Why fear the history of science? A brief response to Don Wiebe

The Problem of Disenchantment: Scientific Naturalism and Esoteric Discourse, 1900-1939 (Brill, 2014)I am more used to being labelled a “scientistic reductionist” than an “anti-science relativist”. While neither is particularly accurate, I was certainly surprised to see Don Wiebe review my book, The Problem of Disenchantment, as a “full-scale attack on modern Western science” (p. 1). Ironically, the review (published online in the journal Religion) appears side by side with an article of mine [free postprint here] that argues for consilience between the humanities and the sciences, so readers are likely to walk away a bit puzzled.

Since the charge of anti-science is a serious one, however, and since it comes from a well-respected scholar whose ardent support for a scientific and secular study of religion I have, in fact, admired since my undergraduate days, it seems necessary to take a moment to clarify some crucial issues that appear to get mixed up in the review.


The (all too) secret history of Vril

Julian Strube's first book, Vril, becomes a standard reference for knowledge about this peculiar concept and its even more peculiar history.

Julian Strube’s first book, Vril, becomes a standard reference for knowledge about this peculiar concept and its even more peculiar history.

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)


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.


Scientific delusions, or delusions about science? (Part three: muddled conservations)

In the previous post on Sheldrake’s Science Delusion I discussed the first two dogma, concerning the “mechanical philosophy” and its challenges, and the question of whether matter is conscious. As we saw there, Sheldrake comes out as a sort of modern-day vitalist (even though he claims to be an organicist I think his anti-materialism is actually more radical, placing him in the vitalist camp), and a mild supporter of panpsychism. In the present installment we shall look at the third dogma, where Sheldrake takes on a central conceptions of physics: that the matter and energy of the universe is constant, and subjected to laws of conservation and conversion.


Faking it

Bad science is normal. Outright fabrication and fraud is luckily less normal, but much more wide-spread than it ought to be. Results may be fabricated entirely to support desired conclusions; conversely, inconvenient results may be challenged by fabricated doubt – whether the fabricators are payed by tobacconists fearing the consequences of cancer research, or oil companies afraid of climate taxes and infrastructural changes. The result is false knowledge and fabricated ignorance – both serious threats to a complex global risk society that needs decisions to be made on the best possible foundation.

While industrial interests and funding structures in the sciences are no doubt accountable for much bad science, they are far from the only reasons. There is of course the personal factor; but even the inevitable moralizing discourse on frauds – the black sheep of the academic flock, who act on egoistic intentions, manipulating colleagues, friends, students to their benefit with a lack of conscience that borders on the psychopathic – is ultimately unconvincing. Especially considering that bad science is normal, while psychopathy is not.


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


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:


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.


What’s the deal with Glastonbury?

Glastonbury Tor; or the island of Avalon emerging from a sea of mist?

Glastonbury in Somerset is known as a pilgrimage site for neopagans and adherents of various “alternative spiritualities” world wide. The mythology of the place is full of stories about Arthurian knights, primeval British Christians, druids, the lost tribes of Israel, healing wells, and the Holy Grail. Theories about secret connections between ancient monuments, and hidden correspondences or “lay lines” connecting features in the landscape of Glastonbury are easy to find.

What is the history of all this local myth? How did this small village become such a major centre of heterodox pilgrimage? What does the phenomenon of Glastonbury tell us about religion generally, and its British history specifically? These are among the questions that Hereward Tilton explores in an ongoing research project. He spoke about it at the Contemporary Esotericism conference in Stockholm this August, and the paper has now been made available online at the ContERN website.

Tilton explores the development of a lively folklore around Glastonbury, and explains its origins in the sociocultural and economic contexts of the middle ages, the impact of the reformation, and much later the rediscovery of Glastonbury by a generation of occultists at the end of the 19th century. In addition to many intriguing historical details, about which one can read more in the published paper, Tilton seeks to explore some concerns that are of broader interest. One of these is the intriguing confluence of British Israelism (the notion that the British people is in fact one of the lost tribes of Israel, and the British monarchs descend from king David) with esoterically oriented notions of prisca theologia (i.e. the notion of “primitive revelation” and ancient wisdom), and local myths at Glastonbury:

“While the origins of British Israelism proper can be traced to the early nineteenth century and writers such as John Wilson and Edward Hine, the relationship of their work to earlier post-Reformation narratives concerning the lost Semitic tribe of the British and the Druidic prisca theologia is clearly of central import to an understanding of the history of esotericism at Glastonbury. Of particular interest is the legend of Christ’s visit to Glastonbury, and his building of the first British church there, which as we may recall descended from on high like the New Jerusalem.”

