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Seeing Things Is Perception Everything?

From: UFO UpDates - Toronto <ufoupdates.nul>
Date: Mon, 31 Dec 2007 10:45:58 -0500
Archived: Mon, 31 Dec 2007 10:45:58 -0500
Subject: Seeing Things Is Perception Everything?

Source: Common Ground Magazine - Vancouver, British Columbia,


December 31st 2007

Seeing Things
Is Perception Everything?

Geoff Olson

In the kingdom of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.
                                      --Erasmus, 1536

In 2004, a woman in Florida made $28,000 on eBay selling a
cheese sandwich that she said bore the image of the Virgin Mary.
In July of 1997, a woman in north England sliced open nine
aubergines for a curry and was amazed to discover the Hindu
symbol for God on every slice. In 1996, just before the Feast of
Ramadan, a farmer in Senegal discovered a watermelon upon which
the name of Allah had appeared.

When CNN broadcast the stunning photographs of the Eagle nebula
from the Hubble space telescope in 1995, many viewers in the US
claimed to see the face of Jesus in the glowing columns of
interstellar gas. CNN anchors nodded sagely as viewers called in
to express their wonderment at this heavenly high-five from the
Lamb of God.

Such are miracles in a time of diminished expectations. If you
are a Supreme Being with time on your hands, why go to all the
effort of parting bodies of water or speaking from a burning
bush when you can wow the flock with decorative techniques
straight out of Martha Stewart Living or move mysteriously
through the cable news channels?

Whether it's foodstuffs with a blessed-before date, or messiah-
marquees in space, most of us find claims of this sort either
amusing or appalling. Magical thinking is for the literalists in
the megachurches and madrasahs. We, after all, are the educated
ones with literate minds that accurately reflect and report on
the real world.

If only things were that simple. Even at the best of times, our
everyday perception is distorted by temperamental prejudices,
unconscious biases and cultural conditioning.

Last year, Ohio Congressman Dennis Kucinich was questioned at a
Democratic presidential debate in Philadelphia about a passage
in a new book by Shirley MacLaine, who happens to be the
godmother of Kucinich's daughter. In Sage-ing While Age-ing,
MacLaine claims Kucinich saw a UFO above her home in Washington
state. "It hovered, soundless, for 10 minutes or so and sped
away with a speed he couldn't comprehend. He said he felt a
connection in his heart and heard directions in his mind."
Moderator Tim Russert quoted MacLaine's description of what
Kucinich had seen: "=85 a gigantic triangular craft, silent,
observing him."

"Now, did you see a UFO, sir?"

"It was an unidentified flying object, OK? It's, like, it's
unidentified," Kucinich replied as laughter rippled through the
studio audience. "I saw something."

The Democratic presidential candidate tried to salvage some
dignity during this exchange, telling Russert that many
Americans have had similar experiences and that former president
Jimmy Carter had a UFO sighting of his own. But the damage was
done. It's one thing to see religious icons in your lunch. There
are folks who will buy that, literally, on eBay. But a UFO over
the home of Shirley MacLaine? That's a bit much.

By signing on to a no-win acronym, "UFO" Kucinich was redacted
into tabloid territory and prepared for a tinfoil hat fitting by
Fox News. There was no time available in the 24-hour news cycle
to address what the congressman might or might not have actually
seen. And although he did not specifically claim he had been
taken on a ride on a spacecraft or been anally probed by The
Simpsons' drooling, tentacled terrors, Kucinich was now
officially the candidate from space.

"UFO" is not a contentless placeholder," noted Jeff Wells,
commenting about the Kucinich case in his blog, Rigorous
Intuition (http://rigint.blogspot.com). "UFO is identified with
little green men, ET and Mars Attacks. There is no meaningful
way to speak about the subject in the English language without
reference to its debased and comic acronym, and if language
shapes our view of reality, then it may take an effort of will
or a boundary experience of our own to see that there is more to
the phenomenon than a punchline."

American citizens have been seeing things in the skies for a
long time and some of the weirdest sightings don't involve space
creatures at all. One of the most compelling cases dates back to
1905. As a strange object glided above a field in Dayton Ohio,
the general manager of Dayton's rail line and his chief engineer
ordered the conductor to stop the train while they and all the
passengers on board watched in amazement. Piloting the strange
object - one of the world's first flying machines - was a man by
the name Orville Wright.

Writes Richard Milton in his book Alternative Science: "From
December 1903 to September 1908, two young bicycle mechanics
from Ohio repeatedly claimed to have built a heavier-than-air
flying machine and to have flown it successfully. But despite
scores of public demonstrations, affidavits from local
dignitaries and photographs of themselves flying, the claims of
Wilbur and Orville Wright were derided and dismissed as a hoax
by the Scientific American, the New York Herald, the US army and
most American scientists."

It's especially odd considering that Dayton bank president
Torrance Huffman had allowed the brothers to use a large tract
of farmland he owned for conducting their experiments. A main
road and a rail line bordered the land and their flying
experiments had been witnessed for years by hundreds, if not
thousands, of people.

