10 Things New Agers Don’t Understand About Science #2 — Science is not a satanic ideologyMay 30, 2013
Variations on a theme by various spiritual and religious ideologies see science as some form of satanic or “fallen” thinking that sees only a portion of reality.
William Blake put it quite enchantingly, that when we see a butterfly, we are seeing merely the hem of the gown of a dancer, gliding and whirling across the floor of our three-dimensional realm. As he famously wrote, When the doors of perception are cleansed, we shall see things as they truly are – infinite.
Blake opposed the materialistic science of his time which he characterized as single vision and Newton’s sleep. But what makes Blake’s work rise into the realm of great art is that his poetry arose from a creative vision, rather than an intellectual squabble. He was responding to some deep psychological tug in his being, informing him that there is more going on than we can perceive with our senses. His poetry survives the transition to a time of greater scientific knowledge, and steps easily into expressing a vision of a world of atoms dancing, forming, and recombining eternally.
The same cannot be said of modern spirituality in general. Where Blake used esoteric ideas and his creative insight to make great art, New Age ideology is driven mostly by marketability of ideas. Despite the sincerity of many New Age believers, it should not be overlooked that science poses a massive threat to the profits of all pushers of pseudo-science and sellers of magickal powers. The usual response to this danger is to misrepresent and attack science on ideological grounds.
The numerous ideologies that see science as blind to spiritual phenomena, have a few common elements: for example, the view that there is indeed evidence for the spirit and it has been ignored or actively suppressed; and the view that science is blind to the spiritual, or has defined it out of reality. Later posts in this series will look at both these viewpoints more closely, but in this post I will especially focus on a third element: the idea that science is somehow alien to humanity, inhuman, or “unnatural”.
Scientific thinking is a part of human nature. It’s just something that humans tend to do. A bit like we naturally make music or draw on cave walls, (or for parents with small children, on bedroom walls). We just do it. It comes out of us. We notice obvious cases of cause and effect and try to intuitively grasp less obvious ones. Sooner or later we start trying to devise ways of working out which things work and which don’t.
The first written report of a scientific experiment that I have come across (without looking very far) is surprisingly enough from the biblical prophet Elijah (Kings I: 22-40). He challenged the priests of the Mesopotamian fertility god Baal to slaughter oxen, stack up the fire wood and pray to Baal to light the sacrificial fire with lightning. No fires resulted, so Elijah concluded that the priests and their god were ineffective. He reports that Yahweh successfully completed the task, and that he, Elijah, ordered all 450 of the priests of Baal to be slaughtered. Obviously, ethics committees weren’t around in biblical times, but Elijah became the first person to publish the results of an experiment in a peer-reviewed journal. And those who question Yahweh’s reported capabilities are free to replicate at least some parts of the study.
The point is that in Elijah’s time, it was obviously common to set up such ad hoc experiments and to accept their outcomes as valid. Just as today we all think along such lines in daily life, for example, deducing that the bus must have just left because the normally crowded bus stop is empty, or whatever. It’s normal human behavior to do that. And thinking like that is one element of science. Agreed?
Another element is the ability to dream up complex systems of ideas to explain things. This is just as human as making up stories, and finding them fascinating and compelling, regardless of their actual truth or functionality.
Old creation myths, stories about why the sun moves across the sky, and all that stuff — these are often fascinating stories in themselves. We love making them up, and they seem to evoke some deep feeling of security and satisfaction, even when we know we’re being led up the garden path. (Incidentally, the literary term, suspension of disbelief has always seemed to me like a tautology of rather conceited origins. Why not just call it belief? As if we all live in a constant state of skeptic dubiosity, until deciding to allow ourselves the luxury of a little playful disbelief suspension. Bullshit, I say: our basic waking state is one of belief. Skepticism is the suspension of belief, and only in relation to that specific thing being skeptified!)
So this story-telling capacity is great for dreaming up theories. And as we have agreed above, we also like using that big blustering neocortex of ours to figure out ways of testing whether or not these stories are functionally true. Or, perhaps most importantly, how likely it is that we have found the right answer. (A hallmark of pseudo-science, incidentally, is categorical claims of absolute success and the absence of qualifying terms.)
Those ideas which have successfully passed through many, many, many varied tests, can be called knowledge. In effect, scientific “knowledge” is all the stuff that has passed the tests so often that it no longer makes sense to test those things again. It would just be a waste of time. It doesn’t mean no one is allowed to test them, just that retesting them is extremely likely to be an utter waste of time. Unless we take the step of identifying such ideas as knowledge, no progress at all would be possible. This is an important fact which New Agers and other religious people never seem to grasp.
Rupert Sheldrake can idly suggest that the laws of physics might be variable, but he is utterly and idiotically blind to the fact that if such a thing were true, it would leave spectacular footprints everywhere which could easily be spotted; and above all, that using such an assumption as an experimental basis would immediately make all forms of experimentation impossible. Everything. You want to test that new cancer treatment? No way — the results might get skewed by random fluctuations in the laws of nature. If scientists were to throw out the vast swathes of scientific knowledge as people like Sheldrake advise, it would be at a horrendous human cost. We have an interest in valuing scientific knowledge: it’s all the stuff that we can use.
Scientific knowledge isn’t just a big pile of nonsense for scientists to sit on top of and smugly say “Well we know all that now.” Rather, it’s the thing that drives scientific progress forward. The extra knowledge and its philosophical implications are a side effect of scientific progress. The aim isn’t just to stop smugly once something is “known”, but to build on it. It is all a vast work in progress, and every single step of it has a thousand human stories behind it, rendered for the most part invisible by the exigencies of purpose and progress.
For those who love the creative work of making up stories and building fancy systems of ideas, the sudden existence of masses of accumulated scientific knowledge can seem like a bit of a downer. That’s the main reason, I think, why New Agers are so hostile to science. This massive body of knowledge only seems foreign and strange because we have collected so much of it so swiftly and accurately. Our culture still hasn’t quite adjusted to the presence of this elephant in the room. Instead (if I can be forgiven this atrocious extension of the metaphor), New Age blabber-mouths prefer to act like a bull in a china shop. At least theologians limit themselves to trying to insert God into the remaining empty nooks and crevices of scientific knowledge. But New Age teachers smash holes in the most basic and non-controversial aspects of chemistry and physics without even registering the sound of shelves crashing down around them.
Posted by Yakaru