Magic, Superstition & Science

Over at Lapham’s Quarterly, Colin Dickey sympathetically examines superstition, magic, and the supernatural. It’s such a good essay that I’m going to have my students read it over the weekend. In this excerpt, Dickey hits several nails right on the head:

As the world was becoming more ordered and codified via patriarchal religion and a burgeoning system of capitalism, magic was seen as a threat because it circumvented these structures: it offered a life outside the authority of the Church and the hierarchies it had carefully cultivated. Little had changed; people still felt powerless in the face of nature, but now instead of turning to magicians, they blamed them. The Church, after all, rarely attacked sympathetic magic on the grounds that it was empirically fallacious or ineffective—rather, it was a rival source of power. Among the many scandalous aspects of witches’ sabbaths as they were popularly depicted was the commingling of social classes: women—and increasingly men—of all walks of life, from peasants to the aristocracy, all were equal at the Midnight Mass. This vision of a dark Utopia was as threatening—if not more so—than any of the black rites practiced therein.

Because I wouldn’t want evangelical atheists to get the mistaken idea that magic is imbricated only with religion and not science, I would be remiss not to cite this salutary passage from Alan Jacobs’ essay on fantasy and the techno-science machine:

The idea that technology (“the Machine”) is a kind of magic, or at least deeply related to magic, is one that J.R.R. Tolkien shared with his close friend C. S. Lewis, who argued that, in the early modern period, “The serious magical endeavour and the serious scientific endeavour are twins: one was sickly and died, the other strong and throve.” Science, Lewis continued, “is no doubt contrasted in our minds with that of the magicians: but contrasted only in the light of the event, only because we know that science succeeded and magic failed. That event was then still uncertain. Stripping off our knowledge of it, we see at once that [Sir Francis Bacon, one of the founders of experimental science] and the magicians have the closest possible affinity….Nor would Bacon himself deny the affinity: he thought the aim of the magicians was noble.”

Without giving the matter much thought, it seems to me that magic and science are connected in ways not fully explored or appreciated. Both traffic in curiosity and causation in ways that can generate awe.

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7 thoughts on “Magic, Superstition & Science

  1. Joe

    Have you read Silvia Federici’s ‘Caliban And The Witch: Women, The Body, and Primitive Accumulation’?

  2. Dominik Lukes

    Sorry to bang on about the same thing over and over but can’t the argument be made that magic and science are made from the same cognitive cloth. They both deeply rely on analogical reasoning.

    The one thing that Dickey does not get right (or at least does not give a corrective to those he quotes) is that anyone can do magic. Magic is a highly specialized activity that requires as much training as all similar activities (e.g. art or biological taxonomy). Sure, anyone can fake mumbo jumbo, but lots of people successfully fake being doctors or scientists, too.

    Plus, in the social sciences we repeatedly see the cargo cult of statistics and other methods employed to signal a belief in something rather than being very useful.

  3. Cris Post author

    So you don’t think there is a difference between doing a rain dance and saying that the (coincidental) precipitation was caused by the ritual, and having a meteorologist forecast rain in the future because there is a wet cold front moving through the area?

    Just because each of these relies on analogical reasoning, and they are structurally similar in a superficial way, this doesn’t make them substantively similar or even coterminous.

    Don’t get me wrong — I am not one of those who thinks science has all the answers or can explain everything. In other words, don’t accuse me of scientism. But I see a fairly stout distinction between magic-supernatural and science-empiricism. Similarity of reasoning and metaphors don’t reduce them to equivalencies.

    Having said this, there are border areas in science, such as theoretical physics, where some of the work looks and feels much more like old-timey magic or supernaturalism. String theory, for instance, cannot be verified or falsified. It seems like magic to me.

    All this aside, I don’t think Dickey (or Tolkien or Lewis) is talking about professional or commercial or sleight of hand type of magic. They are talking about ritual-magic which invokes the supernatural, which by careful and hedged definition is impervious to measurement, testing, and falsification.

  4. Joe

    Here’s Peter Linebaugh’s cover blurb: “Federici shows that the birth of the proletariat required a war against women, inaugurating a new sexual pact and a new patriarchal era: the patriarchy of the wage. Firmly rooted in the history of the persecution of the witches and the disciplining of the body, her arguments explain why the subjugation of women was as crucial for the formation of the world proletariat as the enclosures of the land, the conquest and colonization of the ‘New World,’ and the slave trade.”

    Here’s an excerpt: “What died was the concept of the body as a receptacle of magical powers that had prevailed in the medieval world. In reality, it was destroyed. For in the background of the new philosophy we find a vast initiative by the state, whereby what the philosophers classified as “irrational” was branded as crime.[…] “Knowledge” can only become “power” if it can enforce its prescriptions. This means that the mechanical body, the body-machine, could not have become a model of social behavior without the destruction by the state of a vast range of pre-capitalist beliefs, practices, and social subjects whose existence contradicted the regularization of corporeal behavior promised by Mechanical Philosophy. […] This is how we must read the attack against witchcraft and against that magical view of the world which, despite the efforts of the Church, had continued to prevail on a popular level through the Middle Ages. […] Eradicating these practices was a necessary condition for the capitalist rationalization of work, since magic appeared as an illicit form of power and an instrument to obtain what one wanted without work, that is, a refusal of work in action.[…] Magic, moreover, rested upon a qualitative conception of space and time that precluded a regularization of the labor process. […] From [the ruling class’s] viewpoint it hardly mattered whether the powers that people claimed to have, or aspired to have, were real or not, for the very existence of magical beliefs was a source of social insubordination.”

  5. Dominik Lukes

    Well, I do think there’s a difference between ascribing rain to front movements and a rain dance ritual. But it’s a contingent difference we can only determine post hoc. We live on different scales that lets us rely on a larger number of people creating and examining more facts.

    The problem is that you don’t look at science over time. Until chaos theory, meteorologist’s views of how to predict weather patterns were pretty much voodoo. So, if it was tested knowledge then, and it’s no good now, does it cease to become science? As I said before, there’s no guarantee that our views of the world won’t seem like voodoo to future generations. But we will still have gotten a lot of use out of them.

    Just because I say science and witchcraft rely on the same cognition and epistemological building blocks, it doesn’t mean that I can’t make value judgements about the utility of the knowledge they generate. But those judgements are also contingent. For example, let’s say it turns out that the rain dance is somehow correlated with rain? We will then have to look for theories to explain it consistent of what we consider to be acceptable cause-effect schemas. Isn’t that what happened to Semmelweis? He had a valid correlation but there was no available causal explanation and he was cast out as anti science. Isn’t the history of science filled with these stories? When it comes to revolutionary ideas, we often don’t know ahead of time whether their proponents see something we do not because they are brilliant or because they are crazy.

    But I think that your description of ritual as “careful and hedged definition impervious to measurement, testing, and falsification” is too sweeping. I only know very little of the literature, but it seems to me that if you look at the discourse by witchcraft practitioners, you will find testing, measurement and even proto-falsificationism. I don’t think you can compare the charlatans of one domain with the best practitioners of another.

    Which is why, when I talked about professional magic, I meant “real” magic, not stage magic.

    The sort of magic Newton practiced with his alchemy It wasn’t just some peculiar quirk. It was a serious intellectual entreprise. We now “know” it is nonsense and have the social sanction to say that it is non-sense, but it was an epistemologically valid position in the context of his time.

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