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Saturday, May 22, 2004

Today's Magic is Today's Science

In this ongoing rift between mysticism and science, one of the more rational arguments I hear from the mystic side is that just because science doesn't understand something today doesn't mean it won't tomorrow. That claim is quite true, so there's no point in arguing it, though clearly something is still amiss. I realized today, while emailing someone who's seemingly straddling this rift, just where the remaining disconnect is. Forgive me if this is too obvious, because in retrospect it sure is:

The line between mysticism and science is not, as the mystics assume, defined by what is and is not explained by the current scientific model of reality. From that view, the mystic somewhat rightly assumes today's scientists are simply blinded to the truths which don't fit the existing model.

Rather, the line between mysticism and science is defined by how each observes reality. The very essence of the scientific method is in having no preconceived notions, and the bulk of its teachings are devoted to methods of observing without bias. This is what the mystic doesn't understand, because when they hear "no, your theory is incorrect", they take it to mean "no, your theory doesn't fit my model". And indeed, many a misguided non-mystic may mean it that way, which only helps to bolster the mystics' misconceptions.

The true scientific stance against mysticism is simply: science accepts anything in proportion to how objectively it is demonstrated. Truly, anything. I occasionally hear this point made in these debates, but far too rarely and far too late. Much time would be saved if it were the first thing said. (Similarly, the mystics' theories may be more beneficially called "unfounded" than incorrect.)

The difference lies in the mystics' willingness to believe more than is objectively demonstrated. Both may witness a man apparently levitating before their eyes with no means of visible support, and while the mystic might accept the man's claim of supernatural powers, the scientist simply acknowledges what he sees, and sets about making more observations in order to learn more. The scientist's past experience comes into play in the form of likelihood of expected future observations, which may steer the method of observing in the direction most likely to produce relevant input, but ultimately it is the observations that drive the belief, not preconceptions (or wishes). The mystic actually employs a similar method but, with beliefs forming in excess of what observations warrant, ends up looking for completely different things in completely different places since what the scientist is still curious about the mystic considers a closed matter.

To the mystic, it is supernatural until it becomes either magic (in the sense of a parlor trick) or science (broadly accepted). To the scientist, it is science right from the start, because science is just the method of observing, whether observing magic, physics, or hearsay.

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Simon Funk / simonfunk@gmail.com