10 things New Agers Don’t Understand About Science: Part 1 — Science says life is “just” chemical reactions

April 8, 2013

Welcome to this series of ten posts on the most common misunderstandings about science, which form a surprisingly large part of the foundation for New Age teachings.

Just for the record, many of the views dealt with in this series are ones which I myself have previously advocated, (though never online, and never on any public platform).

This first post is about the extraordinarily popular idea that Science says we are “just” chemicals and molecules, and that love is “just” a chemical reaction.

I remember about 25 years ago asking a woman I knew who was studying psychology if she felt her love for her children was just a bunch of chemical reactions. She spluttered a bit, but said yes. I countered that the love must come from somewhere, and that it wasn’t on earth before she felt it, was it? I concluded and believed that love is being poured into us from the “outside”, from the spirit world. Subjectively it felt like that to me at the time.

Something within us (or at least within many of us) rebels at the idea that we are “just” matter.

I invite those who think and feel this way to do this: take up a marking pen and draw a neat line through the word “just”.

Science says that life is chemical reactions.

That is in fact exactly what science says. Some idiot scientists may have put the “just” in there, as the behaviorist B.F. Skinner did, but the correct representation of science’s findings so far is that chemical reactions are the basis of life. You don’t even need to give up any beliefs in the soul, or divine love at this point. Science is good at distinguishing between what can be termed knowledge (i.e. things that seem to be reliably true enough that retesting them for each experiment or equation would be a waste of time) and speculation.

That we have a soul is, from a scientific viewpoint, a speculation. Even if it seemed to a scientist to be subjectively undeniable that we have a soul, it would be more prudent to acknowledge that scientifically we have neither evidence, nor any purpose for such a speculation. We can go a long way using only that which we can justify with a foundation of scientific knowledge, without needing to fill in too many gaps with speculations. And we certainly don’t need to create gaps in established knowledge to force a place for the soul to be crammed into!

To say that van Gogh’s Starry Night is “just dabs of paint on a canvas” would rather miss the point, wouldn’t it? But it is entirely factual — and entirely non-threatening — to say that it consists of dabs of paint on a canvas.

Love is a bunch of chemical reactions. We might speculate that it could be more, but science says that love certainly involves some clearly identifiable neuro-chemicals and electro-chemical reactions. That means, incidentally, that science says that love is real.

And yes, it’s a bunch of chemical reactions, but they take place within an organic structure which science tells us is by far the most complex thing we know of in the entire universe. And even more wonderfully, you can enjoy it without even knowing the first thing about what’s going on with it.

Closely related to all this is the fear that humans and indeed life itself are debased and devalued when seen as mere chemicals. And this fear is not unfounded – behaviorism and the eugenics movement last century have much blood on their hands — both literally and metaphorically. Science must submit itself to the value of universal human rights.



Here is an interesting debate (on YouTube) between Christopher Hitchens and a Christian apologist, Frank Turek. Turek spends most of the debate repeatedly interjecting “We are not just chemicals”, and demanding “Why is there something rather than nothing?” Hitchens eventually answers the latter with “I don’t know, and neither do you!” It’s not especially relevant to this post, but a link to a Hitchens debate is always a good thing in my opinion.

I should also note that I only thought of the line about love being real after reading it from someone else. The biologist and blogger PZ Myers — who for various reasons I would have preferred not to mention on this blog — pointed it out a while ago, so I should acknowledge it.

I will also acknowledge the book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig for noticing the trouble with the word “just”. It’s a great book, well worth the effort of struggling through it until one “gets” it. It’s the more or less true story of a victim of electro-convulsive therapy in the 50s (Pirsig himself). In large part the book deals with the question of whether “quality” is subjective or objective. If it’s objective, then it must be somehow embedded in an object — clearly absurd unless you’re a fanatical authoritarian school master type. If it’s subjective then it must also unavoidably be entirely relative — also distinctly unsatisfactory as an answer, even in aesthetics, to say nothing of ethics. Pirsig was troubled by the idea that “Quality is just what you like”. He noticed that if you cross out the “just”, you end up with “Quality is what you like”. Which led him to the idea of seeing Quality (the capital is his) as being an event between subject and object. And then he went mad…. Ummm, but it’s a good book anyway, and even Richard Dawkins references it in The God Delusion!

