Magic, be it a stroke of serendipity or even anything associated with the devil or with evil spirits, be it when we were young or even now, as we read this line, at least for once, we all have believed in magic, at least once in our lifetime, be it in different forms, sizes, shapes, living or non-living, abstract or concrete, in cartoons, movies, or even reality, or a thousand of other manifestations.
Though we try to be rational and logical, we can’t help it much. Sometimes, we aren’t even conscious enough to realise our beliefs. These unavoidable habits of the mind, running constantly in our subconscious minds make us think that the supernatural forces and luck are real, that there’s always a possibility that “destiny changes”.
Magic exists as a set of values, beliefs and practices in the western culture that is not fully scientific or religious. Parallelly, specific practices are also identified as magic like divination, spells and spirit mediation. Similarly, some Asian traditions believe that material life is an illusion which again, is magic in a different language.
John Henry (University of Edinburgh) has mentioned in his research that for the first 700 years of this millennium, people used to believe in a “Great Chain of Being”, something that was created by God and through which the beings were not only linked with each other but were also able to resonate with. He mentions that the people back then believed in nature to be the source of magic and observed even the smallest of things in depth to better understand it. It all changed during the Scientific Revolution in the 16th and 17th century when the new philosophers recognised the validity of the occult qualities defined by experiments, best exemplified by Isaac Newton’s treatment of gravity. Gradually, it started to be regarded as scientific. The mystical powers of herbs justified by the theory of medicines and the strange facts of Earth subsequently being established as scientific laws paved way for science in a way that naturally, science became indebted to magic.
Research shows that a majority of the people assume that their thoughts might become reality. For instance, if we think about something and it happens, we do feel a little responsible for it. But is it not an irrational feeling? To put it this way, it is rather a by-product of how we understand causality, argues a psychology writer Matthew Hutson in his new book, “The 7 Laws of Magical Thinking”. Consider striking a ball from a bat. If you swing the bat right before the ball hits the bat, you naturally assume that it was the motion of your bat that caused the ball’s motion. As humans, we apply the same logical steps even if the former is just a thought. Say, for example, there are two events, X and Y. if X happens before Y and there are apparently no other obvious causes of Y, and if they are related conceptually, we assume that X caused Y. Likewise if we think about something before it happens, it might have an influence over the event. The logic gets reinforced whenever we think of anything, such as hitting a ball with a bat. It is also our positive thinking that boosts our confidence, in turn impacting our behaviour and scoring a six!
We, as humans, are mostly on a lookout for ‘Agents’, agents that might have caused a certain event. It stems from our belief that everything happens for a reason, which sometimes also works as a safety mechanism for us. If we don’t see a biological agent, most of us assume or rather like to believe that there is some sort of an invisible agent, God or the universe with its own mind, who is conspiring for all of this to happen. “We have a bias to see events as intentional, and to see objects as intentionally designed,” Hutson says. It is so because it is always safer to assume that there is someone because of whom things are happening the way they are.
Sometimes, we might also get confused by the fact that in real life, the causes are often similar to their effects. In this way, we expect that if we perform some action, then some effect which is similar to the desired action will be caused. Knowingly or not, we do sometimes throw the dice harder when we want a higher number, right? The same is being reported by the sociologist James Henslin in a paper called ‘Craps and Magic’. And along this journey of seemingly little actions, we succumb to believing in magic.
The universe is a magical place containing phenomena from simple good luck charms to typical, complicated practices like astrology and alchemy. The endless array of ideas it puts forth is too hard to even be seen from the glasses of Rationalism, for rationalism would “scoff at all of them as absurd, outdated, meaningless superstitions that aren’t worth wasting time on.”, says Philip Pullman. When it comes to magic, it is not something to be attacked on the ground of reason. But still, we should keep the reason in line and not completely succumb to what we might believe magic is.
At the same time, it is important for us to distinguish between magical thinking and our belief in magic. They do not necessarily go beyond the rational thinking of humans but instead, scholars believe that they are basic, fundamental features of the human mind. Unlike magical thinking, which begins from childhood with the bedtime stories and waiting for Santa Claus to arrive, spanning throughout our life as a relatively more conscious practice, belief in magic slowly and gradually becomes an element of the subconscious mind.