Monday, March 31, 2008

A Fool's Chance: Coincidence & Magic

[What follows is an open letter to deò and Mandy, about the most recent episode of their podcast deò's Shadow. In it, they talk about science, skepticism and, towards the end of the program, how this all relates to an understanding of magic (you can listen to the episode here). Talk about coincidence! Here, my recent debates with scientific atheists crash head on with an on-going discussion in the AODA online forum about definitions of magic. Enjoy.]


Just listened to the latest deò's Shadow episode and in particular your essay on magic, and found it fascinating! I've gotten myself into quite a few... "heated discussions" with scientific atheists lately, and because of this I've been exploring more deeply exactly where the materialist worldview conflicts with my own perspective, which has always been shaped both by a sense of the spiritual and by a highly aesthetic sense. What I keep coming back to is this distinction between science as a method, and science as an ideology or philosophical system. The point made about quantum mechanics by the physicist earlier in the show is something that applies to almost all aspects of science on a most basic level: even the most thorough and reliable scientific theories are merely refined ways of predicting causes and their related effects, i.e. ways of describing reality and, more specifically, material, physical, measurable reality. (You made this point in your essay on magic, as well.)

We get into trouble when we start assuming, firstly, that an expertise in a particular scientific field inherently translates into an expertise in all other fields and areas of knowledge. This is why people like Richard Dawkins drive me crazy! Most scientists would not assume that being knowledgeable in evolutionary biology qualifies you to talk authoritatively about, say, spectroscopy or electron paramagnetic resonance, and yet for some reason many of them assume that such a knowledge does qualify one to speak authoritatively on cultural or religious movements and phenomena, with which they usually have only a passing and shallow familiarity. But I'm getting off track. My point is that there are certainly different kinds of "knowledge," and the study of material cause-and-effect can often miss the mark when applied to social and cultural phenomena. We also run into trouble when, as that physicist earlier in the show mentioned, we begin to speculate about the various metaphysics that might explain the equations and scientific laws without realizing that this is what we're doing. At this point, we can confuse the difference between those theories and descriptions of reality that science brings to light, with the philosophical extrapolations we make based on those findings, and that's when science goes from being a method to being an ideology. Science as an ideology is the belief that the scientific method of understanding reality (i.e. the material, measurable, verifiable approach to reality) is the best and perhaps the only way to gain any useful or relevant knowledge about the world and about ourselves.

But even without resorting to the more obvious exception of spiritual beliefs, we already see that science isn't always the best way to approach cultural or emergent social phenomena. For me, another hugely important exception to a scientific ideology is art and aesthetics. We do not need to believe in any nonmaterial realm whatsoever--we can be complete materialist atheists, in fact--and still see that a work of art has certain experiential qualities that cannot be measured, quantified or (and this is key) repeated in a controlled setting so as to verify their reality empirically. My experience of a painting or piece of music, for example, will be uniquely my own and different from that of my friend's, even when my friend and I can agree about certain basic aspects of that experience. Furthermore, every time we approach a given painting will be a new experience itself, different from our previous experiences (e.g. each new approach will be in a different time, perhaps in a different place, and we will have changed and grown in the meantime). There is simply no way to guarantee that each person's aesthetic experience will be the same as another's or consistent throughout time without imposing a certain control or reductionist approach to the work of art that actually robs it of that very aesthetic nature we were hoping to pin down. And yet I think we can agree that engaging a work of art is a meaningful and even an informative experience, one that can highlight ideas or understandings about the world that are very different from the kind of knowledge gained through the scientific method, but which are still useful and relevant for us as human beings.

