Science and the Occult Disciples in the Twentieth-Century

Egil Asprem
Egil Asprem

At the dawn of the twentieth-century, both “the occult” and “science” had acquired meanings that are relatively close to those of our own days. Science referred to a privileged body of knowledge about the natural world, sanctioned by specialist institutions, supported by professional educational programs enjoying high prestige, and basing its epistemic claims on a set of increasingly sophisticated methods of inquiry. The “occult”, by contrast, was a residual category that included a great number of rejected knowledge, pursued on a social arena of secret lodges and occult societies, and disseminated through a number of periodicals and books provided by a flourishing occult publishing industry.

“The occult” thus included the theory and practice of ritual magic as taught by various Hermetic and Rosicrucian orders; it encompassed the arcane doctrines of Theosophy, the practice of astral travel, the Mesmeric trances, Spiritualist séances, and telepathic and clairvoyant communication; and a number of alternative histories of lost continents, hidden masters, and powerful secret societies were discussed in occult publications. While the contrast with professional science is evident, the invocation of reason and scientific legitimacy was seldom far away when such topics were discussed.

Thus, even when we limit our investigation of relations between science and the occult to a period in which these terms are relatively stable, that is, from about the start of the twentieth-century until today, the picture remains complex. Recalling the words of caution that opened this chapter, I shall proceed to look at three different kinds of relations between science and the occult, namely: science in the occult, the occult in science, and science of the occult. Together, these three approaches reveal the most central aspects of the complex relationship between science and the occult in the modern world.

As we have already seen, there is a tight genealogical connection between the occult and the disciplines of science and natural philosophy. As a wastebasket category of rejected knowledge, the occult has thus come to include much that, from the perspective of contemporaneous scientists, would be associated simply with superseded or pseudo-scientific knowledge. It is hard to deny that the post-Enlightenment occult has typically been characterized by an oppositional ethos — sometimes revolutionary and utopian, other times “reactionary” and counterrevolutionary — that brings an automatic fascination with all that is rejected by religious, political and scientific Establishments (cf. Webb, 1974). Thus references to occult forces bearing exotic, technical-sounding names only accrue over time, as we have seen.

The fascination for rejected and therefore “forbidden” (and therefore powerful and subversive) scientific knowledge can thus be seen as a consequence of the social form and status acquired by the occult in the nineteenth-century. However, this is not the whole story. The “occult” of any given period (for it must always be seen as tied to historical contexts) shows an equal, if not even higher, interest for contemporary established science. Failing to recognize this comes at the risk of automatically assuming “the occult” to represent simply a form of “regressive” tendency of the human mind, a conception that has often been put forward (e.g. Adorno, 1994, 172: “occultism is a symptom of the regression of consciousness”) but which hardly squares with the historical evidence. Whether we are talking about Theosophy in the 1880s or “New Age” in the 1970s, spokespersons of the occult are often deeply fascinated in what they consider to be the big scientific questions of their time. In the late nineteenth-century, this included things like ether physics and controversies over Darwinian and non-Darwinian theories of evolution (e.g. Asprem, 2011; Asprem, 2013). There were genuine scientific controversies and uncertainties on these issues, and occult spokespersons were more than happy to share their own interpretations. A century later, the basic relation was the same, but now with quantum mechanics in the role previously occupied by ether physics.

How do we interpret occult interest in contemporary science? One aspect has to do with the air of legitimacy conferred by the appeal to science in modern society (Hammer, 2001). With the rise of prestige for the scientific project after the Enlightenment, science became a much sought-after commodity. Possessing it is to possess a form of cultural capital that may potentially elevate one’s social status. The occult has thus found itself in a precarious situation where the legitimacy of science is very much desired, while the perceived worldview-implications of its most successful theories are something to be fiercely combated. The use of scientific knowledge in the occult is thus often part of an exercise in turning science against itself: the scientific Establishment got the basic facts right, but is led astray by materialistic and disenchanted dogma. An initiated, occult interpretation of science is needed to gain the higher insights that essentially transcend science, religion and philosophy alike. This type of fascination with “higher knowledge” must be considered a major motivation for modern occult spokespersons to engage with current scientific thinking in the first place (cf. von Stuckrad, 2005; Asprem, 2012, 428–554).

