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Review of James D. Madden, "Unidentified Flying Hyperobjects"

Updated: Apr 9


James D. Madden, Unidentified Flying Hyperobject:

UFOs, Philosophy, and the End of the World. Ontocalypse Press, 2023. 142 pages. Index.


Reviewed by Michael E. Zimmerman


            This well-written, provocative, and insightful book (UFH, for short) shows what can happen when an academic philosopher tackles the metaphysical, epistemological, perceptual, and cultural challenges posed by UFOs. Professor James D. Madden brings into the UFO conversation classical philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle, modern thinkers like Nietzsche and Heidegger, contemporary philosophers of mind such as Andy Clark and David Chalmers, and literary theorist Timothy Morton. While providing a guided tour of different thinkers, eras, and conceptual frameworks, his narrative moves toward hyperobjects, control structures, modern technology, and the need/occasion for human transformation. Evidently an outstanding teacher, Madden has written a text accessible to serious readers who do not have to be experts in philosophy. The table of contents offers a chapter-by-chapter summary that is invaluable if you return to the book after setting it aside (as I reluctantly had to do) for a day or two. I highly recommend this book to new as well as to long-term students of UFOs willing to stretch their views about what constitutes “reality.” Philosophers writing about the UFO should encourage our colleagues to look into the matter for themselves, although with the caveat that they may become more interested in the matter than they had anticipated.

            Madden reports that he was persuaded to investigate UFOs by the 2017 New York Times story about a secret, multimillion-dollar DoD study about UFOs (and other anomalous phenomena, as it turned out). During his research, he read religious studies professor Diana Pasulksa’s well-received book, American Cosmic, which raised important issues that he decided to explore from a philosophical perspective.

            At the outset of UFH, Madden invites readers to step back and ask: How might the limits of human cognition and experience shape our interpretation of UFOs? Philosophers pay special attention to cognition, because it is the instrument by which philosophical investigation is carried out. In an extraordinarily complex and hierarchically nested universe, Madden notes, finite human cognition must constantly simplify and ignore matters that are either irrelevant to ordinary human life or fail to conform with acceptable topics for conversation.  Given human suspicion of the unknown, reports of anomalous phenomena—such as UFOs, fairies, ghosts, clairvoyance, NDEs and so on—have often been either ignored or shunned. As Rice University professor Jeff Kripal reminds us, we prefer a tidy world that has no place for “supernatural” phenomena. Like Kripal, however, Madden maintains that some anomalous phenomena may offer glimpses of higher or levels--or at least different domains--of nature than are ordinarily accessible to us. Hence, we should pay attention to the potential significance of such super natural encounters.

            As Madden reminds us, Plato’s famous allegory of the cave contrasts human ignorance with the far superior knowledge available to those who have been somehow freed (at least temporarily) from their bondage in the cave and who reach the surface, where they gradually gain intellectual and spiritual insights, all of which are illuminated by a sun so bright it cannot be gazed upon directly. Former prisoners who return to the cave in hopes of sharing their newfound insight are told to keep such ideas to themselves. Soon enough the hard-won insight fades from memory. Plato indicates that wisdom arises from recalling what we once knew but have since forgotten.

            Madden updates Plato’s cave allegory in terms of early 20th century naturalist Jakob von Uexküll’s concept of Umwelt or “surrounding world.”[1] Von Uexküll argued that an organism’s Umwelt is limited to features detected by the organism’s sensory apparatus. If it cannot be sensed, it doesn’t exist for the organism, which goes through life as if nothing were missing. Likewise, the human organism’s sensory apparatus, language, and cognition carve out our Umwelt in which can appear medium-sized objects that concern us, from people to food. These not-too-big and not-too-small entities constitute the “Goldilocks ontology” of the human Umwelt. As is the case with other organisms, we assume nothing is missing from our view of things, despite being reminded (for example) that our eyes detect only a thin layer of the electromagnetic spectrum needed for visual perception. Moreover, additional sense organs might detect and generate ideas about unknown entities outside our Umwelt. To refer to such features that transcend our limited Umwelt, which he often uses synonymously with Plato’s cave, Madden uses the term Uber-Umwelt, that is, the world beyond our own.  