What does all of this have to do with magic? For me, I have always found it most useful to approach an understanding of magic beginning from a perspective on aesthetics. I may be biased, of course, since I first was drawn to magic and personal ritual as an extension of creative activity into a more spiritual context--but I still think that this approach can provide a useful alternative to trying to argue about magic using science's own language. The language of scientific method is, after all, not the only language available, and not always the best or most practical! For myself, I like to think of magic as "turning the wheels of coincidence." I'm rather fond of this definition because for me it connects back to the idea that magic is not "supernatural" but ultimately natural, a manifestation or emergent phenomenon of all the myriad forces and energies working and bumping into one another, but one that also requires the freedom of chance, uncertainty and creative choice. Even the strictest determinists can't seem to get away from the assumption that we human beings do have creative choice and that the actions we choose to pursue can affect the world, and they act on this assumption even when speaking officially against it (after all, why would the determinists bother to write their books trying to convince the rest of us of the truth of determinism, if they didn't think such an act of intention would make a difference? Silly determinists.) The idea of coincidence, while not rejecting anything that science has to offer, belies the assumption that the best way we can gain knowledge about the world is by subjecting it to controlled conditions within which we can measure it. Instead, it suggests that we can also understand the world, first by paying attention to how things occur as they occur naturally (i.e. attending to and taking seriously our own experiences of the world just as they're happening), and then by participating in and shaping these goings-on in a meaningful way.

This brings me to the inherent relationship between magic and the act of meaning-making. Creating or imagining meaning is a way of participating in the "goings-on" by bringing order and significance to what can be an overwhelmingly complicated world, and it's an activity that we, as self-aware creatures, engage in almost automatically on a daily basis. It is also a fundamental aspect of aesthetics. When creating works of art, the artist utilizes media that are, in themselves, perfectly mundane and "natural." But by attending to the unique potential for communication and expression inherent within a given medium, the artist can creatively shape that material into a work that opens the door to infinite new experiences that are ever-evolving and ever-revealing or -inspiring in their meaning. I think magic does precisely the same thing: it is really a kind of aesthetic activity, a work (or working) of art, which brings seemingly disparate, non-utilitarian or coincidental actions, materials and events together in ways that inspire, engage, enlighten, enchant, and/or fulfill a need for connection or meaningfulness, in line with a particular intention.

Whereas the artist's medium might be paint and canvas, stone or clay, sound, language or even the human body itself, the practitioner of magic works with chance and coincidence themselves as media for meaning-making. Ritual activity, the symbolism and correspondences of mythology, folklore, and psychological archetypes, and even works of art like music, dance and poetry then become a means by which the mage participates in the shaping of coincidence. They are the tools a mage uses to shape coincidence in the same way that a guitar is the tool a musician uses to shape sound, and the means by which he or she creates song as an experiential work of art--and yet the guitar is obviously not the same thing as the song, and it can be played poorly so as to undermine the creative activity of making music (just like a spell or magical working can be performed in a hokey or ineffectual manner). In some sense, then, when a musician performs, she is not only creating music as an aesthetic work, but also creating a kind of magic. She "turns the wheels of coincidence" by transforming a crowd of strangers into an audience sharing an intimate, communal experience of song: her intention to play manifests as a bunch of random people all gathering in the same place at the same time, and the activity of her playing is the act by which their presence is rendered meaningful and not merely coincidental. The music she performs is an aesthetic experience itself, but the social and cultural experience of the audience moves beyond this experience, though it is shaped and influenced by it in very clear ways. A practitioner of magic does much the same thing: creating, exploring and influencing reality and our experience and understanding of that reality.

I know that much of this might sound like a whole lot of mumbo-jumbo, especially these days when it seems like the creative activity of meaning-making is often dismissed as "making things up" or "seeing connections that aren't there" or aren't real ("not real" according, again, to the scientific standard of what is measurable and repeatable). As you mentioned, those very same cultures that we accuse of being "superstitious" were also very often rich, colorful and enchanting. I think perhaps this is because, superstitions aside (what is superstition, after all, but an attempt to overcome ignorance or a lack of knowledge?), such peoples were well practiced in the art of making meaning, of creating significance and depth out of the random flux of the everyday. If we step into the role of self-aware and intentional "makers of meaning," whether through art or magic, or both--if we accept the responsibility of our creative potential and work to deepen and "re-enchant" the world and our experience of it, informed now by science but not over-burdened or constrained by it--if we do this... well, I'm not sure what would happen, honestly. But I'd love to find out!



