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Meet the Materialist Magicians

Image source: Wikimedia Commons.

In The Screwtape Letters (1941), C. S. Lewis has his didactic devil Screwtape make an interesting statement. The devil says:

We are really faced with a cruel dilemma. When human beings disbelieve in our existence we lose all the pleasing results of direct terrorism and we make no magicians. On the other hand, when they believe in us we cannot make them materialists and sceptics — at least not yet… If once we can produce our perfect work — the Materialist Magician, the man, not using, but veritably worshipping what he vaguely calls ‘Forces’ while denying the existence of ‘spirits’ — then the end of the war will be in sight.

Lewis seems to have been genuinely worried about this development, and wrote a whole dystopian novel about it. In That Hideous Strength, the final book in his space trilogy, a group of scientists contact disembodied alien intelligences whom they dub “macrobes” (the opposite of “microbe,” to indicate their superior status), who entice them with promises of helping mankind ascend to godhood. The scientists begin taking orders from them, unaware that they have actually begun worshipping demons.

For Lewis’s fear to come true, two things would have to happen. (1) Scientists would have to contact demons (or vice versa), and (2) those scientists would need to have a very specific sort of worldview. 

For obvious reasons, it’s not easy to assess whether the first requirement has been fulfilled. So we’ll set that aside. 

The second requirement, however, is very easy to assess — we just have to look at contemporary scientists who, rightly or wrongly, do in fact believe that higher intelligences have contacted humans, and see if their attitudes match the “materialist magicians” that Lewis foresaw.

Aliens and Demons

As our first case study, let’s look at Gary Nolan. Nolan is a distinguished immunologist at Stanford who believes that aliens are visiting Earth. I wrote about his scientific philosophy in a recent post. What I did not mention was the more disturbing aspect of his views: what he thinks those aliens actually are

In a 2022 interview with Ross Coulthart, Nolan says that he does not think that “the extraterrestrial explanation” is the most likely; he believes that, taking the multiverse hypothesis into account, the alien entities in question are more likely to be from another universe or dimension, rather than from the other side of our own universe. Nolan goes on to say that he has seen evidence that these entities may be capable of manipulating human perception — meaning that what people see of them may be mere mental projections, not their true nature. In another interview, Nolan goes so far as to admit that he thinks that some of the entities that people encounter might not be physically embodied at all.

So it emerges that when Nolan says that there is evidence for alien visitors to Earth, he is not necessarily talking about “aliens” in the conventional sense, but perhaps rather non-physical entities from another world that can directly influence the mind

At one point in the Coulthart interview, Nolan mentions that the U.S. officials who are most opposed to disclosing information about UAP (aka UFO) phenomena are “religious fundamentalists” who think it’s all just demonic. 

“I mean, talk about ‘crazy’!” Nolan says. “They’re the ones who think it’s the devil.”

Apparently, the idea of a devil is crazy, but not the idea of a superior intellect from another dimension without a body. You might be forgiven for wondering, “What’s the big difference?” In what meaningful sense are Nolan’s proposed entities any different from demons, angels, faeries, djinn, and so forth? What makes one a rational explanation of the data, and another laughable? Is it just the name?

Communion and Ascension 

For a second case study, take Avi Loeb. Loeb is a professor of astronomy at Harvard and a researcher at the Smithsonian. Like Nolan, he believes that aliens have visited Earth, a view he has taken some flak for (though not nearly as much flak, it should be noted, as he would have taken if he had come out in favor of intelligent design.) Despite the criticism, he has been able to found Harvard’s Galileo Project for the Systematic Scientific Search for Evidence of Extraterrestrial Technological Artifacts. 

In a 2023 interview with The Guardian, Loeb recalls a conversation he had:

[Someone] asked me: “Are you running away from something or towards something?” I said: “Both.” I’m running away from some of my colleagues who have strong opinions without seeking evidence. And I’m running towards a higher intelligence in interstellar space.

In his longing for communion with a “higher intelligence,” Loeb almost seems to have rediscovered religion by accident. He rests all his dreams for humanity on this union, and even hopes that if human scientists learn from these higher intelligences, they might learn to create universes from scratch — making Man into God. 

