Magic, Religion, and Science

Philosophy, and in particular metaphysics, has been killed off again and again, day after day, the deed done by a variety of assassins: eighteenth-century empiricists, Hegel, Marx, positivists of every hue, Wittgenstein, and so on. But behold, after all these massacres the poor thing rises from the grave, oblivious to the fact that it is supposed to be dead, and starts walking. Where it is going it admittedly does not know, and nor does anyone else, but that is a different question.

Leszek Kołakowski (1927-2009), "Our Merry Apocalypse," Is God Happy? Selected Essays, Basic Books, 2013, p.318

Early in the 20th century, many scholars, intellectuals, and philosophers looked on the relationship of religion, philosophy, and science as an evolutionary one in which the more sophisticated ways of looking at the world simply replaced the older ways. Religion itself was often thought to arise from magic, and so schemes illustrating the development of human thought might look like this:

Only science, mathematics, and logic would deserve to continue. Since these scholars thought of magic as a set of naive beliefs about how to manipulate nature, they thought that science ultimately fulfilled this promise by actually manipulating nature in the ways that magic had promised. Especially associated with this evolutionary scheme was James George Frazer, whose classic The Golden Bough [1890, 1900, 1906-1915] was an extended argument and illustration of it.

This all, of course, dismissed any other possible contents of religion or philosophy as so much window dressing, misdirection, or simple superstition. It was not believed that religion had anything of genuine importance apart from a continuation of what magic was supposed to accomplish. Thus, science would erase the need for religion as for magic.

In the same way, many philosophers have simply decided that philosophy also should simply end (e.g. Karl Marx, Richard Rorty). Others found some inoffensive thing for philosophy to do, like clarify language, or identify itself with logic (e.g. Logical Positivism, Ludwig Wittgenstein).

While plenty of intellectuals retain a broad hostility towards religion, this kind of evolutionary scheme is now generally discredited in actual philosophy or history of religion scholarship. Ancient religions did not grow out of magic, and science does not address many, or most, of the concerns that have actually been central in traditional religion and philosophy.

A noteworthy characteristic of both magic and science is the idea of impersonal forces that can simply be manipulated at will. Thus, you don't need gods for magic. But the historical records show gods long before we have evidence of anything we could properly call "magic." Religion is personal as far back as this can be traced, although, in the development of mythology, which is essentially stories about persons, it may become more personal over time. We find a lot of Egyptian gods, for instance, without a lot of mythology or distinctive personalities. This circumstance persists in Japanese Shinto, where major gods are personalized in mythology but innumerable Shinto kami have neither mythology nor distinctive personalities -- although we know that most like sake and some require offerings of meat, to the alarm of Buddhists. New kami can be recognized all the time, initially with minimal characteristics.

On the other hand, the very idea of impersonal forces looks like an innovation, not of any religion, but of early Greek philosophy. The Presocratics are the ones who leave out the gods. The backlash against that snags some philosophers, including, inappropriately, Socrates.

It is possible to go to the opposite extreme and reject any evolutionary sense of the development of human thought, saying that all forms of thought, in all places and at all times, are simply different; but this does not address the dynamic of real changes that take place in the same places and to the same traditions. It is not much of a leap to say that those traditions, in their later forms involve levels of sophistication above what occurred earlier.

If we can see philosophy growing out of mythic thought in Greek history, the difficulty arises about just how we are to then distinguish philosophy from religion, as the two later coexist but are distinguished from each other. Socrates talks about the gods all the time, and it is not clear why he should not be regarded as a religious figure rather than a secular philosopher. As it happens, the relatively easy distinction between religion and philosophy in Western history occurs because of the historical accident that the religion of people like Socrates and Plato later ceased to exist. The old gods of the Greeks, Egyptian, Babylonians, Phoenicians, Romans, Celts, Germans, Slavs, etc. were later entirely replaced by one old religion, Judaism, and two new ones from the same tradition, Christianity and ʾIslâm. It is now possible to say "religion" and mean one of those and to say "philosophy" and simply mean "that Greek stuff" (falsafah in Arabic), where the religious side of Greek thought just need not be taken seriously.