            Madden suggests that when our Umwelt intersects with the Uber-Umwelt, UFOs sometimes show up in our Umwelt. To flesh out this proposal, he calls on idea of a hyperobject developed by literature scholar Timothy Morton.[2] The hyperobject offers a way of framing and conceiving systemic processes that are complex, vast, and lengthy, thus equally difficult to notice, comprehend and influence, as in the case of anthropogenic climate change. In 1972 James Lovelocke identified such a hyperobject (before the term was coined) as Gaia, the (still somewhat controversial) idea that a self-regulating system generated by terrestrial life keeps in homeostasis the physical planetary conditions (such as climate) necessary for life. Madden also regards the Manhattan project as a hyperobject within the even vaster hyperobject we call World War II. Seemingly transcending the control or responsibility of individuals, such hyperobjects run us, as Robert Oppenheimer came to see. Here, one may also think of capitalism or the nuclear arms race. Perhaps humankind itself constitutes its own kind of hyperobject, which we can comprehend but dimly within the confines of our Umwelt.

            Madden makes the “wildly speculative” proposal that we may be dealing not “with the UFOs, but with THE UFO. Maybe THE UFO is a singular hyperobject that we can only encounter at its edges….” (UFH, 74) Calling this hyperobject Magonia (from Vallée’s Passport to Magonia), Madden hypothesizes that where Magonia intersects with our Umwelt, there can occur sightings of UFOs. These may appear as structured craft operating with apparent intentionality, but often behaving in bizarre ways that invite dismissal—except for the fact that those sightings often provoke transformational awe and wonder and fear. Magonia might somehow include some other anomalous phenomena such as aliens, angels, Bigfoot, fairies, ghosts, Dogman, and more that are frequently associated with UFO sightings. Such a hyperobject may be compatible with “continuum hypothesis” proposed by Richard Rojcewicz, John Keel, and several others, who suggest that there is a family resemblance among many anomalous phenomena.[3]Of course, there may be good reason to keep primary focus on UFOs for the time being.

            Humankind may unknowingly be a constituent Magonia, which may regulate our cognitive and symbolic functions via what Vallée calls the control structure in order to maintain itself. (UFH, 86) Having already enlisted Plato and Aristotle early in his book, Madden now suggests that “we might do well to revisit Plato’s notion of a world soul in the Timaeus, according to which the universe is a living organism composed of a hierarchy of lower level living beings.” (UFH, 87) The world soul may be involved in regulating the levels of the world, including the material plane inhabited by humans who tend to trigger perturbations in the order of things. If Magonia (and we as elements of it) can be conceived as a dimension of this hierarchical Great Chain of Being, this would be step toward re-enchanting the world in a way that draws on insights from modern science as well as from ancient teachings. Ideally, the increasing involvement of academics in UFOs studies may allow for philosophy and religious studies professors to team with physicists, biologists, and Earth scientists in order to explore such outside-the box possibilities. Such an opportunity is encouraged by a massive 2022 study, “Intelligence as a planetary scale process,” published in the International Journal of Astrobiology from Cambridge University.[4] (It should be noted that, among other things, Plato’s kosmos was incomparably smaller than today’s immense universe. Perhaps if we consider the Earth itself, or even the solar system as a hyperobject, the scale problem could be finessed.)

            Human detonation of atomic weapons in 1945 and the subsequent nuclear arms race may have irritated Magonia, thereby triggering an immunological response in the form massive reports of UFO sightings aimed at dissuading use of atomic weapons that could damage the biosphere, which may be as important to Magonia as it is to us. Fortunately, the terrifying postwar arms race ended without nuclear war due to a completely unexpected development: the collapse of the USSR in 1991. (The possibility that almost fifty years of voluminous, worldwide UFO encounters influenced this outcome might be a worthy research topic.)