On the topic of eugenics, here is an in depth lecture about its origins and practice in the 20th century.

Posted by Yakaru



  1. I’m reminded of a Dawkins quote mine where some guru tried to claim he was dismissing the usual string of things and ideas as illusions. What Dawkins actually said was that they exist in human brains. “Yes, they are real.”

    I also tend to see the fallacy of composition in this meme. Just because we can reduce a person down to chemicals, particles, or whatever doesn’t mean those components don’t add back up to a person. It’s kind of a hyper-reductionism in that they think a person is an irreducible object, rather than accept that there’s a hierarchy of emergent abstractions. To these woos, if it’s not irreducible and fundamental, it’s not real.

    On the topic of eugenics, I find it ironic that eugenics was actually dominated by Christians, who would be expected to believe in irreducible souls and the sanctity of intelligent life, according to these sorts of newagers. The big problem was that their eugenics theories were typically built on biblical racial hypotheses and the curses their god was so eager to pass onto alleged descendents. I think the concept of souls makes it easier to devalue a person: Simply claim he or she doesn’t have a soul. There’s no way to falsify that hypothesis.

  2. “Why is there something rather than nothing ?”

    That question is wrong / invalid. There is no such choice between something and nothing, no entity ever decided or caused there to be something rather than nothing. Logically if there was nothing how could there also be any higher entity co-existent with the “nothing” which switched on the “something” and switched off or discontinued the “nothing” ?

    Try instead: why do storks stand on one leg ? (Because if they stood on no legs they would fall over.) In this case it is a simple mathematical matter, if an animal does not have any legs it is not going to stand on anything. Hence to be standing in the first place it needs to have at least one leg. Can anyone provide any independent impartial documented evidence / proof of storks standing on no legs ?

    If there was nothing now, then nobody would be asking these profound, & profoundly misguided, questions – and part of the reason there is something is more likely to be because the existence of something (everything) is due to mathematical certainties in combination with fundamental physical phenomena, universal numerical constants, and geometrical characteristics.

    Also, the expression “science is chemicals and molecules” is erroneous, “molecules” and “chemicals” are combinations of atoms of various elements, of which there are naturally occurring about 92 elements, all chemicals are one or the other of either molecules or elements. An analogy would be “books are printed words and ink” but printed words are ink so the “and ink” is superfluous. However, books are more than words, and I think science is more than elements. There are forces, and different forms of energy, and presumably more: I expect later rather than sooner someone is going to figure out Einstein was right when he opined “(superstitious bogey-man or bogey-woman deleted) does not play with marbles”.

  3. Wonderful post, Yakaru. This thinking that “love must come from somewhere else” is another example of “God=good, humans=bad. Why shouldn’t the human body come up with something as wonderful as love? And as chemicals are clearly involved, why not learn as much as possible about how it all works instead of rejecting the notion?

    When my daughter was born, I felt a surge of love and a strong sense of well-being. The feeling was so powerful that my theology changed as a result. (Not to get too far off topic but I figured God must be a lot more loving than I’d been taught, based on how powerful that feeling of love for my child was. In that moment, I “knew” my idea of God was wrong!) I don’t mind at all looking back on that and figuring it was a nice rush of oxytocin!

  4. @Mariah,
    Yes, a nice and utterly unique rush of oxytocin — no one else has ever or could ever feel anything quite like it, given your unique brain and unique child. To make those feelings conditional on God or whatever seems quite a needless addition.

    Good point about God=good / humans=bad being implicit in the dichotomy.