The historical circumstances that allow for that simple pattern of distinction does not occur in India or China. A book like the Bhagavad Gita is a profoundly important religious document for Hinduism, yet it is also one of the fundamental documents of Indian philosophy. Indeed, the Gita appears to have been produced by Indian philosophy, the Sankhya and Yoga Schools, then been transformed into a religious document, and finally used for both religious and philosophical (by Vedânta) purposes later on. This kind of thing makes distinctions between religion and philosophy very difficult in the Indian tradition.

Comparable difficulties exist for Chinese thought, where it is common to distinguish philosophical Confucianism or Taoism from religious Confucianism or Taoism. Thus, the rationalism of philosophical Confucianism contrasts with the "rites," , by which Confucians honor their ancestors or worship Heaven, . Since many Confucians did not even believe in an afterlife, their performance of rites for the dead, which are socially obligatory, is awkward -- even though enjoined by Confucius himself. I have met people who were offended at the idea that Confucianism was in any way a religion; but the meaning and role of the "rites," and their importance to Confucius, is impossible to ignore.

Similarly, the emphasis of philosophical Taoism on what is "natural," would seem to encompass the natural occurrence of death; but religious Taoism is deeply preoccupied with Immorality. A striking contrast is the difference between philosophical and religious Taoism in the treatment of Yīn and Yáng. With the former, , the soft, yielding, and feminine, is associated with life, while , the hard, aggressive, and masculine, is associated with death. But in religious Taoism, this is actually reversed: , which is also the dark, goes with death and , which is the light, goes with life. These are not easily reconciled, especially when the distinctive Taoist doctrine of "Not-Doing," , intrinsically calls for what is yielding and precludes aggression. The imagery of living things being supple and of dead things being stiff is also persuasive. However, we then seem to have the perspectives combined in the person of certain Taoist hermits, who generally practice the most rigorous "Not-Doing" and avoid social life, sometimes manifesting political wisdom and supernatural powers in practical activities, such as displayed by Chu-ke Liang at the Battle of Red Cliff.

The relation of philosophy to religion is also a problem for Mediaeval Western thought, where philosophers are easily classified as Christian, Jewish, or Moslem. If philosophy had nothing to do with religion, then presumably it would be superfluous to identify Moses Maimonides (1135-1204) as Jewish or Avicenna (Ibn Sina, 980-1037) as Moslem. It is not, and this was a question that many such philosophers had to face at the time.

The way that one of the greatest Christian philosophers, St. Thomas Aquinas (1224-1274), dealt with it was to identify different sources of authority: he distinguished "natural theology," which is based on reason alone, from "dogmatic theology," which is based on revelation. Jewish and Moslem philosophers had made similar distinctions, and some of them had even thought, which St. Thomas didn't, that reason could ultimately justify everything in religion.

Definitions for religion and philosophy must involve similar distinctions, where the original context of all thought is mythic. Since myth does not argue, but philosophy does, a rule of thumb for religion is that it mixes in philosophic elements but always retains an authoritative link to a mythic context. The most important thing about that mythic context, however, is not always that it exerts a dogmatic authority, but that it is historical. Philosophy cannot conjure up historical particulars out of pure reason, but religion always relates its truth to historical particulars, the actual source of the religion or its received tradition. Furthermore, contrary to the earlier evolutionary schemes about human thought, it must be accepted that mythic thought, and so religion, cannot be replaced by philosophy, or by science. An evolutionary pattern thus could look like this:

The only ongoing traditions whose worth we might fundamentally question would be those of magic, astrology, and other occult "arts," although there is no doubt that serious forms of some of these continue to exist. None of the traditions really continue independently after their origin. Religion, philosophy, and even science exert influences on each other. Only theology and philosophy are shown connected below their origins because it is hard to know what to call someone like St. Thomas Aquinas, primarily a philosopher or primarily a theologian.

