This is an expanded version of a paper given at the Remembering the 90s conference, Birkbeck College, 8 September, 2000.
The Old New Age of Science
What is the date? What bears a date, and how has it been stamped? When does the date come? Will it always be on time? Date is the cousin of data, both deriving from dare, to give, and so is supposed to be that which is given. But who gives what is given in the date, and who accepts the donation? And who, after all, ends up owning it? I am to talk of a time of magic, of magic in time, but perhaps that cannot be done without recourse to a sort of time-magic, a magic of time that goes a good way to ruining the prospect of a time of magic. The conspicuous expansion of belief, of statement of belief, in the supernatural, the magical, the religious (and if it is conspicuous, and therefore stands out from its time, how far is it of its time? We’ll want, in the end, you’ll see, to know) belongs to these dates in question, from 1990 to 1999. But what we see in this period is of course, a return of magic, for surely all magic, from its maybe unrepresentable outset, is a return of magic. And so magic is the the new-old, the aged new, the aged new age. Magical times are multiplied times, times bending over backwards, folded over on themselves. And all times, all time, participate in this magic.
The age is, or rather, for a time, was new; the New Age. And it’s of this now newly-old, or middle-aged new age that I am getting round to speaking.
Like the 1890s, the 1990s saw an explosion of technological expansion and confidence, led by the rise of computing. New machines, new conceptions of what machines were, retooled mechanical metaphors for biological life, proliferated. Paradoxically, or predictably (but who predicted it then?), the accompaniment of all this science, all this technology, was a vast increase in forms of magical thinking. Let me count the ways. Ufology and alien abduction. Therapies and healing and potential-enhancing techniques all kind. Holisms. Geomancy. Channelling. Angelic encounters. Reincarnation. Astrology. Millenarianism. The 1990s saw something distinctive, at least in the way in which the many new belief-patterns and belief networks had been organised since the 1970s. The magical life of culture became more than just neurotic relapse or aberration; it aggregated, from the late 1980s onwards, into a whole cultural sub-system. The beginning of the 1990s marks, not the beginning of New Age thinking, but its coming to visibility as an aggregate phenomenon. For Wouter Hanegraaff, ‘the New Age is synonymous with the cultic milieu having become conscious of itself as constituting a more or less unified “movement.” ‘ Hanegraaff dates this from 1975 onwards, but I think there are good reasons to see a kind of secondary clotting or gathering of the term at the end of the 1980s. This is certainly the period when a large number of general introductions to the subject begin to appear. Marilyn Ferguson characterises New Age thinking and practice with a term she borrows from the sociologist Virginia Hine, a SPIN, or ‘segmented polycentric integrated network’. Michael York, in his turn, borrows Marilyn Ferguson’s formulation of ‘A SPIN of SPINs’ to characterise New Ageism in its relations to other cognate movements. If the early 1990s marked the point at which the New Age became a viable and evident approximation, it also marked a kind of diffusion, as specialist concentrations of New Age thinking began to spread widely through media culture. New Age thinking both became more generalised, more contradictory and more centred.
One of the most important ways in which magical thinking has simulaneously gone undercover and vanished into ubiquity, is in attitudes towards the body, and in various kinds of imaginary work, or embodied magic, on the body. I go to a gym/health club called Holmes Place, but up to a couple of years ago used to frequent the Finsbury Park gym – all lard-damp walls and ullulating, corrugated boxers doing sit-ups in multiples of a hundred. My move to the clean, deodorised, overwhelmingly white and overwhelmingly female environment of the Holmes Place health club shadows the expansion of the idea of fitness and exercise themselves, to encompass a vast range of therapies and techniques and procedures for becoming at one with my body, mostly by letting other people do thngs to it. (Unfortunately, my body long ago ceased to be the one I want to be at one with, but that’s obviously part of the point as well.) An amplifying accompaniment of this aggregation of separate subsystems was the association of magical practice with various kinds of technique, the behavioural correlative of technology. The reclaiming of the body from orthodox science and medicine has actually meant a surrender of the body to techniques and technologies, the essential feature of which is that they involve systems, and disciplines: acupuncture, aromatherapy, diet management, herbalism, osteopathy, homeopathy – all involve the subjection of the body to more or less closed and magico-mechanical theories of the body’s functioning. A therapy without a theory is unthinkable. Magic, especially body magic, prospers on constraint. The relation between alternative therapies, and the more austere sex-magic involved in New Age sado-masochism, is also striking. What holds magic and the body together are technique and technology.
