Thursday, May 5, 2016

What is Magic?

During World War I, three Portuguese kids met the Virgin Mary.  I'm not sure why people paid attention.  Kids say a lot of dumb stuff.  My kid, for instance, claimed to have an invisible sister named Marceline last month.  I laughed at her, and I was correct to do so.  Early 20th-Century Portugal was a different time and place, and for whatever reason, these kids were big news.

The kids told people to go hang out in a field and await a miracle.  And over the course of months, people waited.  About a hundred thousand of them travelled to Cova da Iria.  Newspapers sent reporters to cover the event.  

Then, on October 13, 1917, something happened.  Nobody is sure what.  The Catholic Church now refers to this event as "The Miracle of the Sun".  Of the people who experienced it: 
  • One third of them saw something freaky happen to the sun.  It flashed different colours, or zig-zagged across the sky, or two suns appeared.  
  • One third of them experienced conflicting weirdness, like their wet clothes drying spontaneously.  
  • And a third of them saw a bunch of crazy idiots losing their minds over nothing.  
My grandpa Charlie, were he alive for me to ask, would tell me that those religious nutcases saw what they wanted to see.  He was a rocket scientist and physicist, and science was his faith.  Religion and magic are the realms of crooks and crazies, he might say.  He would have said that atmospheric dust created the illusion of The Miracle of the Sun, or that the loonies saw a parhelion rainbow, or maybe they were just staring at the sun for too long and hurt their eyes.  

Charlie failed to get any of his kids to become scientists.  But I inherited his sceptical mind.  In the aughts, I was burned by unsourced left-wing, libertarian websites, and I honed my bullshit sensor.  I like my ability to sniff the false garbage that circulates on Facebook, and I like the idea that we can prove stuff by testing it.  I like the label of "sceptic".  

I also want to believe in magic.  When I was a kid, I loved the stories of trolls lurking under mountains in D'Aulaire's Book of Trolls.  In my twenties, I became entranced with H.P. Lovecraft's tales and their moral that unspeakable terror lies beyond the borders of human knowledge.  Now, I write my own stories, and all of them are supernatural.  

That, and I've seen some weird shit.  I  had an out-of-body experience when I stopped breathing on an operating table.  I've seen ghosts.  I've felt tingling energy flowing through a woman's fingers into my back. I've stepped into rooms and glades, knowing that their was an invisible presence with me.  These are not the words of a sceptic.  

I desperately want magic to be real.  My senses tell me that it is.  Yet science consistently refutes ghosts and energy and chi.  My cousin once shared somebody's theory with me that since science never detects the supernatural, it must be very rare.  Brain misinterpretation of data and mental illness, however, are very common.  Therefore, most people who see supernatural things are either mistaken or crazy.  

So that's me.  I couldn't have seen my dead friend Nick looking down from his old apartment window on Broadway.  I saw some other guy who looked like him and my brain filled in the rest.  

At this point, I want to repeat a phrase beloved by alternative and pseudo-scientific therapies everywhere.  If you're a sceptic, you'll hate this: "(fill in the blank) harnesses the body's remarkable ability to heal itself."  This phrase makes my skin crawl.  But it's pretty much the only scientific evidence for magic that I can think of.  

I'm talking about the placebo effect.  If you give a sugar pill to a group of people and tell them it will cure their illness, a bunch of them will get better.  Who do placebos affect?  Henry K. Beecher, the scientist who practically wrote the book on the placebo effect, said that they affect about one in three people.  Here's another funny one.  There's also such a thing as a noncebo.  This is a harmless substance that, if the patient believes it is bad, will have detrimental effects.  

What is central to placebos and noncebos is that they hinge on belief.  They help or harm because people believe they will.  The reason it works is something to do with expectation, but the science seems really fuzzy.  The point is that your health is, to a large part, subjective.  If you truly believe that acupuncture, reiki, or cutting gluten out of your diet will make you healthy, it might.  Even if you think that you will be healed by sneaking into the Vatican and taking a draught from the Pope's toilet, there is a one in three chance that it will work.  Belief!

So let me express my own beliefs.  I believe that the placebo effect is magic.  I believe that the Miracle of the Sun was magic.  I believe that ghosts and chi energy are magic.  And I believe that these things can exist alongside science.

The immanent physician, Dean Ornish, made a quote about science that I like.  He said, "A valid scientific theory is predictive, verifiable, and replicable.  To me, that's beautiful."  In the spirit of that, allow me to give magic the same treatment.

Magic is unpredictable, unverifiable, and subjective.  

Magic can never be quantified by science, because there is never any guarantee that it will work, even in the hands a master.  When it works, it sometimes doesn't work as advertised.  Furthermore, because magic is subjective, the presence of sceptical minds makes it less likely to work.  One person will see two suns rising and be moved to prostrate tears, while another will observe nothing.

Science is great.  It has elevated our humble species.  We live longer, we build astounding things, and we rule the planet.  It provides a great baseline for existing on earth.

However, sometimes weird shit happens.  When magic occurs, it is awe-inspiring, terrifying and cathartic.  It is wonder at seeing two suns rise.  It is inexplicable terror in a lonely place that makes your heart pound.  It is a terminal cancer patient beating the disease.  It can change your life, or become your reason for living.  If you refuse to believe in miracles, it makes them less likely to happen to you.

So believe.  


