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Science and mysticism: a tainted embrace

Scientists who indulge mystical and religious fantasies in the interest of popularisation are betraying their professional calling, says Yves Gingras.

Scientists often complain about the rising influence of mystical and religious beliefs, a trend they regard as detrimental to scientific inquiry. Since at least the mid-1970s, a common feature of science's public profile is for a leading practitioner to denounce beliefs in (for example) astrology or "alternative" or "parallel" medicine, and lament the public's ignorance of true science.

The most high-profile example (though far from the only one) is Richard Dawkins, whose prolific and relentless pursuit of unreason has won him both acclaim and execration. But this very polarisation of response indicates a problem in the way that the issue of science and mysticism is presented and discussed in the public arena. The media's preference for sound and fury over calm, logical, evidence-based argument, and the temptation even among serious intellectuals to allow provocation and polemic to lead their case, means that the question of whether scientists' own indulgence in mysticism can undermine the integrity of their profession goes undiscussed.

In this short article I highlight the way that some credible scientists contribute (knowingly or not) to fuelling irrational, mystical tendencies in public life. The fact this is so often done in the name of making science attractive to non-scientists only makes the damage harder to repair.

God: a good career move

The past generation has been notable for the way that well-known scientists (generally physicists) have published an increasing number of books with attractive titles that suggest a close relationship between the worlds of science and religion-mysticism. The genre originated with the publication in 1975 of Fritjof Capra's book, The Tao of Physics, which suggested that the equations of quantum-field theory were somehow related to ancient, mystical Indian texts. This book struck me then (and still does) as a monumental joke, though its commercial success - it is in its forty-fourth edition - indicates that it hit a seam of public longing.

Yves Gingras was trained as a physicist and then in the history of science. He is now Canada Research Chair in the history and sociology of science at Université du Québec à Montréal, and scientific director of the Observatoire des sciences et des technologies. His latest book is Eloge de l'homo techno-logicus (Montreal, 2005)
Also by Yves Gingras in openDemocracy:

"Nobel by association: beautiful mind, non-existent prize" (23 October 2002)

"Against this taken-for-granted ‘fact', I am arguing here that this prize - the 'Nobel Prize in Economics' - does not exist: and moreover, that this so-called 'Nobel prize' is an extraordinary case study in the successful transformation of economic capital into symbolic capital, a transformation which greatly inflates the symbolic power of the discipline of Economics in the public mind."

Where Capra led, others followed. Paul Davies's God and the New Physics (1983), Leon Lederman & Dick Teresi's The God Particle (1993) and Frank Tipler's The Physics of Immortality (1995) were part of a developing genre that associated modern science with vaguely articulated religious and mystical concepts.

The fertile collusion between authors, publishers and publics in this area is revealed in the useful button on the Amazon website which allows the prospective customer to view "co-purchases": that is, other titles bought by purchasers of a given book. It is interesting to note that (at least on a very recent visit) those who bought The Physics of Immortality also acquired The Anthropic Cosmological Principle (co-written by Frank Tipler & John D Barrow), a book extolling an anthropomorphic and determinist vision of nature which sees nature's invariant laws as somehow "presupposing" our existence.

This bizarre and clearly non-scientific idea has been widely debated by scientists, though there is little recognition of its affinity with "intelligent design" - a doctrine that is the very negation of science, which is by definition a naturalistic endeavour in that it searches for natural (as opposed to supernatural) causes.

Any reference to God must therefore be excluded by definition from scientific work. Amazon tells a different story. The "co-purchases" of The Physics of Immortality include Paul Davies's The Mind of God (1992) and The Fifth Miracle (1998) as well as God and the New Physics. What these books do is try to wrap modern scientific discoveries in an allusory shroud that insinuates a link between cutting-edge science and solutions to the mysteries of life, the origins of the universe and spirituality. They depend on cultivating ambiguity and a sense of the exotic, flirtatiously oscillating between science and the paranormal. This is X-Files science - and The X-Files is science-fiction.

Science and transcendence

There are other precedents for such indulgent efforts to employ scientific notions to "re-enchant" the world - though unfortunately they too are non-scientific ones. They include Louis Pauwels & Jacques Bergier's The Morning of the Magicians (1964) and Robert Charroux's The Book of the World's Masters (1967) and The Book of Revealed Secrets (1970). The major difference is that today the idea of an association between science and mysticism is now promoted by respected scientists rather than by journalists or charlatans - guaranteeing it more credibility than these earlier authors ever had.

