I was brought up to regard science almost as a religion. It was not preached to my generation; it was taught us as the truth.
A few mysteries remained; scientists, we were assured, would soon clear them away. Mistakes had been made, but the great virtue of the scientific method was that they were inevitably recognised, sooner or later, and put right, as Lamarck’s had been by Darwin. Science’s basic structure was presented to us as if secure for all time, founded as it was on the laws of nature. We should take it for granted, much as we took Jesus’s divinity for granted.
For most of us, the shedding of belief in Christianity served only to increase our respect for science. We had no idea that the quantum physicists were undermining its materialist foundations. We assumed that any criticism of Darwin could only be the work of one of those crazy Creationists. Only gradually did it begin to dawn on those of us who began to study certain aspects of it more critically that we had been the victims of a confidence trick.
We had not been taught science.
We have been taught scientism.
The sociologist James McClenon defines scientism as ‘the body of ideas used by scientists to legitimate their practices’.
Long smarting under the lash of the ‘hard’ scientists, sociologists are now beginning to enjoy their revenge by exposing just how illegitimate some of those practices are. They are based not on facts, but on faiths, which have to be supported by the methods that religions traditionally use. In particular, scientism cannot tolerate the suggestion that some of its dogmas - Darwinian theory, say - may be only partly true.
Scientists ‘act like the defenders of the One and only Roman Church acted before them’, as Paul Feyerabend, the fiercest of critics, has lamented. ‘Church doctrine is true, everything else is pagan nonsense.’ This would matter less, he argues, if they faced competition, as the Churches do. The science establishment is a state-supported, state-funded, self-perpetuating monopoly. It can impose its dogmas and deal ruthlessly with heretics.
Defenders of the scientific faith insist that there is a difference. They are rationalists. The public’s continuing respect for science is in fact largely derived from the belief that, unlike religion, it enshrines reason. Here, though, Sir Peter Medawar has put his finger on the flaw, in The Limits of Science.
Although he is a rationalist, he admits he is sometimes unwilling to declare himself one because of the neglect of the distinction ‘between the sufficient and the necessary’. The exercise of reason ‘is at all times unconditionally necessary and we disregard it at our peril’; but ‘I do not believe- indeed I deem it a comic blunder to believe it- that the exercise of reason is sufficient to explain our condition and where necessary to remedy it’.
Scientists have been responsible for the comic blunder, and its consequences have not been comic. Too often scientists have tended to assume that science is, or could be, sufficient to explain everything. So long as its materialist foundations seemed secure this was not entirely unreasonable. When the quantum physicists began to erode those foundations, scientism was already too well entrenched to admit it could be wrong.
Its reaction to the threat to its survival has been to grasp at academic straws, much as some Popes have reacted to the spread of liberal ideas by insisting upon a return to more rigidly ultramontane principles and practices. Positivism had led the way (with logical positivism to follow). Others have been neo-Darwinism, reductionism, behaviourism, sociobiology, structuralism, and recently neo-Marxism. Their common denominator has been a longing to restore the certainties that materialism promised. Each has been taught by its hot-gospellers to students as a received truth. Each for a time has appeared to offer salvation within its academic discipline.
In the long run, all of them have been shown to be fulfilling the role of pit-props in a mine gallery threatened by subsidence - by the flow of anomalies which cannot be explained, so they have to be explained away.
Ten years ago Alan McGlashan observed that science was ‘in the awkward position of a young woman who has inadvertently become pregnant and wonders how long she can continue in her job’. At the time nobody had noticed, people being ‘far too preoccupied with their own affairs’. The condition can now no longer be concealed. And it is becoming clear that what scientists will have to face is the prospect of a return to the principle that materialism displaced: vitalism.
In its simplest form vitalism was described by Alfred Russel Wallace, explaining how he differed from Darwin over the evolutionary hypothesis they had independently reached. He agreed with Darwin about the way the human body had evolved, but he did not believe that man’s moral and intellectual qualities could be satisfactorily accounted for by natural selection. They were not material. Other evolutionary processes must be at work.
The idea of an evolutionary ‘life force’ was explored by the neo-vitalists, as they came to be called: Henri Bergson, William McDougall, Hans Driesch. Respected though they were, they could make no impression on scientism. It could not incorporate the mind - the ‘ghost in the machine’ - let alone anything as metaphysical as a force undetectable by any known methods.
Had vitalism simply required an admission that a Shakespeare or a Mozart, and our appreciation of them, would require a slight bending of the rules, it might have made more headway. Many a dedicated materialist, after all, has continued to say his prayers, assuming God will not intervene in the lab. The problem has been that the ghost in the machine insists on talking and playing games - as Wallace was disconcerted to find. It was not an abstraction. It had emotional and physical side-effects.
When Wallace’s insatiable curiosity led him to investigate mediumship he was treated to a flow of information which appeared to be clairvoyant, along with percussive noises, materialisations, levitations and other séance phenomena, in light good enough for him to check that no human agency was responsible. Worse, whatever invisible agent was responsible seemed to be controlled by an intelligence capable of answering questions by raps or movements of the séance table.
