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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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: http://www.occultebooks.com/essays/rdessays/rdseries/rdessays.htm