Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Magic, science and the supernatural

We take for granted that magic involves the supernatural and science does not. At the same time, we believe that there is no such thing as magic. Hence, we believe that magical claims are somehow different from merely false but scientific claims, such as that phlogiston makes things burnable. I want to argue that this belief is questionable.

Consider three different claims:

  1. Dancing a certain kind of dance typically causes rain.
  2. Shooting UV light into clouds typically causes rain.
  3. Shooting silver iodide into clouds typically causes rain.
Claim (1) certainly seems magical. Claim (3) is not a magical claim, because, I shall assume, it is true, and there is no magic. I shall assume that claims (1) and (2) are false.

But now here is the puzzle. Why is (1) supposed to be a supernatural claim (being on the face of it a claim of magic), while (2) is not?

There is, after all, another way of looking at this. We simply have three cause-and-effect claims, two of them false, and each claim is just as much a "scientific kind of claim" as the others. Observe, for instance, that each of the claims is just as much subject to empirical confirmation or disconfirmation as the others. Each of the claims posits a causal relationship between physical events.

Suggestion 1: Claim (1) is supernatural because it is presumed to be believed on non-scientific grounds, while (2) and (3) are presumed to be believed on scientific grounds.

Response: that a claim is believed on non-scientific grounds does not make it a supernatural claim. If Francine hallucinates Apollo telling her that the structure of benzene is a ring, the object of her belief about benzene is still a quite natural fact. Nor will talking about esoteric traditions be relevant, since purely natural scientific facts can be and in fact are passed through esoteric traditions (think of trade secrets through the ages up to the present). It is a variant of the genetic fallacy to think that a claim has a particular content because it comes from a particular source.

Suggestion 2: The person who believes (1) has a causal story connecting the dance to the rain by means of supernatural entities, while those who believe (2) or (3) either have no story as to the connection between the shooting of UV or silver iodide into clouds (they might simply have noticed, respectively, a spurious or genuine correlation) or else their story involves natural entities.

Response: One problem with this solution is the assumption that the culture that believes in a particular magical action, say a magical dance, needs to have a theory as to how the action produces its effect. But the culture need not have any kind of theory. They may simply believe that dancing a waltz causes rain to come, and that rain causes corn to sprout. We would not say that the second part of this belief involves the supernatural, and why should we say that the first part does? It is not uncommon for scientists to have no explanation for an effect, and so if the culture believes (1) but has no explanation for it, that does not suffice to make the claim supernatural.

Perhaps, though, the difference is that the scientist thinks there is a further explanation, and that this explanation is natural. But this is not characteristic of all science. A scientist may believe that a certain law, such as the law of gravitation, is basic and lacks any further explanation. Or a scientist may be agnostic on whether the law has any further explanation.

If I am right, then either magical claims need not involve the supernatural, or else what seem to be paradigmatic cases of magical claims are not always magical claims (claims such as that a dance causes rain, that a spell causes blindness, etc.).

Let us go a bit further, though, and consider the case where the proponent of (1) does have a further explanation. Do we have to conclude that then the claim is supernatural? Not at all—it surely depends on what that further explanation is. If the further explanation is that the dance stirs up the air, and the stirred up air stirs up the clouds, promoting condensation, then plainly the explanation is not magical. But let us take a more magical explanation. Maybe the idea is that the dance exudes a power that goes upward and pulls the clouds in. Again, though, this need not be a supernatural claim.

What if the claim sounds even more supernatural? Perhaps the people believe that the clouds are intelligent and respond to requests when these requests are made in a particular way. But why should that be a magical claim? Suppose Patrick believes that his goldfish is intelligent and responds to requests when these requests are made in a particular way. He need not thereby be attributing any supernatural qualities to the goldfish. In fact, we can go a bit further. Patrick either believes this of all goldfish or of just some. In the latter case, it may well be that he thinks these goldfish are special, supernaturally gifted, etc. But if he believes all goldfish are intelligent and respond to appropriately made requests, he most likely (though not necessarily) thinks that it is a natural feature of goldfish to be intelligent. Since the members of the culture I described probably believe all clouds, or all clouds of some specific type (maybe they think you need to be more wispy to be intelligent?), to be intelligent, they seem to be ascribing a natural property to the clouds.

