Essay:Scientific mysticism

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Clarke's Third Law: Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.
—Arthur C. Clarke

Science is thought to be a rational, empirical enterprise, but the the way scientists and laypeople alike think about science is quite often anything but. Magical, mystical, and spiritual ideas easily work their way into our conceptions of science. It is often supposed that science displaced religion as a means of explaining the universe as a result of The Enlightenment, at least among the intelligentsia. There is a faulty assumption in this statement, though. "Reasoning about science" does not equate to "reasoning scientifically." Scientists themselves, even today, often reason in ways that may be characterized more as religious than scientific. However, shoddy reasoning both religious and quasi- or pseudoscientific may be so in content, but not so in essence. The cognitive mechanisms and social phenomena that underlie each are the same. I will group them, for the purposes of this essay, under the heading of "magical thinking" and collect some of their manifestations as "scientific mysticism."

Magical thinking, feeling of knowing, and the religious impulse[edit]

Apophenia and the feeling of knowing[edit]

At the most basic level, magical thinking is a by-product of the evolved pattern-seeking tendencies of the human mind which result in apophenia. Numerous cognitive and sensory biases, at both the cognitive and social level, interact to produce a pattern of motivated reasoning. What beliefs are validated on this basis may have no bearing on truth and are dependent on personal experience, cultural norms, etc. These beliefs are processed in a similar fashion as facts. Attempted recall of this information activates what is called a "feeling of knowing (FOK)" judgment.[1] FOK judgments are not based on the accuracy of the information to be recalled or whether or not it is actually known, but whether we feel that we "know" something. While FOK judgments are often correct (or, in signal detection theory jargon, they often produce "hits"), positive FOK judgments for misinformation or information that is not known at all ("misses") act to reinforce the feeling that we do know something we don't know or have only pseudo-knowledge of. In short, the FOK heuristic backfires and the brain rewards itself for being mistaken.

Do scientists think scientifically?[edit]

Surely scientists must have some advantage in rational and scientific thought? Yes, though their advantage is not so large as to justify the stereotype of the cold, calculating, rational, impartial, and objective man in a white lab coat. Psychological reports and studies on scientists show that they often rely on intuitive guesswork, ideas based on a rough framework of a theory, and a system of rationalizations for eliminating anomalous data. However, they will still outperform laypeople because of their expertise -- they internalize a more scientifically-based and statistically sound means of thinking through practice, making these modes of thought more intuitive. In addition, novel ideas are more often generated in lab meetings, which act as a sort of peer review process in miniature before the formal peer review.[2] What, then, accounts for the superiority of science over so-called "other ways of knowing" is, rather thankfully, not the rationality of individual scientists but what may be called the "emergent rationality" of formal and informal peer review processes.

The religious impulse[edit]

For most of human history, magical thinking manifested itself in religious form. With the advent of modern science and modernity in general, in conjunction with the "death of god" (per Nietzsche), religion's influence over academia and wider Western culture in general waned (to differing degrees, of course). Science would be called upon to provide the "ultimate explanations" of life, the universe, and everything. What I call here the "religious impulse" in science refers to modes of magical thinking imported from religion (which sometimes explicitly make use of religious rhetoric), namely: Teleology/determinism, creation myths, salvation, "transcendental" FOK judgments, metaphor/analogy/parable, essentialism/reification, agentive explanations or "agenticity," and limitation to minimally counter-intuitive ideas.

Paging Dr. Pangloss: The crime of evolutionary abuse[edit]

Hyper-adaptive religiosity: The Great Chain of Being becomes the Darwinian escalator[edit]

