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Science and Magic

June 17, 2013
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Not too long ago Brambonius of the fascinating Brambonius’ blog in english wrote about Ayn Rand’s marginal notes on C.S. Lewis’ The Abolition of Man. In particular, Brambonius wrote about Rand’s dislike of Lewis’ characterization of science and magic as twins. This idea is one I find very interesting.

Lewis’ argument is relatively straightforward – science and magic are both aimed at discovering truth so that the external world can be controlled. The opposite of this is the attitude of what Lewis calls “the wise men of old” who sought to discover truth so as to conform themselves to reality.

Lewis’ definition of science certainly isn’t the one I teach my students nor does it capture much of what science is. Within the sciences we sometimes discuss pure and applied research. Pure research is research that aims only to find out something interesting. Much of my own research is pure research. Pure research is often more difficult to fund and justify than applied research which aims to solve a particular scientific problem so that a process or device can be put on the market. Lewis’ definition of science applies to applied research but not to pure research. This is more problematic when one considers that pure and applied researchers can get into sharp arguments about the merits of pure research (science for the love of science not that money-grubbing stuff) versus applied science (science that does something beyond pad one’s CV).

However, Lewis’ divide is an interesting one perhaps all the more so because it might pit various parts of science against one another alongside some unlikely bedfellows. After all, much of what would now be considered magic was at one point a valid area for scientific inquiry. (The primary difference between magic and science is method and, as Lewis points out, magic died out because its methodology doesn’t work.) Even today many of our divisions between things at the edges of science are rather arbitrary. What makes cursing your neighbors’ cows magic (not suitable for study) but telepathy paranormal (something that some people will give you money to study)? Mostly it’s the age of the beliefs and how they are phrased. Why aren’t ghosts considered magic? For that matter why aren’t miracles magic?

This, I think, is the real genius of Lewis’ divide (and one reason why Ayn Rand hated it so much). We could divide the world up so that science existed on one side and religion and magic ended up on the other (with philosophy perhaps inhabiting a no-man’s-land in between). This is a fairly natural way for a modern person to see the world. However, we could also use Lewis’ divisions with modifications and place some science and magic on one side, place religion and philosophy together on the other, and place other parts of science in a third category altogether. Once we’ve seen two ways to divide the world why not more? Why accept any division of the world as inherent and natural without poking at it? If we circle around to my last question in the preceding paragraph what makes magic and miracles different? From a certain standpoint they aren’t – they are both supernatural events. From one Christian perspective they differ primarily in where the power comes from – miracles come from God while magic comes from any other source. Lewis’ division also answers the question neatly: magic bends the world to our will, miracles bend the world to its Maker’s will and back to its intended purpose.

So is there any applied section to these musing? Certainly. Let’s continue on with miracles. The modern word “miracle” connotes something that only makes sense given one sort of division of the world, one in which the most important division of the world is natural and supernatural. I’ve discussed miracles before and made roughly this same point: for the original audience of the Bible a miracle wasn’t a miracle because it was completely unexplainable by natural causes but because it so clearly seemed to serve or indicate God’s purposes. This sort of division of the world isn’t the one we usually deal in and so we sometimes have some rather practical problems with miracles. However, for ancient people a rainstorm could be a miracle if it happened at the right time in the right way and accomplished the right ends. Our modern division of the world has no ability to really conceptualize the ancient idea of a miracle.

More worryingly, a huge amount of modern life now lies on one side of Lewis’ divide. Most of what we do in our modern world is aimed at bending the external world to our ends. We think of our relationships in these terms, we think of our work in these terms, and we often think of our religion in these terms. The health and wealth gospel is a simple example of trying to make religion into a matter of changing external but these threads are far more pervasive. We ask how Christianity will help us find a spouse and not how it will help us live as fulfilled single people. We search the book of Proverbs for that nugget of divine wisdom that will make our business ventures flourish. I recently heard an excellent critique of Bible Belt church culture delivered by a pastor from that culture where he pointed out that he was raised not to count any kind Christian gesture towards a non-Christian unless it got them to convert. No, he said, what matters is that you did what you should in that situation and not how the external environment (including the person who is not you) came into conformity with your will.

I am convinced that the fundamental thing about Christianity that makes it worthwhile is that it is not another tool to manipulate the world but a means of setting ourselves to rights. To properly understand that we need to be able to think of the world in fresh categories that include categories of intent.

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