Does Science Lead to Magic or Vice-Versa?
A challenge to the idea that magic is a primitive forerunner of science
by Ramsey Dukes
I have suggested
that discussions of cultural diversity - Science versus Religion, Art
etc - are incomplete without the recognition of Magic
that Magic gets left out of such discussions because it has been
dismissed as a primitive forerunner of Science - something of historical or
anthropological interest but not relevant to today’s thinking
that such ignorance of the nature of Magic results in muddled thinking
and a tendency to slip into magical practices in the name of Religion, Science
this essay I explore the controversial view that in practice Magic tends to
follow after Science rather than precede it. Not in a linear sequence that
makes Magic superior to Science, but as an endless cycle of Magic becoming Art
becoming Religion becoming Science.
examples of Magic following rather than preceding Science I suggest the 1960s
occult revival which followed the 1950s fascination with technology and the
wonders of Science. This conflicts with the old assumption that the educated
mind, with some understanding or appreciation of Science, will have no more
use for Magic. Yet the same thing happened at the end of the 19th century -
there was a period of public fascination with and education into Science
followed by a revival of interest in the occult.
two examples are pretty superficial - reflecting fashion and the public taste
for novelty rather than any deep philosophical shift. In simple terms you
might say that after about 15 years being told that Science has all the
answers the public tends to ask awkward questions and want to know if there is
“anything more” in the universe.
more serious example was the transition from the rationality of the classical
era to the “Dark Ages” when - for example Arabic metallurgy became cloaked
in mystical obscurity and lead to alchemy. In SSOTBME I argue that a similar
transition is on the cards again now - and I give a number of examples such as
impatience with the slowness of Science results in calls for the banning of
substances that correlate with health risks. This thinking is sympathetic
Magic - it is not Science unless a causal link has been established
the practical answer to users’ software problems is increasingly to
avoid circumstances that cause problems (a ‘bug warning’), rather than to
analyse and change the over-complex code
there are commercial and political pressures on Scientists not to share
information openly, and this degrades the consensus worldview required by
Science. Hence those stories of weird Science from behind the Iron Curtain, or
arguments between doctors and the slimming industry.
do not seek to explain this transition from Science to Magic causally, but
rather to reveal a number of parallel threads. For example, that Religion,
when established, can create a common language and a stable cultural empire
that is suitable for the growth of Science. Whereas Science, when established,
creates new technologies and rapid change that fragments the body of truth
needed for Scientific culture but provides a fertile ground for Magic.
thread is that the evolution of Religion tends to be from many gods to One God
- towards monotheism. But this leads to the duality of God and the Real World
and cultural momentum will tend to resolve this by choosing Matter itself as
the First Cause. Science, in these terms, is the ultimate monotheism that lies
at the end of Religious evolution.
than work through many such threads as I did in SSOTBME, I will focus on just
one for this essay. This is the process of reductionism that is so effective
in the apparent ‘conquest’ of Religion by Science.
reductionist argument does not really disprove the existence of God, it simply
makes God unnecessary. For every ‘wonder of nature’ or ‘ecstatic
realisation’ put forward by Religion, Science responds with an explanation
based upon physical law. The fact that an electrode in the brain can simulate
a mystical experience does not logically prove that mystical experiences are
‘no more than’ currents in the brain than does imitation leather disprove
the existence of cows, but it does offer an easy route to the mental tendency
to prefer simpler or unifying explanations. Why believe in God if we don’t
the point is that this reductionist argument also has momentum in human
culture. After hearing umpteen such reductions of the spiritual world into
simple material models, the human mind moves to the next step and realises
that it can survive on the models or explanations alone - it no longer needs
the material world. “Just give me the information, I do not need matter.”
sophisticated version of this is spelled out at length in Words Made Flesh
If Science aspires to a “theory of everything”, then that theory could be
modelled in an information processor and it should create a virtual universe
which will itself evolve life and conscious beings. If it fails to do this, it
suggests the theory of everything is not complete.
the possibility of virtual universes as complex and complete as our own has
been recognised, then it becomes harder to keep these two forms of universe
apart in our minds - those made of matter and those that only seem to their
inhabitants to be made of matter. It becomes easier to believe that we too
must live in a virtual reality or information structure. The paradoxes
revealed by high energy physics begin to sound like what you might expect if
scientists in a virtual reality attempted to uncover the building blocks of
such a universe would be Magical, in the sense that everything within it is
connected by ‘unseen’ links. In a real, material universe the Scientist is
justified in saying to the Magician “you must prove to me that the position
of the planets, or the pattern of your tarot cards, has any bearing on worldly
events” - for no significant causal link can be observed. In an information
universe, however, the tables are turned, because randomness, orthogonality
and independence are very costly in an information universe - it is now up to
the Scientist to explain why every tarot shuffle should be generated by a
separate set of equations which are in no way linked to the equations
generating other worldly events.
example of the movement from Religion to Science and its subsequent evolution
towards Magic might sound very ‘modern’ because of the terminology I have
used. But I can also explain it in terms of pure experience - as in the next
I approached middle age I noted that Uranus was coming up to opposition to its
natal position - and this is recognised as a key time for a man to suffer a
mid-life crisis and fall in love with someone half his age. Sure enough, my
marriage had just split up - the stage was set.
I was forewarned, on the lookout, so not vulnerable to any such folly. But I
met this young woman and felt I had met the friend of a lifetime. Friendship
was really what I wanted - I was determined not to fall in love and spoil it
all. However, the whole relationship was laced with the most extraordinary
meaningful coincidences - and lead to an eruption of past-life memories,
flashes of insight, etc etc. I would just love to bore you with the details .
point is that I was living on two levels. On one I was an actor in an amazing
human drama stretching over lifetimes, in the other I was a silly old man
falling for a bit of fluff. But the key thing was this: my ‘Scientific’
understanding of my ‘breakdown’ failed to banish the drama.
is one thing to have amazing experiences when drunk or ecstatic, it is quite
another to still have them under the microscope of clear, rational analysis.
At this point the Scientist would say “yes, that is the nature of a
psychotic experience: it takes you over so completely that you can feel
absolutely clear and certain of the perceived facts.”
that, you see is where Science loses me. Because I had two versions of my
experience that no amount of personal rational scrutiny could judge between.
In one, however, I am a silly old man while in the other I am a hero in a
cosmic drama. So why not chose the one that adds most value?
is about the stuff of experience - explanations are secondary. We like
explanations when they can add value either to experience or to the one who
experiences. When they fail to add value, let’s just keep with the
experience. A conjuring trick can actually be more beautiful when you don’t
know how it is done. Science - which had banished God by saying “look at
these facts” and then providing alternative explanations - finds that people
are now content simply to experience the facts, and choose their own
explanations. In many cases the explanations that people favour are not
has brought us so closely face to face with our ‘real world’ that its own
explanations become to sound like theological dogma. Thus we move on to Magic
and the cycle repeats itself.
“SSOTBME Revised - an essay on magic”, ISBN: 0-904311-08-2 spells out
the whole argument. For a more recent version see Ramsey
Dukes, “4 Glasses of Water - Magic considered as a ‘culture’
distinct from art, science or religion, and how this could help clarify
discussion of the broad spectrum of magical, pagan, New Age and ‘alternative’
beliefs and practices” in “The Journal for the Academic Study of Magic”
Number 2 (www.sasm.co.uk/journal.html)
“Words Made Flesh - virtual reality, humanity and the cosmos”, ISBN: