The Centrality of the Occult
For some, the history of science begins with Sir Francis Bacon. Born in 1561, and dying in 1626, he lived at the height of the witch trials in Early Modern Europe. He was not a Neoplatonist, or a Kabbalist, or any other sort of Renaissance magician. He was more or less a skeptic, advocating that we learn from nature through rigorous experimentation and close observation and recording of details. While perhaps not the father of the scientific method, his beliefs, and his rejection of more mystical explanation for natural phenomena, certainly helped lay the groundwork for modern science.
But Michael Bailey suggests that even this confirmed empiricist was not entirely free of the influence of more occult disciplines, claiming that “such works as his famous Novum Organum (The New Instrument) in 1620 had certain roots in older occult forms.”
“In the Middle Ages, “books of secrets” had professed to disclose the hidden properties of natural substances, as well as providing instructions on how to unlock and employ these powers. Far from being complex theoretical treatises, these were mostly practical handbooks aimed at offering basic medical treatments for illness and injury as well as other homey recipes for practical purposes. To justify their knowledge, the authors of these works claimed simple experience—they had observed that the various concoctions, potions, and mixtures they recommended were actually effective, or they had at least heard so from reliable witnesses or had knowledge based on long tradition. Already a fairly popular genre by medieval standards, after the advent of printing in the later fifteenth century books of secrets, or, as was often the case slimmer pamphlets of secrets, flourished. The most popular such book in the early modern period, Alessio Piemontese’s Secreti, was issued in over one hundred different editions from the mid-sixteenth to the end of the seventeenth century.”
Related to these books of secrets were “cabinets of wonders.” These collections of strange and mysterious objects did not claim to lay out some systematic explanation of the forces behind the universe, but merely to point towards certain odd things which did exist. “But for natural philosophers of the period they were important tools of observation and classification; modern natural history museums have their roots in such collections.” During this time period, both the curiosities found in the cabinets of wonders and the strange effects of actions outlines in books of secrets ceased to be understood as supernatural signs, miracles, or freaks of nature, and instead as “unfamiliar but usefully illustrative examples of normal natural processes.”
But Bacon’s tendency to reject Neoplatonic or Hermetic systems and instead rigorously examine nature, especially through experimentation, was not merely a by-product of pseudo-occult Renaissance literary trends, or curiously secular spins on the old practice of relic-keeping. Bailey suggests that, at its base, the entire empirical project was occult:
“Baconian-style empiricism in general can actually be seen not so much as rejecting occult aspects of nature as, in a way, making them central to its conception of the natural world. Aristotelian natural philosophy had also been based on the observation of the world, but it worked essentially by categorizing animals, materials, and natural effects according to their immediately observable properties. The new philosophy held that nature did not so easily reveal her true aspect, and therefore carefully crafted observations and deliberate experimentation were required to uncover her actual workings. Like changing understandings of “wonders,” this new method can also be seen as resting on an important shift away from the idea that occult properties in nature were essentially mysterious, differing from normal natural properties, to the notion that such secrets, properly uncovered would reveal understandable elements of the natural universe. Such shifts in mentality and purpose were important, to be sure, but they represent a progression, not an absolute rupture between older magical and newer scientific systems of thought.” (emphasis added)
Thus the revelation of hidden, “occult” properties in the cosmos became the work, not of Hermetic or Kabbalistic mages, but of early scientists. No longer was “occult” action something that occurred only in miracles and freaks of nature, but instead the very fabric of the universe—as central as gravity.
The Magician’s Bargain
But the heart of the matter, the thing that links science and magic, is not simply a preoccupation with hidden properties. There is a deeper motive at work, one which shapes the kind of knowledge each is seeking, and the purpose for which they seek it. To find that, let us turn to one of the great Medievalist scholars of the past century, and popular Christian author, C. S. Lewis. After making accusations similar to my own for a significant portion of The Abolition of Man, and acknowledging that they could be misconstrued as a wholesale condemnation of science, he writes the following:
“I have described as a ‘magician’s bargain’ that process whereby man surrenders object after object, and finally himself, to Nature in return for power. And I meant what I said. The fact that the scientists has succeeded where the magician failed has put such a wide contrast between them in popular thought that the real story of the birth of Science is misunderstood. You will find people who write about the sixteenth century as if Magic were a medieval survival and Science the new thing that came in to sweep it away. Those who have studied the period know better. There was very little magic in the Middle Ages: the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries are the high noon of magic. The serious magical endeavour and the serious scientific endeavour are twins: one was sickly and died, the other strong and throve. But they were twins. They were born of the same impulse. I allow that some (certainly not all) of the early scientists were actuated by a pure love of knowledge. But if we consider the temper of that age as a whole we can discern the impulse of which I speak.”