Darwin's theory was in a way too powerful for its own good. However, it is more accurate to say that the mechanism of natural selection rather than evolutionary theory as a whole has been widely and rampantly abused. Stephen Jay Gould and Richard C. Lewontin famously warned biologists about the appeal of Panglossian hyper-adaptationist "just-so stories," scientific creation myths.[3] In Evolution as a Religion, Mary Midgley looks at some of these just-so stories generated by both scientists and non-scientists throughout history.[4] She calls a linear, teleological conception of evolution in which certain species are considered to be "more evolved" the "escalator fallacy." This (mis-)conception of evolutionary theory in fact had its roots in theology. The concept of a "Great Chain of Being" originated in ancient Greece, but became a dominant cultural narrative in Medieval Europe. The chain was a linear hierarchy of all known organisms (and sometimes objects such as minerals) with man on top in terms of physical creatures, but god ultimately above him. This not-so-coincidentally happened to mirror the feudalistic social hierarchies of the day. This "natural order" became "biologized"[5] in 19th century evolutionary theory, becoming the will of evolution instead of the will of god. This evolutionary myth also provided a framework for the scientific racism of the period as non-whites were seen as "less evolved" within this system, something of a "transitional form" between other primates and Homo Europaeus.[6] Social Darwinist strains of thought, while varied, display this attempt to (pseudo-)scientifically create and validate a just world repeatedly. In recent times, the notoriously anti-Semitic work of Kevin MacDonald posited a Jewish conspiracy born out of a group selection strategy, justifying anti-Semitism as an act of rational self-defense against this. This is what Midgley calls the "myth of evolution," the just-so story as opposed to the true science. The myth of evolution plays on the same modes of thinking as the religious myths that preceded it. Ironically, then, those who have promoted this myth of evolution, in the name of scientific evolution, created a godless creationism in which natural and social orders are precisely constructed by a Darwinian Invisible Hand. Just think of the commonly used phrase "designed by evolution."

The new human essences[edit]


Douglas Medin and Andrew Ortony describe a "placeholder essence" for objects that people essentialize but have little knowledge of.[7] Before the discoveries of modern biology, this placeholder essence in humans may have been filled in with the concept of the soul or metaphysical ideas about "human nature." Within the evolutionary biological framework, new fields sprang up in the 20th century that would further provide fodder for scientific mysticism. The discovery of DNA and the development of genetics offered a new replacement for this placeholder essence. What makes us human? Why, it's in our genes! This sort of thinking is evident in the endless search for "the gene for x." Dean Hamer has provided two of the most trumpeted examples. In 1993, he supposedly found "the gay gene," Xq28. The finding failed to be replicated in a 1999 study.[8] In 2004, he announced his finding of "the god gene," VMAT2. As Carl Zimmer remarked, the title of Hamer's book should have been: A Gene That Accounts for Less Than One Percent of the Variance Found in Scores on Psychological Questionnaires Designed to Measure a Factor Called Self-Transcendence, Which Can Signify Everything from Belonging to the Green Party to Believing in ESP, According to One Unpublished, Unreplicated Study.[9] In 2010, we allegedly discovered "the liberal gene," DRD4, or in reality, a dopamine-related gene with some modest correlation to political ideology.[10] My aim here isn't to point and laugh at failed replications or preliminary results, that's part of the scientific process, but to note the media and cultural reaction to this research. Gene-environment interaction is naturally considered in the primary literature, but is often left out in media reports, implying a crude biological determinism with a one-to-one relationship between genes and behavior caused by this "gene for x." This style of reporting is eerily similar to the thinking behind eugenics. I am wondering when a gene for "feeble-mindedness" or "pauperism" will be found.

The brain[edit]

Advances in neuroscience have created a new playground for biologically determinist thinking: The brain. Media coverage of findings in neuroscience follow a similar form to that of genetics. Differing activation in certain brain structures in control and experimental groups is found and the story is invariably picked up as "differences in x may be hard-wired." The mind is not seen as emergent from the brain, but determined by it, and the largely meaningless term "hard-wired" is invoked with abandon. As gene-environment interaction goes out the window in genetics stories, brain-mind or brain-environment interaction does in neuroscience. Rather than eugenics, we get a form of watered-down phrenology with colorful pictures of brain scans.[11][12]

A metaphorical ecology[edit]

Metaphors as mental models[edit]

The use of metaphor in science has a contentious history.[13] Those strictly opposed to metaphor certainly face an uphill battle against the usefulness of metaphorical thinking in both highlighting important aspects of a theory and cramming a large amount of information into a small space when necessary in addition to the fact that metaphorical thinking is built into our cognitive architecture. In The Stuff of Thought, Steven Pinker cites George Lakoff's work on metaphors, dubbing it "the metaphor metaphor." While the two differ on how fundamental metaphor is to cognition, they both make the point that abstract ideas are largely represented in metaphorical terms that draw on elements of the physical environment such as time, space, causation, intention, force, the transfer of objects, etc.[14] However, these metaphors eventually become literal in a certain sense, based on certain factors such as repetition and appeal to intuitive processes. Metaphors that are considered cliche are processed and understood at the same speed as literal language.[15] Indeed, Pinker uses his own metaphor to describe this process: We climb up the metaphorical ladder and then kick it away once it becomes unnecessary. This kicking away of the ladder is what can lead us astray in scientific thinking as it can mask the true underlying processes and phenomena of the subject at hand. Even when these metaphors are mis-applied, they may still seem true by evoking a positive FOK judgment, as the metaphor now seems literally true at face value so we "know" it must be correct. The metaphor, in this case, becomes more of what Daniel Dennett refers to as an "intuition pump," an analogy or thought experiment with hidden assumptions that intuitively lead us to a pre-selected conclusion, right or wrong.

Metaphors gone wild: Selfish genes and memes[edit]

Midgley vs. Dawkins[edit]

Midgley has been harshly critical of Richard Dawkins' use of the "selfish gene" metaphor, claiming that it slipped from scientific description to psychological egoism.[16] Leaving aside their other points of contention, I want to specifically address Dawkins' initial failure to understand Midgley's argument about the "scientist as myth-maker." One of the main themes of Pinker's Stuff of Thought is that language is used both to "convey a message" and "negotiate a social relationship." Dawkins seems to miss this second purpose in many of his arguments -- a characteristic of scientific discourse in general is that it aims to keep language within the former usage described by Pinker rather than the latter. To his credit, Dawkins later seemed to understand how his work had been misrepresented along with a few questionable slippages in language in The Selfish Gene. The most recent edition makes an apology for some "rogue sentences" and notes that he might have named it differently. His documentary Nice Guys Finish First was also a lengthy rebuttal of social Darwinist misinterpretations of the book.[17]

The selfish gene spreads by title only[edit]

As Dawkins says in the opening of Nice Guys Finish First, "too many people read [The Selfish Gene] by title only." Indeed, a large portion of the book is dedicated to explaining altruistic behavior without resorting to group selection theories. However, Midgley was correct in asserting that the metaphor played into the "Thatcherite" political climate. As Dawkins himself notes, he was approached by economists who believed that he had expounded a biological justification for laissez-faire capitalism. The Selfish Gene was the favorite book of Jeffrey Skilling of Enron, who based his "rank-and-yank" system on a social Darwinist misinterpretation derived from it.[18]

The misinterpretation of this metaphor, which simply seeks to explain the gene-centered theory of selection, has taken on a separate life within popular culture. This is the myth of the selfish gene, part of Midgley's larger "myth of evolution." Today's brand of this myth has been dubbed "paleofantasy" by Leslie Aiello[19] and "pop Darwinism" by Martha McCaughey.[20] The essence of our new Homo naturalis is its DNA, its selfish genes, which direct its actions like an evolutionary wind-up toy. The selfish genes "hard-wire" our brains to act for their own good, and so its only natural for life to be a "survival of the fittest." Not merely content with rationalizing just-so stories, pop Darwinism asks us to reconstruct and indulge in paleofantasies. This is evident in the industries of pseudoscience selling pseudo-evolutionary products: The paleo diet, barefoot running, the urban caveman movement, a brand of "caveman masculinity," pop evolutionary psychology claims to having unlocked the secrets of the opposite sex and decoded Mars and Venus, etc.

The selfish gene in the wild[edit]

If we see metaphors as part of an "ecology" within a larger folk science, it is easy to see why the selfish gene spread. Its elegance lies in its use of intention to play on our own folk psychology. This agentive thinking is a by-product of apophenia, or in Michael Shermer's coinages, "patternicity" (the pattern-seeking tendency described by apophenia) and "agenticity" (the tendency to see those patterns as the product of an intelligent agent).[21] Agenticity often surfaces in the language of metaphor -- see my words above, for example: "...the brain rewards itself for being mistaken."

