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Do What Thou Wilt
Divining the Machine, part five
I’ve been having a tough time this week. I know I’m not the only one: since the pandemic began, having a tough time has become the norm for many of us. I know people who have suffered badly - psychologically more than physically in most cases, though not all. My family and I have got off lightly so far. But each of us has our tipping point, and I think I may have reached mine.
Perhaps it’s just me, but I feel that, in just the last week or so, something has shifted out there. Some deepening has occurred; some quickening. I can’t put a name to it, let alone ‘prove’ it. It’s a feeling; a hunch; sometimes a fear. But it’s there. It’s not the first time this has happened in these last few years, and it probably won’t be the last. Certainly here in Ireland, a Rubicon of sorts has been crossed, almost without comment.
Ireland is a well-behaved sort of a country. People here tend to do mostly what they’re told by authority, albeit with some grumbling. This has meant that we’ve had a fairly quiet pandemic, with not many protests and no culture war-style rifts about masks or lockdowns. The downside is that questions and dissent have taken second place to quiescence and fear. Our media, from legacy newspapers like the Irish Times to our state broadcaster RTE, have for eighteen months behaved more like Pravda than the independent outlets they pretend to be, giving space only to the official messages about the virus and the response to it. Google, Facebook, Wikipedia, Twitter and the rest of the Silicon Valley hegemony - for many of which Dublin, with its favourable tax rates, is their European headquarters - have been busy removing material from public view which contradicts or even questions the official line (never mind that that line changes almost daily). I can honestly say I have never seen anything like it in a democracy; and I’m old enough to remember the phrase ‘weapons of mass destruction.’
This Soviet-style messaging is currently focused on the efficacy of the covid vaccine, the importance of everyone taking it, and the irresponsibility of anyone who might be cautious about doing so. I am one of those cautious people. My journalistic training, plus my wife’s several degrees in, and years of practice of, public medicine, have brought us to a place of informed concern about a novel vaccine whose production has been rushed, whose trials remain incomplete, whose producers are demonstrably untrustworthy and whose long term effects cannot yet be known. That concern is deepened by the difficulty of finding reliable sources of data, even from the official sources, about what is actually going on.
I don’t know if these vaccines will turn out to be safe in the long term, or even if they’ll work in the short term, and neither does anyone else yet. That ought to be a conversation worth having. But in return for our caution we are, as of this month, prevented from participating in much that our society has to offer, from having a family lunch in a cafe to going for a pint in a pub. These things are now illegal for anyone without a recent vaccination certificate, which will be scanned as you enter the premises to check its validity. The social pressure to be ‘jabbed’ is morphing into bullying, mockery or abuse of those who have not been, so much so that many are keeping their heads down. Vaccine apartheid has arrived.
How long will it be, I wonder, until what has been presented as a temporary necessity becomes a permanent ‘vaccine passport’ scheme, in which smartphone-enabled proof of vaccination will be required for everything from school attendance to leaving the country? And how long will it take for that in turn to merge into a smilier version of a Chinese-style social credit system? Not so long, would be my guess, given how happy most people are to accept the current halfway house, and given how social media effectively operates as a social credit system already, rewarding correct speech and penalising dissent.
This has been the direction of the Machine for many years: towards an authoritarian merger of states and corporations, exchanging freedom for the dopamine rush of online addiction. A Panopticon for the age of TikTok. The pandemic has only accelerated this trend, just as it has accelerated others, like the destruction of local businesses and the consolidation of Big Tech’s monopoly on information. And what has been interesting about all of it is the slogan which it has so often marched under, an appeal to the ultimate source of authority in the post-Christian West: ‘Follow The Science.’
In the last essay, I looked at how modernity’s ‘mechanistic revolution’ transformed our vision of the world from organism to mechanism, and what the consequences were for our understanding of both nature and our selves. This was part and parcel of the wider modern project of dismembering the old, primarily religious, means of understanding reality, and substituting for it the new ‘scientific method’, through which inductive reasoning would be married with empirical inquiry to discern the truth of reality.
