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Science and the Occult: Where the Twain Meet

Science and the Occult

By David Grandy

Originally printed in the JANUARY-FEBRUARY 2006 issue of Quest magazine. 

Citation: Grandy, David. 'Science and the Occult: Where the Twain Meet.' Quest  94.1 (JANUARY-FEBRUARY 2006):13-17.

When I was in graduate school, one of my professors, an eminent historian of medieval science espoused in his lectures what one student affectionately tagged as the Old Man River theory of scientific progress. The professor asserted that in his research he found no evidence of social or cultural factors impinging on the development of medieval science: driven purely by intellectual thought, the science, just kept rolling along. I suspect the professor would not have made this claim to a more sophisticated audience; although he had little patience with any attempt to explain science as nothing but a reaction to outside cultural forces, he was savvy enough to know that there is more to the story of science than just intellectual thought.

Like my professor, I enjoy science enough to see it as something truly remarkable. Perhaps, however, I am more inclined to admit that there is no clear line of demarcation between science per se and culture. Actually, this is not much of an admission: it has become a commonplace understanding among historians of science. Gone are the days that scholars of science portray it as humankind's sole instrument of truth in a confused and superstitious world. Despite this, many people still talk as if modern science is wholly distinct from and clearly superior to such traditions as alchemy, astrology, magic, Cabala, and nineteenth century Spiritualism. These movements, so this line of thought goes, have all been repudiated by science and are therefore intellectual dead ends.

This outlook is rendered problematic by historical scholarship (most of it in the last fifty years) that indicates complex and subtle interactions between now discarded beliefs and contemporary scientific principles. This is to say that scientific theories often emerge from circumstances that later may be seen as scientifically dubious. A case in point is Isaac Newton's law of universal gravity. The law, as presented in textbooks, consists of a straightforward factual statement (every body in the universe is attracted to every other with a force proportional to the product of their masses and inversely proportional to the square of the distance between them) and a matching mathematical equation. Given only this much, students reflexively assume that Newtonian physics is a world apart from alchemy or magic. After all, there is a conciseness and clarity to the theory that is rarely found in other domains of human experience, let alone in the murky depths of alchemy. One is surprised then to learn that Newton invested much time and energy seeking to produce the Philosopher's Stone, the ultimate aim of alchemy. What is more, this quest cannot simply be written off as an intellectual dead end because it appears to have played into Newton's scientific thinking, quite possibly into his theory of gravity (Westfall 1985).

Today alchemy is considered an occult pursuit, and it is hard to imagine how it may have once figured into Newton's formulation of universal gravity. What we tend to forget, however, is that while the law can be clearly and succinctly stated, it is not altogether obvious how gravity works. Most people today, following Newton, describe it as an action-at a distance force, but this introduces difficulties, at least it did for Newton. In explaining the tides, he proposed that the moon (and the sun) reaches across apparently empty space to tug on the earth. For some of his contemporaries, however, this explanation went nowhere because it afforded no understanding of the mechanism by which gravitational forces propagate. Indeed it introduced a puzzle for anyone (like René Descartes) wishing to evacuate the cosmos of non contact forces, the like of which bespoke astrological influences and alchemical sympathies and antipathies. Newton privately summed up his misgivings in this way:

That gravity should be innate, inherent, and essential to matter so that one body may act upon another at a distance through a vacuum without the mediation of any thing else by and through which their action or force may be conveyed from one to another is to me so great an absurdity that I believe that no man who has in philosophical matters any competent faculty of thinking can ever Fall into it. (Westfall 1980)

Newton later defended his law of gravity by arguing that its validity is secured by observable phenomena, one can empirically test its predictions. However, he added, no one can discover its causes, why nature behaves this way and in this sense only is the law occult (Westfall 1971). This admission speaks volumes about science (or, more generally, about the human intellect—the failing is not specific to science) and permits understanding of why occult or pseudoscientific practices often flourish side by side with science. For those who want to know the why of things or the ultimate causes, scientific theories do not quite close the explanatory circle. Arthur Schopenhauer faulted science on this score, noting that investigation of its theories recalls the experience of somebody who unexpectedly finds himself in a group whose members systematically introduce each other as a friend or cousin, as if by doing so, they have sufficiently explained themselves; the visitor, however, though expressing pleasure with each introduction, has always the unexpressed question on his lips: But how, the deuce, did I turn up among all these people? (Schopenhauer 1966).

Over a hundred years ago, the young H.G. Wells, full of enthusiasm for science but sensing its limitations, stated:

Science is a match that man has just got alight. He thought he was in a room in moments of devotion, a temple and that his light would be reflected from and display walls inscribed with wonderful secrets and pillars carved with philosophical systems wrought in harmony. It is a curious sensation, now that the preliminary sputter is over and the flame burns up clear, to see his hands lit and just a glimpse of himself and the patch he stands on visible, and around him, in place of all that human comfort and beauty he had anticipated darkness still.

