The “Thoughts on Magic” posts I’ve done the past two weeks now have me thinking about a slightly different but related topic, which continues a theme I’ve partially explored in my “Morals are For Men, Not Gods” series.
As we’ve previously observed, the term “magician” in its biblical and historical sense can just as easily describe an experimental scientist as a practitioner of the occult. But the implications of that fact can go both ways. Those we regard as “scientists” could, in fact, acquire the characteristics of sorcerers if they become unmoored from foundational ethics. C.S. Lewis noted this decades ago in his classic work The Abolition of Man:
“The fact that the scientist has succeeded where the magician failed has put such a wide contrast between them in popular thought that the real story of the birth of Science is misunderstood. You will even find people who write about the sixteenth century as if Magic were a medieval survival and Science the new thing that came in to sweep it away. Those who have studied the period know better. There was very little magic in the Middle Ages: the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries are the high noon of magic. The serious magical endeavour and the serious scientific endeavour are twins: one was sickly and died, the other strong and throve. But they were twins. They were born of the same impulse. I allow that some (certainly not all) of the early scientists were actuated by a pure love of knowledge. But if we consider the temper of that age as a whole we can discern the impulse of which I speak.”
Lewis would later provide a powerful literary illustration of this in his final Space Trilogy novel That Hideous Strength. The book features a group of atheistic materialists seeking to reorganize human society on what they consider ‘scientific’ lines, with their ideology broadly described in today’s terms as a highly authoritarian form of transhumanism. As the story unfolds, it is revealed that their misuse of science has, in fact, led them full circle into outright witchcraft. An idolatrous fixation on “science” is thus shown to be just as easy a path to the occult (or evil in general) as outright mysticism – particularly when the goal is power over others.
Something not unlike this was imagined by other writers long before Lewis. The German folk legend of Dr. Faust, adapted in literary form first by Christopher Marlowe and later by Johann von Goethe, is a particularly outstanding example. The title character in both versions is a professor who has reached the very limits of human knowledge, become exhausted with it, and desires something more. This leads him into a pact with the devil in exchange for supernatural powers.
It’s been a thought of mine that many ‘systems’ of sorcery and witchcraft (such as those in ancient Egypt and Babylon) could have originated as flawed scientific ideas, perhaps with failed attempts to attain experimental results based upon false theories. An intellectually honest researcher faced with that outcome would have concluded it was time to re-think the theory. But what if this did not happen? What if – in the midst of growing moral and spiritual corruption – members of the scientific class began invoking spirits to “bolster” their research and fill in the “gaps” in their theories?
Sound far-fetched? In our own era, we see no shortage of “scientific” theories that our intellectual class stubbornly clings to in defiance of the evidence. The most outstanding example would be Darwinian evolution. Even more than that, we are seeing a wholesale effort to dispense with an underlying philosophy that has guided Western science from its inception – the belief in an all-knowing Creator who has made an ordered, rational universe with understandable laws and functions. The worldview of “Naturalism”, in fact, tries to deny that science is based upon any philosophical preconceptions at all – even as it makes the philosophical – not scientific – assertion that the whole of reality ends with the physical world. Literally dispensing with any kind of First Principles in science would leave us with nothing but a vast collection of disconnected, superstitious lore.
When you think about it, that sounds a lot like sorcery, doesn’t it?
Join me next week as we continue or journey through the Uncharted Corners of Heaven and Earth.