I say that the scientific method came to replace religion as society’s primary source of authority - and of course it did - but it’s worth emphasising that many of the men who led this revolution were Christians. Both René Descartes, who I wrote about last time, and his contemporary Francis Bacon, ‘father of the scientific method’, who together might be considered the twin progenitors of the European scientific revolution, believed that, in Bacon’s words, ‘knowledge is the rich storehouse for the glory of the Creator and the relief of man's estate.’ Other since-lionised figures, from Newton to Galileo to Darwin, were at least nominally, and sometimes deeply, religious men. They believed that the application of the scientific method would both improve human lives, and help people understand better both God and His Creation.
It’s safe to say that it didn’t quite work out this way. Not only did the scientific revolution do away with God pretty swiftly, but ‘science’ began to swell into an idol which would come to take His place. Back at the start of this essay series I suggested that all cultures, even supposedly ‘secular’ ones like that of the modern West, have a sacred heart:
Every culture, whether it knows it or not, is built around a sacred order. It does not, of course, need to be a Christian order. It could be Islamic, Hindu or Daoist. It could be based around the veneration of ancestors or the worship of Odin. But there is a throne at the heart of every culture, and whoever sits on it will be the force you take your instruction from.
Money power, I suggested, has come to sit on our culture’s throne since Christ was heaved off of it. That remains obviously true, but it is equally true to say that the throne is also occupied, perhaps in some kind of job-share arrangement, by another idol with feet of clay: the great god Science.
It’s worth noting at this point that, in theory at least, ‘Follow The Science’ is a nonsensical slogan. What we call ‘science’ is supposed to be simply a method of examining material things to find out how they work. The word itself is the clue: science has the same etymology as schism, scythe and sickle. The scientific method is, in essence, the practice of cutting things up into parts until they can be measured and understood. The method works through discoveries, hypotheses, theories and tentative conclusions which may be overturned by new evidence. It is, again in theory, always temporary and partial.
This, needless to say, is not what we are following when we ‘Follow The Science’. We are following instead a pretence of objectivity and a claim to authority. We are following a new priesthood - ‘scientists’ - who, scything through surface appearances, are supposed to get to the truth of the matter and harness that truth for the better. We are seeing the practical application of the mechanistic revolution I wrote about last time. Modernity’s three revolutions - of industry, reason, and mechanism - demolished the old authorities, political, societal and spiritual, which had held up the culture for a thousand years. Into the ruins walked the new authority of ‘science’ - an ideology posing as a methodology, ready to carve up and remake the world.
To its early modern progenitors, there was no secret about this: science was always supposed to be a revolution. Francis Bacon believed that the aim of science was to ‘let the human race recover that right over nature which belongs to it by divine bequest.’ Two centuries later, his French equivalent Louis Pasteur could be found describing laboratories as ‘sacred institutions … temples of wealth and of the future. There it is that humanity grows, becomes stronger and better.’
Science, right from the beginning of the modern enterprise, was always, and explicitly, a new way of seeing; even a new faith. It remains one today, which is why arguments around scientific questions, from covid to climate change, are often so vexed and divisive. Each of us wants to claim the mantle of ‘science’ for our perspective because of the authority it bestows. ‘Follow The Science’ usually translates in practice as ‘follow me.’
If we do follow, where are we led? In his book The Rape of Man and Nature, the English writer Philip Sherrard explicitly paints the scientific enterprise as one designed to remake the basic building blocks of life. The ultimate endpoint of this enterprise, he writes, was clear from the start:
The mechanistic nature of modern science is marked by a desire to dominate, to master and possess and exploit nature, not to transform it or to hallow it. In this it simply reflects the self-assertion of its agent, the disinherited reason which, having completed its revolt against what surpasses it, now seeks to impose its laws over the rest of life.
In the wake of the modern revolutions, the scientific worldview is now so all-encompassing as to be virtually invisible to us. ‘Never before’, writes Rupert Sheldrake, in his book The Science Delusion, ‘has any system of ideas dominated all humanity’ as science does today. This system of ideas - based upon what Sheldrake, himself a scientist, calls ‘an act of faith’ - is leading us, according to Philip Sherrard into ‘an ever-accelerating dehumanisation of man and of the forms of his society, with all the repercussions that this has had, and is still having, in the realm of nature.’
