Last November I took part in an interesting interdisciplinary conference at the Humboldt in Berlin, on “Looking through the Occult: Instrumentation, Esotericism, and Epistemology“. It moved in the landscape of media studies, history of science and technology, religious studies, art history, and esotericism, and was organized by a scholarly network interested in what they call “nonhegemonic knowledge”:
Looking through the Occult: Conference on Instrumentation, Esotericism and Epistemology in the 19th Century (Humboldt U, Berlin)
I’m excited to participate in a wonderful conference at Berlin’s Humboldt University on November 14-15: “Looking through the Occult: Instrumentation, Esotericism and Epistemology in the 19th Century”. The conference is free and open to the public, so if you are in Berlin and have an above average interest in topics such as spiritualism and mediums, ether physics, spirit photography, early radio technology and x-rays, this should be a good treat. Check out the nice website for more information on the programme, how to get there, and what to read up on in advance.
It is astonishing how much of modern occultism is dependent on works of fiction. The machinations of secret societies, the malicious rituals of satanic cults, and the magicians’ adventures on the astral plane have all been portrayed in great detail in works of fiction, which have in turn directly influenced the creation of real organisations and inspired new ritual practices among self-styled occultists. The entire current of Rosicrucian initiatory societies even had its main impetus in a text considered by its authors to be a playful ludibrium – although no doubt one that expressed deep convictions. This dynamic of fiction turning to fact is itself perhaps nowhere better explored than in Umberto Eco’s work of fiction, Foucault’s Pendulum. In recent years there has been quite some interest in such dynamics among contemporary scholars of religion as well – focusing on what they call “invented”, “hyperreal”, or “fiction-based” religions. While these scholars tend to focus on relatively recent cases – Jediism, Tolkien-spirituality and the sort – we have every reason to believe that this is a much older process. Particularly, it would seem, in the Western esoteric context.
A case in point is the concept of “vril” – an occult fluid or force that can be manipulated, controlled and directed by spiritually advanced initiates. It was invented by the the author and politician Edward Bulwer-Lytton (1803-1873) in his novel, The Coming Race (1871).
Scientific delusions, or delusions about science? (Part four: on natural laws and resonating habits)
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.
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:
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 x is a widely held belief does not make x a “dogma”; that y is a commonly recommended way of pursuing a task does not make y 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:
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.
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!)
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.