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Ann Nichols

Ann Nichols
Location
East Lansing, Michigan,
Birthday
December 31
Bio
I write, I read, I clean up after people and I worry about things. I have a chronic insufficiency of ironic detachment. My birthday isn't really December 31; it's March 22 but it won't let me change it.

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Salon.com
JANUARY 11, 2012 10:04AM

Magic vs. Science, Redux

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It is all well and good to apply reason to business plans or a mode of education or a voyage to Italy. One must live in the world after all. But reason, when applied to the universe, to the wonders of nature, to the things hidden from our poor eyes that see not at all, but only what the Lord intended that they see – well, that becomes nonsense, doesn’t it? To say there are no ghosts because we cannot see them, cannot measure them, cannot weigh them upon scales nor note their reaction to heat in a flask – I hardly see the point of such a mode of inquiry. The world is full of wonders that cannot be measured. That is why they are wonders.

-David Liss, The Twelfth Enchantment

 After snow comes up, the wind blows it around so it looks like it's coming down but actually it comes up out of the ground- like grass. It comes up, Charlie Brown, snow comes up!

-Lucy Van Pelt, “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown”

 

It can be, in our society, a shameful thing to be both an intelligent person and a person who admits to having religious faith, or to have had a supernatural experience. Magic, paranormal experience and religious faith are far apart in the minds of those who believe in any of them, but I have a sneaking suspicion that to many in the scientific community they are all bundled up in the “wackadoodle” category of primitive, destructive, and unproductive belief systems. I have written about magic and science before, but sometimes the universe throws pebbles at my window until I wake up and take a look. It would seem, if one believes in synchronicity, that I am fairly compelled to revisit this issue.

First, my sister in law gave me a novel by David Liss in which magic is essential to the plot. Liss portrays an epic, early 19th century battle between Luddites and those advancing England’s Industrial Revolution, and the tension between scientific/industrial progress and the magic of the natural world is played out in fairly improbable, but fascinating ways .

As I read, I found myself weighing science and understanding against magic and mystery, and coming to a fairly comfortable resting place in which they could coexist. Without modern medicine, my parents, my son and my husband would not be alive. Without this computer, the internet, and a host of other science and engineering stuff I could not write this, and “post” it into the air to be read by people in Athabasca. I value the convection oven, air conditioning, topical steroids, digital downloads, and antibiotics. If I went through a day noting the ways in which I am better off because of science, I am certain that there would be hundreds of entries, beginning with the alarm on my iPhone.

I also believe firmly and unabashedly in magic, but more about that, in a moment.

The day after I finished reading Liss’s novel, I watched “CBS Sunday Morning,” which featured a story on charisma. The topic was addressed first in the context of Republican presidential candidates, and then moved on to charisma as a universal phenomenon. Towards the end of the story, the reporter visited a laboratory in which scientists had developed a device that measured one’s charisma. Worn around the neck, it resembled a squared-off flask. Apparently, charisma was measured based on how the wearer’s speech patterns and frequency of gesture compared to those of quantifiably “charismatic” folk. The mental détente between magic and science ended abruptly as I watched a bearded academic type explain his device. Charisma is magic, and I find the attempt to measure and explain it to be horrifying. I feel the same way about body language analysis, the use of pheromones in perfume, and magazine stories about the “ideal” male and female face. Leave a tender moment alone, and all that.

My brother points out that no wars have been caused by the irrational beliefs of scientists, and I’ll give him that. On the other hand, there are stones that may profitably be left unturned. I don’t want to know everything, and I don’t want every beautiful, mysterious, inexplicable thing in my world to be quantified. I see a strong case for researching causes and cures for diseases and figuring out how to keep the world moving without depending on fossil fuel. I admire, although I do not personally understand the drive and focus of people who will doggedly try again and again to figure out why a certain gene mutates in a certain way.

What I do not admire is the eye-rolling derision with which Persons of Science dismiss the reported experiences or beliefs of others because they are neither quantifiable nor reproducible. Presumably, the scientific community knows with certainty that there is no life after death because they have, themselves, been dead. They know, therefore, that there are no ghosts, there is no reincarnation, there is no heaven, there is nothing. All persons, religions and civilizations believing otherwise are, or were simply operating without benefit of modern science. There is no ESP, there is no magic, there is no God, and even the matters of charisma, romantic attraction and the love between a mother and a baby are governed by patterns, chemicals and neuropeptides. (Note: I am not really sure what neuropeptides are, but it sounded good). Why is it that we can believe that there are particles too small to be seen by the strongest microscope, but we cannot believe that our spirits persist in some form after the end of our corporeal existence? Why is one of those things “Science,” and the other “Bullshit?”

