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Pagan Theology

Magic:  Systematic Scientific Explanations

In my last column I divided magic up into different categories according to how you might explain it worked.  Systematic explanations appealed to some sort of system independent from the worker, or deity.  Individualistic explanations appealed to the individual, while theistic ones appealed, to, you guessed it, deity.  Magical system mix and match frequently between these various explanations, for example a magical working directed toward individual enlightenment that appeals to deity.  Despite this mixing up of things, I think these are useful categories for discussion.

In the last column I also noted that systematic explanations could be divided into three sub-categories: scientific, middle ground, and just plain made up.  Scientific explanations appeal to some sort of “scientific” or real-world ideas to explain how magic works.  The middle-ground invokes sciency-sounding explanations without actually claiming to do science.  The ultimate alternative is to simply make up stuff, invoke rules or processes that are defined by the magician, and no one else.

In this column I’ll start working through the explanations one at a time, starting with the scientific explanation [1].  I’ll take two approaches, one from a first principles approach, the other using some of the examples you can find in the Pagan literature.
First principles

Explain magic by science?  Sorry governor, you just cannot do it.  Short section. That is all.  Move along.

Ok, now that we know where we stand, we can discuss some of the details.

I believe there are two issues related to trying to establish a scientific explanation for magical action.  The first issue is sociological.  There seems to be a lot of desire amongst any number of people and institutions to prefer a scientific explanation of the world to any other type of explanation.  For example, instead of seeing terrorism as a philosophical and theological problem, you can see it as the result of a “cause” like poverty or disaffection, which results in an “effect” which is terrorism.  By making terrorism into an instrumental cause and effect process you can then apply modern engineering or process methods to “fix” the problem.  A theological or philosophical approach would not necessarily let you “fix” the problem in the same way.

The second issue is one of simple application.  “Science” however defined has a lot of difficulty addressing issues related to the theological.  In fact the definitions I prefer for the two ideas: spirit and science, pretty much exclude any information about one from having meaning to the other.  Science does not say much about spirit, and in turn, spirit does not get a vote on science.  Despite the creationists and spoon benders, the spiritual does not get to make claims about the world.

The sociological argument is actually quite interesting, and can be pernicious in its application.   The basic principle is that, because science and engineering have had so much success of late, saying an idea is “scientific” will lend an aura to the idea and improve the likelihood that it will be accepted and believed.

This instrumentalist view of life has come about, I believe because of the spectacular success of engineering in providing control over the world and environment [2].  While many who do not want to control the world (like Pagans) would say this is a bad thing, institutions, organizations, and people who value control over other things see this as a very good thing.  By reducing everything to an engineering problem, it allows for control and manipulation of the world in ways that can be organized and politicized.  Of course this is as big a fallacy as someone seeking to justify spiritual issues using science, because matters of spirit and humanity do not operate in the same way that natural laws do.  But this success, and the desire to “engineer” just about everything, has conferred a prestige onto this view of the world that I believe seduces those working on spiritual or magical problems.  It’s a seduction that causes them to see an appeal to science as a way to make their efforts “better” or more “real.”

Of course this is not true.  But everyone feels better because of it, except the actual scientists and engineers who generally are left wondering what the hell everyone’s talking about.

The sociological view can become evil when it’s applied to areas where science really has no business commenting, like social relationships.  As Gould so well describes [3], evolutionary theory in its most simple and naive form, has been applied rather haphazardly to human social interactions.  When the idea of “survival of the fittest” is taken to mean that those who do survive to reproduce are somehow “better” than those who do not, it distorts the meaning of selection.  There is no moral or qualitative “better” in evolution, only species that are adapted to the environment in ways that allow them to survive.  But equating evolution with progress distorts it to the advantage of those who socially, are on top.  Obviously, if evolution is a “law” the people on top must be better than those on the bottom, because they are the “fittest.”  My point is not about evolutionary theory; rather I am cautioning that you should not be taken with the thought that   “science” will lend credibility to whatever theory it is applied to.

Much the same can be said for modern paranormal and occult thought.  There seems to be a belief that if we can integrate the spiritual into science, then the barriers to belief become lower, and our credibility becomes greater.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  Trying to justify what is essentially an act of religious faith or belief with science cheapens the religious experience by requiring some sort of higher “proof” for it, and it degrades science by using its tools and techniques inappropriately and sometimes unethically.

Perhaps it would be helpful to talk about the underlying principles behind scientific and engineering methods to better explain why it’s silly when you justify things of the spirit with the tools of the world.  Science is based on the simple idea of reproducible experimentation, combined with peer review of the work.  It is fundamentally a consensus-based model; there is no solid, underlying “reality” of science; only that which is currently agreed to by the majority of scientists.  If you can come along with something that does a better job, eventually and I do mean eventually, you’d be able to convince a large fraction of the scientific community you were right.

