Monday, February 13, 2012

Sorcery and Pollution

In the Apocalypse of St John on Patmos, he writes that some will be excluded from heaven by their wickednesses. [1]  He describes them with florid metaphor, calling them "the dogs," for example.  He goes on to name some of them: sorcerers, fornicators, murderers, idolaters, and so on.  A nasty lot, to be sure, all of them worshiping things not worthy of worship.

Of course, sorcery isn't much of a problem for us these days.  At least, that's how most of us see it. But some folks are concerned that magic in modern fiction poses a threat to sanctity.  Several years ago I wrote a book called From Homer To Harry Potter, in which one of my aims was to help Christians (many of whom were concerned about the sorcery of young Mr. Potter and its influence on their children) think about myth, fantasy, and magic.  Not all magic is equal, I argued, and not all of it should alarm us.  

So this word "sorcery" in St. John's Apocalypse caught my eye recently.  Perhaps sorcery is a bad thing, after all?  The word St. John uses is pharmakos, related to the Greek pharmakeia and to our word "pharmacy."  It means one who makes potions, and especially potions used to poison others

What's wrong with this version of sorcery should be obvious to everyone: it amounts to the idolatry of power and the abuse of nature to worship that idol.  To put it in simpler terms: it is an idolatry of power because it regards human lives as things to be sacrificed on the altar of power.  We kill because we desire to dominate.  Selah.

And it is an abuse of nature because it regards chemistry as a tool of domination of others.  It concocts in order to destroy, and, again, it destroys in order to dominate.

Christians who are concerned about magic should ponder this.  Is God concerned with hand-waving, spells, and incantations?  I doubt it.  But it would appear that God is not pleased with using chemistry to do violence, and with regarding natural science as a tool for domination of other people.  I know it alarms me, at any rate.

I haven't got a quick conclusion here.  My point is not that we need to do away with chemistry or hold witch-hunts for chemists.  But I frequently return to Francis Bacon in his Advancement of Learning, [2] where he offers a way to speed up science by dividing up the four causes that Aristotle said all scientists need to seek.  Bacon suggests that if we can find the material and efficient causes of things - the matter and energy that cause particular contingent states and arrangements of things in the world - that should be enough for science.  Seeking the other two causes - formal and final causation - amounts to something like seeking the meaning of things and their purposes in the world.  To require scientists to seek these things is probably an undue burden on the natural sciences, and it certainly bogs down their progress by engaging them in endless debates about metaphysics and ethics.  Bacon leaves these latter questions to theologians and metaphysicians, freeing natural scientists to much more rapid progress in their research.  Bacon's division of causes was a brilliant stroke, and modern science owes it very much.

In the same book, Bacon finds he must make a defense of chemistry.  He does so by means of an analogy between chemistry and sorcery. [3]  It is prohibited to converse or do business with evil spirits, he says, but it is not prohibited to inquire into their nature and power.  Those who do the former are sorcerers, but those who do the latter are theologians.  Bacon adds, as an aside, that he's not sure either one is doing anything real, because those alleged spirits are "fabulous and fantastical."  Still, the analogy is helpful: it may be unethical to use poisons on other people, but it is certainly not wrong to seek to understand the nature and power of poisons.  So natural science, when it seeks to understand the nature and power of chemical compounds, for instance, is doing something like theology.

Here is where I find myself at a loss: theology has a story it can tell about why we should not converse with demons, and for those who live in the community that is shaped by that story, it is compelling.  But what story can we tell that will teach us how to avoid modern sorcery?  We have traded albs and chasubles for lab coats, and for the most part, this has been a positive development.  But we have not been intentional about telling a good story about science, and we have liberated it from questions of meaning and purpose - a liberation that we have recently begun to question, as we "have become death, the destroyer of worlds."  We have become unwitting sorcerers all, crafting potions that do wider and greater violence than the ancient theologians could have imagined.


[1]  Rev 22.14

[2]  See Bacon, Of the Advancement of Learning, 2.VII.3, e.g.

[3]  Bacon, op. cit., 2.VI.2.

Philosophy Begins in Wonder

Aristotle famously remarked that the love of wisdom - philosophy - begins in wonder.  This is correct.

It has since been noted that philosophy aims at the conclusion of wonder.  This, unlike the first statement, might not be correct.

So much depends on what we understand the aim of philosophy to be.  If we model it on the applied sciences, then its aim is to solve particular problems, in which case it aims to be done with its work.  The conclusion of a chain of reasoning becomes its consummation, and the consummation becomes the end.

But if philosophy should also aim to make us scientists as Peirce understood science - he says it is "the pursuit of those who desire to find things out" and something that is carried out in a community, not by an isolated individual - then it aims not just at solving problems but at introducing us to the world.

Bugbee points out (Inward Morning, August 31 entry) that in wonder, "reality has begun to sink into us."  Think about it: when you really wonder at something, isn't it because of a disclosure?  Wonder may seem to concern what is hidden, but the beginning of wonder is also the beginning of an opening, when the world opens to us.  If it were not so, we would not even know to wonder.

Philosophy teaches us - or ought to teach us - to open ourselves in return.  This opening of ourselves is not the conclusion of wonder but the development of the habit of wonder.  I don't mean the slack-jawed laziness that poses as wonder and pretends that all things are wonderful while being open to none of them, but, as Bugbee puts it, a commitment to being in the wilderness and the patience to let ourselves be " that which can make us at home in this condition."