There is a practical dimension to all this, for forging a connection between science and (in particular) religion can help win research funds. In the United States in 1993, physicists sought to win public support for a (failed) effort to persuade Congress to support the $12 billion construction of a "superconducting super-collider" machine, which theorists predicted was capable of discovering the Higgs boson - the elementary particle which might open the way to understanding the origin of mass in other particles (and more generally, of the universe - hence the metaphor of "the God particle"). Some scientists at the time thought that such metaphors were inappropriate and could backfire, though it is only fair to add that its co-author Leon Lederman was echoing his fellow-physicist Stephen Hawking, who once said that he had been able to see God in his equations.

Moreover, organisations such as the John Templeton Foundation (established in 1987, and devoted to promoting links between science, theology, spirituality and religion) offer annual grants worth hundreds of thousands of dollars to support such studies. This foundation has since 1973 awarded an annual prize (currently £800,000) to a living person who has advanced "progress toward research or discoveries about spiritual realities". The 1995 recipient of the Templeton prize was Paul Davies, whose work (says the encomium) "has initiated a new dialogue between science and religion that is having worldwide repercussions".

This author's ingenuity in producing a series of titular variations on the theme of "God," "science," "spirit" and "miracle" is admirable - and influential, as the title of Richard Dawkins's latest book, The God Delusion, suggests. But for a well-known physicist to use science to feed the popular hunger for re-enchantment is - without doubting the sincerity of his beliefs or his project - to lend credibility to irrationalism.

Science and humility

The problem is not in the stars, but in ourselves. Scientists should challenge the indulgence of mysticism in their own backyards. For example, the journal Science devotes one-and-a-half pages to a review of The Physics of Immortality which offers no critical perspective on its fundamental thesis, and neglects to point out that its dozens of pages of equations (incomprehensible for most readers) are mere "fluff" that have nothing to do with the soul's immortality; they serve only an attempt to "blind the reader with science".

Also in openDemocracy on the frontier between science and faith:

Michel Thieren, “’Terror doctors’: anatomy of a void concept” (12 July 2007)

Debora MacKenzie, “A prescription for terror” (30 July 2007)

It seems to me that scientists involved in popularisation have an obligation to present science as the naturalistic enterprise it is, instead of attempting (cynically or naively) to stimulate interest in science by associating it with vague spiritual or religious notions. This eye-catching genre can only generate bitter disappointment among those motivated by it to pursue the study of science; for they will quickly learn that they will never meet God in a particle accelerator or in a DNA sequence.

The essence of science is a naturalist vision of the world that makes it understandable without any appeal to transcendental intelligence, be it Zeus, Poseidon or any other God. It does not seek to, nor can it, explain everything: the ultimate meaning of life will always remain outside its realm. Scientists who acknowledge this would gain respect for themselves and bring honour to their profession. They might even become popular.

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Jan Hilgevoord, Physics and our View of the World (Cambridge University Press, 2007)
Copyright © Yves Gingras,
. Published by openDemocracy Ltd. You may download and print extracts from this article for your own personal and non-commercial use only. If you teach at a university we ask that your department make a donation. Contact us if you wish to discuss republication. Some articles on this site are published under different terms.

God and Science

Fri, 2007-08-17 18:51
I agree with everything in this article, but think that science would publicize itself better if it was a little more forthcoming about its weaknesses. Science is human institution paid for by powerful financial interests. This often creates distrust towards new technologies. Scientists engage in all of the tawdry political machinations of other lucrative activities. Power, reputation, ego and money often corrupt their science.
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Only imagine

