Science and the New Age
Science is humanity’s premier methodology for acquiring knowledge. It’s an entirely impersonal system, conceptually, a sequence of steps one adheres to in order to procure insight into the world and its mechanics. It’s curious, then, isn’t it, that science is such a polarising object; that people could either hate it or love it. In the same way that it’s hard to feel any particular ways about the premier method for tying one’s shoes — that is, the ol’ loop and wraparound trick — you would think that science, and the recipe that comprises its method, would be similarly non-polar. And yet it’s not. People really feel a ways about science, in both directions. There are folk — scientists, mostly — who wear science on their sleeve. Among such folk, falsification be their favourite word, and though they despise religious dogma, when in trouble, they pray not to God or Vishnu, but such deities as Einstein and Newton. On the other hand, there’s a group of cats — how large is impossible to say, but it appears to be growing — that ostensibly resent science, who seem to be almost viscerally repulsed by its regime. Now how in the four-dimensional world is this possible?
Well, as it happens, science — as we know it — isn’t only a methodology for acquiring knowledge. It’s also a functional epistemology (a theory of knowledge), a metaphysic (a theory of reality), a culture, a community, an enterprise, with its own distinct aesthetic and value system. Science, in the real world, is a veritable beast, a whole kit and caboodle. And while there’s very little to turn one’s nose up with respect to its methodology, there is a few pieces of the deal, beyond the method, that aren’t so self-evident such as to give rise to legitimate points of contention.
Though science is first and foremost a method, it also carries with it something like an implicit epistemology. Knowledge, science seems to say, is that which can be validated by the scientific method. ‘Is it science?’ one might ask. ‘If it’s not, then it’s BS,’ one might then say. The question is, what do we mean when we wonder whether something “is” or “is not” science? That is, what distinguishes science from its opposite, ‘non-science’? If science is a method, then what constitutes “science”, we might reason, is that knowledge which has been procured by way of the scientific method — y’know, a bit of hypothesis here, a bit of experiment there. That sorta thing.
Whatever the ultimate demarcation between science and non-science, and there has of course been much work done on this, what we mean practically, when we refer to knowledge claims as “science”, is that they are substantiated by empirical observation. In the simplest form, the kinds of observations readily borne of experiment. If something is “not science” it is so because there is an absence of evidence for said thing. If, on the other hand, something is “like full hectic science”, it is so because there is much evidence for said thing; evidence, moreover, that can be readily obtained via adherence to a particular method — that is, recipe — i.e. drop these two objects, of varying mass, from the same height and see which lands first. From this kinda thing, you get science. And that’s how the sausage is made. For real.
Now what could one possibly take issue with here? The problem, it seems to me, is that science has assumed something like the role of civilisation’s epistemic authority, the ultimate arbiter of what is real and true. Phenomena that is substantiated by empirical — ideally, replicable — data is taken to be ontologically valid, that is real, while all else is denied existence. The problem with this, however, is that science is often (though not always) a lagging measure of reality; it confirms what we already knew to be true, in other words. We don’t need science, for instance, to tell us that there is such a thing as love in this world, for our experience of such already affords us this knowledge. Sure, science can come along and substantiate what we already know — by pointing to such neurotransmitters as oxytocin and serotonin, for example — but that doesn’t make love any more real. It’s realness, surely, is not predicated on the existence of such “scientific” evidence. Indeed, the felt experience of love, whatever is going on biochemically, must surely count as evidence enough. That there is a biochemical correlate to love is cool, a fun fact for sure — and one we owe to science — but it does nothing, in the end, to the ontological status of love. Love is love, and love is real, prior to the support of science, prior to its physical substantiation. And so it is with the rest of stuff.
This is among the most widespread misconceptions as to what science is. Science is a methodology for acquiring knowledge, and a means of substantiating — placing on firmer epistemic footing — that knowledge which we have acquired via alternative means. It is a system of conjecture and criticism, not of authority. In many respects, in fact, science is the anti-authority. It is the institutional embodiment of skepticism/fallibilism; a constant reminder that we can never be sure. All we have is theories and their evidence, explanations and their support. Science does not provide grounds for confirming or disconfirming — in any ultimate sense — the absolute status of any given thing/phenomena. That is not to say that we can never be sure of anything. Rather, it’s just to say that science can’t tell us when we’re sure. We might be sure of something, and science might lend its support, but we can’t be sure we’re sure, so to speak. Science, for all its grandeur and success, is in fact a most humble epistemic program. It’s a corrective against our ignorance, precisely because it’s so unsure of itself.
