Magical Science

There are two interrelated but equally fascinating points being made in the two quotes below by David Bentley Hart.

  1. Magic and science are both attempts to manipulate the physical world
  2. Modernism takes can as the equivalent of should

Before reading his argument I had never thought too much about whether the former point was a reasonable one to make. We, after all, take magic to be, at its most tame, an illusion meant for entertainment and, at its most dangerous, a way to tap into dark and unseen forces in a supernatural realm. What is most interesting about Hart’s descriptions of magic is the notion that it is actually us, in the modern world, that has invented the supernatural and relegated magic to that realm, whether by minimizing it as mere fanciful tricks or elevating it into a realm in which we who are not magicians have no understanding. Before the modern/empiricist/rationalist mindset took hold, what we call the supernatural was not viewed as different in kind from the material world – the ‘supernatural’ was just as real and a part of reality as the air we breathe or the ground upon which we stand – the distinction was born more out of intuition (something is happening beyond what I can obviously perceive) than logic (a strict categorization into one type as opposed to another).

What made the magical unique was its station as the part of reality that is not seen in everyday experience, but can be manipulated by and as a source of power. (It is, perhaps, telling that the “wise men” who visited Jesus were called Magi in their native tongue – knowledge of the world and the ability to manipulate the unseen forces was a specific kind of wisdom, not a fanciful trick.) How much of modern science is predicated on the obvious perceptions that are available to the naked eye and how much requires understanding power and particles that are hidden until the mysteries of knowledge are unlocked? I would argue almost every useful bit of science and technology relies on at least some part of the natural world that we cannot perceive directly, but can assume exists, is manipulable, and will cause a desired outcome (whether we’re talking microprocessors, radio waves, electricity, etc.).

The part of this view of magic and science that is most terrifying and beneficial to humanity at the same time is that our magic actually works; which is a means of coming to the second point. Can as the equivalent of should is the presupposition of modernity. With no moral tie ins or underlying assumptions, we may be ever increasingly drawn toward the reality that knowledge of the world is power over the world is the highest justification for any act of power. I would argue that our ability to consistently manipulate the physical world requires us to think more, not less, about what we believe life is and where it is headed. Without some form of teleology or purpose, it will increasingly become the case that the power we are able to assert over nature will become its own justification for the assertion of that power, no matter the consequences on nature or others.

I have no idea how much Hart’s argument and historical analysis would hold up to serious scrutiny, but it seems pretty compelling to me that a) viewing the historical church (at least before the 1800s) as supporting magic in opposition to science is a misunderstanding of what science is and how it developed; and b) the humility we should have toward scientific discovery should probably remain greater than the shame we try to put on the men and women who created the world in which our views of science became possible. Who knows what the next generations might discover.


“In truth, the rise of modern science and the early modern obsession with sorcery were not merely contemporaneous currents within Western society but were two closely allied manifestations of the development of a new post-Christian sense of human mastery over the world. There is nothing especially outrageous in such a claim. After all, magic is essentially a species of materialism; if it invokes any agencies beyond the visible sphere, they are not supernatural-in the theological sense of “transcendent”-but at most preternatural: they are merely, that is to say, subtler, more potent aspects of the physical cosmos. Hermetic magic and modern science (in its most Baconian form at least) are both concerned with hidden forces within the material order, forces that are largely impersonal and morally neutral, which one can learn to manipulate, and which may be turned to ends fair or foul; both, that is to say, are concerned with domination of the physical cosmos, the instrumental subjection of nature to humanity, and the constant increase of human power. Hence, there was not really any late modern triumph of science over magic, so much as there was a natural dissolution of the latter into the former, as the power of science to accomplish what magic could only adumbrate became progressively more obvious. Or, rather, “magic” and “science” in the modern period are distinguishable only retrospectively, according to relative degrees of efficacy. There never was, however, an antagonism between the two: metaphysically, morally, and conceptually, they belonged to a single continuum.” (from Atheist Delusions by David Bentley Hart, p. 82)


“Even the late medieval and early modern panics over witches did not generally involve actual belief in magic; the fear, rather, was of diabolism, murder, and demonic illusion. It seems perfectly obvious to me, though, that in the post-Christian era something more like real magical thinking has come back into vogue, albeit with a modern inflection. I am not speaking of popular interest in astrology, Wicca, runes, mystical crystals, or any other New Age twaddle of that sort; these things are always with us, in one form or another. I am speaking rather of the way in which, in modern society, technology and science (both practical and theoretical) are often treated as exercises of special knowledge and special power that should be isolated from too confining an association with any of the old habitual pieties regarding human nature or moral truth (these being, after all, mere matters of personal preference). That is, we often approach modern science as if it were magic, with the sort of moral credulity that takes it as given that power is evidence of permissibility. Of course, our magic-unlike that of our ancestors-actually works. But it is no less superstitious of us than it was of them to think that the power to do something is equivalent to the knowledge of what it is one is doing, or of whether one should do it, or of whether there are other, more comprehensive truths to which power ought to be willing to yield primacy. We seem on occasion, at least a good number of us, to have embraced (often with a shocking dogmatism) the sterile superstition that mastery over the hidden causes of things is the whole of truth, while at the same time pursuing that mastery by purely material means. Knowledge as power-unmoored from the rule of love or simply a discipline of prudent moral tentativeness-may be the final truth toward which a post-Christian culture necessarily gravitates.” (from Atheist Delusions by David Bentley Hart, p. 233)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s