Science, Magic, and Technology

There is an interesting observation made, I believe, by Isaac Asimov:

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

This has been applied many times in science fiction to produce some form of techno-mage, but what’s more interesting is that the origins of modern science were in magic, specifically in astrology and alchemy. The goals of science were the same as that of magic: to control the natural elements. If you really study the history, it’s not even clear how to distinguish modern science from renaissance magic; in many ways the only real dividing line is success. There is some truth to the idea that alchemists whose techniques worked got called chemists to distinguish them from the alchemists whose ideas didn’t work. This is by no means a complete picture, because there was also at the same time natural philosophy, i.e. the desire to learn how the natural world worked purely for the sake of knowledge.

Natural philosophy has existed since the Greeks—Aristotle did no little amount of it—but it especially flourished in the renaissance with the development of optics which allowed for the creation of microscopes and telescopes. Probably more than anything else this marked the shift towards what we think of as modern science. As Edward Feser argues, the hallmark of modern science is viewing nature as a hostile witness. The ancients and medievals looked at the empirical evidence which nature gave, but they tended to trust it. Modern science tends to assume that nature is a liar. Probably more than any other single cause, being able to look at nature on scales we could not before and seeing that it looked different resulted in this shift towards distrusting nature. Some people feel a sense of wonder when looking through a microscope, but many people feel a sense of betrayal.

Another significant historical event was when the makers of technology started using the knowledge of natural philosophy in order to make better technology. This may sound strange to modern ears, who are used to thinking of technology as applied science, but in fact technological advancements very rarely rely on any new information about how the world works which was gained by disinterested researchers who published their results for the sake of curiosity. Technology mostly advances by trial and error modifying existing technology, and especially by trial and error on materials and techniques. In fact, no small amount of science has consisted of investigating why technology actually works.

But sometimes technology really does follow fairly directly from basic scientific research. One of the great examples is radio waves, which were discovered because the Maxwell’s theory of electromagnetism predicted that they existed. Another of the great examples of technology following from basic scientific research is the atomic bomb.

I suspect that these as well as other, lesser, examples, helped to solidify the identification between science and engineering. And I don’t want to overstate the distinction. In some cases the views of the natural world brought about by science have certainly helped engineers to direct their investigations into suitable materials and designs for the technology they were creating. But counterfactuals are very difficult to consider well, and it is by no means clear that the material properties which were discovered by direct investigation but also explained by scientific theories would not have been discovered at roughly the same time, or perhaps only a little later.

However that would have gone, the association between science and technology is presently a very strong one, and I think that this is why Dawkinsian atheists so often announce an almost religious devotion to science. I’ve seen it expressed like this (not an exact quote):

Science has given us cars and smartphones, so I’m going to side with science.

Anyone who actually knows anything about orthodox Christianity knows that there is no antipathy between science and religion. Though it is important to note that I mean this in the sense of there being no antipathy between natural philosophy and religion. In this sense, Christianity has been a great friend to science, providing no small amount of the faith that he universe operates according to laws (i.e. that being a creature is has a nature) and that these laws are intelligible to human reason. Moreover, the world having been created by God, it is interesting, since to learn about creation is to learn about the creator. It is no accident that plenty of scientists have been Catholic priests. The world is a profoundly interesting place to a Christian.

But there is a sense in which the Dawkinsian atheist is right, because he doesn’t really care about natural philosophy. What he cares about is technology, and when he talks about science he really means the scheme of conquering nature and bending it to our will. And this is something towards which Christianity is sometimes antagonistic. Not really to the practice, since technology is mostly a legitimate extension of our role as stewards of nature, but to the spirit. And it is antagonistic because this spirit is an idolatrous one.

The great difference between pagan worship and Christian worship is that Christian worship is an act of love, whereas pagan worship is a trade. Pagan deities gain something by being worshiped, and are willing to give benefits in exchange for it. This relationship is utterly obvious in both the Iliad and the Odyssey, but it is actually nowhere so obvious as when the Israelites worshiped the golden calf. For whatever reason this often seems to be taken to be a reversion to polytheism, where the golden calf is an alternative god to Yahweh. That is not what it is at all. If you read the text, after the Israelites gave up their gold and it was cast into the shape of a calf, they worshiped it and said:

Here is your God, O Israel, who brought you out of the land of Egypt.

The Israelites were not worshipping some new god, or some old god, but the same god who brought them out of Egypt. The problem was that they were worshiping him not as God, but as a god. That is, they were not entering into a covenant with him, but were trying to control him in order to get as much as they could out of him. Granted, as in all of paganism it was control through flattery, but at its root flattery has no regard for its object.

And this is the spirit which I think we can see in the people who say, “Science has given me the car and the iPhone, I will stick with Science.” They are pledging their allegiance to their god, because they hope it will continue to give them favors. And it is their intention to make sacrifices at its altars. This is where scientists become the (mostly unwitting) high priests of this religion; the masses do not ordinarily make sacrifices themselves, but give the sacrifices to the priests of the god to make sacrifice on their behalf. And so scientists are given money (i.e funded) as an offering.

To be clear, this is not the primary reason science gets funded. Dawkinsian atheists (and other worshipers of science) tend to be less powerful (and less numerous) than they imagine themselves. Still, this is, I think, how they view the world, except without the appropriate terminology because they look down on all other pagans.

And I think that it is largely this, and not the silly battles with fundamentalists and other young-earth creationists that result in their perception of a war between science and religion. There were other historical reasons for the belief in a war between science and religion, but I am coming to suspect that they had their historical time and then waned, and Dawkinsian atheism is resurrecting the battle for other reasons. They are idolaters, and they know Christianity is not friendly to idolatry. And idolaters always fear what will happen if their god does not get what it wants.

3 thoughts on “Science, Magic, and Technology

  1. theofloinn

    They always say “Science has given us cars and smartphones.” They never say “Science has given us tanks and nuclear bombs.” They also never say, “Science has given us chain-reaction multi-vehicle accidents involving drivers yakking on their smartphones instead of paying attention to the road.”

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  2. “Any sufficiently advanced technology”… is Arthur C. Clarke, actually. “Clarke’s Third Law”. (#1 is “When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.”; #2 is “The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible.”)

    And China also thought the universe operated according to laws—the Five Elements, the Great Principle of Yin and Yang, the Qi Meridians and Dragon Pulses, etc. The reason they didn’t invent science is twofold. First, they used their conception of laws and observation of the natural world mostly in the construction of ever more accurate horoscopes and other divinatory apparatus. And second and possibly more importantly, their worldview tends not to think that experiments are indicative of macrocosmic forces. To traditional Chinese thought, the idea an artificial microcosm can give insights into the universe at large, is almost indistinguishable from “voodoo dolls” (which, unlike actual Voodoo, are actually a feature of Chinese folk-magic and witchcraft beliefs, which their intellectuals did, in fact, generally regard as superstitious—though just like the Stoics and some early scientists they thought it was socially advantageous to prosecute for witchcraft anyway).

    Even so, I’ve seen an acupuncturist give a quite correct explanation for why a raw-food diet is a bad idea, entirely in the terms of Chinese folk-medicine. “Duhem-Quine Thesis”, basically.

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  3. C. S. Lewis has a good discussion about magic and science being “twins” in The Abolition of Man. They grow out of the same impulse: to dominate and control nature. The problem with magic is, it doesn’t work.

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