The relationship between science and the humanities is unavoidable simply because genealogies, in the end, are an extension of man’s thinking that combines reality with myth. Thomas Kuhn seemed to accept this fact, but today his colleagues’ aversion toward myth and magic has effected new iterations of magic that are devoid of meaning and spirituality.
In a recent essay, the British political philosopher John Gray reviewed an upcoming book by the Oxford archaeologist, Chris Gosden, titled Magic, A History: From Alchemy to Witchcraft, from the Ice Age to the Present. It is impressive to see scholars like Mr. Gosden treating the topic of magic seriously, without assuming a pejorative and condescending tone. Mr. Gosden’s premise is unusual in that he doesn’t think magic is an outdated idea: “Over the last few centuries, magic has developed a bad reputation,” he writes, “thanks to the unsavory tactics of shady practitioners and to a successful propaganda campaign on the part of religion and science which denigrated magic as backward, irrational, and ‘primitive.’” Mr. Gosden argues that magic is tied to human behavior and that, more importantly, our tendency to label a culture and society’s practice as “magic” (a series of unempirical methods) is relative to our particular point in time.
Dr. Gray’s review, “The Realism of Magic,” thinks along these lines—at first. Dr. Gray opens his review with a fascinating anecdote about John Maynard Keynes’s esteem of the mighty Isaac Newton: Keynes, Dr. Gray tells us, was the first to see Newton’s personal papers before they were sold in 1936. Upon reading Newton’s papers, Keynes recorded the following passage:
In the 18th century and since, Newton came to be thought of as the first and greatest of the modern age of scientists, a rationalist, one who taught us to think along the lines of cold and untinctured reason. I do not see him in this light. I do not think anyone who has pored over the contents of the box he packed up when he finally left Cambridge in 1696 and which, though partly dispersed, have come down to us, can see him like that. Newton was not the first of the age of reason. He was the last of the magicians, the last of the Babylonians and the Sumerians, the last great mind who looked out at the intellectual and visible world with the same eyes as those who began to build our intellectual inheritance rather less than 10,000 years ago.
In Dr. Gray’s words, “the 20th century’s greatest economist described the founder of modern science as a magician,” and Keynes was not mistaken to describe Newton in this manner: The brilliant scientist, Dr. Gray notes, was a “practitioner of astrology and alchemy, immersed in numerology and the decoding of hidden meanings in biblical texts.” In a proper account of contextual historical analysis, Dr. Gray points out that Newton was the product of a time where “science and magic were indistinguishable”—what an excellent point, and it can only make us wonder if Newton would have made his essential contributions to human knowledge without this element of magic.
We may now say that we know better; that we live in a time where science and magic are separate, and quite markedly so, for the method of scientific inquiry of the modern age is objective, precise, and rational, unlike those other outdated and superstitious methods of the past. And it is not just magic that might fall under this second category. To many contemporary thinkers, religion is another form of magic by which people conjure up answers to an otherwise inexplicable world. Dr. Gray also raises other forms of faith as examples of this irrational tendency in human beings to believe in something: Secular religions, like communism and Nazism, as well as the new techno-faiths fostered in Silicon Valley, are delusional reiterations of this ancient allure that is “faith,” not “knowledge.” Dr. Gray summarizes this belief up nicely at the conclusion of his review, writing that “Magical thinking will remain a powerful force in human life. What this shows isn’t the potency of magic, however. The true meaning of magic is that the human mind cannot bear very much reality.”
Now, this last statement is an interesting idea to elaborate. If magic is an enduring idea that has simply taken on different shapes, then in its genealogy it is possible to trace an inherent element of the human condition. If, however, magic is, as Dr. Gray supposes, a scapegoat for our inability to “bear reality,” then its genealogy is not one that we can call an evolution, since it does not appear to demonstrate any form of improvement in our way of thinking. The question now becomes the following: Do genealogies imply progress? Or are they just reminders of our limited ability to grow beyond our primordial interests and beliefs? The answer, of course, is highly debated.
Genealogies are problematic. Within the humanities, we dispute whether or not it is possible to trace ideas and their growth across the vast series of intellectual shifts that we call history. The nature of genealogical analysis, even the possibility of it, leads us to consider, moreover, various philosophies of history that either accept or reject the notion that these “shifts” are somehow connected and, riskier yet, that their relationship actually means anything and says anything of veritable import for our search of a collective human story.
