PhilosophyCenter PhilosophyCenter | Odysseys
PhilosophyCenter | Odysseys

Posts from — August 2014

Magic

Magic

When I was a boy, I spent countless afternoons practicing coin magic in front of a small, antique mirror that my mother let me use, so that I could watch my hands as they created the illusion of coins appearing and disappearing, or passing through solid objects, or migrating invisibly from one place to another. As I got older, my love for the “secret” behind the appearances grew into a formal study of philosophy at the university, but underlying this was still the child’s fascination with the modus operandi, the behind-the-scenes operations that each moment bring forth the world ex nihilo.

The child watches the magician pull a coin out of thin air and is amazed, while the adult smiles. Why does the adult smile? He may not know the method, but he knows it is a trick, that coins don’t just appear out of thin air. How innocent, how beautiful, and in a way, how sad that the adult doesn’t realize that the magician, like the coin, is appearing out of thin air each moment, for even a glimpse of this would return the adult to the reality of the magical, the wondrous, the mysterious that seems native to us as children before we learn that the world is something to take for granted and exploit and move against.

Physics is the hardest of sciences, the most akin to mathematics; it has always been regarded as the keeper of the empirical standard to which other sciences aspire. In the early 1900s, however, something odd began to happen. Physics began to soften. As it turned out, something incredible was taking place; physics was converging with metaphysics, discovering in the laboratory at the most intimate levels of the Creation, truths that had been unambiguously expressed thousands of years earlier in the world’s great body of spiritual literature. Some scientists went off in the direction of biology, applying a mechanistic model, even to such rarified areas of study as psychology. So, behaviorism appeared on the scene; philosophy spawned logical positivism, and so on. An entire intellectual generation stepped forward steeped in the belief that what is real ultimately is physical, that all causes are material, that only that which can be quantified is valid. If there is a “soul,” it is a product or by-product of cerebral function. The mind is nothing more, in this view, than the brain’s neurons firing. Meanwhile, physics reached a conclusion so staggering, it would erase the mechanistic, materialist view forever—namely, that even the physical is not physical.

At the level of the quanta and subquanta, there is more space than stuff. The more minutely we examine this gossamer matrix of the physical world, the less stuff we see. Finally, past the quarks and neutrinos, the muons and tachyons and lychons, there is no-thing at all. There is no-thing, but this no-thing is not nothing. It is a vast, living, holographic presence overflowing with an innate and unimaginably prolific creativity into unlimited expression. It is literally in-forming all that is, becoming the rich and varied manifestations that we hardly notice anymore, and doing so with exquisite precision and unfailing dedication, every instant there is. This force is intelligent and resourceful beyond measure; the greatest human genius is only the tiniest fraction of it. This No-Thing is somehow manifesting all of the stars and planets and solar systems, every cell in the body of every living thing, every microphysical particle, every galaxy, every circumstance and condition, every fact scientific or otherwise, and it is doing this everywhere, all at once, naturally and spontaneously and gracefully, like a consummate magician—except that it is not a trick. The magic is real.

Perhaps we will evoke the sympathy of the empiricist or the rationalist this much: that he or she will grant that there is something wondrous and even magical about how the ubiquitous quanta keep emerging out of the great No-Thing, assembling themselves dutifully into atoms that somehow know to team up as molecules that in turn construct the tables and chairs and assorted furniture of our physical world. There is magic of a sort, they may allow—but this is the stuff of metaphysics, and we cannot be concerned with that, or so they will claim. “We may not understand for now the inner workings of Being, the modus operandi of the Master Magician, but eventually we will. We will develop the technology and work the grand equations, and the secret will be bared open to human will like a dissected frog in a high school biology class. It is only a matter of time.”

You can see what’s happening. It is exactly what happened to the mechanistic view of things over the past half century. Slowly, undone by the shocking discoveries of the new physics, the old biases were left with nowhere to stand. The burden of proof shifted. How, when we have tested and witnessed and scientifically established the immateriality of the material, when even the traditionally hardest science has put down new roots in mystical concepts and visions, when we have even scientifically proven that the world is much more like a great dream than a great machine and that the consciousness dreaming it is nonlocal, not limited to the bodies it dreams into being—how and on what grounds could we continue to insist that this magic that we see all around us somehow is not central and decisive to our individual and collective life? To acknowledge the magic of existence only to turn one’s back on it, as it were, and blithely go about one’s business, is to overlook the most important reality of all. For to catch the universe in the act of appearing and then act as though nothing happened is a lie and worse. We may have missed the magic simply because it is so everywhere, and in our blind allegiance to old models, to a self-opaque rationalism or dogmatic empiricism, we have been sitting in the best seats and missing the show.

Our knowledge, as William James writes in “The Will to Believe,” is relative. We can know, but we cannot know that we know—that is, our knowing is not something certain. Tomorrow may change everything, showing us that what we thought we knew, we only thought we knew. This deeply honest and rightly humble self-understanding can take us to a renewed sense of the magical hiding in the everyday, and science is especially qualified to take up this cause. The best scientists, like Einstein and de Broglie, Heisenberg, and others, have always had this sense, and embodied the humility that their work can inspire. Beyond the childish naïveté and New Age manipulations of “magical thinking” is something so profoundly useful that it may turn out to be saving: the willingness see with new eyes, to acknowledge that the world belongs to something greater than us and is subject to an inexplicable authority greater than our will, and if the old model has to be revised, overhauled, even discarded in favor of this new and sorely needed vision, then so be it. In the 21st century, each of us can fulfill what the last half of the 20th century foreshadowed—that seeing cannot be limited to reason and evidence alone, because these models discount or dismiss or deny the magical foundations that we must acknowledge and honor if we are to have a future. As we take up the direction implicit in the willingness simply to see what is right before our eyes, we may find that the magic, the wonder, the miracle of the everyday was not left behind in childhood. It was standing beside us, biding its time, waiting patiently, all along.

August 10, 2014   Comments Off on Magic