Sunday, February 15, 2015

Scientific vs. Magical Thinking

The text below is from a personal communication with a friend in a slightly revised form. It comes out of a discussion regarding the role of science in opposing industrial civilization and whether or not a connection to nature requires magical thinking.

I believe scientific thinking requires the ability to accurately record and preserve data. Of course, the human mind and, in a broader sense, human cultures are well-suited for storing certain kinds and amounts of data, which is how individuals and societies compile, organize, and summarize learned information about the world. However, it seems that cultures without written language always necessarily resort to mnemonic devices such as myths, parables, legends, songs, poems, and other aspects of oral tradition in order to preserve and pass down knowledge, and this method always entailed simplification, distortion, and elision simply because it was not practical to memorize and represent information "literally". Things were better conveyed and memorized (and were more entertaining around a campfire) if they were represented using basic archetypical symbolism, a sort of shorthand. Thus people could learn what was poisonous, when was the best time to catch a certain kind of fish, and so on from myths, which of course would typically be couched in magical terms. Magical thinking is an efficient way for pre-literate humans to condense and convey tomes-worth of empirically-gleaned information. If you have writing, you can start to reduce the dependence on magical causation because you can write down and refer back to more objective, precise, and accurate information. No scientific papers need to rhyme, and most don't readily roll off the tongue. Their primary advantage is that they can convey information symbolically without having to resort to a mnemonic shorthand, but it's probably impossible for most people to memorize even a few scientific papers replete with data tables and graphs word for word. If we do away with things like cloud servers, thumb drives, the internet, places to store hard drives and books, and even access to writing in general, then it seems to me that science would be severely limited to what could be remembered solely in the brains of the people in any given society, and there would be no safeguards against "data corruption", i.e., a regression into magical thinking for the sake of improving ease of memorization of scientific facts at the expense of accuracy. This can happen very quickly, as any interruption in formal schooling for even as briefly  as a generation can plunge a social group back toward near-illiteracy. Science presupposes constant upkeep. I personally have no problem with a slide back toward magical thinking (more magical thinking means less ability of humans to actually impact their environment), but if we lean on science as a means to the end of abolishing industry, we will then have to make an exception for things that allow for scientific thinking to not devolve back to magical thinking before we've accomplished said goal. In other words, in order to use science to take down industry, which I agree is a very good goal, we have to not really take down all of industry because science depends on industry to a very large extent. Again, I don't just mean microscopes and satellites, things that are obviously the products of industrial activity, but mostly just recording and storing accurate data. If you feel that it's okay to sacrifice some accuracy and precision and to just stick to the basic outlines of some scientific theory, then I feel that you're already veering back toward magical thinking, because I think by definition anything that isn't strictly scientific is to at least some degree faith-based or magical. Correlation will again start to be interpreted as causation in the natural world, and magical thinking is all about correlation. You would essentially be doing the same thing that those anti-vaccine or anti-GMO people are doing, because they are also using a form of magical thinking. This is why I said it's like a catch-22--the necessity of keeping science viable presupposes some degree of industry, so how to get rid of one by using the other? Perhaps it's possible that science will become less important as industry starts to flag, but it could just as easily be that one of the first things to go in the struggle against industry is science, precisely because of how dependent accurate science is on things like the internet and an international community of scientists able to share information freely. It might be that attacking industry would just take away science as a viable tool to use against industry, which is more or less my feeling right now, and that ignorant pseudo-scientific fanaticism might end up leading the charge anyway. You're right that that sort of movement doesn't really have much staying power, but unfortunately that might be the default mode of humans sans civilized science, and maybe the irrational passion of such a movement or number of movements could still have a significant role to play against industry--the Gothic barbarians sacking the edifice of Roman civilization, as it were. 