  1. Arrgghhhh. I may have to counter-post. :-).

  2. Good job giving a fair account of some (Scottish) guy's discussion of miracles! I thought you'd be fairer to one of the great lights of Celtic culture. The real point is this: Hume wanted to know how he can tell when you've really seen something supernatural and when you're just mistaken. More to the point, he wants to know how you can tell. It's axiomatic for him that the supernatural will be rare. If it's a regular occurrence, it will be predictable and testable, in other words natural.

  3. And why would you ever say that the placebo effect is magical? Does anything strange, wonderful, and surprising qualify? The green anoles my kids watch on the balcony change color before their eyes, and I suppose I could call that magical if I wanted. The placebo effect is regular and predictable, which means it's testable and verifiable. To that extent, it's as 'scientific' as the mechanisms that let the little lizards shift from green to brown, and from black to beige. Magic -- if you want to the word to mean more than 'wondrous' or 'inspiring' -- must refer to things that science can't grasp precisely because they're irregular, unpredictable, unrepeatable, and therefore unfalsifiable. Our grandfather could tell you that much.

  4. To elaborate on the first point, Hume is not suggesting, nor am I, that you CANNOT have seen a ghost. He is merely asking how you can prove it to him, or even how you can verify it yourself. Wouldn't actually seeing a ghost and thinking you saw a ghost feel similar in subjective terms? The same goes for feeling a "presence" when you enter a "glade" -- I love that these entities prefer glades to regular old clearings! How do you distinguish a legitimate experience of this kind from a bogus one, since each is derived purely from an internal conviction? To ask this question is a far cry from asserting that you "couldn't" have seen Nick or "couldn't" have felt a supernatural presence. You certainly don't have to agree with this line of reasoning, but please try to do it justice! To say something "couldn't" happen goes against the extreme skepticism that runs through all of Hume's arguments.

  5. Every medical trial has to have its own placebo group, because the placebo effect is unreliable. You can't rely on a fixed percentage because it varies from experiment to experiment and can even mess up the replicability of previously conducted ones. Lastly, science hasn't come to a consensus about its mechanism of effect. Until it does, if it does, I will call it magic.

    1. Everything varies from experiment to experiment. There is nothing unusual about the placebo effect in that respect. The number of people allergic to a given drug also varies from trial to trial, for example. And if you really want to call everything magic where there is no scientific consensus, a lot more will qualify as magic. And that's my point. You can say the placebo effect is magic. You can say anything is magic. But you'd better be prepared to call a hell of a lot else magic too. You'd better be prepared to stretch the poor word 'til it's almost meaningless.

  6. Hume, was it? You told me his theory circa 1990 and I didn't remember his name.

    Magic cannot be proven the way that Hume asks. If you want statistics, I suppose you could conduct experiments where you send 1000 people to Apartment 1 above Starbucks on Broadway and record their experience. The first thousand would not get any prior information. For the second thousand you would explain that the place was haunted. For the third thousand, you would tell all about Nick's life and death and share my ghostly experience. In the fourth group of a thousand you would tell a false story about the ghostly Rory o'Hurlihee who used to live there.

    I think you know the result. In the first group, you would establish your baseline of people who would naturally feel the place was haunted.

    In the second, there would be a sharp spike in the number of random supernatural incidents.

    In the third group, a certain percentage would see Nick, and in the fourth, a percentage would see Rory o'Hurlihee.

    If Nick's ghost is real, he's magic. He might appear to some as a young man with a shaved head. He might appear as Rory o'Hurlihee or something else. He might not appear at all. And he might appear, but whoever is in the room might not detect him. His appearance will be unreliable, unverifiable, and subjective. Any self-respecting scientist would refute the results. Hume would too, I'm guessing.

    The results to truly watch would be groups 1, 2 and 4. If anyone there saw Nick as I did, a young man with a shaved head, that would be the miracle. However, there's no guarantee it would happen, and if it did, that it could be replicated in a future experiment. Would hearing about spontaneous, non-primed encounters with a Nick-like being be enough for you and Hume? Or would all the contradictory encounters cancel them for you?

    1. You say that "magic cannot be proven in the way that Hume asks." This is his whole point, with the caveat that this also means it cannot be disproven either. Nor does your subject experience get us any closer to the truth.

  7. This comment has been removed by the author.

  8. This comment has been removed by the author.

  9. Are drugs magic? People see, hear, and feel many things more incredible than two suns rising when they make the right chemical interventions in their brains. I'm certainly not diminishing these experiences, which can be incredibly powerful, but I also wouldn't call them magic. And then people have been "moved to prostrate tears," to use your expression, by music and art. It seems that you're eager to apply the word 'magic' very freely, but the effect seems only to water down the word even further. I would think that a sincere believer in magic would want to reserve the term for what is truly, unquestionably magical.

  10. "My cousin once shared somebody's theory with me that since science never detects the supernatural, it must be very rare."

    This is also a distortion of Hume's argument. It's not that Hume maintains that the supernatural MUST be rare, he simply chooses to call what is not regular or predictable supernatural. Because when something happens regularly, when it's repeatable and observable, like the placebo effect, we call it natural. To repeat, Hume does not try to PROVE that the supernatural is rare. He proceeds from the assumption that anything that is not rare will not be considered supernatural. Your reference to someone seeing two suns is a good example of this. On a planet in a binary star system, no one would regard this as a miracle.