A cursory study of the history of magic, and a reading of Bailey in particular, vindicate Lewis’s historical claim that the Early Modern period was the high noon of serious magical study in the West, as well as the birthplace of science. The deeper impulse that unites, that places them within the “temper of the age,” however, is not something a historian like Bailey is likely dwell on. Instead, it takes a moralist like Lewis, who also has deep scholarly knowledge of the period, to point it out.
“There is something which unites magic and applied science while separating both from the ‘wisdom’ of earlier ages. For the wise man of old the cardinal problem had been how to conform the soul to reality and the solution had been knowledge, self-discipline, and virtue. For magic and applied science alike the problem is how to subdue reality to the wishes of men: the solution is a technique; and both, in the practice of this technique, are ready to do things hitherto regarded as disgusting and impious—such as digging up and mutilating the dead.”
This is the essential question at the heart both of sorcery and of sorcerous magic: how can I make reality conform to my own wishes? How can I bend the natural order to serve my desires? Lewis is right to point out that this runs counter to quite a lot of ancient wisdom. Plato believed in a highly ordered universe spreading forth from a central reality, a One, and that the task of humanity was to grasp this higher reality, and to arrange his soul in such a way that it conformed with the order of the universe. The Stoics likewise believed in a fundamental order to the universe, and the importance of man recognizing that and conforming himself to it. The same can be said for eastern philosophies, like Taoism, whose uniting, ordering principle, the Tao, lends its name to Lewis’s work.
Taken this way, the tendency of ancient Greek or Mesopotamian city-states, or of the Roman empire, to designate private or alien religious practices “magic” is not mere chauvinism. At the heart of their religious systems is a believe that certain gods have the authority to arrange the universe in a certain way. Magical practice is the claim either that one can circumvent this order imposed by the gods, or that one is capable of coercing the gods themselves to reinvent it. This is far different in character than the sacrifices, rituals, and forms of divination which the gods themselves require, even if the external acts or the intended results may bear a passing resemblance.
But Lewis does not leave this connection floating in the ether. He takes one of the fathers of modern science for an illustration and drives the point home:
“If we compare the chief trumpeter of the new era (Bacon) to Marlowe’s Faustus, the similarity is striking. You will read in some critics that Faustus has a thirst for knowledge. In reality, he hardly mentions it. It is not truth that he wants from the devils, but gold and guns and girls. ‘All things that move between the quiet poles shall be at his command’ and ‘a sound magician is a mighty god’. In the same spirit Bacon condemns those who value knowledge as an end in itself: this, for him, is to use as a mistress for pleasure what ought to be a spouse for fruit. The true object is to extend Man’s power to the performance of all things possible. He rejects magic because it does not work; but his goal is that of the magician.”
This is the rotting heart of sorcerous science: we reject wisdom and reject finding our place in the order of the cosmos, and instead choose to remake the cosmos in our image. What does it matter if we appeal to demons and false gods or to specialized technical knowledge divined by experimentation? If the result of either is the overthrow of the God-ordained order of the universe, then practically the actions are the same. Both are idolatry, both are blatant disregard for God’s authority and the appeal to some other force that promises us some power or some reward in exchange for yielding up our soul, or at least our temporary worship.
It would, of course, be excessive to claim that any form of technology is idolatrous or sorcerous simply because it does something that formerly could not be done without it. As Thomas Brainerd pointed out to me, it’s hardly fair to say one is engaging in idolatry by trusting the controlled explosions in our engines to get us to work rather than ripping us apart. This is a cunning use of nature, not a contradiction of it. This is a point both I and Lewis concede:
“No doubt those who really founded modern science were usually those whose love of truth exceeded their love of power; in every mixed movement the efficacy comes from the good elements and not from the bad. But the presence of the bad elements is not irrelevant to the direction the efficacy takes. It might be going too far to say that the modern scientific movement was tainted from its birth: but I think it would be true to say it was born in an unhealthy neighbourhood and at an inauspicious hour. Its triumphs may have been too rapid and purchased at too high a price: reconsideration, and something like repentance, may be required.”
As Lewis says, modern science certainly is driven by a certain degree of love of truth. Modern technology often unlocks the potential hidden in nature to help us do good and noble things—healing the sick, feeding the hungry, spreading and preserving wisdom. But it can and has been used for far wickeder things.
Lewis himself wrote an excellent novel called That Hideous Strength, wherein the fiercely modern antagonists use sociology and inhumane treatment to reeducate initiates, and plan to use the same supposedly scientific methods to “cure” criminals. They also engage in vivisection, the live dissection of animals for gaining scientific knowledge, a practice which Lewis himself vocally opposed.
Our own time is not lacking in examples of bad science. One of the most striking and disturbing are the experiments that involve creating human-animal hybrids. Thusfar, such creatures are not allowed to develop and be carried to term, if such a thing were even possible, but the very existence of such a thing as mixture between animal and man overturns the natural order in a significant way. Not just Christianity, but virtually every human civilization is founded on a basic assumption that animals and humans, whatever they may have in common, are essentially different. To blend the two is a monstrosity.
