Is Science any more sensible than Magic?

by Ramsey Dukes

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.

This article is one of a series based on my book 'SSOTBME An Essay On Magic'. The book argues that discussion of differences between Science, Religion and Art are incomplete unless a fourth culture - Magic - is included. The book also makes the revolutionary suggestion that Magic, far from being merely a primitive forerunner of Science, is actually what follows after an age of Science - just as the ‘60s magical revival followed rather than preceded the materialist ‘50s.

I offer this article as a contribution toward the debate between TFT and Science started in the last issue of Nurturing Potential. It argues that Science  quite rightly won popular acclaim for its 'sensibleness', but that times and Science have moved on. We still are inclined to assume that Science has the monopoly on sensibleness when actually, if we look at it more closely, it has slipped into just the sort of dogmatic mumbo jumbo that it once rescued us from.

Was it Dr Johnson 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 ‘sensible’.  

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 alternative fringes - but who is wise enough to rush back to the herd and conventional medicine 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 on medicine - we must not know about the remedy we are taking in order to get a ‘fair’ result. But if the psychological influence is really 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 foreknowledge 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 the Scientist’s speculation on 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 (an act of 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 enlightenment.

"SSOTBME Revised - an essay on magic" by Ramsey Dukes. Published by The Mouse That Spins, 2002. ISBN: 0-904311-08-2. The other essays by Ramsey Dukes referred to can be found at: