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Further Reading

The Crux Project Archives: Philosophy

THE MATERIALIST MAGICIAN

Materialism, magic, and the Global Consciousness Project

by Jordan J. Ballor

It may sound like a creative plot line from an X-Files rerun, but there is strange real-life news coming out of Princeton, New Jersey, the home of the Global Consciousness Project. The project is promoted as “an international effort involving researchers from several institutions and countries, designed to explore whether the construct of interconnected consciousness can be scientifically validated through objective measurement.”

In other words, it is a scientific attempt to find out if human beings across the globe share some greater common “mind.”

The project is based on experiments that began in the 1970s that seemed to show that human thought is able to directly affect the output of a random number generator. These random number generators, or “eggs,” spew forth a constant stream of two numbers, either “ones” or “zeroes.” The Global Consciousness Project (GCP) now includes more than 60 of these networked “eggs” that send the information to be compiled and tabulated at a server in Princeton. The results are then plotted on a continuous graph. 

The “science-fiction” elements come in when we see what that graph ends up looking like. The results for a series of random number generators should resolve themselves into something like a straight line. In the GCP’s words, “The expectation for the graphs is a random walk that has a horizontal trend, but lots of ‘random’ fluctuations. We have seen large deviations from that expectation (the line takes on a slope) that are correlated with big events in the world.” 

Among other things, the project claims that there were large changes in the graph right before the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 and the Indian Ocean tsunami in December of 2004. So, the theory goes, this graph was able to tap into the global “mind” and predict or foreshadow important events.

I don’t want to examine the science behind the work of the Global Consciousness Project. Strange things happen in this world, and I’ll leave it up to the scientists to work that stuff out. What I have a problem with is how the scientists attempt to explain what they have observed. And the explanations offered by the GCP are illustrative of its broader attitude toward spiritual issues.

While admitting that many of its explanations of the data are “speculative,” the project’s website goes on to state, “We are driven by that evidence to infer that something like a ‘consciousness field’ exists, and that intentions or emotional states which structure the field are conveyed as information that is absorbed into the distribution of output values of labile physical systems.”

In plain English, this means that since it appears that the “eggs” are influenced by human thought, there must be some kind of unified world “mind” capable of affecting the physical world. A unified world mind? That’s quite a leap.

The GCP uses many different sources as a springboard for its explanations. One of the main sources for the GCP is the idea of the “noosphere” developed by Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. Teilhard’s “noosphere” is a vibrant web of evolved mental being, the last in a three-part progression of the world.

And while Teilhard’s work remains deeply religious, even “spiritual,” and broadly rooted in Christianity, it nevertheless forms just one part of the “tapestry” for the GCP, which includes elements of neo-paganism, Gaia, and “Mother Earth” imagery. Yet these ideas are introductory, even mythical; for the GCP asserts “it will in the end be poems, or beautiful photographs, that give some feeling for this quest to create a meaningful link to Mother Earth in the shape of scientific work.”

What is so troubling here is the mix of a naturalistic worldview with a kind of quasi-spiritualism. All this makes me think of C. S. Lewis’ famous speculations about the danger of the “Materialist Magician” in his book The Screwtape Letters. In the words of the main character, the demon Screwtape (who opposes God, identified as “the Enemy”), the mixture of a scientific worldview with a vague, almost religious superstition will be the crowning achievement of the demonic world.

Screwtape says, “I have great hopes that we shall learn in due time how to emotionalize and mythologize their science to such an extent that what is, in effect, a belief in us (though not under that name) will creep in while the human mind remains closed to belief in the Enemy. The ‘Life Force’ . . . may here prove useful.” The demon concludes, “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 our war will be in sight.”

Lewis writes in the preface to The Screwtape Letters, “There are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about the devils. One is to disbelieve their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them. They themselves are equally pleased by both errors, and hail a materialist or a magician with the same delight.” The Materialist Magician, however, represents the most dangerous combination of both errors.

Despite the GCP’s appreciation of and foundation on the work of Teilhard de Chardin and his affinities for Christianity, it certainly seems that the spirit of the project’s theories are propelled by just such a combination of materialism and “magic.”

The Christian view of the human person, in which humans are created in the image of God, is rooted in the view that humans are both physical and spiritual beings. In Screwtape’s words, “Humans are amphibians—half spirit and half animal . . . . As spirits they belong to the eternal world, but as animals they inhabit time.”

A Christian worldview does not deny the link between the reality of the spiritual world and the existence of God. Since GCP’s ideas about Mother Earth attempt to account for spiritual realities while “the human mind remains closed to belief” in God, they are hostile to Christianity. In the GCP model, the spiritual world is reduced to a mere extension of the physical world. In the meantime, God is ignored. The GCP’s explanations simply do not sufficiently account for spiritual realities.

Discussions like this one about competing worldviews are important for Christians and non-Christians alike. As philosopher and author James W. Sire writes in his hugely popular book The Universe Next Door, “So long as we live, we will live either the examined or the unexamined life.” It is his book’s assumption (as well as mine) that “the examined life is better.” Scientists like those involved with the GCP need to at least examine their belief structures and question whether they fully do justice to all of reality.

Dr. Robert B. Sheldon, a physicist with the National Space Science and Technology Center, writes about evolution and materialism as “the wedge that splits the Christian view of persons in half, dividing asunder soul and body, spirit and strength.”

Bridging this gap, in both the view of the human person and the material and spiritual world, should be the task of scientists in the new millennium. They must beware the temptation represented by the Materialist Magician and instead embrace a more unified framework in which God accounts for body and soul, the physical and the spiritual—mind and heart. •

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