“Emic historiography of science” – a possibly useful term

It’s been silent here for a while. My excuse is a lot of traveling and lecturing over the past month. In trying to get back to blogging, I’ll give some thoughts on a concept I’ve been thinking about in connection with one of the lectures in Trondheim a few weeks ago: “emic historiography of science”.

When preparing a lecture for a course on contemporary religion in the West, I noticed that my powerpoint mostly dealt with issues in the history of modern science. I had slides on Victorian ether physics, on quantum mechanics, and the popularization of relativity theory in the 1920s. How could this be relevant for a religious studies course?

The short answer is that much post-war religion makes liberal use of references to modern science. The most well-known example, perhaps, is so-called “New Age science”, exemplified by authors such as Fritjof Capra, David Bohm, Amit Goswami, Rupert Sheldrake, and others. In a yet broader sense, some scholars have talked about “scientistic cults”, referring to various New Religious Movements (NRMs) which incorporate sciency talk and borrows rhetoric from (popular) scientific discourse to legitimate claims and construct modern religio-scientific mythologies (cf. the discussions on scientism here and here). In studying these trends, having a basic understanding of the history of science is an obvious advantage – also since many of the innovators in New Age science discourse come out of the scientific professions themselves (including all of the three mentioned above).

The extended answer is that a feature of New Age science and other modern religious appropriations of science is a particular use of science history. A use which, furthermore, which could make a distinction between emic and etic historiographies of science relevant. Just as new religions frequently invent traditions, place themselves within a historical narrative which infuses an additional dimension of meaning to their practice, “scientistic” religious perspectives would use the history of science to legitimize their position.

If we acknowledge this, it becomes even more relevant for the scholar of religion to know a little about the etic history of science (meaning  the kind of historiography which is practiced by professional historians of science).

Capra's The Turning Point goes even longer in suggesting a significant shift in mentality, worldview and politics, connected with the (by now not very) new revolution in physics.

It doesn’t take many glances at the New Age science literature to find that the historiographies of science they present serve idiosyncratic strategic goals. Fritjof Capra’s classic of the genre, The Tao of Physics (1975), not only presents the famous “parallelism” between “eastern mysticism” and “modern science”, but also presents a particular picture of the history of Western scientific thought. This picture amounts to a slightly demonised perspective on  the worldview which, we are told, dominated from Descartes and Newton to the days of Planck, Einstein,  Bohr and Heisenberg – the “classical worldview”.  The emergence of quantum mechanics in particularly is cast in the emic historiograpy of science as a revolution which entails a move away from cold, materialistic mechanism and dualism to an open-ended “holistic” worldview with a place for consciousness and even mysticism.

A first role for history of science in the history of religion, then, is to debunk such narratives on historical grounds. Perhaps the classical worldview was more “open” than it is construed to be, and perhaps modern physics has less obvious connections to mysticism than Capra would suggest. Bringing in and contrasting with current etic historiographies, we can start reading the spokespersons’ strategic uses of science history on the one hand, and suggest lines of research which breach with it on the other.

One question which arises is, “when, where and why did this particular conception of the disjunction between ‘classical’ and ‘modern’ physics arise?” What are the roots and foundation of the emic historiography of science? By looking at the history of modern science I think we find that it does not start with the perspective of New Age science in the post-war era. In fact, they would find a ready-made distinction between classical and modern physics within their own discipline’s self-understanding. My answer at the moment, then, is that  the origins may be traced to the popularizing strategies of early-20th century scientists themselves.

In the 1920s and 1930s, a number of (relatively) young, brilliant and ambitious physicists were taking up the exciting lines of research suggested by Max Planck, Albert Einstein and others, bringing it into new and uncharted territories. New conceptual tools were invented to deal with the emerging micro-physics: matrix mechanics, wave-particle duality, complementarity, the uncertainty principle, etc.

It’s been pointed out that in writing about these developments, scientists were more than willing to emphasise the novelty and break with the past, even to the extent of extrapolating too much. This was part of the (still slightly controversial) thesis of Paul Forman, who argued that people like Heisenberg, Bohr, Pauli and others tended were too enthusiastic in ascribing various worldview  implications to their discoveries and theories (see this post for another episode involving these guys). As Forman put it succinctly in a 1984 article:

There is great disparity between quantum mechanics, per se, and the world-view implications immediately ascribed to it. Quantum mechanics is merely a statistical theory. As Einstein repeatedly but vainly emphasized, it cannot be regarded as a complete description of an independently subsisting microscopic world. Nor can it be regarded as an appropriate conceptual basis for describing our macroscopic world, where, unquestionably, we deal with individual objects and events, not statistical ensembles. Thus even categoric statements about the invalidity of the law of causality in the physical world go much too far, not least because they slur over the fact that quantum mechanics is a deterministic theory of probabilities. As for the still farther-reaching world-view implications ascribed to quantum mechanics – that it ensures free will, or the impossibility of a physicochemical explanation of life – one must say that these are completely unwarranted. (Forman 1984, pp. 336-7)

Even if one doesn’t completely buy Forman’s explanation – that the scientists involved were trying to accommodate to the Zeitgeist of the Weimar republic, including a hostility towards materialism, determinism and causality – the overenthusiastic attempt to make physics more philosophical is hard to deny. This characteristic is also very noticeable in Great Britain at the same time, where scientists such as James Jeans and Arthur Eddington where publishing books for a larger audience, portraying science’s new worldview not only as mysterious and exciting, but even as having philosophical implications pointing away from materialism towards forms of idealism.

