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Magic in the 22nd century, by Drew Jacob

April 22, 2012
Scroll rods, by Drew Jacob

“Let’s assume you believe magic never works. How then should you view people who practice or believe in it?”

This week we hear from Drew Jacob, author of Walk Like a God, and proprietor of altmagic.

This article will not convince you that magic is real.

I practice the art of magic. I define magic as using ritual or ceremony to cause something to happen. That doesn’t imply anything supernatural; I suspect most ritual has primarily psychological effects.

In theory, if those psychological effects get someone to change their attitude or behavior, the impact of the ritual could be significant. Love spells, financial success, and other effects can be quite real.

But I don’t care for one second if you believe that.

Instead, let’s assume you believe magic never works. How then should you view people who practice or believe in it?

Frauds and charlatans?

In general, skeptic literature has demonized magicians and magic believers. There are exactly two ways a skeptic is allowed to view magic types: idiots, or parasites. B. T.’s own writeup neatly echoes that sentiment: “Magic scrolls… It’s hard to imagine a more blatant way to exploit naïve believers…”

His comments were actually meant to be positive. He wrote the article to say how interesting and different my approach to magic is. He wanted his most skeptical readers to give it consideration, so he started out by playing to their concerns: magic is fraud, magic is crazy.

This is symptomatic. If the only way you can talk to skeptics and humanists about a sincere, intelligent magician is to start off with the ridicule of magicians in general, there’s a deep and questionable bias at work. B. T.’s message was that I’m the “good” magician, not like all those other magicians. But being the good magician is kind of like being the good Jew. “You’re not like those other Jews.” Hmm.

I see magic very differently.

Art-and-tech

The practice of magic is art-and-tech utilizing beautiful, empowering rituals to radically change lives. It’s an art in that it draws on the vivid imagery of myth and dreams. It’s a technology because it uses that imagery to create profound, predictable effects in the subject. Magic rites take myth and template it onto the individual practitioner, for an engaging art form with a deep and lasting emotional impact. This impact is so significant that people who merely witness it or believe in it feel it as vividly as those who participate in it. Which is why so many people who are not magicians nonetheless “feel the energy” in magical talismans.

Consider the significance of that. The emotional impact of these rituals is so great that people feel it tangibly. This puts magic on a par with the most powerful works of theatre, except magic is uniquely aimed at the individual. In many ways, I think this is what motivates people to hire a magician – more so, in many cases, than the alleged effects of the spell itself.

Magic injects wonder into your life.

Religion, culture, and philosophy

This is different from religion. Instead of placing one’s hope in unknowable beings, magic tells the individual to place their hope in themselves. It says they have the power to make changes on their own, to wrest what they want from the world around them.

Magical traditions also serve as living repositories of culture. Elements of art, music, dance, philosophy, folklore and social commentary are embedded into each magical lineage. An active magical tradition in turn informs culture, with its own innovations in art, music and theory feeding into broader society at many levels. We see this in tribal cultures to this day.

These contributions don’t have to be considered inherently valuable. You can make an argument that art and philosophy have relatively little worth compared to science and industry. But art and philosophy remain a vital area of interest: most skeptics don’t call for the closing of philosophy departments for teaching Aristotle, whose theories are disproved. Nor do they call artists and galleries charlatans for selling expensive objects whose alleged benefits are far from proven.

Instead we dedicate significant private, public and academic resources to understanding and preserving art and cultural tradition. There is an increasing awareness that something important is lost if these things are simply put in a museum for display. Thus, last year when the Minneapolis Institute of Arts opened its special exhibition of Native American artwork, traditional musicians played in the gallery, videos of elders and tribal artists graced each room, and birch bark baskets were placed before ceremonial works of art so museum visitors could make offerings of tobacco. Tribes and bands throughout the region were consulted on the exhibition. The inclusion of living practices – and respect for the people who care about them – was seen to add something above and beyond simply presenting relics of the past with explanatory note cards.

