Magic versus metaphysics

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

Arthur C. Clarke

Any sufficiently rigorously defined magic is indistinguishable from technology.

Larry Niven

Some atheists are intellectually serious.  Some are not.  There are several infallible marks by which an atheist might show himself to be intellectually unserious.  Thinking “What caused God?” is a good objection to the cosmological argument is one.  Being impressed by the “one god further” objection is another.  A third is the suggestion that theism entails a belief in “magical beings.”  Anyone who says this either doesn’t know what theism is or doesn’t know what magic is.  Or (no less likely) doesn’t much care one way or the other – it’s another handy straw man, useful for those who want to believe that theistic arguments are manifestly fallacious or otherwise silly, or who find it rhetorically useful to pretend that they are.

What is magic?  In Renewing Philosophy, Hilary Putnam makes some interesting remarks on the subject:

If a witch must have magical powers, then it is far from clear that the concept of a witch is a coherent one, because it is far from clear that the concept of a magical power is a coherent one.  We can certainly imagine possible worlds in which things regularly happen that superstitious people would regard as magic; but the very fact that they regularly happen in those possible worlds is strong reason for saying that in those possible worlds those things are not really magic—it is just that those worlds have different laws than the actual world.  The notion of a world in which things happen that are “truly magical” is, I think, an incoherent one; and that means, I think, that the notion of a witch is an incoherent one.

One might try to meet this difficulty by defining a witch not as someone who has magical powers but as someone who has supernatural powers, where the supernatural is understood not in terms of the notion of magic, but in terms of not falling within the categories of substance, space, and time.  It is extremely doubtful that the pagan witches, or the witches of present-day African tribes, are supposed to derive their powers from something which is supernatural in that sense.  It is a feature, in fact, of pagan thought that the gods, demons, and so on, are not supernatural in the sense which came into existence with the rise of Greek philosophy and the incorporation into the Jerusalem-based religions of a certain amount of Greek philosophy.  The notion that what is magical must derive from the supernatural, in the philosophical/theological sense of “supernatural”, is not part of the original meaning of the term. (p. 44)

Putnam surely captures one important sense of the term “magical” here (though there are other senses, as we will note below).  More to the point, he surely captures the sense of “magical” in which the notion of magic is thought by the atheist to be objectionable.  And rightly so, for it is objectionable.  “Magical” powers, as Putnam here describes them, are powers which are intrinsically unintelligible.  It’s not just that we don’t know how magic operates; it’s that there is, objectively, no rhyme or reason whatsoever to how it operates. 
That it is intrinsically unintelligible has to be what is objectionable about it.  For it is not reasonable to object to the notion of powers or causes which are intelligible in themselves, but which we simply don’t happen to understand, or perhaps even cannot understand given the limitations on our intellects.  There is, after all, no reason to think that whatever exists simply must be comprehensible to us -- especially for someone who regards our cognitive powers as the product of evolutionary processes that favor survival value rather than accurate beliefs per se.  Indeed, some naturalists have insisted that there are limits in principle to what we can understand, so that certain aspects of the natural world must remain forever mysterious to us.  There can be serious arguments for the postulation of such limits on our knowledge, and such a postulation can do real explanatory work -- again, for the naturalist or atheist no less than for the theist.  (In an earlier post, I discussed the various senses in which different aspects of the world might be said to be intelligible or unintelligible, from either an atheist point of view or a theistic one.)

So, again, what is objectionable about magic can only be that it is supposed to be inherently unintelligible, unintelligible even in principle and not merely in practice.  Appeals to magic in this sense can, of necessity, explain nothing.  They are rightly dismissed as pseudo-explanations or worse -- Putnam suggests that they are actually incoherent.  (He does not elaborate, but perhaps his point is that it is incoherent to suppose that an appeal to “magic” is any kind of explanation given that an explanation necessarily makes the explanandum intelligible, and the notion of magic is the notion of that which is inherently unintelligible.)