What philosophy contains that science cannot are real questions about Being and Value. Science must assume the reality of its objects -- or Postivisiticly deny that is talking about reality at all -- so it cannot have a critical metaphysical attitude; nor can it make any judgments at all about value, since some principles of value must be assumed in order to judge in some predictive or experimental way the value consequences of a scientific theory. What religion contains that philosophy cannot is the actual value embodied in large interpretative structures concerning life, the world, etc.: philosophy is only descriptive and has difficulty justifying any first principles that it might identify.

Where Aristotle and mediaeval philosophy relied on self-evident principles, recent philosophers often assume an attitude of "this is the way we are going to do it" (Cf. A.J. Ayer, Language, Truth and Logic). That neither justifies nor even persuades; but such talk continues in the language of philosophers like Richard Rorty ("deconstructionism" or "post-modernism"), that "truth" consists of the "decisions that we make." Why you and I should care about the "decisions" that Rorty makes is a good question.

When men choose not to believe in God, they do not thereafter believe in nothing, they then become capable of believing in anything.

G.K. Chesterton (1874-1936)

"The Lure of Hocus-Pocus," Review by Filipe Fernández-Armesto of Magic: A History, by Chris Gosden, "Books," The Wall Street Journal, 31 October 2020, C7

The idea that magic came first and that religion grew out of it is revived in this book, Magic: A History: From Alchemy to Witchcraft, from the Ice Age to the Present [Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2020], by Chris Gosden, who is an archaeologist, Director of the Institute of Archaeology at Oxford University and a trustee of the British Museum. The reviewer, Filipe Fernández-Armesto, is a British historian who spent most of his career at Oxford but now is in the history department at the University of Notre Dame.

A key point in the review is where Fernández-Armesto says:

Much of the book is irrelevant: Sometimes Mr. Gosden can find no evidence of magic in the places or times traversed, as, like the eye of newt or the toe of frog, he swivels and leaps around the world. He wastes pages on elementary background information: five on Judaism; eight on a single settlement in England some 11,000 years old. For Africa, the Americas and Australia we get only what he calls "a taster of cosmological belief," much of which has little or nothing to do with magic. In 14 pages on the Americas, we learn, in the unlikely event that we didn't already know it, that "hunting would have been important in early periods" but find nothing about magic, despite abundant sources on Mesoamerica and the Andean region. Nearly half the book is about Europe.

The thesis that religion grows out of magic we see here:

He ranks the latter as more primitive and dates it earlier: Paleolithic paintings and a Neolithic site were “clearly magical” but not clearly religious.

How Gosden can say that is mysterious, since we have no idea what the context of practice and belief was for the paintings, let alone a whole Neolithic "site." We can speculate that images of animals are supposed to conjure the animals, or we could imagine that they propitiate animal spirits or animal gods. Or both. It is "clearly" nothing so reductionistic, or obvious, as what Gosden wants.

The author can’t make up his mind about when religion took on “a formal quality.” Around 6000 B.C., or with the “creation of the gods... embodying elemental forces” 2,000 years later?

It is, of course, an Enlightenment conceit that the gods were "created" in order to "embody elemental forces." All we need to have religion rather than magic, however, is that the "forces" be experienced as personal from the beginning, which is not something easily proven either way. But, more "clearly" to me, the whole idea of "forces" is an abstraction that seems unlikely in early conceptual evolution and that is not in evidence once we have records and accounts of earlier religion.

Elsewhere he states that “at least 7,500 years ago religion as we know it... with some institutionalized form, makes its first appearance, complementing magic.” Once that happened, “miracles... complicated the relationship.” Elijah and Moses “were important... as magicians.” The Christian distinction between magical and miraculous “was probably... lost on many.”