The real benefits of magic

I place the practice of magic very much in the same camp. There are claims in magic that are bullshit. It is unlikely in the extreme that any magic rite will allow you to fly or turn into a cat; but very few magical traditions make such claims (outside of fiction). There are magical practices that are a public danger, such as select Santería potions that contain mercury. These practices should be outlawed (and have been, in the United States). But the majority of magic practices make neither of those mistakes. Without making any reference to the supernatural, we can say that most magic practices do at least one of three things:

  • Promise a variety of hard-to-prove effects, many of which could come true simply because the person believes they will and acts accordingly
  • Give individuals a sense of control over their life when they otherwise feel disempowered
  • Act as ritual theater offering an immersive cultural experience

These are admittedly nebulous benefits. But it’s foolish to write off something that encodes cultural narrative and, at the same time, contributes to the emotional wellbeing of millions of people. There’s also a great deal of misinformation spread about magic: that it has all been proven not to work. That it all relies on supernatural thinking. That anyone who practices it is a liar. These beliefs are factually untrue, which makes them a poor basis for opinions about magic.

A call for critical thinking

I think humanists can do better. The entirety of skeptic literature can do better, but I think spiritual humanists are the ones most likely to make nuanced, informed opinions about things like rituals and spells.

It’s perfectly reasonable to take the position that psychological and social benefits, or cultural traditions and beliefs, are not worth paying for. That’s different than saying that anyone who does pay for them is stupid, and anyone charging for them is a fraud.

Most magicians are sincere believers, who themselves use the same charms and methods they prescribe to their clients. More to the point, they are skilled artisans using time-tested tools that have observable, beneficial effects.

I think it’s time for critical thinkers to look at the reality of the art of magic, and not just the foregone conclusions of a less educated generation of skeptics.

The author

Drew Jacob

Drew Jacob is the Rogue Priest. He’s walking from the Mississippi River to the Amazon on a search to meet the gods. He makes his living as a writer and an artist crafting traditional magical charms.

Check out Drew’s other posts:

114 Comments leave one →
  1. April 23, 2012 9:37 am

    “I think it’s time for critical thinkers to look at the reality of the art of magic, and not just the foregone conclusions of a less educated generation of skeptics.”

    Then please, by all means, provide some evidence.

    Selling people vague beliefs under the banner headline of ‘magic that really works, honest’ is disingenous at best, and generally dishonest.

    No one pays money for art, or to see a play, under the belief that it may help cure their illness. ‘Magicians’ do that. No sculptor claims that his work will help people take control of their lives, or meet tall handsome men. Magicians do that.

    The day that all magicians and wizards and warlocks and witches stop claiming that they can do wondrous, supernatural things, and admit they are simply artists practicing a different form of theatre and craft- on this day, skeptics will stop picking on them.

    Also, I’d try and avoid the subtle claim that you are as persecuted as the Jews have been.

    • April 24, 2012 12:00 am

      Since the article is mainly about how we should treat people in relation to their beliefs, and not whether their beliefs are in fact correct, the “provide some evidence” seems off-base.

      With that said, you’ve already read the article I wrote on three magical techniques proven to work, B.

      That article also touches on the fact that many magical traditions make exactly 0 claims of doing anything “supernatural” – just of having techniques that appear to produce results.

      Don’t cloud the discussion with supernaturalism.

      • April 24, 2012 3:40 am

        One of your opening statements was this: “In general, skeptic literature has demonized magicians and magic believers. There are exactly two ways a skeptic is allowed to view magic types: idiots, or parasites.” If you want us to stop treating magicians as parasites, get them to stop acting like them. That was my point.

        I feel that you are deliberately obfuscating the discussion by attempting to redefine ‘magic’ to exclude supernatural elements. It is akin to having a conversation about God with a Christian theologian who carefully constructs his person definition of ‘god’ to exclude all conceptions of the divine as experienced by ordinary folk.

        Your definition of magic is fine (if ill defined), but you seem to be virtually the only magician who uses such a definition. Like I said in my above comment: when every magician treats their magic the same way as a sculptor his statues, we will stop criticising them.

        See Also: Magicians, Stage. They cop no flack from skeptics, because they do not claim to have actual magical talent. They are performers, who do cool things, and present no supernatural claims.