Action or communication at a distance without any physical explanation had been outlawed by materialists as contrary to the laws of nature. Wallace held that as observed facts cannot be supernatural, the laws were at fault. There must be a force flowing through people capable of providing the action and the communication. Camille Flammarion coined the term ‘psychic’ for it. We now call it paranormal - though parapsychologists prefer the neutral blanket term ’ psi’, covering both the forces involved and the phenomena.
Psi cannot be pinned down in a simple definition. It reflects a hypothesis that a force exists capable of biological action and communication at a distance, and of interacting with known forces such as gravity. Its manifestations - ESP, psychokinesis (telekinesis), poltergeists, divination and so on - have been reported from every era, from every part of the world. No other accumulation of experiences, attested by so many people from all walks of life, has ever been rejected.
Beliefs long and firmly held, it is argued, have often eventually been shown to be false. Agreed: but psi phenomena are not beliefs. They are experiences. Various beliefs have been and still are being attached to them, which posterity will have to sort out. Experiences are facts, as Wallace and several other eminent scientists insisted, and cannot be dismissed on this count.
Paradoxically these facts, though they provide concrete evidence in favour of vitalism, are one reason why vitalism’s restoration will be bitterly opposed. To have to concede that there are unexplained psychic forces influencing evolution will be bad enough. To accept the existence of discarnate intelligences with the power to make objects move in defiance of gravity would be horrendous.
As a result scientists have been all too ready to accept the support of camp-followers, rationalists and sceptics, who assure them that psi does not exist, and that the phenomena are fraudulent. The ‘reason’ which the rationalists claim to rely upon is in fact irrational - the ‘hasty, dogmatical self-satisfied type’ which Hazlitt denounced in his Table Talk as ‘worse than idle fancy or bigoted prejudice’ because it is ‘ostentatious in error, closes up the avenues of knowledge, and “shuts the gates of wisdom on mankind” ‘.
The sceptics, too, are not sceptical in the proper sense of the term. ‘They are not seeking theories and causes to account for observed facts’, as Aristotle said of the Pythagoreans; they are trying to accommodate their observations ‘to certain theories and opinions of their own’. This has made them unreliable allies, as scientists are just beginning to realise.
The collapse of materialism has been making some scientists re-examine the case for vitalism. This in turn necessitates a fresh look at the case for psi. I have tried to present that case as Wallace insisted it should be presented, citing J.S. Mill’s ‘an argument is not answered until it is answered at its best’; but there are weaknesses in the experimental evidence, in particular, which parapsychologists admit to, and which should not be brushed aside.
I have tried, too, to show how dishonest the campaign to discredit psychical research has been. As the philosopher C.J. Ducasse pointed out, even if the sceptics have been right, and the phenomena do not occur, the sheer quantity and quality of the reports, and the fact that many of those who experienced or witnessed the phenomena have been people of high intelligence and integrity, ‘is exceedingly interesting from the standpoint of the psychology of perception, of delusion, illusion or hallucination, of credulity and credibility and of testimony’, and needs investigation. If psi effects have really occurred, on the other hand, ‘they are equally important from the standpoint of the psychology of incredulity and incredibility - or, more comprehensively, of orthodox adverse prejudice, such as widely exists’.
I do not ‘believe in’ psi, in the sense that many a scientist believes in reductionism. I accept it, in the sense of recognising that certain phenomena exist and need investigation. I have written, therefore, from the standpoint of one who accepts the reality of the phenomena not from personal experience, still less from any ‘longing to believe’ they exist, but from the conviction that they cannot all be put down to delusion and deception. And if they exist, the implications are surely too important to be ignored.
It is going to be difficult to persuade scientists to abandon scientism and mechanistic attitudes, and even harder to persuade them to look again at psi. The fact that only two British universities applied for the Koestler bequest, which was offered to fund a Chair of Parapsychology, has indicated the continuing strength of the resistance movement. Will it, then, be public opinion that leads the way- as it has begun to do in connection with medical science? Between 70 and 80 per cent of the population, to judge from opinion polls, accepts the reality of paranormal phenomena.
Public opinion has little power except when, as in medicine, it can back a change of allegiance by paying for what it wants.
Big Business is better placed. A few firms have been taking the advice of the late Sir Val Duncan, Chairman of Rio Tinto Zinc, and exploring the possibility of divination to find seams of ore, or oilfields.
The most lavish, though not entirely welcome, paymasters for psychical research are government agencies. In Russia and America they have been active, funding research to test individuals who can exercise psychokinetic powers or display extra-sensory perception, in the hope that their talents can be exploited.
Still, perhaps the positive results which have been obtained and ‘leaked’ may teach both sides caution in case their plans are being given away as Syria’s were to the Israelites. ‘Who is the spy in my entourage?’ the king of Syria asked. ‘None, my Lord, 0 King,’ a servant told him. ‘Elisha the prophet, that is in Israel, telleth the king of Israel the words that thou speakest in thy bedchamber.’
“The Menace of Scientism” is a chapter from The Hidden Power: Science, Scepticism and PSI by Brian Inglis, published by White Crow Books.