Pagans, Quantum Physics and Rationality

In my experience, Pagans are amazing at skepticism, logic and rational argument – when it comes to other people’s religious or spiritual beliefs. Most Pagans that I know could tell you a lot about how Jesus is not the only dying-and-rising god that ancient societies ever thought of, or how Christmas was influenced by pre-Christian pagan traditions.

But many of these Pagans are not so good at deconstructing their own beliefs on certain things. People with fantastic minds, who I love talking to, and who I’ve heard demolish other people’s ideas, somehow often fall short of that intelligence and philosophical sharpness when it comes to common Pagan beliefs. Their own beliefs.

And one of the worst ways this happens is when the topic of quantum physics comes up.

Quantum Physics: Proof of Magic?

This week, Fire Lyte linked to this post on his Facebook wall.  The response was… interesting. Lots of people trying to prove that the writer of the article didn’t know anything about quantum physics. Not looking at their own beliefs.

There are repeating comments that I hear on this subject a lot. Comments that are loaded with logical fallacies. I’ve heard statements from Pagans on quantum physics that demonstrate the following fallacies:

Argument from complexity (similar to an argument from ignorance): “Science is proving so many weird and complex things! So quantum physics could prove that my candle magic caused my pay rise!” Yes, it could, though the probability isn’t high, given what we know about quantum physics so far. Now come back to me when it does prove that and when we have evidence of this. Yes, science is proving some complex and weird things these days. We cannot use that to assume that it will prove what we want it to prove.

Argument from silence: the idea that, since something cannot (yet) be disproved, it is proven. “The universe is a weird place. There are things in the universe that we will never be able to explain. We just can’t know everything!” We cannot argue that, because science shows that there is much about the universe we don’t understand, it proves that anything is possible. It specifically doesn’t do that.

Ad hominem attack: an attack on the person who is writing/arguing, rather than on their arguments. “That person doesn’t know anything about quantum physics!” Doesn’t prove that you do. This argument should at least be followed up with “And here’s a link to some evidence that I’m going to use to argue my point. It is reliable because it is published in a respectable peer-reviewed scientific journal. It is backed up by these six other articles from six different reliable journals, and this conference paper, and this statement from the scientific community.” If not, you haven’t proven anything by attacking one individual, rather than focusing on their argument.

Shifting the burden of proof: “Can you prove to me that quantum physics doesn’t cause magic to work?” No, I can’t. But the burden of proof is on you, not me. As Carl Sagan said, “Extrodinary claims require extraordinary evidence.”

– Correlation proves causation: thinking that, because two things coincide, then one must be caused by the other. “Every time I get acupuncture I feel better. This must prove that quantum mechanics causes it to work.” That’s great. There may be all manner of reasons why that treatment is helping you. I have enormous faith in the badly-named ‘placebo effect’, which would be better called ‘the human body’s self-healing effect’. When I go for reflexology and acupuncture, I’m working on my body’s self-healing mechanisms. Also, quantum physics exists. There’s absolutely no reason why one should have anything to do with the other.

(Note: This is stretching the bounds of the correlation fallacy, a bit. I think it’s relevant. Tell me if you disagree!)

Mind projection fallacy: i.e. because this belief matters to me, it’s relevant to everyone – and my opinion is worth more than your facts. “I believe quantum theory proves magic, and my opinion is just as valid as any scientist’s”. No, no, it’s not. Come back when you’ve studied quantum theory to doctorate level. In the meantime, I’ll be listening to the experts.

False equivalence: “Homeopathy causes a quantum leap in a person’s physiology” (a direct quote from someone I know) – using the term in a way that scientists don’t use it, and confusing two different meanings of the word in the process. Here, the informal term ‘quantum leap’ has nothing to do with the physics term ‘quantum’. The statement is basically nonsense. (Sorry.)

I suspect there are many more logical fallicies in these arguments that I haven’t spotted yet. Have you seen any others? Let me know!

Your Mind Turned To Mush

You have an amazing mind. We all do. We’ve all won the lottery when it comes to consciousness, to quote Simon Clare. Evolution, one of the most exciting processes on the planet, has gifted us with thinking minds. Unfortunately, human beings get very attached to our irrational beliefs, again for reasons of evolution and our past survival. In the distant past, being able to see the pattern of a tiger moving between the trees was probably vital for our survival. Now, though, we hang on to that pattern-finding faculty even when it’s not necessary. We see patterns and call them magic. And we have all the right in the world to believe in magic. (I do!) What we can’t do, because we’ll never succeed, is argue that there is objective proof of that magic in science.

Why does it matter? Because we look like total idiots when we do it. Ultimately, if you want to make logical fallacies all over the place and demonstrate that your mind has turned to mush, you go right ahead. It doesn’t bother me. But you’re wrong. And if you want to be right – as your constant arguing suggests you do – then you may want to go away and educate yourself about science. Use that fabulous mind of yours – especially about your own beliefs. If you don’t, someone else will.

You won’t lose anything. You stand to gain a lot, though.