        [I realise some of these criticisms are also directed at your earlier post; I haven't had the time to respond to that properly as yet. For that, I apologise.]

        • Arden permalink
          April 24, 2012 11:32 am

          1. How are magicians acting like parasites? Let’s clarify the discussion by laying out your concerns. Do you simply mean that they claim to do something they can’t? Or are you talking about manipulation of other people? Are you talking about solo practitioners and groups of magicians, or solely about magicians that peddle their wares?

          2. I honestly don’t think you know the occult community very well… Drew’s definition of magic is shared by a very significant number of modern magicians. Magicians have been working with such a definition – in one form or another – since the 19th century, & before that many of them classified their work as spiritual in nature, rather than manipulation of the material world.
          Outside of the Western esoteric tradition, I think you’re a bit off the mark as well. Considering that many culturally specific practices operated in frameworks where our definition of “supernatural” applies in a shaky way, at best – it’s just not an accurate way of describing the way they view the world, even if it helps _US_ make important distinctions– I think it’s also fair to say that your assessment doesn’t quite fit them, either. What I’m trying to say here is that magicians in many cultures cannot be easily separated from other cultural functions. Many such cultures don’t think of the world in terms of their being a hard line between “natural” and “supernatural” phenomenon, and the role of magicians reflects that. However problematic you may find that, your critique of them is going to have to be more nuanced than “supernatural beliefs bad.”
          And even if his view was truly new, or the minority– so what? Modern magic has a myriad of goals, and it is often experienced as having results; there is even some scientific verification of some of those results. Someone’s developed a cohesive theory of why it works without reference to the supernatural. What’s wrong with that picture? Wouldn’t you, as a skeptic, hope that the worthy parts of magic could persist without potentially dangerous baggage attached?

          3. This point is my own, but it’s shared by many magicians. Even if magic is nothing more than an exceptionally convoluted and clever way of manipulating the placebo effect– which is, of course, well-attested– then it’s worthwhile, and worthwhile to share. Your point will be made if you can describe why this is a dangerous or erroneous conclusion.
          1. How are magicians acting like parasites? Let’s clarify the discussion by laying out your concerns. Do you simply mean that they claim to do something they can’t? Are you talking about solo practitioners and groups of magicians, or solely about magicians that peddle their wares?

          • April 24, 2012 8:08 pm

            I am talking about all of those things, Arden. My emphasis is on magicians who ‘sell’ their magic to credulous, vulnerable people, but I do not restrain my criticisms to them alone. I would also direct it towards magic-as-religion, because I am always criticising religions.

            I don’t know the occult community very well, no. Mostly because the ‘occult community’ is full self-delusion and wankers who call themselves ‘Stormaldica’ with a straight face. I prefer to hang out with people that don’t make me crazy.

            That said, saying that magicians call their work ‘spiritual in nature, rather than manipulation of the material world’ is an empty phrase. There is no such thing as a spirit world, and these magicians make very real claims about the world. Grave diviners, for example, are claiming they can find long-lost graves via mystical means: this is a claim firmly rooted in the material world, and they get paid in material money.

            As for other cultural traditions, I am deliberately avoiding commenting on those. I am not an indigenous American, nor an indigenous Australian, nor a member of any native African cultures. I am not an anthropologist, nor a nor have any training in the study of those cultures. I am a white guy with training in the history and literature of Western Europe.

            The fact that you have vaguely grouped together non-Western traditions as ‘other cultures’ seems to indicate that you are not a member of such a culture. So please do not use ‘the Other’ as a means of defending your own magical claims. It’s patronising and othering.

            That said, I would like to point to the fact that India (as an example) has its own skeptical tradition: http://www.indiansceptic.in/

            “Wouldn’t you, as a skeptic, hope that the worthy parts of magic could persist without potentially dangerous baggage attached?”

            Sure. But Drew keeps bringing along the dangerous baggage, blurring definitions and being cagey about his terms. Pip’s comment below addresses these concerns with more eloquence than I.

            Moreover, the problem with ‘some verification of some of the results’ is that this gets expanded to ‘see, some magic totally works’ and people pick this up as ‘magic works’. At this point, all your effort in careful phrasing is lost, and we are back to John Edwards preying upon people’s grief.

