Science facing Criticism, Esotericism and Occultism a High – The Fatal Logic of a Zeitgeist

When it comes to deep knowledge or meaningful insights, a successful way of life or even general wisdom, natural sciences seem to have a rather difficult stand in the public perception today. Many people who are looking for deep knowledge, erudition, insight into the mysteries of the world, or even just joy of life, tend to browse through books on Eastern wisdom or Western esotericism rather than consult a textbook on physics or biology. They then rather read „The Tao of Physics“ than “ Physics“, deal rather with quantum philosophically based spirituality or quantum healing than with the statements of quantum physics itself. Many people applaud, with good reason, when spiritual teachers formulate that the goal of a meaningful life is to reduce suffering, find joy, and grasp the nature of our mind. At the same time, however, the remark that science since its inception has pursued similar goals – and, depending on one’s point of view, has achieved far more significant things in the process – leads most contemporaries at best to a weary shrug of the shoulders, but often to vehement opposition, even to accusations of ignorance in view of all the global problems that science has, after all, caused. Or he or she is even called a „disdainful materialist“ who now also wants to expose the sphere of highest intellectual knowledge to the coldness of scientific rationality. Thus, unfortunately, even right-wing populist politicians such as the Zurich SVP politician Roger Köppel have recognized that it is more worthwhile to refer to ideological belief systems than to scientific rationality – which, among other things, makes him describe climate change, which has been recorded by scientists, as a „fashion movement“ of „drunks“.

One must ask why science has such a hard time with many people today. Has it perhaps become a victim of its own success? Do people accept the successes of science as a matter of course, but point the finger at it where it has not yet achieved perfect knowledge (and it has almost nowhere)? For example, the scientific masterpiece of an incredibly fast development and production of a Corona vaccine is already taken for granted, bordering on indifference towards the achievements of genetic and medical researchers. Perhaps one should imagine the excruciating pain of dealing with a tooth root infection that people experienced in the 13th century to come to a proper appreciation of how much science has improved our lives. And who today can still be impressed with the „animal magnetism“ with which, as late as the 18th century, the esoteric Franz Anton Mesmer, using simple electrical and magnetic phenomena, achieved astonishment and devotion in an immense crowd of people? Or just imagine that there were no vaccines against Covid-19 in sight yet.

Considerations like these make us realize: In material and everyday life terms, our world today is shaped by scientific and technological progress as by no other force. In spiritual, intellectual and emotional terms, on the other hand, the power of science comes up with something quite different: the loss of the comfort zone of absolute certainties. Qua the scientific method, scientific „truth“ always comes with the possibility of its own falsity. Scientific knowledge entails no dogmas; rather, they are constantly under scrutiny, for example, through experimentation and rational discourse; at any time, they can then be discarded and reformulated, depending on the facts. This is not a weakness, but, as Galileo already recognized, the greatest strength of the sciences. But it is a paradox: The more knowledge we gain, the less we are allowed to hope that there is an ultimate truth. The price for our increase in knowledge is therefore high: We now have nothing to hold on to forever and ever.

This causes great difficulties for most people. Therefore, one fascination of esoteric and spiritual thought buildings is that it promises to put us humans in a position to gain access to a complete knowledge about the world and our lives, that there is thus a knowledge (or belief) system that holds all the answers about us humans and the world we live in. This is an enormous promise, which has a fascinating effect on many people, who are not willing to go the arduous way of the sciences via uncertainties, criticism and always lots of setbacks, who rather want nothing more than to fill up again spiritually the (according to Max Weber) „world view disenchanted by scientific rationality“. Have not philosophers, last but not least, spoken of the „absolute“ (spirit, knowledge, being, etc.) for centuries and millennia?

Often scientific findings are (mis)used to support esoteric worldviews. Thus the list of affirmations and promises, which come along with the prefix „quantum“, is constantly extended, like „quantum healing“, „quantum resonance“ and „quantum consciousness“, recently also „quantum economy“. By the connection of quantum physics and spirituality one hopes for miracle healings, perfect love relations up to the capture of the last secrets. As intellectual godfather of the quantum mysticism serves thereby the phenomenon of entanglement: „Quantum particles far away from each other can be physically connected (entangled).“ From this then becomes: „Everything is connected with everything“. It is such sentences which make the hearts of the esotericists, thirsting for mysticism, beat faster.

