The age old debate between science and the paranormal seems irreconcilable. Scientific thinkers see people with so called irrational perspectives as misguided and foolish. Occultists and pagans see rationalists as unyielding and unfeeling. In this article, Nick Sabini, a self confessed rationalist, but also a practitioner of magic for more than forty years, looks at the differences between rational and irrational thinkers, and perhaps finds some common ground in the wonder that the universe holds for all of us, no matter what our perspective.

Faith Lost in Science

In a previous article (Harrison's Paradox) we discussed the need to raise the level of debate with regard to the occult movement. In this article it is proposed to look at one of the most fundamental issues of that debate, namely, the concern that a scientific, or sceptical attitude prevents people from experiencing or appreciating occult phenomena. In order to do this it may be helpful to take a brief look at the problem in the context of the history of the occult revival, and the possibility that interest in the occult rises as people become disenchanted with the scientific approach to problems.

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Charles Darwin 1809-1882
There are, accordingly, some interesting parallels between the rise and fall of popularity of occult ideas and certain other factors at work within Western culture. For example, it is probably no coincidence that the great surge of interest in the occult in the last quarter of the nineteenth century followed the upheaval caused by Darwin's theory of Evolution. It was an age when the centuries' old view of man's place in the cosmos was being seriously questioned, and new and alternative views were finding fertile ground for consideration. Many people did embrace the Theory of Evolution with enthusiasm, but, on an emotional level, many others found it unsatisfactory in that it removed the mystery of our existence. It seems strange that people should prefer mystery to a theory that gives a straightforward explanation, but we are all different, and we do not always agree. However, Darwin's theory caused a considerable amount of turbulence in people's minds, and this helped to reduce the influence of the church, which had always preached strongly against any views that differed from their own on matters relating to the paranormal.

We also must consider that the massive increase of interest in Spiritualism after the First World War had a lot to do with the horrendous number of young men who had been killed in the conflict, and of the torment that their families faced at such loss.

Following the First World War, in Germany, as a reaction to the economic problems, and loss of faith in the old order, there was a surge of interest in Teutonic myths and some very strange theories that fuelled a cultural fantasy of a race of supermen arising from the ashes of defeat. Before this war Germans had put their faith in industrialisation based on new scientific discoveries, and the misuse of these discoveries had brought the country to its knees. Hitler made considerable political use of this new climate of occult fantasy, and only turned against it when his power base was sufficiently strong to do without the occultists who had helped him on his way, and who now posed a possible threat to his power.


At the end of the Second World War, here in Britain, interest in the occult declined dramatically. Whereas fortune telling and Spiritualism had been popular before, and during the early part of the war, by the end of the war it was generally seen as being silly superstition. Attendance at Spiritualist churches declined, and there were very few fortune tellers apart from those at traditional sites such as popular seaside towns. Science, in the form of Radar, improved aircraft and the Atom bomb had helped to bring about a successful conclusion to the war, and people looked forward to a time of further advancement with science geared towards a better quality of life rather than war, death and destruction.

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Temples of Consumerism

With the advent of the Cold War, however, people began to fret about the very real possibility of nuclear attack; many joined the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, and there was a ground swell of opinion that Governments had lost the plot. This coincided with a growth of interest in alternative life styles. Hippies headed for the hills in their converted buses. Psychodelia was all the rage, and witchcraft started to take off as an interesting alternative to the worship of a masculine sky god who seemed to support both sides in any bloody conflict.

As time went on, science, which did provide great improvements to our lives, was also seen as being terribly dangerous. The arms race had produced enough nuclear missiles to wipe us all off the face of the earth. Nuclear power stations had been built, without anyone having the faintest idea of how to unbuild them, or deal with them when they melted down. Consumerism, with its improved washing powders, and fuel guzzling, polluting motor cars was being thrust down our throats by an ever greedy advertising industry, and more and more people were turning towards the occult as faith in the advancement of science was gradually being replaced by a fear of what the future might hold.


There is not a great deal of serious debate amongst occultists as to the real nature of their interests. There is, however, some debate between occultists and non-occultists, and, rather like the debate between Christians and Atheists, there is quite a lot of talking and not a lot of listening. However, as it is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to prove very much in such a debate; we are forced to accept that much of what people believe in rests solely on faith. If someone says that they have faith in something but refuse to discuss it, there is not much that one can say in response. But religious people and people who believe in the supernatural, in one form or another, do make statements in support of their beliefs. It is one of these statements, critical to the debate, that we will examine here in the hope that some progress can be made towards a greater understanding between people who hold opposing views.

Most of us have heard or offered a version of the following argument, but in this instance we will take an extract from a book by T. C. Lethbridge called Legend of the Sons of God.

