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This post summarizes my science-focused thinking about magick, written for non-mages.
It comes from a friend who’s a professor of religion, who asks:
I have some science and religion double majors and I wanted them to see the work of an engineer on this question of “magic.” Do you have something that I can give to them to chew on?
Magic vs Magick
Magic and magick aren’t the same thing.
Historically, “magic” means a thing operates without any (known) mechanism:
- Harry Potter magic just does what it does, no underlying mechanism.
- When pre-scientific people saw placebo and hypnosis, they wouldn’t understand the mechanism, and called it magic.
- Same with any sufficiently advanced technology — the mechanism is known to the advanced society (who sees it as technology), but is unknown and unknowable to the less advanced society (who see it as magic).
So that’s magic-with-a-c: Stuff we don’t understand, stuff outside science. Magic takes “X just happens, no cause-and-effect needed” as an acceptable explanation. And if we ever do scientifically explore a phenomenon, it is no longer part of magic-with-a-c.
Magick-with-a-k is simply a set of phenomena: Energy healing, creating luck, and a few others. We could choose to view them as things that just happen, outside cause-and-effect. Or we can view them as part of the natural world, and explore them, understand them, harness them the same way we harness any other natural phenomenon.
Thus, while magic-with-a-c is the opposite of science, magick-with-a-k can (and should) be explored scientifically.
Magick Isn’t Religion
Many religions include magickal practices, just as many religions include specific things you must wear, eat, or say. But that doesn’t make clothing, food, or speaking fundamentally religious. Personally, I’m an atheist, and my practice of magick isn’t connected to any religion.
The history of human knowledge is a steady shift from supernatural explanations to natural / scientific ones. We used to explain the rising of the sun as Ra in a chariot, but now we know it’s planetary rotation. Lightening used to be Zeus, now it’s Maxwell’s equations. Today, neuroscience is tackling consciousness, and we’re seeing that shift from free-floating (supernatural) thoughts to a phenomena that emerges from (natural) nerves. How long until we add psychic phenomena and energy healing to that list?
(Hat tip to Greta Christina for this observation. Also see Richard Carrier on natural vs supernatural.)
Spirits as Artificial Intelligence
I work with spirits. How do those fit into a materialist universe?
(Materialism = Thoughts, ideas, and consciousness aren’t things themselves, but emerge from the interaction of non-mental things like nerves.)
I think of magick as driven by ethereal matter. Like dark matter, ethereal matter interacts in limited ways with ordinary matter. It can be studied. With luck, it will some day be part of standard physics.
Spirits, then, are constructed from the ethereal equivalent of nerves. Or transistors. They’re artificial intelligences, built from ethereal matter instead of silicone.
Random Testing vs Science
Lots of mages experiment. They try a new ritual, a new rune, see what happens.
That’s excellent. The world needs more people testing their ideas, gathering data, ensuring they only believe in things that actually work.
But science is bigger than testing. Science starts with a model — not a story about the world, not a single idea like “belief” or “information” or “spirits,” but a model with moving parts that makes predictions. In magick, those predictions are often new techniques or rituals that you’d only think of because you have that model. Then the testing serves to confirm, refute, or refine the model.
Of course, 90% of the work is coming up with a model worth testing. And, just like drawing an accurate map of a city requires walking its streets, building a worthwhile model of magick requires doing a lot of magick. That’s where to start.
The Start of a Model
If you want to see my full model, read my book-in-progress, An Initiation into Direct Magick.
But I’m hoping you’ll start exploring and pondering your own model. So I want to give you a few ideas to start:
Many systems of magick produce similar results. Mostly that’s energy healing and luck. This suggests a common underlying mechanism that all systems of magick tap into. (If they operated by different mechanisms, it’s unlikely they’d produce the same result.)
That’s the starting point of Chaos Magick, too. It was the fashionable system when I started, and its answer is belief — “belief is the tool.” But “belief” doesn’t explain why everything is similar. In fact, if magick was “whatever you believe, that happens,” I’d expect everyone to produce wildly different results. (Belief can be a tool for driving your mind to perform magick, but it can’t be the underlying mechanism.)
Magick is complex, and complexity isn’t free. Whatever that mechanism is, it has to understand details of altering the world. It has to be able to predict which events will lead to your desired outcome, and make those events happen, in real time. Einstein said, “Make things as simple as possible, but no simpler” — I see many models that make things much too simple.
Scientific Miracles — My Faith
I want to leave you with the source of my faith.
Every time we’ve understood a new part of science, it’s lead to amazing things. Miracles, if you will.
Newton plus 300 years lead to human flight.
Chemistry plus thermodynamics let us land on the moon.
Relativity plus lenses let us gaze into space, seeing light from the first seconds of the formation of the universe.
Quantum physics lead to transistors, and the computer you’re reading this on right now.
Evolution plus germ theory lead to vaccines and antibiotics.
DNA lead to stem cells and new medical treatments, and may one day lead to human immortality.
Science is the source of tangible miracles you and I experience every day.
I don’t know where the study of ethereal matter leads, but I have faith it leads somewhere miraculous.
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