Respectable society looked the other way. Heavier-than-air
flight was deemed impossible by scientists, so there was no
necessity to investigate the brothers' claims. Two years after
the engineer and his conductor witnessed Orville in his spindly
craft, President Theodore Roosevelt ordered public trials at
Fort Myers in 1908, to settle the claims once and for all. The
Wrights were able to prove their claims with finality, with the
army and scientific press accepting their flying machine as a

How could eyewitness observations and the official view of
reality been at such variance, prior to Roosevelt's tests?
According to Milton, "Many of these bewildered witnesses visited
or wrote to the newspapers to ask who were the young men that
were regularly flying over "Huffman Prairie" and why nothing had
appeared about them. Eventually, the enquiries became so
frequent that the papers complained of their becoming a
nuisance, but still their editors showed little interest in the
story, sending neither a reporter nor photographer."

If that anecdote doesn't say something sobering about the social
construction of reality, and the blinkered conservatism of
"experts," I don't know what does.

Cut from Kitty Hawk to Chicago's O'Hare Airport a century later,
and a sighting so bizarre that the local media sat up and took
notice. According to the January 1, 2006, online version of the
Chicago Tribune, "A flying saucer-like object hovered low over
O'Hare International Airport for several minutes before bolting
through thick clouds with such intense energy that it left an
eerie hole in overcast skies, said some United Airlines
employees who observed the phenomenon."

The witnesses described the object as dark grey and well defined
in the overcast skies. Estimates of the object's size ran from
six feet to 24 feet in diameter and viewers noted that it did
not display any lights. "It definitely was not an [Earth]
aircraft," said one mechanic. A United employee appeared
emotionally shaken by the sighting and "=85 experienced some
religious issues" over it, one co-worker said.

The O'Hare report came and went. After a few brief but
straightforward reports, the broadcast pundits moved on to the
more pressing issues of Paris Hilton and Anna Nicole Smith.

What was seen at O'Hare? In the absence of any scientific data,
and any investigative follow-up from the media, we'll likely
never know. In any case, it's easy to dismiss an individual
report of an aerial anomaly from a congressman or even a
president. But it's more difficult to write off a whole group of
professionals who see exactly the same disc-shaped object.

Of course, anything from Venus to flocks of geese to temperature
inversions are regularly mistaken by intelligent observers for
things they are not. Sometimes, mundane objects are magnified
into motherships. The bulk of investigated aerial anomalies turn
out to have close-to-earth origins. A small percentage are, in
the parlance of the air force, "unknowns." It's these reports
that give the experts the fits. Toward the end of his tenure as
the US air force's official investigator of UFO reports, Cornell
astronomer J. Allen Hynek became convinced that a real
phenomenon underlay a persistent fraction of "high strangeness"
reports from military pilots, airline personnel, air traffic
controllers and other professionals.

Once asked where the evidence for genuine UFOs is, Hynek
replied, "Where do you want to park the truck?" Yet, to this
day, it doesn't matter if nearly two dozen military,
intelligence, government, corporate and scientific witnesses
come forward at the National Press Club in Washington to present
their evidence for UFOs, as they did on Wednesday, May 9, 2001.
It doesn't matter if the scientific elite of other nations
endorse the existence of UFOs, as France did with the release of
the Cometa Report in 1999. It doesn't matter that former
Canadian defence minister Paul Hellyer, who has had a UFO
sighting of his own, has called for an "=85 era of openness,
public hearings, publicly funded research, and education about
extraterrestrial reality." In the US, the official line is that
we're the only advanced intelligence on or around the planet.
Respectable authorities find any alternative ideas idiotic, just
as their predecessors did a century earlier.

But I'm more interested in what our reluctance to investigate
certain phenomenon, from Kitty Hawk to O'Hare, says about us,
rather than an alleged "them." What intrigues me is the politics
of perception and how we construct the world "out there." Human
beings make perceptual mistakes all the time. We don't just see
things that aren't there; we sometimes don't see things that are
there, editing them out of consciousness entirely. And we do
that with remarkably mundane observations.

There is a famous business training film that shows people in
black and white shirts passing a basketball back and forth.
Viewers gathered to watch the film are instructed to count the
number of times the basketball is passed. As the ball goes
around, a figure in a gorilla suit walks into the scene. The
figure turns to the camera and beats her chest, before walking
off-screen. According to Daniel J. Simons, the psychologist who
produced the film, 50 percent of instructed viewers fail to see
the figure in the first screening, due to what he calls
"inattentional blindness." That's right; half the people viewing
the film fail to see a person in a gorilla suit walking across
their field of vision.

We often focus on what we're looking for, editing out any
anything that doesn't fit in. Through this process, we clever
monkeys turn kitchen foodstuffs into religious fetishes or
aerial unknowns into locker room jokes. We're all hard-nosed
news reporters hunting down a few local stories, while ignoring
hundreds of leads for front-page features. In that sense, we're
a bit like the newspaper editors in the Wright brothers' time,
puffed up with the pride of certainty and refusing to believe
we've missed a scoop.

