Magic and the Supernatural

Magic and the Supernatural

“Fear paralyses the brain. Progress is born of courage. Fear believes – courage doubts. Fear falls upon the earth and prays – courage stands erect and thinks. Fear retreats – courage advances. Fear is barbarism – courage is civilization. Fear believes in witchcraft, in devils and in ghosts. Fear is religion – courage is science.”                          ~Robert G. Ingersoll

 

What do I mean by the terms ‘magic’ and ‘supernatural’? 

Magic and the supernatural are both psychological means by which our frightened and impatient species escapes two of its greatest fears: uncertainty and mortality. As numerous scientists and philosophers have argued, human evolutionary processes may well be responsible for the contemporary prevalence of magical and supernatural thinking.[1] Humans who quickly developed a belief and imbued sinister agency upon a rustle in the bushes on the plains of the Serengeti were the ones who were more likely to survive and pass on this penchant for avoiding critical analysis and jumping straight to belief.[2]

Magic, as is the case with the supernatural, is a hasty way to explain that which has yet to be explained. It is a relic from a more infantile stage in human understanding and development, and its appeal may be accounted for by examining the human’s greatest desires, fears, hopes, and dreams. There is an aspirational quality about magic, akin to the hero myths, in which audiences connect with desires to be greater and more in control of both themselves and their environment.[3]

The supernatural, as with magic, is a purely psychological phenomenon that describes places, causes and frequently an eternal, ethereal, unfettered existence, which is probably the result of our brain’s hyperactive pattern recognition processes;[4] the need to imbue agency upon inanimate and non-existent objects and concepts,[5] and a result of our ego’s desire to continue consciously forever by envisioning a conscious realm that is not limited by material mortality.

 

Reconciling my Definition with Rodney Stark’s Article, Reconceptualizing Religion, Magic, and Science

Considering Stark’s article, Reconceptializating Religion, Magic, and Science, the limitations with my definitions of magic and the supernatural appear to be the result of viewing these phenomena through a purely rational, scientific lens. Stark highlights this “problem”, quoting Keith Roberts, who wrote:  “Magic, I assert, will be replaced in large part by science, technology, and the modern secular world view.”[6] Stark’s primary criticism of Roberts is that he failed to define ‘science’, which left the door open for some social scientists to assert that magic and science are essentially the same thing.[7] However, if we define science as a method rather than simply a body of knowledge or institution, this problem seems largely surmounted. Carl Sagan once wrote: “Science is more than a body of knowledge; it is a way of thinking.”[8] Further, James Randi exclaimed: “Science is best defined as a careful, disciplined, logical search for knowledge about any and all aspects of the universe, obtained by examination of the best available evidence and always subject to correction and improvement upon discovery of better evidence. What’s left is magic. And it doesn’t work.”[9] Randi’s definition of science distinguishes it from magic, for magic has never been the result of a truly careful and rigorous examination of the best available evidence, but a quick-fix, easy answer to mysteries which have yet to be carefully and meticulously unveiled by science.

Stark defines the supernatural as referring to: “…forces or entities beyond or outside nature which can suspend, alter, or ignore physical forces.”[10]

Stark touches on an aspect of my definition regarding the ego’s desire to continue consciously forever by envisioning a conscious realm which is not limited by material mortality. It might be argued that our species’ desire to “[ignore] physical forces” stems from our fear of not only the perils of day-to-day survival, but relatedly, from our intense fear of death. Stark’s definition may also be taken as alluding to the human desire for ongoing parental guidance and dependence upon supervising beings, whether real or imagined, who fulfil the role of guardian.[11]

Further, Stark discusses the human desire to control the surrounding and uncertain environment, saying: ‘From the dawn of human existence, our efforts to control nature and events have been constant and unrelenting…It is the desire for control that motivates humans to develop skills, crafts, technologies, and, ultimately, science. People do magic for the same reason and the desire to control one’s fate is an essential element of religion.’[12] Though science and magic share the same motivational quality, magic and the supernatural are the products of hasty theorizing without the meticulous observation, experimentation and logic which underpins science. So, it may be fair to argue that, even per Stark’s definition, magic and the supernatural are desperate attempts to control an uncertain environment, whilst science is the brave admission of reasonable ignorance and a courageously patient approach to resolving such uncertainty.[13] Thus, Stark’s definition vindicates my point regarding magic and the supernatural being vehicles by which deeply held aspirations are expressed through an imagined avenue where no available avenue exists in reality.

