RAMSEY DUKES: Is Science any more sensible than Magic?

26 MARCH 2004

Is Science any more sensible than Magic?

 Ramsey Dukes questions the notion that Science
is the epitome of down-to-earth realism whereas Magic is the realm of
airy fairy escapist fantasy.

Was it Dr Johnstone who famously kicked a stone or thumped a table
or whatever and declared that this was what he meant by reality? I’m
surprised that I have forgotten the details, because it was an anecdote
much loved by people who considered themselves to be ‘down to earth’
and so opposed to my interest in the occult.
    The assumption was that there was this mushy world
of fantasy and spiritual claptrap which was being steadily eroded by
the advance of Scientific rationalism – and the fact that Magic was not
Science meant that it must therefore be part of that fantasy world.
    In part I agreed with their historical view, because
I do believe that Science does tend to erode then overwhelm Religion.
I describe in SSOTBME how Religion evolves towards monotheism and, rather
than stop at a duality of God and matter, the mind tends to move on to
the ultimate monotheism which admits matter as the one reality. I also
describe the process whereby phenomena once considered to be spiritual
can be replicated in laboratories and so the mind tends to abandon the
spiritual explanation, not because it has been ‘disproved’ but because
it is no longer needed.

    The difference is that I see this process as a cyclical

psychological shift rather than as any absolute repudiation of spirit.
For I believe that Magic in turn tends to erode then overwhelm Science
– as I described in the second essay of this series. In that essay the model
was that Science conquers Religion by providing material explanations which
demonstrate greater power than Religion – rather like those old stories
where the priests of one religion conquered those of another by performing
better miracles. But then I went on to describe how after a while people
find that not only do they no longer need to believe in spirit, but they
no longer need believe in matter either. All that is needed is the explanations
– and a world of pure information is a world of Magic.
    Put this way it might seem to confirm the prejudice
addressed at the beginning of this essay: that Science is indeed about
solid reality, while Magic is pure speculation. But such an interpretation
misses the point.
    When the astronomer shows us through the telescope
how the shadow of the earth obscures the Moon in a lunar eclipse, he
is providing a material explanation, so the mind no longer need believe
that a dragon has swallowed the Moon. In this case Science is bringing
us down to earth from fanciful Religious notions. Science is being more
     But when Science says that my experience of
falling in love is ‘really’ chemicals in my bloodstream it is on shakier
ground – for the sensation of falling in love is more tangible, sensory
– literally more ‘sensible’ – than an explanation based upon chemicals
which cannot readily be demonstrated without invading my body and thereby
invalidating the very evidence.

     It is as if the descent from spirit into matter
– originally felt as a coming down to earth – if pursued further by Science
leads us not into ever more tangible but rather ever less tangible realms.
Science has left behind the ‘realist’ who thumps the table or kicks the
stone, Science is now talking about quarks and superstrings while the ‘realist’
remains in the world of experience which is essentially the world of Magic.

    Consider this example of a person who might not consider
themselves to be a Magician, but is so according to the definitions
in SSOTBME: the person is the alternative medicine enthusiast. The one
who advocates Reiki, aromatherapy, natural cures and homeopathy. The one
who insists that you should not have your fibroids removed surgically, but
that you should dialogue with them until they fade away… and so on. One
day this person’s little child is diagnosed with cancer – and they rush them
off to hospital for surgery. Now the rational Scientist tends to find this
funny – ‘so much for all that alternative rubbish, when it comes to real
illness see how they rush back to ordinary medicine’. Stories like this are
seen as some sort of repudiation of alternative therapies, proof that they
are bogus to ‘sensible’ people.
    Really? Who is being more sensible? The Scientist
who seems to think that one should be prepared to sacrifice one’s child
to prove one’s conviction? Or the person who chooses to leave the herd
in times of safety and go exploring on the fringes – but who is wise enough
to rush back to the herd when serious danger threatens? What could be more
sensible than that? An evolutionary psychologist would surely applaud such
behaviour for its survival advantages both for the individual and the species.

    Consider also a Scientific ‘disproof’ of alternative
medicine. Two groups suffering the same affliction are given tablets
– in one case they receive a particular alternative remedy and in the
other case plain sugar pills. There may even be a third group given a random
mix of the two – but the point is that no-one should know which pills they
are receiving. We often hear results of such experiments which reveal no
greater than chance benefits of the alternative remedy – and this is announced
as a disproof of its efficacy, even when I myself have tried the remedy
with excellent results.