  1. Well written, Ali!

    Why not post this to your LJ?

  2. You are a lovely writer! Mandy had edited this episode (which was recorded over a couple different days, months apart), and so I hadn't heard the finished product as a whole until the show was released. As I finished listening to the episode, I had similar thoughts to yours (though not nearly as well formed as yours are).

    In particular, I was thinking that Paganism is an inherently *literary* perspective. No wonder it's incommensurable with the scientific framework! Don't get me wrong: I'm aware of the literary aspects of science as well (see David Bloor's work on the sociology of science, for example, and put that together with Richard Rorty's work on 'final vocabularies'), but science would rather not have its literary dark side... its embarrassing blemish beneath its proud clothes.

    Paganism, on the other hand, revels in it. Witness the mythology that it takes as its history, the songs, the chants, the living mythology of personal deities... Witness the form of Pagan ritual, with its vocabulary, its drama and its formal kinship to the life of a person. Paganism is a beautiful epic poem that moves the heart and stirs the soul.

    My mistake was always taking Paganism as a from of inquiry into the nature of the mind-independent universe, as if some deep metaphysical truths could be found within it. Paganism is not suited to such an inquiry. As you suggest, Paganism in general is suited to meaning-making, not ontological discovery. If you confuse these two as I had, Paganism looks like a jumbled mess, barren of value... or at least badly in need of repair.

    If I have understood what you're saying, it seems that you don't attribute any mind-independent causal efficacy to magic. Rather, magic is a kind of projection of meaning onto random (or otherwise-caused) events. It does exceedingly well at this function. Not only can it furnish a narrative about past events, it can construct narratives to handle many future eventualities. Come what may in terms of observations, the magical perspective has a way of assimilating those observations into its own framework, into its own story. And its most useful feature in this regard is the priority of the aesthetic, and not the rational.

    But for me, there are ironies about talking how we are talking. When we 'meaning-make' in Paganism and in magical perspectives, we use ontological vocabularies, treating magic and the gods as if they were mind-independently real. If we simultaneously know that we are meaning-making, then we somewhat undermine the full force of those vocabularies to knit together a meaningful narrative whole (even if it need only be an aesthetic whole, and not a rationally coherent whole). This isn't necessarily a fatal flaw: I've spoken about this on the show before---we could be similar to what Rorty calls 'Ironists' insofar as how we talk and behave is self-consciously contrary to our meta-theory, and we engage in this self-contradiction for pragmatic reasons. In Rorty's case, it's the continuation of a free democracy. In the case of Paganism, it's something more aesthetic, as you suggest.

    It's very possible that there are people out there who either 1) don't need to be ironists because they're not quite savvy enough to be in an ironic position, or 2) are fully capable of switching the hats of ontological commitment. I have found, though, for myself, the role of ironist was not allowing me to commit fully to one side or the other (inquiry into mind-independent world/Pagan aesthetic), and so I was not realizing either to their fullest extent. This was particularly problematic for my chosen profession. When I gave myself permission to release the Pagan aesthetic portion of my perspective, the other side began to flourish and I found that it was rather easy to find aesthetic fulfillment in other, more compatible, places.

    I'm curious to hear about your own journey as an Ironist.

  3. I find paganism to be perhaps the one true democratic religion, rather than dogmatic theology, granting me the freedom to retain my skepticism while simultaneously enjoying the idea that crafting a spell will actually CAUSE something to happen that might not otherwise have, and not feel conflicted. One might think that magik cannot exist due to repeatability or controllability, yet I suggest it can exist due to our inability to fashion a method of observation due to our inherent biological sensory cabilibilities. I can imagine all kinds of entities sitting over in their other dimensions shaking their heads at US wondering why we just don't "get it".