Take for example the Alverez hypothesis [4].  In a nutshell a long time ago (1980) a Physicist named Alverez found an iridium layer in late Cretaceous sedimentary deposits.  Since iridium would most likely come from an extraterrestrial source; he hypothesized that a large object struck the earth just about the time the dinosaurs went extinct, and that probably was not just a coincidence; there was a lot of skepticism in the community about this assumption, skepticism that took years, and a lot of different kinds of research, to dispute.  Even today, there still exists a lot of doubt whether the Cretaceous impact would have been sufficient to put the dinosaurs out of their misery and other hypotheses still exists, but a radical proposition was heard, evidence was gathered, and the community came around to supporting the new idea.

The same should happen with other ideas that assert a scientific support to their claims.  Magic, any form of magic, should build on existing scientific claims, integrate into an overall coherent theory of how the world works and become accepted as an integral part of the current literature in the field.  So let’s take my favorite subject as an example:  energy.  We often talk about raising energy in rituals, about channeling energy, and about energy being manipulated by magic.  What, exactly, we mean by energy seems nebulous, it could be some form of psychic energy, or it could simply be that everyone in a circle gets excided, likes to be there, and feels connected with the world and each other (psychological energy).

While the idea of psychological energy definitely has a lot of merit and is something we will explore in the future, let’s focus on claims that a form of energy exists independent of the people involved, and can be manipulated to accomplish something in the world.

Oh, you say, I’m going to work at the quantum level, so it will all make sense.  That is all fine if you intend to push a few leptons or hadrons around, but if you want to accomplish something more substantial, then you will need to affect something that matters in the world of big people.  We call that “work.”

When you discuss energy as it acts in the world you are entering into a discussion about the science of energy and work, or thermodynamics.  Any energy that is raised or used needs to obey the fundamental laws of thermodynamics, which essentially say that energy, is neither created nor destroyed, systems tend toward fewer potential states over time, and there is a ground state at absolute zero.  All this really puts a crimp on there being some sort of “other” energy that can do work in the world, but exists somehow independently from “normal” energy that is involved in heating your house and making your car go.

Since energy cannot be created or destroyed (except in nuclear interactions, which we don’t really do in circle), you cannot go around creating an energy that works in the world that is not somehow present in the world already; if that is true, and the energy is already in the world it should be capable of being measured, transformed, and used in all of the typical prosaic ways we use energy in our daily lives.  If anything does happen in the world when you raise energy, then thermodynamics would say that the energy comes from somewhere in the world, probably from those people who are exerting themselves to raise it (in the form of breakfast being changed to a sweaty heat).  It would be about as mysterious as lighting a match.

And we just do not see any sort of ability to create energy that goes beyond what we currently understand.  If energy could be actually produced by thought, or by certain ritual actions, or any number of other occult activities, then we would be able to define a source that is independent of all the “normal” sources of energy (gravity, chemical reactions, etc.).  It cannot be done.  Likewise we do not see work being preformed that is outside of the normal amounts of work that would be preformed should people dance around, wave their arms and chant.  And a special, mysterious, secret, energy is not energy because it does not conform to what we define as energy, and part of the definition of energy is the ability to do work in the world.  Whatever is the cause of magic, of our healings and workings and calls, must be something other than energy.

“Wait, you just have not discovered this energy source yet.”  Unfortunately that is a bit of a cop out, we have not discovered many things yet, but we do not claim they are validated by science until we do discover them.  Undiscovered scientific facts are just that, undiscovered.

Now do not get me wrong, I do believe that magical workings have an effect and have an effect in the world, but I also believe it doesn’t make any sense from a technical perspective to try and explain those effects using any sort of science.   Scientific explanations like “energy” or “quantum effects” do not really explain anything; they only invoke something that is somewhat mysterious (energy, quantum physics) in order to make the magical effect be perceived as legitimate.   The fact that many do not have a background in thermodynamics (lucky you) or quantum mechanics (even luckier) means that whomever is invoking the terms has a lot of leeway in what they can say and claim without an expectation that anyone will rebut them.  Even if they are challenged, who will judge whether they are right or wrong if they never understood in the first place.

You should always be careful about people using science to support an argument that is not easily verified by experiment; otherwise you will often be misled.

Examples of this sort of thing

So what claims are made in the literature?

Parapsychology is perhaps the strongest and most persistent claimed made in the literature.  After setting magic up as a para-science, Bonewits [5] goes on to claim that parapsychology is a science, and it, in turn, underlies magic.  “Basically every human being is a walking radio station, broadcasting and receiving on ultra-long wavelengths of the standard electromagnetic energy spectrum” [5].  Bonewits goes on to discuss parapsychological research, discussing some of the experiments performed on telepathy in some detail.

