Democracy and Pseudo-Science

Rudolf Steiner and Anthroposophy

When I was thirteen, my mother died suddenly.  On the rebound, my father married again to a German woman, whose family were great enthusiasts for the thinking of the Croatian-born seer and polymath, Rudolf Steiner.  To that point, I had never heard of Steiner (my family, English, were Quakers), but in the sixty years since I have heard a great deal.  Rudolf Steiner was a devotee of German culture, for a while he worked in the Goethe archives in Jena, and also for a number of years he was a follower of the Russian-born mystic (some would say charlatan) Madame Blavatsky, the theosophist.  He broke off to found his own organization, anthroposophy, and then for many years pushed a wild vision of gods (two Jesuses), angels, planets and their influences (astral forces), and much more.  Like the theosophists he was much impressed by Indian religions and was always convinced of reincarnation.  At the same time, Steiner founded a school system – so-called Waldorf Schools, very much thriving today – a dance form (eurythmy), a distinctive form of art and architecture, a type of medical treatment, a religious organisation (the Christian Community), and an idiosyncratic mode of organic farming, biodynamic agriculture (Ruse 2013).


I have never myself been attracted to anthroposophy, but I have grown to like many of its enthusiasts (including my still-active step-mother), and have a certain respect – if tinged occasionally with amusement – for its philosophy and activities.  I think all of the stuff about angels and spirit forces is pretty daft, and I simply cannot get over the boredom of seeing a bunch of middle-aged people of both sexes prance around a stage while dressed in flowing garments in pastel colors (reflecting Goethe’s views on the spectrum).  Although I have to say that seeing my teenaged brother and his mates forced into the embarrassment of eurythmy performances made up for much.

But it does seem to me that even though there are things one might criticize about Waldorf education, there is also a care and attention to the whole child and its needs that is altogether admirable.  And biodynamic agriculture, for all its silliness – you need to take a cow’s horn in the fall and fill it with manure and bury it over winter to catch the astral forces, which can then be diluted and spread over the fields in the spring – has a sense about the organic that many should emulate.  As it happens, through a close friend (Marjorie Spock, the sister of the pediatrician Benjamin Spock), in her famous work Silent Spring (1962), Rachel Carson used a huge amount of material gathered by the biodynamic agriculturalists against DDT.  Since this is one of the most influential works of the twentieth century – a work that many still consider groundbreakingly important in the fight for the health of our planet – the scales are certainly tipped in favor of Steiner and his movement.

Having said this, one should not turn a blind eye to the failures and dangers of anthroposophy.   My father caught measles as a child and as a result had badly damaged eyesight, 50% in one eye and 25% in the other.  And yet, under the influence of the Steiner movement, to the end of his days (near eighty) he was adamantly opposed to vaccination for any of the childhood illnesses.  Steiner (whose ideas he embraced enthusiastically) argued that humans are a bit like Russian dolls, with different bodies enclosing each other – the outer one being physical and getting more spiritual as you go inwards.  Steiner education is designed to work with this progression and thus, to the age of seven, you work on the outer physical body and then inwards during the growth of the child until fully mature.  Illnesses like measles are thought essential parts of development — in getting them and working through them the physical body becomes more and more stable and integrated with the person.  In other words, measles are a good thing and nothing should be done to prevent them.

We also understand why, among the best minds of our period, there exists a kind of aversion to vaccination. This would constitute the indispensable counterpart without which we are performing only half our task. We are merely accomplishing something to which the person in question will himself have to produce a counterpart in a later incarnation. If we destroy the susceptibility to smallpox, we are concentrating only on the external side of karmic activity.  (Steiner 1910, Lecture 8)

Of course, what should not be forgotten here is that as fewer and fewer people get vaccinated the incidence of disease goes up, meaning that more and more are put at risk.  Waldorf Schools have a bad track record in this respect and obviously there is a knock-on effect for the general public.  One can only thank God that polio seems no longer a major threat because that is another disease against which anthroposophists refuse to take preventative steps.

Four Basic Points

As Aristotle rightly noted, one swallow does not make a summer.  But I use this little personal story for some more general points I want to make about science and democracy, or more particularly – for I consider this to be true of much of the Steiner output – pseudo-science and democracy.  Let me lay out what seem to me to be some pretty basic points.

First, if democracy means anything then it means letting people have some pretty silly thoughts (Mill 1859).  Of course, what counts as “pretty silly” is a comparative term, but that is no big issue.  Even if you are a minority of one in thinking something pretty silly, you are still obligated to let others have them.  While I find the idea of turning water into wine a very attractive prospect, I don’t think it is true, and moreover I think anyone who believes this has a pretty silly belief.  I am fully aware that most people in the part of the world where I live would not agree, but whether I am a minority of one or a majority faced with but one believer, I should not prevent that person from having those beliefs.  I take it for granted that what I am saying is hedged with the usual caveats.  Personally I find the idea of sex with young children rather silly – rather disgusting actually – but I take it that for the obvious reasons (exploitation and so forth) the tolerance I am expressing does not apply here.  I shall have more to say shortly about the boundaries of tolerance.

Second, pretty silliness is not entirely a subjective matter.  Let’s leave religion on one side (because that is not the topic now) and turn to the realm of the empirical, the world of science.  I take it that down through the centuries philosophers and others interested in the nature of science have managed to articulate a fairly robust set of criteria for distinguishing between genuine science and false or bogus or pseudo-science.  At the risk of seeming intolerably self-serving, but pointing out that they were accepted in a court of law – in an anti-Creationism trial in Arkansas in 1981 — let me give you the criteria that I favor for real science.

