The definition of magic

What is magic? This question is not just idle speculation, but rests at the heart of understanding our own attitudes towards people who believe (or do not believe) in what is normally considered magical phenomena. This is particularly important for me since I tend to be very anti-magic and have a barely concealed disdain for believers which I am not proud of and endeavor to leave behind. It is not that I think I'm wrong to think that magic is silly, it is that negative emotional reaction that is undignified (not to mention ineffective when trying to persuade others).

This usenet discussion inspired this new tack on an old subject. My approach is motivated by a desire to be more effective rather than some pedantic need to be right, so I would give more emphasis to social aspects.

In my view, the assertion that something is magical implies certain intellectual immobility on the part of the speaker. (It could also asserted for entertainment, but we are limiting ourselves to credulous assertions). They are asserting that the phenomena cannot be explained further, and refuse to even try. This immobility can be caused by laziness or ignorance.

There are plenty of things that science cannot explain: the interior structure of an electron, high-temperature superconductivity, how gravity works at the microscopic level, etc. But there is no scientist worth his salt who would ever say, "this phenomena cannot be probed further, that we have reached the limit of what is knowable". There is immobility at the limits of science, too, but the scientist has the strong intention to push past it, and that makes all the difference.

What sorts of ignorance can sap the drive to know and turn magical? The nature of the ignorance is dependant on the nature of the belief. Perhaps the belief represents some wanted view that gives comfort. Perhaps the belief is held out of fear that one will be harmed if it is not held. I'm sure that you can think of many examples of these sorts of beliefs in the fields of religion, holistic healthcare, and others.

What is interesting (and unique, as far as I know) is that the actual belief doesn't matter: it's the intention behind the belief. One can have a scientific belief in the healing power of crystals, or one can have a magical belief in the healing power of crystals. The former thinks the phenomena is real, can be measured, and probably has some explanation which is consistent with the rest of science. That latter believes the phenomena is "real", but does not think it can be measured or explained (and indeed would probably prefer if it didn't).

There is a very subtle argument in favor of magical belief, which is that such beliefs can have real positive impact. For example, if you believe that a talisman has some protective power over you, and this helps you to ride a motorcycle with confidence. It is well known that confident riders are less likely to crash. So what's the problem with this belief?

Honestly, there is no big problem with it. There are potentially small problems: perhaps the person has unjustified confidence, perhpas they loose the talisman, etc. But such a belief is harmless and in fact might do some good.

What about the case of a healing crystal? Someone with a magical belief in the crystal my find it helpful to have an external reminder of positive emotions that are well-known to be actually healing. The difference here is that some disease is going on, and the crystal will have a positive mental effect on the believer, but the disease will remain mostly unaffected (good spirits boosting the immune system aside). There is a great possibility of harm here.

What about the case of the devout Christian? He has the magical belief that Jesus died for his sins, and that if he doesn't accept Jesus as the savior that he will spend eternity in hell. Again, in and of itself there is no great harm here. But there is harm when this devout Christian seeks to force others to share his belief "for their own good".

What about the case of the snake oil merchant? He himself does not have a magical or scientific belief in the efficacy of his wares, but knows that his customers do. He realizes that in order to be effective (and profitable) he must decieve his customers and tell them that this oil has certain properties. The positive mental attitude kicks in, and some of his claims become true simply because he made the claim and was believed. Where is the harm here?

Deception is wrong, of course, but that's just the beginning of the harm. The simple fact is there is a limit to how much healing one person can affect via positive mental attitude. This places a strict limit on the snake oil merchant's claims. So as long as he stays within that limit, there is little harm. Once he makes outlandish claims that are easily checked, he runs into trouble.

The mechanism that complicates this is that the salesman might claim that it didn't work because of some failing of the customer. Or that they need to buy more of the oil, and believe harder. In the end, this helps the snake oil salesman make a living off of the sick yet credulous people of his community. This is, of course, despicable, and it's why the meeting place between spirituality and commerce is such a tricky place.

I believe there is magic in the world. We do magic every day when we create intricate machines that actually work, and when we organize our thoughts and create artwork. That I can concieve of something and then create it, using an understanding of the laws of nature and working with them patiently and persistently: how is this not magical? We live in a world which is elegant and beautiful in every respect. To work with it, shape it, understand it is to unveil ever more intricate magic. I think if more people understood this remarkable universe they would be too busy getting excited and poking around nature to have time to visit the snake oil salesman. Well, perhaps they would go to him and ask him if he'd like to participate in a clinical trial, at which point he would almost certainly move on to another town. :)

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