    Good points! Yeh, “Why is there something rather that nothing?” is a good starting point for finding out why it’s a bad starting point. But it’s so often used as a rhetorical question with no intention to even attempt a sensible answer. All theology has ever done is found new ways of avoiding the issue.
    And regarding the other processes involved, beyond chemical reactions etc, yes, and I should probably have mentioned in the post that New Agers often imagine that science has no idea how or why atoms organize themselves in particular ways. They think that crystals must have extra forces because they’re so well organized, without realizing that it’s a direct consequence of having a chemical structure that is visible on a macro scale. There’s no need to speculate about angelic fiddlings going on.

    @Bronze Dog,
    I didn’t know about Christians being keen eugenicists. People often don’t realize what a quagmire the soul is, as a concept. As well as it being easy to accuse people(s) of not having one, one can also accuse them of having a less developed one (as does Anthroposophy of many “races”) or of having defective ones which need to be purged and purified. Christians certainly have a horrible history of calling deformed or mentally disturbed people satanic.

  5. Just for extra clarity (and preempt any possible trolls who’d misinterpret), my point about eugenicists is that they were mostly Christians. It’s more along the lines of eugenicists being keen on Christianity.

    Then Hitler, a fundamentalist Christian, came along and did much of what the eugenicists were dreaming about, making the whole thing unpopular in the process. Then fundies saw the writing on the wall and tried to rewrite history to make eugenics an atheist thing. Doesn’t help their cause that some popular Creationists still spout the same racial mythology today.

    Of course, today’s atheists, informed by the realities of evolution, generally hate eugenics for being based on naive, prescientific notions of race as well as being horrifyingly unethical.

  6. (This comment comes from non-fanatical but authoritarian ex-school-master type)

    An ancient Greek would not have known what chemicals are. In the absence of knowledge of chemicals, in ancient Greek philosophy love was classified into three or four types: philia, eros, agape, & x?. The word “love” has several meanings and is an overworked word. It can mean different things to different people and it can mean something to parents which it does not mean to non-parents and which (I suspect) has not been experienced by non-parents.

    Something akin to eugenics has been going on with animal breeding and agronomy (if agronomy is the right word) for many years: Most people have no objections to it being applied to animals and plants. It could be construed as hypocritical to object to eugenics being applied to humans, or hypocritical to object to eugenics while at the same time engaging in research potentially allowing parents to choose their children´s eye colour, hair colour, height etc.

    I think animals and plants and humans should be left to propagate naturally, in an ecologically balanced sustainable manner, without any interference from Monsanto, anthroposophists, the Third Reich, Pfizer, or the medical profession. That may leave me in a minority.

    I am sorry I don´t have anything authoritative to mention about Behaviourism, as I do not know what it is, except that when I was at university in the late 1970s we had to pass one compulsory unit in psychology, and the first unit I attempted was some kind of behavioural psychology which I failed (I evidently was not on the course wavelength). Something was wrong somewhere, as I am not unintelligent.

    On the other hand I passed every unit in Physics, I usually had the correct answers, the problem there is that since the 1970s physics has changed some of the theoretically correct answers.

    For mathematics, the questions and answers are still the same nearly 40 years later, they are also the same now as they were in the 19th century.

  7. I’ve added a few links to the text, including one to an interesting (but long and in depth) lecture on YouTube about eugenics. (See footnotes.) It shows that the Nazis modeled their eugenics program on those already developed elsewhere, especially Sweden and California.

    For some silly reason Christian love blaming it all on Darwin, but it’s basically just artificial selection applied to humans (not natural selection), wherein those with political power define which characteristics are desirable. As Bronze Dog pointed out, it was often based on totally erroneous ideas about which characteristics are heritable, as well as fitting in very nicely with certain racial and puritanical ideologies.

    I’ve also included a few links in the text on behaviorism. Essentially, it was a theory that said that behavior is entirely learned, and controlled by the same mechanisms in all species including humans. It didn’t recognize anything like bonding, or that human babies need loving touch as well as milk etc. It led to some extremely damaging practices in neonatal care. It wasn’t all that nice for animals either.

