ALCStudies Journal

Advanced Labor & Cultural Studies Web Site & Blog

Science, Religion & Magic

We have a tendency to see science, religion and magic as mutually exclusive, rather than as related, even co-dependent, phenomena.

Science grew out of alchemy and the search for the divine secret of matter for the purpose of transforming lead into gold (much like  derivatives were used to package and turn worthless loans into profit on Wall Street) .

The discipline of empirical thought added to alchemy invented science. Driven by the search for profit, science gave rise to industrial and technological revolutions: iron,  steam, electricity and the age of the machine.

A recent article in the Atlantic describes the depiction of technology in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. Men, elves, dwarves and wizards allied themselves to defeat Sauron, Sarumon and the orcs. who sought to subjugate the old magic of Middle Earth with a newer, darker force:

“The old world will burn in the fires of industry. Forests will fall. A new order will rise. We will drive the machine of war with the sword and the spear and the iron fist…”

In this world, outside the realm of fiction, it’s not always clear which forces are enlightened and which are more Mephistophelian. Sometimes they are a little of both.

Scientists and technologists are susceptible to whim, fancy and ego as the rest of us. We assume their training in the modern magic of engineering, computer science or medicine gives them more insight or a monopoly on truth. But their discoveries are often Faustian in nature. Could we have had antibiotics without genetic engineering? Central heat without global warming? What bargains are we willing to make and have made for us? And by whom?

David Noble describes religious belief as an element of scientific and technological pursuit. Galileo and Copernicus felt they were doing God’s work. Isaac Newton, who almost single-handedly invented physics, dabbled in alchemy and was a Mason. Robert K. Oppenheimer quoted the Bhagavad-Gita as he watched the atomic bomb explode. Today visionaries such as Steve Jobs want to re-make the world ‘insanely great’ in their own images. Futurists such as Ray Kurzweil want to transcend it. Technological determinism, no less than religious zeal, tells us what must be so. Do we have a choice?

We persist in the misapprehension that science is a thing, a collection of objective, immutable facts, rather than a process. Michael Polanyi argues in Science, Faith & Society that this process owes as much to inspiration and intuition as logic.

Perhaps it is no accident that at the same time we are overrun by devices that hold our thoughts, guide our steps, and organize our love lives, so many take refuge in the old magic of sword and sorcery and vampire fantasies.

Are our iPhones and tablets that much different than idolatrous fetishes and talismans carried as repositories of power to attract luck or repel evil? What is Facebook but a virtual altar to the graven image of ourselves?



4 responses to “Science, Religion & Magic

  1. wyroby z betonu August 18, 2012 at 6:58 pm

    Enjoyed studying this, very good stuff, regards . “It is in justice that the ordering of society is centered.” by Aristotle.

  2. ALCStudies Journal August 21, 2012 at 11:30 am

    I added a link to Very Superstitious, an apropos essay by Colin Dickey in Lapham’s Quarterly. A few selected quotes:

    “Yet what separates magic from religion or science is not its methodology… it’s that ordinary people can do it, transforming their lives with the ambitious power of everyday thought.”

    (Think of what New Age paradigms like The Secret offer.)

    “Sympathetic magic taps into a symbolic ordering of the world, where disparate objects and ideas can have unexpected correspondences and new potentials… With the proper gesture or carved totem, all of heaven and earth is in the hands of the magician.”

    Hmm. Sounds like using an AndroidTM phone or iPhoneTM.

    “While we wait for science to catch up, we sometimes still cling to magic because it’s the only way we can tell ourselves that the world makes sense…

    “Perhaps this explains why a belief in sympathetic magic—irrational, superstitious, glorious—continues unabated in our hyperrationalist age. If anything, the ascendancy of science has clarified these beliefs, and the degree to which we’re willing to cling to them despite a cognitive awareness of the fallacious nature of magic.”

    — CDL

  3. Jess September 12, 2012 at 1:35 pm

    Will you write a “Part 2” ?

    • ALCStudies Journal on Wordpress September 14, 2012 at 5:30 pm

      We’ll revisit science, religion and magic in future ALCStudies posts. Please feel free to submit your own ideas as well. Also please look under Current and Upcoming Events on this site in coming weeks for an announcement of ‘Brave New World: Technology in Literature & Popular Culture’. This is an ALCStudies live lecture and slideshow to be presented January 5th 2013 for the People’s University at the Carnegie Library main branch in Pittsburgh. — CDL

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