The Persistence of Magic

The idea of magic is interesting because it appears that humans have always had some idea of “impossible powers” and some group of people who believed that they had them, despite all evidence to the contrary.  Even today, there are those who still ascribe to psychic phenomenon, UFO’s, magic, or (let’s be blunt) God.  I would like to specify that I’m talking about people who claim to have powers, and claim that all humanity has such powers.  Sometimes they’ll even go so far as to claim that “you can learn how right now, for the low, low, price of $1,500.”  I am not referring to trick shop magicians, illusionists, or the like, even if their routines involve claims like “I can read your mind.”  I have done, and do routines like this from time to time because they are quite entertaining.

The root of the problem is the superstition effect, as I call it.  The superstition effect is a combination of a basic post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy and human gullibility.  The human brain is wired to make associations, and it does so very quickly.  This is a good thing, because the process will catch most all patterns that really exist, however the same advantage causes our pattern perception to also jump at shadows, and produce patterns where none exist.  On that throw that you randomly blew on the dice, you won.  Your mind goes- connection?  Let’s try that again…  We’ve all been there, though perhaps in more subtle ways.  That day you played some sport well, you happened to wear red underwear.  That time your date went well you had an Altoid beforehand.  Whatever.  The common element in all these situations is that there is a certain fundamental element of randomness, of unpredictability.  Your mind doesn’t like things it cannot predict, and the wired-up assumption of cause and effect causes it to start looking for patterns to help understand that situation to do better next time.  This is, incidentally, one of the reasons why gambling is addictive.  Any rational entity can see that in the long run, at slots or roulette, there is absolutely no way for you to win.  None.  However, that logical analysis is actually overridden by several factors, such as the emotional rollercoaster of win-lose-lose-win, and the flawed assumption that there must be *something* you can do to increase your odds over the next guy.  You can win because you are smarter/luckier/cooler/insert-adjective-here-er, and you can find the pattern.  The casino obviously likes this perspective and spreads it around- lotteries run ads on this principle, though they frequently add the semantic obfuscation of “it could be you” or “why not you?”  This is simply because it seems extremely improbable to Joe that he’ll win because of all the other people playing, despite his ideal of fuzzy specialness- why not him, he’s just like everyone else.  Note the fascinating contradiction in people to want to be both normal, and special, at the same time.  It’s like shouting quietly or whispering loudly.  Do you want to be heard, or not?

Back to magic, yes this is related.  The people selling magic are catering to a specific subsection of the people who feel “special.”  They’re interested in the people who feel special, and are conscious of it, but don’t really know why.  More specifically, they’re interested in people looking for a rationalization for their own specialness.  This manifests itself as being attracted to “arcane powers.”  True, they aren’t the only ones, but the others aren’t being marketed to because the ones drawn to impossible power are impossible to advertise to.  It would be like attempting to sell chocolate to a bear.  Those selling magic, or psychic powers, instead want to weaken your certainty in the fact that they’re full of hot air. Attention: you are probably vulnerable to to exactly this type of attack.  For them, it’s a victory if you are no longer 100% sure.  If you slip even .01% then they’ve won.  According to that doctrine, it doesn’t matter if they prove their argument, only that they attack yours.  This is the guiding principle of modern religious apologists who obviously can’t prove anything from their end.  Instead they say “there are holes in the fossil record” and assume therefore God must have created the world 6,000 years ago.  It doesn’t matter that it’s insane and illogical, or even self-contradictory at times.  All they need to do is introduce a seed of doubt.  In the short run, it allows them to claim that their delusion should be respected.  In the long run, some fraction of those so affected will probably become religious themselves.  It doesn’t happen overnight.  Conversion is an intricate process, and religions themselves are the single most fascinating example of an evolved process designed to obtain and retain as many believers (read: hosts) as possible.  The line between superstition and religion is minimal.  Religion is to superstition as a squirrel is to a hermit crab: one is more highly evolved than the other, but they each have their niche.  And, unlike squirrels and hermit crabs, they have a symbiotic relationship.  The existence of superstition, and the superstition effect, makes religion possible, while religion justifies and maintains the mindset needed to keep the superstition flowing.  Prayer, anyone?  You pray, and they get better.  It must be God!  Therefore, prayer is valid, and therefore we should continue to pray so people will get better.  Self-licking ice cream cone.

