New articles on the history of psychical research, temporarily for free download

shpsc_coverHistorian of science Andreas Sommer, who blogs at Forbidden Histories, just announced the publication of a special section on the history of psychical research and parapsychology, published in the Elsevier journal Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences. Usually, articles in this journal would be unavailable to most people, but this time Elsevier has provided free download links to the articles that will be accessible until December 7. Sommer has collected the links in his write-up at Forbidden Histories, along with abstracts of the articles. This means that you are just a few clicks away from finding out what role the horse Clever Hans played in the establishment of German parapsychology, how epistemically virtuous William Crookes really was, what sort of relation psychical research had to experimental physics, and what place this elusive discipline has in current historiography and philosophy of science. Among other things. Check it out.

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Books from the Esoteric Brat Pack

As a member of what’s been called the “brat pack” of esotericism scholars I am proud to note that a considerable number of us are appearing on the scene this year with monographs based on PhD dissertations. The brat pack presumably consists of a group of (then) students and emerging scholars who were around at the time of ESSWE 1 in 2007, and who have frequently been seen together at conferences since. While some of us have teamed up for joint gigs in the past (think The Devil’s Party or Contemporary Esotericism, and the conferences that went with both of these),  it looks like 2014 is the big year for solo work. I know of at least four titles either published or forthcoming in 2014 by (for the most part) recent PhDs working in the field of Western esotericism. There may be other publication plans I am not aware of (please leave a note!). Here’s a chronological list of the knowns.

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Scientific delusions, or delusions about science? (Part four: on natural laws and resonating habits)

law-of-gravity-enforced

Laws as a bad metaphor: Who’s enforcing what on whom?

It has been a while since my last post on Rupert Sheldrake’s Science Delusion, or, as it is called in the United States version (published by none other than Deepak Chopra Books – no doubt a token of proper peer-reviewed science), Science Set Free. For new readers as well as for old ones who need to refresh their memories, previous installations in the series are found here, here, and here. Without further ado, let me get started on an evaluation of the fourth dogma ascribed to science: “The laws of nature are fixed”. As in previous posts, evaluating this dogma (and whether it is one to begin with) will occasion a few short excursions in the philosophy and history of science. But this time we are also led, finally, to confront Sheldrake’s own key thesis, namely his theory of “morphic resonance”. Read on if you’re still curious.

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The Problem of Disenchantment – invitation to a PhD defence

Problem of DIsenchantment cover

Last autumn I completed my PhD dissertation, and now it’s time to defend it. The defence is public, and will take place on February 5, 2013, at 12:00 in the Agnietenkapel of the University of Amsterdam. The event is open to anyone (with a max. capacity of 90 people), and I will give a short public lecture on the topic of my research prior to defending it in front of the committee.

While I have given hints about my research in a number of posts here at Heterodoxology, I am now happy to present an official abstract of the final product – the dissertation itself:

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Scientific delusions, or delusions about science? (part two: Mechanism, life, and consciousness)

moses-and-the-ten-commandments

Do you know the meaning of dogmatic?

In the previous post on Rupert Sheldrake’s Science Delusion, I noted that the overall argument is based on a number of misrepresentations and stereotypes of what “science” is up to. The reader gets the impression of a monolithic structure, big-S-“Science”, now dominated by Ten Dogmas, like commandments cut in stone tablets. The history of science has, of course, been rather more complicated. Several of the dogmas do not even correspond well with the actual theories that are pursued today: at best they represent a pointed caricature,  at worst, they build on stereotypes crafted about a century or longer ago, that hardly have any relevance for contemporary scientific practice. Even to the extent that some of the “dogmas” refer to presently widespread theoretical or methodological conventions, holding these to be fixed dogmas obscures the fact that they are the outcome of long and sometimes complicated historical developments, both internal and external to science. In short: that is a widely held belief does not make a “dogma”; that is a commonly recommended way of pursuing a task does not make a dogmatic procedure.

As promised in the previous post, I will go through the ten dogmas one by one to demonstrate some of these points. In the present one we shall focus on the first two, which have to do with questions about mechanism, vitalism, scientific method, materialism, and the problems of defining “consciousness”. We will visit some historical backgrounds and parallels to Sheldrake’s criticism of science, and test his claim that science has closed certain questions “dogmatically”, by holding them up against the actual historical developments of some of the special sciences. Without further ado, here goes dogma #1:

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Scientific delusions, or delusions about science? Rupert Sheldrake’s ten dogmas (part one)

The Science Delusion (Coronet, 2012)

The Science Delusion (Coronet, 2012)

Rupert Sheldrake’s latest book, The Science Delusion (2012; Science Set Free in the US), has been given quite a lot of attention this year. Through its UK title, the book is clearly situated in the market as a sort of counter-manifesto to Dawkins’ God Delusion, or more precisely to the so-called “New Atheism’s” attempt to monopolize discourses on science for a wholly secular, atheistic, and anti-“magical” worldview. Sheldrake’s book has indeed worked as a sort of battle cry for a certain segment of the educated population left cold by creationists and new atheists alike, in fact a rather big group that wants to retain a worldview hospitable to irreducible mysteries without compromising their identity as modern, scientific-minded, rational people.

