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10 Things New Agers Don’t Understand About Science #2 — Science is not a satanic ideology

May 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

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14 comments

  1. Wow, this is brilliant, and I’m not even a spambot.


  2. …in Elijah’s time, it was obviously common to set up such ad hoc experiments and to accept their outcomes as valid…

    I suspect much of the old testament is apocryphal religious propaganda. In retrospect it was also imprudent for the authors of the old testament to place on the pseudo-historical record their own adventures in religious intolerance and ethnic cleansing.

    The “experiment” (sic) has more in common with torture of women by drowning them to test if they were witches, than the experiment has in common with science.

    However, like some aspects of modern science, the first step is to formulate a theory (that Baal priests are cranks), then secondly proceed to run a trial and collect observations (the firewood and the lightning).

    …Another element is the ability to dream up complex systems of ideas to explain things…

    Quantum mechanics is a complex system of ideas to explain a piece of natural behaviour of strange physical phenomena evidenced by the double slit experiment.

    Alas, I get the impression some science (e.g. “theoretical physics”) now runs things backwards by devising the theory first and then secondly collecting observations in an attempt to verify the theory. Anyone remember “voodoo economics” ?

    A link to some “The Economist” reviews of three recent books on philosophical questions of science:

    http://www.economist.com/news/books-and-arts/21578366-fundamental-physics-has-made-important-advances-where-does-it-go-here-beyond


  3. @lettersquash,
    Thanks, much appreciated… If the spambots started posting comments like that, they might even stay up.

    @DT,
    Hope you’re not waiting for me to say anything about physics!


  4. @DT: The thing about physics hypotheses is that they come up with predictions and then devise experiments where success and failure are both possible outcomes. They give it a chance to fail. They have to stand ready to deal with counter-evidence. If they predict X can’t happen, their intellectual rivals who favor another hypothesis are going to be very motivated to find X and rub it in their face. If they predict Y will happen under certain circumstances, their rivals will find or recreate those circumstances, find that Q happened, and, again, rub it in their face.


  5. Bronze Dog,
    I agree with you.
    I think another way of putting it would be to categorise science as open-minded, whereas religion in general fits better in the category of closed-minded.
    Science has a history of discarded theories that were temporarily accepted as correct but later found to be inadequate to explain new phenomena and hence had to be revised.

    Scenario A. With some modern physics if you think up an experiment, set up an accelerator, make a few thousand or a few million tests with it, and observe a single positive result I think that counts as a success/evidence to nearly all scientists.

    Scenario B. But sometimes a scientist with a heretical theory will later show otherwise.

    I believe part of the problem is that in neither of these scenarios did the observations come first.

    But even when observations come first there can still be problems. If one lived in the 15th Century (?) and decided science was the thing one did, you might come up with a theory that stones fell faster than feathers under the effect of gravity, you could then build a tower (such as at Pisa) and test your theory, and every trial would verify your theory. Someone actually did that.

    By 1969 Niel Armstrong (I think) was trying a similar experiment or demonstration on the moon.

    I don´t think people should think religion is wrong because “science says so and science is right”. Science is not always right. Religion should be assumed to be wrong because there is no cogent or convincing evidence for religion – it is just something humans invented to control each other, control their environment (sic), and solve the nagging issue of what happens after we die, etc.

    Instead of worrying about dying and the “afterlife” (sic), it is better to try to live as long as and as well as possible.


  6. “I think another way of putting it would be to categorise science as open-minded, whereas religion in general fits better in the category of closed-minded.”

    That made me think of a documentary I saw last night about Elizabethan England, in which the commentator said people were extremely open-minded back then, but he was using it as a criticism, almost immediately using the synonym, “credulous” (since almost everyone believed in witchcraft). So we have to be careful about those categories. In one sense you’re right, Donald – religion is a much more fixed position, so it’s like the mind is made up, its doors closed to alternatives. But the critical sense this commentator was using is that the mind’s doors are too open and _let things in_ untested, or poorly tested – they feel right, or someone trusted says them. It’s maybe just a semantic issue. It’s about when the door is open – only when opinions are being formed or if its left ajar all the time – or about what kind of gatekeeping there is – since some irrational people are very open to new ideas, far too open, while others are too fixed.

    You often find the two attitudes in the same person – one who has made up their mind absolutely that the world is fundamentally spirit, but then they’re endlessly seeking the next guru’s teaching about how it all works or what to do about it – angels? LoA? Hinduism?

    The scientist – if I can play devil’s advocate – could also be said to display a similar dual trait – we’ve made up our mind absolutely that evidence is the test of truth, but we keep a score-sheet of competing hypotheses and keep searching for new insights (or should that be “outsights”?).

    As I think this article hints, the religious person actually does value evidence, it’s just that they tend to be sloppy in their judgement of it. If something is considered true because of a feeling or a very important book, that means the feeling or book is being used as evidence. People do science, as yakaru says, they just never learned to do it properly until the scientific method was invented and refined. Cognitive bias is so powerful that people could be forgiven for believing that prayer or ritual works, because they forget the times when it doesn’t produce results, or imagine that it has when it hasn’t, or don’t notice that they’ve redefined the question to make it fit. There’s a kind of scientific tally going on, but it’s vastly skewed to support whatever the hypothesis is. The key part of good science is that it does its level best to disprove the current hypothesis, which is why scientists got so excited when they thought CERN might have disproved relativity.


  7. I thought a bit more about physics, and I think it’s a matter of the accumulated evidence. Once upon a time, our ancestors were ignorant of everyday phenomena, so they didn’t have to go to great lengths to find the unexplained. A clever lone scientist could produce a theory based on accumulated “hypothesisless” observations.

    Nowadays, we pretty much have the physics of the everyday figured out. Our remaining ignorance generally involves complex systems where we don’t know all the components and interactions (usually covered by other disciplines) and very tiny things that naturally accumulate into the familiar. We’ve learned enough of the latter that we have to find extraordinary circumstances where the particles and forces do something other than business as usual. Since we can’t easily fly into weird regions of space to wrap sensory devices around places where unusual events are going to happen, scientists have to make those sorts of events happen. It’s probably too expensive to haphazardly smash particles at random with blind hope that you’ll find something enlightening, so it makes sense to develop hypotheses first to direct the effort. It gives specific things to look for instead of noise to sort through. Or to unintentionally cherrypick through.


  8. It took a couple of days for me to decide what to write next, meanwhile I was hoping that someone else might add a new opinion or contribution. But they didn´t.

    It is expensive to build accelerators, but they still get built, and they are used to direct specific particles at specific targets in the hope of detecting something previously undetected. Only to the extent that large numbers of particles are used to repeat the collisions, in the hope of something strange happening, these are random events. (I mean the word random can be validly used to describe the events, even though the experiments are of a non-random deliberate design or intent.)

    Resorting to analogy, one might compare the strategy of particle accelerator experiments with the strategy using a machine gun to hunt for a needle in a haystack. If you fire enough bullets there will be no haystack left. And if you are lucky, (at random), if you examine all the bullets afterwards, one bullet might have the needle embedded in it, or if not, the needle might be found dozens of metres away from its original position in the haystack. Or a third possibility is that you find the needle lying on the ground undamaged underneath where the haystack used to sit.

    If you turn that haystack analogy around the other way, a more accurate strategy would be to fire needles at a haystack to detect a bullet in the haystack. But modern physics is using “bullets” to look for “needles”.

    It is a parallel idea with using X-rays to examine bone structure of living beings – use something smaller to examine something bigger. Roentgen (or whoever ?) discovered that process by accident, he didn´t invent the concept and then tried to prove the theory, he noticed photographic plates were spoilt, and then tried to work out why they were spoilt.

    If you get a one in a million interaction out of an accelerator experiment, you can reproduce it if someone else builds a similar accelerator and conducts their own million collisions.

    Generally the accelerator is using bigger things to examine smaller things or break like sized things into smaller things.

    But I am not sure that always means physicists totally understand what is going on. I am sceptical about their self-confidence.

    Some of the physicists think they understand what is going on, and the results they collect coincide with their theories or models. Sooner or later science will make future breakthroughs (in my opinion). They keep getting closer and closer as they learn more.

    N.B. Dropping a cannonball and a feather from a tower simultaneously is also not something that normally happens of its own accord in nature. I don´t know why the tower was built, nor how much it cost, but it was not built to carry out experiments with gravity. The result conformed to the hypothesis, but the hypothesis was incorrect all the same.

    There is nothing Satanic or evil about science. Satan (and evil ?) do not exist outside the minds of people exposed to religious indoctrination. I don´t mean there is no “bad”. I mean there is no cosmic force “evil”. (Apologies for my hubris, I tend to be arrogant when I get going.)


  9. The difficulty with firing needles at the bullets: You’re typically trying to prove the existence of needles that can’t exist in a distinct form for more than a few brief fractions of a second after they leave the haystack. And the easiest way to get them out of the haystack is to fire lots and lots of bullets at them to produce the high energy environment, since the universe isn’t as hot as it used to be, back when needles were able to move around freely without the stabilizing influence of haystacks.


  10. I laughed.
    Very good explanation.


  11. Here’s a nice little article that seems to put a nail in the coffin of Sheldrake’s telepathic dogs idea. I also wondered if dogs are telepathic why would they go anywhere near barbeques in Korea?


  12. Sorry I pushed enter before adding the link!
    http://machineslikeus.com/news/magic-dogs-and-what-says-about-vision-and-consciousness


  13. Andy, your humor is always a delight


  14. Heheh…

    That’s funny. The dogs respond rather much like the audience at a Rupert Sheldrake lecture…. (“Huh? I thought he was going to present some science, where did it go, what happened….?)



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