Another aspect that must be mentioned here is the presence not only of scientific themes discussed by occultists, but of individual scientists contributing directly to occult discourse. Despite the occult’s status as constituting a form of rejected, pseudo-scientific knowledge, a number of well-established and highly influential scientists have taken part in occult milieus, and willingly lent their credibility to support ideas circulated in them. We may think of the celebrated physicist and chemist Sir William Crookes, who was an ardent explorer of spiritualism and a supportive member of the Theosophical Society in the late nineteenth-century. The physicist Sir Oliver Joseph Lodge similarly spent the better half of his life defending spiritualism by aligning it with ether physics, lending credibility to the occult concept of the “etheric body” (Asprem, 2011). In the second half of the twentieth-century, all the most noteworthy authors of so-called “New Age science” have been trained as scientists: Fritjof Capra, David Joseph Bohm, Alfred Rupert Sheldrake and Ilya Romanovich Prigogine are only a few examples of more recent figures who are equally at home publishing technical scientific papers in peer-reviewed journals as writing popularizing, speculative interpretations of science mysticism for a broader pop-occultural audience (cf. Hanegraaff, 1996, 62–76).

Finally, we should consider the question of scientific method in the occult. It is true that, for the most part, the uses of science in occult discourses are speculative in nature. The aim is to squeeze out arcane secrets from a body of static knowledge borrowed from past and present sciences, and to harmonize these with religious, mythical and esoteric knowledge found elsewhere. In this process, science is just treated as a prestigious and hence desired body of knowledge, not as a set of methods or a system of organized scepticism actively concerned with building knowledge. In other words: despite criticizing the scientific establishment for being “dogmatic”, what occult spokespersons looking for higher knowledge in science actually do is to elevate certain pieces of knowledge to the status of unchallengeable dogma. This has created quite some problems for occult syntheses that have aligned their higher knowledge with the best science of a specific period only to see the scientific profession change their minds dramatically in light of new evidence and theory. This happened to the Theosophical Society, which faced major problems reconciling their old doctrines, harmonized with Victorian ether physics and pre-Mendelian biology, with the radical scientific changes of the early twentieth-century (Asprem, 2012, 460–97; Asprem, 2013). The result is that, still today, references to quantum mechanics and relativity theory are simply patched onto a system that is still teeming with etheric bodies and vital forces.

While this appears to be a general trend, there are also a few examples of attempts to apply “scientific methods” to the pursuit of esoteric knowledge. The rhetoric of scientific methodology was a central point for many spiritualists, basing itself on a rather unconvincing form of verificationism. Something similar is found in Annie Besant and Charles Webster Leadbeater’s programme of “occult chemistry”. Their project, begun in 1895 and continued in the early decades of the twentieth-century, was to use clairvoyance to observe the chemical elements by direct vision — a method of observation that was claimed to be superior to the indirect and instrumentalized methods at the disposal of mundane chemists and physicists. While this represented a new way of engaging science from the perspective of the occult, emphasizing experiment and (occult) observations rather than the mere proclamation of esoteric doctrines, it was still far from recognizing the strictures of scientific methodology.

Aleister Crowley, whose magical system of “Scientific Illuminism” was intended to make magic properly “scientific”, took a rather different approach (Asprem, 2008). Unlike most of his occult contemporaries, Aleister Crowley did not believe that using scientific nomenclature had anything to do with being “scientific”; in fact, he frequently criticized other occultists for thinking so. Instead, Aleister Crowley sought to devise new methods of controlling and correcting magical practice. An important part of this was to construct magical rituals as experiments, taking measures to avoid subjective validation and confirmation bias by making the effects of magic intersubjectively available and subjected to a form of occult peer-review. This was done primarily through the use of a magical diary, which was to be written as a scientific protocol so that others could see what had actually been done and achieved. In addition to this, Aleister Crowley sought to recreate the hermeneutical tools of the Kabbalah to work as ways to check the occult correspondences of magical visions — effectively inventing ways to falsify subjective experience. While Aleister Crowley’s system hardly qualifies as science in its own right, a sincere attempt to incorporate scientific thinking in magical practice has to be recognized.

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