What is the Historical Study of Science and Magic Good for?

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« on: March 11, 2020, 11:18:22 pm »
What is the Historical Study of Science and Magic Good for?

Andreas Sommer

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Even though I was explicitly writing as a historian, I was perhaps a little light on actual history, at least concerning the periods we typically look at here on Forbidden Histories. In fact, I only gave a couple of examples to illustrate typical Enlightenment responses to reported ‘spirit-seership’ and briefly mentioned studies of hallucinations and apparitions of the dead in non-pathological populations by William James and English colleagues in the outgoing nineteenth century.

The remainder of the short piece is mainly concerned with relatively recent medical findings concerning constructive functions of certain hallucinations and ‘mystical’ experiences. Whereas previous generations of medics have regarded hallucinations, apparitions of the dead and similar experiences as inherently pathological and undesirable, these views began to be drastically modified in the early 1970s with new research on so-called ‘hallucinations of widowhood’.

From then on, it seemed like friendly ghosts and otherworldly visions were gradually making an entry into the mainstream medical literature not only in the shape of comforting visitations from the departed in widowhood, but also in often profoundly moving end-of-life experiences in palliative and hospice care. At around the same time, mystical experiences sometimes occurring during close brushes with death began to be recognized by mainstream medicine as often having constructively transformative effects. Not least, similar but psychedelically induced (rather than spontaneously occurring) experiences have been shown to be effective in the treatment of severe conditions including treatment-resistant depressions and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Following a summary of these clinical revisions, I touched a point that’s not usually raised: Questions of the ultimate reality of spirits and ‘magic’ aside, if otherworldly experiences can have constructive and even therapeutic functions at least for a part of humanity, could it be harmful to follow blindly the outdated historical standard narrative of Western modernity...