10 Things New Agers Don’t Understand About Science: Part 4 — DisproofAugust 6, 2013
Esther Hicks once said, “There is not a shred of evidence that the Law of Attraction doesn’t work.” And she’s right. In fact the Law of Attraction cannot be disproven.
But this is not a strength; it’s a weakness. And it’s why spiritual ideas and systems never advance or improve in any way beyond better marketing.
It’s also why spiritual believers are so miffed and confused by criticism, and don’t know how to respond to it.
Scientific advancement is in fact driven by disproof. Disproof is the dark (but less complicated) brother of proof. It’s hard (and by some standards impossible) to completely prove something. But disproof can be much clearer. And once it has happened, an idea can be dropped and need not cause any further distractions. The more clearly an idea or theory is stated, the easier it is to disprove.
This post considers how world views or belief systems get constructed, and what they need in order to be useful on a practical level.
An Ancient Theory of gravity: Natural Place and Natural Motion
Aristotle, two and a half thousand years ago, wrote one of the first decent explanations for why things fall. It is in their very nature, he said, for them to move toward their “natural place”, which is at the center of the of the earth. In other words, if you let go of a stone you are holding, something within it — in its very nature — will drive it straight downwards.
In the Aristotelian system, the earth is at the center of the universe. And the center of the universe is the Natural Place for all heavy things. The earth itself is the spherical coagulation of the all the heavy elements in the universe.
Here we meet the ancient Greek concept of the four elements: Earth, Water, Air, Fire. The elements Earth and Water are heavy and their natural motion is straight down. Air and Fire, the lighter elements, have a natural motion which impels them straight up. A tree will grow because it has enough Air and Fire mixed in with the heavy elements to enable a motion upwards, but when it decays, its elements will decay and move towards their natural place.
Aristotle saw “motion” not only in terms of changes of place. He also identified qualitative and quantitative changes as forms of “motion”. The growth (increase in size) of a tree or an animal he saw as “quantitative motion”. Even more strangely, he saw the ripening of an apple or the psychological maturing of a child as it grows, as “qualitative motion”.
In other words, it is in the nature of an apple to turn red, just as it is in the nature of a stone to fall to the ground !!!
A force within the apple makes it ripen. A force within the stone moves it towards its Natural Place.
A brilliant experiment carried out by Henry Cavendish in 1798 ultimately disproved this notion in the most direct and convincing manner.
Essentially, Cavendish placed two small lead weights of equal mass on each end of a wooden beam, and suspended the beam, perfectly balanced, on a wire. He then carefully maneuvered two larger lead weights into closer proximity with the two smaller weights, and saw the beam swing, as the smaller weights were attracted to the larger ones. He had canceled out the earth’s gravitational pull, and could then see and even exactly measure the gravitational force of the weights as he moved them. These measurements confirmed Newton’s formula for universal gravity.
Graphic from The Physics Classroom website
The Value of Disproof
Aristotle was trying to discover and state universal laws of nature in an unequivocal manner. Had he been right, Cavendish’s experiment would have supported him. (That is, the smaller weights would not have moved.)
It would be easy (at least superficially) to think up ways of rescuing Aristotle’s system from this disproof. In fact one pope argued that as God is omnipotent, He could be responsible for causing all change in the universe in an infinitely varying number of ways and therefore be undetectable to science. Nice try, but it would have stopped scientific advancement in its tracks in 400 years ago had anyone taken it seriously.
Scientific advancement is based on the disproof and discarding of ideas. Each step forward is necessarily accompanied by a multitude of missteps and the minute refinement of ideas that partly work. Esoteric systems on the other hand (think of astrology, for example) are usually cut from one piece of cloth and will unravel when one tugs on the first loose thread.
Adding on special rules, exceptions or obfuscations to evade disproof can give the appearance of strength. But if nothing can disprove it, nothing can support it either. Anyone believing a system of beliefs which evades all possibility of disproof should start recognizing this as a sign of weakness and learn to suspect a trap.
Concluding Thoughts: Aristotle’s Death
Aristotle died persecuted and isolated in self-imposed exile from Athens. After becoming increasingly entangled in political complications, he was accused of teaching that prayer and animal sacrifice don’t work. Certainly there is no place for such things in his system, but how ironic it is, that although the refutation of Aristotle’s cosmology is today calmly accepted, we are still arguing about prayer and various forms sacrifice and magic.
Notes & References
* Esther Hicks claims to channel some kind of disembodied corporate entity that goes by the name Abraham. She was initially involved in making The Secret, but left after some kind of squabble. She tried to copyright the idea of the Law of Attraction, but failed For more information about this scam, see the Post-Abe blog,
* The term falsifiability is a more correct term than disproof, but I didn’t use it. My apologies to Karl Popper.
* Anyone who thinks it is a little harsh to compare esoteric ideas like the LoA to the greatest ideas in natural science obviously hasn’t seen The Secret or read any statements by proponents themselves. The LoA is regularly compared to the law of gravity in terms of effects and certainty. It is regularly claimed that Isaac Newton and even Albert Einstein “knew” of and believed in it. When challenged in this, believers usually say “Prove they didn’t.” Rhonda Byrne’s book The Power (which I’ve reviewed here) claimed that the Law of Attraction is an established part of modern physics. In fact, the system she proposed was vastly more simplistic and far less plausible than the system Empedocles dreamt up in 450 BC! Unlike Byrne, Empedocles managed to notice that there were forces of repulsion as well as attraction. I doubt there has ever in human history been a theory as stupid and hubristic as the one Ms Byrne invented.
* The pope who made the claim about God causing events in an infinite number of ways was Pope Urban VIII. He agreed to allow Galilleo to publish his book about the heliocentric system in the condition that Galilleo include a fair hearing in it for this idea. Galilleo put it on the last page, in a dialogue where it was expressed by a character called Simplicius. I guess you know the rest!
* Newton in fact also claimed gravity was the activity of god, Newton was of course a devout Christian (in fact quite a fanatic and even a heretic by the standards of his time) and an alchemist. It appears he was deeply disturbed by the incipient atheism in the mechanistic clockwork systems of the universe that were current. It has been speculated that he drew on alchemical ideas when formulating his theory of gravity. Certainly the “action at a distance” implied by gravity is completely at odds with early mechanistic models.
* A fascinating and beautifully made documentary about Aristotle’s biological studies, called Aristotle’s Lagoon is at this link.
Anyone with any kind of background in science will have noticed that I don’t have a background in science. I’ve checked everything as well as I can, but any corrections or improvements are welcome.
Posted by Yakaru