Fri, 2007-08-17 19:57
Science is true knowledge, or that about which we can for the time being be certain. But science is also a matter for scientists' imagination - the invaluable mental tool without which they would not be able to guess at what they were looking for, and know what it might be if they found it. When we talk about scientific truth we mean something ascertained by a reliable method - experiment capable of being repeated. But mathematical science is so far beyond most people's ken that nobody can tell whether what mathematicians claim to be true is in fact in a meaningful sense ascertainable. You have to be able to follow the logic (of course, mathematical) of their arguments. Theology used to be called the queen of the sciences. But not now - as it cannot be experimentally ascertained. However, the idea of God (as we can see in religions generally) is all to do with human imagination. So religion and science do share neighboring locations in the world, because they depend on human imagination. This no doubt is frustrating for some believers in both or either. But is it a delusion for humanity to have created over thousands of years a forum or theatre in which the impossibility of attaining moral absolutes can be and still is usefully confronted? Meaning and observation are both human attributes, something we do. But the inside of our heads - all our heads - is also a theatre in which a variety of roles can be imagined and performed. The fact that most communication requires various kinds of expression and inter-relation is merely a fundamental element in the imaginative process from which we beings benefit. God has always represented that which we do not yet know - a territory that expands like the universe appears to be. It is true that God has been used as an excuse for inhumanity but so has science. The blame game about whether it's science or God that has a worse effect on pure reason is beside the point when we still have our imaginations to apply, making illusion and fantasy serve a useful purpose. Perhaps utility is the only vital principle. What is transcendental intelligence anyway? What is thought or written down has to be able to make sense. If God in his/her various guises has credit or credibility, it is because followers of various religions have been able to make things add up - by observation and deduction and reasoning. But the whole point about the idea of God is that it cannot be proved, but could conceivably be true - and that indeterminate status is enormously provoking and intriguing, like the poetic status of scientific knowledge. God' s power is all up to our imaginations. Is God a rather good idea of ours, or are we a rather bad idea of his? That's a question to ask - and the answer you give may have some relevance to how you view your being in the world. Food for the brain, and the brain is the bit of life that matters most - at least to us human beings.
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Science finds God

Fri, 2007-08-17 20:30
This essay is based on a kind of tortured logic employed by both scientists and theists alike, each for their own propagandistic purposes. Neither really addresses the issue at hand. The major premise is correct: science is a methodology that excludes any question of ultimate causality, therefore, of theological issues. After that, unfortunately, it goes off the rails, because what we are looking at is not science taking its own view of things, but of people, scientists or otherwise, taking a view of SCIENCE ITSELF in some sort of context wider than science -- which is what one would expect a popularizer to do. If we translate the form of the argument to some other area, its absurdity should become obvious: medicine is the science of preventing and healing disease; history is the study of the past; the first does not include the second; therefore it is illegitimate to talk about the history of medicine. If one accepts that there is a theological level to existence, then science, like everything else, has theological implications; but in exploring these, whether one is a scientist or not, one is not speaking within the strict confines of scientific methodology, but about findings that these methodologies have made possible -- and their theological implications. We can draw from this the rather weak (albeit important) inference that the writer making mystical or theological statements should point out that these statements are not themselves scientific or part of the canon of scientific knowledge. But it is clear that many scientists themselves -- Einstein is just one example -- have spontaneously found mystical or religious insights from their findings; it is futile to "forbid" this because, aside from being scientists, they are also human beings. Unfortunately, the atheistic scientists are the biggest violators of this inference, since atheistic conclusions are no more legitimately "scientific" than theistic ones are. If one doesn't accept that there is a theological level to existence, one can claim that scientific explanation is the only legitimate form of explanation; but even this argument cannot be coherently made without moving to another level of discourse, namely, philosophy. Needless to say, it can there be met with philosophical counter-arguments.
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I very much enjoyed the essay by Dr. Gingras. There has always been a philosophical side to the great (and not so great) physicists. Physics and science in general describe the world in terms of models. Although many of these work very well, they are just models, not a description of reality. Gravity and electromagnetism are still "spooky action at a distance". As a physicist, I understand this basic belief (faith) that there is an elegant and unifying description of the Universe that is worth pursuing. This is not mysticism, but it is also not some cold, irrational logic that physicists and other scientists apply independent of philosophy. I tend to disagree in the depth of Dr. Gingras concern about the blurring of the sciences with the mysical and the religious. I do not see this as a new trend, but as a constant in the history of the sciences, especially physics. Underneath science there is always the "why" that we feel a need to address either philosophically or for some, through religion. I do agree that the use of the word God seems to be hip these days, and works well to sell books. I find it more humorous that troubling. We need another God and Physics book like we need another Einstein biography.
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Doomfist Inc
Sun, 2007-08-19 14:48
Just to correct one minor little thing, the Laozi school of Taoism reads from ONE, CHINESE book, if any at all. Not multiple mystic texts, and certainly not indian. Not to mention, all Tao does is point out the fact that the universe seems to be made up of opposites. Light and dark, positive and negative. One can easily be a Taoist scientist because there is no mention of God or the supernatural. Whoever calls Tao a "religion" really hasn't studied it, as it's mostly just the philosophical ramblings of an ancient chinese man. And if we're against philosophical ramblings, then why should science be putting up with philosophers either? There truely is no problem between this one philosophy and science. Tao's basic tenet is this: "Shit happens. Get over it and move on" and I don't see too much laughable about that quite honestly. Most people could do with that bit of advice. It was a well written article and a good read, but remember doctor, RESEARCH. Even if it's about something you don't actually like, research is still an absolute need.
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I would have to agree with the central premise of the article that God has no place in scienctific endeavours. That is hard for many to accept. That automatically puts limits on both God and science. It is like saying subjectivity is restriced by objectivity. Let's go further and argue art and science have nothing to do with one another. I have heard that argument, too, that art and science are complementary to one another. The art-science bridge is not heard as often as the religion-science bridge but it's there. What this really means is that we have to uncover what these relationships mean. In either case of religion-science or art-science it is the philosophy that bridges the gap but in popular media there is no room for philosophy. There is no time for philosophy. We are finding ourselves in a predicament where fields of knowledge and activity are overlapping whether we like it or not and leaving other fields completely out of the picture. Any historian who looks at the development of science, philosophy, art, mathematics, and other higher forms of thought may see a pattern where there is none. The historian needs to create that narrative and in doing so must leave out some details. The next historian will come along and fill in those details and give a very different narrative. From a personal perspective, I had read those books mentioned above at a very impressionable teenage stage. I was in my last year of highschool and into my first years of university. Had I known that I shouldn't look for God in an atom then I might have saved myself some aggravation. Lol. Needless to say I looked for God in other places but within the scope of a yearning for knowledge. In university I studied physics and mathematics and outside of university I studied religion, mysticism, entheogenesis and botany. God is not in the atom. By extension, God is not in that psychoactive molecule. If you choose to meditate you may find yourself in the same state as that inividual having an entheogenetic experience. Why? Don't forget to ask, "Why?" Write down your theories, set up the controlled experiment, collect the data and try proving/disproving it. Scientific endeavour should have nothing to do with God but don't take my word for it.
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Yves Gringas wrote:The

