Reading for my economic history field exam I stumbled across David Landes' "The Unbound Prometheus: Technological change and industrial development in Wester Europe from 1750 to the present." The book was published in the annus mirabilis 1969 at Cambridge University Press. It really gives you a feel for what the intellectual atmosphere was like in academia around that time. (Landes was professor at Harvard)
"There is good reason to believe that already in the Middle Ages, Europe was freer of superstition and more rational in behaviour than other parts of the world." p. 22
Certain Asian societies in particular have devoted considerable effort to the exploration of a world that lies outside or beyond the material universe accessible to ordinary sensory cognition. This other world may lie within or without the observer, who enters it usually with the assistance of drugs or through the medium of a deliberately induced trance-like state. Sometimes the claim is made that this is a higher form of consciousness; sometimes, merely that this other world is another, rich realm of a larger universe of experience. In either case, the assumption is that this, too, is real.
Western societies have also had their exploration of other realms, with or without drugs-their religious ecstasies, magical rites, superstitions, fairy tales, daydreams. But Western societies, and more particularly their intellectual and scientific leadership, established very early the boundary line between fantasy and reality, drawing careful distinctions between spiritual and material, between the realm of emotion and imagination on the one hand and that of observation and reason on the other. The shibboleth has been the communicability of experience: something is real if it can and will be perceived and described, perhaps even measured, by any person with the requisite faculties and instruments in the same terms.I In other words, what you see, I see. p. 25
The stuff of a dream is evanescent; the perceptions of a 'religious experience' are highly personal. These transcendental impressions may leave a legacy of emotions, attitudes, values.
What they do not yield is cognitive building blocks. By carefully distinguishing between these two forms of knowledge, Western culture saved itself from material impotence, at the cost perhaps of a certain psychic impoverishment. (I say 'perhaps' because those who have not enjoyed transcendental experiences must take those who have at their word.) The same point can be made about the highly complex and abstract reasoning of certain 'primitive' societies-reasoning that anthropologists are currently much concerned with and that they find to be different from, but not necessarily inferior to, the rationalism of science.
This ethnological literature is curiously defensive: by stressing the profundity and intimacy of these other systems of thought, by minimizing the differences, for example, between science and magic, the savant seeks to elevate the 'savage' to intellectual as well as spiritual and moral parity with the 'civilised'.' The cause is a worthy one. The anthropologist here has assumed the mantle of the priest who preaches humility by depreciating the works of man; and the humility of the twentieth century is relativism.
Yet although modesty is good for the soul, it is not always true. The difference between science and magic is the difference between rational and irrational; that is, the one makes possible effective action and the other does not, except adventitiously. p.26
Even so brilliant a scientist as Isaac Newton, the heir of a century of intellectual revolution, was credulous on this score. In hisfamous letter of 1669 (he was then only 26) to Francis Aston, advising that young man how to make the most of his travels, he suggests that Aston inquire whether 'in Hungary... they change Iron into Copper by dissolving it into a Vitriolate water wch they find in cavitys of rocks in the mines & then melting the slymy solution in a strong fire...'Yet it would be a mistake to equate this credulity with superstition. Rather, this kind of alchemy represented in effect a transitional stage between magic and science, between the irrational and the rational, in the sense that the change sought was to be accomplished by a real agent,and not by patently immaterial incantations. Newton did not know enough chemistry to realize that the kind of mutation he envisaged was impossible. But he and his contemporaries knew enough about the nature of reality and were sufficiently pragmatic to insist on results; so that when all the alchemical ingenuity in the world failed to turn up the philosophers' stone or the elixir of life, they abandoned the search and turned their knowledge and skills to the rational accomplishment of feasible ends. And so alchemy became chemistry. p28