Re-imagining magic

I am reading Chris Gosdens remarkable The History of Magic: From Alchemy to Witchcraft from the Ice Age to the Present (2020) and already in the beginning there is an amazing remark that I think is worth thinking about. Gosden retells the story of the Azande, as studied by Evans-Pritchard, and how they viewed magic. If someone happened to be crushed by a granary collapsing over them, they would readily agree that the granary had collapsed because of long neglect and the lack of any fixing, but they would as readily point out that there was a reason it collapsed at the time it did and killed the man it killed.

This reminded me of the fact that we simplify earlier beliefs at our peril. The Azande are not dispensing with causality and science, they are just adding a layer of causality – the direct cause, the neglect, is recognised but only as an intermediate cause. The direct cause was somebody cursing or harboring bad will towards the person who died.

The Azande belief in magic is a belief in a much more complex model of causality than ours, positing extra causes where we rely on Occam’s razor.

But that view of causality may be much more interesting than our very simplistic view. What if there are separate causal chains that lead back to someone disliking the person, perhaps “cursing” them? Why would that be less of a cause just because it is not a direct cause? We need not believe in magic to recognise that the reality we live in is a complex causal web.

Magic, then, is an invitation to understand the many causes that create our future and reality, and as such it may end up being quite useful.

Why do things happen? There is no simple answer to that question and if magic is reimagined as the recognition of complex causal webs we would do well to examine its premises more closely.

Books: Semiosis by Sue Burke

Just finished this excellent and surprising science fiction book. It explores several different themes – our ability to start anew on a new planet, our inherent nature, our relationship to nature and plants (!) and the growing suspicion that we are always doing someone else’s bidding. It is also beautifully written, with living characters and original ideas.

One of the themes that will stay with me is how nature always plays a dominance game, and that the darwinian struggle in some way is a ground truth that we have to understand and relate to. I have always felt somewhat uneasy with that conclusion, but I think it ultimately is because there is a mono-semiosis assumption there: all things must be interpreted in light of this fact. They must not, and Burke highlights how dominance strategies may evolve into altruistic strategies, almost in an emergent fashion. I found that striking, and important.

Overall, we should resist the notion that there are ground truths that are more true than other things, truth is a coherence space of beliefs and interpretations. Not in a postmodern way, but in a much more complicated way — this is why I often return to the wittgensteinian notion of a “form of life”. Only within that can sense be made of anything.

(Is this not also then a “ground truth”? You could make that argument I suppose, but at some point you just reach not truths but the event horizon of axiomatic necessity. We are not infinite and cannot extend reason infinitely).

So – a recommended read, and an interesting set of issues and questions.