Sherrard, an Orthodox Christian, traces the development of this worldview back far beyond Bacon and his ilk. In his telling, it was certain developments in Western Christian theology, specifically the teachings of St Augustine and Thomas Aquinas, which prepared the way for Descartes and Bacon to begin the work of disenchanting nature and dehumanising people. Augustine and Aquinas, says Sherrard, enabled the philosophical separation of humanity from the rest of nature, and the rest of nature from the divine. God became transcendant, not immanent, and permission was thus given for humanity to analyse and dissect nature and itself. When the post-Enlightenment thinkers removed God from the picture altogether, the stage was set for the worldview that now directs us: a natural world which is little more than a collection of ‘resources’ to be harvested by a rational humanity, which itself is now also open to scientific ‘improvement’.
This is a lot to take in, but we could summarise the whole story simply enough: science is an ideology posing as a method. What is the ideology? It is the pursuit of what Bacon calls ‘human empire’. The scientific worldview is leading us rapidly towards the total remaking of both humanity and non-human nature in the image of the (post) modern self. Science built the Machine. Now the Machine will rebuild the world, and us with it. As Sherrard has it:
There is a price to be paid for fabricating around us a society which is as artificial and mechanised as our own, and this is that we can exist in it only on condition that we adapt ourselves to it. This is our punishment.
Sherrard presents science as a modern enterprise built on a Christian rootstock that grew out of shape. He is not the only one to make this case, but as I was reading his book, another thought occurred to me; a thought that took me back to the time, not so long ago, when I used to practice magic.
When I say ‘magic’ I don’t mean fairground tricks; I mean the workings of what is sometimes called the Western Mystery Tradition, or, if we want to be spookier about it, the occult. The meaning of the word ‘occult’ is actually less sinister than it has been made to sound: occulted simply means hidden. A few years back, before I became, to my own surprise, an Orthodox Christian, I was a practicioner of Wicca, a nature religion founded by the eccentric Englishman Gerald Gardner back in the 1950s. Wicca is a form of modern ‘witchcraft’, though everyone involved will have a different explanation of what that word means. Being a modern path, Wicca is mostly undefined and eclectic. At its (usually American) extreme, you can basically make it up as you go along, which is why it has proved so appealing to millennial teenagers.
The Wicca I practiced was the more traditional variety: I was a member of a coven, whose workings and details were secret and into which you had to be initiated. The people in the coven were not dastardly devil-worshippers; they were basically good-hearted, interesting people looking for meaning in a society which offered none outside the marketplace. Wiccan covens do all sorts of things, but at the heart of the enterprise is the practice of magic: which, if you’re feeling mysterious or pretentious, you can spell magick.
There are all kinds of magick available to the practicing mage. There’s sympathetic magic, Hermetic magic, herbal magic, elemental magic, High (or ceremonial) magic, folk magic (or ‘cunning craft’), natural magic, Enochian magic (fun with secret Angelic languages) and - for the ultimate rush - Goetic magic, which involves the summoning of spirits to do your will. Faust, who did his famous deal with the devil, was practicing Goetia. At the heart of the practice is the notion that the spirits of the otherworld are ours to command. If we are knowledgeable, smart and well-trained enough, we can summon up the very forces of nature itself, and ‘bind’ them to our will.
Perhaps you can see where I’m going here. The history of magic in the West is a long one, but one thing it teaches is that what we call ‘magic’ and what we call ‘science’ are intertwined. Many of the pioneers of science we know today were also magicians of one sort or another. Bacon was said to be a Freemason and an alchemist. Isaac Newton wrote far more about alchemy than he did about physics, and many of the august founders of England’s Royal Society, still one of its foremost scientific institutions, were alchemists or mages. In the early modern period, today’s distinction between ‘science’ (real, good, objective) and ‘magic’ (fantastical, bad, superstitious) did not really exist. Both were branches of the same effort: to understand the mysterious forces of the universe, and ultimately to control them.
Here is Francis Bacon’s definition of science:
The knowledge of causes and secret motions of things; and the enlarging of human empire, to the effecting of all things possible.
And here is the occultist Aleister Crowley’s definition of magic:
The science and art of causing change to occur in conformity with the will.
