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A dear friend of mine is a physician. When we meet up for lunch, the stuff we talk about is mostly related to that. I’m interested in it and she does it all day and wants to unload some of it in a safe space, especially the frustrating stuff—and there’s a lot of that. She tries to take care of people who, too often, are not taking care of themselves.
When describing a recent interaction, she used the phrase “magical thinking” to describe one of the challenges of communicating effectively with this person. I’ve heard that phrase before, but it stuck with me today—probably because it’s deft, succinct, and evocative at the same time. There’s a little irony in the “evocative” part; it wasn’t intended to evoke anything; it was intended to express the desire that someone listen to reason when it would be to their immediate benefit to do so.
But the word “magic,” to an English speaker, is just inherently evocative. That goes back to early childhood, before the faculties of reason are well-developed. In human history, it goes back to something similar: a time, not that long ago, when we had no access to so much of the understanding we now do of how this universe works; we made up our own explanations for mysteries, based on what little we did understand, and we all lived in what Carl Sagan called the “demon-haunted world.” None of you need me to tell you that, despite what all the Nobel laureates together have told us over the past 122 years (I looked that up), we still live in a world haunted by superstition, hobbled by ignorance—willful and otherwise—and torn by irrational religious and ideological zealotry. Relative to four centuries ago, however—let alone four millennia—the importance of “magic” in the running of the cosmos, and mundane human affairs, has receded dramatically.
I think that’s why “magic,” to us, is so evocative, and in such an overwhelmingly-positive way. Most of us, in this society, use it metaphorically—and it’s probably one of our favorite metaphors. To past peoples, of course, magic was frightening—because they weren’t thinking of magic metaphorically. Magic ruined their crops, or made them grow; it took their children’s lives, or brought them prosperity. Now, we’d use “magic” to describe a sexual experience, or our new baby’s first laugh, or a piece of music. The way Dr. Goodfriend (not her real name) used it, though, harked back to the older meaning of it; that’s not so common in my world, and I think that’s why it stayed with me long enough to write this (for which I’m glad, because I had no other idea for this fortnight’s installment). There is a contradiction, in our world, between “magical” and “thinking;” so, to put them together makes for an interesting turn of phrase. What can we make of someone brought up in an “advanced” modern society attempting to understand reality through “magical thinking”?
Humans have always had the ability to reason empirically, to learn by observation, deduction, induction—and also what we call imagination. We perceive patterns in what is happening around us, whether or not those patterns are actually there. We look for cause-and-effect, and we find it, whether it is factual or fallacious. These proclivities have allowed us to survive and thrive. They have also caused us to do the most horrible things to each other, and to other creatures, and have blinded us to the truth over and over again. But it is so hard-wired that, if you truly block out all light, your brain will “see” stuff that isn’t there, because it does not know how to process seeing absolutely nothing. I learned this 28 years ago diving for golf balls for summer income; swimming along the bottom of a shallow lake, I “saw” things that pretty quickly made me stand up, where the light was.
We need our reason and our imagination; they’re both core components of being human. The worst thing we can do is set them against each other; there is no inherent opposition between the two. Past peoples may have known less than we do about a lot of things. They may have explained things in terms that we now find, justifiably, preposterous—even perverse. But they, too, could use their reason, and rational processing of their experiences, to contrive a world for themselves that met more of their needs than the one they were born into.
For years, every time I’ve boarded an airliner, I’ve entertained myself by imagining that I am sitting next to Benjamin Franklin. (No, my wife does not in the least resemble Benjamin Franklin.) I get way off into full imaginary conversations, about powered flight, and what about our world is wondrous and what is terrifying. In these scenarios, I am able to explain how the airplane works to Dr. Franklin pretty well, I think. We could get into metallurgy, and internal combustion, and aerodynamics, and hydraulics, and I think I could hold my own and he, of course, being the brilliant polymath that he was, would keep up. It’s the electronics that would give me trouble. The computers. I am not confident that I could explain enough to him about how those work that he could grasp the concept. But, if that were so, he would not conclude that they were magic. He would conclude that they were highly-advanced “mechanics” that could be understood, with sufficient explanation.
At first contact, Europeans sometimes attempted to gain advantage over “primitive” people by taking advantage of their unfamiliarity with the technology (as we would call it) that Europeans brought with them. Sometimes, they even tried to convince the “primitives” that they were gods, whether by firing off cannon, inserting themselves into preexisting native mythology, or both. Eventually, though, the natives would figure out that cannon weren’t really magic. Europeans weren’t really gods; if you stuck a spear in one, he died. What they had no way of understanding as anything but magic, though, was smallpox.
The ”gap” between empirical understanding and “magical thinking,” then, has to do with the gap between the person’s preexisting understanding of things—which is acculturated from birth—and the novelty being presented to that person. Europeans with muskets and steel armor challenged the processing ability of Hawaiians and Powhatan and Incas, but not so drastically that they could not adjust their grasp of reality to accommodate those novelties fairly quickly, If, however, you could have landed an Airbus A380 in any populated area in 1500, the people nearby would have run away, stood transfixed in awe and terror, or prostrated themselves.
We are still failing to educate most people to a level anywhere near as close to what all those Nobel laureates have told us as we could achieve if it were a high enough priority. We are still acculturating most people in the world into “magical thinking.” We are still allowing people to grow into adults with a false dichotomy between reason and magic; that something can be explained, or it cannot because it is magic. The truth is, magic is something other than explanation, not something competing with reason. Sex with someone we love is magic. Your baby’s laugh is magic. Mahler’s music is magic. The roosting monarchs in Mexico are magic.
We can explain all those things, using our accumulated empirical reasoning, to a degree that would astound Benjamin Franklin. Yet, they are still magic. Understanding what Hawking did about black holes did not make them less magic. It made them more so. The more we truly understand, the more magical our reality will be. If we ever succeed in raising humans whose experience of magic enhances, rather than opposes, their thinking—and we have done much toward that—then we will be highly advanced—and magical—beings indeed.
For those of you who are interested, my New Books Network podcast conversation with Mark Klobas (who also interviewed me for the first book) is up on their site here; you can also find it on your preferred podcast platform; I just typed “Boston schooner” in the search box on Google Podcasts…