Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law.

Friday, September 5, 2014

Cargo Cult Science and the Delusion of “Scientific Illuminism”

I got into a discussion not long ago on Lashtal about the “method of science” in relation to Thelema. One poster suggested that since the goal of attainment is supra-rational, science might not be that much help in attaining that goal. By the “method of science,” the poster said that he meant things like the “application of the scientific method, including experimentation, controls, validation of results - and not including belief, hope, wishful thinking, etc.”

However, I went on to point out that this description of the “method of science” is at the very least deeply misleading, and it feeds into a common delusion held by people who style themselves “scientific illuminists”: that their religious practices are somehow not religious practices but science.

In fact, such would-be "scientific illuminists" are not practicing anything remotely like science. Instead, they practice something much more akin to cargo cult science, in which they ape the *form* of science without understanding the *substance* of the matter.

Read on for my post.

There’s a concept called “cargo cult science.” It comes from an old story of traditional tribal societies that interacted with technology from other cultures and desired the material benefits (“cargo”) but didn’t understand the mechanism of achieving those benefits. For example, a pre-scientific tribe might witness another culture operate flying machines that bring in goods, and they wish to acquire similar goods, but they don’t understand how the flying machines work. They just understand the form or appearance. So they might assemble mock airports, build things that look like runways and control panels, appoint high priests…er, air traffic controllers who speak invocations into a coconut, etc., etc. hoping to call down the flying machines that contain precious cargo.

In other words, a cargo cult apes the *appearance* of X, but it’s really very far from X.

Cargo cult science, then, is that which tries mightily to look like science, to wrap itself in the appearance of science, while actually being nothing like science at all.

It seems to me that this “scientific illuminism” stuff – and the vast majority of what would-be Thelemites call “the method of science” – is in fact cargo cult science. Some of these people actually describe their daft attempts to make themselves find money in the street (or to induce visions or whatnot) as “experiments,” where they think that “recording the results” in a pseudo-scientific manner – carefully and dutifully transcribing the date and time and astrological occurrences and temperature and their mood and the weather etc. – actually demonstrates anything at all.

In a very real sense, they’re trying to use coconuts to summon an aircraft carrier. And when an aircraft carrier does happen to pass by, they’ll excitedly consult their “lab notes” to figure out which configuration of coconuts “caused” it to come.

In point of fact, little could be further from science than keeping a diary of your goofy “workings” and punctuating it with “records” of coincidences and a handful of objective metrics like the temperature that day.

Mixing your religious practices with elements that superficially resemble science does not make your practices cease being religion, nor does it make your practices remotely scientific. Rather, doing so just makes the superficial trappings you adopt from science a part of the religious practice.

Many people who practice a supernatural religion that they insist on calling “Thelema” seem to think that they are superior to, or more advanced than, other religionists because while those other religionists pray and perform ceremonies, our supernaturalist Thelemite prays and performs ceremonies and records the results. This last step, he foolishly believes, elevates him from a religious practitioner to some kind of “scientician.”

It does not. The “scientific illuminist” is just as much a religious believer putting his blind faith in practices as the Christian or Muslim. It is merely that the scientific illuminist’s religious practices include some religious practices that ape the appearance of the scientific method.

So while science is not of help in attaining enlightenment – and especially not the cargo cult science practiced by many religionists who don’t like thinking of themselves as religionists – the method of science actually is helpful. What is the method of science? Quite simply, it is the attempt to see the world, one’s practices, and especially one’s self as objectively as possible, without the influence of one’s desire (often emotionally driven desire) for the world or the self to be any particular way.

In practice, the method of science is an attitude of skepticism, a refusal to accept claims about the universe or about the self that are not sufficiently supported by evidence.

Interestingly, this skeptical attitude actually causes supernaturalism itself to crumble, as it is impossible to be skeptical and also to accept that supernatural things are real, for there is insufficient evidence for supernatural claims. [Note: here “supernatural” denotes those things commonly referred to as “supernatural,” including preternatural intelligences, ESP, psychic powers, spirits, acausal magick, etc. If any of those things actually does exist, then it would be “natural,” but until such time as any of them can be demonstrated to exist, I’m comfortable with using the label “supernatural” as a blanket term for those extraordinary claims for which insufficient evidence exists]

Sometimes, religious believers will claim that religion and science are “non-overlapping magisteria,” to borrow a phrase used by Stephen Jay Gould. This is the claim that science and religion address two different subjects: science addresses how things happen and religion addresses why things happen. One deals with fact, the other deals with meaning, and never the twain shall meet.

This idea is, however, rather silly. To the extent that religion makes factual claims about the world, these claims are capable of being investigated by rational inquiry (science is, after all, only the formal codification of the process of rational inquiry that we all use in our daily lives). The claim that chanting in Hebrew makes someone more likely to find money in the street, the claim that there are preternatural intelligences, the claim that one can summon up demons to do one’s bidding…these are factual claims about the universe that can be investigated impartially, and in each of these cases, we find not only insufficient evidence to accept these claims as true, we find – I would argue – a great deal of evidence that suggests these claims are false.

All of the above is a longish way of saying that the “method of science” doesn’t mean what a lot of people think it means and that the actual “method of science” kicks the legs out from under the beliefs of many supernaturalists who mistakenly think of themselves as being proponents of (or even practitioners of!) science.

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