            “Even if magic is nothing more than an exceptionally convoluted and clever way of manipulating the placebo effect– which is, of course, well-attested– then it’s worthwhile, and worthwhile to share. Your point will be made if you can describe why this is a dangerous or erroneous conclusion.”

            Truth is important, guy. Magic gives folk the placebo effect by lying to them about the actual truth of things. I realise this argument may not hold a lot of water with you, so I present another.

            A brief google search will show dozens of instances of false cancer cures being promulgated, or wealthy men claiming supernatural power preying on grief, or women who fleece the innocent of money.

            It makes people feel better, sure. At the cost of money, innocence, and the swallowing of lies.

            Playing a shell game with a street performer is fun, right? Have some laughs, smile with some mates- but the marble is in the guy’s hand the whole time, and he took your money.

            The marble is actual magic, and it was never in any of the cups in the first place.

            Alternatively, you could bother to do a google search and find out why many skeptics oppose lies and magic and charlatans, and that woulda saved me ten minutes.

            • Arden permalink
              April 25, 2012 2:32 pm

              Okay, then, but then your job becomes significantly harder. The Western tradition is full of solo practitioners. How are they “parasitic”?

              You’re quite right that the occult community has plenty of crazies, and crazies of a particularly ostentatious kind. I don’t think you should hang out with them. I think you should believe me when I tell you that there are plenty of very thoughtful and philosophically informed occultists, and plenty of occultists who are devoted skeptics, at that. If you’re not willing to wade through the Stomaldicas to find them, fair enough! But don’t be so quick to make generalizations on magicians if you aren’t. If you’d like a quick raft of examples of such people, I’d be glad to give you a primer.

              You’re on a humanistic paganism blog, so I’m sure you’re aware of the work that’s been done in the last 200 years to re-conceive of spirituality in a psychological framework. Another point I’m trying to make here is that for every magician who charges money, there’s another that’s doing it for his own benefit and for explicitly psychological reasons. Your arguments, to be intellectually honest, require you to separate one from the other. I’m willing to argue my case for the former category, but I think we should address any problems you may have with the latter first.

              I generalized for the purpose of doing exactly what you attempt to do in this post: separate Western magical traditions from the magical traditions of other countries. It’s not Othering to make distinctions between what you’re willing to discuss, and your generalizations in the original post led me to want to make this distinction and make non-Western cultures off-limits for the purposes of this debate. I’m glad to hear we can restrict our discussion to the Western tradition.

              “Moreover, the problem with ‘some verification of some of the results’ is that this gets expanded to ‘see, some magic totally works’ and people pick this up as ‘magic works’. At this point, all your effort in careful phrasing is lost, and we are back to John Edwards preying upon people’s grief.”

              That’s true, but that’s also true of virtually any subtle or nuanced statement.

              “Magic gives folk the placebo effect by lying to them about the actual truth of things.  “

              The placebo effect works even if you know it’s a placebo. This is well-attested enough that you can readily google the studies.

              I don’t particularly think condemning all of magic as bad is going to be effective towards your cause. Those of us who have a good hunch that magic works in some way or another – or at least KNOW it’s beneficial to their lives – are going to dismiss you as not knowing what you’re talking about. Recognition of the fact that certain forms of magic can be beneficial while others are not is far more likely to convince anyone who has any kind of positive experience with magic and will achieve the ends you’d like to see a lot more easily.

            • April 26, 2012 4:34 am

              I do not think that I have addressed solo practitioners at all. I wrote my above comment while sitting next to a good friend who is a practicing pagan, and the same can be said about one of my flatmates. Do whatever the heck one likes in one’s own private space, or with like-minded friends. That’s the beauty of bein’ a liberal.

              “I think you should believe me when I tell you that there are plenty of very thoughtful and philosophically informed occultists, and plenty of occultists who are devoted skeptics, at that.”

              I do believe you; I know some. I’m not sure what the point you are trying to make here is- my criticism is not about personal feelings, but about wider cultural implications. Perhaps I have not been entirely clear on this.