Since we fail to see what's going on, it's no surprise we often
fail to hear what's going on as well. On his speaking tours, the
late American philosopher Robert Anton Wilson occasionally had
his audiences engage in a Sufi listening exercise. After giving
out pens and notepads, he asked the people in the auditorium to
sit in silence and listen intently, while writing down all the
sounds they could hear: distant traffic outside the auditorium,
creaking chairs, fabric rustling as people shifted in their
seats, etc. When he asked for a show of hands, Wilson found the
most sounds heard by any one person came to almost two dozen. He
then asked the audience if anyone had heard anything this fellow
had not. The author added these sounds to the list, for a total
of over forty. Wilson had led this exercise plenty of times
before in other talks and this was a consistent score. This
proved, he said, that even the most observant person in the room
was aware of only half of what was going on.

"Personally, I see two or three UFOs every week," Wilson noted
on his website. "This does not astonish me or convince me of the
spaceship theory because I also see about two or three UNFOs
every week - Unidentified Non-Flying Objects. These remain
unidentified (by me) because they go by too fast or look so
weird that I never know whether to classify them as hedgehogs,
hobgoblins or helicopters, or as stars or satellites or
spaceships, or as pizza-trucks or probability waves."

But the world mostly contains mundane things that Wilson could
"=85 identify fully and dogmatically with any norm or
generalization." After all this intellectual leg-pulling, the
self-described "stand-up philosopher" got to his epistemological
punchline: "I live in a spectrum of probabilities, uncertainties
and wonderments." Wilson refused to settle on one model for
reality. He believed the universe continually presents us with
quantum "maybes," which our acts of observation collapse into
definitive values.

That sounds more appealing to me than the hard-edged certainties
offered by religious or materialist dogmatists. Wilson's
attitude toward the big questions is one of humility, awe and
humour. And given the truly weird picture of reality drawn by
contemporary science, that seems like the right attitude to

At every moment in space, both inside us and around us, "virtual
particles" are popping in and out of existence, according to a
variant of Heisenberg's principle. They emerge from the vacuum
and return to the vacuum, violating no scientific laws as long
as they disappear in a nanosecond. Virtual particles, black
holes, pulsars, quarks: collectively, these bizarro objects out-
weird the denizens in Star Wars' bar scene, or anything hatched
by Disney's "imagineers."

Next to these officially acknowledged oddities, advanced beings
visiting us from another world or dimension seem almost
redundant. Such things are no more unlikely to me than the
subatomic sprites conjured up by particle accelerators. (Not
that this gives me any confidence about what Dennis Kucinich saw
- especially considering he's not sure what it was himself. On
my personal spectrum of believability, the congressman's
triangle-shaped object has indeterminate value, although I put
it closer to Orville Wright's flying machine than the Virgin
Mary's cheese sandwich.)

If science has taught us anything, the essential nature of the
universe is magical - lawful, but magical nonetheless. And
although we humans are conscious creatures haunted by our
imperfection and mortality, our very existence is drawn from
this same ground of being. We're the universe embodied as
intention, exploring a boundless capacity to create and
confound. And Hamlet's words to Horatio still apply. No matter
how much knowledge we accumulate, there will always be more
things in the heavens and earth than are dreamt of in our

In Myth and Meaning, anthropologist Claude L=E9vi-Strauss wrote of
his initial shock when he discovered that "a particular tribe"
of Indians could see the planet Venus in full daylight with the
naked eye. He describes it as "=85 something that to me would be
utterly impossible and incredible." But when he learned from
astronomers it was feasible, he concluded, "Today we use less
and we use more of our mental capacity than we did in the past."

Most academics would have simply said the Indian tribesmen were
"seeing things." In his book Breaking Open the Head, Daniel
Pinchbeck commented on Levi-Strauss' discovery. "We have
sacrificed perceptual capabilities for other mental abilities to
concentrate on a computer screen while sitting in a cubicle for
many hours at a stretch - something those Indians would find
=91utterly impossible and incredible' - or to shut off multiple
layers of awareness as we drive a car in heavy traffic. In other
words, we are brought up within a system that teaches us to
postpone, defer and eliminate most incoming sense data in favour
of a future reward. We live in a feedback loop of perpetual
postponement. For the most part, we are not even aware of what
we have lost."

It may be easy to chuckle at a political candidate who admits to
witnessing something above a Hollywood actor's home that he
couldn't explain. What's harder for us to accept is that we
regularly miss much of what's occurring all around us and within
us. As the writer George Leonard put it, "Whatever your age,
your upbringing or your education, what you are made of is
mostly unused potential." What strange talents, what remarkable
powers, still lie latent within us all?

"Seeing things" can mean many things, from looking deeply into
the heart of nature to outright hallucination. In the end, our
survival on this planetary ship of fools may depend on us
learning to see things as they are, rather than what we tell
each other they should be.

[Lead from Stuart Miller @ http://www.alienworldsmag.com]

Listen to 'Strange Days... Indeed' - The PodCast



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