Magic and miracles (Mental Models XIV)

One key problem for the church in medieval times was to explain why raising the dead, defying the elements and conjuring things was not magic. The challenge here was that Jesus did all of those things, and if they were interpreted as magic, then Jesus would be a wizard or sorcerer, not the son of God. So – being human, and hence really brilliant about making conceptual distinctions (that is what we are good at after all — to both our benefit and detriment), they declared that the acts of Jesus were all miracles, not magic.

Wait, you might say, that sounds like a distinction without a difference, but it is not. Miracles are not created by the individual, but by God himself – they are exceptions in the fabric of reality granted by the maker. Magic is about individual acts of rending that fabric and creating something out of nothing, bending the rules of our frail reality to one’s own will. That is a real difference – miracles happen, magic is wrought.

Ok, this is a simplification, and there are a lot of details here that I am leaving unattended, but it is a useful simplification because it allows us to look at technology and ask if technology is a miracle or magic. Does it happen, no matter what, or does it empower us to act?

This is not such a farfetched question – a lot of the debate about technology does paint us as a victim of technology – technology made us vote for Trump or Brexit, it made us write nasty things on the Internet, it eroded our creativity, it made us into bad parents or substandard pupils in school, it disrupted democracy, it created geopolitical tensions, war and genocide.

This view of technology is a view of technology as miraculous.

Now, if we believe that all of those actions we commit come from within some sort of agency, then technology become magic – and we did all of that, but with tools far more powerful than we can imagine and so what technology really did was reveal flaws in our character.

That is a view of technology as magic.

Both of these metaphors are interesting to explore. The first absolves us from personal responsibility and may place some responsibility on the deus absconditus or advertisus of large tech companies, but largely focuses on technology as such. The second does not say that technology has no role, but asks a classical question that gothic literature has been asking for centuries – how much power can a person wield?

If we agree that technology is more like magic than miracles, the question becomes if we are dabbling in things “no human was meant to know”? That is a tricky question – but an interesting one. And it leads us to a whole philosophy of knowledge that is not obviously present in todays discussions: the debate between Kant’s enlightenment and the medieval prohibiting against aspiring for higher things.

Underlying the debate about technology, the Internet and the overall discussions about how society is changing we can find this old debate about what we should know.

Kant’s suggested that we should dare to know, and that was a clear break with earlier ages prohibition against seeking higher things (“Seek not the things that are too high for thee, and search not into things above thy ability: but the things that God hath commanded thee, think on them always, and in many of his works be not curious.” as the Bible has it). If the problem with technology is that it gives us power we do not understand, well, that is a return to the biblical pre-enlightenment perspective.

And it is not easy, because at the heart of this question about knowledge is a question about the nature of man — should we remain as we are and not seek change or development? Or should we seek to grow and know more all the time? Surprisingly the magicians side with Kant, as the miracle believers side with the medieval biblical thinkers.

This exposes an interesting, and lost, aspect of enlightenment — that it sought all kinds of knowledge and really believed that the universe was – as it was for Newton – a cipher from God to be deciphered not just in the language of science, but in the language of all intellectual systems and technologies available. And, indeed, as Keynes noted – Newton was not the first scientist, but the last of the great magicians.

Our narrowing of knowledge to that which is scientific has brought us great progress, and that progress is taken as evidence for its accuracy and value. But if we accept that, it seems that we should accept that more knowledge is better, and that there is no line we cannot cross, no domain of knowledge that should remain close to us. We should seek the power – and often it will be an individual power – of technology not resist it.

A word on power being individual — we are thinking about this as a society, and we are trying to restrict the use of technology across a number of different dimensions with collective institutions and law, but those attempts assume a level of shared influence over technology, even though technology creates individual power – and so we end up in a society that ultimately wants to restrict access to technology and control the use of it.

Now, imagine replacing technology in this argument with magic — and this is a common theme in much Fantasy literature – and we see how hard it is to limit access to technology, and how technology will be sought if not by the good guys at least by the bad guys, and so it will come into this world. This idea – sometimes called the technology completion conjecture – suggests that all that can be invented will be invented. It is not a crazy idea – especially not if we imagine that technology and magic are closely related. What can give us individual power, will be something we aspire to unlock.

These mental models – magic and miracles – are not just fun, they are also useful for thinking about how we approach issues of knowledge, our nature and the future of technology.

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