I’ve started reading, in small doses and stunned disbelief, a fat paperback called The Secret History of the World, by Jonathan Black. The title was the hook – I’m interested in straight history of secret societies. This book is something else. But I can’t say I wasn’t warned: the blurb bears the endorsement of Graham Hancock, who, in the sober light of day after magic mushroom tripping, still believes his visions of monsters were real, not hallucinatory.
Jonathan Black lets his true colours shine through from the outset. His preface begins:
“THE SECRET HISTORY OF THE WORLD is a rude gesture in the face of know-it-alls who make up our intellectual elite, the control freaks who would decide what is acceptable for us all to think and believe.”
A little later:
“I try to show that there are perhaps deeper, richer patterns in history than the economic and narrowly political ones that conventional history allows, and that these patterns are supernatural in the sense that they just would not be happening if science explains everything there is.”
Oh dear, the “science doesn’t know everything” caper. But science doesn’t claim to know everything. Science is a method of inquiry, seeking truth through observation, and constantly refining its ideas in the light of accessible and reproducible experimental data. In setting science up as a know-it-all straw man, Black cues the spurious suggestion that, since science clearly doesn’t know it all, then peddlers of the paranormal somehow “win”.
Sometimes they use precisely the opposite tactic. Creationists often observe debate and disagreement among evolutionary scientists. The Scripturalists then crow, “See, they’re not even sure themselves! We win - game over!” Thus science loses if it knows it all, and also loses if it doesn’t.
In concluding his preface, Black notes:
“As far as genuine spiritual experience goes, some us [sic] have been born gifted. [I wonder if Black includes himself in that set...?] As for the rest of us, some may have just enough imagination to realize that imagination itself is a way of seeing things that are real....”
Uh no, the imagination is a way of seeing things that are unreal or potentially real (as in hypothesis, the “what if?” thoughts of the scientific experimenter). The trick is to distinguish fantasy from delusion, but I suspect Black isn’t going down that road. He does of course suggest that scientists and rationalists are narrow minded and unimaginative - another absurd canard, demolished by Richard Dawkins in his book, Unweaving the Rainbow.
In distancing himself from science, Black sheds any inconvenient obligation to provide the reader with evidence of his supernatural notions. I suspect none will be forthcoming, though he might well venture that, if you don't see it, it's not his fault you lack imagination.
I highly recommend the Dawkins. As for Black’s effort, I haven’t yet decided whether to compost it or read on further for laughs…