If Loeb ever found such a “higher intelligence,” how do you think he would he react? Would he pause to consider that he might be in contact with a spiritual being, and possibly not a savory one?  

Probably not. You see, supernaturalism is not allowed in science. Just look at how the Smithsonian has treated researchers in the past who were thought to be friendly to intelligent design. 

But this demands the question: if it’s perfectly acceptable for a scientist at Harvard and the Smithsonian to look for evidence of design on our planet by a non-human, “higher intelligence,” then why is intelligent design out of the question whenever the researchers involved are under suspicion of harboring religious sympathies? If the nature of the evidence is the same, why the favoritism regarding the philosophical interpretation? 

Materialism’s Slow Demise 

Nolan and Loeb’s sensational claims may be the most blatant and dramatic examples, but everywhere you look you’ll find scientists and philosophers positing entities that seem very much like something from religion or myth, but dressed up in scientific language and scrubbed of “supernaturalism.”  The only missing ingredient to Lewis’s nightmare scenario is the demons; the magicians are ready and waiting. 

How did we get here? What led to such an entrenched worldview that renders it acceptable for a scientist to hypothesize a bodiless mind from another world, but only so long as he or she phrases things right, and doesn’t call it by any of the old names? 

To answer that, we have to look at the history of the philosophy of materialism. Originally that philosophy taught that the cosmos was just a shifting sea of sand-like atoms, in which animals, plants, rivers, mountains, and even worlds were constantly formed, destroyed, and remade. This universe was all that ever was, or ever would be, and there was nothing beyond it.

The idea was pleasant: comprehensible, intuitive, safe, and aesthetically pleasing (at least in the hands of a skilled poet like Lucretius). And, importantly, it removed the need to worry about gods, religions, or the afterlife.

But the theory couldn’t hold up against the weight of the evidence. That old materialist conception of the world is now just as fantastical as the medieval notion of the celestial spheres, or the Babylonian flat disc of the earth. 

Isaac Newton showed that “occult qualities” govern the universe, to the chagrin of some of his contemporaries.

Atoms are no longer little pool balls knocking around — they are dynamos of energy, composed of probability fields that “collapse” into a single form only when observed. 

Even empty space is no longer just empty space. It is the fabric of our world, the space-time continuum. It is full of invisible fields, and it can be “bent.” It might even be the three-dimensional surface of a four-dimensional sphere. 

It gets worse. The discovery of the Big Bang seemed to show that this universe itself is not all there is. Many cosmologists now believe in a multiverse — which, in turn, implies some transcendent framework for all those universes to arise in. If there’s something out there — if other worlds exist, and something beyond them — then how can we be sure that we are safely cut off from the outside? 

All the entities that the old materialism excluded — up to and including deities and afterlifes — are now possible under contemporary scientific understanding. Science, as we understand it, can admit of disembodied intelligences and intruders from other worlds.

Yet materialism remains a strong force in our culture, especially in scientific circles. So what is “materialism,” if we can no longer say that “matter” is all that exists?

Ghost of a Dead Philosophy

One might have supposed that once the founding tenet of materialism was proven wrong, we would have returned to a premodern, supernaturalist worldview. But that’s not how it works: a dead philosophy always leaves a ghost. 

Materialism, as an idea, is dead. But it lives on as an attitude.

It’s the attitude that laughs at the old stories from religion, myth, and folklore (“Talk about ‘crazy’! They’re the ones who think it’s the devil”) while happily accepting all the characters from those stories under more scientific sounding names.

It’s the attitude that puts no limits on what it might define as “natural,” if the need arises, but then says that science can’t consider evidence for God because God is “supernatural.” (And you’re not allowed to just say, “Okay, God is ‘natural,’ then.” That’s cheating!)

It’s an attitude perfectly ready to access the spiritual realm, but never to believe in it. The attitude has its advantages, no doubt. It probably makes a person feel wiser, safer, more in control. But there is a danger to feeling wise, in control, and safe when, in reality, you are ignorant and unprotected; you might go blithely traipsing into something you would have done better to stay out of.

On the plus side, these trends show that the debate against old-school materialism is essentially won. It might be time for ID theorists to start worrying about what comes after.