I stand, of course, as a representative of an academic culture which thinks of itself as standing sceptically apart from such ideas and practices. In the implicate order of contemporary cultural life, derision like mine and that of my friends is necessary to keep dissidence alive. But, during the 1990s, certain areas of academic culture were almost taken over by the magical thinking associated with New Age work on the body. What much holistic thinking about the body has in common with academic mainstream in cultural studies, is their shared insistence that the body is not a biological datum, but something humanly constructed. And, as Butlerians everywhere will tell you, if the body has been constructed one way, there is nothing standing in the way of us constructing it in another, more congenial way. Holistic therapies are perfectly happy to accept the charge that they just don’t work, in the old-fashioned, vulgarly mechanical or biochemical sense of working. They work in the sense that they allow for real, peeling, enfeebled bodies to be worked over into magically fictitious ones.
The creation of an imaginary, or ‘immagical’ body through the application of technique is a subsidiary effect of the most striking thing about the absorption of New Age thinking into the mainstreams of cultural and academic life, namely its correlations with the popular science which exploded into visibility during the 1990s. Although the correlation of New Age thinking and science is just a subdivision of the New Age landscape, as charted in surveys like John Ankerburg’s and John Weldon’s Encyclopaedia of New Age Beliefs, or Wouter Hanegraaff’s New Age Religion and Western Culture, the convergence between science and culture is the most significant thing about 90s supernaturalism. The 1990s saw the generalisation in belief-practice of some claims formulated theoretically during the 1980s about the overlaps between mysticism, magic and the sciences – in particular the sciences of quantum physics, evolutionary biology, cybernetics and artificial intelligence. Supernaturalism in the 1990s was entwined with technoscience – one sign of which being how good cultural historians became at pointing out the ways in which this had been the case in earlier periods – the Renaissance, the late eighteenth century, the Victorian fin de siècle.
Perhaps the most conspicuous principle of the unification of science and culture is their shared assumptions about the principle of unification itself – the magical-alchemical principle of the universality of laws of functioning. As above, so below, as the old alchemical motto has it; as in the subatomic, so in the cosmos, is the principle. The idea of the relativity or mutual interrelation of forces, elements and effects, is taken for a justification that everything actually is in everything else, for example by Fritjof Capra, in later editions of his massively influential 1975 book, The Tao of Physics:
- The world view of the Eastern mystics shares with the bootstrap philosophy of modern physics not only an emphasis on the mutual interrelation and self-consistency of all phenomena, but also the denial of fundamental constituents of matter. In a universe which is an inseparable whole and where all forms are fluid and ever-changing, there is no room for any fixed fundamental entity.
Analogy and relationship here become identity. The assumption that the universe must be homologous, subject from top to bottom to the same laws, operating in the same way, operates tenaciously in both magical and scientific thinking.
Another leading idea of New Age thinking concerns the enfolded relativity of space and place. The prime piece of evidence for this is the EPR paradox or the Bell effect. This is based upon the principle that two sub-atomic particles that have interacted will remain linked, however distant they may be from one another in space. One of the characteristics of such linked particles is what is called ‘spin’. A pair of linked particles will have symmetrical spins, such that if one has a +1 spin the other will always have a -1 spin. Given that it is possible to change the spin of an individual particle, and that this will in turn affect the spin of the other particle, even if it were millions of light years away, this looks like evidence for a radically unified, because delocalised universe. It has been used, outrageously and hilariously, to justify claims for telekinesis and clairvoyance. But it has also led some scientists like David Bohm to posit the existence of a folded-in or implicate order of being, of which our spaced-out, temporalised order is the degraded exfoliation.
