Wyrdsmiths: Science and magical-technology

Assumptions, assumptions

Science is perhaps best described as a search for a Platonic ideal, ‘the Absolute Truth’. The search is based on four assumptions or premises:

  1. that there are natural laws;
  2. that these laws are universal;
  3. that these laws can be discovered by dissection and reduction of phenomena to ever-smaller parts;
  4. that these laws are inherently consistent and logical, and, as a system of laws, are all-inclusive and all-encompassing.

What’s perhaps not obvious is that there is no proof whatsoever for any of these premises: all they are is assumptions. As assumptions, they do work quite well as a way of understanding the physical world – Murphy’s Law nothwithstanding! – but they are not, and can never be, anything more than assumptions.

And as assumptions, or premises, they don’t completely work, even as a way of describing the physical world. Electrical and electronics technology has long since been forced to abandon (iv) – because of the logical incompatibility of particle and wave perspectives on electromagnetic phenomena – and hence, in a sense, has also had to abandon (ii). In the same way, sub-quantum physics can no longer make sense of the world through these assumptions: they’re just too limiting. Most technologies based on (iii) suffer from increasing inefficiency and unreliability with increasing complexity, as the fragmentation makes it increasingly difficult to maintain a sense of the whole.

One of the main premises of magical models of reality – and hence magical-technologies – is that (ii) is not valid, and that the supposed ‘laws of nature’ are best understood as no more than functional guidelines. The ‘laws’ can’t be broken as such: but they can usually be bent a little, in suitable circumstances – and sometimes bent a lot! Many technologies depend on providing conditions under which something that occurs only rarely, if at all, in the natural world occurs instead with a high degree of reliability and certainty: a good example is the multitude of ‘special-case’ conditions needed to cause the gas explosions that drive a car.

And life itself is perhaps the best example of all: it seems at first to exist in direct contradiction to the Second Law of Thermodynamics, creating increasing complexity and diversity where the Law predicts a steady decline to dull uniformity. Yet it doesn’t actually break that Law: it just cheats a bit, finding ways to bend ‘the rules’ in weird yet specific contexts, and thence create changes that could not be predicted by the Law itself. It’s true that from the moment its starts life, each living organism begins a slow decline to death, exactly as the Law demands: yet life as a whole goes on growing in the opposite direction.

Overall, everything does balance out, as the ‘laws’ of science require: but like all technologies, magical-technologies explore and exploit the weird twists and localised niches within the realms covered by each ‘law’, and find ways to make ‘special-case’ conditions become more and more commonplace. So despite their frequent strangeness, magical-technologies always remain strictly ‘scientific’: they never break scientific ‘laws’ as such – though often those ‘laws’ are not quite what they seem!

Science as religion

Probably none of this would matter in magical-technologies were it not for the dominance in our society of a belief in ‘science’ as a kind of religious quest for certainty. At its root, the dependence on logical consistency often brings science dangerously close to the religious model known as ‘rationalism’ – usually defined as ‘a theory which regards reason, rather than sense, as the foundation of certainty in knowledge; the principle of regarding reason as the chief or only guide in matters of religion’. When the purpose of science is misunderstood in this way, it effectively becomes a religion – one which is commonly known as ‘scientism’, and frequently to be found underlying theories in the ‘soft sciences’ (sociology, economics, gender-studies and the like) and many supposedly ‘rational’ social and political endeavours. It purports to be science, or scientific, and its adherents often believe themselves to be scientists: but where it departs from real science is that a further pair of premises are added:

  1. the current system of supposed ‘natural laws’, in some cases complemented by yet-to-be-discovered but logically-consistent direct extensions from them, describe every possible aspect of reality;
  2. anything which fails to conform to the expectations defined by these laws cannot be real, and therefore does not exist.

Both these additional premises may seem at first glance to follow from the premises of science: but they actually reflect an emotional need for certainty rather than a spiritual need to explore and accept the uncertainties of Reality Department. That they are more emotive than rational is indicated by the intensity with which any references to ‘the paranormal’ are denigrated – and, for that matter, the clearly obsessional and irrational behaviour of many self-styled ‘Skeptics’. It’s as a result of this failure to accept inherent uncertainty that, as the science-historian Thomas Kuhn pointed out some decades ago (in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions), scientific models tend only to change only through ‘paradigm shifts’: a ‘catastrophe of belief’ in which contradictory evidence that may have been glossed-over for years, decades or centuries can finally no longer be ignored. Even then there are often desperate attempts to retreat back to the familiar, however untenable – and however unscientific it actually may be.

