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Science, Mysticism and Revolutions

Amanda Barnum

The New Science (of Descartes and of the Scientific Revolution generally), also called the Received View, was structured in a way that delegitimized other possible systems of thought and exploration. The purpose of this method's rigid containment was to enable scientists to arrive at the truth more quickly and efficiently. The belief of modern science in a single objective truth may have resulted in a sacrifice of some knowledge in areas that are related to science and cosmology but which may require an alternative method of study. I will address the unorthodox scientific methods of Johannes Kepler as well as the explicitly magical dimensions of the work of John Dee to show how there were many areas of truth in astronomy and cosmology that Descartes' rationalism failed to capture. I will also explore the question of whether a revolution in mysticism, in which occult ideas, hypotheses, and methods were to eclipse those of modern science, would have been possible during the Renaissance. The ideas of Kuhn and Cohen about how to define a revolution and how revolutions work might reveal some key comparisons of science and the occult.

Kepler the Mystic

The Scientific Revolution in the sixteenth century was characterized by radical advances in astronomy and physics, among other areas, but another side to the Revolution that is less often addressed by academics is what happened in mystical "disciplines" such as astrology, numerology, and hermetics, disciplines that had existed in the same frame of reference for many scholars as areas of rational/empirical scientific study. Along with Kepler and Dee, scientists like Tycho Brahe, Francis Bacon, and even Isaac Newton were engaged in trying to answer cosmological questions whose answers could not be found in the domain of the strictly rational. The mystical inquiries of these scientists reflect a very positive openness and enthusiasm in their approach to problem solving.

Mysticism was certainly not limited to inferior and irrational scientists. However, the story of Edward Kelley illustrates some of the dangers of a mystical paradigm that were not of concern in the paradigm of modern science. Kelley was followed in later centuries by a number of similar magicians and psychics (such as Count Cagliostro in the eighteenth century, Aleister Crowley in the twentieth, and television's John Edward in the twenty-first) who were called charlatans by some historians and brave iconoclasts by others. This is the problem of lack of falsifiability in mysticism: neither the theory nor the theorist can be fully trusted. I will say more on the history of Kelley and Dee after I address Kepler and the significance of his revolutionary work to my comparison of science and mysticism.

Kepler was not a student of the occult but considered himself strictly a mathematician and scientist. However, some of his ideas about numerical correspondences are quite mysterious, obscure, and unconfirmed by any source other than mathematics itself, and some of his hypotheses lacked even that degree of support. Kepler did not use concrete physical demonstrations to prove his theories as skillfully as Galileo did. Today, however, Kepler's work is often studied by chaos magicians and hermetic philosophers. It is Kepler's understanding of complex mathematics that draws modern scientists and occultists alike to his work; in the present century, faith in empirical evidence and final answers is lower than it was in the time of Kepler and Galileo when the "received view" was coming into focus. Now we question the received view and examine alternatives like Kuhn's paradigm theory, Popper's falsificationism, and the relativistic model of Barnes, Bloor and Henry.

Chaos Magic Theory

To the chaos magician, whose philosophical perspective derives from a combination of Einstein's relativity theory, anarchist politics, and various sources of deconstructionist criticism, a demonstration supposedly proving the validity of a scientific law is not adequate to persuade him to accept the law as universally and objectively true. It would be assumed that the demonstration was constructed to fit the rules of that particular scientific paradigm, whether or not the scientist is aware that he operates within that paradigm. Constructions designed to fit a scientific paradigm result in iatrogenic pseudoknowledge sold by the authority of the Scientist, rather than the actual discovery of scientific truths. Chaos magic theory is a paradigm of rejecting all-encompassing paradigms, a contradiction that I will not address at this point because that is not the topic of this paper and it is a problem that requires extensive discussion. However, I think chaos magic theory is an interesting perspective from which to evaluate scientific paradigms, particularly the received view. The following quote is from a chaos magician:

"The chaos magician takes on the belief system necessary to obtain the desired results. As the chaos magician grows within that system he or she will add elements from other paradigms. Conversely speaking, the chaos magician will also ignore or "delete" elements of the paradigm which are spiritual 'claptrap' or do not produce the desired results. "Chaos magicians may practice the techniques of chaos magic but they must do so within a specific paradigm, which roughly means that a chaos magician must believe in something in order to obtain results. What specifically the chaos magician believes in is entirely up to them."

Within this open perspective, chaos magicians will view scientists as overly rigid in their subscription to a single paradigm. They see scientists doing the same thing as magicians in choosing whatever demonstration is "necessary to obtain the desired results," which for the scientists is the result of proving the reality of their paradigm's doctrine, but scientists do it without acknowledging that they are making a choice. Kepler was one scientist who sometimes deviated from the paradigm of strict empirical/rational scientific method; his aim in doing so was to discover truths about the way the universe works, not to produce magical workings, but his tendency to float between different paradigms is supported by the postmodern doctrine of the chaos magician. Tycho Brahe, Kepler's primary influence, was also accepting of apparently mysterious phenomena as having potential scientific significance. Brahe pursued the study of comets, while Galileo dismissed their cosmological importance.