But the most important sign and consequence of the new convergence of science and religious thought is the interest in the evolution of mind. A combination of ideas derived from quantum mechanics and from the analysis of dynamic systems has allowed the development of arguments that account for the emergence of mind from matter, and reassertions of the unity of matter and mind. Mostly, these take the form of redemptive evolutionisms, which suggest that matter is striving to raise itself into mind.
One of the swiftest and easiest interpretations of some of the paradoxes of quantum mechanics, notably the uncertainty principle of Heisenberg is that there is, after all, no matter, but only perception and consciousness of matter. As Shirley MacLaine so authoritatively puts it:
- Quantum physics was saying that what we perceive to be physical reality was actually our conscious construction of it. Hence reality was only what each of us decided it was…As the new physics and the ancient mystics now seemed to agree – when one observes the world and the beings within it, one sees that we are in fact only dancing with out own consciousness.
The much-vaunted unification of mind and matter, man and world, in the newly participative vision of Capra’s The Tao of Physics is achieved in terms of consciousness. Where science had overcome the duality by reducing mind to matter, here matter is raised into mind. As many physicists have repeatedly pointed out, the Heisenbergian principle of uncertainty, which suggests that observations of sub-atomic particle behaviour affect the nature of the observed behaviour, is meant to act as a constraint upon consciousness, not as a warrant for the Coleridgean principle that ‘we receive but what we give,/And in our life alone does Nature live.’
The animistic view developed along the Capra-MacLaine axis began in the late 1980s to draw deeply from another area of scientific thinking, namely theories of self-organisation and emergence in complex systems.
Self-organisation and emergence is what happens to turbulent or chaotic systems that seem to have no reasons either in their initial conditions, or in their environmental determinants, ever to resolve into anything like a recognisable pattern, but nevertheless do. Order may not have to be pre-given, like a datum, or the date, but can emerge. Structure is an after-effect, not a plan, following Lyotard’s logic of the future anterior, in action that sets itself to discover the rules that it will have followed, to meet with the orderings it will have made out. The idea of emergence allows us to do away with the intentional or predestined universe, without necessarily having to embrace pure chaos or randomness, though this has not always been the way in which it has been understood.
Now emergence might appear to sit comfortably with one take on the idea of Darwinian evolution, in which, equally, there is no master-plan or telos, only an endless series of local adaptations and feedback loops. But theories of emergent systems throw up quite profound disagreements with Darwinist thinking. Darwinists like Richard Dawkins persist in a view of organisms which respond to surrounding conditions by means of random mutation, from which fit adaptations are selected by circumstance. Emergentist biologists, troubled by the fact that evolution appears to be at once so jumpy and so repetitious (why should the eye have evolved separately in five different organisms, for example), emphasise the relationship of complex dynamic systems to themselves, and their capacity to ‘self-organise’.
The issue of consciousness has become important not only in the high-profile sciences of neurology and evolutionary biology but also in the debates which dominated the early 1990s (and now appear to have died down a little) about the production of artificial intelligence. The lines were drawn between those, like Marvin Minsky, who believed that consciousness was nothing more than computer-like processing, and could therefore be produced and those like Roger Penrose, and John Searle, who believed that consciousness was a quality that could not simply be produced by a multiplication and acceleration of processing activity. Searle was holding the dualist line against those monists who believed in the immanence of consciousness. It is surprising how easily a mechanist monism, which insists that mind is incipient everywhere where there is information, interaction and self-organisation, can justify an idealist or mystical monism, which suggests that the world is nothing but mind, moving from lower to higher states. Even more striking is the agreement between dualism and monism in this argument. For both Searlian dualists and magico-mechanical monists insist on the indivisibility of consciousness. For Searle, there either is consciousness or there isn’t, and there mostly isn’t. His AI and New Age opponents also believe that there either is consciousness or there isn’t, but that there nearly always is. Consciousness is completely unitary for both, all the same kind of stuff from top to bottom. Whether it is there or not, whether it is there sometimes, or there nearly all the time, the thing that consciousness is is taken to be a quiddity. The New Age idiom of the idea of degrees or states of consciousness, and the evolution of higher states of consciousness preserves the idea of the essential homogeneity of consciousness. A higher state of consciousness is to a lower as a bottle of Smirnoff blue is to a lager shandy (i.e. different levels on a single scale) rather than as a sperm-whale is to a washing machine (i.e. different kinds of thing altogether). But what if one were to accept the possibility that consciousness might be an emergent property of matter, without assuming that there was only one kind of consciousness; that consciousness were not just the product of multiplicity, but were itself multiple?
