Invisibility: Spirits & Science

Those familiar with Robin Horton’s thesis that traditional religious thought is closely related to scientific thought will want to read Philip Ball’s Nautilus essay on the history of invisible “things.” As he shows, fundamental discoveries in chemistry and physics have been driven by spiritualist notions that unseen forces and entities are at work in the world. Ball also shows that these notions were not limited to early or primitive science: at the leading edge of modern theoretical physics, scientists continue to draw on such ideas to fill gaps in knowledge and form hypotheses. Although this storytelling is scientific, it is structurally and functionally similar to magico-religious storytelling. There are of course some critical differences, such as the way in which science requires data, testing, and falsification. Scientific stories are set up to be knocked down; mythico-religious stories are not.

While reading the opening paragraphs of Ball’s essay I was thinking that he has either been reading Horton or has independently arrived at the same conclusions. These paragraphs perfectly illustrate Horton’s thesis that habitually generated “primary theory” — the visible stuff of everyday life — always reveals disconcerting gaps or unknowns that are filled by “secondary theory” — the invisible stuff of both traditional religion and science:

[In the late nineteenth century] the whole focus of physics—then still emerging as a distinct scientific discipline—shifted from the visible to the invisible. Light itself was instrumental to that change. Not only were the components of light invisible “fields,” but light was revealed as merely a small slice of a rainbow extending far into the unseen.

Physics has never looked back. Today its theories and concepts are concerned largely with invisible entities: not only unseen force fields and insensible rays but particles too small to see even with the most advanced microscopes. We now know that our everyday perception grants us access to only a tiny fraction of reality. Telescopes responding to radio waves, infrared radiation, and X-rays have vastly expanded our view of the universe, while electron microscopes, X-ray beams, and other fine probes of nature’s granularity have unveiled the microworld hidden beyond our visual acuity. Theories at the speculative forefront of physics flesh out this unseen universe with parallel worlds and with mysterious entities named for their very invisibility: dark matter and dark energy.

This move beyond the visible has become a fundamental part of science’s narrative. But it’s a more complicated shift than we often appreciate. Making sense of what is unseen—of what lies “beyond the light”—has a much longer history in human experience. Before science had the means to explore that realm, we had to make do with [supernatural] stories that became enshrined in myth and folklore. Those stories aren’t banished as science advances; they are simply reinvented. Scientists working at the forefront of the invisible will always be confronted with gaps in knowledge, understanding, and experimental capability. In the face of those limits, they draw unconsciously on the imagery of the old [supernatural] stories. This is a necessary part of science, and these stories can sometimes suggest genuinely productive scientific ideas. But the danger is that we will start to believe them at face value, mistaking them for theories.

A backward glance at the history of the invisible shows how the narratives and tropes of myth and folklore can stimulate science, while showing that the truth will probably turn out to be far stranger and more unexpected than these old stories can accommodate.

As the essay proceeds, it becomes apparent that Ball is recounting not just the history of the invisible or the spiritualist origins of science: he is diving deep into the sociology of knowledge and contrasting modes of thought. This is also Horton’s field of inquiry. Those interested in the subject should get Patterns of Thought in Africa and the West: Essays on Magic, Religion and Science (1997). Alternatively, I recommend reading Ball’s essay in conjunction with Horton’s classic article “African Traditional Thought and Western Science” (1967) (open pdf). The juxtaposition will be richly rewarding.

It is not just Horton who thinks there is a relationship between traditional religious thought and modern scientific thought. In Elementary Forms of the Religious Life (Swain translation at pp. 237-39), Emile Durkheim brilliantly argued:

It is true that [supernaturalism] is disconcerting for us. Yet we must be careful not to depreciate it: howsoever crude it may appear to us, it has been an aid of the greatest importance in the intellectual evolution of humanity. In fact, it is through [supernaturalism] that the first explanation of the world has been made possible.

Of course the mental habits [supernaturalism] implies prevented men from seeing reality as their senses show it to them; but as they [visibly] show it, it has the grave inconvenience of allowing of no explanation. For to explain is to attach things to each other and to establish [invisible] relations between them which make them appear to us as functions of each other and as vibrating sympathetically according to an internal law founded in their nature.

But sensations, which see nothing [but visible things] except from the outside, could never make them disclose these relations and [invisible] internal bonds; the intellect alone can create the notion of them. When I learn that A regularly precedes B, my knowledge is increased by a new fact; but my intelligence is not at all satisfied with a statement which does not show its reason. I commence to understand only if it is possible for me to conceive B in a way that makes it appear to me as something that is not foreign to A, and as united to A by some [invisible] relation of kinship.