            In post-1945 America, some high-ranking officers in the US military regarded UFOs as high-tech, non-human aircraft against which the US had no defense, an unhappy conclusion that eventually prompted official efforts to debunk UFOs publicly so as to persuade citizens that UFOs were not a threat. In American Cosmic: UFOs Religion, Technology, Pasulka shows that in the early 1950s there began to arise new religions proposing to explain the origin and purpose of the UFOs: they are ET craft with advanced technology that can solve many terrestrial problems and enable us one day to become God-like space voyagers. In Messengers of Deception (1979) Vallée writes that belief in the ET origins of UFOs is promoted by certain groups of people who are responsible for advertising UFO contact, for circulating faked photos (often connection with genuine sightings), for interfering with witnesses and researchers, and for generating systematic ‘disinformation’ about the phenomenon.[5] We may find that they belong, or have access, to military, media, and government circles. In these games it is not clear which side is infiltrating the other. [6]

            The sort of UFO PsyOps mentioned above have found their way into many films and TV shows over the decades. As Pasulka notes in American Cosmic, the human mind receives powerful cinematic images as if they were real events, as exemplified by a film such as Close Encounters of the Third Kind.[7] In Silver Screen Saucers, the late Robbie Graham demonstrates that intelligence and military officials were often willing to be “technical advisors” for countless film promoting the ET perspective on UFOs.[8] In American Cosmic as well as in Encounters: Experiences with Non-Human Intelligence [9], Pasulka (like Vallée) maintains that UFO encounters  can trigger potent spiritual/religious/metaphysical experiences that may open the way to significant evolution of human consciousness in decades to come. She indicates that the emergence of AGI may constitute the next stage of terrestrial spirituality and intelligence. Sorting out genuine and potentially history-altering UFO encounters from PsyOps is not easy. This is why those who start delving into the UFO phenomenon often conclude that it is a hall of mirrors that defies efforts to sort out fact from fiction.

            Madden shows that Pasulka—like Vallée—affirms that some UFOs exhibit a physical dimension, thus making her a UFO “realist.” Conceding that ETs may be responsible for nuts-and-bolts craft, she nonetheless favors Vallée’s contention that UFOs are most likely not from other star system, although he does not exclude this possibility.  As possible explanations of where UFOs come from, Madden mentions the ultraterrestrial or cryptoterrestrial hypothesis, according to which UFOs are attributable to ancient but unknown human ancestors who generate staged, enigmatic, and symbolic UFO encounters as a “control structure” to influence human development via religion, mythology, and deep levels of the human psyche.[10] Although this hypothesis explains some things (such as the fact that alleged ETs can breathe our air and create hybrids with humans) other issues remain unexplained, for instance, where do these ancestors happen to dwell? Another hypothesis proposes that UFOs are piloted by time-traveling humans returning from distant future in order to obtain something they need, such as healthy DNA. Although physics suggests that time travel is theoretically possible, the obstacles to doing so are immense.

            A nuts-and-bolts ET belief system may reflect the prevalence of a technological understanding of reality, as articulated by philosophers such as Martin Heidegger. American Cosmic begins and ends with reference to Heidegger, a fact meant to remind readers of Heidegger’s influence on the text. According to Pasulka, some people might call on the myth of Prometheus to illuminate Heidegger’s apparently gloomy view of modern technology. Prometheus was a titan who out of pity for humankind stole fire (which enables metallurgy and symbolizes technology) from Zeus and gave it to humankind. Zeus, the principal god of the ancient Greek pantheon. was angered because human technology might eventually threaten the status of the gods, so he punished Prometheus severely by chaining him eternally to a rock where every day an eagle (symbol of Zeus) would devour his liver, which would regenerate overnight. For the Greeks, the liver was regarded as the seat of emotions.

