Anglican Samizdat

July 30, 2009

Science and Magic

Filed under: Materialism,Science — David Jenkins @ 9:25 pm
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The other evening I watched the new Harry Potter film, The Half-Blood Prince; it isn’t as good as the book. But it did get me thinking about the hypothetical existence of magic and its relationship to the material and supernatural. According to Arthur C. Clarke, magic cannot exist and, if it seems to, that is merely because any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic; magic, in Clarke’s view, is simply science in disguise. David Bentley Hart makes an interestingly similar – but considerably more subtle – point: magic is preoccupied with the manipulation of the material world and, as such, has more in common with science than the transcendent:

In truth, the rise of modem 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 modem 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 modem 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.

I’m not sure what Albus Dumbledore would make of that but, for any atheist who might be eager to comment, please use your God-given grey cells to understand the point before using them to animate your fingers at the keyboard.


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