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:
- Dancing a certain kind of dance typically causes rain.
- Shooting UV light into clouds typically causes rain.
- Shooting silver iodide into clouds typically causes rain.
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.