Needless to say parapsychology has not caught on, much.  Despite the occasional interest from somebody with tenure.   I believe that you need to put parapsychology to the make sense test: if people could, with their minds, reproducibly read something remotely or move objects, wouldn’t you think that the billions of us who could really use the talent would have eventually, after all these years, figured out how to make it work for profit.  Since it still seems to be the prevue of stage magicians (who can duplicate all of the effects produced by the psychics) or fringe researchers, it seems logical that parapsychology just is not there.  Of course you could also get into various arguments about the science of it, but that is unnecessary if it simply does not matter whether the effects exist or not.  And if it cannot reliably affect something that matters, and is measurable, in the world, then it really does not matter.

Another approach is the quantum approach I mentioned previously.  After a very interesting and useful (for future discussion) of energy as a force different from the energy of physics, Christopher Penczak attempts to relate magick and science through quantum physics [6]. Penczak builds on the usual suspects of quantum physics, the duality of particles (everything is connects), the uncertainty principle (you affect what you observe) and holograms (reconstructing an image from what appears to be an incoherent set of data) to suggest that everything is connected to everything else, that the universe is both infinitely complex and infinitely connected.  Starhawk [7] makes a very similar argument in her book as well:  “The universe is a fluid, ever changing energy pattern, not a collection of fixed and separate things.  What affects one thing affects, in some way, all things:  All is interwoven into the continuous fabric of being.  Its warp and weft are energy, which is the essence of magic.”

The problem with these arguments is that they confuse fact and effect.  It may be a fact that when particles travel as waves they have a very wide and undetermined distribution, but that does not mean that they actually affect anything.  Let’s take a space heater.  It creates “energy that we can believe in:” it gets hot.  By getting hot it does two things, it affects the air around it, and it radiates thermal radiation.  The air around it moves faster (its entropy increases and its temperature rises) and it affects things adjacent to it, like the dog lying next to it.  The dog, the air, the room and any number of other things, absorb the energy emitted by the heater.  You cannot heat the neighborhood with a small space heater because other objects will absorb most of the energy and the volume to be heated will go as r cubed where r is the distance to the heater.

Both of these effects will operate on any sort of energy that we (you and I) can create; it will essentially get weaker the further you go away from the source.  Even ignoring relativistic effects (the heat can only travel so fast); the overall impact of your space heater on the moon will be infinitesimal.  Negligible zero…  Thus things can be connected, but not at all influenced by that connection.  This does not mean we are not connected, it just means that magical energy being transmitted through some etheric connection does not make a lot of sense. [8]

Now I’m not claiming that insights cannot be gained from a thoughtful application of the principles of modern physics to mystical and magical thought.  It is not simple, however, and the answers will be less all encompassing and easy than you might think.  Concepts of time, multiple embedded dimensions, and the uncertainty principle may have some application to how we think about consciousness and its relation to the world.   But those applications have to be both consistent with the physics and very careful in any claims about macroscopic reality.

None of the claims I have cited are extensive or world changing.  It is not as if disproving an association between science and magic would matter.  As we will see there are many good arguments for magic independent of any appeal to science, just like there are good arguments for religious belief independent of science.  All of the authors I cite here as talking about science and magic also have other ways of looking at magic and its effects on the world and us.  We are not like the fundamentalist Christians; we have not built the edifice of a religion on the idea that it can be verified by doing science on the world (as some fundamentalist Christians would claim is the case for their creation story).  As a mature and thoughtful religion we should honor science for what it tells us about the world, and honor magic and mysticism for what they tell us about the Gods and Goddesses.  Maybe someday, the two will meet. But they have not met yet.

Notes and citations

[1] While by most people’s definition I would qualify as a “scientist” I do not represent myself as either a physicist or in particular a quantum physicist or cosmologist.  However that is fine because in this article I don’t intend to enter the debate that is ongoing about actual quantum physics and free will, cosmology, or the beginnings of the universe.  It’s all very interesting, but from what I understand it has not yet been verified in experiment.  Likewise it is mostly irrelevant to our discussion here because most of the claims made by Pagans are more general and less detailed than that work.  And you do not have to solve any tensor equations, which is the advantage of both of us.

[2] I firmly believe that most of the accolades laid at the foot of science rightly belong to the application of science to everyday life, which is done by fields that use science such as medicine and engineering.  Science gave us Newtonian mechanics, but Statics and Dynamics are what you use to build bridges.

[3] Stephen J. Gould.  The Mismeasure of Man. Norton, 1996

[4] Luis W. Alvarez et al. “Extraterrestrial Cause of the Cretaceous-Tertiary Extinction,” Science, 208: 4448, pp. 1095-1108

[5] Isacc Bonewits. Real Magic, Weiser 1989

[6] Christopher Penczak.  Inner Temple of Witchcraft:  Magick, Meditation and Psychic Development, Lewellyn, 2005

[7] Starhawk.  The Spiral Dance.  Harper, 1999

[8] In fact, prior to our gaining an understanding of the quantum nature of photons and electrons and relativity, physicists thought that there was a substance permeating the universe, the ether, and that did allow light and radio waves to propagate, after all “waves” have to travel in something…see, for example, L.B. Spinney.  “The Ether Concept in Modern Physics,” Science, 72, 1930, pp. 303-310