When we dissect a frog, we kill it in order to understand it. Could scientific thinking “kill” the world in an effort to understand it?
“Science could not have killed the world,” you may say because the world was never alive to begin with.
Or was it?
It seems to me as though human minds have evolved to be naturally predisposed to seeing the world as “alive.” Throughout the recorded history of our species, virtually all societies seemed to have considered themselves surrounded by beings, forces, spirits. This animism is still commonly found among tribal societies and children.
Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget’s research on child development found that children have an innate sense of animism. Animals, plants, are understood by young children as not only being alive but also conscious. Objects that move of their own accord such as the sun, the moon, the stars are considered living as well.
This is not to say animism is naïve or childish. Rather what it suggests is that animism is intuitive. Even in non-animistic societies, animism often remains strongly embedded in culture and popular belief in the form of belief in ghosts, spirits of ancestors and the dearly departed.
Even a strict atheist may find themselves crossing their fingers when airplanes experience turbulence. Or an atheist may feel the strong sense that an object that once belonged to a loved one still retains a part of his or her essence within it—a dusty guitar, a photograph, a grave or an urn of ashes.
While there are a few historical examples of agnosticism, and maybe even of outright atheism, in ancient Greece and India, it’s the exception rather than the rule. Even Buddhist scriptures are rife with supernatural beings. Overwhelmingly, the evidence indicates that a spirituo-religious understanding of the world has dominated the human psyche even up to the present day. Though the anti-religious may be loath to admit it, it seems as though we’ve evolved a predisposition for the supernatural.
Of course, this doesn’t mean there is a supernatural world, just that we are predisposed to believe in one. And today, with our evolutionary theory and our God helmets, we know better, don’t we? We’ve cracked the atom, we’ve mapped the genome, we’ve seen for millions of light-years all around us, and nowhere, far or near, large or small, have we found evidence of a spirit or a god. So why believe in them anymore?
Our instincts seem to have been wrong. Shouldn’t we try to correct those instincts? I think so. But I don’t think we should deny them either.
I don’t believe in supernatural entities, but I often wonder whether I would be happier if I did. I wonder if my recurring bouts of hopelessness, depression, nihilism aren’t rooted in my renouncement of the unreal. In dogmatically committing to scientific materialism, am I actually sabotaging myself?
The Spell is Broken
“Disenchantment” was the diagnosis Max Weber gave to the secularizing world. We’ve disenchanted it with science—broken the spell that kept the words of mystics, the works of spirits, the existence of the soul and of gods real in our minds.
Many people of course still believe in these things. Even at the time of Weber’s writing, when Europe was rapidly secularizing at the turn of the 20th century, there was a wave of occult movements taking hold of European high society. There was the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, the Theosophical Society, Mesmerism, revived interest in Rosicrucianism, and other strands of Western esotericism.
Even today I’ve met many educated people, doctors, computer scientists and the like who very seriously believe in the unbelievable. Two progressive Turkish men I met both swore to the existence of the evil eye. An American doctor I know told me that a dead patient visited his relative’s computer screen and populated it with cat pictures to comfort them.
But we can’t forget all we now know. And while there is much that science does not know, that doesn’t mean that every spiritualist, mystic, and parascientific tinhat is justified in their beliefs.
So what kind of balance can be struck between the provable, the scientific, the “real” and all the rest?
At the end of the movie The Prestige, the dying magician Robert Angier said to his rival: “The audience knows the truth. The world is simple. It’s miserable. Solid… Solid all the way through. But if you could fool them, even for a second…then you could make them wonder.”
Rather than live under an organized religion, or join an occult movement that fills our need for the fantastic, we can seek out moments of “real magic” with which to fool ourselves.
What I mean by “real magic” are instances in which I’m not entirely sure I understand reality. They are moments when dream seems to break out into the world before me—moments when what I see in front of me is not “dead” reality but a bizarre admixture of the real and the unreal.
Examples for me include moments when I suspect there to be a sunken town beneath a lake, when I look into a jungle and imagine the bones of ancient civilizations lying within, when I watch a downpour and feel as if I were standing on another, very wet planet, or when I see a plane’s contrail streaking across the sky and wonder if it might be a rocket rising into the stratosphere.
Although it lasts only a moment—or maybe a good fraction of a minute if I put my foot down on its tail and hold it—the effect on me is vivifying. I walk away from these experiences with a sense of fullness, giddiness, or deep calm. I know at one and the same time that what I felt and saw was not real and yet it felt better than reality.
These moments of magic— of letting ourselves be “fooled”—they’re something I hold dear. And while I let part of my mind be fooled, the rest of me is not. My scientific materialism remains unchanged. When the moment passes, I go back to believing that the world is “solid”—that there are no unexplained gaps where the laws of science do not hold, that there are no holes through which a jinn might slip into this world or through which a departed spirit might send kittens to your laptop from the world beyond.
It’s tragic, to be honest—that come-down. But the beauty of it stays on as a residue of hope and glee that used to be everywhere when I was a child and has since become a kind of rare gold. And when I find it glinting, I really do feel rich.
From a collection of such “magic” moments, I believe we can enrich the soul without any kind of organized spiritual system. People who desire, or need, this kind of experience can seek them out in the world as if they were collecting fireflies in the darkness of a forest. One by one, we can collect these little sparks of lights and make the jar we carry with us lighter. While it may seem a tad sentimental, this metaphor I believe is a useful one.
What’s more: we can pursue these moments of unreality without compromising our basic belief in the scientific paradigm—a paradigm that is powerful, and exciting in its own way, but which lacks the kind of magic our species has come to expect from the universe.