I should begin by noting that I think everyone has the right to choose a spiritual path that’s meaningful to them. You’d think that wouldn’t be controversial but a couple of thousand years of history suggests otherwise. Second, let me say that I’m not a physicist, but I have taught statistical mechanics; that would also be the semester I last said “sure, I‘ll help.”
So now we can backtrack a bit. Picture it: grad school, 1992. There was this lowly PhD student who was brilliantly good at statistics sitting in class deeply focused on an advanced lecture on fixed vs. random effects in regression models. He was effortlessly capable of seeing how statistical methods exposed all sorts of complicated and subtle relationships. I hated him.
I can’t quite remember the reason but the lecture soon turned into a sort-of philosophy of science conversation. The ten students in the class came from a variety of disciplines. But basically, we broke down into two groups: those in the “real” sciences and those wasting their abilities in other areas. It was a manifestation of long-standing inferiority complex in academia: that the social sciences use the jargon of hard sciences to gain legitimacy.
We call it physics envy. It stems from physics essentially “mathematicising” itself since the discovery of calculus in the 17th century and gaining enormous predictive power. The success of physics from its embrace of mathematics is astonishing. The field not only made quick and substantial inroads toward understanding the relationships of forces and demonstrating causality, but it also – in modern times – has become so sophisticated as to predict events and even missing pieces of the known universe. One such famous example is the theorized existence of an unknown particle- the Higgs boson- nearly 50 years before it was observed and discovered.
The issue is simple: social sciences consistently need to qualify their findings in order to precisely describe the limitations of their results. This has led to all sorts of other issues about replicable results as well as demographic and temporal dependencies. It even leads to bigger, more hypnotic words if you can imagine it. I think that’s partly why coffee exists. But all of that qualification suggests that comparatively little “science” actually happened in a study. And, not only are the findings less perfect, so is the field from which they came.
Social sciences are often accused of using the methods of science to build theories for additional empirical validation but not actual science to create a more detailed understanding of our world. And as for those theories, they lack the sophistication of the ones in the “hard” sciences and are but a shadow of the elegance within mathematics.
But, not every theory will connect the dots as efficiently as the physical sciences do, especially ones dealing with people.
Before I go on, let me first stave off some inevitable hate mail. I am not advocating a pitchforks-at-midnight rebellion against scientific validation. Nor am I suggesting we overthrow the scientific mainstream while singing Les Misérables. We can do that later as long as there’s popcorn.
What I am saying is that sciences, hard or social, approach their work with the same deliberate rigor and with the same objective: to build theory that better explains our world. Neither is better than the other. Both are equally valid. Humans, and human data, are fluid, sometimes even irrational. That’s what makes the social sciences interesting. Physics envy is an illusion. The social sciences do not need any validation from the hard sciences.
And neither do spiritual beliefs.
Still, my newsfeed and social media keep getting filled with stories about how science is finally validating some religious belief. Whether it is some version of the time-tested scientists discovering god’s existence or science proving astral projection is not just real but super-real. Never mind that science is a process and its objective is to build theory rather than prove something (I know, that’s just crazy talk).
But many of us share this desire for scientific validation with the bible belchers who love to use science as an authenticating tool for biblical veracity. You are welcome to do a Google search of “Magick and Quantum Physics” at your own peril.
But there is another peril there as well, one that is at serious odds with faith, magic and belief. To use science as a validator of spiritual understanding is to make the spirit subservient to it. If all spiritual belief requires science to offer confirmation then it means that science is the real and supreme god.
And it is all fed by that physics envy- the one nourishment this god wants above all others. But really, all envy is a waste of our emotional resources. Frankly, I think it’s the most useless of passions. It simply makes us less productive by consuming our time while making us despise our circumstances. Its only use is if we recognize it as an opportunity to become motivated about what we can control and let go of what we cannot control. But most of the time, unfortunately, it just shifts our focus away from the good we can do and experience.
I think a better path is to enjoy the mystery. There will be some things that remain inexplicable yet still explorable. The surprise of coincidence or the charm of connectedness doesn’t really require any back up from science. Nor does it require any explanation beyond what is created in the moment or through reflection. If science helps us to better understand either of those, all the better. But science’s approval is not required for mystical events to have meaning.
I think a better approach is to recognize that the universe is indescribably elegant; and that all efforts to understand it give us different perspectives that add to its complexity. Science exposes those elements that are part of the shared reality. The spirit exposes those elements that enable our personal, even unique, relationship with the universe.
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The views and opinions expressed by our diverse panel of columnists and guest writers represent the many diverging perspectives held within the global Pagan, Heathen and polytheist communities, but do not necessarily reflect the views of The Wild Hunt Inc. or its management.