly about her journey to share her story before ultimately meeting Dr. Mack. She describes her journey starting at SETI to NASA to the US government, to MUFON, to a hypnotherapist. Finding no relief at any of these venues, she found “the most open-minded therapist I could” only to have that therapist tell her she was experiencing temporary psychosis and hand her a prescription for an anti-psychotic.

Anastasia Philippa Scrutton identifies aspects of hermeneutical injustice that many who report atypical experiences face when interacting with our formalized institutions. Specifically, she argues that in many patient encounters, “experiences reported can be forced into an existing mold to the exclusion of other aspects of the experience.” Further, she writes, “In western society, the medical perspective is regarded not only as authoritative but often even as exclusive of other perspectives, such that medical diagnosis effectively constitutes a monopoly on the way the experience is interpreted,” (“Epistemic injustice and mental illness,” 349). When individuals who report experiences that challenge the dominant social ontologies are pathologized, and medical discourses are the only institutionally recognized ways of discussing the appearance of the extraordinary, this constitutes hermeneutical injustice.

For example, there is a long history of contact with ETs and other intelligent non-human entities in multiple Native American traditions. But these experiences and frameworks for discussing them are completely left out of the way anomalous encounters are discussed and treated in our formal institutions. Several authors rightfully point out that UAP and anomalous encounters challenge the barrier western society has so firmly placed between the material and spiritual/mental realms. Descartes was among the first to argue that the physical and the mental or spiritual were two entirely separate substances. Descartes himself failed to provide an explanation for how these two substances could interact, however the residue of Cartesian dualism remains. There is a strong conviction that the spiritual must be forever removed or separate from the physical, or else simply does not exist at all. This has led to the establishment of data received through the five senses and the scientific method as the only way for something to be considered “real.” This is an extremely damaging error. It is also not the case for many cultures around the world, who have long believed in the existence of “crossover phenomena” in which phenomena can emerge from a non-physical or quasi-physical realm to penetrate our physical reality.

This hermeneutical injustice leads to instances of testimonial injustice, in which experiencers are classified as unreliable knowers due to having their experiences pathologized. If experiencers are members of marginalized groups, this compounds the testimonial injustice.

The domination of the natural sciences as the only legitimate authority for determining the boundaries of what is and is not “real” excludes and marginalizes other forms of knowing and being in the world. In order to have your experience validated in mainstream western society, you are required to use the conceptual tools of classical physics and the natural sciences. The problem is, psychiatric explanations that pathologize what has occurred do not sufficiently account for the experience, and experiencers know this.

For example, Mack notes that while there are physical phenomena that accompany the abduction experience, the effects are often subtle and would not convince a Western-trained clinician of their meaning. “For example, even though abductees are certain that the cuts, scars, scoop marks, and small fresh ulcers are related to the physical procedures performed on the ships, these lesions are usually too trivial by themselves to be medically significant,” (Abduction, 41). He goes on to mention that many abductees mention that electronic devices malfunction in their presence following abductions (a finding confirmed by Kenneth Ring in The Omega Project), but it is almost impossible to prove that this is related to the abduction phenomenon, or even that it has occurred at all. Here we have phenomena that are not explainable through psychiatric explanations, but do not meet the threshold of proof that western scientists and practitioners desire for them to be validated in our institutionally sanctioned pathways. Thus the experiencer is caught in an “in between” in which there are no socially and institutionally recognized discourses that can meaningfully discuss their experience.

Part of the process of taking the phenomenon seriously, and studying it from all its angles with all tools available to us, is recognizing experiencers as reliable, credible knowers who have something important and significant to share. At least two things are needed: we need to stop immediately attributing credibility deficits to someone who reports an experience that violates existing social ontologies, and second, we need to allow conceptual frameworks and discourses liberated from the residue of Cartesian dualism, so that we all have the conceptual tools available to discuss and articulate what has occurred and is occurring. This will be a massive undertaking, but I think a good place to start is by challenging ourselves and others to ask what we mean when we pose the question of whether or not something is real. This must be reserved for the topic of a future post, but a re-establishing of the imaginal realm as a worthy topic of academic discourse would also be a step in the right direction.

Recognizing and understanding that there are more than one way for something to be real, and rejecting medicalization as the only institutionally recognized way of discussing the extraordinary, is an important starting point to establishing the validity and importance of these experiences, and honoring experiencers as credible knowers. This does not mean that we give up being rigorously questioning, or that we stop responsibly differentiating individuals who may be suffering from serious psychopathology. It does mean that we must challenge dominant ontologies that are ultimately to the detriment of understanding the complexity of the phenomenon.

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