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Scientific naturalism and the modern empirical occult: historiographical and practical issues

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Following public debates over the significance of Cornell psychologist Daryl Bem’s parapsychological experiments for the ‘replication crisis’ and standards of scientific publishing, a more recent controversy over the validity of certain ‘occult’ phenomena in the American Psychologist suggests that controversies over science and the ‘supernatural’ aren’t likely to end any time soon. In this session, I will sketch historical and sociological work on the ‘decline of magic’ in Western academia from the Enlightenment to the 20th century, and suggest that despite the axiomatic function of ‘scientific naturalism’ in modern university culture, conceptions of it are as vague today as they were in 1892, when Thomas Huxley enlisted historical claims to replace his coinage ‘agnosticism’ with that term. Arguing that controversies over empirical tests of alleged occult phenomena ultimately boil down to simplistic historical assumptions regarding scientific practice and metaphysical bias, I will address desiderata in recent historical scholarship on scientific naturalism. I will conclude the session by inviting discussions over whether and how professional historians and philosophers of science should take the risk of intervening in ongoing public disputes on science and the ‘supernatural’.

This talk is part of the Twentieth Century Think Tank series.

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