The notion of emergent order which underpins the claims of AI to be able to produce the operations of mind from purely physical operations and the idea that nature itself becomes conscious through the emergent order which is man (the ‘anthropic theory’ that suggests that we cannot be wholly wrong about nature if we are in effect nature’s mind, what nature uses to think about itself) can easily be stepped up (stepping up being the essence of what is going on here) into the idea that mind then feeds back into the matter that has produced it. Thus, there is Rupert Sheldrake’s argument about the existence of what he calls ‘morphogenetic fields’, advanced in his A New Science of Life (London: Blond and Briggs, 1981) and in numerous works subsequently. Sheldrake’s claim is that in morphogenesis, the formation of a particular organism creates a non-material field of possibility which is then fed back into future formations. Once a scale or fingernail has formed, it is that much easier for organisms everywhere to opt for scales and fingernails (for morphogenetic fields are not limited in space). Evolution and memory are thus interinvolved, since memory is guided by these morphic states. Evolution takes place in a field not just of inherited forms, but of inherited potentials (what Aristotle might have termed entelechies), in a form of ‘morphic resonance’. Sheldrake’s mystical psychobiology is quite close to that of Ervin Laszlo’s notion of what he calls a ‘psi-field’. This notion derives from an idea broached by the French quantum physicist Louis de Broglie in 1927, that electrons might be subject to guidance by a sort of wave, which he called a ‘quantum potential’. Laszlo’s idea is that this effect might be replicated at higher levels, to produce fields of guiding possibility which would exert an effect on persons and populations in history. Allan Combs loses no time, in his book The Radiance of Being: Complexity, Chaos and the Evolution of Consciousness, in identifying both morphogenetic fields and psi-fields with the strange attractors that represent the emergence of order out of chaos, and consciousness out of experience. And why not assume, while we’re at it, that ‘complex nested psi-field structures could acquire an autonomous archetypal life of their own’, and could therefore be identified with Jungian archetypes?
The tendency, in much of the work that derives from the theory of emergent order, is to fold the emergence back into time – to make of it an immanent principle, that was waiting inside evolution all along, a little like the eighteenth-century theory of encapsulated preformation in which Leibniz was a firm believer. (Leibniz’s crazy monadology is back in favour, largely because of Gilles Deleuze’s brilliant partisanship. ) The business of evolution is therefore to be identified with the necessary unrolling of predetermined consequences:
- The word ‘evolve’ (from the latin evolvere) means literally to roll out, or to unroll, and carries the implication of something that has previously been rolled up and hidden from view. The thing that has been rolled up, according to Sri Aurobindo, is the Self, the divine spark.