Where science goes wrong, as an embodied epistemic paradigm, is in its dogmatic skepticism — and even denial — of all that cannot be — or simply yet to be — empirically verified. See, many of the most fundamental questions that pertain to the ‘ultimate nature of existence’ are questions that cannot be falsified one way or the other. Is there a God? for instance. If so, what’s her favourite colour? Does she prefer Nike or Adidas? Etc. None of these wonderings are, in the end, likely to prove amenable to the empirical method. But does that mean there is no God? And does that really mean she doesn’t prefer checks over stripes? Hardly. Science, though she has lots of evidence for lots of stuff, doesn’t have evidence — one way or the other — for any of these most pressing concerns. And yet, by some perversion of logic, it claims it does. Science, or at least the cartoon version that’s conveyed to the public, purports to know that there is no God — or that the position of the moon and stars has no material bearing on the unfolding of cosmic events. To be sure, it’s entirely possible that there is no such thing as a God — certainly the anthropomorphic, Christian variety — just as it’s entirely possible, and perhaps even likely, that astrology has absolutely nothing to impart re the causal dynamics of civilisational happenings. But we don’t know, at least not definitively, either way. Absence of evidence is not, as a rule, evidence of absence. To get this twisted is, ironically, to twist the essential message of science.
A metaphysic is a theory of what this all really is, in the loftiest sense; a gesture at the ‘fundamental nature of Reality’. Reality is the mind of God, for instance. That’s a metaphysic. Morals are real, as in baked into the fabric of things. That’s also a metaphysic. Biggie is better than Tupac. Well that’s not a metaphysic, exactly. Reality is a four-dimensional spacetime manifold thing with stars and stuff. That is indeed a metaphysic. In fact, it’s the implicit — and often explicit — metaphysic of science; the default, institutionalised sense of what’s going on here.
The explicit metaphysic of science is what’s known as materialism. It is, in its most basic form, the belief that the universe is, at bottom (and indeed everywhere else), a physical kinda thing. The cosmos, according to materialism, is something like a complex mechanical object or process; a massive computer that obeys the variety of physical law. People who take issue with science, as an enterprise, generally take issue with the materialist metaphysic it endorses rather than its functional epistemology. There is a strong intuition among such dissenters that the universe is not, in fact, a physical thing — or at least not only a physical thing. Such folk might even consider themselves idealists, proponents of the view that consciousness — which they consider to be a non-material thing — is fundamental, the ultimate foundation to Reality, the Ground floor. In such a case, where one is convinced — or inclined to believe — that the universe is a mental sorta thing, then one is bound to be rubbed the wrong way by the scientific regime and its utterances. And if the universe is ultimately a mental thing, one’s displeasure with science would be justified.
Now why would science endorse a metaphysic? Science, after all, is about the kinda stuff that can be falsified one way or another. Metaphysics, on the other hand, is about precisely the kinda stuff that can’t be falsified; knowledge claims that aren’t amenable to empirical methods, even though they might be borne of them. Accordingly, one would think science would stay away from the metaphysics business. And yet, as we’ve seen, that’s not what we find. Science — that is, physics and its friends — in the real world, can’t help but creep into metaphysics. For science without metaphysics is the intellectual equivalent of having sex without coming to completion; fun, and surely a worthwhile endeavour in itself, yet painfully unsatisfying.
Now one can hardly blame science for this fact, for science is just one dimension, one facet, of the broader effort that is the “knowledge project”. Scientists, as a rule, don’t get into science because they want to understand only one particular piece of the Reality pie. No. Instead, they do the thing — that is, science — so as to ascertain, as fully as possible, what in the world’s happening here, what all this Reality really is. At some level, science is but the institutional embodiment of the human yearning for knowledge and understanding, for Truth. That it oversteps its own self-imposed boundaries, from time-to-time, is thus entirely forgivable; indeed, it’s entirely human.
Human though it may be, it’s still an issue. For all its success, science doesn’t have an ultimate grip on Reality, a direct line to fundamental wisdom. And that’s fine, because, in earnest, none of us do — we’re all stumbling. Thus the problem isn’t that science doesn’t have the epistemic key to nature, but rather that it thinks it does. The problem with science — an enterprise which prides itself on clear perception, ironically — is that it lacks the self-awareness necessary to know when it’s overstepped its bounds; when physics has become metaphysics, science turned philosophy.
The universe is apparently made of physical stuff. There does appear to be a number of forces that govern the behaviour of all this physical stuff. And if there really is such a thing as non-material stuff, it’s not clear how or where we might place it, philosophically speaking. But that doesn’t mean we have it all figured out. Far from it. Even if this physical stuff is all there is, and what we consider to be immaterial/mental stuff is just a property of this other physical stuff, what this physical stuff actually is, as a matter of metaphysics, remains highly mysterious. Even if the current model of physics remains eternally in tact, we shall remain equally in the dark as to the ultimate facts of the matter here. Empirical methods only go so far; nature remains veiled to even the craftiest of experiments. Pretending otherwise is only a disservice to science and all that good which it stands for. The best thing we can do for science is to be honest, transparent. To admit that, for all our science, we don’t have this figured out. Not even close. And that’s cool — that’s what we’re doing here.