I agree with Cohen's assessment of Kepler as an enigmatic figure of his time. I find Kepler interesting because he was curious about the mysticism of mathematics without having explicitly cultivated an approval of mystical theory as a valid path to knowledge. Other scientists like Dee and Bruno were involved in the occult by their own admission, whereas Galileo and Bacon were incorrectly believed to have mystical systems of thought or connections with secret societies. It would seem that many revolutionary figures in science fit in one of the two categories I just mentioned, and Kepler in contrast was somewhere in between. His Calvinist background probably discouraged him from officially embracing mystical studies, as did his strong commitment to rationalism. His writings, however, flew in the face of Occam's razor and other rules of method; he was verbose, obscure, and weak on empirical documentation of physical phenomena.

Kepler's demonstrations usually took the form of complex mathematical equations that were impossible to recognize as having any scientific significance. The discovery of elliptical orbits and his third law of planetary motion, exceptions to the rule of mathematical obscurity in Kepler's work, were his primary accomplishments and contributions to Copernican theory, although the ellipse was a challenge to the Copernican system's basic tenet of circular orbits. Brahe, who preceded Kepler in the investigation of celestial forces, supported the Ptolemaic system, and Cohen comments that Kepler "jettisoned all but the two most general Copernican axioms: that the sun stands still and that the earth rotates and revolves." It is not clear that Kepler would have been recognized as a revolutionary scientist if his theories had not been effectively deciphered by Newton.

But in spite of Kepler's obvious mystical bent and his belief in an extensive cosmological harmony that could be revealed through mathematics, in the history of science he qualifies as a very significant revolutionary thinker. I suspect this was because Kepler never crossed the line into explicitly occult studies and instead remained faithful to science and to his Protestant upbringing. The most negative consequence of Kepler's enigmatic style was that his ideas were discounted by his more focused contemporary, Galileo, who could have translated Kepler's valid theories into comprehensive physical demonstrations had he taken them seriously. Perhaps Galileo, a devout Catholic, allowed his scientific assessment to be eclipsed by religious concerns about the mystical quality of Kepler's hypothesis of invisible physical forces. It can be concluded from the accuracy of the Third Law of Planetary Motion that some ideas only seem nonfalsifiable due to lack of refinement and effective communication by the theorist, which Newton later supplied to remove the veil of mysticism from Kepler's laws of forces.


Not all mysterious theories are science disguised as mysticism. True occultists are defined by their primary orientation toward nonfalsifiable phenomena outside the realm of physical experience. During the Renaissance, unlike the contemporary period, mystics could also be respected as rational scientists to some degree. There was significant overlap of magic and science in hermetics, a framework for studying the universe which derived from the teachings of Hermes Trismegistus and was first translated in the fourteenth century as a document called the "Hermetica." The Hermetica encouraged religious skepticism and independent evaluation of scripture, a perspective that is often in agreement with modern science. Although hermeticists tended to reject the scientific perspective in favor of mysticism, there are many themes within hermetics that concurred with the science of the sixteenth century, particularly the belief in harmony and mathematical patterns in the heavens.

Hermetics is a belief system and an intellectual craft in the Platonic tradition that involves finding power in nature and expanding on it in a process of contributing to the creation of the natural world. It teaches the concept that human mages can reunite with God through the understanding, appreciation, and mastery of nature. Copernicus, in De Revolutionibus, quoted Hermes Trismegestrus at several points to support his hypothesis. Areas of magical study within hermetics include astrology, tarot, alchemy, and numerological tables of correspondence similar to some of Kepler's work. Giordano Bruno was involved in hermetics and, like Kepler and Dee, supported the Copernican hypothesis. He was raised Calvinist as Kepler was. But Bruno rebelled against Calvinism and threw himself into occult studies. He was not as careful as other scientists and occultists of the time to censor himself in consideration of the danger posed by the power of the Catholic Church, and was burned at the stake in 1600.

John Dee was an astrologer, magician in the hermetic tradition, astronomer, mathematician, theologian, and eventually ostracized as a sorcerer. Dee was notable for studying a wide range of subjects in the true spirit of the Renaissance. His belief in a heliocentric universe was partly based on knowledge of sun worship in pagan societies, which he viewed as evidence that the sun was central. The occult historian Frances Yates suggests that mystic sensationalism and mathematical success were mutually supportive for Dee, a view that may come from Dee's study of Christian Cabalism in which mathematics is imbued with spiritual significance. Dee's contributions to science might have been more numerous and significant if he had not been influenced by the occultist and self-proclaimed medium Edward Kelley. The association with Kelley, spiritualism, and rumors of demonolatry destroyed Dee's scientific reputation.

