Magic; A Rational View

By Martin Demers

Originally posted online July 20th, 2007

With permission.

Mad_scientistThe word is: MAGIC
From the Merriam-Webster dictionary:

1 a : the use of means (as charms or spells) believed to have supernatural power over natural forces b : magic rites or incantations
2 a : an extraordinary power or influence seemingly from a supernatural source b : something that seems to cast a spell
3 : the art of producing illusions by sleight of hand

Stop me if you’ve heard this one: a guy was walking down the streets of suburban Montreal, and happens to come across a gentleman busy planting dozens of little red flags in his front lawn. Understandably curious, he asked the man what he was doing. “Well, I’m planting these red flags to keep the African buffalo away from my house.” “But,” replied the first guy, “there aren’t any African buffalo anywhere in North America.” “Exactly!” said the second gentleman. “It’s working!”

I was reminded of that old joke this past weekend. My friend PG had recently gone through a bad breakup with her idiot of an ex-boyfriend, and he’d moved out of town. Well, I won’t bore you with the details, but to make a long story short he said he was going to sue for custody of their child. I personally think it’s only bluff and bluster, but some members of our gang decided to forestall him; so, with Dave writing the ritual, three people did a binding spell on the little weasel, to prevent him from doing any harm to PG. I was asked to participate (since it was done in our house) but politely declined. Later, (after being told the spell went well) I asked Laurie how she knew it had worked, and she replied something to the effect of “How do we know if anything works?”

I wasn’t sure if she referred to just knowing if this particular spell worked, or knowing if any spell works, but it really stuck to my mind.

Last year, just before I left the local Pagan e-mail list, I was part of a rather heated discussion on whether or not it was possible to know if a magical spell actually worked or not. I maintained that it was perfectly possible to use the old-fashioned scientific method on the subject; others asserted that belief in magic was a spiritual belief and therefore impossible to test with the scientific method… while still talking how this or that spell had this or that effect on their lives. They saw no contradiction in this. They maintained that you had to believe in magic in order to perceive the effects of a spell, and were unwilling (or unable) to explain how and why, if that were really the case, one can allegedly use magic to influence total strangers who may or may not believe in magic in the first place. They were perfectly happy to not know for certain, content to have possibly influenced the outcome of events. Several of the participants in the discussion also stated that belief in magic is no different than belief in physics or other areas of science, because of course we have to take it on faith that things like electrons and Mars actually exist, since we have no way of seeing them directly. The sense of magic as a religious belief was so strong that one individual took personal offense at my attempts to bring the concept of magic under the scientific method and left in a huff. The debate got nowhere, and eventually got shut down by the list owner. By that time, I was mightily fed up with it all, and fed up with the generally anti-intellectual and anti-scientific tone of the group, and left the list for good.

Looking back on the whole incident, and on my conversation with Laurie, I think I see why the debate got nowhere, and why I was so frustrated. The problem is that we were approaching the problem from radically different perspectives; the vast majority of people on that list (and, from what I can gather, the majority of people involved in neo-Paganism) already assumed that magic exists, however nebulously or ambiguously that term is defined. Stating that the belief in magic is part of their religion, they cannot prove or justify it any further than that because at this point they are using an epistemological method usually called Rationalism, with a healthy dose of Intuition thrown into the mix. That is, magic is known or apprehended by introspection, by contemplation, by cogitation, not by direct sensory experience or Empiricism. Magic, according to them, is not an objective phenomenon; it is a state of mind, the result of belief.

And this was most curious, because that whole discussion started after the list owner commented on the (possible) real-life effect of (possibly) a spell cast by someone to catch some criminals who were operating in the Montreal area. He congratulated us in general for having a positive magical influence in helping the police. Was anything done? Did someone have a positive influence? How? To what extent? No-one could tell.

There were many on that list who stated the belief that, someday, science might explain exactly what magic is and give it a sound technical basis. They invoked the case of alchemy, a mostly spiritual-magical discipline that became the foundation for the science of chemistry. Now, I don’t believe that will happen, but I might be mistaken. (As Bertrand Russell wrote: “I would never die for my beliefs because I might be wrong.”). However, let’s get something straight: alchemy, for all its mystical trappings, dealt with very real physical phenomena; the alchemists therefore had plenty of concrete experimental data to work with, which greatly facilitated the switch between magical thinking and scientific thinking. Magic (or, at least, the magic that’s popularized in the New Age) does not have that luxury, as it deals with probabilities and may-have-beens and fuzzy results; and the careful, objective study of this kind of phenomenon will have to overcome a whole slew of informational fallacies that’s been plaguing the New Age community since it began.

Can magic become a science? Perhaps. But if that is to be the case, it’ll be essential to stop thinking magically about magic.

1 Comment

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One response to “Magic; A Rational View

  1. It’s a fascinating discussion, and one we’ve had at the family dining table more times than I can count. It’s kept me awake at night on occasions, and, I’ll be perfectly honest with you, my current attitude is to shrug. I don’t know. And I don’t really care that I don’t know. I still enjoy discussing it, but I never get offended by anyone’s opinion. I listen to all of them, and then wander off.

    The angle I confess to having the most hope for is in the realms of quantum physics, where something can be in two places at once, have two properties at once, and so on. I probably don’t understand any of it, so all I can do is observe, and wonder. It’ll be a sad day when we know everything.

    Have you seen this?

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