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Use and Abuse of Science in the New Thought Movement

Date: 11-Jul-2008/23:29+3:00


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Note This is a draft, and I'm not sure I said quite what I wanted to say, but it is late. I will revisit it another time.
Frequently, science and technology will start demonstrating an amazing effect through the careful manufacture of new processes. That leads a certain type of person to capitalize on this, under questionable premises. We're all aware of the kind of quackery that banks on the credibility of scientific achievement, such as "magnetic Chi balancing rings":
Manfred Porkert was quoted in Wikipedia as saying:
...the term qi comes as close as possible to constituting a generic designation equivalent to our word "energy". When Chinese thinkers are unwilling or unable to fix the quality of an energetic phenomenon, the character qi inevitably flows from their brushes.
In this product, we see the unholy union of the undefined (or very loosely defined) with the narrowly-and-well-defined. Yet at some level, it is easy to see how some might view electro-magnetism as "verifying what the ancient cultures knew all along"...that power and energy flow through the universe in ways that the eye cannot see. Bolstering that argument is the sad fact that many materialists who would have dismissed the vague Chinese notions were equally slow to accept science's more empirically-testable field of electromagnetism, until it gained popular acceptance.
So it's not that the victims of these products are lacking in intuition. If anything, their intuition is strong--they know that it is possible for interactions invisible to the naked eye to affect our material situation. Without that belief, and the willingness to model things we cannot see with our eyes--could scientists have ever made the mental leap to even look for electromagnetism and radiation?
Clearly, for science to gain credibility with holistic thinkers, they must be aware of how their work is a refinement of certain ancient traditions. Otherwise they seem to have an attitude that evokes Jack Handey's Deep Thought:
We tend to scoff at the beliefs of the ancients. But we can't scoff at them personally, to their faces, and this is what annoys me.
When scientists seem too daft about recognizing and legitimizing intuition, people are not happy and start looking elsewhere for validation. Eventually they find someone who will sell them an interpretation that suits their cosmic notion of "what they always knew was true". Hence, things like magnetic rings.
A great example of a perplexingly weird movie that distorts a lot of buzzwords and scientific research to such speculative ends is What the Bleep Do We Know.
Despite the movie's rather grand distortion of Quantum Mechanics, some of it was done pretty well, including this basic explanation of particle wave/duality in a cartoon...
But another one that has come to my attention is that of the theory of The Holographic Universe. This suggests that each small part of the universe contains the information needed to recreate the whole. It's a pretty wild theory. But it's a new way of thinking, and some odd phenomena in science can indeed be explained by looking at them in a new way. I think the new way might be summarized somehow like this:
Imagine you are watching two people in a room. You know they are not communicating with each other--they have no cell phones or secret signaling method. Yet when one of them holds up their right hand, the other one INSTANTLY raises their left hand. In fact they seemed to make the decision at the exact same time--how could the second have known what the first was going to do?
The answer is not always obvious--but you probably weren't looking at two people in the first place. This strange instant communication can be explained as just one person and a mirror! Science has a lot of situations which might be re-imagined in an analogous way...to simplify what looked like a weird or complicated problem.
If you keep doing this over and over you can reduce a cosmos of things to study down into just one thing...e.g. The Holographic Universe. But I think of people getting too hyped about such things are getting ahead of themselves. It would be like someone who is so happy to have explained the person who instantly raises and lowers his hands, who gets confused thinking there's only a single thing to study--one person. But you really now have two things again "people" and now "mirrors"!
It might be tempting to keep applying the method and investigate a way of saying there isn't really a person and a mirror but just a "personmirror". This single object can be explained as having properties that sometimes makes it look like a person, and sometimes look like a mirror. This would be analogous to finding an equation for the universe that could predict all past, present and future. I'm not going to say that isn't possible, but where's the chalkboard to write it down or the computer that's going to crunch the numbers?
Note This reminds me of the old Steven Wright joke: "I have a map of the United States...actual size. It says, 'Scale: 1 mile = 1 mile' I spent last summer folding it. I also have a full-size map of the world. I hardly ever unroll it."
What does it mean to take a small finding and turn it into something too large? The classic tale of over-reaching from a single observation is the story of the Blind Men and an Elephant. Everyone knows that each blind man grabbing a different part of the elephant was making a valid observation but not ready to accept the complexity of the whole, which didn't fit into a neat shape.
Discoveries of science are our observations. But it will take even harder thinking to assemble the pieces to the next level--not a glib armchair assessment from a non-scientist. I'd prefer it if the average New Age writer stuck closer to first-hand testimony and stuck to their guns about what they perceived, rather than overblowing the relevance of scientific discoveries to support their philosophy.
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