PSA2016: The 25th Biennial Meeting of the Philosophy of Science Association

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Seeing is Believing: A Historical Perspective on the Ontological Status of UFOs

This paper will examine the epistemological and ontological status of unidentified flying objects as it pertains to a series of Cold War United States Air Force investigations into unidentified aerial phenomena (also referred to as unidentified flying objects, or UFOs). Between 1947 and 1969, the USAF directed a number of projects meant to reveal the actual nature of UFOs. In his report-cum-exposé of early Air Force investigative efforts, The Report on Unidentified Flying Objects (1956), former Project Blue Book director Captain Edward J. Ruppelt writes, “The hassle over the word ‘proof’ boils down to one question: What constitutes proof?... There are certain definite facts that can be gleaned from [a report]; the pilot did see something and he did shoot at something, but no matter how thoroughly you investigate the incident that something can never be positively identified.” The question about the existence of a source for observed phenomena was always at the foreground of the investigations. In a majority of cases, physical phenomena fuel UFO reports; whether it was airplanes, meteors, meteorological phenomena, or the planet Venus, real physical objects account for a vast majority of reports. But what of those reports ultimately classed as ‘unknown’? Status report after status report supports the position that reported observations, in a gross majority of cases, are being generated by real phenomena, as opposed to psychological phenomena. Identification of that phenomena, however, persistently presents a challenge.
While this paper will present a historical narrative, I also attempt to work in the other direction, demonstrating how philosophical questions about the ontological status of scientific objects shapes methods of scientific inquiry and assumptions about observers and witnessing. (I pay special attention to the reporting forms developed to discipline witnesses and produce reliable data.) Drawing on Hacking, Cartwright, and discussions around scientific realism, I will demonstrate how philosophical concerns about theoretical and ‘un-seeable’ objects do not pertain only to the problems of the microscopic world. Furthermore, I will discuss how understanding these central philosophical questions on real versus immaterial objects is crucial to understanding, in this case, the UFO problem more broadly. The UFO case study allows us to see philosophy of science in action. It is a case of applied philosophy of science.

Author Information:

Kate Dorsch    
University of Pennsylvania


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