Sunday, February 17, 2008

Magic, Mysticism, and Science

The magical and scientific viewpoints toward the world are fundamentally different. The scientific viewpoint asserts that the universe behaves according to fixed mechanical principles. The magical viewpoint is that what happens is fundamentally determined by the wills of concious entities (gods, spirits, whatever). The magical viewpoint is consistent with, but does not necessarily imply, the idea that some or all human beings can effect changes in physical reality through acts of will alone. The scientific viewpoint is not. I fully subscribe to the scientific viewpoint. I cannot prove it is correct, I very much doubt that it can be proven, even in principle. Disputing the scientific viewpoint goes outside the scope of this blog.

It is, of course, possible for a scientist to believe in the existence of some sort of deity. He could, for example, believe in a deistic god which created the universe and its physical laws, and afterwards refrained from interfering. Or he could believe in a more personal God which normally allows the universe to proceed according to physical laws, but who can and does sometimes cause miracles, events which are impossible according to normal law. But in order to do science, one must for all practical purposes rule out the possibility of a miracle occurring in the course of one's experiments.

The key element of the scientific viewpoint is that matter, at least at its most fundamental level, lacks any sort of purpose or goal or morality. Water doesn't seek its proper level, it merely follows the grade; it can't spontaneously flow uphill in order to later flow farther downhill. Of course, human beings do exhibit goal-oriented behavior, but our constituent elements do not.

Mystical beliefs (astrology, alchemy, etc.) are often thought of as being part of magic, but actually they were essentially scientific, but they were bad science. Their practitioners believed in universal rules, but their rules didn't work. The alchemists were bad enough chemists to realize that their attempts to transmute lead into gold were futile, but good enough economists to realize that in order to achieve the vast riches they coveted they needed not only to learn the process, but to keep it secret from others. Secrecy is the essence of mysticism, and thus mysticism is almost invariably bad science. It is nearly impossible to keep a principle of nature secret while making use of it for some practical effect.

Since the "Age of Reason", calling an idea "scientific" has been a way to imbue it with credit, but the fact that something is called scientific doesn't mean that it truly is. Not only can it be bad science, it can be an appeal to magic disguised with scientific terminology or rationale. Scientific vocabulary or equations notwithstanding, an attempt toc cause physical results via will alone without a physical causal mechanism is magic, not science.

There is, however, one area in which something much like magic might plausibly be expected to work: when the desired effect is to change human behavior. Because people act on the basis of their beliefs, it stands to reason that changing people's beliefs will change their actions. Also, because most people crave approval, if one could be control what gains social approval, behavior would adjust accordingly. This type of thought is central to the totalitarian movements of the twentieth century.

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