            The punishment imposed by Prometheus for what he regarded as a good deed is sometimes viewed as a foreshadowing of the dire consequences befalling a humanity that has become too enamored of technology.[11] Here one may recall the mythical Greek architect and craftsman Daedalus who fashioned artificial wings so that he and his son Icarus could escape from the island of Crete, ruled by the fearsome king Minos. Despite his father’s warnings, during the flight Icarus flew too close to the sun, which melted the wax holding together his wings, thus causing him to plummet into the sea and drown.

            Pasulka suggests that a deeper reading of Heidegger might reveal a resonance between Heidegger and Vallée regarding the threat posed by modern technology. Madden provides just such a deeper reading, of which I can provide but the briefest outline. Heidegger famously states that the essence of technology is nothing technical. Instead, the essence of technology is a remarkable powerful yet simultaneously constricted mode of revealing things in the modern Umwelt. Today, for something “to be” means for it to show up primarily as raw material to be transformed by stored-up energy as a moment in the vast technical apparatus—from factories to airplanes to computers—that pervades the planet. Humankind has become the most important raw material as the personnel needed to devise and manage the ever-expanding technological empire that seemingly has become an end in itself.

            Nietzsche made famous the idea of Will to Power, which Heidegger reads as follows: To will power means never to be content with the stage of power that has been attained, but instead to turn that stage into the platform required to reach the next stage. The essence of the Will to Power, then, is the sheer Will to Will. This is exemplified in the current moment when it is assumed that large-language models of AI are quickly passing trends, rapidly to be superseded by ever more powerful computers that will culminate in the Singularity, that moment when humankind is not only left far, far beyond by computational intelligence.

Günther Anders, one of Heidegger’s best students, wrote in the 1950s that humankind is making itself obsolete.[12] Moreover, just as Prometheus was punished for giving humankind the fire of technology, we ourselves are pinning ourselves onto a rock of our own making, atomic warfare—and now AGI, some predict.  According to Heidegger, even more threatening than atomic weapons is the prospect that humankind will end up losing its essential nature, that is, our capacity to disclose the being of entities, and decline into clever animality. In effect, this would amount to ontological damnation.

            Vallée’s recent, co-authored book, Trinity: The Best-Kept Secret, maintains that a UFO crashed and was recovered by Army authorities in summer 1945 shortly after the first atomic bomb was detonated only twenty miles away in the New Mexico desert. According to Vallée, this event reveals the entwinement of UFOs, atomic weapons, and the fate of humankind. Although critics question the veracity of witnesses to the alleged crash, Vallée’s philosophical points retain their validity. We have become so overwhelmed with the technological way of disclosing things, he maintains, that UFOs can show up for us only as high-tech devices piloted by ETs. We can’t wait to retro-engineer fallen spaceships to enhance our drive for total mastery over nature—including over human nature. If Vallée and Heidegger are right, however, what’s needed is a measure of releasement from this compulsion to dominate, a compulsion that is seemingly promoting our own literal and essential demise. As Heidegger emphasizes, there have been other prevailing modes of disclosure prior to the present technological mode. Hence our own historical era, a destiny visited upon us, will eventually pass away. Humankind cannot initiate on its own a post-technological mode of disclosure, at least according to Heidegger. The paradox is that the more we demand it, the more we reinforce the will at work in technological post/modernity. Here, I recall the Chinese webbed fingercuffs that I played with as a child: Pulling the fingers of your hands apart only tightens the grip of the cuffs. Instead of pulling your hands apart, you—counterintuitively--must push them together, thereby loosening cuffs’ grip on your fingers. Madden writes:

[Vallée] sees in the UFO the message that we are not in complete control of our cognitive lives, and that is the Message of the UFO. Vallée shares Heidegger’s anti-humanism inasmuch as he sees in the UFO a sign that humanity does not have exclusive control over its destiny; our thinking is controlled by some “higher essence.” The UFO, which comes to us in our greatest self-imposed danger, can inspire in us the humility to listen again to what Magonia may have to tell us. Thus, Vallée seems to take the UFO as a sign of both our greatest danger and our only hope. The latter, however, can speak to us, only if we learn the hard lessons of humility. (UFH, 133)

            Just as Vallée suggests that UFOs may remind us of what we have forgotten, so Heidegger indicates that participating in simple things may allow for such needed recollection. Despite some significant differences, which I cannot go into here, these two thinkers are in synch about some crucial matters. Echoing Vallée, Madden remarks: “Maybe the UFO can jog our memory of the world of the dead, now when we need to recollect the most.” (UFH, 136) According to Heidegger, mortality is not a deficit but the essence of our humanity. Things can reveal themselves to us only because we exist as a finite clearing, one that allows our lives and everything else to matter. Hence, Heidegger maintains that authentic existence requires owning your own mortality, a concept calling to mind Socrates remark in Plato’s Phaedo that philosophy is preparation for death. Joshua Cutchins argues that encounters with UFOs and aliens may play the role of psychopomps (spiritual guides) to the afterlife.[13] The yearning for a technology-enabled, ersatz immortality, which motivates much of transhumanism and techno-posthumanism, may be deeply misguided. However potent computers may become, presumably they cannot break down the gates of heaven. Modern science and the latest telescopes and microscopes reveal a cosmos of infinite breadth, but what has been neglected is its perhaps infinite depth, an aspect of which Carl Jung had in mind by the vast reach of the collective unconscious. More about such vital matters must be postponed until another occasion.

            In closing I would like to raise the following issues.  Morton’s concept of the hyperobject was criticized for overreach.[14] If virtually anything can be a hyperobject, the concept loses its capacity to distinguish. Having gone out on a limb with the hyperobject concept, Madden shows that it can do some useful conceptual work, although the hyperobject from which UFOs ostensibly emerge remains something of a black box. I wonder if thinkers like Madden and Vallée suggest that the black box of Magonia is now and has been affecting us in powerful ways. Arguably, one such way is to remind us of how finite is our knowledge of the cosmos and ourselves, despite extraordinary technical achievements such as hydrogen bombs and rapidly accelerating AI. A key aspect of UFO craft as aspects of the control structure may be that we are not yet ready to understand or retro-engineer them. They may remain an enduring reminder of our limitations, our finitude, a reminder that may summon the humility needed to step beyond our mortal moment, as so many spiritual traditions affirm.

            Heidegger’s relative lack of concern about the merely physical consequences of atomic warfare is worthy of mention. Obliterating life on the planet would be disastrous, he concedes, but an even greater loss would occur if humankind lost its capacity for disclosing entities. For Heidegger, for something “to be” means for it to reveal itself within the clearing opened through human existence. But do not other life forms hold open clearings of their own, however limited? In lectures from 1929-30, Heidegger asserted that animals do have limited clearings or worlds of their own, compared to which the human world—enriched by logos—is far more expansive.[15] Soon, however, as David E. Storey has argued, he pulled back from this view, which allowed for animal experience or interiority.[16] Instead, he emphasized the difference between the animal and the human in part perhaps because a version of social Darwinism was used to promote Nazism’s biological racism and racial thinking.  By denying that animals are endowed with interiority, however, he risks becoming entangled with those modernists who conceive of animals as being organic machines.

            Contemporary digital technology has led serious people to propose that humans live not in a base-level physical/biological cosmos, but instead in a digital simulation of such a cosmos, produced and sustained by an unknown source.[17] Our simulated cosmos may exist inside of yet another such simulated cosmos. Perhaps those in charge of digitally generated worlds would be readily capable of introducing into such worlds UFOs and other anomalous phenomenon. Many hyperobjects are assumed to exist within the base-level, physically constituted, ever-evolving cosmos presupposed by modern science. If we live in a computer simulation, however, what could we say about its source? Would it not be a category mistake to speak of that source as the Uber-Uber-Umwelt. Would “Creator” be a plausible name? The simulation hypothesis opens a host of questions that philosophers enjoy discussing, especially with a glass of wine after dinner in our often cozy, but anomalies-prone Umwelt.