Sun, 2007-08-19 21:40
Yves Gringas wrote:
The essence of science is a naturalist vision of the world that makes it understandable without any appeal to transcendental intelligence
Is it? I thought the essence of science is that it is a method of accumulating knowledge by attempting systematically to disprove the hypotheses generated in scientists' imaginations as a means of trying to explaining their observations. Has this essence been replaced? If so, when, and who by? "Naturalist" used to mean a person who studied nature, basically botany and zoology, particularly taxonomy. What exactly is meant here by a naturalist?
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~5% of human DNA is blueprint for peptides. A lilly cell has 100 times as much DNA as a human cell. We are full of proteins that may have aquired a purpose or function... a lot of the non-beneficial foems just died out at some point. Then, some organisms eating others just "swallowed" some and ended up incorporating them-- with their own DNA-- into organelles; quite a fate from organism to oraganelle! It looks like the brilliance of dumb design. Still, we are obsessed with understanding and tinkering with the end product. THAT is what makes us scientists. But MONEY is what makes us idiotic frauds like Billy Graham, spiritual adviser of Richard Nixon (my favorite US president). We are not entitled to a far, far greater than us "being" whom we've got all figured out as do Holywood movies about visiting angels. And, given that God has put such a complex universe before us, surely He did not mean for us to have eveything figured out for us in a stupid Jewish book that Christian Fundamentalists use as a fig leaf to cover their predatory animal character. As scientists, nei, as civilized human beings, we must learn to live with the unknown that lays an infinity away from the known. As we go from macro to micro, we see paterns and even make a living doing science. But God is as far away as Tokyo from a cockroach new in Cincinati trying to figure out his way around. We may get to eventually figure out Tokyo too through the cockroach-net, but Tokyo may not be where God resides. When I devoted myself to figuring out how the brain controls movement or how bile acid sequestrants not only cure hypercholesterolemia but diabetes as well, I realized that I have no time to lean the new developments in gravity vs. electromagnetism, nor whether God wears a size 12 sneaker. I am a Christian and a scientist. That means that I try to follow the ways of science in dealing with MY issues of interest and that I BELIVE that God intervened in the world one or more times to offer a moral challenge in the form of Jesus, so my challenge is to try to live MY life as morally as He inspires me to. I accept my failings much as I accept my mortality: ie, I try to avoid them both but know that both are inevitable. So I try to live by the rule: be unto others as you would have them be onto you and forgive their failure to do so as you would have them forgive yours. The rest is pretty art, respected feelings or Bush type "entrepreneurship." Psychpathic arogance is marked by intolerance and certainty is the assumption that if I really wanted to I could pis on God's head and he couldn't do anything about it. A British mathermatician named Bennett lived in Asia and in the 1950s wrote a book about MEGALANTHROPISM. It's the first book in English I read as a teen. He said that we can reach out and seize the moon in one hand. If we don't, it is only because we don't really want to enough. Now Bennett is dead and we don't know if he failed to grasp the moon because he really didn't want to or because he was just a putz....GW Bush, think about that ....before you come to think that the bushit-trail you leave in the White House from-- as you always say, "following my gut"-- will turn to GOLD to be deposited and vaulted into your presidential library in Dubai, next door to Cheney's archives at the new Halliburton homeoffice.
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Other authors of interest

