Of course UFOs exist. I myself have seen lots of them. You are sceptical? Well, possibly you mistake my meaning. I can't organise a fly-by of alien spacecraft, or arrange for saucer-ships to hover off Burriana beach as they lower ramps for extra terrestrials to slide down, but I do know that none of those things would prove the existence of UFOs. UFO does not mean star-trek style space craft, but stands for “Unidentified Flying Object”. In other words, they are, by definition, unidentified, and any of the above actions would involve sightings of an entirely identifiable spacecraft.
The sightings of unidentified flying objects are commonplace. Of course, in the majority of cases, investigation yields speedy and predictable results of the “cloud formation-aircraft light-flock of birds” type. And, of course, some sightings remain unresolved and therefore UFOs.
What interests me however, is not what the UFOs are, but why so many people assume they must be extra-terrestrial spacecraft. We seem to have got so taken with the dazzling idea of that possibility that we are to be unable to conceive of anything else. Indeed for some, the alien-spacecraft identity of any unidentified airborne object is now a matter of faith.
I'm not, here, talking about the belief that particular cases might be explained this way. Belief and faith are, for me, quite different things, though the terms sometimes get confused. Let me explain.
First off, belief. We all have different beliefs about how the world works we can't manage without them. These aren't just our more complex philosophies: beliefs in gods, spirits or spirituality, for example: they incorporate everything, from such weighty ideas as “I believe a criminal suspect should be treated as innocent till proven guilty” to the prosaic concept of “I believe there are 9 planets orbiting our sun”, or even the inane: I sit down on a chair in the morning relaxed in the belief that it will support my weight. These things are so worked into the pattern of our thoughts we are scarcely aware of them. It is only when we meet people from other walks of life or cultures who do not share them that we are startled into working out why we believe them.
And that, for me, is what distinguishes belief from faith: beliefs are something we have reasons for. I believe a suspect's innocence should be assumed because of the many cases of injustice when it hasn't been. I believe there are nine planets that orbit the sun because information from sources I consider reliable offers evidence that this is the case. As for the security of the chair I believe this because of my experience, with chairs in general and with this chair in particular. I am willing to concede the possibility that I might be wrong. For example, the idea that there are 9 planets has recently been challenged. Scientists have discovered an object bigger than Pluto but at least 3 times further away which is being claimed as a 10th planet. This has caused uproar and controversy; just as the claim for Pluto did before. Part of the problem is one of definition; the difference between a small planet and a big asteroid has not been concretely agreed upon. And until the experts of astronomy manage to do that we cannot be sure whether we have identified 8, 9 or 10 planets. The willingness to justify belief means we have, sometimes, to put up with doubt and uncertainty something some people can't handle.
Faith is a bit different. Faith is something you adhere to regardless of the evidence. In the face of faith, evidence is irrelevant. It makes no difference to someone who has decided to believe that all UFOs are alien spacecraft if you suggest other possibilities. Such alternatives are ridiculous and will not be considered. I was delighted to come across the example of an American UFO “researcher” who published a book on sightings around the world and explained pompously how ignorant Africans mistakenly described UFOs as messages from their ancestors, or as visiting spirits instead of recognising them as the alien spacecraft they obviously are. Well, they were obviously alien spacecraft to the writer. The ghost of the possibility that the Africans might be right was, literally, unthinkable to him, the “unidentified” nature of UFOs a misnomer.
Once you have decided to abdicate the use of your brain, you can believe any number of contradictory, implausible or downright loopy things: from the little minor inconsistencies we all give credence to, right up to (to use a pertinent example) the fundamentalists who claim to be Muslims members of a tolerant faith which forbids the killing of innocents - while glorying in blowing up commuters. Religious fundamentalists who refuse to accept the possibility of doubt, uncertainty or error in their interpretation of right and wrong are absolute adherents to their chosen faith.
But, speaking of Muslims, I am attacking faith, not “Faiths” or religions. What I've described as faith is not necessary to religious belief though it is necessary to fundamentalism. Many believers say they have personal experience of a relationship with God and this instantly puts them into the realm of evidence and therefore belief. Most express doubts, thoughts and reasons within the terms of following their religion, all of which imply belief, not faith. Meantime, something often forgotten by non-religious people is that faith is not the sole preserve of the fundamentalist: many non-believers have rigid doctrines of their own. The worst of these are cynics who use an absolute faith in the foolishness of others to sneer at those who wish to think before they judge.
A cynic knows perfectly well that all UFOs can be explained by our existing knowledge, whether they are investigated or not. He will probably insist that all non-mainstream medicine, from acupunture to homeopathy is quackery, appealing only to the gullible, but which he, the cynic, is too smart to get stung by. Similarly, making an effort to help people or change anything can be dismissed as a waste of time, as the cynic has faith only in the negatives of human nature and refuses to acknowledge the existence of any positives. Cynicism is a great faith to have: it allows the holder to feel supremely smug and superior, without having to make any effort to justify their position. Cynicism taints many areas in life: it encourages apathy, and discourages thought. Sadly it is common among people who purport to be scientists though in reality the discipline of science demands both an open mind and an unbiased consideration of the evidence. A cynical scientist, who dismisses evidence that does not fit with his viewpoint, is to science what a fundamentalist “Muslim” terrorist is to Islam an abominable liar.
My favourite example of cynicism may be apocryphal. It is the story of a young student of what were quaintly called “the natural sciences” who, in the early 18th century, published a paper looking at the well-known correlation between the moon and the tides and suggesting that this might be an interesting area for further consideration, as there seemed to be some sort of hidden connection. His mentor was appalled and sent him several urgent missives telling him that he was on the wrong track. Theorising about possible invisible or unsubstantial forces was all part of the kind of superstitious mentality that science was trying to lead people away from, and which Newton's brilliant theories had allowed them to consign to the waste bin. Whether the young scientist had the nerve to suggest that “Gravity”, a Newtonian concept if ever there was one could be ignorantly described as “invisible and unsubstantial” or not, history does not relate.
A good scientist is a sceptic, never a cynic. The key to scepticism is, as far as possible, to avoid making assumptions, avoid pre-judging, but to demand evidence or reasoning to support belief
So if you are thinking of taking up an interest in astrology, trying acupuncture or hypnosis or visiting a retreat to regain your balance, and your family or friends sneer, patronise them back. Tell them cynicism is intellectual cowardice. Tell them they aren't thinking. Tell them UFOs exist. They will probably howl with laughter; until you prove that they are prejudging, by telling them why!