Wells did not mean to dismiss science; throughout the first half of the 20th century he was one of its leading advocates. He did, however, appreciate that while science has the capacity to improve human life in many ways, it also, as Wells' mentor T.H. Huxley put it, gives us a cosmos that works through the lower nature of man, not for righteousness, but against it. In other words, a purposeless, uncaring, accidental cosmos: That is why, in Huxley;s mind, science had the mandate of building up an artificial world in the cosmos. The universe was neither congenial with nor sympathetic to humankind's interests; indeed, it had no capacity to be. As William James, a contemporary of Wells, noted at the turn of the twentieth century: Nature has no one distinguishable ultimate tendency with which it is possible to feel a sympathy. In the vast rhythm of her processes, as the scientific mind now follows them, she appears to cancel herself.

When combined with the earlier thought that scientific explanations fail to offer ultimate answers, this consideration—that, as physicist Steven Weinberg insisted, the universe is pointless makes it unsurprising that many people today, in their search for life clarifying meaning, look away from science. Of course, some scientists portray science as having religious value, thereby one reads God's Book of Nature, but since the Enlightenment this characterization has lost ground to the view that no human endeavor can publicly decide the question of God's existence or purpose. Implicit in this outlook is the positivistic intuition that science concerns the logical extraction of laws and predictive consequences from verifiable sense data. That is, science is a way of putting ourselves in a situation where hypotheses can be confirmed or rejected on the basis of procedures that keep one firmly anchored to physical facts and the unbiased analysis thereof. So disciplined, science presumably makes no unwarranted inferences or metaphysical leaps.

The positivistic outlook has now worn thin. There is, as Edwin Burtt put it in his 1920s critique of logical positivism, “no escape from metaphysics. Indeed, any escape attempt will be driven by considerations that open onto ultimately undecided issues of ontology and epistemology metaphysical considerations. Philosophically speaking, this fact blurs the line between science and the occult; historically speaking, the line has always been blurred.

Only since Newton have battle lines been drawn, for, as noted above, Newton was deeply involved in alchemy, not to mention biblical prophecy and symbolism. He believed, like Freemasons and Rosicrucian's since, that new knowledge issues up from older, larger understandings. But despite his immersion in what we now regard as occult or pseudoscientific pursuits, he spoke in a positivistic vein, implying that he had developed a method for reading the text of nature without metaphysical interpolation. Given the explanatory success of his science and the immense prestige it brought him, many came to regard Newtonian physics as a bulwark against what Freud later called the black tide of mud . . . of occultism (Jung 1963). This attitude, however, did not eliminate belief in the occult. For one thing, some who developed occult systems after Newton saw themselves as scientific pioneers Ã  la Newton, and it is only in retrospect that their systems have been deemed occult. During the latter part of the eighteenth century and throughout the nineteenth century, Mesmerists conducted experiments, phrenologists subjected the human head to rigorous measurement, Spiritualists kept careful record of what occurred during seances, and all these groups invoked scientific terminology to report their findings.

What is more, many who worked in these movements had formal scientific training and a few were prominent scientists. Anton Mesmer earned his doctorate in medicine at the University of Vienna and, inspired by Newton's law of universal gravity, sought to harness a life force, putatively filling the cosmos, for healing purposes. William Crookes (discoverer of the element thalium and inventor of the Crookes tube), Oliver Lodge (knighted for his contributions to wireless telegraphy), and Arthur Russell Wallace (who independently formulated the theory of natural selection and co-announced it with Darwin) all affirmed the essential truth of Spiritualism, though they acknowledged that the movement had its share of charlatans. In their minds, Spiritualistic principles, far from contradicting science, were a welcome corrective to its bleak materialistic orientation. Moreover, the late nineteenth century discovery of X-rays and Becquerel rays (radioactivity) was taken by some as evidence of an unseen world of spirits existing just beyond the ken of our physical senses.

For many believers, Spiritualism held forth the heady prospect of demonstrating the reality of spiritual phenomena by scientific means. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, for example, depicted Spiritualism as infinitely the most important thing in the world because it was the first attempt ever made in modern times to support [religious] faith by actual provable fact. This sentiment is not unlike that expressed two centuries earlier by Joseph Glanvill when he portrayed scientific investigation of demons and witches as a kinde of America, a new frontier of knowledge (Clark 1999). Along with fellow scientists Robert Boyle and Henry More, Glanvill studied and theorized about witchcraft in the same way he did about the possibility of the vacuum, magnetic action at a distance, and the nature of light.

