Friday, September 30, 2011

Magic vs Science

For reasons that come next, rather than Magic vs. Science I’d like to write about Magic and Science. I’ll need for it this definition of the noun Magic, found in the Merriam-Webster dictionnary: “an extraordinary power or influence seemingly from a supernatural source”, slightly rephrased to: “an extraordinary power or influence seemingly from an unknown source”. This is necessary as “supernatural” is truly conflictive, especially when compared to “unknown”. If you admit this change it is more likely that you’ll share some of the ideas exposed here.

I see Science as coming from Magic: it is her daughter rather than her nemesis or oponent (the use of the feminine is intentional). We saw the reason for this in our past meeting: Science is unable to explain itself, or put in another words: the fact that Mighty Science works is mysterious, miraculous and ultimately magical, as it is an extraordinary power seemingly from an unknown source.

If one is familiar with Science, a conclusion will eventually become apparent: Science is the art of coincidence. You manipulate signs, do experiments, formulate hypothesis, make abundant mistakes and finally arrive to a theory, a linguistic construction made up of words and other signs. It has the power –if it is a sound one–, to accomplish this remarkable feat: when fed with some statements and logic, it will produce another statement that’ll match the same one you’d have used first to describe a phenomena. Newtonsʼ theory says that gravity pull at ground level is 9.8mts/sec2. Then you measure and find it to be 9.79. Fantastic, really: we have a procedure, a conceptual machine of sorts, that produces coincidences or quasi-coincidences: Science.

Science is very useful, as it provides economical ways to get many things we want: better crops, cell phones, drugs, efficient transportation, etc. Nevertheless, the fact seems to be that no one knows why it works, or equivalently: Science and its methods work by pure Magic.

You will find many attempts, performed by scientists and philosophers, to deny this. All are defective for a similar reason: once an explanation is there, how do you account for the explanation’s explanation? Magic again. One famous argument about the source of Science was given by Immanuel Kant. This is an extract of a comment on Kant's Philosophy of Science, as found in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (brace yourself...):

“The feature of Kant's conception of natural science proper that is most immediately striking is how restrictive it is. It requires that cognition (i) be systematically ordered (ii) according to rational principles and (iii) be known a priori with apodictic certainty, i.e., with “consciousness of their necessity” (4:468). Because properly scientific cognition must satisfy these strict conditions, it requires “a pure part on which the apodictic certainty that reason seeks can be based” (4:469). But since Kant identifies pure rational cognition that is generated from concepts with metaphysics, it follows that science proper requires a metaphysics of nature. He then specifies that such a metaphysics of nature could consist in either a “transcendental part,” which discusses the laws that make possible the concept of a nature in general — “even without relation to any determinate object of experience” (4:469) — or a “special metaphysical” part, which concerns a “particular nature of this or that kind of things” for which an empirical concept is given.”

Pretty intimidating isn’t it? Notice the word apodictic. Sometimes –I won’t say it’s the case here–, fancy wording points to an inability to provide conclusive arguments: it is one of the many tricks with which Language dazzles and thrills us. “Apodictic” stands for something that has the nature of absolute certainty. Kant says that, to do Science, mind should have the power to know things in such a way. Then he embarks on a search for the source of this power and eventually he thinks he finds it.

Without elaborating on the soundness of his argument, the list of magical items at work here is by no means short:
  • Kant’s brain ability and his commentator’s to devise such involved statements 
  • the formation of ideas in the mind, in general 
  • the nature of the relationship between ideas and words 
  • the existence of Language itself
  • etcetera
Interestingly, hardened advocates of Science attack Magic with furor: a case of the daughter despising her mother by not wanting to recognise her. This gives away a clue of what might be at work here. Could it be the drive for power and psychological security? Some people feel sick when near to a precipice. In the same way, being bathed by Magic and be her product is unbearable, an ordeal for most of us.

It is so unthinkable that we go to great lengths to hide and deny it, so that we can have some sense of control and familiarity. We have devised amazing (i.e.: magical) tools for the task, all sharing a common trait: they are truly useful for some limited job, but thru self-deception they are believed to work also outside their nominal range.

The most conspicuous of them all is Language. With its undeniable usefulness here and there, Language beguiles us into thinking that it is equally useful everywhere. The modest and obedient go-between, the one that helped us everyday to represent objects with other, more affordable ones (words) has mutated into a juggernaut that stealthly rules over us. It has taking away from us the freshness of pure experience, making us believe that once we know the name we control the named object. The usurper has sent to oblivion the speechless contemplation of Magic.

Built up on this core tool, other, more elaborate ones, eventually appeared: Reason, Logic, Philosophy, Science, Religion and Political theory. All are children of Language, with their own stock of fancy words. They share with it all its useful powers, but also his fundamental flaw: the tendency to rule outside its scope, which again cripples the host’s ability to recognize that he lives in a sea of Magic.

A series of words in the form of a scientific explanation may produce a useful coincidence, but not much more. To extrapolate this and try to rule out Magic with the same trick is not only logically unjustified, it closes the door to a world of wonder and amazement.

To shake off the grip of Language and wake up from the dream of Reason is not easy. This can be verified with a little experiment. Some time ago, I shared with some friends this sonnet that seems to be written in Spanish. Please read it carefully and take note of your reactions:

No he calpeado jamás un tedillo
Ni he garbellado nunca un pelote
Sin embargo bardindos en yusote
Enseforé tranquilo en los puntillos

Bardindos de coljores acrepidos
Bardindos de corte bortegado
Bardindos que crupían seferidos
Sin que nadie zigueriera sus comandos

Con la diepra que da la mersinga
En corteles de porma antigados
Cafo un bardindo demidorido

Lo perco, lo damo, lo entretago
Aferio sus placias de Coringa
Y sormo ¡bardindo!, ¡bardindo tado!

What did it inspired you? Did some distinct images came to your mind? Some of my friends thought of flowers, some of landscapes, I myself thought it had an ancient scent... But none of us, none, said: “nothing”. The fact is, that to make more apparent the grip of Language, the sonet was designed to have no meaning, or just the minimum one.

And there it was the grip: even in the presence of meaningless words, each of us had been inspired and prodded to produce even more words! Imagine then the effect of words with so called meaning, the ones we use in our everyday life, a life in which everything is draped by a thick coat of words, uttered or thought, a life that is second hand, linguistic rather than magical...

To pit Science against Magic is like pitting the foam against the entire ocean

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