But suppose that the folk have a story involving intermediate causes that are powerful beings like demons. Maybe the dance somehow binds demons to do their will, and the demons fly up to the sky and wring rain out of clouds. If that is so, we have more hope of thinking that the explanation involves the supernatural—but only if we have some reason to think that the demons which the folk believe in are supernatural (it would not be a supernatural explanation if the folk falsely believed vultures to be intelligent and to fly up to the clouds and wring rain out of them in response to a dance). If the folk believe they can bind the demons through dances, then they are likely to believe that causes within the realm of nature (a dance) affect the demons. Moreover, it seems likely that they think there are rules that govern demonic behavior, and the magician, by knowing these rules, is able to get the requisite results. But demons like that, manipulable demons, sound like are part of the natural realm, interacting with the natural realm in lawlike ways. What reason do we have for thinking that the laws that are alleged to bind their behavior should be thought of as supernatural laws as opposed to natural laws? Sure, some of these laws apply to the demons but don't affect birds, bees and mountains, and some of the laws that apply to birds, bees and mountains don't apply to demons. But there is nothing absurd about the idea of natural laws that govern only particles of a certain type—e.g., charged particles, or particles of dark matter.

So even fairly elaborate alleged explanations of (1) involving entities like demons or intelligent clouds do not render (1) supernatural.

Suggestion 3: Intelligence is supernatural, and explanations involving intelligent beings like demons are thus supernatural.

Response: If so, then we have to admit that at least one of the sciences—psychology—deals with the supernatural, and the distinction between the supernatural and the scientific falls apart. This suggestion seems a non-starter.

Suggestion 4: It would require a violation of a law of nature for dances to cause rain, and hence the mechanism behind (1) must be taken to be supernatural.

Response: I think something like this suggestion may be what is going on in our minds when we assume that (1) involves the supernatural. But I think here we have a serious confusion. Claim (1) is in fact false. Now if we found out that (1) is true, we might be tempted to posit a supernatural explanation for it. But that is beside the point. Consider claim (2) which is just as much contrary to the laws of nature as (1) is (I assume). We do not consider (2) to be supernatural because it is contrary to the laws of nature. Rather, we consider it to be false.

Final comments: I think (and this is by no means original) that one of the characteristics of magic is a lawlikeness. You do this, and that results. This lawlikeness of magic makes for a prima facie claim that claims of magic are not at all supernaturalistic. We read them as supernaturalistic simply because they violate the laws of nature we believe in, but they need not violate the laws of nature that the believers in magic believe in.

This shows a crucial difference between magic and monotheistic beliefs in miracles, creation, answers to prayer, etc. The monotheist (typically—there are some unfortunate exceptions) believes God acts freely. He creates as he chooses, not because he is bound to by some necessitating law. He is supernatural because he has a freedom to act that transcends nature. At the same time, the miracles are not forced on him by anything like a law of nature, in the way that someone might believe a dance forces a demon to cause rain. The more personal freedom, including freedom to act not in accord with the laws of nature, we attribute to the deity, the less magical the belief becomes.

Granted, on traditional monotheistic views, God must keep his promises. Thus, there is a kind of law that is binding on him. But it is a moral law, binding on him because of his perfect goodness, and in light of promises freely and knowingly undertaken.

If anything, then, typical magical beliefs are closer to scientific beliefs about nature than to monotheistic beliefs about divine action.


Paul M. Rodriguez said...

I concur with your conclusion, but I must question your premise—why would we take it for granted that magic involves the supernatural? The phrase "natural magic" is a very common one in the writings of the Renaissance magi; and the laws that Frazer isolates as underlying all superstition do form a sort of theory about the nature of things. Unless its methods involved summoning or compelling personal entities, gods or demons, I can think of no pre-modern practice of magic with a distinct idea of the "supernatural." This sense of supernatural is an alternative to science, not its predecessor.

larryniven said...