              “You’re on a humanistic paganism blog, so I’m sure you’re aware of the work that’s been done in the last 200 years to re-conceive of spirituality in a psychological framework.”

              I am, although it is not my field of study for a variety of reasons. Among those, however, is the fact that a lot of the times I encounter folk placing these traditions in a psychological framework, they do what Drew is doing- dragging along the language and arcana of the supernatural, and only hiding them away when the skeptics come out.

              In fact, I cannot now think of a single example of someone saying ‘no, ritual is entirely dressing, and we’re just making the whole thing up because it is fun’, save to my face. If you’d care to provide an example of this in print or on the ‘net, I’d be happy to read it.

              “The placebo effect works even if you know it’s a placebo. This is well-attested enough that you can readily google the studies.”

              That is entirely and wholly irrelevant to me- but Pip addresses the concerns about placebos in language far better than mine, what with him being a scientist. I abjure you to read his comments below, and respond to him directly. I am in total agreement with what he is saying.

              “I don’t particularly think condemning all of magic as bad is going to be effective towards your cause.”

              That’s nice of you to say. Personally, I don’t particularly think that telling me what is good for my ’cause’ is going to be effective towards yours.

              “Those of us who have a good hunch that magic works in some way or another…”

              Maybe you should test that hunch in some double-blind tests, then. I have a hunch that the world is flat- certainly SEEMS so, doesn’t it? But it turns out that you test for that claim, it is just not at all true.

              That’s the nature of scientific and skeptical inquiry. If you suspect something is true, you must do your best to prove that it is not, otherwise you are just guessing.

              There is no harm in guessing things, but don’t try to tell others that it is true, or folk who suspect otherwise are going to say ‘hey wait’ a lot. I am constantly irritating Drew by doing that, and I am certainly not the only one.

              Plus, if it turns out not to be true, you have accidentally misled a lot of people. Sometimes to great harm. And after all, that is one of the rules for some western magical traditions: do no harm.

            • Arden permalink
              April 26, 2012 10:45 am

              “I do not think that I have addressed solo practitioners at all.”

              In my first response, I specifically named solo practitioners; in your response to me, you said you implicated “all of the people” I mentioned. I don’t want to quibble over who said what unnecessarily, especially since it wasn’t crystal clear on either side, and I’m sure relying on too strict an interpretation of what either of us say won’t tell us much useful about our actual beliefs (it’s an Internet argument, after all!).

              But see, this was my major contention with your original post:

              “Your definition of magic is fine (if ill defined), but you seem to be virtually the only magician who uses such a definition. Like I said in my above comment: when every magician treats their magic the same way as a sculptor his statues, we will stop criticising them.”

              As I’ve mentioned, Drew’s definition isn’t that anomalous amongst magicians. I wanted to establish that as true.

              Anyhow, if we’re agreed on this front, I find the cultural angle a lot more interesting to talk about anyway.

              “Among those, however, is the fact that a lot of the times I encounter folk placing these traditions in a psychological framework, they do what Drew is doing- dragging along the language and arcana of the supernatural, and only hiding them away when the skeptics come out.”

              This is an intriguing observation. My response to it would be that the language and the arcana of the supernatural are powerful, resonant tools. A lot of magic boils down to a cohesive system of associations and correspondences, and the stronger an idea/concept/word has on your psychology, the more useful it is. I’m sure you can see the applications to the placebo effect there. Judging by the discussion between Pip and Drew below, I think the question of how to thoughtfully invoke such language while retaining some intellectual integrity is an open question.

              I’m sure it looks ridiculous to you for a magician to be playing what is quite possibly an elaborate game of pretend with themselves, but I’ve made my peace with it– the benefits have been that important to me, and that palpable. I’m not going to give up the arcana for that reason, but I’m open to the idea that arcana should be very carefully and selectively invoked when it comes to laypeople who may jump to conclusions what’s being said. I think we could go in an especially productive direction if we discussed how to accomplish that.

              “That is entirely and wholly irrelevan to me- but Pip addresses the concerns about placebos in language far better than mine, what with him being a scientist. “

              I’ll answer Pip’s comments in turn, but I do want to point out that this fact about the placebo effect means it doesn’t require “swallowing lies.” Hence, it’s at least relevant to your original point.

