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.