Ancient Aliens, the Collective Unconscious, and the Quest for Meaning
What do religion, psychology and "ancient alien theory" have in common?
Posted May 12, 2012
So-called "ancient alien theorists" like Erich von Daniken (controversial Swiss author of Chariots of the Gods?), David Childress and the colorful Giorgio Tsoukalos of the popular History Channel T.V. series Ancient Aliens, believe that past extraterrestrial visitations directly influenced and guided human history over the millennia. They apply this bizarre theory to explain many events they apparently find otherwise inexplicable: the construction of Stonehenge, the Peruvian Nazca Lines , and the Egyptian and Mayan pyramids; angelic or demonic visions reported in religious texts like the Hebrew Old Testament, Christian New Testament and Hindu Ramayana and Mahabharata; the discovery of scientific technologies like electricity, lasers or rockets; and the advancement and evolution of civilization in general. Some go so far as to seriously hypothesize that we humans were genetically engineered or inseminated by far superior flesh-and-blood beings from far off galaxies. What is the underlying psychology of such seemingly outlandish convictions?
Why the compelling universal need to believe in some otherworldly or extrinsic cause for human ingenuity, creativity or, for that matter, evil? Why do we find it so tempting to ascribe responsibility for human potentiality to something other than human nature itself? While we humans, as the ancient Greeks understood, are certainly prone to narcissistic grandiosity, vanity and hubris, we have an equally strong proclivity to underestimate our intrinsic powers and potentialities. The potentiality for the greatest heights of creativity and depraved depths of destructiveness dwell in the daimonic human psyche. Novelist Joseph Conrad, author of Heart of Darkness (1899) wrote: "The belief in a supernatural source of evil is not necessary; men alone are quite capable of every wickedness." The same may be said of our congenital creative capacities.Yet, we prefer to project such inner powers, for both evil and creativity, outwardly onto gods, devils, demons or, as in the case of ancient alien theory, extraterrestrials in flying saucers.
The ancient alien faithful find it difficult to accept that historically, human beings are entirely capable of creating cities, building temples, moving massive stones for miles, inventing technology, art, religion and constructing fantastic mythological stories and images based solely on their personal, spiritual and collective experiences. And have been doing so since the dawn of civilization. Ancient alien theorists tend to sell the inborn human capacity and potentiality for creativity, innovation and resourcefulness far too short. They take a cynical and disempowering view of human fortitude, courage, generativity, perseverence and innovation. They project this creative power instead onto vastly superior extraterrestial beings, in precisely the same way religions throughout history projected metaphysical power for both good and evil--abundance, success, prosperity, health, sickness, floods, earthquakes, famines, tornadoes--onto angels, demons, spirits, Satan or some omniscient and omnipotent God. In either case, there is in such projection the underlying and often unconscious desire or need to believe in powers greater than ourselves, to alleviate our burdensome sense of personal responsibility and existential aloneness in the universe, and to attribute meaning to those things we find most perplexing and enigmatic in life. Another example of such magical thinking (see my prior post) is the ancient alien theory that the disappearance of the dinosaurs sixty-five-million years ago was not an extinction so much as an extermination engineered by kindly and paternal extraterrestrial visitors to pave the way for man's domination of the planet. And, of course, the contemporary fascination with flying saucers or UFO's falls, at least to some extent, into this same pattern of seeking a source of salvation or annihilation as coming from outside ourselves. (See my prior post.)
As existential psychiatrist Viktor Frankl held, we humans have an innate need for and fundamental will toward finding or making meaning. Meaning is essential to human existence. We need, even crave meaing, much as we require food, water, air shelter, companionship, sex and love. Our "will to meaning" is an inherent inner necessity. The human psyche, like nature, abhors a vacuum. It tends teleologically toward both meaning and wholeness. In the absence of comprehending certain natural phenomena, myths or historical events, we feel the necessity to find some way of making sense of such mysteries. For example, the impressive phenomenon we call "thunder" and today scientifically explain away was once believed by our ancestors to be the anger of the gods. The paranoid delusions of some psychotic patients commonly consist of convictions that aliens, demons or devils are directly controlling their thoughts and actions. From a psychological perspective, such delusions are attempts to explain and make sense of certain disturbing and confusing experiences encountered by such patients, both subjectively and objectively. The belief in alien abduction is another--although not necessarily psychotic--example of this natural meaning-making process. As is the widespread belief in ghosts, paranormal activity, and demonic possession. (See my prior post.)
When we experience or witness something strange we cannot comprehend or explain, we enter into a psychological state of hypersuggestibility. Feeling at a loss to understand certain psychological or physical occurrences, we grasp and hold onto whatever explanation or myth available to provide some immediate sense of meaning. This partially dispels the anxiety of not knowing, of being confronted with the unknown. Hypersuggestibility is a dynamic state of mind induced by a void demanding fulfullment. A desperate desire to decode, decipher or attach significance to intolerable chaos and confusion. An anxious grasping at straws of missing meaning. For the person suffering from psychosis, for instance, the mainstream "conventional wisdom" or myth of the "broken brain" or biochemical aberration offered up by contemporary psychiatry and psychology does not provide a satisfactory explanation for their bedeviling subjective symptomatology. Instead they cling to alternate explanations like alien influence or demonic possession to account for and make sense of their terrifying and profoundly disorienting experience.