One reassuring consequence of this view of the immanence of consciousness in the material world might be that in our work of secondary, silicone-based self-replication, pouring our knowledge and experience into virtual reality set-ups and networks and databases, we are not simply debasing our consciousness, but multiplying and extending it, redoubling the very processes of consciousness-formation in matter. Many thinkers from Teilhard de Chardin, with his vision of the noosphere, as set forth in his The Phenomenon of Man, through Marshall McLuhan, in his more optimistic moments, to contemporary info-ecological appropriations of Lovelock’s Gaia hypothesis and Sadie Plant’s belief in the emergent consciousness of the world wide web, have dreamed of this repetition of the emergence of mind from matter. Indeed, the survival of New Age thinking in the 1990s has depended heavily upon two potentiating interactors. (A potentiating interactor is a background condition in a cultural system that allows a subsystem to grow in strength and self-definition by being available to be interacted with, or even confused with.) The two most important potentiating interactors for the science-magic convergence were ecology and information technology. Magic and science came together on the ground both of ecology and of information technology; in the 1990s, terrestrial ecology was stepped up into inormation ecology or what Gregory Bateson had percipiently called ‘ecology of mind’. Both ecology and information technology offered proofs, promises and enactments of the kind of thing that would be meant by a convergence of magic and science.In other words, we have a chance to effect practical magic – to remake ourselves, through expanded consciousness, programmes and techniques of personal growth and so on, and therefore to control the newly-unified field of mind-stuff.
We can break down the logic of this claim in the following way: first of all, evolution discloses a process whereby mind might be said to emerge spontaneously from the self-organisation of matter; this principle of mind can then be said to have been immanent in matter all along; and, having made out this mind coiled up immanently in matter, the mind that makes it out declares it to be its own mind. Looking out on the world of non-mind, mind sees itself everywhere, at the beginning and the benign end of all things. Mind meets mind, makes up its own mind, everywhere.
What is most unsatisfactory about the magical mystery tours on which the ideas of quantum physics, of complexity and chaos and of systems analysis have been taken is that they are precisely so satisfying. Emergence is taken as proof of preexistent design, or deep intention; the slowly, intricately dying, temporal universe is folded back into implicated, self-renewing timelessness. Everywhere, there is the trace of design and purpose, and everywhere that purpose is the narcissistic projection of human kinds of purpose. New Agers believe that they have a warrant to see the world as a brimming immanence of life and consciousness (the two being closely identified). The magical thinking of the New Age seems to enact clearly Freud’s definition of magic, as the fantasy of the omnipotence of thought.
Time Out of Mind
The convergence of science and culture took place in time, with respect to particular preoccupations: if one of them was thinking about consciousness, another was the preoccupation with time itself. Stephen Hawking’s Brief History of Time, with its famous final speculations on the possibility of discovering the mind of God, was in every sense, a timely book. There is, in fact, a distinct allergy to time, to the unfolding, undirected, mindless time of decay in New Age thinking. One mark of this allergy is the delight with which David Bohm’s view of the fundamentally timeless, zipped-up or ‘implicate order’ is taken to indicate the fundamental meaninglessness or partiality of time-bound existence. Another is the way in which Ilya Prigogine’s work on ‘self-organising systems’ within fundamentally temporal, which is to say, entropic processes has been taken as a warrant for believing in the reversibility of time’s arrow. I would not classify Michel Serres as a New Age thinker, but the fundamentally Romantic picture of the self-renewing abundance and plenitude of the earth and the cosmos, presented by this, the most important philosopher of the relations between culture and science writing, a picture that I have elsewhere disapproved of as a ‘monism of the manifold’, converges lamentably with this magical allergy to time.
The preoccupation with consciousness and the preoccupation with time come together in Ian McEwan’s A Child in Time of 1987, which features a quantum physicist called Thelma, who is a colleague, at Birkbeck College, of David Bohm, and who offers at the heart of the novel an explication of the theory of implicated temporal universes that Bohm developed in his Wholeness and the Implicate Order in 1980 and in his subsequent collaborations up to his death in 1992, with the mystic Jiddu Krishnamurti.
- She wanted him to share her excitement…The new theory would refer to a higher order of reality, a higher ground, the ground of all that is, an undivided whole of which matter, space, time, even consciousness itself, would be complicatedly related embodiments, intrusions which make up the reality we understood….’Think how humanised and approachable scientists would be if they could join in the really important conversations about time, and without thinking they had the final word – the mystic’s experience of timelessness, the chaotic unfolding of time in dreams, the Christian moment of fulfilment and redemption, the annihilated time of deep sleep, the elaborate time schemes of novelists, poets, daydreamers, the infinite, unchanging time of childhood.’
