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)

Why He Wins

Humans are fundamentally storytelling creatures. The stories we tell ourselves deeply shape every bit of our perception of what is happening in the present and what is possible for the future. Story is not different in kind than truth or objectivity; story is the recognition that every word we speak and every concept we are capable of forming only exists to the extent that it is spoken in acceptance or rejection of the forms of thought that have been given to us. The more compelling the story, the more willing we are to give our lives to it. The more coherent the story, the more we are able to find peace through participating in that story.

What marks modern American culture more deeply than any other decision or division or factor is the radical rejection of any story that is not the individual’s own. But without an appreciation for the stories that wrote us, we will never be able to understand who we are or how we have come to be capable of experiencing the stories of others and the effects of those stories upon the self. If we don’t make explicit the story we are writing with our lives and how that story comes out of the stories that write us, we will never become more than the incoherent, fearful, aimless jumbles of anxiety that we are right now.

He wins and will continue to win for as long as he continues to tell a better story than the alternative. Stories based on fear and other-ing touch a deeply human nerve that tells the story of danger in the unknown. Fear is such a primal part of the human experience that its stories can hijack any of us in the blink of an eye. To build a sweeping narrative upon fear at every turn – fear of the other, fear of change, fear of losing influence or wealth, fear of anything or anyone that doesn’t think or talk or act like me – is necessarily going to guide our hearts toward violence.

Facts and figures are powerless in the face of such a compelling story for the storytelling creatures we are. Even the stories of an individual here and there have no power to counteract the primal force of his story of fear. We humans don’t care about whether the facts back up his story. We may think facts matter but emotions respond long before we have the chance to ‘decide’ what we think about the details. We view the world and it’s facts through the dominant story until its foundation is so fundamentally shaken that we have to jump to a new story.

The only way to counteract his story is to find a more compelling story that offers a new foundation. For too long, we have forsaken the art of storytelling because of all the ways it has gone wrong. To begin telling a story that stretches beyond the self is to risk the subjugation of that which makes each of us unique and beautiful – imperialism, colonialism, and racism are deeply problematic stories that have developed precisely out of the desire to tell a communal story. The more common response has been to reject the notion of a communal story altogether. But to reject such a story is to reject the only means we could have of establishing a peace that creates the space for coherence amidst our differences and a sum that is more than its parts.

Until we can offer a more compelling story and an invitation to embody that story together, the primal story of fear will continue to win out. Far too many of us may never outright act in hate, but instead devolve into practical atheism through the refusal to wake up and see the reality our brothers and sisters both face and create. Until a more compelling story is told and invitation given, there will never be anything more than multiple competing interests, vying for authority and influence. Until we learn to take seriously the stories that wrote us and the stories we are trying to write, we will never have the language to even combat, much less defeat, his (or the next) story of fear.

To tell such a story starts with learning the art of listening. Listen to the stories of our neighbors. Listen to the stories of our enemies. Listen to the stories of everyone who is willing to share what is beneath the words of the stories we hide behind. Once we have deeply and truly listened, then we will find the space in which love is possible. Once love is present, we will find the space in which it is possible to name and embrace the story we share. Until we learn to tell that story with our lives and relationships, we are never more than one step removed from fear dictating the story of our lives.

The Limits of External Truth

To speak of Jesus Christ apart from the interrelated web of gospel (the unity of His life – the intention to know what happened), traditioned reasoning (His unity with Israel – the setting to make His life intelligible), and enacted narrative (the implications of His life – the long term intentions to follow Him) presumes the (successful) quest for truthful knowledge about the identity of Jesus Christ can begin somewhere other than the character and work of God; it is to presume there is a neutral ground within the human mind upon which rationality is capable of arriving at the truth about Jesus.

The mind is not, however, a neutral arbiter of factual experiences and propositions that bombard the senses from the world outside. The mind is shaped by the world, both sensually and intellectually, such that matters of fact and fiction can only be expressed in terms of their coherence or incoherence within the present shape of the mind; and not, as supposed by those who seek neutral knowledge about Jesus, by arriving at the correlation between idea or experience and a particular set of eternal truths outside of but accessible to the mind.

To make this statement is not to preclude the existence of external truths, but to assert that the move from flawed understanding to external truth is not within the power of the human mind nor is it contingent upon a succession of finite correctives to human knowledge. The true identity of Jesus Christ can only be grasped within the particular narrative revealed by God and accessible through the power of the Holy Spirit. His identity is, therefore, fundamentally different if not understood in the terms by which God has chosen and continues to choose to reveal Him to the world.

The Salvation Miracle

Whatever ‘I’ am is somehow the portion of life that makes experience of the world unique to one person and not another. Life is the connection between the ‘whatever makes me me and not you’ and the power to change something in the world. If life is ‘will’ (the power to affect some form of change in the world), then death is the cessation of power. And if that is accurate of death, than to die to oneself or sacrifice one’s life for that of another is no less a material, concrete, actual death than anything else; it is perhaps a matter of degree or fullness of that death, but it cannot be relegated to some ‘spiritual’ realm or trivialized as not an actual death.

Miracles (literally, deeds of power) are then also not specialized outside of the realm of possible/material but are the particular acts of will that effect a change only through an assertion of power. To die to oneself and be alive in Christ is for the power you ‘have’ over the world to be controlled by the power of God to effect the salvation of the whole world; again not a ‘spiritual’ death and rebirth but a fundamental shift in whatever it is that makes ‘you’ you. Salvation comes through death because it is the final and complete surrender of all that made ‘me’ me in distinction or conflict with that power which is God’s in the world. Salvation is, then, the quintessential example of a miracle.