  8. Interesting post and comments. These days I’m increasingly aware of a feeling that atheist theorizing misses something, that gap between where my mind used to be when I was guided by my subjective and mystical concepts and where it is now, having decided to stop trusting them, because they have no objective support. I’m sure it’s important to keep writing about empiricism for various reasons, and one important reason is that some people will be converted over time by reading it, rescued from indoctrination and delusion. Sometimes I think it’s one of the most important things on the human agenda. It’s just that I so often feel it doesn’t do much at all. I have a conversation with a very intelligent person who believes there is “more”, and who quite legitimately finds reason to dismiss my argument, “we shouldn’t believe in ‘more'”, and I wonder what the point is. Not to mention the unintelligent masses who warn me I better start having a real relationship with Jesus soon or I’m gonna regret it big time forever. But I’m glad people like you work at it with more commitment.

    When I see my step-grandchildren being taken to church and taught how to pray to their heavenly father, where dead people have gone, and all the other doctrine of the Christian faith that their family believes, I cringe. I occasionally recount my atheist view to them, but I already see I’m too late – they look at me with incomprehension and pity. I believe it is indoctrination, and I believe it is abusive to present religion to young children as true without any balanced argument or mentioning other viewpoints, and yet I also see the genuine desire in their parents and grandparents to inspire them with the most wonderful gift of faith, as they see it, and I’m not sure anyone has the right to stop parents teaching children their religion. But, thankfully, no-one has the right to stop the children looking up alternative views on the internet as they grow up.

  9. Vis-a-vis the Stanford University video “Darwin´s Legacy Part 7”, for those who have not already seen it, the Eugenics material runs from about 26 minutes in onwards for about 10 minutes. The whole show is about 110 minutes.

    The programme appears to be mostly designed to explain why Darwin´s book Descent of Man was flawed, and collateral excesses like eugenics led to a retrospective taboo against some of Darwin´s ideas. From there the programme proceeds to argue for the academic popularity pendulum to be nudged back into balance.

    It´s a similar situation to Hitler and smoking. Nazi Germany had doctors who established a connection between smoking and fatal illnesses. Because this research had Nazi origins, it was tainted and off limits and buried. Doctors in the US had to conduct their own research in the 1950s and 1960s to make a case for government action against smoking.

    Someone said something about throwing the baby out with the bath water. (Although that could have been in the Turek / Hitchens programme, after viewing both back to back I now have information overload.)

    If you are watching the rest of Darwin Part 7, you might end up with a misapprehension about Tasmanian aboriginals, because the lecturer brings up the circumstance of there being a co-ordinated attempt to hunt (and either catch or kill) all the remaining Tasmanian aboriginals in the 1830s. As far as I remember from my schooling, only one family group of aboriginals was caught. Although the hunt is famous, I am not sure how many people (including the lecturer) realise it was a failure, not for killing or capturing thousands of relatively helpless aborigines. The Tasmanian (full-blooded)aborigines ended up becoming extinct.

    I think the only other place in the world where indigenous people became totally extinct after colonisation is somewhere like Haiti.

  10. @lettersquash,
    I can relate to all that. And in fact, if I still had mystical beliefs, I would probably still be running a very similar blog to this — I think above all spirituality shouldn’t do damage to people, and the New Age has been hijacked by a cynical bunch of anti-mystics who have turned it from fluffy lightweight nonsense into a massive scam with a shallow and materialistic and extremely dangerous and even more stupid ideology.

    Atheism isn’t really a worldview, in my opinion, nor should it even try to be. But I see value in acknowledging ones atheism publicly.

    My own priorities are promoting the idea that religion should be kept out of politics — just getting that idea across to people is a huge task. Whether or not God exists or there’s something more, etc, is something one can discuss over coffee if one wants. Or if someone has just spent 5 minutes telling me about their new guru, I demand equal time to tell them my honest and unexpurgated response to it!

    But as I say, with mainstream religion, my main priority is getting them to realize they need to bug off out of politics, and while they’re at it they can bug off out of science too.