              “That’s nice of you to say. Personally, I don’t particularly think that telling me what is good for my ’cause’ is going to be effective towards yours.”

              I apologize if I sounded condescending. I honestly didn’t mean to. I stand by my initial point, though.

              “Maybe you should test that hunch in some double-blind tests, then. I have a hunch that the world is flat- certainly SEEMS so, doesn’t it? But it turns out that you test for that claim, it is just not at all true. “

              I don’t think every true and beneficial thing in the world can be subject to double-blind tests. I certainly don’t think we can operate on double-blind-tested assumptions on an everyday basis, and I don’t find scientific or skeptical inquiry to be nearly the be-all and end-all of wisdom. That’s neither here nor there, though, and likely another argument entirely: I acknowledge science as the utter master of its (limited) domain, and I’d actually be quite glad to participate in a thoughtful study that measures results-oriented magic. But given that so much of the magic I personally do is of the general-life-enhancing variety, it would take a very thoughtful person indeed to craft a study that could measure what I (and many others) practice. (It certainly couldn’t be plugged into some neat “true or false” scenario– there’s way too much to it.) I’m sure it could be done, though, and I’d participate in such a study, too.

              Ultimately, I agree with Drew. I don’t think magic is off-limits for testing, and I’d love to see some intellectually honest investigations into what practicing magicians are actually occupied with. But barring research dollars and an appropriate scientist to oversee the operation, I’m going to continue on as normal.

              In the meantime, I’ve done enough to keep myself satisfied. I’ve taken pains, through exhaustive recordkeeping, to analyze just what this is doing for me, and I’m well aware of issues such as confirmation bias, etc. Every reasonable indication available to me says that magic is good. I suspect you agree that as a decision I’ve made for myself, that’s reasonable, so let’s move on:

              “Plus, if it turns out not to be true, you have accidentally misled a lot of people.“

              Considering that I, for my part, only discuss the nuts and bolts with magic with other people who already believe in magic or have solid convictions of them, and considering that most magicians who don’t sell things are the same way, I’m not sure where you’re finding this sort of looming danger…

              Whether Drew (or any other merchant-magician) is misleading people is another question. I’m inclined to say no. Judging from his blogroll, his target audience is the magical community itself, and it’s not like he’s actively trying to convince anyone of anything. But I think maybe you believe he’s perpetuating some kind of bad cultural influence? Am I off the mark there?

            • April 27, 2012 4:25 am

              “As I’ve mentioned, Drew’s definition isn’t that anomalous amongst magicians.”

              You have established this as *fairly* true, but like I said elsewhere- it doesn’t gel with my own personal experience. This personal experience pales before you own, sure, but I’ve never seen a survey of ‘magicial folk’ who say the effects are mostly psychological.

              A few have said so to me personally, so my concession is that they exist. But I have no indication that they are not a minority.

              Certainly they are a minority in the broader cultural context- most discussions of ‘real magic’ and most literature on the subject seem certain that this stuff is actual-real and not ‘psychology-real’, if you will. I was well into magic for a couple years there, and everything I read was universal on this front.

              So if you want to demonstrate that you guys are the *majority* and we are being mean to the majority because of a minority, feel free to show me some literature.

              “…the language and the arcana of the supernatural are powerful, resonant tools. A lot of magic boils down to a cohesive system of associations and correspondences, and the stronger an idea/concept/word has on your psychology, the more useful it is.”

              Awesome. But that doesn’t make it *true*, and a lot of the claims of magicians are about hard, non-psychosomatic reality. Pip addresses this below, and I specifically questioned Drew on his scroll of Enhance Strength and Victory.

              “I think the question of how to thoughtfully invoke such [mystical] language while retaining some intellectual integrity is an open question.”

              I don’t think it is so open. But then, I agree with Pip.

              “I’m sure it looks ridiculous to you for a magician to be playing what is quite possibly an elaborate game of pretend with themselves…”

              It does. But when you are just playing with yourself (as it were), the harm is restricted to yourself. If Drew had mentioned to me that he were a mage, I may roll my eyes but I would not actively torment him with conversation asking him to prove it.

