The Numinous

“The numinous sensation of shuddering fear and joy, the sympathetic understanding of all creation, the dark night of the soul, the supernatural sense of peace and illumination, the peculiar beneficent effects of rites, the whole range of experience, in fact, which makes up religious mysticism, is what we have to deal with when we speak of religion” [Joseph Needham, The Great Amphibium, 1931, p.151].

The Harmonious Person

Joseph Needham wrote:

“We can keep before ourselves continually the conception of the harmonious person, one to whom science and religion, though always antagonistic, are equally necessary methods of attaining contact with what lies at the core of the world”

[The Great Amphibium, 1931, p.44]

The Opium of Religion versus the Opium of Science?

Marx had warned against “the opium of religion”, something to distract the working classes from their class exploitation. Joseph Needham warned that there was also a danger that “the opium of science” was replacing the opium of religion in the twentieth century. People could be too optimistic that science alone could solve the great evils of human existence. In his opinion it could do a lot – provided you had a social reformist or socialist government – but what science lacked was a sense of the “numinous” or “the Holy”, and too many scientists lacked also a sense of humility.

Creator of Sherlock Holmes: The World Beyond Science

Arthur Conan Doyle, who of course created the Sherlock Holmes series, had been an Edinburgh medical student and well grounded in science. But, like a number of thinkers in the late 19th century (including a group of scientists who founded the well known Society for Psychical Research), Doyle believed that science had limits, that there were phenomena that transcended empirical science and were of a spiritual, extra-sensory nature. Thus began his later interest in spiritualism, which Рdespite the many quacks around, the s̩ances, table-rapping, etc Рmany serious thinkers found appealing Рor at least thought that the paranormal was worth studying. Philosophers of the time also argued that the spheres of discourse of science and religion/spiritual concerns were simply different. It was not a matter of black and white. Both discourses were, or could be, valid.
Here is what Conan Doyle wrote in the Strand Magazine in 1921:
“Victorian science would have left the world hard and clean and bare, like the landscape of the moon, but this science is in truth but a little light in the darkness, and outside that limited circle of definite knowledge we see the loom and shadow of gigantic and fantastic possibilities around us, throwing themselves continually across our consciousness in such ways that it is difficult to ignore them”.

Needham’s Controversial Life

Joseph Needham (1900-95) was a highly distinguished biochemist, who won almost every distinction around. He got an interest in the history of Chinese science after the Japanese invasion of China in 1937 and went on to write (later in collaboration with other experts) the monumental multi-volume “Science and Civilisation in China”. Needham’s father had been active in the Anglican Oxford Movement and Joseph had a life-long interest in comparative religion and philosophy. He combined, unusually, a Marxist perspective (never doctrinaire or formally communist) and support for socialist and reformist movements globally with an ingrained feeling for organic principles and an overarching humanitarian and spiritual human order. His pro-Chinese stand during the Korean war resulted in his demonization in many western circles, the media and especially from the US government. Needham publicised the results of an international scientific commission that concluded that American forces had used biological weapons in Korea. As the Oxford DNB says: “Widely denounced in [the UK] parliament and the press as a traitor and a stooge, he had to weather a furious storm of calls for him to be removed from his academic posts, and he became persona non grata in the US”. Controversy continued for years, but as his great work emerged his reputation improved. He became master of Gonville and Caius Cambridge College (1966-1976), while the US finally relented some years later and granted him a visa. After his death his magnum opus continued at the Needham Research Institute. Although its theories about the reasons for the decline of a once-dominant Chinese science still provoke debate, it is recognised as a great classic.

Joseph Needham, The Great Amphibian

McKenzie Wark, in an online article, writes this about Joseph Needham:
“…Needham saw religion as an indisputable domain of social feeling, a kind of collective experience of the numinous, which might be thought of as the radically other and inexplicable aspect of the universe. For Needham religion was a practice of human solidarity, in and against that otherness… [He] identified himself… with a sense of the early Christians as a popular, revolutionary force, inspired by a sense of driving justice”
[Wark, “Joseph Needham, The Great Amphibian”, (].
I would add that such views about a radically other and inexplicable universe were shared by some other scientists, such as Arthur Eddington and James Jeans, as well as a number of philosophers.

Joseph Needham: Polymath

Joseph Needham (1900-1995), the British medical scientist and historical expert on Chinese science, was a remarkable person. His multi-volume “Science and Civilisation in Science” put forward provocative views about the primacy of the Chinese in invention, preceding the West in many areas. He also tried to bridge the gap between science and religion. I will try to cover some of these controversies in later posts.