Which brings us back to the ancient alien theorists. While I am certainly not suggesting they suffer from delusional psychosis, I see two central trends in their thinking. The first is a form of fundamentalism or, more aptly, literalism, concretism or reification. Mistaking psychological and spiritual phenomena for physical facts.They see mythology and religion as representing true stories of very real, extraterrestrially-inspired events. Gods, whether in Mayan, Celtic, Hindu or Greek culture, are understood to be these awesome ancient aliens themselves. That is, ancient alien theorists claim that early appearances of ET's here on earth were mistakenly yet understandably interpreted as manifestations of deities. And their highly advanced technology taken to be supernatural in nature by relatively primitive earthlings. For instance, consider their dubious suggestions that Egyptians mummified their Pharaohs not because they sought to preserve life beyond death but due to having observed extraterrestrial astronauts prepare themselves for their long flight back to the stars. Or that the ecstatic visions of the biblical prophets were actually flying aliens in impressive mechanical UFO's. And the extraordinary genius of Da Vinci or Einstein not merely human but enhanced by advanced extraterrestrial intelligence.
Conceptualizing human creativity as coming from something beyond (and, therefore, foreign to) the personal self is nothing new. For example, both the ancient Romans and Greeks believed "genius" to be a guiding daimonic spirit, an incorporeal, immortal demi-god, a tutelary deity presiding over one's destiny from the moment of conception. Such myths change somewhat from culture to culture and era to era. In today's ancient alien mythology, these bodiless but powerful genius-daimons are projected onto embodied, humanoid, high-tech extraterrestrials. (For more on this, see my book Anger, Madness, and the Daimonic.) A second inclination of ancient alien theorists is to excitedly interpret--at times highly subjectively and laughably loosely--recurring symbols, images or reported experiences from disparate and geographically isolated cultures as providing "proof" of alien visitation in our past. How else, they ask, could such strange iconography be shared by unrelated peoples without communication unless it is evidence of the shared experience of extraterrestial visitation? Despite the regular commentary on Ancient Aliens of psychologist and mythologist Dr. Jonathan Young, founding curator of the Joseph Campbell Archives, one has to wonder: Have they never heard of Jung's concept of the "collective unconscious"?
Swiss psychiatrist C.G. Jung (see my prior posts) made very similar observations of such common or what he called archetypal themes across cultures. Strikingly similar images appear, for instance, in the dreams, hallucinations or delusions of individuals separated not only by space but time, without apparently having had any prior exposure to these archetypal motifs. Jung used these similarities to support his own highly controversial concept of the collective unconscious. For Jung, the collective unconscious is that transpersonal aspect of the unconscious psyche in which we all participate and can potentially access through dreams, art, myths, fairy tales etc. As Jung (1969) himself describes it, the collective unconscious is different than Freud's "personal unconscious," in which "we must include all more or less intentional repressions of painful thoughts and feelings. . . . But, over and above that, we also find in the unconscious qualities that are not individually acquired but are inherited, e.g., instincts as impulses to carry out actions from necessity, without conscious motivation. In this 'deeper' stratum we also find . . . archetypes. . . . The instincts and the archetypes together form the 'collective unconscious.' I call it 'collective' because, unlike the personal unconscious, it is not made up of individual and more or less unique contents but of those which are universal and of regular occurence." The collective unconscious can also be thought of as the chronically denied or repressed "shadow" of society (e.g., sexuality in Freud's day and anger in ours) that affects us individually as well as culturally. (See my prior post on Jung's concept of the shadow.) Part of our mutual human heritage includes participation in, expression of, and contribution to the collective unconscious.
For Jung, the collective unconscious is a vast repository of human knowlege, instinct, memory and experience accumulated since the birth of the species and genetically and psychologically passed down from generation to generation. Therefore, the archaic collective unconscious is an invaluable and wisdom-filled source of information unconsciously linking us all together, much like the World Wide Web, the Internet, links us together and has become an integral part of our interconnected collective consciousness. So when we see striking similarities in how the art or architecture of various unrelated individuals, tribes or civilizations depicted their experience of these apparently "alien" beings or supernatural events, in cave drawings, petroglyphs, religious iconography, etc., we may actually be witnessing the reality of the collective unconscious. Psychologically and therapeutically speaking, the question we then ask regarding such phenomena is: What possible archetypal and/or personal significance might this symbolic imagery contain or convey, and how might it meaningfully apply to and assist in the patient's individuation process?
Of course, when Dr. Jung first revealed his revolutionary theory of the collective unconscious, there was intense skepticism and even ridicule from his peers and the public. (See my prior post on the recent film A Dangerous Method.) Still today, some view Jung's idea as being at least as far out, speculative and implausible as that of ancient alien theorists. But, to me, many of the phenomena frequently cited by ancient alien theorists are more convincingly evidence of the existence of the collective unconscious than of early extraterrestrial influences. Whether or not extraterrestrial life exists and has visited this planet in UFO's, past or present, is still an open question. But it seems clear that deep in our collective unconscious resides the archetypal idea and imagery of these alien entities, just as the archetypal idea of God and the Devil live within us. In the final analysis, they are not so different. Whether aliens, gods, angels or demons, we human beings are endowed with an infinite imagination for making meaning of life and looking beyond ourselves for that which transcends our frail human finitude.