On another level, I guess I want to be a member of a religious/spiritual group that doesn’t talk rubbish. I was a member of evangelical Christian churches for a long time. My bullshit meter eventually exploded. I happen to think that the Pagan community can do better. Our community should be full of thoughtful, intelligent, well-read people who test our claims against reason, reality and science. I’ve met us. We’re clever people!

Faith Can’t Be Proven

Ultimately, some things will always be about faith, and unprovable. I believe in fairies, for fuck’s sake. What I don’t do is try and prove fairies with science. (Though now I want to draw a picture of gleeful fairies preventing me from proving them through science by messing up all my experiments.)

You have the right to your beliefs. Your right to impose those beliefs on others is much more limited. “Your right to swing your fist ends at my nose.”

And if you’re trying to persuade people of something using science, you’d better have a damn good grounding in what that science means. I don’t – I have GCSE science grade B (i.e. I know that plants contain chlorophyll and some basic formulae about mass and force). What I do have is a Master’s in Sociology and I’m a couple of years away from a doctorate in Religions. I stick with what I know, which is learning everything I can about why we believe what we believe. And what effect that has on the rest of society. That matters to me. I believe it should matter to all of us.

Now there’s a belief that’s probably full of logical fallacies…!

If you like podcasts, a great one on rational thinking, logic, philosophy and religion is the Reasonable Doubts podcast. And they have a wonderful Polyatheism section where they go over the highly unlikely pagan myths of the past. They’ve just started a three-week series on Cuchullain. Enjoy!

I’ll leave you with a link to a relevant article. Problem-Solving ‘Magic’ of Quantum Physics

Cross-posted to Accidental Auguries.

6 thoughts on “Pagans, Quantum Physics and Rationality

  1. I find a large portion of the problem is that there is this very base need in paganism for the magic and miracles that the major religions have that conflicts with our desire to accept science at the same time. This forces those who would rather not move past the introduction paragraphs on a Wikipedia article to grasp concepts that require many years of study and try to apply them to things they want to believe in order to make them sound more valid. Then, because they do not have a sturdy ground of education, or even links to articles or journals to fall back on, there is a point where they turn to defensive knee-jerk response to questions or challenges to these beliefs.

    At least that is how I’ve always seen it.

    In terms of magic and science, I’ve found the easiest way to reconcile what was called magic by people hundreds and even thousands of years ago versus what still is, and what we tell ourselves and our children… is just to slightly alter the definition of magic. Here is how I personally choose to define it:

    “magic is an action or reaction to an event of which we [as humans] have no current means of comprehending or explaining by other means”

    This allows consideration for children who could not grasp advanced physics conversations as well as the parts of creation and the universe science has yet to explain.

    That doesn’t mean these things have to be explained by science, but as I said, there seems to be a very base need among some sects of pagans to do this. My husband is an atheist who follows scientific journals pretty close, so these things irritate him and have for a long time. He’s convinced “What the Bleep” was the worst thing ever made because it made every pagan who saw it convinced it proved Quantum Physics proved magic and now they won’t let that crap go.

    The thing is… to me… the world is full of magic and mystery. Even that which science has explained. I know Helios doesn’t pull the Sun with his chariot into the sky every day, but that doesn’t make it any less of an awesome miracle for me that we are on this giant orb that is just sort of… out there in this infinite expanse and orbiting a flaming ball of gas. If anything… it enhances my faith… even if the theoi are just for our planet. It is all so amazing and incredible.

    • I love what you said about Helios and the sun! I relate the same way, though a combination of polytheism and animism which does not hold itself diametrically opposed to science or mistakenly take myth literally. I think, from what I have read from indigenous peoples, that indigenous cultures relate much the same way, and also do not feel that their worldview conflicts with scientific findings (although it does hold some key worldview differences, such as what constitutes a living thing). I think fundamentalist literalism can trip people up in many religions.

    • Yes absolutely. I find that a lot of people don’t want to see mythic truth, poetic truth – they’re looking for certainty in store. But Paganism doesn’t shape itself well to literalism, when our myths are poetry and our gods are mysteries.

  2. Great points! That bit at the end about the unlikelihood of pagan myths has me shaking my head a little though, since myth is not prose, so by its nature is not designed to convey literal events, and so doesn’t, and deconstructing myth, which speaks the poetic language of metaphor and symbolism, treats myth as something it is not and therefore misses the truths which it is intended to convey, which were not meant to be what we call hard facts. The lens of literalism is not useful with respect to myth.

  3. There’s something very liberating (I think) of being able to say ‘ok, here are my beliefs. Some of them are only substantiated by personal experience, or by my inclinations. I have no evidence with which to persuade you, but that’s fine because I don’t need the validation of you seeing the world the same way.’ Most people don’t go that way, I suspect because most people crave the encouragement of feeling right that comes from finding other people believe the same things. Not being believed is scary, it means you could be wrong, or weird, or unwelcome…and for all that Pagans claim to be wild, free and out there, there’s still a lot of urge to be safely inside the village perimeters.

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