The selfish gene is also what is called "minimally counter-intuitive" (MCI), a concept that includes a number of intuitive elements with a few counter-intuitive elements. For example, a ghost that can walk through walls and other solid objects but otherwise acts like a human is MCI, but a ghost that bears no resemblance to a human and can break all the laws of folk physics is totally counter-intuitive. It seems that MCI ideas play a role in the memorability of religious ideas and folk tales.[22] If this applies to ideas in general, it would go a long way to explaining the raft of pop science books offering grand theories based around an MCI concept (call it the Malcolm Gladwell school of thought).[23] The selfish gene offers an MCI metaphor. The complex interaction within the genome, RNA transcription, protein folding, epigenetic factors, neurobiology, culture, environment, etc. and their interactions create an amazingly complex picture that takes endless study to even grasp its basics. This is an extremely counter-intuitive narrative as a whole, with so many aspects that it's impossible to "see" the entire thing all at once. The selfish gene metaphor, however, gives us an MCI -- we live not for ourselves but for our selfish genes -- that is easy to visualize because it is consonant with intuitive concepts such as the agenticity in folk psychology and our cultural notions of individuals as rational actors maximizing utility or fitness. This doesn't mean the metaphor is "wrong" in that it is useless -- it gives us a way to conceptualize the gene-centered view of evolution -- but it is merely one metaphorical tool in our conceptual toolbox. As George E.P. Box said: "Essentially, all models are wrong, but some are useful."[24]

The selfish gene metaphor spread by playing on our cognitive architecture and being easy to fit into the cultural narratives of the ascendant neoliberal economic thought. Does this mean that Dawkins need to be held responsible for the abuse of his metaphor? On the contrary, I think he has done about all he can to combat this misunderstanding. However, it does demonstrate that once the metaphor has been released into the wild, it takes on a life of its own.

The metaphorical madness of memes[edit]

Dawkins spread another dangerous idea via The Selfish Gene: The "meme" as a the unit of "cultural selection." If Dawkins were to read the above paragraph, he might be tempted to say that my "metaphorical ecology" is simply a case of a meme being released into the "meme pool." Indeed, this also works as a loose analogy to what I've described, with a meme replicating "selfishly." However, it also reveals one of the many weaknesses of "memetics" as a so-called science: Fidelity. As we have seen, Dawkins' own "selfish gene" meme mutated from a scientific metaphor for gene-centered evolution to a piece of folk biology in the pop Darwinian mythos. Fidelity of transmission is the exception, not the rule. Thus, the high rate of "memetic mutation" should predict mostly evolutionary noise with little room for natural selection. Especially with the advent of the internet, it seems near impossible for a meme to "die," or get ejected from the meme pool, by selection even if it remains unpopular because of the vast amount of storage space for information. It results, ultimately, in a pseudo-evolutionary process and, at times, ironically, even anti-evolutionary. Memetics ignores the evolved cognitive architecture of the human mind and other models of cultural evolution such as gene-culture co-evolution.[25] Memes, then, offer less in the way of predictive value than they do in the way of giving us an intuition pump built on circular reasoning that generates unfalsifiable nonsense that happens to sound very pretty.

Ultimately, memes are a product of Dawkins over-extending his own selfish gene metaphor, or, in other words, taking his own myth literally. However, it offers an appealing tale, a just-so story, evolution as a grand theory of everything, if both the biological and cultural worlds can be explained as the product of evolutionary processes driven by a replicator unit. The replicator/vehicle model seems to make a good analogy at first pass, but we have to remember that this replicator/vehicle model of the selfish gene is a metaphor. It masks the underlying complexities of genetics and evolution for the sake of convenience, so we miss the lack of logical analogy when we apply it to culture. Perhaps scientific metaphors need to come with a label: "Warning, use sparingly."