              Instead, he sells ‘magical’ scrolls to people, and has several active blogs discussing these matters to a wider audience. And, just as with those who publicly follow a mainstream religion, I will criticise such efforts publicly.

              “…the placebo effect means it doesn’t require “swallowing lies.””

              You are lying to people, telling them that it has a magical effect. There really is no more to it than that.

              If you sold your magical wossname, saying ‘this doesn’t actually DO anything, it’s all placebo’, then a) no lies involved, and b) I would have no issue with it.

              [c) no one would buy it, but so it goes.]

              “I don’t think every true and beneficial thing in the world can be subject to double-blind tests.”

              I don’t think I said that. I didn’t mean *solely* double-blind tests, anyway, that is just the first and immediate example of a test.

              Good literature is true and beneficial, and does not need to be subjected to any kind of test to see that. Nor the fact that your boyfriend loves you.

              But we are not talking about such things- we are discussing claims about effects on reality, claims that are highly suspect and being sold to a gullible audience.

              I said this elsewhere, but if Drew were selling ‘magic pills’ then bodies governing the sale of medicine would intervene, requiring tests to the addictive properities, potential harm and the like. The fact that his scrolls are ‘magic’ and not ingested makes no nevermind to me: he is still *selling* a *thing* and his claims to his effectiveness are based on… what, exactly?

              “I acknowledge science as the utter master of its (limited) domain…”

              Urgh, nothing is so boring in these conversations as the old ‘non-overlapping magisteria’ argument.

              I think Pip has addressed the claims that magical thinking doesn’t impact on the empirical world already, so I won’t rebutt again. Just. Urgh.

              “I’d actually be quite glad to participate in a thoughtful study that measures results-oriented magic.”

              Cool. If you’re American, give James Randi’s institute a call. I’m sure they’d be happy to test your claims.

              “I suspect you agree that as a decision I’ve made for myself, that’s reasonable…”

              Not *reasonable* as such [:P], but so long as it is only for yourself- be my guest. I really could not care less what folk do for themselves.

              “Plus, if it turns out not to be true, you have accidentally misled a lot of people.“

              “Considering that I, for my part, only discuss the nuts and bolts with magic with other people who already believe in magic or have solid convictions of them, and considering that most magicians who don’t sell things are the same way, I’m not sure where you’re finding this sort of looming danger…”

              Ah- sorry about that. I meant the ‘you’ in that statement as a sort of broad, second-person-plural ‘you’, not meaning you specifically. I should have clarified.

              “Whether Drew (or any other merchant-magician) is misleading people is another question. I’m inclined to say no. Judging from his blogroll, his target audience is the magical community itself, and it’s not like he’s actively trying to convince anyone of anything. But I think maybe you believe he’s perpetuating some kind of bad cultural influence? Am I off the mark there?”

              He is helping mortar up the walls against skeptical inquiry, at the same time as claiming that he is for it. So I would not go so far as to say ‘no’. He may not be *intentionally* misleading people, but certainly people are being misled.

              The fact that they may or may not have already misled themselves is hardly the point. A wanderer lost in the woods who is misled by a person masquerading as a park ranger is still being misled- and that ranger is still responsible for his deception.

              Particularly if he was well intentioned. Good roads lead to cliches, and all that.

              As for a bad cultural influence, and the perpetuating thereof… yes. Precisely. Although I do admire and respect the ideals of preserving vanishing cultural artifacts. This is a particularly difficult concern, and goes well beyond the gamut of this discussion.

            • May 1, 2012 11:02 pm

              “You are lying to people, telling them that it has a magical effect.”

              Inaccurate. We – magicians in my vein of thought, not all magicians – are trying to discuss the legitimate effects while disclaiming the imaginary effects. An effort that your reductionism, and that of mainstream skepticism, continually obscures.

            • April 25, 2012 8:41 pm

              “But Drew keeps bringing along the dangerous baggage, blurring definitions and being cagey about his terms.”

              I intentionally use definitions that are unlike those of skeptics, who have mis-framed the discussion for too long.