In principle, science is a conceptual system. In practice, it’s a human system, replete with an entire value/belief system, instantiated in the norms and customs of academic/scientific institutions the world over. If you’ve attended university, however successfully, you’ll have noticed that there is much more to such institutions than an earnest, insatiable desire for knowledge. In fact, what one finds is much less inspiring. What one tends to find, from experience, is something of a bloated bureaucracy, a cold and lifeless education factory, churning out degrees along an assembly line. Universities are also incredibly hierarchical systems, consisting of the most imbalanced power dynamics and relationship structures — i.e. the omniscient, all-powerful professor vs the naive, powerless student. So while universities are beacons of knowledge, emblems of the ideals of the enlightenment, they’re also manifestations of myriad other ideas and beliefs, many of which are considerably less positive. Science, embedded in these institutional systems as it is, is accordingly imbued with all the same shit, both good and bad. Thus much of what people take issue with re science is really just the broader social/cultural context around it. And that’s understandable. But again, as above, it’s not science per se that’s the issue. It’s the way it’s instantiated, the means by which it’s implemented/practiced.
Most people’s engagement with science isn’t at the level of ideas at all — it’s at the level of symbols, imagery; lab coats, bubbling beakers, model volcanoes, dead frogs. That kinda thing. In aggregate, these symbols inform and reflect a definite aesthetic, one which science has become wrapped up in. Frankly, it’s not the prettiest look — at least not to a certain sensibility. Though it sounds somewhat crass to say, science is ugly. Indeed it’s about the furthest thing from high fashion one could imagine. It’s no coincidence, then, that the trope/archetype of the scientist is that of the pin-up dork, the awkward geek. Undoubtedly, there are plenty of stylish scientists, but style is not, as a rule, something we tend to associate with science. And for those who value aesthetics, those who identify with form, this is a strike against the enterprise. For many, a non-starter even. While it’s probably a bit of a stretch to say that the aesthetic of science, or lack of, is enough to instil in one a resentment towards the program, it is, I suggest, enough to put one off. Science receives far less play than it deserves, I suggest, because it’s something of an eye sore; the complex of associated memes repugnant to many people’s taste.
To be clear, I’m not suggesting that people who take issue with science’s aesthetic do so in a conscious, explicit kinda way. Rather, I’m suggesting that the aesthetic of science exerts more of subperceptual, that is unconscious, influence over our relationship to science. The imagery and messaging that we associate with science, as with all things, unconsciously informs our orientation/feelings towards it. Many of us never participate in science, not because we take issue with its philosophy or ideals, but rather because we can’t see ourselves as the kinds of people who wear labcoats and safety glasses — or dissect frogs, for that matter. We don’t allow ourselves a foot in the door because the door looks like one we wouldn’t care to open. Again, this isn’t so much a problem with science itself, as it is the way in which it’s presented. It’s a branding problem, as it were.
Why science is essential
I’ve been fairly tough on science here. Not because I hate it, though. In fact I’m one of those cats who love it; or, at least, love what it stands for. My criticism, therefore, isn’t intended to knock science down, but rather to build it up — to make it better, to make it — in a sense — more science.
Although I’ve been emphasising the functional flaws of science, as it’s practiced today, I also want to stress the essentialness of science — why it’s critical to the human project, today perhaps more so than ever. Science, above all, represents a commitment to truth standards. It places the burden of evidence on those who seek to make knowledge claims. Accordingly, science is an integral piece of our collective sense-making apparatus. Without science and its standards, the world would be an epistemic free-for-all, a realm where fact and fiction are wholly indiscernible; where astrology bleeds into astronomy without us knowing the difference.
Perhaps you can see where this is going. Because in case you haven’t noticed, we already live in a world where fact and fiction are readily intermingled, where truth and falsehood are braided together. Internet, social media, “fake news,” etc. You know the story. The means by which we acquire our information today are readily gamed and distorted such that we can’t tell what’s what. We live in a most precarious information landscape, one where the usual checks and balances on knowledge claims have seemingly ceased to operate. We have, it seems, lost our tentacles onto the truth.