Species is not the only boundary that is beginning to be crossed with regularity, however. Anyone without their head in the sand is quite aware that surgical procedures exist which are more or less capable of turning a formerly anatomically male person into a person who is anatomically female, and vice versa. Here is yet another distinction within the natural order, ratified for Christians by divine revelation, overturned by modern technical knowledge.
But both of these products of modern science are big and flashy. Other things we take for granted are also deviations from nature, whose consequences we may not fully appreciate. The existence of widespread, safe, and affordable birth control, for example, has divorced the sexual act from procreation. In the early days this was a more or less self-conscious move, an attempt to liberate women from biological constraints and place them on even footing with men in both the freedom with which they can engage in sexual activity, and in their ability to pursue a career unhindered by the physical demands of pregnancy and childbirth.
Perhaps this is something to be welcomed—perhaps—but it is certainly a momentous shift in the meaning of activities and processes central to our humanity. With the advent of functioning 3D-printed ovaries and artificial wombs, the very concepts of “mother” and “father” may, at some point, conceivably be a thing of the past. This is without even directly addressing the social effects of sexual liberation.
In the field of artificial intelligence, the question of what constitutes a “person” and what our moral duties towards such artificially created “people” might be is quite an old one. More interesting to today’s transhumanist technocrats is the question of how humans might become machines, and so gain transcendence that way. Philosophers and theologians have long debated exactly what it means to be human, and this certainly pushes the boundaries.
Our hubris, however, is not exclusive the realm of the weird. We are the civilization that das rivers, that alters their course. We invented strip mining and vast, mechanized farms employing chemicals with not fully explored properties to kill pests and preserve crops. Through deliberate action, we have, either nearly or entirely, wiped out species once as numerous as the passenger pigeon, or the buffalo. We have deforested vast stretches of continents, introduced invasive species by the dozen, blasted through mountains and hills, and in general altered the ecology of most of our world beyond recognition.
The problem here is not agriculture, nor is the building of roads or cities, but the unconscious assumption that the world is here to be exploited. That is, we believe creation was meant for us, and can be changed to conform to our will with few or no consequences. There is no order we have to respect, no natural balance to be maintained, only a series of resources we can harvest and bend to our own ends.
This is not the picture the Bible paints. Man was placed in the garden “to tend it and keep it.” The world was not made to serve him, instead he was made to be God’s image and likeness in the world, its protector, its nurturer, its sustainer and healer. Man was not placed on this earth to exploit and dispose of it, but to beautify it and cause it to flourish, to cause order and not desolation.
Nor is this an issue that concerns the natural world alone. The buffalo were massacred in the million by the same advances in weaponry that led to the unprecedented carnage of the Civil War. World War I saw the advent of the machine guns that necessitated trench warfare, of the bombs and gas that could not distinguish civilian from soldier. World War II ended with the detonation of a single weapon capable of wiping out cities, whose radioactive traces rendered environments unlivable for generations. At least as frightening is the concept of biological warfare, of bacteria and viruses crafted to kill human beings, regardless of age or sex, regardless of guilt or innocence, in vast numbers. Science has taught us to seek power not only over our own bodies or the environment, but also over the lives of others.
Something Like Repentance
Not every piece of tech is a Faustian bargain, and the march of science is not necessarily the forward march of sorcerous inhumanity. This is not a blanket condemnation of seeking knowledge of the natural world, nor of every tool which can improve human life. But it is a suggestion that perhaps we no longer care for wisdom as an end in itself, that we no longer see ourselves as part of an order created by Someone Else’s authority. To one degree or another, we are drunk with the power offered us by scientific knowledge, and to some extend our consciences have been seared by long years of self-interested exploitation of these secrets. To quote the inimitable Dr. Ian Malcolm:
It is possible, and indeed good, to subject advances in technology or scientific practice to ethical questioning. We can ask whether or a new tool or a new method—or a new experiment—comes at too high a cost, or exhibits too great a hubris in our relationship to the natural world. The Amish, of course, are very conscious of this principle. While perhaps we should not imitate them in everything, it may be wise to pay some attention to their way of thinking, which is far more complex and open to innovation than they are often given credit for. This may not be our solution, but we should at least be thinking in this direction.
I do not know what the future will look like. I’m not ready to say we’re standing on the brink of some massive, man-made ecological disaster, or that we are on the threshold of the dystopian cyberpunk future Ridley Scott and the Wachowskis tried to warn us about. But I do believe that there is an element of arrogance and idolatry in the way we approach the world which the old sorcerers would recognize. And the old stories are all consistent about one thing: if make a bargain with the devil, you have to give the devil his due. It might be good to engage in self-examination before that due date comes.
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