In the nineteenth century, perhaps no scientific theory sparked more occult thought than organic evolution. At first glance this is surprising, for organic evolution is often misconstrued as a counterweight to the idea that humankind has a divine origin. Nevertheless, the prospect of humankind's unlimited evolutionary ascent within the cosmos fired the imagination of scientist and occultist alike. On the one hand, the evolutionary process, being blind and non teleological, does not aim for improvement or perfection, let alone anything like salvation or immortality. But on the other, theorists often could not refrain from dramatizing it. In the closing paragraph of his Origin of Species, Charles Darwin insisted that there is a grandeur in this [evolutionary] view of life, and elsewhere he portrayed nature (i.e., natural selection) as infinitely more sagacious than manâ and all seeing and infinitely wise (Young 1985). Huxley, Darwin's bulldog, equated evolution with the cosmic process . . . it is full of wonder, full of beauty, and, at the same time, full of pain. The pain, however, could be blunted through the exercise of visionary evolution: thanks to Darwin, humankind could now knowingly evolve and thereby outmaneuver a great deal of unnecessary hardship and catastrophe. With this thought in mind and almost as if he were gazing into a crystal ball, H.G. Wells spelled out the promise of evolutionary biology:

We are creatures of the twilight. But it is out of our race and lineage that minds will spring, that will reach back to us in our littleness to know us better than we know ourselves, and that will reach forward fearlessly to comprehend this future that defeats our eyes.
All the world is heavy with the promise of greater things, and a day will come, one day in the unending succession of days, when beings, beings who are now latent in our thoughts and hidden in our loins, shall stand upon this earth as one stands upon a footstool, and shall laugh and reach out their hands amid the stars. (Wells 1914)

Given the ease with which it could be dramatized, evolutionary biology attracted occultists. The most notorious was Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, who co founded the Theosophical Society in 1875. Her books, Isis Unveiled (1877) and The Secret Doctrine (1888), blended religion (particularly Hinduism), contemporary science, and mythology into a seamless whole and opened up unsuspected vistas on the past and future. She spoke of cosmic cycles and the evolutionary ascent of “seven root races,” the fifth of which is the human race. The whole process, she emphasized, was governed by the law of karma and therefore was not, as many scientists believed, random or mindless. Curiously, Blavatsky seems not to have expected most educated people to embrace her outlook, even after giving it a scientific gloss. Occult understanding, she declared, is reserved for the few, and most scientists, Darwin himself failed to grasp the cosmic and spiritual import of the evolutionary drama. They saw the outer, naturalistic shell of that process but ironically missed its rich inner vibrancy--life itself.

Rudolf Steiner, an erstwhile Theosophist who went on to found Anthroposophy, similarly posited an evolutionary drama of cosmic proportions. His cosmology, like Blavatsky's, is complex, even dizzying, and reiterates ancient motifs now deemed occult or superstitious. Betraying a Pythagorean fondness for certain basic numbers, Steiner talked of the seven states of consciousness, the seven life kingdoms or conditions, the four elements, the three creative functions, the ten cabalistic sephiroth, the nine angelic orders, and so on. These orders, kingdoms, functions, and elements are linked to the planets or zodiacal constellations in a vast system of evolving consciousness. Like many other occultists at the turn of the twentieth century, Steiner felt that he was pulling back the curtain on materialistic science so that all could see its spiritual context.

Given its propensity to stretch the mind and summon up hope of improved if not fully transfigured living circumstances, science finds common cause with the occult. And while science may seek to distance itself from the occult, the gap between the two will never be clearly defined. To be sure, science may be delineated by its emphasis on objectivity, empirical data, and mathematics, but these characteristics merely mark a distinctive approach to nature: they do not decide what nature ultimately is or what it means. Answering these questions entails interpretative passage beyond secure scientific understandings, and here, in the realm of interpretation, science and the occult often reestablish contact.

A contemporary case in point is quantum physics. In the last century, probably no scientific development has sparked greater occult interest than quantum physics, but it is not because quantum physics explicitly points toward occult agencies or influences. It is because quantum physics, while affording incredibly accurate predictions about atomic phenomena, challenges traditional scientific assumptions about physical reality and thereby clears a space for renewed debate about a whole spectrum of issues: the nature of light, extrasensory perception, human free will, God's omniscience, and so on. Some of these issues will be deemed occult by scientific purists, but even they cannot escape the charge that their worldview is, at some level, interpretative or metaphysical. Albert Einstein understood this principle better than most: physical [scientific] concepts, he wrote, are free creations of the human mind, and are not, however it may seem, uniquely determined by the external world. As long as the world remains open to pluralistic interpretation, science and the occult will enjoy uneasy companionship.


David Grandy is associate professor of philosophy at Brigham Young University. He is coauthor of Magic, Mystery, and Science: The Occult in Western Civilization (Indiana University Press, 2003). This essay originally appeared in the July/August 2004 issue of “Historically Speaking: The Bulletin of the Historical Society” ( ).
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