Kelley convinced Dee to turn his attention away from scientific experimentation and toward the spirit world, with which Kelley was supposedly in close touch and which had much information to communicate to Dee through Kelley. The spirits delivered philosophical obscurities and directives with no proof of legitimacy other than celestial origin. One such bit of advice was that Dee and Kelley should trade wives for some higher cosmological purpose. With permission from his suggestible colleague, Kelley slept with Dee's attractive wife in a scam that disgraced the entire realm of mystical studies. Karl Popper's system of falsificationism requires a theory to have enough of an empirical basis that it can be proven false, and any hypothesis that fails this test is not a valid possibility. This is a serious challenge to the mystical disciplines and one that points to the importance of demonstrated reliability and coherence in a theory for it to be distinguishable from a fantasy or a lie. The falsification test is valuable in cases where trickery is suspected, or in cases where it should be suspected.

However, it is possible to argue that some beliefs classified as magical can be falsified. For example, it is commonly observed that various magical systems "work" best in the context of the culture from which they are derived, suggesting a psychological mechanism in magic that operates on the common values and fears of a particular culture. Therefore, a voodoo hex using an object representative of the intended victim (i.e., a doll or photo) can be quite harmful to a citizen of Africa who believes in its power and who can probably pick up on subtle suggestions from other people who know about the hex. The target of the hex will begin to experience increased vulnerability and will perhaps become ill. A citizen of Europe, however, is less likely to suffer if he is hexed, because the cultural system that favors the hexing process is not present in European surroundings. In Africa, then, the belief system of voodoo has an empirical basis in the effectiveness of hexes and perhaps therefore can be falsified.

There is another way in which magic resembles science. Descartes would turn over in his grave, but I believe his assertion in the Discourse on Method that science should be useful in helping us gain power over our surroundings is comparable to the principle behind magical workings of healing, destruction, and other forms of manipulation. To return to Kelley, then, since his manipulation of John Dee was successful in its aim of accessing Dee's wife for the satisfaction of Kelley's lust, this work as a so-called medium contributed to Kelley's power and is as valuable from this perspective as any scientific endeavor that produces desirable results for the scientist. Of course, this is an extremely limited comparison that does not consider reliability of method or ethical guidelines, but it shows how magicians and scientists can look similar from a goal-oriented perspective. If mysticism is the paradigm for magical workings, it functions for magic like rationalism does for the application of scientific procedures. This statement requires a clarification of what mysticism is and how it is translated into method.

Mystics rely on intuition and subconscious factors to acquire information and effect change. Sometimes intuition takes the form of individual psychic power, but most forms of magic use tradition and ritual as the main techniques. To the extent that magic relies on tradition for its effectiveness, a revolution in magic might be unlikely, because during revolution the established tradition in a discipline loses its authority and must be rejected. Magic uses ancient traditional tools that represent the four elements of nature for the purpose of maintaining the powerful connection with nature attained by the earliest magicians. However, modern technology is managing to influence magic, as one can see from the many websites and chatrooms on the internet devoted to every conceivable type of magical endeavor. Modern tools of technology like videotape, sound systems, and lasers are helping magic to evolve and become more flexible, dynamic, and spontaneous. Culturally, the evolution of magic resembles social patterns of progress more than scientific ones, with the possible exception of the simultaneous growth of relativity theory and chaos magic. However, social change always influences science, creating a three-way connection between the revision of theories and perspectives in culture, science, and magic.

The philosopher Thomas Kuhn was very aware of the need to examine cultural and historical factors as well as the hard science of a revolutionary hypothesis. Kuhn was writing after and in response to other theories about revolutions in science, namely the received view and Popper's falsificationism. Falsificationism did question the possibility of absolute truth, but dictated that all theories must be proven false until the least false one remains, and that part of a theory's validity is judged by its capacity to be falsified. That is, if a theory cannot be falsified, it is not even in the running for majority acceptance. The problem with falsificationism is that it does not provide a realistic model of revolution. In contrast, Kuhn noticed a pattern in the history of revolutions and developed a theory of changing paradigms in what is accepted as valid science. He came to the conclusion that no one paradigm in the history of received views is better than any other. This is because the paradigms cannot be evaluated outside of their cultural and historical context, which Kuhn thought very significant.