This is another conceit, that religion necessariy involves "some institutionalized form." But Gosden evidently doesn't try very hard to see the difference between the miraculous and the magical. Miracles are, again, personal, as personal as Elijah and Moses, while magic is just a manipulation. If Moses was demonstrating magic to Pharaoh, God need have had nothing to do with it, while what Moses actually did demonstrated the power of God. That is why Christianity always viewed magic as evil, even as the Old Testament condemned "witches" (Hebrew , Greek φαρμακοί, Latin malefici) to death (Exodus 22:18) -- so if the difference between miracles and magic was "lost" on you, your life might be in danger. Indeed, there were Neoplatonists who viewed magic as evil. Eusebius of Myndus, Ἐυσέβιος ὁ Μυνδίος, would end his lectures by saying:

These are the only true realities, whereas the impostures of witchcraft and magic that cheat the senses are the works of conjurors who are insane men led astray into the exercise of earthly and material powers. [Philostratus and Eunapius, The Lives of the Sophists, Loeb Classical Library, Harvard, 1921, p.433]

Eusebius was condemning other Neoplatonists, the "Thaumaturges," who displayed the "earthly and material powers."

Mr. Gosden doesn’t count shamans as religious, because he wants to appropriate them for magic. Yet shamans still constitute priesthoods in many cultures, visiting other worlds in trances and divine disguises to gather messages from gods and spirits. Mr. Gosden discounts shaman-images in Ice Age art, seeing only “clearly magical” evidence of “intense engagement with the animals they depict.” He condemns scholars of shamanic religion for “the caution people have when approaching the word ‘magic.’” He ignores Mircea Eliade, the pioneer-student of archaic techniques of ecstasy. He dismisses David Lewis-Williams, whose discovery of the commonalities of shamanic art, from the Paleolithic to the present, made shamans credible as practitioners of one of the world’s oldest religions.

Here Fernández-Armesto can condemn Gosden's entire project as tendentious, biased, and even dishonest. One thing he leaves out with shamans is when they are possessed by gods themselves. This is still not unusual in Japan and elsewhere. The dismissal of the likes of Mircea Eliade simply demonstrates that Gosden is unserious, uninformed, and careless about the history of religion -- perhaps because he is an archaeologist and not an actual historian. This makes him a very unrealiable guide for the history of magic, or for its relationship to religion.

A reason why Fernández-Armesto wrote his review, if in many ways he cannot take the book seriously, does not concern the origin of magic but its continuation. Thus, the subtitle of the article is "The more complexity science discloses, the more bafflement it causes, driving the perplexed into wild surmise -- and giving new life to superstition and magical thinking." This is a development heavy with irony, when the original idea was that science, which can do what magic only says it does, will replace both magic and religion. Instead, science, which certainly cannot replace religion, in the end cannot even replace magic. There is too much left undone, and no amount of technology can protect us from the dangerous happenstance of life. Why does the random gang bullet in Chicago kill this child and not that one. Perhaps a charm or amulet, charged with a prayer, would have helped. Every New Year, much of the population of Japan journeys to Shinto shrines to renew the amulets that protect their health, cars, homes, businesses, etc. This can be called magic, but then the power of the shrines comes from the gods, the , the kami, who dwell within -- gods whose personification can be so indefinite that, in the case of the very popular god Inari, it is not clear whether this deity is male or female -- but it is certainly not the fox that is otherwise associated with the cult but often confused with the deity. If there were Inari cave paintings, they would have showed foxes; and Chris Gosden would call it "magic."

Mr. Gosden celebrates the survival of magic but doesn’t seem to realize that the more complexity science discloses, the more bafflement it causes, driving the perplexed into wild surmise: If electrons and black holes challenge common sense, so can the rappings of ouija boards. The corruption of education by vocational values and postmodern maunderings has dissipated rigor and corroded critical intelligence, conjuring mad websites and cosmic conspiracy theories. Ecological awareness and tree-hugging blurs into New Age nonsense. The retreat of rational religion leaves the field to wiccans and neo-pagans.

I don't think that the problem is quite what Fernández-Armesto thinks. It isn't that science has become complex and blaffling, although it has. It isn't that education isn't doing its job, although it isn't. The problem is that science was never going to be up to it. "Postmodern maunderings," "conspiracy theories," and "New Age nonsense" fill a void that science was never going to be able to fill. And neither is it just that science cannot prevent the randomness of urban violence or preclude all the accidents and misadventures of life, leaving the Buddhist truths of birth, disease, old age, and death as operative as ever....

