3. Magic as the pursuit of whole-brain solutions

Ramsey Dukes

Ramsey Dukes argues that the human tendency to anthropomorphise natural phenomena as 'gods' or 'demons' is not to be dismissed as superstition but rather celebrated as a highly sophisticated problem-solving technique.

I recall trying out my early ideas about the nature of Science and Magic on a friend at Cambridge. he challenged them by saying "but there is no such thing as 'Science'. It doesn't exist".

He was applying the same reductionist scrutiny to the entity formerly known as 'Science' as others had applied to the entity formerly known as 'God'. In response to every example of Science at work he could only see people called 'scientists' at work - Science itself, like God, had no claim on reality.

To me this is a good example of what, in SSOTBME, I called 'Scientific thinking'. It's ultimate authority lay in observation and the sequential, causal chains of logic. As such I felt it was perfectly valid as long as one recognised that there were other different, yet also valid, forms of thought.

One of those alternatives was what I called 'Magical thinking', where ultimate authority lies instead with observation and the metaphorical, pattern-recognising groupings of feeling. In magical thought there is indeed an entity called 'Science' which we can observe in action and we can recognise by a pattern or style of working - even though those patterns fail to stand up to causal analysis and break down into the activities of individual scientists.

Magical thought is just as valid as Scientific thought, as long as the relationship and differences between them are properly understood. In SSOTBME the relationship was defined in terms of directions rather than discrete categories. So, although the denial of the existence of Science as a good example of pure Scientific thinking, this does not deny that most scientists most of the time feel free to use the term 'Science' - even in such apparently causal phrases as 'the impact of Science on Western culture'. If challenged by my Cambridge friend, they would very likely say they were 'speaking loosely', 'generalising' or 'being woolly'. I believe it would actually help everyone concerned if they could admit that they were speaking 'Magically'.

Magic recognises other forms of reality than the physical. There is no need to jump to controversial words like 'etheric' or 'spiritual' for examples - I have already given the example of Science. In Magical thought Science is just as real and effective as a hand grenade - although in a different way. Scientists too speak 'loosely' in this way, but where they typically draw the line is when Magical thinking allows Science to be personified.

For example, I might say that "basically Science has no argument with Religion, but in recent centuries the two have been fighting to gain territory in the human mind". Such phrasing worries a Scientist because it implies that Science is not only an entity but that it also has a conscious will to win territory - and such thinking is seen as a throwback to superstitious, outdated ideas of spirits and demons.

As Magical thinking, however, this is no problem. Recognising Science not only as an entity, but also as an entity with a consciousness and soul of its own is no throwback - it is a positive advance in thinking. 'Science' can even be represented visually - say as a lady with pair of scales and measuring rod with an owl on her helmet... or whatever.

The real danger, I assert, lies not in a conscious acceptance of the validity of Magical thinking, but in the denial of its validity combined with frequent lapses into such thinking under the excuse of 'looseness'.

Yet I would go further, for I believe that such Magical thinking is not just 'harmless', it also offers positive benefits beyond the mere convenience of being free to speak loosely. I see personification of phenomena as a more sophisticated way of thinking, rather than a less sophisticated approach, in comparison with mechanistic analysis.

According to the conventional wisdom of my youth, man's brain developed and outstripped that of other primates because of toolmaking. This would support the idea that greater brainpower and sophistication was needed to explore mechanical processes and, therefore, to seek mechanical explanations.

But this never made much sense to me, for it was apparent that the most complex and mentally demanding things in my life were not mechanisms but other people. It seemed much more likely that the accelerated evolution of the human brain went with increasing socialisation, culture and language. This would support the idea that greater brainpower was needed to explore other people and, therefore, to seek psychological explanations.

I could treat other people as mechanisms - stick a pin in them and they go "ouch" - or I could deepen my exploration by allowing that they might be concentrating so hard elsewhere that they do not react this way; or they might be repressing their reaction to spite me; or they might even be manipulating me into sticking pins into them in order to study my behaviour... the possibilities are endless. Although any one of those responses can no doubt be ultimately reduced into a chain of mechanical reactions, this is a slow and clumsy way to tackle phenomena that can be promptly handled in terms of 'spite' 'curiosity' and other human traits.