One well-known example of this was Professor John Taylor’s attempts to make ‘scientific’ sense of the paranormal, from his own perspective as a physicist. For him, the ‘unavoidable evidence’ of paranormal phenomena was presented by watching Uri Geller at work:

“I felt as if the whole framework with which I viewed the world had suddenly been destroyed. I seemed very naked and vulnerable, surrounded by a hostile, incomprehensible universe.” [Professor John Taylor, quoted in Alpha magazine, London, March 1979]

That Geller’s activities remain controversial is actually irrelevant here: what’s important is Taylor’s ‘catastrophe of belief’, and his response to it. It’s particularly interesting to note that he here describes the world as ‘suddenly hostile‘ – even though the world itself had clearly not changed at all. Taylor then set out on a lengthy trail of research, supposedly in order to ‘understand’ the phenomena he’d seen, but in practice to make the perceived world seem safe again by providing ‘reasons’ which would make the phenomena ‘comprehensible’ within his own world-view and that of other scientists. So although Taylor’s research was undoubtedly excellent at a technical level, the underlying motivation was ultimately emotional – a quest for certainty by judging the phenomena against predefined theories – rather than scientific – a quest to develop new theories by understanding the phenomena’s own context – leading to serious problems with the resultant ‘science’.

Although he covered a very wide range of phenomena in his research (“life-after-death experiences, precognition, astrology, dowsing, metal-bending, moving of objects, materialisation, dematerialisation – you mention it and I’ve looked into it”, he said in the Alpha interview), Taylor glossed over most of the known issues in repeatability in magical-technologies – which rendered his research meaningless from a scientific perspective. In particular – as illustrated exactly by a phrase in his published paper (‘Can electromagnetism account for extra-sensory phenomena’, Nature 276, 2 Nov 1978, co-authored with Dr Eduardo Balanovski), that “we question its paranormal nature because we contend that electromagnetism is the only known force that could have been involved in the phenomenon” – he made two fundamental errors: first, in assuming that only one mechanism could be involved; and that if that mechanism was not observed, the phenomena therefore could not be real. Though it’s not easy to notice at first, because the logic seems so compelling, it is actually a circular ‘proof’: preservation of the theory is given a higher priority than acceptance of the evidence. This was emphasised, too, in the Alpha interview:

Notwithstanding the lack of experimental evidence, Professor Taylor maintains that there can be no explanation outside of electro-magnetism. ‘Do you not leave the door open to any other possible explanation at all?’, Alpha asked him. ‘No, I don’t’, came the crisp reply.

But as psychologist Professor John Beloff commented, “this conjecture does not follow from the evidence”. Cambridge physicist Dr Ted Bastin, in the same Alpha issue, compared Taylor’s apparently ‘scientific’ perspective to the actual scientific problems:

Taylor’s position seems to depend upon four assumptions, of which he explicitly states and has given technical arguments for the last two:

  1. If PK (psychokinesis) exists, it takes place in the physical world and participates in the interactions of physical fields and matter.
  2. Everything, including PK, that takes place in the world is governed by general and universally applicable laws.
  3. The known laws are complete in the sense that no others can exist.
  4. Effects on the laboratory scale which act differentially on matter are electromagnetic (EM).

When Taylor met Geller, he set himself the programme of locating the place in the EM spectrum at which PK effects must be mediated. Various people, including myself, put it to Taylor that his programme may have misassessed the evident nature of PK, and that the compulsion of the principles, which for him dictated the programme, have been misunderstood. Taylor does not mention these possibilities [in the Nature paper].

Philosophers of science nowadays are not impressed by arguments from the completeness of scientific theory, but in any case, even at a technical level, physicists have known from classical times that Taylor’s argument was not logically compulsive.

…Something has destroyed [Taylor’s] confidence in the evidence of his senses, and I think that it must be that PK evidently didn’t fit into the theoretical slot that would have allowed it to make sense for him. As a result the article reads as very, very cagey.

PK seems to be goal-directed, and to reach the goal by whatever mechanism happens to be easiest. The mechanism might be EM or it might not. It might change between one observation and the next. Even if EM regularly played a part, one could have no assurance that it would be ‘well-behaved’; some of the attributes of an EM interaction could appear without others.

In my opinion these familiar perplexities of PK do not place it outside scientific enquiry nor impugn its ‘reality’. However, I suspect that for Taylor they do both these things.

Magical-technologies often make use of scientific models and scientific research; however, it is essential at all times to beware of the danger of so much needing to seem ‘scientific’, and to conform to supposedly ‘scientific’ expectations, that the purpose of the technology is lost!

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