Kuhn & Cohen on a Hypothetical Revolution in Mysticism

Kuhn's system of paradigms is made up of a period of stability which is called "normal science," followed by a crisis in perspective when an increasing number of anomalies present themselves in the face of what normal science dictates to be the truth. There are opposite viewpoints competing with each other for the belief (and perhaps the faith) of the majority. The crisis leads to a resolution in which one alternative paradigm comes into the forefront and is supported by enough of the scientific community to be accepted in place of the previous normal science. That replacement paradigm then characterizes the next phase of normal science. Kuhn's concept that normal science is redefined over and over according to the current values and orientation of the culture that surround it suggests that he might believe in the possibility of a mystical revolution if mysticism won the support of a majority of intellectuals.

Kuhn's opinion on the possibility of a mystical revolution is not as interesting to me as what his conclusion would be if this revolution did occur. In this hypothetical scenario, it seems unlikely that Kuhn would designate mysticism as the new paradigm of normal science, because mysticism's lack of falsifiability probably disqualifies it from consideration as a form of science. Kuhn seems not to have thought it possible for society to move into a second period of "prescience;" this term itself indicates Kuhn's belief that widely accepted systems of knowledge (of the universe and natural processes) other than science became extinct after the Scientific Revolution. I think Kuhn is probably right to assume that all future paradigms will be within the parameters of science, but in the unlikely instance that someone like Edward Kelley were to con everyone in society at once using the method that was so effective on John Dee, Kuhn would be unable to provide an explanation of how this could have happened.

Perhaps Cohen could provide such an explanation. Cohen's assessment of Kuhn's paradigm theory of revolutions focuses on the conversion experience and gestalt switch as important concepts. Cohen sees the conversion (from belief in an established scientific system to belief in a completely different research program) as comparable to a religious experience. Cohen's version of revolution through conversion is not gradual in any way, unlike Kuhn's normal science and opposing anomalies that gather force over time and eventually lead to a crisis in science. There is no competition between potential revolutionary theories in Cohen's view, but a single conversion of radical enlightenment that results in a new science. Anything other than this radical conversion is not revolution but merely a series of advancements which are better characterized as evolution. The conversion experience results from the discoveries of extraordinary scientists who introduce theories that are not connected to any previously established scientific paradigm.

On first examination it might seem as if Cohen's view could provide a framework for understanding the hypothetical revolution in mysticism, because he relates the process of revolution in science to an experience usually classified as religious, which might be compared to a mystical experience. However, a revolution characterized by the religious or even mystical conversion experience of intellectual society is not the same thing as a revolution in mysticism. If this revolution did occur according to Cohen's theory, with a large number of people suddenly seeing the light of a brilliant new system of mystical philosophy, it would likely be a high-risk event. Those who were converted would not have this experience based on a clear understanding of rational and empirical processes resulting in a rush of intellectual enthusiasm as they would in a scientific revolution.

The reason for this is what I mentioned earlier about how mysticism works primarily by intuition, ritual, and charisma (of a leading figure), with reason and observation playing a secondary role. So, if a revolution in mysticism occurred in Cohen's framework, the sudden revelation of new ideas would have to come from a magician with exceptional intuitive skills and charisma who would probably achieve the conversion of others by enrapturing them with his unique style. This has happened before, of course, many times in the history of Western religion and politics, so that we can look to the examples of Christ, Martin Luther King, Jr., Marx, Stalin, Hitler, and others. The last two examples I give here are of destructive dictators, which is never an inconceivable development in cultural revolutions that happen the way Cohen describes. There is both extraordinary excitement and risk in a society following a radical charismatic leader.

I think Cohen's concept of how revolutions generally occur is accurate, but that it may not be sufficient to explain the Scientific Revolution in particular, because radical figures in science do not have the same direct political influence on society as the radicals of cultural movements. Individual scientists may be charismatic and creative, but they do not tend to enrapture society (or even the intellectuals of society) with their hypotheses. Galileo and Einstein may have achieved this level of personal influence, but they both had a good feel for politics and social influence in addition to being brilliant scientists. Kepler, on the other hand, did not win converts with his odd personality, and may have actually compromised his credibility as a scientist with his inscrutability as a public figure. Had Edward Kelley achieved widespread influence, I imagine the result would be a great deal of social confusion and not much progress in either mysticism or science.

I have an optimistic vision of the compatibility of science and mysticism that may be similar to Galileo's thoughts about science and Catholicism. I would not attempt to use magical theory as scientific evidence or science to support the doctrine of mysticism, but I have made some loose parallels between the two frameworks regarding ultimate goals and empirical method. I hope that chaos magicians will continue to investigate areas that are traditionally reserved for academic scientists and philosophers and that they might learn from the academics instead of rejecting mainstream thought entirely. As for scientists, I believe they have an obligation to the rationalism of their own field not to judge a particular area of mysticism as disreputable or frivolous before they have learned all they can about it. Ignorance makes for bad science.


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