This story appears in VICE Magazine's Truth and Lies Issue.
I first met Thomas* through a mutual friend. By most societal standards, Thomas would be considered “normal”—he’s a successful biotechnologist with a partner and kid, he enjoys long walks on the weekend and eating out. In his work, he helps create technologies that help people recover from illnesses, such as cancer. But the inspiration for some of Thomas’s most successful technologies—such as implant devices that are etched with a laser and coded so that human tissue recognizes them as itself, and not a foreign agent, or the use of an ancient stem cell that appears to help alleviate pain associated with cancer—is not something he openly shares. Why? Because, he explained to me, the implants were inspired by “nonhuman intelligence.” In other words, it wasn’t his own brilliant idea, nor was it another human’s. He believes that it came from a supernatural source, perhaps extraterrestrial.
His research protocol was, to be blunt, not transparent. He never told any of the scientists he recruited to his team where he acquired the idea for the new technology, because, according to Thomas, “First, they would have thought I was really weird, and second—and most importantly—it would have prevented them from being successful in implementing the necessary steps to create the technology. It would have been so far removed from their own belief systems that it would have been impossible for them to implement my vision. So, I keep that part secret.”
It has long been the case that people who believe in UFOs or extraterrestrials are characterized, as Stephen Hawking has described them, as “cranks” or fringe dwellers. Despite that association, some of the world’s brilliant, Nobel Prize–winning minds, among them the mathematician John Nash and the biochemist Kary Mullis, have had experiences they perceive to be close encounters. The University of Oxford’s Richard Dawkins, famous for his advocacy of Darwin’s theory of evolution as well as his disbelief in God and religions, nonetheless has suggested that human civilization may have been seeded by an alien civilization. More strikingly, according to research by psychologists, belief in extraterrestrials is increasing in unprecedented ways. I myself found this to be the case, especially among contemporary technopreneurs (entrepreneurs who use technology to make an innovation or fill a need), just like Thomas. A belief that was once on the fringe now appears to be the new black. Spending a day with high-functioning believers—as I have done several times in the past few months as research for my book American Cosmic: UFOs, Religion, Technology—reveals a lot about how the increasing belief in nonhuman intelligence inspires our real world as well as our entertainment.
Perhaps the first technopreneur who has long been “out” concerning his belief in UFOs is Jacques Vallée, who worked on ARPANET (the proto-internet), a program funded by the military. In fact, he was working on this new technology while experimenting with telepathic phenomena, what some would call “woo-woo” science. Vallée was so well known for his study of UFOs that Steven Spielberg asked him to consult on the set of Close Encounters of the Third Kind (the French scientist played by François Truffaut in the movie is based on Vallée). He was one of the first vocal technologists to advocate for the study of UFOs, and he paved the way for a slew of other Silicon Valley scientists and biotechnologists who believe that the secret to their success is alien technology—in other words, artifacts found at alleged alien spacecraft crash sites or information provided to them through mental downloads.
The gaming expert, technologist, and investor Rizwan Virk confirms this new direction in the belief and practices associated with UFOs. In an article on the website Hacker Noon, he wrote, “I can say that I have personally spoken to researchers from top universities (Stanford, MIT, Harvard) who have seen the “artifacts” that the article references, and other similar ones that are even more secretive (and perhaps more functional).” In my own research, I have also met scientists who believe in these artifacts; I’ve even accompanied several of them on an expedition to an alleged alien crash site in New Mexico, which, I was told, was “not Roswell.” But I couldn’t tell you where, exactly, we were, as I was blindfolded so I wouldn’t be able to identify the location.