Mama Gaia meets the techno-gods[edit]

As Midgley points out, evolution has always been linked to the idea of progress, the Darwinian escalator moving ever upward. Michael Ruse also notes this connection, pointing out how various early supporters of evolution were attracted by its "quasi-religious aspects." He offers up E.O. Wilson as a modern incarnation of this strain of thought. Wilson explicitly posits evolution as an alternative to the creation myths of Christianity and equates moral progress with evolutionary progress.[26]

Cornucopia and progress never-ending[edit]

Wilson's thought is a rather unlikely synthesis of two competing cultural narratives of our time. The first narrative is what is often pejoratively termed "Cornucopian." Those lumped in under the Cornucopian umbrella see evolutionary, technological, material, and moral progress as inextricably intertwined. Cornucopianism in its harder forms represents yet another secular religion, drawing on economics and politics as well as scientific mysticism. All of our material, environmental, and social problems can be solved by just having enough faith in the god of the free market: Adam Smith's invisible hand. An extreme offshoot of this line of thought is represented by the transhumanists/Singularitarians, who constitute the latest iteration in the historical trend of futurism and techno-utopianism. In their view, evolutionary progress will lead humans to transcend the human form through technologies such as cryonics and mind uploading. This view is rife with religious language and styles of thinking, such as the idea of human transcendence, a form of the end times (the Singularity itself), souls (mind uploading requires a form of mind-body dualism to be true), and immortality. One of this cult's prophets, Ray Kurzweil, seems to almost willfully misunderstand biological evolution to posit technological "evolution" as its outgrowth.[27]

Gaia hypothesis and eco-worship[edit]

Wilson, though, is also a conservationist, representing this opposing strain of thought. Ironically, Midgley herself was complicit in unleashing a dangerous metaphor into the metaphorical ecology perhaps every bit as dangerous as the selfish gene. Midgley is still a booster of James Lovelock's Gaia hypothesis. Gaia hypothesis, in its most basic form, forces us to rethink the standard view of organisms adapting to a static environment in terms of an interaction between organism and environment, with the organism being able to reshape its environment as well as vice versa. However, Lovelock included the romantic, pastoral trope of a pristine "nature" that trends toward a perfect balance or homeostasis with humans seen as disrupting this trend toward balance. Of course, anyone who has read a bit of environmental history knows that "nature" is not a magically self-correcting entity always in balance, considering the massive extinction events and ecological disasters that have happened. Real nature is chaotic, and this makes Gaia hypothesis every bit as teleological as the Cornucopian position. This misconception of nature is a classic myth, a piece of scientific mysticism, or as Slavoj Zizek put it, "nature does not exist."[28] The hypothesis was notably thrashed by both Gould and Dawkins for adding superfluous complexity to evolutionary biology. Regardless, Gaia hypothesis escaped into the metaphorical ecology and was latched onto by those of a "hard green" ideological bent and turned into a watered down form of Earth worship.[29] The "end times" of the hard greens, however, is not a triumphant story but an apocalypse. Lovelock has descended into declarations on the doomed fate of humanity and nearly cheers on ecological disasters in an eerily similar fashion to the way a Pat Robertson declares them to be god's punishment for our sins. For this, the term "disasterbation" was coined in his honor.[30]

What's the way out of the metaphorical forest?[edit]

If Cornucopianism is evolutionary, seeing humanity on a metaphorical incline into the future, hard green ideologies and Gaia hypothesis are devolutionary, seeing humanity on a declining path. Both views suffer from the problem of making a dichotomy of man and nature, placing man outside of nature. The Cornucopian view of man vs. nature boils down to the classic imagery of man conquering, dominating, or taming nature. The hard green view boils down to man vs. nature, but sees man as disrupting, degrading, and raping nature. Gaia hypothesis was developed, ironically, to spread the view as man within and dependent on nature, or as Rachel Carson wrote, "Man is a part of nature, and his war against nature is inevitably a war against himself."[31] But humans have so reshaped the environment that humanity itself has been proposed as a geological factor in the term "anthropocene." We are within nature, but also "within technology" as Zizek says. Currently, we are trapped between two teleological cultrual narratives, with Cornucopians placing ultimate faith in the market and technology and the hard greens denying any benefits from nuclear power and genetic modification, telling us to go "back to the land" with organic farming. Perhaps the notion of the "anthropocene" will offer a way out of this dilemma, but that remains to be seen.

