in New Age Religion

Fake Science and New Age

New Age ScienceThe borderlands between science, pseudoscience, and the supernatural are often fuzzy. My 20+ years of meditation practice and many metaphysical experiences have taught me to be open to the possibility there is more to life than meets the naked eye. Indeed, that’s why I became a monk in the first place, why I eventually left the monastery, and why I continue today to explore the borderlands between science and the supernatural.

In this post I try to draw important distinctions between the borderland of New Age or religious “Science” versus Natural Science. Modern religions, from liberal Christianity, to Islam, to New Age often co-opts modern science to promote their metaphysical worldview.

What is the borderland or boundary line between science and pseudoscience?

5 key traits of Pseudoscience and Natural Science

The “Science” of New Age Religion (aka Pseudoscience):

1. Co-opts scientific-sounding ideas, like quantum physics, to promote its metaphysical worldview.

2. Opposes current scientific consensus– says science is too materialistic and rational.

3. Rebrands itself: as “leading edge” science, as heretically brilliant, and as enlightened.

4. Suggests mainstream science will someday catch-up, and be able to know the “Mind of God”.

5. Seeks loyalty to it’s own ideas. Regards internal consistency, philosophical elegance, and religious profundity more than using scientific method or just saying “don’t know”.

Natural Science, strictly following scientific method:

1. Studies the natural, observable universe– instead of claiming to know what is beyond human comprehension.

2. Opposes supernatural ideas as either irrational, improbable, or as inevitably yielding to natural explanations.

3. Uses observation, hypotheses, predictions, and experiments to reproduce results and obtain independent consensus.

4. Studies the natural universe and can detect invisible “objects”, atoms, and forces, like radio waves beyond ordinary human comprehension– has yet to find supernatural “objects” or causes.

5. Checks itself, is not loyal to itself. A theory can be reliable for years, but when shown to be wrong later, or a better idea comes along, the old theory may die hard but is eventually discarded.

Hopefully we see a clearer borderline or demarcation line between New Age religious science, aka “Pseudoscience”, and Natural Science.

Wall of Crosses in Nogales, photo by jonathan mcintosh on Flickr

Wall of Crosses in Nogales, photo by jonathan mcintosh on Flickr

Atoms to Astral Bodies

Natural Science has been able to obtain knowledge about our physical, observable universe, including detection of atoms, electrons, radio waves, and myriads of “invisible” objects in our known universe. This knowledge, while not perfect, has made virtually every modern technological gadget and medicine possible today. It’s important to notice (see my diagram above) that many scientific discoveries, like atoms, gravity, and DNA, are invisible and undetectable by ordinary human comprehension. Yet, we accept them as real and practical in our everyday lives.

Whereas New Age “Science”, aka religious pseudoscience, has not adequately explained why natural science has yet to find transcendent “objects”, like souls, past lives, or astral bodies, and it’s curious that Religious believers seem to be the only ones who can detect them. (I find it curious that natural science detects atoms and electrons–the building blocks of our universe, matter, and energy– but can’t find any trace of astral bodies, souls, past lives or any other supernatural objects or forces). Yet, we should be suspicious of supernatural and “pseudoscience” claims. Even if we “say” we are believers, a part of us always doubts–that’s healthy, that’s human.

Once there was only dark. If you ask me, the light is winning. – Rust, True Detective

Questions for readers: What could prevent the natural sciences from detecting or discovering “objects” in a metaphysical universe? Modern science and technology can “see” atoms, DNA, gravity, microbes, infectious diseases, etc. Why not souls, chakras, or astral bodies?

Works Cited

New Age Religion and Western Culture: Esotericism in the Mirror of Secular Thought, Hanegraaff, Wouter J., Brill: Netherlands, 1996. Print.

Scientific method, RationalWiki

Leave a Reply

  1. The problem is, yesterday’s pseudoscience can become today’s science.
    Consider how yoga and meditation have been incorporated.
    So we have to remember that labels are political.
    The individual traits like echo-chamber loyalty need to be the focus.
    Criticising method is more important than the substance.
    For one day, the substance may be clearer with better method.

