5. From Philosophical Hunter/Gatherer to Agriculturist

Ramsey Dukes

Further reflections on cultural evolution from Scientific to Magical thinking. 

In the second essay of this series it was suggested that:

  • in practice Magic tends to follow after Science rather than precede it
  • this happens in an endless cycle in which Magic evolves towards Art, which evolves to Religion which evolves to Science which in turn evolves back to Magic
  • although the element of progress means that each incoming phase appears superior to the last one, the cyclic evolution implies that no one of the four disciplines is absolutely superior to any other. One can merely prove more timely than another
  • in the sense that Scientific thinking gained precedence over Religious thinking some 500 years ago, and has remained the dominant intellectual influence ever since, in the same sense Magical thinking is now rising towards precedence over Scientific thinking, and will become the dominant intellectual influence for several centuries to come.

In this essay I will draw an analogy between this last assertion and the evolution from man as hunter/gatherer towards an agriculture-based society. 

SSOTBME contains many examples to illustrate the cultural evolution from Religion to Science and from Science to Magic. One example considered the tendency for Religious philosophy to evolve towards monotheism, and it was suggested that this created the philosophical dilemma of an apparent duality between the one God postulated and the one material reality observed. The easiest resolution of this dilemma was to make matter the first cause or ultimate reality - 'word made flesh' - and so Science could be seen as the ultimate monotheism. 

At this stage, the apparent 'defeat' of Religion by Science takes the form of Science pulling us away from abstract metaphysical speculation and down into hard fact. The Religious person speaks of the 'wonder of God's creation' and the Scientist replies by presenting a series of 'seeing is believing' physical demonstrations of his own creation. It was pointed out that a physical demonstration does not logically disprove a spiritual cause, but it does make it 'unnecessary', and so the human mind can now choose to reject spiritual explanations. 

So vivid and effective are these Scientific demonstrations, that it must surely, at this stage, seem that here is the ultimate answer - God is dead, and rational materialism is finally triumphant. There is, however, an evolutionary momentum that takes us beyond this stage. 

Although the emphasis on the physical seems highly satisfying after the 'woolly' abstractions of the spirit, the human brain is also very well equipped for abstract speculation. So a part of our nature remains unsatisfied by pure materialism and continues its abstract quest. It is no longer permitted to seek the divine, but it can divert that energy into a quest for 'Truth'. Science, on the one hand so utterly solidly materialistic, is at the same time a continuation of the spiritual quest - but now the Ultimate Reality is no longer called God, but Truth. It is convenient that Einstein's theories have lead to the promise of nuclear power, but their real Scientific value is rather that they have lead us closer to Truth. 

This search for Truth, however, serves to undermine Science's status as guardian of 'real, down to earth, common sense', because absolute Truth can seem every bit as abstract and elusive as God. Science tells us that overwhelming experiences such as falling in love are but 'chemicals in the brain' - and this explanation requires complex and expensive laboratory conditions for its demonstration, whereas the actual subjective experience of falling in love can overwhelm everyday existence in its intensity. The Scientist's explanation is just beginning to sound as detached, pious and elitist as the priest's declaration that we were being 'tempted by Satan'. 

And this is where Magic begins to take over. For the world as subjectively experienced - as opposed to any idea of objective truth or what is 'really' happening at some molecular or subatomic level - is the domain of Magic. 

The fact that Scientists have 'disproved' aromatherapy in blind tests where randomly chosen subjects were dosed with placebos and essential oils via face masks while their brains were being scanned, seems utterly uncontroversially 'real' and 'final' to the believing Scientist. But to the average person who knows they feel bloody great after an aromatherapy session, the response becomes 'so what?'. No 'real life' aromatherapy would be administered via face masks while the patient was wired up to an encephalograph - so that experiment was not much of a test, was it? 

Many more examples have been given in previous essays - the only point I wish to emphasise is that Science which had come to overwhelm Religion by presenting itself as the champion of everyday common sense over metaphysics, is beginning to sound like metaphysics itself. People need a new champion to represent everyday life as experienced, and they will find it in Magic, whether they admit it or not. 

Science will continue its quest for ever more subtle causes, meanwhile sympathetic Magic will begin to outpace it by working with correlations and affinities which get faster results in the face of complexity. Science may discover these affinities - revealing, say, a coincidence of fossil fuel consumption and global warming - but it is sympathetic Magic that champions the immediate reduction in our use of fossil fuels. Meanwhile the Scientist, once the champion of hard-headed realism, while insisting on further years of testing and analysis to nail down exact causal chains, becomes the 'woolly minded ditherer' in the public eye. 

As an example of this complexity, I point out once more that this sequence is only a small part of the whole story. Other factors are at work. Both Science and Religion represent what you could call the 'questing' spirit. They are a quest or hunt for meaning, for the divine, for truth or whatever. The Religious quest for 'meaning' typically passes through material existence and points to something beyond - someone who concluded that ultimate meaning lay in shopping would not be recognised as truly Religious. Although I suggested in SSOTBME that the distant aim of Religion lay towards 'The Good', while that of Science lay towards 'The True' (while Magic and Art owned 'The Whole' and 'The Beautiful' respectively) - these terms can be appropriated by any group, and most Religious people would equate both Truth and Goodness with God. 

