Last night, Internal Editor Zoe Sottile and baby Bwogger Jeffrey had the privilege of attending a talk given by Dr. Matthew Melvin-Koushki, a professor of history at the University of South Carolina on the topic of the occult sciences. It was the inaugural lecture in a series sponsored by the new Center for the Study of Muslim Societies. Ahmet Tunç Şen, a professor of history here at Columbia, led a round of Q&A after the talk.
Dr. Matthew Melvin-Koushki is an impressive dude. For one thing, he has a really big beard! For another, he has a Ph.D. from Yale and not one, not two, but three books coming out soon. He flexed a little — he called it “nothing special” that he was the first academic to publish an outlined history of the occult from the 10th to the 17th century in a 2017 paper of his (Yeah, okay). Within the first moments, Melvin-Koushki had asserted that his lecture would be provocative, which is part of why we were interested in this talk in the first place. Immersed in the Columbia Core curriculum, we were excited to learn more about the Islamic intellectual traditions left out of the Core – and the topics marginalized even within that Islamic tradition. So. Occult time!
We have to say that we were initially uneasy to attend this talk, if only because we had no idea what the “occult sciences” were. Thankfully, our fears were assuaged on slide 2, when Melvin-Koushki gave us a working definition of the term. The keyword here, however, is “working.” As it turns out, there’s a lot of ambiguity around the term even in academia – Melvin-Koushki asserted that up to half of Islamic literature hasn’t even been studied because it concerns occult material. How can you know what occult science even is if you refuse to study it?
Melvin-Koushki divided the occult sciences into three main categories: magic, divination, and theurgy, all of which revolve around trying to change or predict reality. Here he raised a point that would recur in his talk, which was that scientists and historians need to communicate better. “The history of science”, he claimed, “is essential to science” – you need to know what other people have learned in order to learn on your own.
Now, by the title of this event — “Is Occult Science Science?” — you’d have thought that Melvin-Koushki was going to attempt to reframe the principles of occult science in such a way that pre-med attendees would leave wondering if they should maybe major in the Occult Sciences instead of Chem. Instead, he took what we thought was a far more novel approach. Instead of using modern science’s standards to validate the occult, he argued that what we think of as objective, Western, modern science has a lot more of the occult in it than we’d like to admit.
Melvin-Koushki’s work is niche. Like, really niche. He spent part of his presentation reviewing modern-day works of Islamic history that essentially write off occult practices as meaningless politically and historically. It raises the question, however: if he was able to find enough information on the occult sciences to create a mere outline, then what’s up with the writing off of said sciences by modern-day academics as “nonsense magic”? Is this just laziness on the part of those academics?
In a sense, Melvin-Koushki asserted, it is. Because if those academics were to look further into the practices of occult science – practices that include astrology, alchemy, geomancy, kabbalah, physiognomy, and illusionism – they’d see how much of a parallel there is between the “nonsense” of the occult sciences and the burgeoning fields like parapsychology, and psychophysics. In one example, he referenced the Perceptual Sciences Division of UVA’s med school. Researchers there are presently asking parents to “please contact [them] if [their] child appears to be having memories of a previous life,” which, if you think about it, sounds pretty darned occultic.
These parallels exist in astrophysics, medicine, and a number of other fields typically thought of as far removed from the realms of the “magic” and the “occult.” Though those fields are trusted by laymen as rigorous and objective, they are themselves often the locus of mystery and seemingly futile quests – like the quest for smaller and smaller subatomic particles or dark matter. Melvin-Koushki pointed in particular to the contemporary “golden age of pseudoscience,” with up to 70% of published scientific literature being unreproducible. Every ninth grader knows that the scientific method dictates, last but definitely not least, that their experiments be reproducible. Melvin-Koushki raised the question of whether this is a present-day crisis or whether there have always been charlatans in the sciences. We just used to call them magicians.
So, if there’s so much overlap between the occult sciences and the sciences that you, reader, are claiming to major in until the going gets tough, why the laziness to make this connection sooner?
Plot twist: it’s not just laziness. It’s also our old friend, racism! Mr. Koushki spoke of “la mission civilisatrice,” which is really just “white man’s burden” with a beret and a cigarette in hand. He criticized Islamic studies as “occultophobic”, steered by the twin devils of scientism and religionism to leave out the occult and make Islamic studies seem more serious. It’s a lot more acceptable, he claimed, to study the occult sciences in a European context than in an Islamic one. Basically, trying to rehabilitate the image of Middle Eastern societies, Islamic scholars end up leaving a lot out.
Melvin-Koushki then moved into a deeper analysis of magic itself. Magic, he claimed, is the combination of science and religion, mind and matter. He described the occult as “disciplines in which one extrapolates from visible data to invisible” – so medicine is magic; surgery is not. It is also deeply linked to questions of power and empire – historical rulers attempted to use magic to change their world. Magic either serves or challenges empire. He quoted Francis Bacon: “knowledge is power”, whether it be scientific or magic knowledge. You can’t study colonization and empire without studying occult practices. He ended the talk by calling for “an empirical history of consciousness” and further collaboration between scientists and historians. We all love a group project!
Some random takeaways from the lecture:
The night ended with some commentary from Professor Tunç Şen and questions from the curious audience. Most of the questions applied Melvin-Koushki’s theory to practical situations. One attendee asked, for instance, about the ritual transformation of citizenship, a magic denied to many refugees. He described capitalism itself as a kind of sorcery, a matrix of illusions that shapes the world around us. Finally, he stated, “We’re all being magical all the time – let’s just not be sorcerous, or less sorcerous.”
Image via Columbia University Middle East Institute.