Science and magic

by Charlie Huenemann

I think it is fair to say that we usually see science and magic as opposed to one another. In science we make bold hypotheses, subject them to rigorous testing against experience, and tentatively accept whatever survives the testing as true – pending future revisions and challenges, of course. But in magic we just believe what we want to be true, and then we demonstrate irrational exuberance when our beliefs are borne out by experience, and in other cases we explain away the falsifications in one way or another. Science means letting what nature does shape what we believe, while magic means framing our interpretations of experience so that we can keep on believing what feels groovy.

But this belief – that we can clearly distinguish between magic and science – turns out itself to be an instance of framing our interpretations so as to allow us to keep on believing something that makes us feel good. In other words, the relation between magic and science is far more complicated, and magic is not so easily brushed aside.

“Science”, as we use the term, is a relative newcomer on the scene. “Scientia”, meaning expert knowledge, is Latin, but using it or its cognates to refer to a special method of acquiring knowledge – especially one that involves microscopes, telescopes, and test tubes – is a much later innovation. What has always been around, ever since we started jabbering, has been an interest in understanding how nature works, usually conjoined with our practical interest in prediction and control. Call that interest “natural knowledge”.

Now within the long history of natural knowledge one will indeed find a distinction between those who tied what they believe to experience and those who were uncritical believers in the groovy stuff. There has been, is now, and always will be that distinction: for that is a distinction between different cognitive systems operating in human brains. We find those two systems in each and every one of us: the scrutinizer and the believer. But the complication is that magic falls on both sides of this divide. Some believers in magic have been very careful experimenters who dedicated their lives to working out an accurate science (as we would call it) that advanced our knowledge of nature’s mysterious forces.

For, historically, magic has not been typically seen as unnatural, antinatural, or supernatural. Knowledge of magic has been seen as knowledge of a special part of nature: a part that is hidden, obscure, inconstant, or otherwise hard to figure out. The force that directs a compass’s needle was seen as magical: for it is invisible, intangible, and acts at a distance. Curative properties of herbs were similarly magical, as it was utterly mysterious why certain plants and not others should be able to cure sickness (at least sometimes). The miracles attested to in holy scriptures were examples of magic, as were the wider range of acknowledged spiritual forces and phenomena. The movements of the wandering stars (“planets”) were magical, as one will have a very difficult time figuring out why they wander in the curious ways they do. And so on: intelligent people operating with a Popperian conjecture-and-refutation model have been great magi, building upon one another’s discoveries to construct knowledgeable theories about nature’s hidden works. The history of magical knowledge in the early modern period is every bit as extensive and rich as the history of natural knowledge — indeed, any serious scholar will have a devil of a time disentangling the two.

A vivid illustration of the continuity between magic and science is in David Hume’s 18th-century criticism of our knowledge of causality. Science, of course, is all about causality; a “science” that does not deliver causal connections is a failure, to be sure. But Hume argued that causality itself is an “occult” or magical force. Whether we are talking about astrology or microbiology, nothing in our experience suggests why there should be any connection between any particular cause and its effect. We observe the conjunction between the two, time and again, and we trust that it shall always hold. But no one can offer any reason why a cause should be constantly conjoined to its effect, no matter how close we look or how hard we think. It is an impenetrable mystery – and in that sense, it falls properly within the borders of magic.

We might also think of the difficulty many of us have as we try to grasp the rules of quantum mechanics. Richard Feynman once advised his students, “Do not keep saying to yourself, if you can possibly avoid it, ‘But how can it be like that?’ because you will go ‘down the drain’, into a blind alley from which nobody has escaped. Nobody knows how it can be like that”. That is a clear admission, with typical Feynmanian bravado, that quantum mechanics is essentially magical. Not the Feynman would ever approve of this message, of course! But from the role magic has long played on our intellectual landscape, that would be the right word for it.

The felt urgency to elevate science, as a special entity unto itself, and on the other hand to denigrate magic as primitive or foolish, is something to be explained by the rise of scientists (a 19th-century term) as a professional class. Any profession needs some way to legitimate what its members are able to do and to mark them off from fakers and posers. “Magic” turned out to be a handy way to tag the fakers and posers – especially with the growing popularity of theatrical magic at the time, which was (and continues to be) nothing if not thoroughly entertaining fakery and posturing. The long, shared history of magic and natural knowledge as intimate traveling companions receded into a dark and ignored background — so much so that for me today to accuse someone like Feynman as proposing that quantum mechanics is magic makes me worry about being branded as that most unforgivable sinner: the science-denier.

This reminder of the long shared past of magic and science should make us more sensible and sensitive when we turn to the history of science, and especially when we try to find some stable or deep distinction between magic and science. There just isn’t one: and instead we might distinguish between experimenters who changed their beliefs on the basis of what they observed and dogmatists who held their lines come what may. And that distinction cuts across the spurious science vs. magic divide: for there have been both experimental and dogmatic magicians, just as there have been both experimental and dogmatic scientists. Again, the distinction is cognitive, not historical.

We may also be reminded that “the hidden, obscure, inconstant, or otherwise hard to figure out” will be with us always, and so we will never be free of magic. But to the extent that we can reign in our native drives toward dogmatism, and try to pay more careful attention to what we actually experience, we should be okay.