What we’ve been able to discover about our world through science is nothing short of astounding.
By its very nature, though, science is limited in what it can know and prove. To be classed as scientific knowledge, the results of an experiment have to be able to be repeated. What was observed in an Austrian lab on Monday has to be able to be observed and replicated in an Indian lab next Thursday.
This way of testing and experimenting has brought us countless wonderful pain- and death-relieving substances. Scientific knowledge is not the only way of knowing, but it is certainly the most creditable one in the technological society it has birthed.
But in the process, the humanism of the humans has been sidelined. From an emotional perspective, we take solace and comfort in scientific knowledge. Our age is florid with anxiety. So much that we depend upon is unreliable out in the world, in a flummox of change the ending of which we’re not even sure exists. When it comes to phoenixes and new beginnings, fixing the mistakes we’ve made that are so obvious now, we’re not even sure there can be a new beginning. In that scary space, we want knowledge that we can hang our hat on, which tells us about the world we’re living in, and maybe then will tell us about us too, in an age where we don’t know who we are anymore, and so much and so many people prove to be unreliable. Good, proven scientific knowledge feels bedrock.
But science is not the only legitimate way of ‘knowing’ something. That statement seems self-evident, and yet for some maybe not so much. The use of science as a tool with which to smash other people over the head with plays out countless times online every day. Some people appear to be threatened by the very idea that other ways of knowing outside the lab are not delusional, much less valid or helpful. But the solutions we are searching for may not be able to be found through scientific enquiry. Perhaps the answers lie in another field entirely.
Like all areas of our world, science is itself being shaken up. Isues with reproducibility, conservative thinking, lack of funding, Big Pharma’s breath. It’s difficult to guard the borders of the field to ensure that it produces good science. There are many factors within the field that make that particularly hard to achieve (funding, tenure, bias, specialisation, for example).
But it is another thing to expect the scientific worldview to encompass the entire weft and warp that is the experience of being human. We are not scientific products and I refuse to be reduced to one. Our internal, subjective experiences are valid despite their inability to fit into the small and necessarily rigid construct that is the scientific way of knowing. That way can forget the larger field within which it lives. The sex is the main focus ultimately, not how many ccs of sperm produced in the process, though that knowledge is helpful. The dance is the way you fall into the smoke, into the space where Excel spreadsheets dare not go. Scientific knowledge is brilliant. To use a scientific approach to the entirety of life is to miss the point of life entirely, to use a sledgehammer to peel a grape, to measure how many CCs of sperm you just produced when the point was in the fucking.
Michael Shermer has been writing a column in Scientific American for 15 years and is the founder of the Skeptics Society. In a column from 2014 he wrote about an experience he struggled to explain. His fiance Jennifer had had some of her belongings shipped from her native Germany and one of those was a 1978 transister radio that belonged to her much-loved grandfather, who was no longer with us and whose radio hadn’t worked for years. Michael decided to fix the radio. He checked to see if there were any loose connections, put in new batteries, but the radio remained dead. He chucked it in a desk drawer and forgot about it.
Three months later Michael and Jennifer married in their home. At one point in the proceedings Jennifer asked Michael to accompany her to the back of the house to talk. She was feeling lost and lonely away from her family. She wished her grandfather was there – he could have given her away if he was.
As they approached the back of the house they heard music coming from their bedroom. Which was odd, as there was no stereo there. They checked laptops and phones and even opened the back door to try to find where the music was coming from. Then Jennifer opened the desk drawer, where her grandfather’s transister radio was playing a romantic love song.
“My grandfather is here with us. I’m not alone,” Jennifer said, who was as skeptical as her husband about paranormal/supernatural stuff.
That night, the radio played classical music. The next day the radio went silent, and it has remained silent ever since.
Shermer’s skepticism was shaken by this experience, but Charles Eisenstein wonders if it’s not so much that he suddenly believes in ghosts and ghoulies but that something even more miraculous has happened:
Perhaps what was shaken is his faith in the primacy of a way of knowing: the one that underlies skepticism and the Scientific Method.
The comments at the bottom of Michael’s post are interesting. Many talk about oxidisation of the radio, the radio’s mechanics. Which is all true, obviously. It is the how of the situation. But what is far more intereseting to me is why did it happen when it did? Some wonder if Michael’s daughter came in and turned on the radio at the right time. Perhaps. Who knows? Would be odd, but explainable.
All of those things are explainable. They explain how it happened. This is what science does. But what science can never explain is the why, is the experience.
Jennifer is as skeptical as I am when it comes to paranormal and supernatural phenomena. Yet the eerie conjunction of these deeply evocative events gave her the distinct feeling that her grandfather was there and that the music was his gift of approval. I have to admit, it rocked me back on my heels and shook my skepticism to its core as well. I savored the experience more than the explanation.
The emotional interpretations of such anomalous events grant them significance regardless of their causal account. And if we are to take seriously the scientific credo to keep an open mind and remain agnostic when the evidence is indecisive or the riddle unsolved, we should not shut the doors of perception when they may be opened to us to marvel in the mysterious.
Sure, we can ascribe occurrences like this to randomness. But maybe other elements are at play. Perhaps our consciousness lasts beyond death and somehow Jennifer’s grandfather “caused” the radio to do its thing. Or perhaps it’s a bit more impersonal. Maybe there is some kind of collective consciousness that works here somehow. It’s fascinating to wonder. And we shouod not allow science to dissuade us from the wondering.
But what I love most is what Shermer said, that he savoured the experience more than the explanation.
This is part of how our world becomes re-enchanted. It is the returning of the wonderful, sharp analytics of the left hemisphere back to the whole, broader, rather mysterious space of the right hemisphere. Iain McGilchrist wrote about this in The Master and His Emissary and it has been the most important book I’ve read in the past decade.
Are we in the middle of a scientific revolution? You never can tell a revolution when you’re in the middle of it. It’s not until afterwards, when you’ve taken disparate happenings that in isolation look like chaos, and you join them all together in a narrative that brings clarity to all of those chaotic changings. Maybe science is in the process of another one of its paradigm shifts, those which appear to be linear when viewed from hindsight but which are crazy leaps, freaky jumps, and great vulnerability. Maybe this time it’ll be one that humans can move around in.
Whatever is going on, it’s a bit of a mind flip. It’s a jump of a few centimetres and a million light years in the way we think we see. It’s part of what is needed in our learning to see the world re-enchanted. Without it, we will kill the earth and us along with it. Re-enchantment, a larger reordering of our view of the world where we cannot compartmentalise its elements to force them to our own monetising is, in an age that has discarded grand narratives, the grandest one of all.