Science, Philosophy, Theology: If the Mirrors We Make Are Monstrous, So Too Are We

Stephen Hawking is a remarkable person whom I’ve known for 40 years, and for that reason any oracular statement he makes gets exaggerated publicity. I know Stephen Hawking well enough to know that he has read very little philosophy and even less theology, so I don’t think we should attach any weight to his views on this topic … I would support peaceful co-existence between religion and science because they concern different domains … Anyone who takes theology seriously knows that it’s not a matter of using it to explain things that scientists are mystified by.

— Lord Martin Rees, Astronomer Royal & Past President of the Royal Society, “We shouldn’t attach any weight to what Hawking says about God,” The Independent, September 27, 2010

The web-magazine io9 recently posted a list by the futurist author George Dvorsky on “9 Historical Figures Who May Have Predicted Our Future,”  and if you had the opportunity to read some of my recent comments on cultural amnesia (“Haunted by Our Amnesia” and “Connecticut Vampires in a Naive Skeptic’s Court“), you might have an inkling as to what I’m going to point out regarding not just one or two of the figures listed, but the majority of them.

Yes, these prophets of scientific progress were each in their own way connected to those streams of thought which are often relegated to the status of “pseudo-science” or, as the enthusiastic (but often illiterate and condescending) debunking crowd affectionately calls it, “woo.” This is made evident in the very first person that Dvorsky lists: Robert Boyle. After listing Boyle’s scientific accomplishments, he adds the caveat, “Not bad for a pre-Enlightenment thinker surrounded by magical and superstitious beliefs.” However, let’s pause here and reflect on the fact that Boyle was a dedicated alchemist.

17th-century natural philosopher and alchemist Robert Boyle pointing to a closed book in reference to the alchemical notion of Mutus Liber

Alchemy, cosmism, Freemasonry, and evolutionary mysticism all find their way into Dvorsky’s list, but is not to say that those listed were exemplars of the weaker strains of these philosophies and worldviews, which rightfully draw the ire of serious thinkers. On the contrary, these figures mark the exception, where science, philosophy, and often theology commingle in such a way as to transmute reality and open up possibilities that fundamentalists in any of these areas are not capable of accessing.

Dvorsky does well to use the term “visionaries” in his article, since it represents at least a nod to those attributes that lead to the ability to “predict the future.” If you look closely at the matrix of disciplines mentioned above (science, philosophy and theology), you’ll notice that it corresponds to the classic tripartite division of reality found in esoteric thought:  body, mind, and spirit, or body, soul, and spirit, or physical, mental, and celestial.

I teach through books and personal contact. Science and the university are my territory and not so-called occult circles.

— Alchemist Eugene Canseliet, in an interview with Frater Albertus

At play here is a common misconception regarding the questions being asked and addressed by disciplines such as alchemy, cosmism, Freemasonry, and evolutionary mysticism (and, by extension, parapsychology and a number of other disciplines), as well as the question of what is culturally accepted and disseminated under these guises and in related areas. The confusion is not helped by proponents of any hardline doctrine who seek to assert their opinions rather than investigate reality with some semblance of humility.

Stephen Hawking’s disingenuous statements on the death of philosophy, which spurred Lord Martin Rees’ more detailed explanation quoted above, reveal the shortsighted ideologies that exist even at the highest level of culture and thought. The problem here is that all too many readers (and, what’s more damning to our culture, all too many journalists, writers, and scientists as well) received Hawking’s statement as a fact, rather than as the opinion of someone who was sadly misinformed in an area of thought where he has no justification for commenting

When we have a list of luminaries like the one Dvorsky has put together, most of whom tread intellectual lines that their current devotees would find abominable, the reality of what we are dealing with becomes much clearer. By looking at their own admissions regarding their sources of inspiration, we can see both the exciting possibilities that exist when easy answers aren’t accepted and an indication of what can be accomplished when we reach for scientific illumination instead of unmeasured belief, skepticism, or debunking.

“These figures mark the exception, where science, philosophy, and often theology commingle in such a way as to transmute reality and open up possibilities that fundamentalists in any of these areas are not capable of accessing.”

So, in honor of the Brethren mentioned in Dvorsky’s list, let us return to the tradition that guided them on their quest, and meditate for a moment on the advice given by an anonymous Italian alchemist in regard to the final philosophical degree (as written in the Francken Manuscript, which dates to the 18th century) of the Ancient Scottish Rite, the XXVIII° Degree, of the Knight of the Sun, or Prince Adept:

(In working the Degree) the Initiated was asked about the meaning of the three “S”, which were set on top of three Candlesticks, without flames; the answer was this:

“The three S (Sanctitas, Scientia et Sapientia) show that Wisdom united to Science, creates a Saint.”

Q = “What do the words ‘Lux ex Tenebris’ mean?”
A = “That we must escape from the depth of the darkness to reach true Light.”

Q = “What do the three Candlesticks represent?”
A = “The three degrees of the Fire that the artist arouses in order to obtain the matter from which they come from.”

Although we’ve long written and interacted in the shadows of a world of profit-driven media, and although many of us are still in the habit of treating the outlets we have at hand in the same vein as the media that we’ve already outgrown, this isn’t a rhetorical game. It involves the the very future or our collective existence. We have the tools at hand to foster a renewed culture, or, conversely, to destroy ourselves and the hopes of those who have come before and those who will come after.

Such destruction can come quickly, through the ill-advised use of our technological development, or slowly, as our history and future are chipped away, word by word, in poorly researched blog posts, Twitter messages, alienating articles, and fast fashion. It is up to each of us to work towards the future without allowing himself or herself to be distracted by the fundamentalist dogma or the lazy intellectualism of propagandizing preachers, New Age gurus, blinded believers, fashion-focused creatives, short-sighted debunkers, or any of the other forms in which deception can take root.

If we are to hold up those thinkers that have achieved greatness in their thought, such as those listed by Dvorsky, then let us also hold up the traditions that allowed them to see what they saw. Recreating their image in light of our own ignorance doesn’t honor their memory or help our present situation; it only creates monsters of those that we would immolate, and if the mirrors we make are monstrous, then so, too, are we.

About David Metcalfe

In addition to writing De Umbris Idearum, David Metcalfe is the Books Editor for THE REVEALER, the online journal for NYU's Center for Religion and Media. He's also an independent researcher, cultural historian, and artist. He regularly contributes articles and reviews to Modern, Evolutionary Landscapes, Reality Sandwich, and Alarm Magazine.

Posted on October 2, 2012, in De Umbris Idearum and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. Quick editorial note: George Dvorsky’s prescient list may have something to do with the fact that he’s a Burner and a Buddhist. His memory is not dulled by the cultural malaise.

    He also posted this to Twitter today: “Because it’s so endemic, I’m no longer surprised to see how many scientists miss the implications of their own studies.”

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