Monday, 22 November 2010

Magical Thinking, Science and PostModernism

I remember vividly the first time I abandoned magical thinking. I was around 4, and my dad asked me what I wanted for my birthday. I replied: a magic wand, a real one, like Sooty's got, one that can do real magic. My dad told me then that magic wasn't real. I recall the moment precisely; we were facing a row of shops on a mundane street in the West London suburb I grew up in. At that point, something big happened inside me, and the next time I thought about that incident it was from the point of view of someone who had turned wholeheartedly towards science.

The topic of magic exists in a strange half-light, some of its practitioners coming out with pronouncements that make religion seem sensible by comparison and others straining to bring some kind of intellectual respectability to their weird endeavour.
Because weird it is; irruptions of improbable events are the language in which the universe talks back to the magician. The ideas that support magical belief are non-standard, rogue ontologies and epistemologies.
Yet some of us try to justify magical thinking, and in this we go against the grain of science, religion and even psychiatry - 'magical thinking' is listed everywhere you care to look as a symptom of psychosis. My dad had to do as he believed, and protect me from a 'psychotic' belief system, when he told me magic was not real.

Some magical writers have attempted to justify magical thinking by invoking the radical relativism of postmodern philosophers. Whilst I salute the intention behind such attempts, I remain unimpressed by such short-cuts to magical belief as the following:
'... if everything we believe about the world is an arbitrary, socially-constructed symbol; if nothing inherently means anything; if reality itself - as many postmodernists claim - is just a collection of such arbitrary symbols, then magic becomes not only possible, but inevitable.'
('Postmodern Magic', by Patrick Dunn )

The trick here seems to be to degrade the objectivity-status of consensus reality in order to make it more vulnerable to magic. We might call this the Chemotherapy Ploy: with cytotoxic drugs, we hope they will poison the cancer cells rather faster than the healthy host cells. Similarly, with PoMo anti-science we attack consensus reality in the hope that the irrationalism of magic gets a foothold before our universe crumbles into total incoherence.

Postmodern philosophy brought in a breath of liberating ideas, especially in analysing how philosophical positions are affected by the social reality of the writer. However, some of these tendencies have become profoundly toxic and downright silly where they've tried to deal with scientific epistemology.

On the toxic side, PoMo critiques of physical science have delivered tools into the hands of the religious ultra-right, who are only too glad to be told that the theory of biological evolution (one of the scientific theories most consistently supported by the evidence), is just another possible viewpoint, to be placed alongside non-scientific views like creationism. The PoMo science agenda also benefits the rapacious corporations and their political puppets who would squirm out from under the mountain of evidence for global warming.

I flirted with the notion that PoMo thinking enables magic, but concluded that this is a trick, a lazy way of justifying what we magicians do. A far more rigorous and exciting path is to respect what science has discovered about the physical world, and fit our magic around that.

Anyone who is still mucking about with PoMo drivel about science would do well to read theoretical physicist Alan Sokal's critiques of that tendency's worst excesses. In 1996, Sokal's article 'Transgressing the boundaries: Towards a transformative hermeneutics of quantum gravity' was accepted, and published in all seriousness by the prestigious American cultural studies journal Social Text. After its publication, Sokal 'fessed up to the hoax, declaring that every statement in that article was either trivial, nonsensical or meaningless, provoking a storm of often-acrimonious debate. One of the more delightful exchanges to emerge from this brouhaha was when one of the editors of Social Text declared that Sokal was 'under-educated' in the branch of philosophy he was critiquing; one of Sokal's supporters asked that editor: 'How does it feel to be duped by the under-educated?'

Over a decade later, Sokal has collected these discussions and the development of his ideas into a new book, 'Beyond the Hoax; Science, philosophy and culture' ( ). This makes interesting reading for the magician, attacking as it does not only the nonsense about science spouted by Lacan, Deleuze and Kristeva, among others, but the ways in which fringe medicine is presented to the mainstream. He writes:
'Does it matter if some people believe in homeopathy or Therapeutic Touch? Perhaps not a great deal... My libertarian instincts urge a hands-off attitude towards pseudoscientific acts between consenting adults.' (p340)

Likewise, he's fair about his criticism of statements about physical reality; not only does he give fringe therapies a drubbing, but also mainstream religion, where it makes objective truth claims. Having armed himself with the observation that '...honest talk about the epistemic status of the dominant religions... is generally considered bad manners at best, blasphemous at worst', he wades in against the silliness of the Catholic church's doctrine of transubstantiation.
However, bless him, he can't bring himself to believe that many of the Pope's flock actually believe they are eating human flesh and drinking human blood when at Mass. (Neither can I, really. Is this a failure of imagination on my part?)