But the greatest theistic writers -- thinkers like Aristotle, Plotinus, Aquinas, Leibniz, and the like -- would agree that the notion of “magic” in this sense is intellectually disreputable.  And when they argue for the existence of God, they are not appealing to magic.  On the contrary, they are appealing precisely to rational considerations about what the world must be like in order to be intelligible.  For example, the Aristotelian-Thomistic (A-T) argument from motion rests on the distinction between actuality and potentiality (or “act and potency”), which was introduced by Aristotle as necessary to explain how change is possible.  Thinkers like Parmenides and Zeno had argued that change is not possible.  Their reasons are complex, but they involve the crucial assumption that a thing either has being or existence full stop, or it is sheer nothingness or non-being.  But change, they argued, would have to involve going from non-being to being, and thus from nothing to something; and from nothing, nothing can come.  Hence change is impossible, and the appearance of change illusory.

Aristotle argued that the assumption such arguments rest on is false, for in addition to that which is utterly non-existent on the one hand, and that which is fully real or actual on the other, we have to distinguish a third, middle ground category of what exists potentially.  A certain rubber ball might on the one hand be actually red, actually spherical, actually solid, and actually smooth to the touch; and on the other hand, it would be in no way a rabbit, or a quasar, or a Buick Skylark.  But in between these extremes there are the ways it potentially is, just given its nature -- for instance, it is potentially green (if you paint it), potentially flat and squishy (if you melt it) and so forth.  And that is how change is possible -- it does not involve going from sheer non-being to something actual (which would be impossible), but rather going from potentiality to actuality.  For while a potential is not actual, it is not nothing either.

But a potential, precisely because it is merely potential and not actual, cannot actualize itself; only what is already actual can actualize it.  And if that which actualizes a potential is itself being actualized as it does so, it must in turn be actualized by something else.  Such a regress of causes would be of the essentially ordered or instrumental kind; and it can only terminate (so the A-T philosopher argues) in that which can actualize without itself having to be actualized -- something which just is “pure actuality.”   And that is the metaphysical core of the A-T conception of God.

Now, there is more to the story than that.  The point for now, though, is not to develop or defend this sort of argument.   (I have done so elsewhere, e.g. here, here, and here.)  The point is rather to emphasize that there is nothing remotely “magical” about it.  You might disagree with the argument; you might think (quite wrongly, I would say, but let that pass) that it has somehow been superseded by modern science, or that in some other way it is fallacious or rests on mistaken premises.  What you cannot reasonably do is deny that such an argument is a genuine attempt at explanation, rather than an appeal to something inherently unintelligible.  The same can be said of the Thomistic argument from the distinction between a contingent thing’s essence and its existence to God as a cause whose essence just is existence; or the Neo-Platonic argument from the existence of multiplicity to a cause which is an absolute unity; or the Leibnizian argument from contingency to a necessary being; or indeed of any of the other major theistic arguments.  It is one thing to reject these arguments after a serious analysis of them.  But to dismiss them as appeals to “magic” is just silly.

Notice that Putnam rightly distinguishes the “magical” from the “supernatural.”  As I have noted before, “supernatural” does not have, in traditional theology, the connotations that movies, television, and the like have given it in the popular mind.  In particular, it does not have any necessary connection with belief in ghosts or other paranormal phenomena.  The “supernatural” is just that which transcends the natural order.  And if it is not governed by the laws that govern the natural order, that is not because it is less intelligible than the natural order, but because it is more intelligible, and indeed the source of the intelligibility of the natural order.  The natural order is contingent; its divine, supernatural ground is necessary.   The causal processes in terms of which we explain everyday happenings within the natural order are secondary, having only a derived efficacy; the divine, supernatural first cause is that which has its causal power inherently, in an absolutely underived way.  (See again the post on essentially ordered or instrumental causes linked to above.)  And so forth.  

Again, even if this whole picture were rejected as outdated metaphysics, that does not entail that it is “magical.”  Outdated scientific theories which appealed to notions like phlogiston, caloric, celestial spheres and the like were not “magical”; they were mistaken, but they were not appeals to what is intrinsically unintelligible.  Similarly, even if it turned out that Aristotelian metaphysics, Platonic metaphysics, Thomistic metaphysics, and Leibnizian metaphysics were all mistaken, that would not make them appeals to “magic.”  