 

On Atoms and Demons

When I’m feeling particularly cantankerous and willing to question just about everything we think we know, I wonder if an atom is just a mathematically sophisticated demon. I wonder if the most fundamental ways we think about the world around us are just as wrong now as ever. Perhaps we should wonder if knowledge of atoms will be considered on par with knowledge of demons a thousand years from now. It is true that thinking ‘atomically’ has a greater propensity for achieving precise results, but, to say that there is something more basic than the atom is not all that substantively different from saying that the things which cause illness or delusion are more concrete than demons. Both demons and atoms carry great explanatory power in the minds in which they make sense and I don’t think it’s too crazy to wonder if the distinction between atoms and demons is more in a particular form of precision than in kind. The effort to explain the things people see is present in both, and I wonder if history will look upon us more kindly than we look upon the ‘absurdity’ we find in superstition and myth.

Community underneath individuality

Understanding intelligible action is one of Alasdair MacIntyre’s areas of focus in After Virtue. He argues, for instance, that the intent to be gardening comes before the actions necessary to garden. You might fail to do anything intelligibly gardening related, but you can’t act without the intent of doing some particular intelligible action. This means that the narrative in which you are participating (or at least trying to participate) is more fundamental than the possibility of discrete or unconnected action. There may be a multitude of simultaneous narratives at play and you may appear to others to be doing something other than what you’re trying to do, but that does not mean that discrete action is at the ground level – some particular narrative is underneath all action.

I suspect there is an analogy to be made between discrete action vs intelligible action and the individual vs community. Postmodernity and much of modern ethics suggests that we are individual agents first and that we then have to make decisions of how to act – the results, responsibilities, and/or intentions of which will define whether we are seen as ‘ethical’ or not. The problem is that the individual is no more a meaningful concept than discrete action. To name any characteristic or meaning of an individual is to presuppose a community/narrative definition in which that individual either fits or does not fit. Denying community is ultimately denying the possibility of a coherent life. And an incoherent life has no purpose, no aim, no direction, no character.

The implication is that I can never define myself apart from the narrative language and categories of thought from communities into which I do and do not fit. From the moment we are born, who we are is defined more by the people in our lives than by whatever it is that makes us a distinct individual. Even in rejecting the influence of those in our lives, we can only do so because of the way in which their influence upon us has provided the space to develop categories of acceptance and rejection of the way they are. To claim that I am X, whether in agreement or distinction with those who have influenced my individuality, requires a conception of what “X” and therefore “not X” entails such that acceptance and rejection are possible choices to be made.

The ‘self made man’ is a recent falsity that obfuscates the extent to which an individual cannot have meaning or character apart from community. Thus, the modern notion of self denies our inherent need for a definable community to embrace or reject. The compartmentalization of life institutionalizes the fiction that there is a definable or meaningful self that exists apart from the life they live. To recognize that the self is first defined by community is to at least reject the notion that what is true for person A could possibly be true irrespective of the people in A’s life. Relativism can only be true to the extent that it is a rejection of the defined alternatives in one’s life – but there is no definition of alternatives or rejection that is not itself the acceptance or rejection of a communally defined position.

The fiction of an autonomous self is often viewed as the moral agent who must make choices about how to live. But if the narrative/communally defined self is more basic than the autonomous self, what most determines the “goodness” or “badness” of actions and character and identity is grounded in the most basic and fundamental narrative into which the agent is attempting to live. There is no objective and autonomous agent who can be defined as “good” or “bad” as such. To be a perfectly ethical person is to fully embody the virtues and never the vices of a given narrative – but there is no objective ground on which an observer might stand to determine whether or not that is the case and there is no way to separate overlapping narrative contexts of a life in such a way as to prevent an action that is virtuous in one context from having some characteristic of a vice in any of the overlapping contexts in which each person necessarily lives. Imperfect moral action is, therefore, not a possibility but the rule.

tl;dr

  1. Community is more basic than individuality to the same extent that intelligible action is more basic than action as such. Individuality per se is just as meaningless as action per se.
  2. Who we are is determined more by how we are formed than by how we affect the world, even if who we are is exactly equivalent to whatever it is that defines the difference between one person’s effects and another’s.
  3. Defining an ethical person is only possible to the extent to which we can define a coherent narrative context in which to locate that person’s thoughts, intents, and effects.
  4. Any narrative definition of a life will be marked by multiple incomplete and competing narratives, which means both that any narrative context can never be fully defined and that the moral implications of a person’s actions will never be limited to a single narrative context.

Intractability and labels

Intractable seems to be the most applicable description of most discussions people are actually passionate enough to have these days. Intractability stems at least from a failure to appreciate the underlying faults in either side’s arguments. The right seems bent on properly labeling people and issues so that we can determine right from wrong and act accordingly. The left seems bent on removing labels and socially constructed identity from the conversation so that each person can live and let live. Labels are necessary, says the right. Labels are oppressive, says the left.

I’m convinced by research and experience that labels are the only way the human brain can make sense of the world. All possible identity labels represent the acceptance or rejection of labels that are inherited through culture, family, and experience. You can’t perfectly label everything because labels, by their nature, are socially constructed and thereby cannot be static. At the same time, you can’t experience the world or communicate with others apart from the use of those imperfect labels.

Therefore, the right won’t arrive anywhere in their quest for the right labels. And the left won’t arrive anywhere in their quest to end oppressive labels. What matters and what has meaning is relationship. Inside a relationship, the dynamic transformation of accepting and rejecting labels makes it possible to affirm the uniqueness of another person while creating the space in which community empowers more than it oppresses.