    The whole framework of this ‘test’ is geared to eliminating
the psychological influence of medicine – we must not know about the
remedy we are taking in order to get a ‘fair’ result. But if the psychological
influence is so effective, how can any test that eliminates it be a realistic
test? A major factor in people’s choice of alternative medicines is that
they do not dumbly accept what they are given – such people listen to
their friends’ experience, they read the wonderful claims on the bottle,
they get excited about the theory behind the new cure… this is an integral
part of alternative therapies. My first experience of them was with an
osteopath: I had gone from a doctor who simply offered me pain killers
and a week off work to someone who showed me a model of the spine and
discussed my affliction like a helpful car mechanic, demonstrating where
the problem was and what it was… I was halfway cured already.
     The extreme of this ‘unrealistic’ Scientific
approach was when I heard of a claim in the media that organic real
cream ice cream was ‘no better’ than the standard British frozen mash,
because a team of tasters rendered ‘objective’ by being blindfold, having
their noses pegged and mouths rinsed with mouthwash failed to identify
the superior product. But who in the world would choose to eat expensive
ice cream blindfold, with a peg on their nose and after rinsing with mouthwash?
Not only is this test far from being sensible, it is positively ridiculous
because knowledge of the cost of a meal is part of the dining experience
– as any sensible person will acknowledge!
     In my terms Magic is not an airy fairy fantasy
game, it is grounded in reality – though not in the same way that Science
is. The reality of Magic is the reality of the senses and our perceptions
– Magical transformations are more about changing perceptions than about
changing some sensorially ‘abstract’ notion of molecular structure or
what might have been. If I am cured of my illness I am cured – and not
that interested in whether ‘I might have got better anyway’.
    It is not that spirit has no role in Magic. In my
model Religion is more about raising the material everyday world up towards
the spirit, whereas Magic’s role is more to bring down a sense of spirit
or meaning into the everyday world. So building a church, say, is an act
of Magic insofar as it makes a pile of stones and mortar into a sacred place.
Yet it is also an act of Religion, because the purpose of this exercise
is not to make matter sacred (that is idolatry in Religious eyes) but rather
to create a vehicle for material people to enter in and be raised up to
get towards God.

    For this sort of reason I would argue that people
who go from a Scientific culture to Religion in order to ‘bring meaning’
into their lives would do better to go to the New Age or some other Magical
practice; for another reason that Magic follows Science is because it
is about restoring the sense of significance and spirit to everyday life
– a simple piece of rock can become a gateway to the beyond, or a symbol
of transformation, and that is Magic. Magic is more about bringing meaning
into our everyday affairs, whereas Religion is more about finding a meaning
that takes us beyond our everyday affairs.
     Finally, I must repeat that the argument is
about the use of the word ‘sensible’ – magic is every bit as sensible
as Science, but in a different way. Science is not ‘wrong’. Science has
rescued us from the pompous inflation of blind, dogmatic priests, but then
it grows its own blindness and dogmatism so we turn from the priesthood
of Science towards Magic for its ‘sensible’ realistic approach.

     But, of course, Magic too will grow its own
priesthood, its own pompous spiritual masters. And so, in time, people
will turn towards the joys of Art, because it ‘does not take itself too
seriously’ (witness the late 70s punk rebellion against the ‘boring old
hippy farts’). Then Art too becomes dogmatic and we find Religion… No
one solution is better than any other, and yet moving from one to another
is a form of progress, and it is not to be denied or resisted.

     Magic is no better than Science. It just happens
to be what we need next to guide us, following on from the age of Scientific

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About Jay Babcock

I am an independent writer and editor based in Tucson, Arizona. In 2023: I publish an email newsletter called LANDLINE = https://jaybabcock.substack.com Previously: I co-founded and edited Arthur Magazine (2002-2008, 2012-13) and curated the three Arthur music festival events (Arthurfest, ArthurBall, and Arthur Nights) (2005-6). Prior to that I was a district office staffer for Congressman Henry A. Waxman, a DJ at Silver Lake pirate radio station KBLT, a copy editor at Larry Flynt Publications, an editor at Mean magazine, and a freelance journalist contributing work to LAWeekly, Mojo, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, Vibe, Rap Pages, Grand Royal and many other print and online outlets. An extended piece I wrote on Fela Kuti was selected for the Da Capo Best Music Writing 2000 anthology. In 2006, I was somehow listed in the Music section of Los Angeles Magazine's annual "Power" issue. In 2007-8, I produced a blog called "Nature Trumps," about the L.A. River. From 2010 to 2021, I lived in rural wilderness in Joshua Tree, Ca.