To further expound upon this point and mitigate my initial concession, when properly understood through rigorous examination, testing, observation and contemplation, magic graduates to science; from astrology to astronomy, alchemy to chemistry, creationism to evolution; magic and the supernatural eventually give way to the immense explanatory scope and clear-headed, courageous, and patient power of scientific understanding.

 

 

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End Notes

 

1.     Steven Novella, Your Deceptive Mind: A Scientific Guide to Critical Thinking Skills, Lecture 2: ‘The Neuroscience of Belief’, The Great Courses, 2013; Jeffrey Kluger, ‘Is God in Our Genes?’ Time Magazine, (October 25th, 2004), p. 65, cited in: Daniel C. Dennett, Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon, New York: Penguin Books, 2007, p. 316; Michael Shermer, The Believing Brain: From Spiritual Faiths to Political Convictions – How We Construct Beliefs and Reinforce Them As Truths, London: Constable & Robinson Ltd., 2011, cited at: https://books.google.co.jp/books?id=a1ueBAAAQBAJ&printsec=frontcover&dq=Michael+Shermer&hl=en&sa=X&redir_esc=y#v=onepage&q=Africa&f=false, accessed on 17th Nov. 2016.

2. Ibid.

3. Carl G. Jung, Man and His Symbols, New York: Anchor Press, 1988, pp. 72-73.

4. Steven Novella, Your Deceptive Mind: A Scientific Guide to Critical Thinking Skills, Lecture 5: ‘Pattern Recognition: Seeing What’s Not There’, The Great Courses, 2013.

5. Daniel C. Dennett, Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon, New York: Penguin Books, 2007, pp. 123-124.

6. Keith Roberts, Religion in Sociological Perspective, Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 1995, cited in: Rodney Stark, Reconceptualizing Religion, Magic, and Science, ‘Review of Religious Research’, Vol. 43, No. 2 (Dec., 2001), p. 103.

7. Ibid.

8. Carl Sagan, Demon Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark, London: Headline Book Publishing, 1997, p. 28.

9. James Randi, ‘Science Quote’, cited in: Carl C. Gaither (ed.), Alma E. Cavazos-Gaither (ed.), Gaither’s Dictionary of Scientific Quotations, 2nd Ed., Killeen, Texas: Springer, 2012, p. 2214.

10. Rodney Stark, Reconceptualizing Religion, Magic, and Science, ‘Review of Religious Research’, Vol. 43, No. 2 (Dec., 2001), p. 108.

11. Sigmund Freud, The Future of an Illusion, (Trans. James Strachey), New York: W.W. Norton Company & Inc., 1961, pp. 22-24; Jon Mills, Inventing God: Psychology of Belief and the Rise of Secular Spirituality, New York: Routledge, 2016, cited at: https://books.google.co.jp/books?id=Y3S3DAAAQBAJ&printsec=frontcover&dq=Psychology+and+god+belief&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwiOpcrU3LjQAhXCJ5QKHd3wCxQQ6AEIGzAA#v=onepage&q=father&f=false, accessed on 18th, 2016.

12. Rodney Stark, Reconceptualizing Religion, Magic, and Science, ‘Review of Religious Research’, Vol. 43, No. 2 (Dec., 2001), p. 104.

13. Robert Ingersoll once remarked: “Fear paralyses the brain. Progress is born of courage. Fear believes – courage doubts. Fear falls upon the earth and prays – courage stands erect and thinks. Fear retreats – courage advances. Fear is barbarism – courage is civilization. Fear believes in witchcraft, in devils and in ghosts. Fear is religion – courage is science”: Robert G. Ingersoll, The Works of Robert G. Ingersoll, In Twelve Volumes, Vol.1: Lectures, New York: The Dresden Publishing Co., 1902, p. 273.

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