At this point in the argument I think that most people, including most skeptics, would agree with me when I claim that a behavioural psychologist who decided to bring up his children according to strictly mechanistic principles would not be praised for applying sophisticated techniques to child rearing so much as be condemned for wasting a whole wealth of innate or learned parenting and social interaction skills. Such a parent would not seem clever, but incredibly dim. The children would very likely get the upper hand.

I am, however on more dangerous ground when I claim that a hunter who treats the weather as a god or spirit is actually being more sophisticated than a meteorologist who merely applies the laws of physics to the atmosphere and refuses to admit any consciousness or intention to the weather.

I do not deny that the equations of aerodynamics and heat flow do add far greater depth to the meteorologist's analysis, but an enormous breadth of perception is wasted when such a complex system as the weather is denied any form of consciousness, feeling or volition. A weather map tells us a lot about likely weather to come, but someone who can stand in nature and sense the 'mood' of the weather can still make comparable predictions far faster and without the help of measuring instruments and computer modelling.

When I describe this as 'dangerous ground', I am anticipating the two most likely objections from those of a Scientific mind-set. The first is that it is 'wrong' to ascribe consciousness to the weather - a moralistic objection that conflicts with the rule of thumb that any model which delivers reasonable levels of prediction deserves some measure of respect short of total acceptance. The second is that personification of natural phenomena is a slippery slope which leads to blind superstition. This is analogous to the Religious belief that "a society that loses its Christian foundation will collapse into anarchy". I do not believe either assumption necessarily holds.

Again, my plea is not for sweeping away the mechanistic approach in favour of personification, but rather that personification is not only natural to us but also a potentially powerful technique that could be developed to even higher levels of sophistication than the mechanistic approach. The danger I see lies not in personification but in refusing to admit to it while 'loosely' falling into it.

When a complex office machine goes wrong whenever the work gets really urgent, the question "how does it 'know' the work is urgent?" can be the quickest route to finding either a remedy or at least a way round the problem - even though few people would really defend the idea that the machine 'knows' anything.

Instead of just opening the instruction book and going step by step through the operating process, this question opens the mind to the entire office environment and - what is more - the mind is now processing multiple possibilities far faster, both in parallel and in combinations, than the reasoning faculty can hope to match. The resulting solution may indeed be reducible to mechanical principles - just as most people's behaviour can with hindsight be so reduced - but so what? According to my model, mechanical explanations are just a small subset of far larger set of 'higher order' explanations that the human mind can devise.

Asking such questions as "how does it 'know' the work is urgent?" is not so very outlandish or dangerous - I suspect it is resorted to semi-consciously by even the most hardened skeptics. I see more danger in denying that approach while slipping into it, than in consciously choosing to personify the problem in search of a solution.

So what am I advocating in the name of Magic?

Let us say that you face a problem - eg a persistent pattern of failure in your life. Then the initial reaction should indeed be the 'Scientific' (in my terms) solution "now I know what I'm doing wrong, I won't do it again". What too often happens, however is that despite such a resolve one somehow slips into the pattern again - it as if life is tricking you by throwing up new circumstances that force you back into the old pattern against your will. This sense of 'malevolence' or 'trickiness' (one's perception is already pointing to a personification of the problem) is the clue that a Magical solution might be better.

So, instead of saying to oneself "don't be silly, it must just be coincidence", take the bullshit by the horns - as it were - and say "there is a demon in my life" and go on to study and work on the problem in that light.

Call it a demon, search for its tracks, call it up, communicate with it, ask it what it wants and, maybe, form a pact with it. There are some quite sound techniques for this that involve the use of robes, incense, candles and chanting in darkened temples, but they are no more the essence of Magic than are the white lab-coat, bald head and pebbly spectacles the true essence of Science. You can do a lot of Magical work just sitting in chair or walking in the woods.

I find this Magical approach very useful and quite effective - even without the support of universities full of academic researchers and government grants enjoyed by the Scientific community.

What's more, I do not feel any great tendency to slide backwards into primitive superstition and paranoia through applying this method. Whatever results or solutions the technique throws up, I still have recourse to all the usual faculties of observation, logic and common-sense with which to test them.

Of course, there may be people so unhinged and lacking in sense that these techniques could prove dangerous in their untrained hands - but then there is a whole range of Scientific knowledge (including explosives and poisons) that I would not wish to fall into such hands.

As for the rest of us - the 'dangerous' principle of assuming a conscious mind and volition can be successfully applied to our fellow humans too.