There are two kinds of explanation available off the peg for all this.
One kind of explanation would see this determination to make out emergent design everywhere as a defensive reponse to all of the developments which seem to make individual human beings and their world ever more subject to impersonal and inhuman processes and imperatives – this to be seen, for example in Lyotard’s arguments about the displacement of the human by the anthropogenic ‘inhuman’ of information, themselves an adaptation of Adorno’s argument about the underside of Enlightenment in modernity. The world being so thoroughly rationalised, objectified, disenchanted, magic arises to preserve or restore the sense of a participative sensibility, a sense of oneness, mystery and enchantment. This has been seen, and said, before, and readers in the 1990s were, of course, specially attuned to resemblances with other decades of incipience, especially the 1890s, which saw so obvious an intermingling of materialism and supernaturalism.
There is another way of looking at supernaturalism, other than as a simple refusal to allow the disenchantment of the world by technoscience. Like the 1890s, the 1990s were a time in which technologies and scientific understandings associated with them penetrated deeplyinto private life. The 1990s also saw ebbing confidence in public science and technology. Public science was responsible for the Amoco Valdeez, for Chernobyl, for greenhouse gases, for the Cold War, for genetic modification, for the torture of animals. But the 1990s were a period of private, intimate. Private science was not toxic or wicked, but intimate and friendly – techniques and technology came right up close in the 1990s, the decade of the nano, of the PC, of the mobile phone, and all the many colours in which technology was cathected. Previously, we were told, science had deadened the world; now, science was reenchanting it, waking us up to the way in which the world could reassert its own, slightly troubling, life, whether in the Gaia hypothesis of James Lovelock, or in the claims of Artificial Intelligence.
The more technoscience appears to marginalise and displace human beings, the more important it might seem to generate magical relations to science and the technologies it spawns. When our technologies start to come so disturbingly to life, when the world, in Don DeLillo’s phrase. ‘grows a mind’, it disturbs our sense of omnipotence, and we seek to reestablish the hegemony of our kind of consciousness, our kind of order, in the world. This kind of explanation sees New Age thinking as a precipitate overestimation of possibilities that are undoubtedly present in certain areas of technoscience – in particular, the idea of the emergent life of networks and systems. The vast overestimation of the possibilities of the World Wide Web and its associated internet cultures to be found throughout academic writing in the 1990s is the academic correlative of New Age thinking. This thinking has been both analysed and indulged in Erik Davis’s discussion of the magical correlatives and effects of the information society. We can expect to see these magical transformations of science multiplying, as the increasingly high cost of scientific research, and the associated pressure for science to justify itself in terms of immediate and practical outcomes ironically delivers science over to cultural appropriations of all kinds, including appropriations for the purpose of magical thinking (cybersex,online shopping).
Amid my that’s-that satisfaction at having pointed out the self-pampering narcissism involved in all this, I feel obliged to observe that I am allowing myself in spades one of the prerogatives assumed by this way of reasoning. The aggregation of the many agreements, beliefs, feelings, statements, actions, reactions and interactions that seem to us to constitute what we are calling ‘New Age thinking’ into a single state, or exactly concomitant act of mind, responding uniformly and predictably to clearly specifiable external influences, is certainly its own form of magical thinking. And, like all magical thinking, it also happens to be conspicuously mechanistic, like most of our ways of making temporal sense of events and cultural phenomena in the humanities.We believe, either that a Geist permeates its Zeit as thoroughly and uniformly as a fart in a lift, or that local conditions obtaining in a particular here and now will favour certain adaptations. In the latter case, the result is a zip-fastener view of isolated phenomena related each by each to specified background conditions. Here we find a crisis of masculinity; there we find the feminisation of the workplace and the generalisation of beauty-power. Here we find a new supernaturalism; there we see a multiplication of technologies. These correspondences often work either by a mirroring rule or an equivalence rule. Either more of background condition a produces more of mimicking foreground condition b, or a rise in the level of background condition a produces a corresponding fall in the foreground condition b, in order to maintain a homeostatic constant c. We can call these the induction machine or the hydraulic machine of historical explanation.
Not that I have any objection as such to mechanistic thinking; it’s just that the mechanisms that social and cultural theorists use to discuss societies are so astonishingly antiquated, as though one were trying to use Newtonian billiard-ball mechanics (so unmatchably good at accounting for billiard balls and planetary bodies) to describe the fluid dynamics of a waterfall or a hurricane.
If it will not do exactly to see New Age appropriation of science as an attempt to humanise a new variety of complexity, or ungraspable inhumanness in mass existence, precisely because it attributes simple human motivation and purpose to that activity of humanising, it might nevertheless impel us to other, less magical-mechanistic ways of modelling mass phenomena – such as ‘the New Age’, ‘the internet’, or ‘the 90s’. (Or it might not. One of the other things we could learn from some areas of contemporary science is to view culture as more probabilistic than determinate.)
What if I could think of a reason and a way to give up trying to summarise phenomena or cultural events as the projective activity of a collective mind? What if there were a way of thinking about collective events in culture non-mentalistically, of not replicating the illusion that every form of organisation is the immediate effect of a mind just like my own, whatever that is when it’s at home?
The New Age is clearly a kind of socio-cultural phenomenon, a kind of self-organising system in itself. There have been some valuable attempts to analyse the nature of that system. One of them, Wouter Hanegraaff’s, focusses on the content of New Age ideas, in order to establish its lineage and coherence and value. Another student of the phenomenon, Michael York, interestingly treats the New Age as itself a kind of emergent phenomenon, an ‘emerging network’ of beliefs, values and practices – though he keeps the content of New Age thinking about such phenomena rigorously separate from its own, drily functionalist description. David Hess brings a cultural-anthropological viewpoint to bear, and impressively adds cultural and political factors to his study of the dynamics of the three cultures of science, New Age thought and the paranormal, in his 1993 book Science in the New Age. His model emphasises the cooperations and collusions as well as the hostilities between these three reciprocally-defining cultures. But he does so in anthropomorphic terms, for he believes it to be necessary to develop an inwardness with the way each culture sees itself and its adversaries. In order to grasp the complexity of the dynamics involved, he says, ‘we need to ask how the paranormal looks to those who embrace it’. We certainly need to include feelings and representations as well as thoughts and statements in the analysis of culture – but not necessarily as feelings, representations, thoughts and statements. Rather, they might be thought of as potential states or modifiers of a system; actions, interests and probabilities. Hess aims to develop a way of seeing from the ways of seeing that make up his field. That is one way of doing it. But another way is to ask the dynamic question in much more detail: to ask, what is happening? What might now happen?
For the phenomenon of New Age thinking offers us an opportunity to ask a slightly different question about the relation between man and nature, culture and science, or to ask it in a different way. What if we folded some of the scientific experiment and speculation that is being used in New Age thinking back into the phenomenon of New Age thinking itself? How do we think of a phenomenon such as magical thought, or emergentism – or the adaptation of emergentism to magical thinking? Michel Serres remarks that our metaphysics depends on our physics. The physics on which we depend in the humanities are date-stamped around the 1670s. A view derived in part from theories of emergence, and complex adaptive systems, as they have been explored by a scientist such as Murray Gell-Mann, might make it possible for us to think of the condition of what we call culture – especially in the light of the panculturalism, or willingness to think of everything in social life as culture that also became characteristic of the 1990s – as more like the movements of a weather front or a dripping tap or a rumour or an epidemic than the operations of a zip-fastener or water-pump. Put differently; it might enable us to model the movements of thought in culture not in terms of thought itself, but mechanically, in terms of movement – of masses, locations, trajectories, momentums, sensings, iterations, interactions. Such systems are extensively explicable, but only limitedly predictable. The movements and interactions and feedback loops that make up such a complex, adaptive system are neither purely random on the one hand (though randomness is of their essence), nor, on the other, the expression of a mind, or the regular effects of a mechanism – or at least the kind of mechanism we have hitherto been able to get our minds round.