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Making sense of the world

I've been thinking about what "magical working", as used by practitioners, might mean. I guess I could ask them directly but my first guess will involve trying to work it out from what I've seen, heard and read. Magic is an attempt to make sense of the world, in much the same way as Science and Faith. To a certain extent, I'm just trying to sort out my thinking on this.

For some people, the world is to be understood on an intellectual basis, mysteries are dealt with by collecting data, proposing theories and testing them against the world. It's pretty much the scientific principle. Occam's razor is not uncommonly used to sort between competing explanations and the general touchstone of acceptability is the power of the explanation, the power to be useful. Thor works as an explanation for lightning, but electromagnetic theory gets you a microwave.

More metaphsyical aspects of the world tend to be given short shrift because of their general lack of provability. The soul as an explanation for the sense of self is about as useful as UFO. If there is a ghost in the machine, or a little green man in the sky, then there had better be much better evidence than what we've seen so far. Science is rather devoid of moral principles although economics does purport to give some foundation for choice based on maximising profit of some kind, but this does rather deify profit. But science does score quite highly on providing practical ways of interacting with the world.

For others faith is their bedrock. The world is ordered the way it is because God made it so. Much of what is taught is of moral rather than practical use, but any practical knowledge has to be measured against the moral principles set out by God and his representatives on Earth. The faithful are happy to use the fruits of science when it doesn't contradict any tenets of faith. Faith, as a bedrock, is of immense personal use and as a group cohesive.

There is a third explanation which I'm starting to get my head round. It's magic. There are several degrees of using magic as an explantion for the world and I'll only ramble on about one, although almost everyone engages in Magical Thinking at some time or other. But this is about Magic as a metaphysical explanation, with a pratical bent.

Science provides an explanation as to how things happen, but is rather short on the why, the ab origine. Faith posits God as the ulimate cause. In fact, that's one of the common features of Faith based worldviews (along with morals and some form of after death explanation). Magic seems to be a different order of thinking. It's an attempt to explain the world through ritual interaction with metaphors. Faith does use some of the trappings of magic, such as trans/con/substantiation, but generally sees the workings of God as a different order from the workings of man, which is where the domain of magic lies. And for Faith, the ritual is of less importance than the belief whereas I get the impression that in Magic, the ritual is coexistant with the belief. The practice is not just a reinforcement of belief through repetition but a direct enactment of those beliefs with the express intention of producing an effect on the practitioner and, in many cases, the world. Magic seems very good at defining one's place in the world, of understanding complex interactions between the world and the individual, at being part of something larger than the individual but not as narrow as faith.


( 5 comments — Leave a comment )
Jul. 18th, 2007 01:34 pm (UTC)
The separation of magic from faith is really a post-Enlightenment distinction. The two are pretty inseparable in any historical magical tradition. Also, it seems to be peculiar to western Protestant monotheism.
Jul. 18th, 2007 11:06 pm (UTC)
Ah, I was talking about modern magic. I didn't make that very clear.

I suppose what I'm trying to do is understand what a "magical working" is trying to achieve.
Jul. 19th, 2007 02:30 pm (UTC)
A change of some sort, as I understand it. Sadly, the more specific the change you have in mind, the more difficult it is to achieve it.

Sadly, although I really want to believe that magic is a facet of the anthropic principle, rather than a mixture of delusion and wishful thinking, a lot of the magical stuff I've read seems to be a bit of a hotch-potch.

The most memorable example is Isaac Bonewitz who, in Real Magic, simultaneously claims that he uses his mind to manipulate reality and that he's a druid who worships the Goddess. He also states that deities are creations of and live in the collective subconscious. So, taken all together, he's using his mind to make himself subservient to something that he and other people have collectively made up. A bit like monsters fom the Id.

There's also Rae Beth, author of the helpful Hedge Witch, but sadly also of the unapologetically bonkers Lamp of the Goddess, in which she recalls her incarnations as an Atlantean priestess. She acknowledges that there's no plausible archaeological or literary evidence of the lost continent that she describes, but insists that her recollections are true -- in a spiritual sense -- none the less.

If this stuff holds hidden wisdom, it's very well camouflaged ...
Jul. 19th, 2007 03:04 pm (UTC)
Well, as chilledchimp said to me last night, magic changes the magician. So I'm trying to view the practice as a coming to terms with the universe through metaphor and ritual, a bodily engagement with symbolism. I'm not going to engage at all with external changes, although, of course, the magician might well view internal changes in his or her perception as external changes.

The engagement of the body in this act of understanding is very different from science but also seems quite a way from the religious experience where ritual is less engaged (althouhg as Brennan points out, only when you're talking about the tamer ends of Christianity).

I quite like singing Xmas carols even though I don't believe the message and can't sing. Obviously there's the endorfin angle but there's also a sense of community. So singing in the stands at football matches is even better.
Jul. 19th, 2007 04:42 pm (UTC)
There's wisdom in the frigid hominid's utterances. Particularly when I remember (or mis-remember) that only a third or so of all phenomena are integrable anyway, and that there's this observer effect thingy.

My experience of organised religion -- particularly here in the good old U S of A, is that it has no discernable spiritual charge, but serves as a social and political glue. There are some fun statistics like 80% of born agains becoming unsaved within two years, and church-goers shopping obsessively for a preacher who says what they want to hear.

What's wrong with the X-Mas message? The corn king arrives in winter and gets butchered in spring, his blood spurts out and he rises again. His followers eat him symbolically every Sunday. The circle of life is complete and he serves as a light snack. Hurrah!

Alternatively, and to cite Eric Cartman "Jesus was born, so I get presents ..." Last year one of them was a Gogol Bordello CD.

Tangentially, did you ever read Five Twelths of Heaven (and sequels) by Melissa Scott? It has alchemy and symbolism in place of technology.
( 5 comments — Leave a comment )