  1. It is guided by natural law;
  2. It has to be explanatory by reference to natural law;
  3. It is testable against the empirical world;
  4. Its conclusions are tentative, i.e. are not necessarily the final word; and
  5. It is falsifiable.  (Ruse 1988)

I take it that Darwin’s theory of evolution through natural selection fits these sorts of criteria (Ruse 2006).  It appeals to law – both natural selection and the laws of genetics (formerly Mendelian and now molecular).  It can be tested.  For instance, one can run models to see how efficiently an ant nest uses its resources and then check your results against actual nests.  It is always open to revision – is it selection working here or just random factors (genetic drift)?  And sometimes it is seen to be false or at least potentially so.  The newly discovered little human-like creature, Homo floriensis (nicknamed the “hobbit”) might turn out just to be a diseased, regular Homo sapiens, and not a new species at all.

I take it that something like so-called Creation Science that supposes that Genesis is literally true does not satisfy these criteria.  It appeals to miracles – God created Adam and Eve.  It is certainly not testable nor are its conclusions tentative.  Nothing would persuade its enthusiasts that Noah’s Flood was not literally true.  And it is certainly not falsifiable.  How could it be?  It is based on the Word of God.

Third, I take it that tolerance about people’s beliefs does not extend to letting this sort of stuff be taught in science classrooms in state-supported schools.  I am not sure that I would go as far as Richard Dawkins (2007) as to say that all forms of religious education are just excuses for child abuse.  Although I am not comfortable with many of these things, I don’t think I would want to close down private schools that taught what I (and others) regard as pseudo-science.  But there are good reasons for preferring regular science over pseudo-science, not the least being that the former works and the latter does not.  I want children taught the best that we have, not any odd idea because someone is sincere about it.  Put the matter this way.  In medical schools would you want equal time given over to Christian Science and the Jehovah’s Witnesses on blood transfusions and the anthroposophists on vaccinations?   I want children taught what works.  I certainly do not want children – or medical students – taught things that are positively false and potentially very harmful.  (I am leaving on one side constitutional questions.  In the USA, Creation Science cannot be taught in state schools because it violates the separation of Church and State as mandated by the First Ammendment.  Here I am trying to make a more general, philosophical argument, not win a court case.)

Fourth and finally, let me draw your attention to the fact that pseudo-science rarely comes without a philosophy attached (Ruse 2013).  It stands to reason in a way.  There has to be something driving people to go out into the wilderness beyond respectability.  In the case of anthroposophy, it is a vision of human nature, one bound up with astral forces as we develop and try to respond to the unseen.  It is deeply holistic, seeing the whole of nature including humans as part of one integrated whole.  This is all very much in the spirit of Romanticism seeing all as one.  Wordsworth expressed it well in his poem Tintern Abbey.

And I have felt
A presence that disturbs me with the joy
Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused,
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
And the round ocean, and the living air,
And the blue sky, and in the mind of man,
A motion and a spirit, that impels
All thinking things, all objects of all thought,
And rolls through all things.

Ultimately of course it all goes back to Plato and his theory of forms, with the Good standing above and integrating all things.  Anthroposophists are not above suggesting that Rudolf Steiner is Plato reincarnated.  Since apparently we alternate sexes in our incarnations, one wonders who was the woman in the middle.  One presumes that the Virgin Mary was not an option.

In the case of Creation Science, obviously there is (what I would consider) the somewhat distorted version of Christianity that carries with it those values that lie near and dear to the hearts of American evangelicals (Ruse 2005).  To be candid, I doubt anyone has ever really worried about gaps in the fossil record.  But they do worry about abortion on demand and gay marriage and the abolition of the death penalty and (very much) feminism.  (They worry a lot less about divorce perhaps because the evangelical record in this respect is truly dreadful – undoubtedly in major part a function of people marrying far too young in order to enjoy the delights of connubial bliss and to avoid the snare of fornication.[i])


Now, I think that tolerance demands that one accept the views of others in this respect, meaning that they have a perfect right to hold them, although frankly I am not sure that the other side would reciprocate.  (I suspect that the value of letting others have their values is one of the values at issue here.)  But it doesn’t mean that I have to accept them in a quiescent sort of way or have no right to argue against them or to try politically to prevent their ideas and values prevailing.  I can do everything in my ability to block them – as indeed I personally have done for the past thirty years with respect to all forms of Creationism.

Democracy is a precious thing and there are always forces trying to prevent it or to circumscribe it – in our own society particularly, when you think of the grotesque gerrymandering that goes on when drawing up congressional districts or the absurd qualifications that are demanded before one is allowed to vote.  It is a nice balance between recognizing that democracy means that others can believe and do what one finds offensive – pretty silly, as I have said – and making sure that no one abuses that right to try to stop you holding ideas that they find offensive – pretty silly.  Remembering also that democracy does not mean that every idea deserves a level playing field.  We have the right and the obligation to judge ideas in the light of past experience and if they fail the test then they should be so judged.

None of this sounds very easy, but whoever said that the important things are easy?



Carson, R. 1962. Silent Spring. New York : Houghton Mifflin.

Dawkins, R. 2007. The God Delusion. New York: Houghton, Mifflin, Harcourt.

Ruse, M., Editor. 1988.  But is it Science?  The Philosophical Question in the Creation/Evolution Controversy.  Buffalo, N.Y.: Prometheus.

———. 2005. The Evolution-Creation Struggle. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

———. 2006. Darwinism and its Discontents. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

———. 2013. The Gaia Hypothesis: Science on a Pagan Planet. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Steiner, R. 1910 [2000]. Manifestations of Karma. London: Rudolf Steiner Press.


[i] A survey (a nation-wide Barna poll) in 1999 found the following rates:

Non-Denominational  (that is, evangelical) 34%
Mainline Protestants 25%
Atheists/Agnostics 21%



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2024: Vol. 23, No. 1

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2024: Vol. 23, No. 1