It is, therefore, highly critical that we instil — if not in our systems, in ourselves — a criteria for reliably assessing the merits of any given truth claim. With the evaporation of barriers to information production and distribution, in the absence of radically different information infrastructure, we must become fact-checkers for ourselves, armchair epistemologists. There is a dystopian element to this, of course; that our once semi-reliable organs of truth have atrophied to the point of utter incredulity. However, if this compels us, in the end, to cultivate our own individual, sense-making tools, then at least there’s some water in the glass.
The kind of mental habits we must develop are precisely those that science has been inculcating for centuries now. Skepticism, first. Engagement with the evidence, second. If we want to learn to reliably ascertain what’s real from what’s BS, then to science we should look. Because for all its warts, it knows a thing or two about this kinda business. That’s its whole schtick, after all.
The two cultures
During the second half of last century, catalysed by some combination of eastern philosophy, psychedelics and a gnawing displeasure with the prevailing Western worldview, a new subculture/community emerged. The “New Age”. What exactly the New Age is is hard to define. On many levels, it’s something of a non-sectarian religious movement, a modern embodiment of spiritual yearning. At the heart of the New Age movement, both then and now, was/is the concept of “human potential”, an inspired vision of what we’re capable of, individually, and as a collective entity. Although the New Age embodies plenty of legitimate wisdom — which is unsurprising, being, as it is, a patchwork quilt of other religious/contemplative traditions — it’s also rife with cultural baggage that makes it the prime target of mockery. The archetypical New-Ager is, after all, someone who walks around barefoot, does yoga, reads Deepak Chopra, wears precisely too many beads, sleeps next to a dream catcher, has their star sign in their Instagram bio, reckons “everything is just energy man”, and swears that levitation is possible — they’ve even seen pictures! New-Agers are hippies, in other words. Accordingly, when the term New Age is used by members of the Western intelligentsia — or anyone outside the community, for that matter — it’s generally pejorative. Hippies are anti-establishment, after all. They’re rebelling against the norm. Science, and the worldview it represents, is — at least according to the New Age — the norm, as establishment as it gets. It’s no surprise, then, that there’s tension between these two camps, these “two cultures”.
Where the scientific establishment sees the New Age community as a bunch of intellectually stunted quacks, New Age folk view the establishment as stiff, stale, dogmatic, pathologically reductive, incapable of seeing the forest that is Reality through the trees of physical theory. And you know what — they both have points.
A “third culture”
I have a belief — it’s more of a suspicion, really — that there’s something uniquely valuable to be had in reconciling these seemingly opposing worldviews, in bringing science and the New Age together; creating, as it were, a “third culture”. Science is the most reliable means of procuring new insight into the world, there’s no doubt, but it’s also afflicted by much pathology. In addition to the criticisms above, science is plagued by a certain arrogance; an ultimately unfounded sense of confidence in itself which comes, surely, from its functional role as the world’s leading authority on everything. It’s the new church, in other words, and it’s gone to its head. The New Age, on the other hand, is epistemically ignorant, intellectually lazy, but yet somehow seems to admit more of the world into its view. For all its sloppiness, it appears to embody a more parsimonious metaphysic, one which appears to capture more of the mystery that is existence. Where science presents a facade of knowledge — a sense that we have all the answers — the New Age tells us, paradoxically, that we know both everything and nothing. For the New Age will at once claim that it understands the relationship between events here on earth and the orientation of the various planets, and that we “know nothing about anything”. Whatever the New Age has to offer us, and I truly think it has much, it’s far from intellectually coherent. What it gets right, though, is that things are much stranger than they appear. Beyond that, however, there’s a more human interface to the New Age than one meets with science. There is a warmth, a certain humanity, indeed a certain aesthetic — beyond the dream catchers — that appeals.
Above all, the New Age project provides at least a semblance of what’s possible culturally: a secular spiritual tradition that embraces a variety of epistemic methods, that takes the best of human wisdom, new and old, and embeds it an aesthetic, social and non-hierarchical structure that serves the promotion of human flourishing. A new spiritual tradition, for a new age.
A second Space Age
It seems as if we could just take the best of both worlds and put them together, we’d have on our hands something approximating a new, and much more enlightened, world order. A New Age for real. An age where science was respected, and actually understood, yet presented with a much more human face, and structured in a far less gated, authoritarian manner. An age, moreover, where spiritual life was understood to mean more than kooks and quackery — indeed more, even, than chakras and dreamcatchers — and instead regarded as a legitimately valid aspect of the human experience. What we should be striving for here, it seems, is to take science — with its intellectual chops yet impoverished humanity — and combine it with the New Age — with all its wisdom yet abundance of stupidity — so as to give rise to one, singular, unified knowledge project at last. A world that is equally developed, intellectually, as it is accomplished in its humanity. It’s a grand ambition, to be sure. Something akin to a second Space Age. Grand though it may be, we owe it to ourselves to try.