Nor will it do to insist that only scientific or naturalistic explanations could even in principle be non-magical.  For one thing, such a claim would presuppose something like a verificationist theory of meaning, insofar as it implies that non-naturalistic or non-scientific explanations are not even intelligible; and semantic verificationism is self-defeating.   For another thing, scientism and naturalism are themselves self-defeating (unless they are merely trivially true), and tend to rest on non sequiturs -- that is, when they are actually being argued for at all, as opposed to being merely asserted.  (I’ve discussed these problems here, here, here and here.)

Indeed, if any view is plausibly accused of being “magical” in the sense in question, it is atheism itself.  The reason is that it is very likely that an atheist has to hold that the operation of at least the fundamental laws that govern the universe is an “unintelligible brute fact”; as I have noted before, that was precisely the view taken by J. L. Mackie and Bertrand Russell.  The reason an atheist (arguably) has to hold this is that to allow that the world is not ultimately a brute fact -- that it is intelligible through and through -- seems to entail that there is some level of reality which is radically non-contingent or necessary in an absolute sense.  And that would in turn be to allow (so the traditional metaphysician will argue) that there is something which, as the Thomist would put it, is pure actuality and ipsum esse subsistens or “subsistent being itself” -- and thus something which has the divine attributes which inexorably flow from being pure actuality and ipsum esse subsistens.  Hence it would be to give up atheism.

But to operate in a way that is ultimately unintelligible in principle -- as the atheist arguably has to say the fundamental laws of nature do, insofar as he has to say that they are “just there” as a brute fact, something that could have been otherwise but happens to exist anyway, with no explanation -- just is to be “magical” in the objectionable sense.  In fact it is only on a theistic view of the world that the laws of nature are not “magical”; and the Mackie/Russell position is (as I argue in the post linked to above) ultimately incoherent for the same sorts of reason that magical thinking in general is incoherent.  As is so often the case, the loudmouth New Atheist turns out to be exactly what he claims to despise -- in this case, a believer in “magical powers.” 

Of course, there are other senses of the word “magic.”  For example, the term is also used to refer to phenomena that are paranormal or occult, but not intrinsically unintelligible -- phenomena which do have an explanation, but where the explanation lies beyond the everyday material order of things and is to a significant extent closed to our investigation.  Now, as I indicated earlier, there is no necessary connection between the “supernatural” (in the theological sense) and the “magical” in this paranormal sense.  Someone could be a theist and reject all alleged paranormal phenomena.  And someone could be an atheist and believe that there are some genuine paranormal phenomena.  (C. D. Broad was one example of such an atheist.  I do not know whether Stephen Braude would call himself an atheist, but his interest in the paranormal does not seem to be motivated by any religious concern.)

To be sure, many theists do in fact believe in paranormal phenomena.  Alleged paranormal practices of the sort often labeled “occult” or “magical” are condemned by the Catholic Church, not merely because they are often phony (though of course they often are phony), but because even if authentic they involve an appeal to demonic powers or lost souls.  Now angels, demons, and souls are of course associated in the popular mind with all sorts of superstitions and crude images.  But rightly understood there is nothing superstitious about them, and certainly nothing “magical” in the objectionable sense of being intrinsically unintelligible.  The traditional philosophical arguments for the immateriality of the intellect provide independent grounds for holding that it is possible in principle for there to be a disembodied intelligence.  And in traditional theology, that is exactly what an angel, a demon, or a postmortem soul is supposed to be.  Here too, while one could of course disagree with the arguments in question, they are not “magical” in the sense of appealing to powers regarded as intrinsically unintelligible.  (It is worth emphasizing that Aristotle himself, who had no Christian theological ax to grind, thought that there were such things as disembodied intelligences.)  

The term “magic” is also sometimes used ironically -- for something that is so contrary to ordinary experience and existing knowledge as to seem unintelligible, but which is in fact perfectly intelligible in itself and can be made intelligible to us given sufficient advances in our knowledge (and which is thus not really “magical” at all).  This seems to be the sense in which Arthur C. Clarke and Larry Niven use the term in the statements quoted above.  And in this ironic sense, theological claims may well be “magical,” at least to those ignorant of what serious theologians and philosophers of religion have actually said -- just as scientific claims would seem magical to those unacquainted with modern science.  This suggests the need for a third law to supplement Clarke’s Law and Niven’s Law:

Any theological proposition will seem “magical” to someone insufficiently versed in the underlying metaphysics. 
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