In this book Sokal demolishes the worst excesses of relativism where it relates to statements about the physical universe. In that, I am entirely with him. However, he does shows signs of sympathy for the curious subculture which is popular with some scientists, the best known of whom is Richard Dawkins. This is the point where I have to part company with the astute and entertaining Sokal.

When Dawkins writes, in 'The God Delusion', of Jahweh as 'jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully', he is nowhere wide of the mark. In fact, he could have added 'psychopathic' in there with no loss of believability as far as I'm concerned. However, reform of religious belief is not for Dawkins - he goes flat-out for a denigration of the religious impulse altogether, as if it is something that can be banished by the fiat of right-thinking rationalists like himself.
Clearly, he has some serious blind spots about how human beings operate, and declares himself disturbed by the persistence of irrational beliefs in the human world. He reminds me of the Victorians who denied the importance of sexual desire because they didn't like the idea of fornication, or the ludicrous unreality of public policy over the human drive to intoxication and ecstasy. He seems to want to reason the religious impulse away, as if some ancient and powerful part of our nature can be tidied away by sensible talking.

The route that Dawkins and his ilk are taking is profoundly worrying. They seem to be committed to belittling the realm of the subjective, to have already decided that our subjective experience is an unimportant froth on the surface of vast, impersonal cosmic truths. When scientists talk like this, it's easy to get the impression that they don't need science to tell them that what they say is true.
There is more than rational truth at stake here, and the Dawkinsites seem to have constructed an argument which is superficially like science, but lacks it rigour. They have descended to a religious position that owes everything to christianity's simplistic monochrome, in its energetic denial of some part or other of the human being, in its sterile inability to embrace the totality of what a human being is. They take science as their starting point, but then go way beyond its remit, much further than the evidence warrants, to present their hysterical-sounding denials. They are cops, patrolling the limits of reality with big sticks falsely labelled 'Scientific Reason'.

An impressive critique of this position is provided in Marilynne Robinson's book 'Absence of Mind'. ( Considering Dawkins's heavy-handed propagandism, she notes that:
'...the polemical impulse to assert the authority of science, understandable when the project was relatively new... is by now an atavism that persists as a consequence of this same polemical impulse.' (p126)
She coins the term 'parascience' for this kind of argument, and, comparing Newton's writings and Auguste Comte's (extreme) positivism, writes:
'A difference between ... science and parascience, is the desire in the latter case to treat scientific knowledge as complete, at least in its methods and assumptions, in order to further the primary object of closing questions about human nature and human circumstance.' (p129)
That pretty much pins the demon down: the closing off of questions which have in no way been adequately addressed by science.

She also points out the cultural toxicity of this viewpoint:
'A central tenet of the modern world view is that we do not know our own minds, our own motives, our own desires. And - as an important corollary - certain well-qualified others do know them. I have spoken of the suppression of the testimony of individual consciousness and experience among us, and this is one reason it has fallen silent. We have been persuaded that it is a perjured witness.' (p59).
This reminds us of the mental violence done to the public by the arch-manipulators of the last century, particularly Edward Bernays and Emma Freud. Between them, these two demonised any inner authority humans might have and attacked autonomy and community, in order to reduce people to docile consumers. Where subjectivity is devalued, we have no position to fight from, no other source of authority to oppose the rapacity of government, big business and vested professional interests.

Robinson is coming from the humanities side of the argument, and the whole territory of the arts is threatened with trivialization by the parascience position. However, ammunition is also arriving from another quarter; for a materialist thinker who hasn't thrown the baby of subjectivity out with the bathwater of dubious material truth claims, check out Galen Strawson's book 'Selves: an essay in revisionist metaphysics.' ( )

Strawson draws a picture of how we assemble selfhood from neural processes less than a second in length. He goes to great lengths to define terms - when he talks about selves, he's not talking about personalities, but the sense of selfhood in the moment. Much of the underpinning of these ideas takes the form of challenges to our 'confusion' about what materialism really is:
'To be ... a genuine, realistic materialist, is to hold that experiential phenomena ... are part of this total physical existence... There is ... a vast amount left to say about the living experienceful brain once you've said everything that can be said about it using only the terms of physics and neurophysiology... There are vast numbers of truths about what its existence consists in which you haven't recorded at all, although they are, according to real materialism, truths about its physical being.'

