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Natural Magic

Reading “The Revolution in Science 1500-1750” by A. Rupert Hall and absolutely loved this line:

Quite how the authentic philosophy of Plato […] became the father of natural magic — magical operations without the aid of demons — seems to be somewhat obscure.

“Magical operations without the aid of demons”! So awesome! “Hey, uh, listen, so if you want to do some magic… but you don’t have any demons… try science!”

I’m enjoying the tone of the book. Hall isn’t afraid to make positive value-judgments about the scientific worldview (because, he says, that view actually does provide more useful, more complete theories about the world) but at the same time, he doesn’t fail to detail all the weird, religious, dogmatic, and/or occult motivations of many early scientists: Vesalius! Mondino! Paracelsus!


Check out my new book on

Somebody’s got a ‘Scientific Worldview’ Google alert set up! Zow!

Dan says…

I don’t know Hall’s book well, so I’ll refrain from too serious a critique. My caution is in language of “a scientific worldview”. The phrase suggests unity: as in, there is one way of looking at the world that properly can be designated “scientific.” That’s a dubious claim for Early Modern Europe. Beyond acknowledging that “scientists” can come to their work with a variety of motivations, we also have to see each of those thinkers or tinkerers as participating in one of a variety of different traditions: natural philosophy, experimental philosophy, mixed mathematics, or natural history (and alchemy/chymistry too). An experimental philosopher like Boyle could be happy avoiding any talk of “causes”–and spurning Descartes and other natural philosophers for speculating in such things—while Newton, who played at the edges of these distinctions, tried to avoid the debate even as he talked of the universals that Boyle abhorred. Closer examination reveals more and more fissuring, and constant contention over how to most profitably view the world.

Positive value judgments about the scientific worldview please us because they are aimed at modern foes, not because they jive with history. They are a celebration of, and simultaneously an argument for, a vision of science as a well-defined unity that Hall and others were helping to construct. Their “science” made people healthier and happier, relied on an ever-elusive ‘scientific method’, and was timeless. It surpassed religion and by-passed politics entirely. It had allied with victors in WWII and expanded dramatically during the war and in its aftermath with the support of prophets of “science”, like Vannevar Bush.

In a moment where state legislatures threaten to wrest control of biology classrooms from teachers, or the oil-invested stirve to exploit scientific conflict over climate change, this myth of scientific unity waxes even more relevant, and appealing. Just maybe not more true.

Writing this blogpost, there was phantom Dan on my shoulder, saying ‘be more precise in your language!’ — I ignored him. 🙂

In fairness to Hall, he makes precisely the point you’re mentioning very well, and repeatedly — I just didn’t do it justice. He argues that many of these ‘scientists’ were doing related things for very different reasons.

And his book is RICH with detail — almost over-the-top — he clearly takes great pleasure in all the texture & personality & weirdness of this world.

The snarkmatrix awaits you

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