The "s-words": Scientism and spirituality[edit]

Scientific poetry[edit]

Dawkins has penned an exemplar of the genre I would call "scientific poetry" in Unweaving the Rainbow.[32] I can't imagine any scientist who enjoys his work could not see beauty and meaning in scientific knowledge, just as they may see it in poetry, art, literature, music, etc. However, we sometimes walk a thin line between scientific poetry and scientific mysticism. Robert Burton, in his book-length work on FOK judgments On Being Certain, takes a swipe at Dawkins: "Dawkins conveniently illustrates the rationalist's dilemma: How do you articulate a personal sense of purpose when you intellectually have concluded that the world is pointless?"[33] When do poetic notions about science a la Dawkins' memetics, Wilson's teleological view of evolution, etc. cross over into mysticism? That is a question not so easily answered.

Reductionist vs. mysterian[edit]

Many scientific debates, especially those concerning science and religion or "human nature," tend to broadly break into two camps I will call "reductionist" and "mysterian." These terms tend to be more often than not the choice terms of abuse the two camps hurl at each other. What might capture the truth more fully is to break both groups into two subsets. Science depends on some degree of reductionism -- there is knowledge to be gained by studying objects as individual entities. The true mistake is what Dennett, ever the useful neologist, calls "greedy reductionism," i.e., " their eagerness for a bargain, in their zeal to explain too much too fast, scientists and philosophers often underestimate the complexities, trying to skip whole layers or levels of theory in their rush to fasten everything securely and neatly to the foundation."[34] If greedy reductionism can be seen as an outgrowth of the tradition of logical positivism, mysterianism can be seen as an outgrowth of religion. The mysterian erects a "No Entry" sign in front of a subject, hoping to block science or any other mode of rational inquiry from performing an investigation. While the mysterian denies access to knowledge, the holist merely asks us to place the product of reductionist techniques in a larger context and realize its limitations.

Scientism and spirituality[edit]

Greedy reductionism, along with the belief that science (in the sense of the "hard" sciences) offers the only means of progress (moral and social as well as technological) sums up scientism in the strict sense of the term. While this notion did not begin with the logical positivists and the scientific zeitgeist of the late 19th-early 20th century, the idea of "science as salvation" did become very much in vogue during this period.[35] Because scientism mimics religious thinking, it produces what I will call "transcendental" feelings of knowing, i.e. FOK judgments about the "ultimate" meaning or purpose in life and the universe. This transcendental FOK is what Burton refers to in his passage on Dawkins. The language surrounding this feeling is often poetic as in Unweaving the Rainbow but sometimes openly religious or spiritual, as in Stephen Hawking's statement in A Brief History of Time that to discover a Theory of Everything would be to know "the Mind of God."[36]

Greedy reductionism and mysterianism as two sides of the same coin[edit]

Greedy reductionism and mysterianism bear little difference to my mind as they both inject a quasi-religious aspect into science. In my own field, the hard-line mysterian position would be represented by non-materialist neuroscience ("science" very much in scare quotes), which attempts to re-introduce some kind of soul or god or other vitalistic ideas (most of its "practitioners" tend to be creationists) through dualism. Another form of mysterianism is a subset of quantum mysticism known as "quantum consciousness" pushed by Roger Penrose and Stuart Hameroff and peddled in a more vulgar form by the likes of Deepak Chopra. I don't deny the possibility that quantum effects may play some role in brain function, but so far all hypotheses making this claim have either been falsified or shown to be not even wrong. Furthermore, the entire enterprise as it has been conducted so far seems to be little more than an attempt to justify its proponents' pet philosophical theories about free will. I, on the other hand, have no idea what the implications for philosophy would be if quantum consciousness proved to be true.

The hard-line greedy reductionist positions are represented by eliminative materialism and strong AI. Eliminative materialism posits that the mental states of folk psychology do not exist and the mind can be reduced to neurobiology. While I definitely agree with proponents of this position such as Patricia and Paul Churchland when they argue that the vaguely defined terms of folk psychology ("desire," "belief," etc.) pose severe threats to the validity of psyhcological research, the eliminative materialist position comes with a bagful of its own problems. It denies the demonstrated usefulness of folk psychology and is, in a sense, self-refuting by positing a truth claim while denying mental states dealing with "truth."[37] Eliminative materialism and strong AI also include enough of a speculative stance on neuroscience and computing that I believe they constitute a violation of Hume's problem of induction. However, the mysterian objection to strong AI essentially boils down to "It can never be known, don't go there!" The mysterian objection denies a possibility of knowing, an incredibly dangerous attitude when it comes to science. This is why I say that we should continue a vein of research as if the strong AI position were true, but philosophically recognize that it may be impossible.