There are just things we don’t know, and maybe we’ll never know, and probably that’s okay. I will continue to believe that the uniqueness of snow flakes, and the webs of spiders are beyond rational explanation. I will continue to believe that my cat is communicating with some ancient spirits in this 100-year-old house when he stands on the post at the foot of the stairs, on his hind legs, waving his paws in the air. I will continue to respect anyone who believes in a higher power, whether they turn to the Bible, the Dhammapada or the leaves of an ancient Oak tree.

Because I don’t know different, or better, and neither does anyone else. 

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Oh I so agree with you here. This post has been most magical for me and I needed this reinforcement today and it came. Thanks again and HNY to you.
I want to see a ghost. The cats have all the fun. I think there can be a blend of science and magic. Alchemy. Science just gets us down to the very details and then they can't seem to get the whole picture. Great post. I think Artists and Cooks rule. Creativity wins every time.
Hi, Ann,

(If I'm in the wrong room for an argument, feel free to remove this comment.)

What I do not admire is the eye-rolling derision with which Persons of Science dismiss the reported experiences or beliefs of others because they are neither quantifiable nor reproducible. Presumably, the scientific community knows with certainty that there is no life after death because they have, themselves, been dead.

I'm just such a PoS, and while you probably already know what I'm going to say, I'll lay out part of my perspective. The scientific community knows very little, if anything, with certainty. What we do have is a way of thinking about things. One of these ways involves looking for good reasons to believe something. If the reasons aren't good enough, I'll withhold belief or even actively disbelieve. The afterlife is just one of those things. As far as I know, there are three main reasons for believing in the afterlife: some ancient texts talk about the afterlife; lots of other people believe in the afterlife; and it would be nice if there were something to look forward to after death. But for me that's not enough to be convincing.

This is tricky to talk about. In my view, people are separate from the ideas they believe in, and while people deserve respect, ideas don't necessarily. Ideas are just things in our heads, and we change our minds about what we believe all the time. Some beliefs, though, go so deep that we take them to be part of our selves. That in itself is reasonable. But still, attacking a belief often isn't the same as attacking a person. For example, long ago on OS various people, including me, were involved in a dust-up about The Secret, which I think involves some nonsensical beliefs. If we stop short of asking, "Why do we believe in some things and not others?" we lose the ability to distinguish sense from nonsense.

Of course, this is just what I believe...
You make a strong case for my not wanting to ever grow up completely. ;)

I honestly hope my curious nature stays with me as long as I'm alive.
Yes, you explained this so well. Hard topic to articulate. I certainly agree.
"Why is it that we can believe that there are particles too small to be seen by the strongest microscope, but we cannot believe that our spirits persist in some form after the end of our corporeal existence?"

Because there is quantifiable evidence of the particle, or at least enough evidence that allows for a theory that can be rigorously tested.

Science has enough mind-bending "magic" of its own. Light can behave as a particle or as a wave. The "double slit" experiment demonstrates that if you observe which of two slits light travels through, the light behaves like a particle. If, instead, you observe where the light hits a sheet behind the slits, the light behaves like a wave. To add real weirdness, if you wait until after light has passed through the slit, then observe through which slit the light passed, you will retroactively force the light to act like a particle. Your present action affects the past.
I like living in my own little world where science and magic co-exist. You don't have to *believe* believe to benefit from magic. You just have to be willing to go along...and the best things happen when you do.
What Bell said! And also Marcel Duchamp, about art, amended accordingly: it's magic if I say it is.
I too will say I am a PoS (feel at liberty to snicker at my expense). I staunchly defend the sensibilities of science when presented with notions of ghosts, luck, aliens, miracles, etc. However, when I look at the pretty, swirling patterns of frost on my windshield in the morning, even though I know they have something to do with the structure of water molecules, temperature, humidity, yada yada, they are truly magic.
Always a pleasure to read you. Namaste.
Who was the Magician, again? The Alchemist. And it really is "magic" to make bronze from rocks, truly, as it is "science" as well. This is Etymology; today it is an Iconoclasm.
Wonderfully written post, Ann. I especially like the eloquent sentiments of the last two paragraphs. I'm with you on this one.
"What I do not admire is the eye-rolling derision with which Persons of Science dismiss the reported experiences or beliefs of others . . . " This is soooo true. And so often these otherwise very bright eye-rollers are quite ignorant of what's actually going on in religious communities right around them. Lots of sophisticated thoughtful people -- including many scientiests-- have a spiritual practice.
"What I do not admire is the eye-rolling derision with which Persons of Science dismiss the reported experiences or beliefs of others . . . " This is soooo true. And so often these otherwise very bright eye-rollers are quite ignorant of what's actually going on in religious communities right around them. Lots of sophisticated thoughtful people -- including many scientiests-- have a spiritual practice.
Deciding to believe that there is nothing after death, beyond a shadow of a doubt is as much "faith" as belief in reincarnation, Heaven etc. One cannot know about quite a lot of things; that is one of the charms and the frustrations of this world. I am in the same in-between place as you, I think.
Maybe science is the ghost of magic.