From Science Came Mystification

The Western scientific program promises to reveal all the secrets of nature through systematic, rational inquiry.  In so doing, it promises certainty beyond what superstition can muster and promises technological control over Nature superior to that of magic.  As the technological products of science increase in complexity however, their intelligibility decreases.  Technology is increasingly apprehended in terms of its “magical” effects, while the rational underpinnings become increasingly obscure.

Science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke opined that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”  Expressing a similar sentiment, psychologist Carl Jung wrote: “Magic happens to be everything that eludes comprehension… It is difficult to exist without reason… and that is exactly how difficult magic is.”  In its current marketing campaign, Apple Computer offers products that are “practically magic,” enabling glossy photography without knowledge of exposure, and other like “miracles.”

Early signs of trouble in the European Enlightenment Rationalist tradition emerged around World War I.  The Dada movement was not nihilistic, as is often charged, but a reaction against the moral vacuity of the modern scientific outlook, and a criticism of the notion that empirical science is an inherently a-moral enterprise.  While modern science takes its philosophical starting point from Plato’s equating of Truth, Beauty, and Goodness, the advent of mechanized warfare and chemical weapons in the First World War caused a profound disturbance in the Western psyche.

dr-strangelove

With the nuclear arms race after World War II, the United States and the Soviet Union engineered a stalemate policy of mutual deterrence that continues to imperil all life on the planet, as satirized by Stanley Kubrick in Dr. Strangelove.  Part of what sociologist C. Write Mills referred to as “organized irresponsibility,” the policy of Mutual Assured Destruction, or MAD, was devised by computer scientist John von Neumann, and modeled on the principles of game theory.  For decades since, policy makers have essentially engaged in a hyper-rational planning regime for a technological apocalypse, where the flawed judgement of a single person can have catastrophic consequences globally.

Observing these developments in their infancy, Marxist psychologist Erich Fromm wrote in 1956:

“To speak of the ‘lacking sense of reality’ in modern man is contrary to the widely held idea that we are distinguished from most periods of history by our greater realism.”

“But to speak of our realism is almost like a paranoid distortion. What realists, who are playing with weapons which may lead to the destruction of all modern civilization, if not of our earth itself!”

“If an individual were found doing just that, he would be locked up immediately, and if he prided himself on his realism, the psychiatrists would consider this an additional and rather serious symptom of a diseased mind.”

Western science has largely delivered on many of the promises of magic, from practical control over matter at the subatomic level to the mastery of flight and tele-vision.  Yet where sorcery is regarded as evil and dangerous, the rational products of science — which pollute, surveil, exploit and kill around the globe — are widely praised as the crowning achievements of our civilization.

Beginning in the occult tradition at the interface of alchemy, Hermeticism, and the kabbalistic mathematics of religious thinkers like Abraham Abulafia and Ramon Llull, the return of science to “magic” suggests the failure of the Rationalist tradition is complete, and should serve as a warning that we are rapidly entering a new era of superstition and barbarism, as we gleefully destroy ourselves with a new “magic” few of us understand.

abraham-abulafia-ars-combinatoria-a-figure-color

Marketing and Manipulation

The Miller Brewing Company is running a TV advertisement in which they take credit for inventing subliminal advertising.  Perhaps the claim is in jest, yet there is a dark undercurrent where a large corporation brags about how effectively they can manipulate their customers.

The purpose of advertising is to manipulate the perceptions of consumers.  Advertising creates desires where previously none existed in order to create demand for the output of industry.  Discussions of economics generally assume that supply follows demand: if this were the case, however, advertising would not be necessary.  In many cases, supply creates demand — and advertising is an instrumental part of this process.

That advertising alters perceptions is not a trivial fact: it is central to advertising’s effectiveness.  Nissan is running an advertisement boasting about the safety features they incorporate into their automobile design.  After detailing the automobile’s safety features, the advertisement concludes: “the only thing left to fear is your imagination.”

An advertisement that instills the perception that driving is safe can have tragic consequences: driving is just about the most dangerous thing the typical American does on a daily basis.  In the last 13 years, 2,977 Americans have died from terrorism.  Since 2001, some 468,743 Americans have died in automobile accidents.  On average, automobiles kill more Americans every month than terrorists killed on 9/11.  Yet the policy implications of these two figures could not be more different.

Were Americans to perceive the true dangers inherent in driving, perhaps Federal highway subsidies and automobile manufacturer bailouts would arouse more indignation than they have, while the time and expense and social changes ushered in by the War on Terror might be redirected towards changing social values to discourage driving — by creating walkable neighborhoods and funding mass transit effectively, for example.  This would certainly save more lives than military adventures abroad.  Advertising and marketing exert a subtle though profound effect on the perceptions of Americans, influencing what policies are permissible.

Advertising creates reality.  Advertising creates mass psychology.  This influence is not benign, nor like the fabled boasts of snake oil salesman, but orchestrated perception management campaigns by organized industry meant to benefit organized industry.  To the extent that advertising is ubiquitous, and to the extent that everybody assumes that advertising involves exaggerations or lies, the outcome is in many ways affected subliminally — without being noticed.

Definitely Not Brainwashing

 

newspaper clipping regarding controversy

In 1992, when the fictional TV character Murphy Brown encountered a common real-life situation — that of conceiving a child out of wedlock — there was a national uproar.  The vice president of the United States even chimed in, saying that this was an example of the moral deterioration of society.

When Bristol Palin, the real-life daughter of former vice-presidential nominee Sarah Palin, conceived a child out of wedlock as a teenager, she was treated as a celebrity, and subsequently earned a spot on the reality TV show “Dancing with the Stars.”  Due to audience voting, Bristol Palin remains in the competition while superior dancers are eliminated.

 

Source of newspaper clipping: Milwaukee Journal, May 24, 1992.