"............ The reader is perfectly at liberty to believe that my wife and I imagined all this, but, if so, there is no point in their reading this book. It is for people with wider knowledge of what anthropologists call 'the odd' and this is found in all groups of humanity everywhere in the world. It ranges from 'couvade', when the father of an unborn child feels ill before its birth, to the 'pointing bone' of the witch doctor who by this kills his enemy. Those who have had any dealings with the odd are not interested in the disbelief of those who have not. Actually research with the pendulum shows that many who cannot, or will not, appreciate the odd frequently have something lacking in their nervous system. Their bodily bio-electronic potential is too low and they are actually incapable of experiencing it. It is similar to being colour-blind or tone-deaf. Colour-blindness effects about one male in ten; odd-blindness about one in three. Perhaps therefore one person in three can never see a ghost, experience telepathy or work a pendulum or divining rod. For some reason this often turns them to frantic denial of the existence of the faculty. It is probably subconscious irritation at not being completely human!"

Well! What could a non-occultist, or someone who retained a faith in a scientific approach to problems, say in response to that? Quite a lot, probably, some of which might be unprintable. It could be analysed sentence by sentence to show the many flaws in Lethbridge's argument, and certainly the arrogant, sneering tone doesn't help. But we will pass over the opportunity to demolish his argument and attempt to get to the nub of what he is saying.

William Holman Hunt "The Light of The World" c.1851-53, oil on canvas over panel, arched top, 125.5 x 59.8 cm, Keble College, Oxford
Art inspired by religious conversion, beware!

Basically, the argument is that one cannot experience or appreciate occult phenomena if one is busy trying to apply reason to the event. It is as though science, or a scientific, or sceptical approach is anathema to the event. What is needed is belief in the possibility of such things happening, or, at the very least, suspended disbelief. Then, and only then, is it possible to feel the certainty and reality of the event. This appears to be so similar to the experience of people who undergo religious conversion that it must be mentioned.

To an outsider or observer it seems as though something quite dramatic happens within the brain of the person who is thus engaged, in that it must be so profound that it convinces them of something that their rational mind had previously been prepared to reject. After the event their mind set is changed, and their reasoning has to change to accommodate the new realisation. This says nothing about the truth or validity of the way of thinking, only about the intensity of the conviction.

It is true that many people cannot go through such a change in mind set. Someone who does believe in 'odd' phenomena might suggest that such people have closed minds. This is not helpful, as it can be argued that there is no such thing as an open mind on such matters, and that religious people, or occultists are equally close minded. What we may be able to say is that people who put great store on the ability to be critically analytical find it impossible to suspend their disbelief sufficiently to experience the event in the same way. Furthermore, recent scientific experiments suggests that people with a high level of the brain chemical dopamine are far more likely to find significance in coincidences, and pick out patterns where there are none. 

The closed mind of the nonbeliever may include some interesting concepts or precepts that are worth spelling out. They may believe that emotionality can be a stumbling block to rationality. They may believe that intuition is fallible because it depends on what is already stored in the brain including possible misinformation, or misinterpretation. That is quite apart from what information might be missing altogether. (People make the most disastrous mistakes by trusting their intuition, as any traffic accident investigator, or divorce lawyer will testify.)


Also, a person committed to rationality might be very concerned to discriminate between belief and knowledge, and take great pains not to get the two confused. They may believe that it is their duty as individuals to try to understand the cosmos as far as it is possible to do so in their life time without being seduced by wishful thinking, by shirking thoughts that are painful, or by being influenced by fashionable ideas that have no substance. Furthermore, they may be just as aware of 'odd' things that happen as any believer in the supernatural, but are prepared to live with uncertainty rather than accept an irrational explanation. It is likely that they have quite a sophisticated understanding of coincidence, and do not jump to unjustified conclusions when coincidences occur. And lastly, they may experience moments of oneness with the cosmos that are every bit as mind-blowing as any god or spook botherer, but prefer to accept that there is probably a psychological reason for it rather than a metaphysical one.

If someone states that they believe something to be the case they are likely to be stating a fact, unless they are lying or joking. This does not mean that what they believe in is a fact, but that it is true that they believe it. The problem arises when they are asked to explain why they believe. They attempt to give what they consider to be a rational explanation, but such explanations do not meet the criteria required for a rational explanation. The truth is that it is not possible to give a faultless rational argument in favour of an idea that is, by its very nature, irrational.

It has been said that science seeks answers, whereas religion pretends to have the answers. It would seem that occultists also pretend to have answers. The simple answer to the problem that occultists experience is to borrow from religion and accept, and state, that their belief rests solely on faith. The debate might then move on to a discussion of why we need such faith in beliefs that do not stand up to scientific scrutiny.

William Blake "Newton" c.1805, colour print finished in pen and ink and watercolour on paper, 46 x 60 cm, Tate Gallery, London
Scientific scrutiny?

The foregoing may sound like a rather damning indictment of interest in the paranormal, but we should bear in mind that such interest can lead to a greater understanding of how humans interpret the world. Scientific and religious thinkers alike experience the 'odd' and both may be blown away by the experience. There is nothing wrong in seeking an understanding of the 'odd', or uncanny events that happen to us from time to time. Problems only arise when people fail to subject explanations to critical analysis. The scientific approach is to seek disconfirming evidence to weigh against confirming evidence before reaching a conclusion. It is not very sensible to ignore, or brush aside, disconfirming evidence simply because it spoils a rather comforting hypothesis. It has been said that in the hundreds of years that people have been investigating the paranormal hardly any progress has been made. This situation could change dramatically over the next two or three decades if people are prepared to examine statements with more care. 


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