If you think about it, the connection between Silicon Valley technopreneurs and the belief in extraterrestrial life, or even alien technology, is not so surprising, given the ways in which religious and spiritual beliefs develop and prosper. Religions, like other social phenomena, emerge from their environments, and screen and digital environments are producing new forms of religious beliefs—from the religion of Jediism (based on the Jedi code from Star Wars) to a spirituality coalescing around the idea that advanced nonhuman extraterrestrial life is engaged in communication with humans. The pervasive belief in UFOs and ETs is a new form of religiosity brought about by the digital infrastructure, delivered not only through books (like traditional religions) but through films, phones, and computers. However, what really makes it different from traditional religions is something that most scholars have missed: the possible “truth” of nonhuman intelligent life in the universe. NASA scientists and others suggest that they will find life—even microbial—on exoplanets, a powerful idea because it’s distinct from the faith that informs most traditional religions. Traditional religions require belief without proof. With the new UFO religiosity, proof is just deferred.
And yet, even with the possibility that we will find life elsewhere in the universe, the key players within this new religiosity continue operating in the shadows. The reason for Thomas’s and others’ secrecy is what I refer to as “the John Mack Effect.” Dr. John Mack was a Pulitzer Prize–winning research psychiatrist working at Harvard University. His credentials and prior research accomplishments placed him in a category that is rare for most academics, as he had achieved the pinnacle of academic success. But in the 1990s he began a study of people who believed that they were in contact with extraterrestrial intelligence. He followed the conventional research protocols of his discipline, and in the end, found that his subjects were normal in every way except for their belief in extraterrestrials. He concluded that they were neither delusional nor pathological. The book about his findings, Abduction: Human Encounters with Aliens, was an instant best seller, but its release prompted Harvard University to conduct an internal investigation of his research; they questioned why he would be studying people who believed such things. Mack’s research choice threatened his career, and the publicity generated by the book as well as Harvard’s investigation portrayed him as a kook. In stepped Alan Dershowitz, an attorney and Harvard Law School professor long fixated on the idea of academic freedom. Dershowitz was among several academics to publicly defend Mack, and although Mack’s research was proved to be sound, his reputation had taken a hit. The aftermath produced a chilling effect on scholarship related to the study of UFOs, as scholars became unwilling to risk their reputations to study the phenomena.
New work has suggested that human beings might be the “new technology” that will eventually populate other planets, galaxies, or universes. A recent presentation at the Harvard Medical School’s Consortium for Space Genetics argued that the people who would be best equipped to explore space would be those whose brains were attuned to nontraditional forms of knowledge, who have the ability to know things beyond normal means, somewhat like a sixth sense. These brains were referred to in the conference as “hyper.” The professor giving the presentation was Garry Nolan from Stanford University, a molecular biologist with a specialty in genetics. He explained that space exploration is fraught with danger: Radiation, the slowness of propulsion rocket technologies, and other factors are deterrents, thus NASA sends rovers and other exploratory technologies. Nolan argues that people who are best equipped to make correct, split-second judgments should be the ones chosen to investigate extraterrestrial destinations.
Strangely, or, perhaps fittingly, the idea of hyperintuition brings us back to Vallée, who has described “discernment” as one of the most effective research strategies for those who study UFOs. The term, derived from the Roman Catholic tradition, means the ability to perceive the correct course of action without having relevant information. In other words—taking a shot in the dark and succeeding in hitting your mark. Going further back historically, the term derives from the Greek aisthesis, or moral perception, which really means emptying the mind from distractions long enough to decipher the truth of a situation. Nolan’s work links aisthesis to an actual physical correlate in the human body that can possibly be modified, or, as Thomas’s research suggests, amplified. Within the worldviews of these technopreneurs, the demarcations between the human body and technology are hardly discernible.
So where does this respect and admiration of nonhuman intelligence leave us? With a new type of religiosity and spirituality that embodies technology, the future, and the potential of almost unimaginable infrastructures in space and on earth. It also leaves us with a new form of religion that is not based on faith alone, but on the possible realism of its truth claims. As Vallée reminded me, the apparent absurdity of the claims does not mean they are not true.
*The name has been changed to protect the person’s identity and avoid professional ramifications.