Sometimes, this rather precarious situation – of wanting science to be something else than what the scientists appear to make it – triggers a form of “ressentiment” against what is perceived as a dominating elite: “Materialist” elite scientists are exercising a “corrupting” influence across the fields of science. Had they not, everyone would have seen it our way. This sort of ressentiment is evident in much of Sheldrake’s polemic. There is much talk of “Science” as a gargantuan single entity, and what “it” dogmatically says and does. Perhaps that is what one would expect from someone who ditched a mainstream scientific career decades ago to pursue the elusive promises of parapsychology, while tirelessly expanding and pushing his own neo-vitalistic theories of “morphic resonance” and the “morphogenetic field” (rejected by his peers) in books and articles published for a wider and much more enthusiastic audience. His popular image as a persecuted visionary was greatly enhanced by the senior editor of Nature John Maddox, who foolishly entitled his review of Sheldrake’s A New Science of Life (1981)  “a book for burning?”. Commercially speaking, it was probably the best review Sheldrake could ever have hoped for.

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Parapsychology in Germany – review of Heather Wolffram’s Stepchildren of Science (2009)

In 2009 a fat and promising book landed on my desk, fresh from the publisher. I had looked forward to it for a while, as the topic was highly relevant for my dissertation, and this was the first full-length academic study ever to look at it. It was furthermore written by an author whose articles on the same topic I had been following for a while, with great interest. The book was Heather Wolffram’s Stepchildren of Science: Psychical Research and Parapsychology in Germany, c. 1870-1939. I was going to write a book review for Aries, which I did. It only appeared this spring, however. Since it is already three years ago that the book was published, I think it is about time to share the review with a broader community. So please find the pre-publication version of the review below.

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Religion and Scientific Change: The Case of the New Natural Theologies between the World Wars (2/2)

Today, July 4 2012, Cern announced the likely detection of the elusive Higgs boson – known by the popular press as the “God particle”.

Last installment of my lecture on “Religion and Scientific Change” closed by introducing three levels on which claims about relationships between religion and science should be analysed: the institutional, the socio-cultural, and the individual. I was going to wait a couple of days with releasing the rest, but since news headlines today have been all about the discovery of the “God particle” in the bowels of the Large Hydron Collider at Cern, it  seemed highly appropriate to continue. Why is it that such a (truth be told, rather ridiculous) religious pet-name has been put on the elusive boson? Read on, and you might find out. (And: happy Higgs boson day!)

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Religion and Scientific Change: The Case of the New Natural Theologies between the World Wars (1/2)

Earlier this spring I gave an Illustre School lecture at Spui25 in Amsterdam, on the lofty topic of the relationship between science and religion in the early 20th century. A significant part of my PhD dissertation concerns this topic, and I hope that the lecture provides a relatively accessible  (=popularized) account of some of the questions I grapple with there. There is also a methodological concern in this lecture. As the abstract stated:

Since the European Enlightenment, the relation between science and religion has been a topic of much public interest. Usually, however, it has been a debate formed by heavily vested interests: in the 19th century, scientists attacked organized religion as a part of their emancipation from the church; vice versa, religious spokespersons have been eager to claim compatibility between doctrines of faith and emerging new authoritative views on nature. Even today, it remains the case that most academic research on relations between science and religion are driven either by the current “new atheism” vogue, or funded by religiously motivated organizations, such as the massively influential Templeton Foundation. The result has been a loss of nuance and critical perspective. In order to remedy this situation, one needs, on the one hand, to broaden the scope and look at the wider social contexts of scientific knowledge production and interaction with religious institutions, and, on the other, to be more precise by looking at particular instances of such interaction.

Continuing my practice from an earlier talk on a similar topic, I will make the manuscript of the lecture available here, in two installments. You’ll find the first part below.

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Science, fables and chimera

The conference season begins. My first stop this year is Toulouse, and a history of science/cultural history conference entitled “Science, fables et chimères: croissements” / “Science, fables and chimera: a strange encounter”.

A description is available from the conference website:

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