In physics ... the possibility of knowledge of objectivizable states of affairs is denied, and it is asserted that we must be content to predict the results of observations. This is really the end of all theoretical science in the usual sense.

Kurt Gödel, quoted by Palle Yourgrau, A World Without Time, The Forgotten Legacy of Gödel and Einstein, Basic Books, 2005, p.140]

It is that science is not about meaning. Scientists might fill their practices with particular meaning, but that meaning is not derived from science itself. There is no purpose or consolation in life just from science. It is never more than a means. Even the idea that science illuminates the universe with a kind of beauty stumbles on the Positivist conviction of many scientists that scientific theories do not illuminate reality at all. They just enable us to make predictions -- a device that is valuable only when we already know what we would like to predict. On the other hand, the beauty of science and nature is a good in itself. It serves no purpose apart from our joy in appreciating it. Thus, Stephen Hawking's last book, The Grand Design [2012], is a "free rider" on beauty; but this is inconsistent with Hawking's own atheism and positivism: There is no design, and there is not even an objective order that can be called a "design." He is on record denying both. So is his title merely ironic, dishonest, or confused?

Magical thinking itself suffers from the same limitations as science. If magic is a way of manipulating nature and exerting power, this presupposes what we would want to manipulate nature for, and what we want to exert power for. Power for its own sake is simply a reflex of nihilism, and it will consume itself in an Existentialist dispair. So the difference between magic and religion isn't just that there are personal gods in the latter, it is that there is meaning and purpose in the latter. Whatever power you have, religion gives you a reason and use for it. If religion provides an illumination for the world, it always carries a strong claim that this is far more than just a manipulation, that the world is really there and really is illuminated and meaningful. The beauty of the world, after all, like the stars in the sky, can seem distant and cold. If you are lost in the desert or forest, they are no longer a friendly places. The opposite of despair is then faith.

διὰ πίστεως γὰρ περιπατοῦμεν, οὐ διὰ εἴδους.
per fidem enim ambulamus et non per speciem.
For we walk by faith, not by sight.

2 Corinthians 5:7

A great sage is supposed to have said that when you stop believing in something, you start believing in anything. Only 37% of Britons, Mr. Gosden observes, acknowledge God, but 77% embrace the paranormal. In the so-called Scientific Revolution, alchemy mutated into chemistry, astrology into astronomy, natural magic into natural history. The processes seem to have gone into reverse. Magic abides. People remain invested in its rites, credulous of its superstitions and addicted to some of its psychotropic substances. Mongolians sprinkle Bronze Age statues with milk and vodka. A pop singer dabbles in cabalism. Young women, Mr. Gosden says, “are particularly attracted to... Big Witch Energy.” But he doesn’t repine. Magic, he concludes, has “positive qualities.”

The "great sage" was, of course, G.K. Chesterton, whom I have quoted in an epigraph above. But while Chesterton was talking about God, as does Fernández-Armesto here, religion is not always about Chesterton's monotheistic deity. And if the decline of faith in European civilization accompanies a revival of magical thinking, this has the drawback, as I have just noted, that magic alone provides no more meaning or purpose than does science. And if "wiccans and neo-pagans" make up a religion for themselves, it may turn out to be more of a game than a conviction. "Big Witch Energy" is more likely to be talk, partying, pretend, and play-acting than devotion and piety. Real religion can be pretty demanding, but demands can be a turn-off to New Age enthusiasts, who may find themselves called away to other interests. That's what disillusioned them with, perhaps, Catholicism. Yet the rigor of practice is what now attracts some people to ʾIslâm.

A mistake here is to associate these "Mongolians" with magic. If you "sprinkle Bronze Age statues with milk and vodka," we can only assume that the "Bronze Age statues" are deities (we are not given any details), and that the milk and vodka are offerings. These are "rites," but this is not magic -- no more so than Hindus pouring milk over the liṅga of the god Shiva. I don't know why Fernández-Armesto would say this, although he is free, of course, to call anything of the sort "superstitions." His own attitude towards religion seems to be, at least, ambivalent.

