A brief glimpse into the shared history of science and demonology and what they can tell us today
Demonology isn’t exactly the first thing to spring to mind when considering science. As a matter of fact, it seems to lack most of science’s most important traits. Modern criteria like validity, usefulness, consistency, quantifiability and falsification all seem to fit the ancient art of demonology as well as your favourite childhood hat would fit your adult head.
And yet, for a long while, that hat did fit.
In the same way, Demonology was once a very serious science requiring training and expertise and it can tell us a lot about how far the modern world has come and about the ongoing difficulty of keeping superstition out of science. Throughout history, practices like exorcism mirrored those of medicinal healing and explanations of the world could take place, with relatively good accuracy, using models involving dark spirits and devils in place of interacting particles, cells or chemical compounds. Furthermore, natural phenomena could be well understood, even predicted and qualified, using spiritual models. Even if results were purely gained through what would now be called “placebo”, they were results none the less. Further still, early and supernatural healers could even give accurate prognoses despite their supernatural models.
In short, Demonology was legitimate science.
To briefly add context, the ancient science of alchemy (without which we wouldn’t have chemistry) utilised demons in the extensive metaphysical mythology surrounding and explaining its craft. This is well expressed by the concept of “Berith”, at once both the 12th demon of hell in the ancient tome “Ars Goetia” while simultaneously the name of the element thought to have the power to transmute any matter into gold.
The practice of alchemy stretched from the 4th century BCE to the early modern era, and its most famous proponent was (surprisingly) the revered scientists Sir Isaac Newton, the harbinger of the modern scientific era.
Beyond early chemistry, demons were also conceptually employed in medicine in the previously mentioned craft of exorcism. Widely considered by many today to be a Christian practice, exorcism was common to many parts of the world and a wide range of cultural practices. Shamanism, paganism, Shintoism, Buddhism and even Islam (to name but a few) contain examples of physical healing through the casting out of supernatural demons (though the exact definition of the word “demon” varies considerably).
Some of the most important work of medicine throughout the ages has been the practice of separating these metaphysical elements from applied science. We may be tempted to think that the history of Demonology is one of moving away from superstition and ending up with science. It is not. Science and superstition are not only often difficult to distinguish between historically, but they are also clearly forces which have been and are still held in parallel.
As a matter of fact, scepticism against superstitious demonology (which we may mistakenly consider to be modern) is roughly as old as the practice of demonology itself. Our prime example is that of the ancient Greek doctors known as the Hippocratics shortly after the 4th C. BCE. The orthodoxy of Greek traditional healing employed a useful practice of herbal remedies and therapies alongside another orthodoxy, deemed useless by the Hippocratics, of casting out demons and making peace with the gods and supernatural forces. As far as the Hippocratics were concerned, much like we are today, this latter part was entirely useless for the practical purposes of medicine, and yet these events preceded the rise of alchemy mentioned before.
Interestingly, the word “demon” comes from the Greek “daemon” meaning a lesser deity or “guiding spirit”; in other words, an ad-hoc and unspecific explanatory substitute for materialistically grounded science. Yet, as we well know, such forces are still at play against and within science today. Vague jargon, ad hoc definitions and metaphysical concepts which border on the superstitious (such as the many worlds hypothesis and panpsychism) still exist as the proverbial daemons of modern science. This is not to say that they are “bad” or “undesirable” pieces of superstition, but rather that science even to this day cannot help but create implications which are above and beyond the observable.
What this highlights is the categorial vagueness of our definitions of and within science. Although we can think of specific paradigmatic examples of what science is, it’s far easier to find examples with seriously problematic ambiguity. This is the struggle of our time: angels and demons, imps and spirits, have become vibrating sub-quantum strings and models of the unseen universe. Whether this is good or bad for science is of less relevance than an appreciation of its importance: superstition and metaphysics aren’t going away any time soon.