Mon, 2007-08-20 02:07
Thanks for taking the time to write the article Mr Gringas. For those of you who are interested in such matters as the coexistence of science and religion, I might refer you to the works of John F. Haught; You can read of his various works within his CV at this link: http://web.mac.com/haughtj1/iWeb/Site/Welcome.html also for your interest you can see an interview with John Haught online here: http://tinyurl.com/36yn2r cheers!
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Science finds God

Mon, 2007-08-20 09:25
I entirely agree with wollock. Micahel Ruse's idea of Methodological Naturalism gets it right. Science proceeds on the basis that neither God nor anything like him exists. On the basis of this assumption huge progress has been achieved, and humanity has been enriched. Many questions that we ask ourselves can be answered by Science. Science tells us truths, and provides a method for discovering more truths. But whether naturalism is true is not a Scientific question. It is rather a Scientific presupposition. Whether God exists is not a matter for Science to determine. Whether all of reality can be discovered by Science is not something that Science can discover. There is no necessary conflict between being a Scientist and being theist. When a Scientist is doing Science he must proceed by Scientific methods. He leaves God out of it. That is the way Science is done. When a Scientist who happens to be a theist hangs up his white coat at the end of the day he does not have to conduct his life in accordance with the assumption of naturalism. There is no lack of integrity or consistency involved. The results of Science are assured but God's non existence is not one of the results of Science. It is rather like a professional soccer player. When he is at work he knows that handling the ball is not allowed. But when he goes home to his family he may have a game of tip-rugby with his children in the back garden.
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Science and people

Tue, 2007-08-21 10:08
The most popular books of physics, or related being stuff like "The God Delusion", "A Brief History of Time", and "The Tao of physics", the common man often has no idea of how science is really useful in everyday life (it is, though, everywhere). It is not that he doesn't need to: something dealing with electricity, say, or the body, can clear a LOT of myths and superstitions. These kinds of books appear as childrens' books ("Computers", "Make airplanes"), or self-help guides ("Your health", etc). But they are the science we use in our everyday life, and a book written to be as interesting and popular as the usual science popularisation titles would do a lot of good.They would certainly be more useful than stuff about baby universes and what ancient civilisations knew. Of course, books like "A brief History of Time" inspire lots of youngsters, and make us wonder about the universe, but I'd have a scientific public rather than one which thinks science is as distant as the stars. http://limericker.blogspot.com
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I was of the impression that one of the key values in science, as a general mode of dealing with knowledge, is to proceed without presupposition. Such a procedure draws you to test your knowledge systematically, and only retain that which survives such tests. I can understand that early science needed to dump the presupposition of God. But that is not the same as it presupposing the non existence of God. God is such a broad idea, that it is not necessarily excluded from a naturalistic approach to inquiry. (I take the reference to naturalism to be a reference to modes of research. The irony being that experiments are one of the least naturalistic modes of research, systematically excluding the multiple causes that are characteristic of most situations in life.) To my mind being a scientist places you either as a soft atheist ( a skeptic, waiting to see if God can be proven) to being an agnostic (generally keeping an open mind on matters that currently seem undecidable.) Science should not presuppose, and so is incompatible with a hard atheism, which assumes the nonexistence of God until proven otherwise. Since such a thing cannot be proven by science, indeed science doesn't really produce proof, that is the realm of pure mathematics, such a position is in fact as hard as religious faith. That is unless we seriously think we will get a mathematical proof of God's existence, one that is not not based on arbitrary axioms... Somehow I think not: The higher value here is to keep an open mind, I'd have thought an article on open democracy would reflect such an ethic, but mental sclerosis seems to set in so easily.
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