    The main thing is that religious & New Age people have absolutely no conception of staying within any reasonable boundaries. They pontificate about science without bothering to even gain a nodding familiarity with absolute basics and think they’re superior and they know everything. That’s what pisses me off the most sometimes.

    Innaresting. And thanks for the clarifications about the Darwin lecture. I watched a couple of years ago and remembered it as having much more material about eugenics.

  11. In regards to the show with Dr Turek and Mr Hitchens, the first three things I would respond with are:

    1. Neither speaker came to grips with “What is reality”. Mr Hitchens mentioned he was not a physicist or not a scientist and represented the atheist case. Dr Turek promoted the Christian case that theism gives a better rationale of reality than atheism does. I think the issue would have been better handled if they either had a third person from a scientific background or if the organisers wanted to limit it to two speakers than they could have replaced Mr Hitchens with a scientist.

    2. The current scientific orthodoxy is that there was a big bang. Up until 4 or 5 years ago the scientific orthodoxy was that as the universe expanded after the big bang its rate of expansion was gradually slowing (this has since been revised because measurements from some recent satellite experiment show the opposite, according to the show, recorded in 2011, this is news to me, I don´t follow these scientific developments avidly.)

    The Christian orthodoxy is that there is one creator.

    So we have: from science – one big bang, and from several religions – one creator.

    The problem I suggest is the uniqueness of both phenomena, both only happened once (if they happened at all). Someone mentioned this in the show.

    Science is based on proving things by experiment, scientific experiments are repeatable. If a person is sceptical, they should be thinking carefully before they accept any explanation for natural phenomena that relies on a cause that only happened once (i.e. the big bang, that is like something someone grabbed out of a hat) and cannot be repeated by experiment. (Or putting it another way, I won´t totally believe an explanation until I see the event happen again – I am quite confident no one is going to be able to re-stage a big bang and that we cannot go back to watch the original, although I admit finding the echoes from a big bang (or from something else) has not harmed the case for the current orthodoxy.)

    You might realise from that (& some Christians think) the big bang (sic ?) and creation (sic) have a characteristic in common.

    3. Dr Turek was the more snappily dressed and I think he had a makeup assistant, because Mr Hitchens had no tie, and the lighting was making Mr Hitchens forehead look glossy (unlike Dr Turek for the first 90 minutes or so, after which the makeup started to fail). Dr Turek´s right trouser leg was twitching through much of Mr Hitchens´ presentation. There were some visual aids to what Dr Turek was talking about at the end of the session. I wonder why he was allowed to devote a couple of minutes to an eulogy of a navy seal killed in (Iraq ?). It was a distraction from the purpose of the meeting.

  12. I think part of the reason why i decided to link to that particular Hitchens/Turek debate was also because it had two complete non-experts trying to answer an incredibly difficult and, for science at least, unanswered and possibly unanswerable question. And only one of the speakers was honest enough to admit that they didn’t know the answer. I have no idea why religious people blithely and habitually claim to have an answer.

    But I think it’s also clear that people are more or less compelled to form an opinion about these matters. I’m prepared to cut ordinary folk some slack if they want to form some kind of opinion about where their deceased loved ones might be, or how the hell did all this stuff get here, with me in it, in the first place? As a private matter, I think we need to think something about all that. But if one is going to speak up in public about it, I think we have a responsibility to acknowledge our doubts and ignorance, and label our speculations as such.

    Also, I said above that I didn’t think atheism is really a “worldview”, but I will add that I think it has a kind of a worldview implicit in it — utter rejection of all religious dogma, and perhaps even more importantly, utter rejection of all claims to political power by the religious and opposition to violence and oppression on religious grounds. There’s already plenty there to be getting on with!

  13. I found and have now watched another quite similar 2 hour show between Mr Hitchens and Dr Turek.

    I am not sure which of the two shows was recorded first. There are some differences in what was said. I would find it intriguing to analyse the differences between the two discussions.

    In the show in the link in this comment, there is more direct interchange between the two protagonists, starting about 60 minutes in and running for the next 60 minutes.