For Magic, however, truth is not an absolute. When you toss the I Ching coins it helps to 'believe' that the universe is built on a Chinese five-element model, whereas your astrology reading makes more sense if you accept the principle of four, not five elements - and so on. The very conflicts of beliefs that damn Magic in Scientific eyes are no problem, because Magic has much less regard for Absolute Truth and much more for relative, perceived or assumed truth. In Magic you do not search for Truth, you make it. 

In practice it is more a process of cultivation. You may read about some different method of divination, say, and it sounds interesting. The written account gives it some small validity, however this grain of 'believability' must be carefully tended in the Magician's own mind. Taking the runes as example, it is good to soak in some of the flavour of the Norse myths and cultivate awe for the great Norse culture and its warriors. Don't waste time on postmodernist de-bunking accounts of the degeneration of the Vikings or whatever! You cultivate awe and that promotes stronger growth of the runic symbols in your mind and that leads to better results which in turn helps to increase awe. 

As a process it is much closer to the agriculturists' cultivation of better grain by selective re-seeding, than to any hunting foray. 'Being selective with your evidence', although often practiced by Scientists, is frowned upon by Science; but it is good Magical practice at the stage where one is cultivating a new truth and helping it to take root. (The Magician can be every bit as critical as the Scientist at the later, harvesting stage.) Thus we see an analogy with the cultural evolution from hunter/gatherer to agriculturist. Religion and Science represent the hunting philosophical approach, while Magic and Art are more about cultivating and creating. 

In SSOTBME or somewhere I asked if the building of a church was a Religious or a Magical act. I decided that, insofar as it took stones and mortar and a piece of land and made them sacred, it was pure Magic. But insofar as the object of this Magical act was to encourage people to turn from mundane reality towards God, it was in fact a Religious act. 

Now, I believe this evolution from hunting to cultivating is indeed timely, and I will give one example: tourism. I recall around 1960 when the last word in sophistication was a holiday in Spain - you drove on down through over-priced and over-explored France to this folksy, cheap and unspoiled Paradise beyond the Pyrenees. Fifteen years later it was the depths of kitsch. In the 80s, folks looked to Bali, The Maldives and exotic islands, in the 90s to the Arctic and so on. The quest ever to find somewhere still unspoiled, somewhere so exclusive that only the elite few in the know are going there, has become a media obsession. 

I contrast it with the ridicule in the same media for the New Agers who gather on English hills and hold little rituals. What is happening here? 

These people will find some nearby site - really advanced souls could do this in their own back garden, but for most it is easier if separated by a short journey. They will convince themselves that it represents an important confluence of ley lines, that it was a place of great pre-historic significance, that the letters of its name add up to the same as the word 'love' or whatever... and a perfectly 'ordinary' piece of landscape has become a place of pilgrimage. (I bow to some friend of mine who actually managed to make Paddington sacred - that's big Magic). 

Now I would dare to suggest that, although the two groups of tourists seem utterly different, at fundamental level they are both wanting a form of Magic. They both want something out of the ordinary, an experience of locality that makes them feel special and significant. And I would also suggest that the New Agers have found the better solution by cultivating that Magic, rather than hunting it into extinction in a shrinking, overpopulated world. 

I should say a bit more about the role of the media in this - because I have let myself in for lecturing on Magic and the Media at this year's Occulture Festival in Brighton and had better get in training. 

The father of the modern media - Hitler's propagandist Goebbels - showed how disparate channels such as radio, posters, books, films and newspapers could unite to cultivate a new truth, rather than merely conveying existing truths. This has since become the main role of the media - while ostensibly still channels for news, in practice newspapers and other media conglomerates are now purchased (and even run at a loss) for the sense of power they provide for those who yearn to define reality. 

So do we see great magnificent truths being created? No! A media machine that has the power to create a world saviour - a second coming of Christ with full attendant myths, healings, miracles and newly defined sense of direction for mankind - makes do by killing Princess Diana. What has gone wrong? 

I still believe that this is partly an unconscious hangover from the Christian era and a belief that the ultimate test of any God, even one you have created, must be its crucifixion. However I also sense a much blinder and more wilful tendency. You know how irritating it is when you give a baby a set of building blocks and show it how to put one on top of the other, then all it does is bash the pile down and gurgle with glee? over and over again? That is the feel I get of the way the media creates crazes, heroes and myths merely to knock them down again immediately. It is a fearful waste of talent, but it may just be a phase in a relatively young industry. 

If only they would admit to doing Magic they would do it so much better. 

A final word: in drawing an analogy with the progress from hunter to cultivator, I might seem to be going against my cyclic model and suggesting linear upward growth - that Magic and Art are in some absolute sense 'superior' to Religion and Science. That would seem to follow because the emphasis in discussion always seems to be on the rise of agriculture as a final ending of the hunter society. It is this viewpoint that I would question, suggesting that there may well have been an oscillation through history between the spirit of hunting and the spirit of cultivation but taking different forms. 

For example the initial industrial revolution had much of the quality of a hunting venture in the way it squandered natural resources, and within technology the ecological imperative is returning us to a form of technology more akin to the cultivating mode. Even though mankind may have left the pure hunting culture behind, there have been times of exploration and conquest which could be seen as a return to the hunter culture even though agriculture was fuelling it. 

So a Magical revival is indeed progress, but only because it would be timely. Magic is so innately relativistic that it does not even recognise its own superiority. Don't fight, baby, feel it.