I know you distinguish between several types of science, and I may very well be conflating the different types, but I don't think I know of any way to reconcile any notion of science with a lack of writing and libraries, physical or otherwise. I still feel that it's preferable for the world to just devolve back to magical thinking rather than take a risk using science as a tool against industry, which could backfire as I argued above. Magical thinking in and of itself can be a threat to industry (which is why the left hates such so-called "ignorance" and pushes science in its education) if sufficient numbers of the population subscribe to it. Take the anti-vaccination controversy as an example. The scientific and medical communities in the US are appalled and deeply concerned about the anti-vaccination trend because it poses a serious public health threat that could ultimately contribute to a destabilization of the economy and national security. These are both things that I wouldn't mind seeing, not to mention a reduction in population and productivity. Industry is necessary to prevent huge outbreaks of disease in densely populated areas, and to accept the invasiveness of industry requires training in scientific thought, otherwise you'll just say fuck off don't touch my kids, Jesus or Allah or whatever other magical notion will protect them. In this example, magical thinking would be quite helpful in undermining the stability of industry.

As far as connecting with nature, I do believe that a magical or mystical mindset is necessary and probably also a default state of most children prior to civilized education. For example, it's not as though the native Hawaiians were on the verge of dying off from lack of knowing how to get food and medicine before Europeans visited them, this despite the fact that Hawaiian culture was pre-scientific and based on a magical religion in which various deities had to be appeased in order for certain things, like gathering potent medicine or food, could be achieved. Now, worshiping gods probably had little to no real world effect, thus it was unscientific, but it did encourage a certain kind of relationship with nature--that is, you had to ask for something before you take it, as though nature were full of other people who happened to be fruit trees and medicinal roots and fish. You don't just take stuff from other people because they'll get angry, so you ask. This tends to discourage things like clear-cutting and overfishing. From a scientific point of view, you don't have to ask anything that isn't human for anything you want. It might destroy a mountain to mine all its ore, but the mountain will never get mad at you, and the animals and plants won't ever take revenge. A scientific person knows better than to believe otherwise. This is why he can do such things. I like the inhibitory effect of magical thinking on such destructive activity. However, there's another point here. Those who study the natural world utilizing a scientific framework, even though they may genuinely love the natural world, are always distanced from it because of the subject-object relationship that underwrites any scientific enterprise. So for example, if I love my friends and want to understand them better, I don't tap all their phones and hack their emails and keep detailed dossiers on their activities, nor do I breed them or dissect them. I could learn a lot from doing so, but then they're not my friends, they're objects of study, and I miss out on an actual friendship with them. If I don't know better then I could easily mistake study for communion, but they are decidedly different things, at least to me. There are things about my friends that they will never reveal to me, and it's important that I don't attempt to find those things out. If I want something from them, I have to ask permission and reciprocate. I have to respect their autonomy in order for our friendship to be real--they're whole people, not things for me to dissect. Taking such an approach for a study of nature, however, would be decidedly unscientific. In this sense, science helps contribute to a psychopathic attitude toward nature. One definition of psychopathy is the belief that no one else is real and therefore does not qualify for the same considerations that the psychopath reserves for himself. The materialistic, non-mystical, science-based worldview also treats the natural world as basically uninhabited by any sentience worthy of consideration, so it's okay to stake your claim and milk it all dry. This kind of worldview could not exist prior to science because magical thinking was the only game in town. Science, of course, is critical for developing sophisticated technology, and the ability to manipulate the world at even the subatomic level certainly goes a long way toward reinforcing the subject-object relationship and consequent psychopathy. This is why I believe that a mystical orientation toward the world and an acceptance of the fundamental inscrutability of the natural world (hence magic) is necessary in order to live in connection to nature without utterly destroying her. It's also very lonely to not attribute a magical intelligence to the natural environment, which I feel is an under-appreciated source of mental illness in modern societies and leads to a need to "fill the void" with our own civilized likeness.


  1. I've been mulling over the last paragraph for some days now. I think it aligns to my idea of an inversion of what Marx articulated in the Critique of the Gotha Program. Marx, after Hegel, obsessed over freedom as the human ability to do with it wants. "Equality" for Marx was an unscientific category, but freedom was "scientific" because it formulates what humans can do and how they manipulate their environment. Where I part ways as a sort of Marxist apostate is that I want the opposite: I want to prevent humans from being able to do whatever they want. I cheer the binding of Prometheus, just as some ancient Cynics before me. If humans cannot be omniscient and omnipotent, then they should be severely limited as to what they can and cannot do. Even if they are bound in by the "darkness of ignorance" and the impotence before death. It's a difficult call, because it is a sort of like playing God because we can't play God. But you have to get out of that bind somehow.