So REAL materialism does not equal reductionism.
'When I say that the mental, and in particular, the experiential, is physical, and endorse the view that 'experience is just neurons firing', I mean something completely different from what some materialists have apparently meant by saying such things. I don't mean that all aspects of what's going on in the case of conscious experience can be described by current physics, or even by any non-revolutionary extension of current physics. Such a view amounts to some kind of radical 'eliminativism' with respect to consciousness and is certainly false. My claim is quite different. It is that the experiential considered specifically as such ... just is physical. No one who disagrees with this claim is a serious or remotely realistic materialist. One might put the point by saying that real materialism is not reductive but adductive. It doesn't claim that experience is anything less than we ordinarily conceive it to be, but that matter is more than we ordinarily conceive it to be.'

This materialistic monism is very close to panpsychism, which Strawson admits as his personal belief, and continues:
'The first thing one needs to do when addressing the question about the relation between the mental and the non-mental is to recover a proper sense of our ignorance of the non-mental. ... we have no good reason to think we know anything about matter that gives us any reason to find any problem in the idea that mental or experiential phenomena are physical phenomena.' (p285)
And, p288: '...realistic - real - materialism involves full acknowledgment of the reality of experiential phenomena. Experiential phenomena are as real as rocks... '

He goes further, and shows that he's prepared to take subjectivity seriously, by prescribing a kind of meditative introspection. He suggests:
'...focus ones thoughts on one's brain and try to hold fully in mind the idea that one's experience as one does so is part of the physical being of the brain... It's worth trying to sustain this forcing one's thoughts back to the confrontation when it slips.' And:
'It's useful to listen to music and focus on the thought that 'one's auditory experience is a form of matter or energy'.'

So, let's cut to the chase; this started out as a review blog, and turned into something much bigger. If we've eliminated postmodern nonsense from science, and distinguished real materialism from parascience, where does that leave magical thinking?

The real-materialist position allows exploration of subjectivity, even unto mysticism. Indeed, since in panpsychism every part of the universe is, in a very special sense which Strawson outlines, a 'subject of experience', we have a very mysticism-friendly philosophy.

Taking things a stage further, how are we doing with 'real' magic, material results stuff?
For a start, let's take the 'inside-the-skin' 'magic' I've referred to (in Chapter 7 of my book 'Bright From the Well') as Body Alchemy. This involves the fairly mainstream assumptions that the expression of specific genes and gene clusters can be turned on or off by acts of will, this action being mediated by unspecified subconscious mechanisms. The causal chain, from the mundane point of view, is impulse - subconscious process - gene change - body change. This is completely unchallenging to conventional science, and doesn't even require any of the above arguments to help it be believable.

To take things to the next stage, how about magics based on 'energy', 'life force' etc? These may well be allowed merely by adding detail to the organic swirls and lines of microwave transception I blogged about a few weeks ago. Again, they don't need any more weirdness to be added to our world-model.

Beyond this point, we are in more difficult territory. Magical results that manifest as synchronicity ('Weirdness levels 3 or 4') are a test case: a sceptic would say that the 'magical result' is illusory, i.e. it proceeds from the magician's construction of events. In the absence of any possibility of accurate estimation of the probabilities of a desired event occurring with and without magical interference, we cannot say whether the magician affected the outcome.
A non-sceptic, armed with a panpsychist view of the universe, might argue that, since consciousness is a basic property of matter, it is not surprising that our own configuration of consciousness can affect other regions of matter.

The difference is, at base, only a case of how surprised we might be at a magical result occurring. Nothing we know about matter completely and forever forbids direct influence by conscious will.
It makes it improbable, sure; sorcery is a numbers game, and sorcerers are comfortable with that assessment of low probability of success, and a panpsychist is likely to take magical belief in his stride more easily than a parascience sceptic.

Beyond that, when we seek to embrace into our worldview events like apparent telekinesis (an example of 'Category 5 weirdness'), we have to come up with different theories. We may have experienced these things, but we are in the theoretician's dilemma when we try to think about them: 'That's all very well in practice, but how would it work in theory?' Our conventional thinking isn't weird enough; we have to make a link between conscious will, which is a very special case of thinking-matter in action, and lumps of non-thinking matter. If we choose to believe we have influenced the world with our magic, then we are on our own, philosophically. We've left behind the Kansas of materialist consensus and are in the Land of Oz.

Some writers - in particular, Pete Carroll - have come up with magic-friendly models of science, such as Carroll's Chaos Magic Theory. CMT connects will to non-thinking matter via some rather exotic (though basically mainstream) interpretations of quantum mechanics.
These connections are far from secure, so for the time being, we magical thinkers are still irreducibly monstrous souls. We have to keep secret our dirty beliefs about how the world works.

Maybe that is how it has always to be - magicians as heretics, holding out for a more hopeful view of the universe, providing shaky, beautiful bridges for other heretics to step onto as they take their first steps into forbidden thinking.