Another intriguing aspect Tilton mentions, but unfortunately did not get to explore in any detail in the present paper, concerns the place of psychological factors in accounting for “esoteric” motifs. In particular, Tilton is interested in schizotypy and apophenia – both of which come to mind when one considers the associative, pattern-seeking, sometimes paranoid reading of signs and symbols in buildings, text, nature, and culture, so characteristic of esoteric material. Tilton connects them to Faivre’s old characteristics:

“The esoteric mindset as defined by Faivre corresponds in many particulars with what may be termed an ‘esoteric schizotypy’, in accordance with a contemporary psychiatric category encompassing a broad spectrum of personalities exhibiting schizotypal traits (e.g. visual and auditory hallucinations, paranoid or conspiratorial ideation, a tendency to distant associations); of particular significance in this regard is the phenomenon of ‘apophenia’, the discovery of meaningful patterns in apparently random data that we find exemplified in the creative interpretations of Glastonbury’s sacred landscape … . My purpose in this regard is not to psychopathologize esotericism, but rather to understand the interaction of dominant and deviant psychologies within those processes of marginalization that currently constitute a central historiographical concern of our field.”

It is interesting work, even if it is no doubt going to be controversial in certain circles. But there is already a lot of related research in the cognitive study of religion that might serve as a basis for further research along these lines. It was, for example, only a month ago that the journal Applied Cognitive Psychology published a study that found “religious” and “believers in the paranormal” to be more prone to apophenia (illusory face perception in this case) than “sceptics” and “non-believers”. Tom Rees recently blogged about this research at Epiphenom  (which, by the way, is an excellent resource for staying up to date on research that explores the relations between psychological,  sociological and cultural factors in accounting for the disparate phenomena we call “religion”). Studies exploring the relation of conspiracy belief and schizotypy are also not hard to come by (see e.g. this recent paper from Personality and Individual Differences). One should not exclude the possibility that research along similar lines might have a role to play in future theorising about esotericism as well. I for one certainly look forward to see what Tilton will do with these connections in the future.
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This blog post by Egil Asprem was first published on Heterodoxology. It is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

Digitized sources for the history of German parapsychology

Sphinx journal

German occult, spiritualist and parapsychological journals now digitized and available online.

The history of parapsychology has been one of my research interests in recent years. It is not so long ago that I  reviewed Heather Wolffram’s recent book on German parapsychologyStepchildren of Science,  and noted that it breaks new ground in providing access to little-explored German sources – in English. Much of the source material for German parapsychology is indeed very hard to access outside of Germany. In my own research, I have been able to draw on a good collection of psychical research literature at the Amsterdam University Library, much of which was collected by a students society for psychical research active in Amsterdam in the early 20th century. Even this collection is weak on German sources, however. The same is true for the digital collections available through Archive.org – a great resource for anglophone sources, but less so for other languages. In my case, I had to spend a couple of days at the IGPP’s collections in Freiburg to finish the parts of my research that dealt with German parapsychology.


Coptic scholars are in a strange position compared to most other researchers of arcane and obscure corners of history: their field occasionally makes world-wide news headlines, especially when there is some text claiming something about a certain carpenter from Nazareth. Last week newspapers across the world announced that someone writing in  coptic on a piece of papyrus some time possibly in the 4th century had insinuated that the carpenter might have had a wife. Sensational, but well: it turns out the papyrus fragment is most likely not authentic. Read more about the arguments in this excellent post by Hugo Lundhaug and Alin Suciu. (For the record – this is the first time I reblog anything, so bear with me).

Alin Suciu

First of all, it should be clearly stated that, although in the following lines we shall express our doubts concerning the authenticity of the so-called Gospel of Jesus’s Wife, our suggestions remain hypothetical until the ink of the document has been properly tested. Secondly, our analysis does not refer either to the figure of the historical Jesus, or to his marital status, which are beyond our field of expertise, but only to a literary fragment written in Coptic, whose identity is suspicious.

During the 10th International Congress of Coptic Studies, which took place September 17-22, 2012 in Rome, the Harvard Professor Karen L. King introduced to us a previously unknown Coptic papyrus fragment.


Her paper was delivered on Tuesday, September 18, from 7.00 o’clock P.M., in one of the rooms of the Patristic Institute ‘Augustinianum.’  We estimate that about…

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