For in an important respect here, Fernández-Armesto seems to agree with Chris Gosden, that "progress" means the progress of science, which now has "gone into reverse." No, not reverse. It may have simply reached its natural limits, exposing what lies beyond. People who abandoned religion for science are then left staring off into the Void. At first, random nonsense begins to grow there, even when that is going to be intrinsically wrongheaded and insufficient. But the sense may have been lost of what would be sufficient.

Some of his apologia is valid. He notes that potions and talismans can act like placebos. He is right that we ought to take magic seriously as “central to cultural and intellectual history,” because of its near-universal practice and influence.

Unfortunately, Fernández-Armesto is saying that one reason to take magic seriously is that, as "placebos," it can be validated by science! This does not acknowledge the limits of either. At the same time, it is a good question, once we reject the "magic came first" thesis, how "central" magic actually is to "cultural and intellectual history." Once the religious context of "potions and talismans" is recognized, the "near-universal practice and influence" must be gravely qualified. Pure magic as magic, independent and perhaps even opposed to religion, is a marginal, and universally condemned, phenomenon. If a god isn't behind it, it is no more than "earthly and material powers."

But he flies off into implausibility, as if borne by a broomstick, when he invites us to consider “each form of matter... as part of a network of sentience.” He claims that magic “allows for explorations that reach into... areas... rigidly divided by the disciplinary structure of science.”

Here we may begin to see something like Rupert Sheldrake territory, where the paranormal powers of magic may be real and may expose avenues of "exploration" that science ignores or that are accidentally precluded by the "disciplinary structure" of science. But the idea that “each form of matter” could be “part of a network of sentience” definitely sounds like Sheldrake's own panpsychism. Fernández-Armesto mercifully calls this "implausible," dismissively as "borne by a broomstick."

For the mind-body distinctions of philosophers he substitutes “the ghostly mind... infused through the body and... sent out into the material world.” He thinks we should ask what we can do for magic to make it “productive culturally” and what magic can do for us “in providing solutions for some of the big issues currently facing the world.” Every big issue, it seems, except susceptibility to twaddle.

So this sounds more and more like Rupert Sheldrake territory. With “the ghostly mind” Gosden wanders from magic into actual New Age metaphysics, without any philosophical sophistication. It is far beyond a historical or archaeological study of magic; and it is unclear how anything of the sort would provide “solutions for some of the big issues currently facing the world.” Could we, perhaps Summon a Spirit to steal China's nuclear weaspons? That's magic. Fernández-Armesto is properly losing patience at this point, and "twaddle" is not a bad term for the business.

When his dining-companion told him about alien pyramid-builders, Mr. Gosden thought at first that he was being fooled or made fun of. “Magic: A History” will raise readers’ doubts about whether he, too, intends to mock or amuse us. Is it trick or treat?

Gosden was accosted once at dinner by someone claiming that the pyramids of Egypt were built by extraterrestrials. Definitely a question for an archaeologist, however much Gosden thought the fellow "rather mad." But the History Channel now runs many shows about "ancient aliens" claiming just that sort of thing. It needs answering by sober scholars. Yet Gosden himself, with his “network of sentience” and “the ghostly mind,” begins to look "rather mad" himself, and could be featured as one of the talking heads on those shows. But I don't think that Gosden is mad, or that he "intends to mock or amuse us." Instead, he seems more a bit of a fool, and he may well exemplify the "Peter Principle," named by Laurence J. Peter (1919-1990), that "In a hierarchy every employee tends rise to his level of incompetence." With his positions at Oxford and the British Museum, Gosden may just have risen to his "level of incompetence." This is not unusual is modern academia, where ignorance, incoherence, and irrationality, not to mention bad writing, obscuranitism, and unintelligibility, fill contemporary "scholarship." For which the Ruling Class is well paid, by the way.

This page was formerly called "Myth, Religion, and Philosophy."

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