When magic isn’t magical

I remember being fascinated by magical stories as a child. Perhaps this is why I loved (and still love) The Lord of the Rings so much. It was an entirely different world, governed by mysterious forces and powers, populated by strange and wonderful creatures.

The power of Frodo’s ring was especially fascinating to me. It was terrifying seeing him overwhelmed by a distant force of evil simply by donning an apparently harmless piece of jewelry.

The thing about magical stories is that they only work if you don’t think too hard about them. If you let the strangeness of it all wash over you. Which is exactly the right way to approach magical stories.

So what is magic, anyway? It seems to me that magic is a catch-all phrase for any impossible and unexplainable premise or idea. Rings can make you invisible. Brooms can fly. Spells can be cast. Water can be walked upon. Water can be turned to wine. There is no mechanism behind these things. There is no explanation for how they work. They’re just assumed. And in magical stories, it’s the consequences of these assumptions that are so fascinating. Weird and wonderful worlds arise from magical foundations.

But all this comes crashing down when magical assumptions are taken beyond the realm of fiction and applied to the real world. What’s fascinating about the real world is how it actually works, not how we imagine, or wish, it to work. And the real world does not disappoint. It is immensely beautiful and complex. It’s overwhelming. Discovering how it all works is one of the most fascinating journeys one can take.

And it’s in this context that magical thinking suddenly loses its magic. Because magical assumptions have no mechanism behind them – no inner workings – they are dead ends. They’re conversation stoppers.

An example is the soul. Neuroscientists and psychologists are in a profoundly fascinating and (appropriately) mind-boggling process of learning how our brains produce consciousness. It’s a tremendously difficult, but extremely rewarding topic of study. The brain is the most complex object ever observed in the universe. It is more complex even than anything we’ve built, including our fastest supercomputers and our newest particle accelerators.

So when someone says “consciousness can be explained by the soul”, cold water is poured on the entire effort. Magical thinking takes the magic out of the endeavor. If you accept that the soul drives consciousness, then there is nothing more to learn. There is not even much to say about what has been learned because the soul is one of those impossible, unexplained assumptions. It’s the flying broom or the magic wand. There is nothing there to explore or understand. And it doesn’t really explain anything. 

Similarly, someone who insists that god created the earth ex nihilo is replacing a fascinating and complex process of planetary formation with an uninformative, boring substitute. The idea of the earth just popping into existence at someone’s command is about the most uninteresting idea an explorer of nature could come up with, because there is nothing surprising and new in it. There is nothing further to explore.

Magical thinking therefore has this odd double effect. It can produce the most delightful, engrossing flights of fancy, but it can also smother intriguing questions and exciting inquiries.

Sometimes magic just isn’t magical.

Neurons in the cerebral cortex.

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9 Responses to When magic isn’t magical

  1. Tom Stewart says:

    This is how I feel, too. I must confess that I loved the Narnia stories as a primary-school child, being completely unaware of the Christian connections, I have to add.

    Later I lost all interest in magic, except in the cases where they told you how it worked. I’ve never read any of the Lord of the Rings books, except two or three chapters of The Hobbit, nor seen any of the films, because by the time I heard of them that kind of thing was just not what I was looking for.

    Because reality was much more awesome and wonderful. Just think what we would have missed out on if the churches had succeeded in suppressing Aristarchus’, Copernicus’ and Galileo’s theories of heliocentrism, for example, in favour of “magic”.

  2. Keith says:

    Thanks for the comment Tom.

    I think my interest in the The Lord of the Rings has been maintained over the years because of its impressive non-magical components, including a very rich and personal (“human”) story. (I do not recommend the films, by the way.)

    • Tom Stewart says:

      Coincidentally, the Lord of the Rings trilogy is on TV this week, so I’ll finally record them and watch at my leisure. I have so much on my list (like The Better Angels of our Nature) that I doubt I’ll ever get round to reading them.

      You are right, of course – stories and tales in various forms are just as effective as raw perception or conception when informing our philosophy. I would hope that no-one who ever read or watched To Kill a Mockingbird, for example, would disagree. And I don’t mind admitting that I owe my own views on fundamental human relationships more to the Parable of the Good Samaritan than anything Peter Singer ever wrote, notwithstanding the morally dubious nature of most of the rest of the Bible.

      These two examples are not in themselves “magical”, but there is nothing to say that we can’t gain such knowledge in the context of a magical tale. Provided, of course, that we recognise it as such. Indeed, sophisticated theologians the world over, as well as most of the religious, insist that this is how we should interpret scripture.

      Their mistake is to bolster their argument with the idea that the magical is real, instead of viewing it as merely a contextual device. We can see this in the story of the Creation and the Garden of Eden in Genesis 1-3. Apologists and theologians claim that this story explains not only human beginnings but our supposed flawed nature, and from this Christians, Jews and Muslims gain meaning. The problem is that the story doesn’t inform us of anything unless we can accept that reality corresponds to magic – which in this sense is another way of describing the supernatural. It depends on acceptance of magic to have any real substance in a way that (say) It’s a Wonderful Life doesn’t.

      Of course, this idea varies even among Christians. Many Christians fully accept the idea of the Creation as allegorical. However, only a tiny minority of Christians (such as Cupitt or, probably, Tillich) would accept the same analysis being applied to the Resurrection, and it’s questionable whether these people should be called Christians at all. The problem is, whatever level of seriousness that the religious take their magical claims, it actually disparages meaning rather than enhances it, and contrary to L.Long’s acquaintance’s view, takes the mystery out of the world by rendering meaningless the quest for explanation.

  3. L.Long says:

    Yes Keith I too love the Rings not for the magic but for the stories. And the magic I accept just I do cell phones which are pretty magical. Don’t think cell phone are magical? Try building one.
    I had some one tell me I took all the mystery out of the world because I don’t believe!! But I explained that if the Ring world was real, they would be just as lost there because it requires a lot of work, study, and thought to be successful there just as it is hard work, lots of study, and use of science to be successful here in this one.
    One reason so many like magic (religion) here is because it just is and requires no work or real thought.
    One reason why I can appreciate Frodo efforts and Gandolf’s skills is because I realize that it just does not just happen, but would require skill, effort, and training.

  4. Pablo says:

    Beautiful post. I have a similar view on this. I love mythology and tall tales. Everything fantastical or mystical or downright supernatural is very appealing to me. But, but.. only in the context of fiction (books, comics, movies). I have no use for such things in my daily life dealing with reality as we know it. As you say, they are complete dead ends. And yet, I love those flights of fancy. I think there is poetry to be had and much to enjoy in fantasy narrative. And certainly, it can be beautiful. Like you, though, is mostly in the contexts of the human characters that populate such tales that I find this beauty. It´s their conundrums that moves me. Magic and the supernatural elements are just window dressing.

    I even enjoy those old sands and swords Hollywood biblical extravaganzas of the 50´s and 60´s. My friends, knowing me to be an atheist, mock me to no end because of this, but damn, first and foremost, I love movies…. So, what are you gonna do.

  5. Grundy says:

    I’d love to think their was a town of friendly hobbits in the world…but with that comes the nazgûl.

  6. Uncle Tree says:

    O’ that we might make the perfect pair of opposites! 😉

    Magic, once experienced in the flesh, becomes the guiding light
    for the rest of one’s life; for the bliss of the unforgettable reigns!

    Regrettably or not, the proof in the pudding remains subjective.
    Peace and luvz, Keith

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