    1. I would take a slightly different stance on the issue of freedom, actually. It's really only by circumscribing what humans can do that humans can be free in a way that feels authentic to the evolved psyche. That is, if no human activity threatens the biosphere, then there are really no eggshells to walk on beyond those specified by your society's culture. For example, you can probably litter all you want since everything is biodegradeable. You can take all the fish you want because there's no way at a pre-industrial level that you can make a dent in the fish populations by just gathering. You can burn as many fires as you like because there's no way you can pump enough carbon into the atmosphere to effect climate change. And again, you can hunt all the megafauna you want to extinction, you still haven't come close to wrecking the planet's basic life-supporting functions. This mode of life guarantees wildness and freedom, and probably little else.

      By contrast, the technologically advanced society soon discovers that resources are finite and that the behaviors of practically all species on the planet need to be tightly managed. People are exhorted to think globally and asked to consider the consequences of every little thing they do, which, of course, isn't what we're evolved for. Whether via social pressure or legislation, the range of choice an individual has in mass society becomes ever smaller. We all know this. The concept that more freedom means less freedom and vice versa is an example of the Daoist principle that the world cannot be improved. There is no "improved" state of anything. There can never be gains. All you do is shift the parameters in a closed system. As humans are limited in knowledge, such blind attempts at changing parameters is almost guaranteed to end in ultimate disaster. The technological way of life guarantees repression and ecological death, and little else.

      I would backtrack a bit and address the notion of "circumscribing" the capabilities of humans. Some people might perceive this idea to smack of a sort of fascism, as though I am advocating for a group of humans to ensure that no humans can have high technology. I don't think this is either practical or desirable. I would like to see the natural world reclaim that position over humans. Humans over other humans isn't ideal. Sometimes people put up with it and sometimes they resent it. But no one takes revenge against a natural death. Everyone instinctively understands that nature is just categorically different. When nature kills you, whether by lightning strike or flash flood or avalanche or infection, you can't really be mad at anyone. Some indigenous groups try. Diseases or misfortune are sometimes thought to be caused by malevolent curses. But at least you can fight back with your own shamans and medicine. At least you don't feel like no matter what you do, you just have to eat shit all your life. Because nature is impersonal and there is no real intent behind death at nature's hands. This is precisely what makes nature the perfect dictator. It is what makes her the only necessary dictator.

  2. I've been looking more into your comments about this, Ziqian, and you might be interested in "The Origin of Science" by Louis Liebenberg. In it, he argues that the origin of modern scientific thinking was in the hunter-gatherer practice of tracking, but also that their animism allowed them to "think like animals," which improved their tracking ability. You can read the book at and a condensed version of the findings in an article at

    Here's also an essay on this topic that I wrote recently, "The Revolutionary Importance of Science":

  3. Thanks Ziqian. Was trying to articulate the relationship of science and nature...or science vs. nature to my friend a few months ago after coming to the place of awareness that not enough of us are at now. I sent him your article,he is one of my friends who will actually listen about civilization's death march. Robin Kimmerer sort of blends science and indigenous knowledge as a way of treating or existing with the bio-sphere...unfortunately she is not one of many. Discovered this website from Uncivilized Animals via John Jacobi's recommendation all in the last 24 hours....the analysis of the "totality of it all" is spreading...that brings comfort to someone who has moments of despair when I think about all of it. Thanks again, Ken

  4. Thanks Ziqian. Was trying to articulate the relationship of science and nature...or science vs. nature to my friend a few months ago after coming to the place of awareness that not enough of us are at now. I sent him your article,he is one of my friends who will actually listen about civilization's death march. Robin Kimmerer sort of blends science and indigenous knowledge as a way of treating or existing with the bio-sphere...unfortunately she is not one of many. Discovered this website from Uncivilized Animals via John Jacobi's recommendation all in the last 24 hours....the analysis of the "totality of it all" is spreading...that brings comfort to someone who has moments of despair when I think about all of it. Thanks again, Ken