Practicing scientifically minded witchcraft means acknowledging the validity and veracity of both the scientific process and liminal magical practices. Despite the superficial contradictions involved in that statement, science and magic are not at all mutually exclusive, and no, I don’t need to appeal to quantum theory to make that assertion.
The Importance of Science
Science is a system of knowledge which has been gained using the scientific method.
According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary:
principles and procedures for the systematic pursuit of knowledge involving the recognition and formulation of a problem, the collection of data through observation and experiment, and the formulation and testing of hypotheses
In other words, we use the scientific method to test ideas we have about how the world works, and through replicable testing and consistent results, are able to either verify or disprove those ideas.
There is literally no better way to improve our understanding of how the physical world works, whether we are talking about the inner workings of atoms, the behaviors of molecules, medicine, weather patterns, biology, aeronautics, or the structures of our solar system and galaxy. Through science we can demystify how the physical world works, and better understand the universe around us.
While certainly not all witches center nature in their personal practices, nature has a profound effect on our reality and our existences, and accurately understanding nature is best achieved through science. A good portion of us do involve nature in our practices, even if that is primarily through observing solar and lunar cycles. If you consider nature worship a central pillar of your practice, then why wouldn’t you want to better understand the physical underpinnings of its workings?
In the field of herbology, science teaches us not just that some plants are poisonous and others can heal, but it teaches us why that happens on a physical level. It allows for consciously accurate dosing, and greater understanding of the more ephemeral attributes of the plants. Understanding that lavender smell typically causes calming changes in brain chemistry doesn’t sterilize lavender as a magical tool – it adds an additional layer of understanding to use as a sympathetic link in magical work.
In kitchen witchery, science teaches us why food handling is important, and exactly how to handle ingredients safely under different circumstances. It teaches us why certain ingredients do certain things in baking or savory cooking, and why other seemingly disparate ingredients can have a similar effect, like substituting blood for eggs, or a whole array of other substitutes for eggs. It also teaches us what nutrients we need and in what quantities in order to meet our physical needs, allowing us to consciously foster good health through diet.
In astrology, science teaches us how the planets move relative to each other, and so much about their physical properties. This has allowed astrology to become vastly more detailed than was possible historically.
Science has also given us new materials, plastics, resins, art mediums, synthetic gemstones, and so on, which we use in our practices as ingredients or tools. It has given us computers and the internet and cell phones, revolutionizing how we communicate and even practice our magics, especially during the era of COVID-19.
The more we understand about the physical tools we use, the better we become at using them effectively, and the better we become at adapting them to new uses and new situations.
The Limitations of Science
Like any good tool, the scientific method is amazing at doing what it does best, but it falls short when asked to do things it is not suited to. A hammer is ideal for nailing two pieces of wood together or hanging a picture on your wall. You might be able to use it to loosen a stubborn part in an engine. If you really wanted to, you could even use the claw of a hammer to dig a hole, but that particular task would be much easier to do with a shovel. You cannot use a hammer to secure the plumbing under your kitchen sink. It would just make a mess of everything.
Part of understanding your tools is understanding how they work, what they can be adapted to outside their primary use, and what they will just make a mess of.
The scientific method requires consistent replicable results in order to function. Spiritual and magical experiences are inherently personal and impossible to reproduce precisely. Even if a group of people involved in a ritual have similar experiences during the ritual, the specifics of those experiences are personal and unique. Even if you perform a ritual exactly the same way multiple times, each occasion is going to be a slightly different experience (or maybe vastly different).
Spiritual and magical experiences are inherently impossible to precisely replicate, so they fall outside the realm of science. Even guided meditations and trances are going to produce vastly different experiences for each person involved, even if they are all following the verbal cues of the person facilitating the experience.
The scientific method is so bad (good?) at dealing with unique events that it even allows for throwing out statistical outliers when analyzing the results of tests.
Statistical outliers are pieces of data that lie so far outside of the rest of the results that their validity is suspect. In scientific testing these outlier results can stem from various factors, including but not limited to human error, measurement error, technical error, sampling error, or natural deviation (novelty result). Part of the challenge of using the scientific method properly is in determining the sources of statistical outliers, and then if errors need to be corrected before a retest, or if the outliers should be thrown out.
For our purposes, we are most interested in natural or novel outliers which are not the result of an error. This is the realm of the Guinness Book of World Records: naturally occurring exceptional examples, like a single corn stalk which is growing two feet taller than everything else in the field. When working with statistics, those exceptional or incredibly unusual examples are normally thrown out because they can distort predictive results.