1919 solar eclipse; photo by Eddington.

Eddington, who famously “verified” the general theory of relativity with his pictures of light bended around an eclipsed sun in 1919, even wrote that “religion only became possible for a reasonable man of science around the year 1927.” The reference, no doubt, was to Heisenberg’s paper on the uncertainty principle.

By looking at the discourse of the scientists who were involved with this “paradigm shift” (we can also remember that Kuhn placed some emphasis on the importance of generational shifts and the enthusiasm of young people who have not learned to see the world in a particular way, in the settlement of new paradigms), we see that many tools were there already, and New Age science discourse takes its “emic historiography” in part from the strategies of revolutionary science itself.

A final point to make about this is that the strict distinction which is created occludes the fact that so many Victorian “classical” physicists were also enemies of materialism, and defenders of various types of “natural theology”. Some of this has been mentioned earlier on the blog, concerning spiritualism, occultism, and psychical research. Central physicist of the 19th century, particularly those working with ether physics, including G. G. Stokes, FitzGerald, Oliver Lodge, and W. F. Barrett, were ready to advance idealistic metaphysics and inscribe physics in a broader field of natural theology. In this sense, the emic historiography of science hides a continuity within physics to trace the deeper implications of the physical paradigm to which one ascribes.

(For the Forman thesis, see:

Forman, Paul. 1971. “Weimar culture, causality, and quantum theory: adaptation by German physicists and mathematicians to a hostile environment”. Historical Studies in the Physical Sciences, Vol. 3, pp 1-115

Forman, Paul. 1979. “Reception of an Acausal Quantum Mechanics in Germany and Britain”. In: Seymour Mauskopf (ed.), The Reception of Unconventional Science, pp. 11-50. Washington D.C.: AAAS.

Forman, Paul. 1984. “Kausalität, Anschaullichkeit, and Individualität, or How Cultural Values Prescribed the Character and Lessons Ascribed to Quantum Mechanics”. In: Society and Knowledge, eds. Nico Stehr and Volker Meja. Transaction Books: pp 333-347.

For a discussion of the emergence of a “new natural theology”  in Britain during the first decades of the 20th century, check out:

Peter J. Bowler, 2001. Reconciling Science and Religion: The Debate in Early Twentieth Century Britain. Chicago: Chicago University Press.


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This work by Egil Asprem was first published on Heterodoxology. It is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.


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9 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Welcome back, and great post. Niels Bohr was himself an ardent believer in the philosophical implications of quantum mechanics. See especially John Heilbron’s “Earliest Missionaries of the Copenhagen Spirit” (in full here).

    Also, be on the lookout for David Kaiser’s forthcoming latest, How the Hippies Saved Physics which, I believe, talks about both things like the Tao of Physics, but also the origins of the “foundations” of quantum mechanics research program in the ’70s.

    • Thanks Will, hopefully I’ll be more regular again now. I’m using Heilbron’s article to say something about the (amateur-) philosophical sides of early QM in a chapter that may be in my dissertation. But thanks for the reminder, and also for the Kaiser reference which I will be looking out for.

  2. I will second Will on the welcome back and the great post. It’s a natural for the Esoteric Science edition of GS but as you are hosting that yourself I don’t need tp nominate you! BTW your list of New Agers didn’t include Gary Zukav’s “Dancing Wu LI Masters” are you aware of the book? It ploughs a simmilar furrow to Capra.

  3. Thanks Thony, and yes, the upcoming carnival was an additional kick in the butt to get back in. 😉
    Well aware of Zukav, and lots of other titles in the genre. There may be more on that later.

  4. […] Apocalypse doesn’t always need to be negatively framed; in fact often apocalyptic religious discourse attach utopian millenarian views to the end of the (old) world. This is typically characteristic of New Age religion, and contemporary esoteric apocalypticisms. This has informed New Age receptions of modern physics – with quite a lot of help from the strategic uses of the history of science wielded by the generation of scientists who distinguished their new “modern” physics from the old “classical worldview” – a topic explored here at Heterodoxology, in a post on the “Emic historiography of science”. […]

  5. wonderfull article !

  6. […] the philosophical style of men like Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg, has been used time and again to paint rather fanciful pictures of a ‘re-enchantment of science’.[1] That, obviously, is not the point here; I find such uses of history to be as untenable as they […]

  7. The blog entry has its focus on various physicists worldviews and their (and others) interpretations of QM phenomena. Another aspect is just as important, how mathematicians muddied the waters of physics. This muddying has also happened to the field of cosmology. So this topic isn’t just about “paradigms” and “New Age”, but of a very serious subject of getting lost in “the realm of fancyful mathematics”.

  8. […] that serve various insider agendas, but are simply not supported by rigorous historical research (I wrote about this on Heterodoxology many years ago). Being able to clearly “differentiate between strategic mythmaking and actual scientific […]

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