The great service that religions have rendered to thought is that they have constructed a first representation of what these [invisible] relations of kinship between things may be. In the circumstances under which it was attempted, the [supernaturalist] enterprise could obviously attain only precarious results.

The essential thing was not to leave the mind enslaved to visible appearances, but to teach it to dominate them and to connect what the senses [visibly] separated; for from the moment when men have an idea that there are [invisible] internal connections between things, science and philosophy become possible. Religion opened up the way for them.

So it is far from true that this [religious] mentality has no connection with ours. Our [scientific] logic was born of this [religious] logic. The explanations of contemporary science are surer of being objective because they are more methodical and because they rest on more carefully controlled observations, but they do not differ in nature from those which satisfy [traditional religious] thought.

Every time that we unite heterogeneous terms by an internal [or invisible] bond, we forcibly identify contraries. Of course the terms we unite are not those which the [supernaturalist] brings together; we choose them according to different criteria and for different reasons; but the processes by which the mind puts them in connection do not differ essentially.

Thus between the logic of religious thought and that of scientific thought there is no abyss. The two are made up of the same elements, though inequally and differently developed.

So sayeth the sociological-evolutionary master.


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4 thoughts on “Invisibility: Spirits & Science

  1. David Monje

    Cris, nice post. Thanks for sharing both excerpts. I like the notion that both religion and science address the “invisible.” It’s a useful heuristic, and suggests that the structural and functional continuities between religious and scientific thought can be understood as a continuum. I have been wondering a lot lately about how my undergraduate students can hold what seem to be inconsistent or contradictory views without displaying too much cognitive dissonance. Your post is a timely reminder to me that, for most of us, “between the logic of religious thought and that of scientific thought there is no abyss.” I’ll try to keep it in mind as I read their attempts to prove Bigfoot exists and their (always inchoate, often incoherent) efforts to argue “intelligent design.”

  2. brian

    Have you read Guthrie’s _Faces in the Clouds_? There is a chapter in there about anthropomorphism and science.

  3. Cris Post author

    Indeed I have and also have the pleasure of knowing Stewart. He just wrote an article or book chapter on Robin Horton. I would say that Horton’s theory is broader and is not limited to anthropomorphism. He persuasively contends that secondary theory (i.e., the gap filling kind which is the primary characteristic of supernatural thinking) can be conceived of as any kind of force, power, or spirit, and that such unobservables are not limited to human models. I would also note that Guthrie’s anthropomorphism faculty (which was co-opted by evolutionary psychologists as the “hyperactive agency detection module”) is a matter of habitual and subconscious perception, whereas Horton’s “invisible” gap fillers are the product of reason. The former is a theory of origins, while the latter is a theory of what happened after humans became behaviorally modern.

  4. jayarava

    Hi Chris, Thanks for this. I found Philip Ball’s essay very engaging after what seemed to me to be a slightly rocky start – some of his initial assertions struck me as a bit questionable, but after a while I could see where he was going with it. I’m still thinking about it a few days later.

    We can describe to 10 decimal places the physical properties an election must presumably have in order to explain the behaviour of electro-magnetic phenomenon associated with it, but we’ll never know what one looks like. Our deduced knowledge is so accurate that we can design a mircochip with microscopic features on a computer and it will work as designed – making mass produced computers a reality in my lifetime.

    It struck me that from my point of view other people’s consciousness is analogous to the electron. I will never see it directly, but that may not be a barrier to accurately describing the fundamental properties it must have in order to behave the way it does. Do you think this is a valid analogy?

    I’m not sure I agree with Durkheim that “Religion opened up the way for them.” If this was so why did science begin so late in the history of religion? Surely there was a curiosity about the world that was long, but temporarily, suppressed by religion, that then flowered as the hold of religion weakened?

    It seems to me that the urge to fill the explanatory gap is not religious, it’s human. I’d say that religion and science are both emergent properties of this same curiosity. One that seeks closed answers and one that seeks open answers. The purpose of seeking or holding knowledge of the unseen might be quite similar in both cases, but only because there is something that underlies both, not because one underlies the other.

    My experience is that knowledge of the unseen is used by religieux to end discussions, and by naturalists to begin them. So what Durkheim says does not ring true for me.

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