    In this one Dr Turek has no tie and no makeup. Another thing I noticed while watching this alternative show is that Dr Turek uses a lot of hand gestures, and crosses his arms once on the podium. (He uses an elevated voice a fair bit, and during this show I was beginning to be reminded of the mannerisms of some other famous public speakers.)

    Part of the reason Christians “blithely and habitually claim to have an answer” (or have the one and only answer) is that Christianity is a proselytising religion (I mean their religion in part exhorts them to make converts.)

  14. Addenda:

    Mr Hitchens speaks about altruism and a hand grenade in this show, so if the other show was recorded at a later date that mention of the grenade may explain how Dr Turek came to give the eulogy for the navy seal at the end of the other show.

  15. Yes, that one was recorded earlier and is probably a better debating performance from Hitchens, given that the topic is more in his area of expertise.

    As far as I can see, as soon as someone speaks about their religious ideas in public, it immediately stops being religion and starts being politics.

  16. Hmmm, how came the Christian Democrats in Germany to call themselves the Christian Democrats ? Was it because they are both, or they are neither, or sometimes one and sometimes the other, or one pretending to be the other, or it sounded like a good idea at the time, or better party names had already been used by other parties ? I have the vague notion that a Christian theocracy and a non-religious democracy are antithetical. Where are the German Muslim Democrats, the Atheist Democrats and the New Age Democrats ?

    What happens when/if the Muslim (democrat)s in Germany outnumber the Christian (democrat)s ?

    Why are U.S: presidents nearly always self-confessed or self-deluded Christians (or Quaker or Catholic in two cases) ?

    Vis-a-vis Dr Turek and Mr Hitchens again, 80% – 90% (as a ball park figure) of what each of them said in both shows was the same, despite the topics being different.

    Part of the 10% – 20% difference was that Dr Turek spent rather more time in the second show / re-match repeatedly explaining that he did not have enough time to explain his religion fully, or explaining twice that because he was from New Jersey he sometimes spoke at 350 words per minute. He also spent some minutes talking about the navy seal and the hand grenade.

    I don´t think much of “Does God Exist ?” as a title for a discussion. It is a loaded question because it uses the word God. For people on one side of the argument the word is a fraud. Like another fraud question: “How many angels can you fit on the head of a pin ?” If I were Mr Hitchens I would have been getting tired of arguing with people who refused to follow the logic of what I was saying, and instead of arguing with me ignored my valid points and instead quoted other writers to bolster their own errors.

  17. Paradoxically, the Christian Democrats are not really all that Christian. A bit like how “Deutschland über Alles” actually meant that Germans should put unified Germany before states’ interests, the Christian in CDU means unity rather than conflict between Catholics and Protestants. It was set up after WWII, after a history of protestant (Prussian) oppression of catholics, which no doubt motivated the Catholic Church’s swift move to get guarantees of protection from Hitler.

    They aren’t politically “Christian” in the way one would expect of a party in the US of a name like that, nor like Fred Nile in Australia. Their party rules specify that they are open to people of all faiths and no faith. That said, separation of church and state is a very foreign concept here.

  18. I was thinking about this idea that “love comes from God” and that line of thinking that says something so wonderful must come from outside of us. I wonder where these people say orgasms come from?

  19. I suspect their answer would either be “Satan” or “What’s an orgasm?”

  20. Probably, xians, anyway. Unless it’s in the context of heterosexual marriage, then what? How would a “sexually liberated” new ager explain an orgasm? (I use quotes because I don’t think some new agers are as liberated as they think they are, based on comments and questions that I see.)

  21. People of faith don’t really explain anything. They’re satisfied when causes are traced back to an agent. If someone did it, nothing else needs explaining – and nothing is explained without a doer. The whole of dualism is in that – matter just can’t do anything. An explanation is just embellishment to remind us who is doing it. Once that’s established, it doesn’t really matter whether they think an orgasm is a lovely gift, a dirty temptation, or a biochemical process.

  22. Good point, lettersquash!

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