Why Magic Matters

In modern times, it can seem hard to reconcile science and magic. But we can benefit from both, says Cunning Folk’s contributing editor Jonathan Woolley.

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We live in an age of miracles. We can speak to our friends and loved ones from thousands of miles away. Our fields are fruitful, even in winter. Humans today live for literally generations longer than our ancestors. With a couple of clicks, all the collated knowledge of humanity can be at your fingertips. Diseases that have killed millions are now easily cured. We can fly. And all these feats are made possible through science. 

And we have all been given a history, for this time of scientific wonderment. We are told that, long ago, before science began, mankind lived in darkness—in an age guided by trickery and superstition. They—wrongly— imagined the world was controlled by gods and stories, rather than natural laws and mathematics. People looked to practices based upon such mistaken beliefs—ritual and magic—to solve their problems. These techniques rarely worked, but blind faith, and a lack of any viable alternatives, kept them in place. Then, during what is now called the Age of Enlightenment, there was an intellectual revolution. People began to realise the world worked like an enormous machine; and started to work out which levers to pull to make the machine behave in ways they wished for. Technologies based on this very effective mechanistic science started to become commonplace. In this way, the scientific worldview began to permeate our lives, so we left spells and mythology behind. 

This entire history rests on two basic assumptions; the first is that magic is basically an alternative to science, albeit a flawed one. Because they were less effective in creating change in the world, magical theories and practices were abandoned in favour of scientific ones. The second assumption is that magical practices— like spells and rituals—rest on specific magical beliefs about how the universe works. If you hold to these fanciful theories to be true, then it’s only natural that you’ll act in ritualistic ways.

These assumptions were popular amongst 19th century anthropologists—like Edward Tylor and James George Frazer. Frazer in particular—in his famous masterpiece, The Golden Bough—argued that all magical rituals relied on two basic theories: the Principle of Contagion—that two objects that were once in contact with each other, retain a connection even once they are separated—and the Principle of Sympathy—in which symbolic resemblances have causal effects in the real world. A voodoo doll or poppet captures both these principles. A poppet being made from the hair or clothes of a person relates to the first principle. The practice of damaging the poppet in order to harm the person reflects the second. Frazer and his contemporaries argued that all magicians held theories like this to be true, and practiced magic as a result. This state of error was gradually dispelled because of technological progress, they said, and magical thinking evolved into more scientific worldviews.

This “evolutionist" school of thought in anthropology was enormously influential, and helped shape how many modern people think about magic today. In fiction, magic almost always works in the same way that science does—mechanistically, with spells always yielding predictable outcomes, so long as the correct procedure is followed—something that reinforces the idea that magic and science are simply two sides of the same coin. Indeed, this is such a prevailing trope that author Arthur C. Clarke described this as a law.

Convinced that magic is simply erroneous science, many people today regard magical practices—like astrology, making offerings to spirits, casting spells, or treating the natural world as enchanted—with scepticism, even disdain. Such practices are seen as foolish, and unnecessary. Our society might be riddled with exceptions to this attitude, but such exceptions often map onto existing tensions between the powerful and the powerless. People of colour, for example, are often expected to have “irrational” customs, even by those who see the folly of such customs as obvious. This betrays the deep-seated racism of 19th century evolutionism; in which only those wrongly deemed to be “less evolved”—such as children or people of colour —were thought to be likely to practice magic.

But in reality, magic is far more than the primitive cousin of science. Magical systems are vast and elaborate, with other effects that are often far more important than their practical outcomes. When the Evolutionists were writing, it was widely assumed that magic and religion as a whole would disappear within a few short decades. However, 100 years later in the 1980s, anthropologist Tanya Luhrmann turned her attention to the fact that it had not. In her study of British witches and ceremonial magicians, Luhrmann demonstrated that the practitioners she studied were perfectly normal, rational people—who often worked in scientific or technical professions. Why, then, did they continue to cast spells and attend sabbats under the full moon? 

As an answer, Luhrmann characterises magic as a kind of “serious play”; an enjoyable and deeply meaningful activity in its own right. Luhrmann found that it was largely pursued at first for its own sake. The experiences people who had during ritual could result in practitioners adopting “magical” beliefs, that deviated from scientific orthodoxy, but also provided practitioners with an enhanced sense of wellbeing, purpose, and connection in their lives. The beliefs magicians did express were often adopted strategically and provisionally —with no particular commitment being expressed to any one set of magical ideas. Unscientific beliefs about magic, when they do emerge, are speculative rationalisations about personal experience; not an organised set of teachings opposed to science. Magical rituals preceded theories of magic—not the other way around.

Magic is a kind of playing. This is no bad thing—play is, after all, the dominant mode of learning used by human beings. The time spent in unstructured, imaginative play helps children develop a sense of who they are, and of what the world is like, facilitating creativity, social awareness, and motor skills. It also comes with a wealth of positive effects upon their emotional state, too. Luhrmann’s research helps us to realise that magical acts—aside from any causal role they might or might not play—are an opportunity for adults to play; gaining access to all the psychological benefits that play provides. 

This draws a very clear distinction between magic, as practiced today, and science. Although they were once closely intertwined—the alchemy of the Renaissance being a notable example—what has taken place since that time is not a conversion of magical beliefs into scientific theories, but rather a separation of what was once a single practice into two, distinct spheres. Given its creative, emotional, and performative aspects, it might be helpful to consider magic as an artform, rather than a science. This shows that dismissing magic because it isn’t scientific is totally nonsensical; just as one wouldn’t evaluate a Picasso based on its physiological accuracy, you wouldn’t judge a spell based on how well it performs under double-blind control trials. Denying ourselves access to this entire sphere of creativity, then, is as foolish and short-sighted as to ban or dismiss dance or film. Magic is the aesthetics of the soul, an artistic mode where the human heart is its medium; with playfulness as its central discipline. 

After all, they don’t call it the “Dark Arts” for nothing.