Emergence: The way out[edit]

Both the greedy reductionists and mysterians make truth claims (the answer to a major scientific problem can/can't be known) to which the answer currently is unknown. On this grounds, the positions associated with both schools of thought tend to become empirically false, logically incoherent, and self-refuting. This is also evident in the way that greedy reductionist thought tends to bleed into metaphysical, religious, and spiritual rhetoric. The best way to divest science of these forms of scientific mysticism seems to me to be the concept of emergence in which each "level" or "layer" of physical reality and its epiphenomena is supervenient upon another.[38] There is room for "good" reductionism and holism within an emergent philosophy, as each level interacts and affects the others, but none are wholly and entirely reducible to a more "basic" level or "special science." Indeed, it makes little sense to conduct a chemical analysis of the War of 1812. That is a category mistake. However, we can perform chemical analyses of historical documents and artifacts. In cognitive science, the conception of the mind as emergent from and supervenient upon the brain has become the standard account because it neatly deals with the problems of the mysterian and greedy reductionist positions described above.

Clarke's Third Law reformulated[edit]

Because of the human mind's propensity for magical thinking, the highly specialized nature of modern science, and the vast amounts of accumulated scientific knowledge that are humanly impossible to fully learn and understand in a lifetime, it seems that we should not be surprised when even scientists think magically about things outside of their specialty, but expect it. To conclude, I offer this modification of Clarke's Third Law:

Any sufficiently advanced science is indistinguishable from magic.


  1. See my earlier essay The end of faith and the myth of rationality, esp. ref. 10. See also the Wikipedia article on metamemory.
  2. See Keil (2003) and Dunbar (2001) (Also a nice piece in Wired on Dunbar's research)
  3. Gould and Lewontin (1979)
  4. See also the spin-off article, Midgley (1987) and her interview with The Believer.
  5. "Darwinized" would be inaccurate as Darwin himself disputed the idea of evolution as creating a Great Chain-style hierarchy.
  6. Marks (2007)
  7. Medin and Ortony (1989)
  8. Doubt Cast on Gay Gene, BBC
  9. Faith-Boosting Genes, Scientific American
  10. On the Liberal Gene, Gene Expression
  11. See the page on neuroplasticity for a full explanation, esp. neuroessentialism.
  12. See also Ramani (2009)
  13. See, e.g., Hoffman (1980) and Chew and Laubichler (2003)
  14. Pinker's TED talk
  15. Glucksberg (2003)
  16. See the overview on Midgley's Wikipedia page: Midgley-Dawkins debate.
  17. Nice Guys Finish First
  18. How Bad Biology Killed the Economy, Frans de Waal
  19. The Evolutionary Search for Our Perfect Past, New York Times
  20. The Caveman Mystique: Pop Darwinism and the Masculine Excuse with author Martha McCaughey, The World's Fair
  21. Patternicity: Finding Meaningful Patterns in Random Noise, Scientific American
  22. Norenzayan et al (2006)
  23. What's the Big Idea? So Well Read
  24. Wikiquote
  25. See Sperber (2000) and Atran (2001) for further objections to memetics. See also the Cultural Evolution entry in SEP.
  26. Ruse (2003)
  27. Ray Kurzweil and the Singularity: Visionary Genius or Pseudoscientific Crank?, Massimo Pigliucci
  28. Nature Does Not Exist, Slavoj Zizek
  29. Gaia Theory: Academic Mysticism, Josie Appleton
  30. Disasterbation Turns You Blind, Sami Grover
  31. Quaratiello (2004), p. 113
  32. Although I think the main thrust of the book could be condensed down to Richard Feynman's brief "Ode on a Flower."
  33. Burton, p. 182
  34. Dennett (1995), p. 82
  35. Midgley (1989-1990)
  36. Coles (2000)
  37. See the SEP entry on eliminative materialism.
  38. See the SEP entry for supervenience.