Religion and superstition are so ingrained in our society that very little thought has been put into the methods behind our thinking.  Now you’re going wait, wait, now he’s just cooking up random stuff.  Religion kills philosophy the same way that God kills morality.  If God was really omnipotent, then no matter what you do, it’s God’s fault, his responsibility, and you’re clean.  Or let’s try a different tack- if God is omniscient and perfectly just, then no matter what you do, your punishment will be in exact justice to your crime, and therefore you can do whatever you want because the punishment will be perfectly fair.  Even you, the convicted, will go “yeah, I can see how I deserve that, bring it on.”  Let’s not even go into the problem of evil.  Religion kills philosophy in the same manner- don’t think, just read this book!  The answers are all in here!  Praise the Lord!  In the Dark Ages, if you were a philosopher you had better support God or not only are you going to be suppressed, you’re going to get tortured.  Why?  Because you’re making a lot of people uncomfortable, you’re causing them to sin, you’re serving the Devil.  Because they react violently to having their delusions questioned because on some level they know they’re full of shit, but unwilling to admit it because otherwise that same engine they’re part of will turn on them instead- to the degree they believe they are rewarded, to the degree they don’t they are disproportionately punished.  Because God is good.

And now, the part that you’ve been waiting for.  The part where I obliterate Harry Potter.  Let’s start slow- like a demonic sadist barbecuer.  HAHAHA!!  J.K. Rowling is a poor writer.  Harry Potter is a dumbass with a protagonist complex living in a world that makes no sense, riddled with a worse deus ex machina than the Bible, that could never develop if magic weren’t randomly interjected at the start of the first book, and the magic itself is arbitrary, nonfunctional, and nonsensical.  I won’t go into the myriad of reasons behind those assertions- like the evolutionary fitness of wizards vs. muggles, or how the spells are crappy, mangled Latin, and how the power just comes from nowhere, and what would actually happen if wizards could kill one another with a wand and a word, or how they can possibly control one another in the sort of regime they have…  Alright.  I’m vented.  On to serious issues.  Harry Potter is one element of a genre that is incredibly enabling to superstition hucksters and religious groups.  I’m not suggesting that Rowling or her compatriots are at fault- they are providing fodder for a niche in the human psyche that exists anyway.  To expect the market to ignore a niche because you think it’s “wrong” is just stupid, and enforcing a ban or such would be stark raving mad.   Still, the magic culture stunts the preventive vaccine of skepticism with the subtle leading edge of imagination.

Magic is a recurring element of our minds and culture, in more ways than just blatant magic.  Stories about how the impossible underdog comes back to beat the juggernaut champion, for example.  Doesn’t happen in real life in a statistically significant way (they wouldn’t be the underdog if they were), but it does happen.  Focusing on “based on a true story” blends a certain infusion of magical realism with truth, creating a quite compelling work.  It sometimes appears like the movie- usually it is a movie, these days- knows what it’s about more than you do.  I suspect the reason for this is that it provides a nearly full suite of sensory data which has been fabricated, in whole or in part.  So it appears like you’re judging between your own “normal” senses, and the quite similar ones depicted in the movie.  The movie’s, however, are lent strength by the fact that a large number of people have a massive amount of money invested in making it as compelling as possible, and that other people have perceived exactly the same sensory sequence, and implicitly accepted it.  This graduated blending of truth and imagination into a kind of magical reality necessitates some new thinking and perceiving tools to deal with it, but we don’t because we’re too busy getting sucked into it.  Just like how religion suppresses your inquiry, and also all sources creating tension.  Look at it this way: how often does the stereotypical chick-flick story play out in real life?  Yep.  And how many times has it been depicted?  It could feasibly happen in real life- there’s nothing materially or logically impossible about The Chick Flick Story.  It’s just that… life doesn’t work like that.  Yet we have tons of people walking around with this model in their head that that is The Way The World Works.  In more ways than just chick flicks, of course, but that’s a particularly virulent strain.  Most of the victims aren’t even aware of the degree to which they have been affected.  Hell, I’m sure I have at least several hundred misperceptions of the world due to input I have received that I implicitly trust more than my own senses because it seems authoritative, or because I’d like to believe it.  Or because I’m afraid to.  I just don’t know what they are- if I did, they’d be gone, I’d see to that.


3 Responses to “The Persistence of Magic”

  1. For Prez '24 Says:

    An interesting post. I’d have to agree on the moral and philosophical points but I am prey to the side that states you can’t know it doesn’t exist. A person needs to be searching for answers themselves but sometimes religions can be a stepping stone to get there as long as they don’t fall prey to its easy answers. Its searching with an unassuming mind yet skeptical mind eh?

  2. Media Districts Entertainment Blog » The Persistence of Magic Says:

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  3. Evan Jensen Says:

    I actually began that post intending to talk about that, but as often happens I hit tangent central station and before I know it I’m at 1500 words and have forgotten what I wanted to get to. Anyway, yes, I agree. We can’t rule out that they may be right, but we can safely relegate that probability to about the same treatment as believers in leprechauns, werewolves, the celestial teacup, etc. etc. Plus, the burden of proof is always on the positive assertion.

    However, it appears to me that you’re thinking about something different. You’re discussing people who find truth or meaning in religion. I’m not denying that this happens, but I am saying that it’s a similar case to an unsound logical truth. Socrates is a man, therefore the moon is made of stone. While truthful, the method of getting there will not consistently produce truth. In a similar way, religion can be a stepping stone, but it’s a poor one.

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