    I almost got fired once for teaching my patients pseudo-science stuff — or so was the claim of the physicians who organized to fire me. What was I doing? Alternating cold-hot soaks to heal sprains and neti pots for allergies.
    Both of these are now standard orthodox medicine.
    Go figure.
    Rhetoric is rhetoric — on both sides.

  2. @Sabio: Yoga, neti pots, and meditation are not science. Contrary to any marketing hype. Yes, I agree with you–I’d also consider those “objects” or subjects of study, treatments, or methods.

    Question for you: When does the studied “object” or substance become an actual “science”?
    Seems that natural science needs to study things from outside. If science IS the treatment, eg. if meditation or yoga method is “science”, then there’s a circular logic and lack of independent, outside observation.

    Pseudoscience, the way I tried to define it, is flawed or faulty method! It skips steps in the strictly scientific method. It cheats. I’m not saying that Orthodox Science or Medicine always accepts new theories or discoveries that are on the leading edge.

    Since philosophers and scientists have been struggling with this problem for 100s of years, over the demarcation line between science and pseudoscience, I don’t feel too bad if my feeble post didn’t clarify the borderlands. Nevertheless, I think it’s worthwhile to continue trying.

  3. I agree that there are bad methods for improving knowledge. We are developing new methods to check our biases and blind-spots all the time. I am not hung up on the word “science” — I see it used incorrectly on all sides. I do value methods of doubt, checking, testing, rechecking, revising, retesting and all that, though.

    I hear orthodox folks use “pseudoscience” all the time for anything they don’t agree with. What I am arguing for is to avoid facile use of the term.

    Lots has been written on “PseudoScience. Do you know these three big ones among many):
    (1) Steven Novella over at http://theness.com/neurologicablog/
    (2) Michael Shermer over at http://www.skeptic.com/
    (3) Stephen Barrett over at http://www.quackwatch.org/index.html

  4. @Sabio. Agreed. We ought to make sure we communicate clearly, especially when using concepts or terms that can be misleading (eg. science, pseudoscience, quantum, organic and some others at 10 Scientific Ideas That Scientists Wish You Would Stop Misusing).

    Anyone who is too dismissive of other people’s ideas or worldview is probably arrogant, intolerant, and part of the problem they claim NOT to be.

    I’ll check the additional sources out you shared. So much to learn and keep up with! Thanks for your feedback about my posts. I try to learn from you as well.

  5. @Scott,
    I just remembered that I actually did a post trying to illustrate some of what I wrote here. According to a commentor, the diagram I made is apparently confusing — though clear to me. Anyway, maybe it will help you see my point.
    http://triangulations.wordpress.com/2011/09/04/discussing-science/

    The link you supplied was good. I have written a few posts on how Buddhists and Christians misuse the anything related to “Quantum” to support their theories. But I have heard atheists due the same. Everyone wants ‘science” to be their friend.

  6. @Sabio: I read your post “Discussing Science”. I liked your angle for trying to unpack the communities who claim to own the word “science”. Your diagram helped and I think I got your key takeaway: Each community may try to claim all or parts of science but no one has ALL science nor has all the answers. Thanks

  7. Your map contrasting naturalistic vs. supernaturalistic beliefs is right on.

    I was raised with the attitude that science, though a good thing, was ‘materialistic’ and ‘limited’. I was raised to believe in psychic research and in how religion could become ‘scientific’ if both the ‘closed minded’ religious fundamentalists and scientists were willing to open their minds. The truth was already known in spirituality (Eastern philosophy, Edgar Cayce, New Thought, New England Transcendentalism, psychic research, etc.), and both dogmatic religion and science had to ‘catch up’. Science was good to the extent that it confirmed the already known spiritual truth but ‘limited’ in cases where it might conflict.

    New Age closed mindedness is subtler than traditional religious fundamentalism in its apparent acceptance of science, especially with people like Deepak Chopra getting praised by Oprah, but the mechanisms are the same.

  8. @Michel Paul: Excellent observations! “Subtler than traditional religious fundamentalism” and more tricky to engage with these kinds of believers in a reasoned and clear way. Yet, I hope these posts and our discussions help us understand and gain clarity. Thanks