These could be swapped around without anybody really noticing. The thread that links them together is control. Both the scientific enterprise, and the magical quest which it was part of, spring from the same desire: to know the world, and to bend it to our will. Will, in both cases, is the key word. When Aleister Crowley, pioneering occultist, rampant self-publicist and self-described ‘Great Beast’, created his own occult religion, Thelema, in the early 20th century, he gave it its own famous commandment: do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law. Thelema wilted on the vine, but we could say that Crowley’s dictum lived on as the foundational basis of what our culture has become.
At this point, any scientists reading will be protesting. No, no! they might cry; that’s not what we do at all! We’re driven only by curiosity, by wonder, by a desire to understand the world! Maybe. But science, always and everywhere, is handmaiden to technology, and technology is, in this time, never innocent. Einstein bombed Hiroshima just as surely as the pilots of the Enola Gay, and he knew it.
My point is not that all magical workings, or all scientific experiments, are bad, let alone the people who carry them out. A magician might want to perform a working aimed at bringing good luck to a friend. A scientist may be searching for a cure for cancer. But the wider project of both carries hidden within it a telos: a direction of travel. It is the direction of the Machine that now envelops us, and the new world it is building.
Our world is still run by magicians, working from the ‘sacred temples’ of their laboratories to discover how humanity may reshape the world in accordance with its will. The difference between Aleister Crowley and Richard Dawkins is that Crowley had enough self-knowledge to see where his path was leading. It’s why he called himself ‘The Great Beast 666.’ It’s why his books talk of magic as a ‘new science’, and are full of talk of ‘mastery’ over powers natural and supernatural. Crowley was Faust, and Faust is us. The Great Beast has a lot more in common with Pfizer’s finest than they would ever admit.
Philip Sherrard again:
Modern science presupposes a radical reshaping of our whole mental outlook. It involves a new approach to being, a new approach to nature, in short, a new philosophy … we have tended to take it for granted that it represents a great break-through, a marvellous advance on the part of mankind, even a sign of our coming of age. Now that we begin to see the consequences of our capitulation to it - and we are only now beginning to see these consequences - we are not so sure. But even so it is difficult for us to admit that, far from being an advance, the whole modern scientific project may be a ghastly failure. Yet there is no reason why it should not be. One has to judge things by their fruits. And one of the fruits of modern science, clear for all to see, and implicit in the philosophy on which it is based, is the dehumanisation both of man and of the society that he has built in its name.
What is the way out of this dehumanisation? Sherrard is uncompromising. ‘To think and act without the constraint of any knowledge and values other than those of the modern scientific mentality’, he writes, ‘is to commit oneself to a tyranny of an unprecedented maleficence.’ If that mentality really is a tyranny - the tyranny of Bacon, Faust and Crowley, the tyranny of our times - then there can only be one response. To throw it off:
The forms of our society, from those of our educational system down to those in which most of us spend our working lives, are such that they frustrate and even negate the expression and fulfilment of our true humanity at practically every turn. But as it is the pursuit of the ideals and methods of modern science that has brought us into this catastrophic situation, clearly there can be no issue from it without the renunciation of those ideals and methods.
That renunciation has to be a long mental and spiritual effort: the sloughing off of a way of seeing; the refusal of the story we all grew up with and a return to an older one that lies, like the kingdom of God, both within and all around us. It’s hard work to change a story, especially when the society around you affirms it at every turn. At times like these, it is easy to become paranoid, angry, mistrustful: sometimes it can seem as if the entire Internet was designed with just this purpose in mind (and perhaps it was …) There is a reason that levels of trust in our cultures are measurably plummeting, and that conspiracy theories abound. Magic addles the mind.
Somehow, though, the work must be to still the mind instead. To let go of the natural attachment to our cunning, serpentine will. We know where the path leads if we don’t; we see daily the path that magic and science will take us down. Do what thou wilt is the motto of our world: the motto of the Machine. Thy will be done is its older brother, and its challenger. We all want to live by the first of them, but we know that the work is to walk away from it a thousand times each day: to let the will go, and to listen instead for the old song which, however much we might think otherwise, has never stopped being sung in the woods and the waters and the around the edges of the human heart.