Genealogies are complex. If we accept that we can trace some topical genealogies across history, it is not simply in the form of a linear progression that thought evolves: It can also digress, scatter, or regress—sometimes all at once. We can look at the genealogies of thematic issues like Christianity, liberalism, science, or modernity, for example, and see that they overlap in several areas. The trajectory of one genealogy can affect another, either insinuating that everything is connected, or that some ideas take over and become the status quo; leaving what came before it precisely there, in the past.
Genealogies, however, are natural. Interpreting the world through a series of related events and overarching themes—what we may call “narratives”—is an extension of the human mind that tries intrinsically to make sense of the world. Thinkers like George Santayana argue that we naturally interpret the world in a poetic way; that is, our instinctual way of organizing events in our mind is aesthetic, preferring harmony and unity over an alternate, fragmented view of the universe. And perhaps these are only narratives, even metanarratives, which can take the form of what we call “myths.” Despite the negative connotation of this word, we need only be reminded of writers like J.R.R. Tolkien to learn that myths are not all that mythical, only an imaginative recounting of the human story.
These three characteristics are presented in Thomas Kuhn’s indispensable book for historians and scientists alike, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, published in 1962. The book was equally controversial for both fields of history (namely philosophy of history) and science, since Kuhn’s book raises the possibility that genealogies might prove a more unpleasant and direct point about human fallibility: Beyond the assertion that genealogical reports of human history are problematic, complex, and natural, Kuhn’s explanation of scientific revolutions is that genealogies are levelers against the idea of progress.
First, some background on the book. Kuhn is attempting to understand how scientific revolutions happen, and why. The narrative of the scientific revolution (and similarly of the Enlightenment) that we’ve all been told and taught is that the philosophical founding principles of reason and rationalism and the methodological approaches of positivism and empiricism opened the way for an objective and indisputable form of inquiry. This was the beginning of the apex for human achievement: The collective and dedicated efforts of all enlightened believers following this approach, accumulating over the course of years, will eventually lead mankind toward better knowledge about the world and consequently toward a better life. True knowledge, in other words, is possible and provable, but only by scientific and technological means. Such a standard, we call “progress,” and it first began in the 16th century.
Still, the way in which scientific inquiry has been explained as somehow requisite for progress leaves much to be desired and to be questioned. Keynes’ description of Newton as a dual entity, a magician and scientist, is a perfect example of the nuance that must be considered when attributing objectivity to any movement. A reason why we may have so instinctually bought this narrative of progress and of the scientific revolution is because we have understood and interpreted the evolution of science from the direct accounts of the thinkers who we might consider to be scientific giants. This form of direct narration contributes to what Kuhn calls the “insufficiency of methodological directives” to understand the structure of scientific revolutions.
Kuhn opens his book by claiming that we have been misled by natural philosophers in fundamental ways. Their writings, “the basis for our modern science,” were written in a “largely persuasive and pedagogic” way. We have, in other words, constructed an understanding of science and progress that has been primarily taken by the own accounts of these thinkers without considering, instead, “a different concept of science that can emerge from the historical record of the research activity itself.” A historical analysis of the evolution of science leads us to question, moreover, the existence of one great Scientific Revolution that divided the ancient and superstitious world from the modern, empirical one: the pre-scientific era from the Scientific, the pre-modern from the Modern.
Kuhn’s book (a short and rewarding read) makes an excellent contextual point: Historians of science had a difficult time distinguishing between the work done by these key thinkers that they would label “scientific” by their standards and “error” and “superstition” from our contemporary vantage point. Kuhn takes it another step further and writes,
If these out-of-date beliefs are to be called myths, then myths can be produced by the same sorts of methods and held for the same sorts of reasons that lead to scientific knowledge. If, on the other hand, they are to be called science, then science has included bodies of belief quite incompatible with the ones we hold today.
Today, we would not delegitimize the scientific rigor of theories that were eventually proven to be wrong. Kuhn, however, argues that even remotely calling them scientific “makes it difficult to see scientific development as a process of accretion.” This argument is the foundation for his controversial argument that scientific development has been primarily composed of “paradigm shifts” which have certainly propelled the history of science, but not necessarily forward.
Kuhn’s theory of paradigm shifts, as the name implies, disrupted the accepted notions of the world during the respective age in which each thinker was living. As a result, the development of science became something other than the linear progression of improvement that we’ve been taught; becoming, instead, a multiplicity of developments wherein thinkers from various points in time are responding to questions and interpreting their world within a different theoretical framework. The shift between paradigms, moreover, takes place when a “crisis” takes hold of the scientific community, or the general public at large within a particular nation, and this crisis is eventually resolved in a “revolutionary” way that drastically changes the preconceived notions of that society (its paradigms). If a paradigm shift is so strong, however, so as to irrevocably alter a society’s way of life, then the shift is not only scientific, but more deeply philosophic and consequently cultural.
If each scientific theory and discovery ought to be judged by the merit of its own time, then comparing them becomes impossible; their impact and significance to their own field are “incommensurable” since scientists from different ages are working within different parameters, asking different questions, and even speaking with differing vocabularies. A more metaphysical problem that arises from Kuhn’s thesis is that incommensurability contradicts the very possibility of progress, demonstrating that even science can fall under the relentless grasp of human fallibility.
These claims, of course, got Kuhn into some hot water back in his day. He was accused of being a relativist, a denier of truth. We might forget amid all of the criticisms of Kuhn’s book that he was writing primarily from the perspective of a historian, not a scientist. Viewed from a contextual and historical vantage point, nothing that he writes is quite so radical. Kuhn recognizes that the history of science requires a study of scientists who contributed to the “constellation of facts, theories, and methods” and subsequently a study of the “successive increments and the obstacles that have inhibited their accumulation.” More difficult, however, is the moment on inferring, where the historian needs to determined “by what man and at what point in time each contemporary scientific fact, law, and theory was discovered or invented,” and more difficult yet to “describe and explain the congeries of error, myth and superstition that have inhibited the more rapid accumulation of the modern science.”
There is, however, a distinction to be made between arguing that Kuhn rejects truth and that he rejects the idea of progress. After all, what makes us believe that only progress can get us closer to “the truth”? Such a faith in scientific progress is ironic. Mankind has accepted the notion, perhaps since the late 16th century, that scientific progress correlates with proximity to truth, but what kind of truth are we talking about? Biological and chemical facts might be a form of truth, but it is certainly not the truth that we as humans intrinsically desire in order to live a fulfilling life on this earth. Another way of looking at Kuhn’s insight is by recognizing that he separated himself from his colleagues by rejecting the idea that truth and science are directly related. But is this claim supporting the hyper-relativism of which Kuhn is accused? Not at all. It is only a testament that truth is not only, or even mostly, in science.
Taking science down from its pedestal and placing it within a broader structure that puts it in conversation with other fields, such as history and philosophy, opens the possibility for interdisciplinary conversation. The persistence of myths and narratives, moreover, have literature as their best example, and we would be wise to grant literature a higher place among fields relevant to elevating human understanding of the world. The relationship between science and the humanities is unavoidable, then, simply because genealogies, in the end, are an extension of man’s thinking that combines reality with myth—with magic. Kuhn seemed to accept this fact, but his colleagues, for the most part, have not. What we have today is an aversion toward myth and magic that has resulted, as John Gray noted, in new iterations of magic that are, for lack of a better phrasing, devoid of meaning and spirituality.
There is an important caveat to make before we end, however: As myth and magic are irrevocable elements of the human experience, so are faith and knowledge. The human mind is exceptional, to be sure, and this is a demonstration of our divine spark that, collectively, has created a formidable civilization. Combined, myth, faith, and knowledge transform man from a person who believes in magic to a man who believes in miracles. Advocates of science’s intellectual and moral superiority want to make both religion and magic enemies of its mission. For them religion and magic are one and the same, equally superstitious, delusional, and irrational. But religion is not opposed to scientific inquiry; it is only a proponent of a higher form of inquiry that we cannot ascertain through empirical means. Religion has been made outcast, nonetheless, and secular religions have assumed a baser place. The more we push back against a society that believes in miracles, the more we will bring about a society that believes in magic and all of its forms.
Dr. Gray is right: Magic will persist, albeit in much cruder forms, because man cannot bear much reality, but his idea of reality is mixed up with strict rationalism. This is not reality. Reality is that the human mind and heart are not always rational; they are intuitive; myth and miracles are as real as we are; and the visible world is not the only world there is.
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The featured image is “An Alchemist in His Laboratory” by David Teniers the Younger (1610–1690) and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.