If you want to know the average height of your corn stalks, and you include that bizarrely tall outlier, your statistical “average” is going to be taller than the actual typical height of the corn stalks. If you want a true average that is going to produce a predictable result, you need to throw out that statistical outlier before you do the math.
Liminal and magical experiences and actions are usually outliers. We use magic to manifest when the odds are against us, and we use hexes and curses to defend ourselves or dole out retribution when normal avenues are closed. We use wards to protect ourselves and avert bad situations that otherwise would most likely be far worse. We use magic to heal faster and better than would be expected.
Your average person, even your average devout person, is unlikely to ever have a profound personal experience with a deity, which is a huge factor in why it is impossible to prove unequivocally that deities exist. However, it is the exception to find a witch who has not had such an experience. It is not even unusual for witches to interact with deities on a consistent, and sometimes daily basis.
Very often it’s not just the magic we work, but the witches themselves who are statistical outliers. There is no shortage of stories of witches who come from difficult or traumatic backgrounds, and who find their own way despite (or in defiance of) their upbringings. Witches tend to defy expectation, and break boundaries that most people consider inviolable. Even when we follow established traditions, we tend to forge our own paths and follow our own hearts, even when the rest of the world says not to.
How the Scientific Method Can Validate Our Experiences
The fact that spiritual and magical experiences are outlier events is why it is so easy to question whether or not they are real. Could it be your imagination? Could you be remembering it wrong? Was it just a coincidence?
When you ask yourself those things, you are investigating what kind of a statistical outlier your experience was. Was it an error? Or was it natural deviation, an event so outside of typical experience as to seem impossible? You most likely can’t reproduce exactly the same event a second time, and others you talk to definitely can’t have the same experience, so no one else can unequivocally verify it for you in an objective manner.
It’s all on you to build confidence in your craft, to believe your own experiences, and develop a firm foundation of understanding that your work is outside the bounds of typical experiences. Questioning your experiences isn’t inherently a bad thing. It keeps us humble, and it keeps us learning.
You’ve probably encountered that blow-hard who thinks they are doing amazing feats of magic, when what they are actually doing is little more than mental masturbation and ego stroking. I hope you don’t want to be that person, but you also don’t want to become crippled by doubt and insecurity. There is a balance, and a healthy middle ground between overconfidence and doubt, where magic actually happens.
The scientific method may not be capable of proving the existence of magic to others, but you can use it to help verify your own experiences for yourself. Keep a journal of your spells and rituals, and what results you notice, and over time you will see patterns emerge. You can even set up repeated experiments for different formats of spellwork and ritual (formal circle vs no circle, outdoors vs indoors, chanting vs silent, different candle colors, etc.), and track the results to quantitatively determine what works best for you. Your experiences are statistical outliers to the majority of humans, but in your own life they can be perfectly normal, and they can be tracked.
Group workings can also be helpful in building confidence if you are having a particularly hard time believing in yourself and your experiences. Other people present will not have the exact same experience, but most will have similar experiences. Talking about those shared threads and the individual variations can help to verify the experience, because within the context of that group at that time you are not a distant outlier.
Balance Science and Gnosis in Your Practice
It doesn’t matter what deities you do or do not work with. It doesn’t matter which tradition you do or do not belong to. We are all capable of respecting both the validity of science and the validity of our magical and spiritual experiences.
Science and witchcraft are not mutually exclusive. They are simply different tools for understanding and interacting with the world around us, each with their strengths and weaknesses. Don’t become so absorbed in proving everything scientifically that you dismiss or discount your metaphysical experiences, and don’t become so wrapped up in metaphysics that you forget the validity of science.
You can believe in the energy of your crystals or reiki while still understanding that modern medicine works. You can believe in astrology and still understand that retrograde events are purely a matter of perspective, and no orbiting bodies actually move backwards. You can believe in the wheel of the year and support that practice with tangible knowledge of how and why the seasons turn. You can believe in the metaphors and lessons of creation myths and still understand that the earth is billions of years old.
Medieval alchemists didn’t use sorcery to determine the properties of different materials they worked with. They used science, and then used the understanding they gained through science and applied that to sorcery. By the same token, you can use witchcraft to better understand the spirit of an herb, but science is the means by which we can truly understand the effects it has when consumed, and how to process it for greatest efficacy. Once the physical and metaphysical properties are both fully understood, the witch can incorporate both into their spellwork for spectacular results.
Science is amazingly good at what it does – teaching us about the physical world around us. If your practice directly contradicts scientific understanding of the physical world, science is most likely correct.
So, when science and your practice disagree, is your practice wrong, or are the two not as mutually exclusive as you thought they were? Most of the time there is more than one “right” answer.