I must, at last, admit: I like this post. I have to think, though, that there's a potential explanation that you missed. The connection, it seems to me, between all the candidate-magical acts you describe (and, in fact, among all the ones I can think of off the top of my head) is an emphasis on the will. That is, usually what we call a magical belief won't just say that you need to do a specific dance (i.e., move your body in a specific way) but also have some specific mindset (one, perhaps, of wanting it to rain). Think, too (if you've read it), of the Harry Potter series - magicians in those books can cast spells without wands or hand gestures or even incantations, just by willing it in the right way. So the defining characteristic of a magical belief, I think, is that it attributes far too much power to the will.

The interesting case, for me, is something like Star Wars. Clearly, there's the same sort of exaggeration of the will going on with respect to control of the Force, but they also try to give it something resembling a scientific underpinning (remember all that talk about midichlorians in the bloodstream or whatever). I consider Force powers to be closer to magical fantasy than science fiction, but other people's opinions might differ.

The last question if I'm right, of course, is whether this makes magical claims not scientific ones, or just a specific subset of scientific ones that relate to the will. At least for the time being, I'm not sure we can quantify willpower well enough to test a will-dependent claim scientifically, but I might be wrong about that: I'm not exactly up on the latest neurological research.

Alexander R Pruss said...


I do think that these days we tend to conflate magic with the supernatural. You are correct that we didn't always.


That's a very interesting suggestion. I am not sure if it's true, though. You're right that it does seem to be part of the contemporary literature involving magic. But I am not sure it's a part of the beliefs of the cultures that accept magic. There are ancient descriptions giving instructions as to how to work magic. Do these descriptions say anything about what one must believe or intend when one is going through the ritual? I just skimmed through a couple of Hittite rituals. I didn't see anything about intention. The directions say what to do, and what to say, but that's all.

I would speculate, and of course could be wrong, that the contemporary notion of magic as tied to will is strongly affected by Christian views about the importance of belief and intention.

This is an interesting question. Suppose somewhere a shaman promises rain and rain doesn't happen. Here are some things believing folk could say:
1. He did the ritual wrong.
2. The deities were mad at him (for some independent reason).
3. He wasn't sincere enough.

My gut feeling is that in cultures not influenced by Christianity, Judaism and Islam, we're likely to hear the second, and maybe the first, but not much of the third. But in the case of magical cultures influenced by Christianity (e.g., New Age), we are quite likely to hear the third.

larryniven said...

Yeah, it's also true that I'm not a cultural anthropologist. I wonder, though, if we could somehow get a Hittite (or whoever) to understand the concept of a robot, would that person say that robots could perform these rituals or not? If it were just a physical thing, it shouldn't matter that it's not a person, and they might not even realize that there's the possibility of having the action without the intention unless specifically posed with such a scenario. But, uh, that's something we're probably not going to be able to do. If you somehow pull it off, though, do let me know...

(Just for the record, I think that second option in your last comment just pushes it back a level. If the ritual is a message to the gods to do something, then the ritual itself isn't any more supernatural than a cop waving you to proceed through a construction zone, say.)

Alexander R Pruss said...

On robots, I vaguely recall hearing of prayer robots in some eastern country--whether as existing or as something to be expected. The idea was that they would be prayer wheels taken one step further.

Alexander R Pruss said...

Here's something relevant.

larryniven said...

Ha! That's pretty neat, and it sort of looks like you were right - a "lama...regards the high-tech prayer wheels as an acceptable Buddhist adaptation to Western ways." (Really, the concept of a prayer wheel in and of itself would have sufficed, but this is a much cooler example.) I do have to wonder, though, about the bit where the guy says, "As long as one understands what the mantra means and what its purpose is, the way the wheel is spun is not as important." So maybe there's a little bit of both?

Alexander R Pruss said...

Maybe. Or maybe that little remark is itself an adaptation to western ways of thinking. (I don't know if this religion believes in will.)

Heath White said...

I share Paul's thought that magic, historically, is a sort of alternate science.

But if I had to identify what counts as "supernatural", I would say it involves an ineliminable appeal to mind or persons on the receiving (not performing) end of the ritual. E.g. looking into a crystal ball is just pseudo-science; summoning a demon (or praying to a personal God, appeasing ancestors, etc.) is supernatural.

ANDREW.L said...

i like what you wrote very much and i somewhat subscribe to the same school of thought. i will be reading more from here.nice