Does Science Lead to Magic or Vice-Versa?

A challenge to the idea that magic is a primitive forerunner of science

by Ramsey Dukes


Elsewhere I have suggested [i] :  

          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 or Art.  

In 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.  

As 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.  

These 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.  

A 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  

        public 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.  

I 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.  

Another 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.  

Rather 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.  

The 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 need to?  

But 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.”  

A sophisticated version of this is spelled out at length in Words Made Flesh [ii] . 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.  

Once 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 their reality.  

But 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.  

This 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 example.  

As 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.  

Fortunately 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 . . .  

The 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.  

It 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.”  

But 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?  

Magic 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 scientific.  

Science 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.

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[i] Ramsey Dukes, “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 (

[ii] Ramsey Dukes, “Words Made Flesh - virtual reality, humanity and the cosmos”, ISBN: 0-904311-11-2.