The HPedia: Energy

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In Contemporary Paganism, “energy” typically refers to a vaguely-defined metaphysical or pseudo-metaphysical force connecting various objects in the cosmos.  It often plays a role in describing ritual experiences or explaining how magic is thought to work.

This notion of “energy” has little, if anything, to do with the concept in physics, other than a very loose analogy.  It probably is more worth comparing and contrasting with concepts of subtle forces in other cultures such as mana, prana, chi, and so on.

From a naturalistic standpoint, there seems to be little evidence supporting such subtle forces, yet “energy” might still be used in a loose, colloquial way to describe a “powerful” or “moving” empirical sensation.

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3 Comments on “The HPedia: Energy

  1. I think this entry needs a little work. Overall the entry has a dismissive tone. For me the take home message I get from this entry is that “spiritual/metaphysical” energy doesn’t exists, so any literal belief in it is not compatible with naturalism, even though some naturalists use it in a metaphorical folksy colloquial way.

    I recently finished Jill Bolte Taylor’s book “My Stroke of Insight: A Brain Scientist’s Personal Journey.” Taylor is a very grounded neuroanatomist, who describes in this book her recovery from a left cerebral hemisphere stroke. With her left hemisphere severely damaged, Taylor experienced the world during her recovery primarily using her right hemisphere. She uses the word “energy” a lot to describe her right hemisphere perception of her experiences. Taylor writes:

    “I appreciate that for many of us, if our left mind cannot smell it, taste it, hear it, see it or touch it, then we are skeptical as to whether or not it exists. Our right brain is capable of detecting energy beyond the limitations of our left mind because of the way it is designed. I hope your level of discomfort about such things as energy dynamics and intuition has decreased as you have increased your understanding about the fundamental differences in the way our two hemispheres collaborate to create our single perception of reality.

    Remembering that we are energy beings designed to perceive and translate energy into neural code may help you become more aware of your own energy dynamics and intuition. Can you sense the mood of a room when you first walk in? Ever wonder why you seem to be content one minute and then fraught with fear the next? Our right hemisphere is designed to perceive and decipher the subtle energy dynamics we perceive intuitively……

    Our right brain perceives the big picture and recognizes that everything around us, about us, among us and within us is made up of energy particles that are woven together into a universal tapestry. Since everything is connected, there is an intimate relationship between the atomic space around and within me, and the atomic space around and within you– regardless of where we are. On an energetic level, if I think about you, send good vibrations your way, hold you in the light, or pray for you, then I am consciously sending my energy to you with a healing intention. If I meditate over you or lay my hands upon your wound, then I am purposely directing the energy of my being to help you heal. How the arts of Reiki, Feng Shui, acupuncture, and prayer (to mention only a few) work remain pretty much medical mysteries. This is mostly because our left brains and science have not yet successfully caught up with what we understand to be true about how our right hemisphere functions. However, I believe our right minds are perfectly clear about how they intuitively perceive and interpret energy dynamics.” Taylor, Jill Bolte (2008-05-12). My Stroke of Insight: A Brain Scientist’s Personal Journey (pp. 167-169). Penguin Group US. Kindle Edition.

    Without a doubt our left mind does not like the ambiguity of this kind of “energy”. Maybe energy isn’t a good word for what Taylor is describing, but whatever term our left mind can parse out for this, I do believe it exists and is a very important part of our human experience and especially our religious/spiritual experiences. (For those not familiar with Taylor’s story, she also did a Ted Talk about it: http://www.ted.com/talks/jill_bolte_taylor_s_powerful_stroke_of_insight.html)

    • I frankly don’t like using the word ‘energy’–it seriously clashes with my physics knowledge. I prefer using the word ‘affinity’ to describe such overall feelings of the surrounding landscape that we have an instinctual reaction to. But then I think such words should be seen in a poetic way, rather than at face value. It pains me that people prefer to take such real sentiments and then literalise them quickly without savouring such sentiments in the context of their life. By the way, left-brain right-brain descriptions of neurological systems is too simplistic and hides the fact that we are far from understanding how they exist for organisms in the world. I don’t think that the human brain–let alone brains in general–is highly modular, but adaptive and ever-responsive to changing circumstances.

      As for the quote: “Remembering that we are energy beings designed to perceive and translate energy into neural code may help you become more aware of your own energy dynamics and intuition.” That’s where I would tread very lightly. It already presumes that we only exist as such beings, without considering that our materiality is historically-constrained and situated in our life-world. I find the idea of ‘energy beings’ to echo ideas about spirit and soul which I find unhelpful in describing our experiences. Such language can lead to a blindness of the diversity of human experiences which may not be captured in such terms.

  2. I can understand a naturalist having an aversion to using the word ‘energy’ given the confusion that can arise. But, as a naturalist, I would also like to point out another possible legitimate use of the word that is between these two notions: either the scientific term on the one hand, or claims of other unknown/unproved phenomena on the other.

    This begins with looking at the history of the word. It seems to me if we look at the time before the formal definitions of ‘energy’ in terms of physics arose, then there was a less rigid form of the word. By this more general use of the term, energy simply means “the ability to do work” or the “active principle”. That is, ‘energy’ is the capacity for action.

    Thus, I think it can be reasonable for a naturalist to use the term ‘energy’ in any sense in which we are speaking of the capacity for activity or action, as long as the context makes clear we are not making statements of physics. For example, it can be possible for a nation to ‘gather its energy’ to help its needy. It can be possible for me to ‘focus my energies’ upon something. Or, we can speak of the ‘energy of compassion’ moving within us because it inspires us to action.

    These are non-formal uses of the word energy that predate the more specific and formal use of the term in the lexicon of physics. But they also do not necessarily suggest some additional unknown or paranormal force to be added to the pantheon of energy forms in physics. They do not represent any additional claim of new phenomena. They are merely a way to talk about action potential – sometimes as a result of emergent properties in bodies, cultures, nations, ecosystems, psyches, and so on.

    This can be very subtle and easily confused with New Age language and usage of the term, which is why I understand the aversion to use it by naturalists. But if one is very clear, or if speaking between two naturalists who are on the same page, I think this form of the word can be legitimate too.

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