Most people are overwhelmed by a renunciation of absolute truths and of retreats in the substantial. They rely gladly on clear truths, clear spiritual bases and immovable principles. What used to be God, is today the absolute spirit, a substantial basic structure, immovable laws of nature, absolute certainties, and last but not least always-valid economic, social or historical laws, a nation with certain birth rights, a society in which „everyone has his place“, a fixed job for life and many other things. Where such certainties are lost, uncertainty arises. This was no different in the 1920s and 1930s than it is today. Then spiritual, political, social, religious and philosophical simplifiers and populists fill the vacuum left by the loss of old certainties with their own falsehoods and lies. Mechanisms of self-deception and self-lies, as powerful as they are familiar, are at work here. More than 200 years ago, Immanuel Kant already spoke of the „inner lie“ and described it as „dishonesty toward oneself.“ It is easier, as he writes, to „pretend the perception of blue fog“ than to admit the contradiction between one’s moral standards and one’s own thoughts and actions. Kant speaks here of the „rotten spot of our species.“

However, the joy of grasping the mysterious and the knowledge of the reasons of the world’s existence are hardly anywhere else as great as in science. In a deeply gratifying way it satisfies our all too human curiosity. Scientific knowledge allows us deep (though never final) insights into the nature of things or that of our mind and not least into the deepest of all questions, which the English naturalist Henry Huxley already formulated in 1863 as follows: “ The question of questions for mankind–the problem which underlies all others, and is more deeply interesting than any other–is the ascertainment of the place which Man occupies in nature and of his relations to the universe of things.“

But spirituality is of no less enormous importance today, though far away from esotericism and occultism. Due to increasing digitalization, nano- and quantum technologization, neurologization, biologization and other ‚-zations‘ with their technological possibilities, we as mankind will experience an historical upheaval, which is about to massively change our self-image as well as our understanding of meaning and existence. When it comes to questions of genetic manipulation, stem cell research, artificial intelligence, virtual reality, or the production of synthetic life (to name just a few developments), also many non-religious people today see contemporary variants of Goethe’s sorcerer’s apprentice at work in modern biology and information sciences. We therefore increasingly perceive the challenges of our modern world as crises and desperately ask for coherent global ethical responses to such things as environmental degradation, climate change, overpopulation, food shortages, economic crises, and nuclear threats, all problems that can hardly be dealt with exclusively within a scientific discourse framework but require larger, even spiritual, references.

This only becomes more important as the new powerful and breath-taking technologies could also fundamentally change man himself, his biology, his identity, and his consciousness. In view of this, there will probably be a moment in the not-too-distant future when the rules of the game of human life and coexistence could fundamentally change. Are we prepared for this? Here we need a spirituality that does not stand against science, but alongside it. Spirituality includes experiences or ideas that make us feel part of a larger whole and can open up a deeper dimension of being human and thus show us the way to a more comprehensive, meaningful understanding of our existence in this world. It also encompasses values such as love, compassion, empathy, morality, intuition, and meditative insights – and, finally, a question that the great physicist Richard Feynman formulated with such typical simplicity and clarity: „What is the meaning of it all?“

Thus, with the emerging scientific and technological developments, spirituality assumes great importance, especially in ethical terms, if we as a social collective do not want to see ourselves fail in the spiritual and intellectual challenges associated with these developments. For this reason, not a few people expect spiritual thinking to play a significant role in answering important questions about the future and in the discussion about the design of coming technologies, in the sense of a responsibility for intellectual and ethical integrity.

It must therefore be a matter of grasping the significance of both, science and spirituality, in their mutuality for the benefit of our human existence and, with their help, of demonstrating the essential features of a humane and ethically coherent view of the world. This involves two things, spiritual motivation in the form of inner clarity in ethical orientation and striving for truth, and rational, i.e. scientific, thinking. Contrary to widespread notions that associate spirituality with occultism or obscurantism, a suitable spirituality enables us to be more rational and honest in our thoughts and actions. It becomes something like an inner compass, giving our minds an inner order and orientation that lead us to an autonomy with which we can focus on the essential. In the ethical comprehension of scientific creation and spiritual thinking we encounter, however we turn it, a dimension common to both, which is of enormous importance for our future. This may be what really matters.

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