          [1] In his 1927 book Being and Time (Sein und Zeit), Martin Heidegger drew on von Uxküell’s Umwelt concept to help developed his own idea of human existence as “being-in-the-world” (In-der-Welt-sein).

           [2] Timothy Morton, Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology at the End of the World. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2013.

           [3] Peter M. Rojcewicz “The Extraordinary Encounter Continuum Hypothesis and Its Implications for Studying Belief Materials,” 1986. 

          [4] Support for planet Earth as an intelligent hyperobject comes from a striking (and massive) new study published by International Journal of Astrobiology: “Intelligence as a planetary scale process” by Adam Frank, David Grinspoon and Sara Walker, February 7, 2024.

            [5] D. W. Pasulka, American Cosmic: UFOs, Religion, Technology. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2019.

            [6] Jacques Vallée, Messengers of Deception: UFO Contacts and Cults, Brisbane: Daily Grail Publishing, 1979, 55.

             [7] Steven Spielberg’s 1977 film, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, played an outsized role in spreading aspects of the ET belief system. Viewing the film nearly half a century ago, I was awe-struck by the visual and auditory special effects accompanying the film’s climax, when the human protagonist is invited by a space alien into a gigantic UFO promising to take him to a liberating human future. For Close Encounters Spielberg invited French New Wave director, François Truffaut, to play a French UFO researcher, a stand-in for Vallée whose work Spielberg admired, even though Vallée resisted the ET view of UFOs. Spielberg’s film drew on many of Vallée’s ideas, including UFO high strangeness, compulsion to act according to UFO controls, indirect communication by apparent ETs (harmonic patterns in Close Encounter’s final scenes), feelings of awe, and so on. Some UFOs may be indicating the way to a transformed future, but UFOs are not necessarily made by ETs.

            [8] Robbie Graham, Silver Screen Saucers: Sorting. Fact from Fantasy in Hollywood’s UFO Movies. White Crow Books, 2015. 

            [9] D.W. Pasulka, Encounters: Experiences with Non-Human Intelligences. New York: St. Martin’s Essentials, 2023.

            [10] In “UAPs [sic] and Non-Human Intelligence: What is the most reasonable hypothesis?” Bernardo Kastrup offers an interesting account of how humans from an earlier era may be responsible for many UAP encounters over the centuries.

Saturday, January 6, 2024. 

            [11] See Christopher John Müller, Prometheanism: Technology, Digital Culture and Human Obsolescence. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, 2016.

            [12] See Babette Babich, Günther Anders’ Philosophy of Technology: From Phenomenology to Critical Theory. New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2023.

            [13] Joshua Cutchins, Ecology of Souls: A New Mythology of Death and the Paranormal, Vols. One and Two. Horse and Barrell Press, 2022.

            [14] For instance, see Ursula K. Heise’s review of Hyperobjects in Critical Inquiry, June 4, 2014

            [15] See Michael E. Zimmerman, “Ontical Craving versus Ontological Desire,” From Phenomenology to Errancy, Thought, and Desire, ed. Babette E. Babich. Kluwer Academic Publishers, pp. 501-523. 

            [16] On these matters, see David E. Storey’s excellent study, Naturalizing Heidegger: His Confrontation with Nietzsche, His Contributions to Environmental Philosophy. Albany: SUNY Press, 2015).

            [17] Rizwan Virk, The Simulation Hypothesis: An MIT Computer Scientist Shows why AI, Quantum Physics and Easter Mystics All Agree We Are in a Video Game. Bayview Books: 2019.

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