              I prefer to define magic-as-a-practice the same way that its actual practitioners define it. If that seems to conflict with the definition you normally see, that’s exactly my point: the definitions that skeptics use are misplaced. We have much better information now on what magical traditions around the world believe, and we don’t need to continue to base our academic definitions solely on a pop tradition of 19th century European spiritism.

              “Moreover, the problem with ‘some verification of some of the results’ is that this gets expanded to ‘see, some magic totally works’ and people pick this up as ‘magic works’.”

              I totally agree with this. The opposite fallacy is equally ridiculous however – skeptics see “some magicians are frauds” and turn it into “magicians are frauds.”

              The majority of traditional magical techniques have not been tested at all. Calling them true by association is a ripoff; calling them bullshit by association is a lie.

              I urge agnosticism on untested claims.

            • April 26, 2012 4:54 am

              “I intentionally use definitions that are unlike those of skeptics, who have mis-framed the discussion for too long.”

              How would you like it framed, then?

              If you wish to use your own definitions, be my guest: but make them clear, and elaborate them *on each individual post*.

              “I prefer to define magic-as-a-practice the same way that its actual practitioners define it.”

              WHICH practitioners? Every ‘magical’ tradition works in its own way. That is why, above, I deliberately and specifically excluded non-Western traditions from the discussion. Discussing how various Native American peoples use ‘magic’ is insulting and offensive when no-one involved in this conversation IS a Native American.

              But even among Westerners there is a diverse and sprawling amount of traditions and ideas about what ‘magic’ is, how to summon ‘spirits’ or elementals or how to channel ‘luck’ and ‘love’ into talismans or objects or spells.

              The only thing they really have in common is ‘stuff that is made up’ and ‘stuff that is not’. You point to the very few examples where scientists have shrugged and gone ‘yeah, we don’t know how that works’, and then talk about stuff which we are fairly certain DOES NOT work as if those earlier examples make your point.

              You are selling magic scrolls which will (among other things) bring success in finance, true love, and mighty strength.

              What the hell, man? How is some ‘holy’ water and quite attractive designs supposed to make one physically stronger? Muscles are a feature of the ‘real world’; you are making an empirically testable claim. You got evidence for this?

              If I wanted to sell some pills or an energy drink that was advertised as increasing physical strength and it did not have the tests behind it to back up my claim, it would be highly illegal in my country- and presumably the US as well.

              “…we don’t need to continue to base our academic definitions solely on a pop tradition of 19th century European spiritism.”

              I’m not. My skepticism goes something like this:

              1. Fancy claim
              2. Check research
              3. if none; 3a. if some; 3b.
              3a. Be doubtful until research is presented; goto 3.
              3b. Examine research carefully when produced; goto 4.
              4. if research seems solid; goto 5. if research seems doubtful, return to 3.
              5. Be carefully optimistic, but wary.

              Pretty sure that’s how it works for most skeptics, although I obviously only speak for myself. I probably missed some steps, too.

              “I totally agree with this. The opposite fallacy is equally ridiculous however – skeptics see “some magicians are frauds” and turn it into “magicians are frauds.””

              No. We say ‘Magicians we encounter are generally frauds; you are a magician I have encountered. Are you a fraud?”

              “The majority of traditional magical techniques have not been tested at all.”

              True. But when someone presents a wildly unlikely claim, particularly a claim that resonates closely with other, debunked, unlikely claims, it is only common sense to treat is as improbable until testing can result.

              Put another way: every example of a deity I have so far encountered is nonsense. Therefore when I encounter a new example of a deity, I am willing to put it in the ‘probably nonsense’ category.

              I may be wrong! But the burden of proof is on the guy with this new example.

              For a kinder example: A friend who universally recommends excellent books recommends me a novel. It goes in the ‘probably good’ category, because previous experience with similar novels indicates that this will be wise.

              I try the book (.i. testing the claim). If it is good, hooray! If it is bad, well. I was wrong.

              This is how all humans work, and it saves a great deal of time.

              [Proper scientific inquiry exists to remove these biases, of course. For the deity example, I would rely on scientific verification, and so my 'taste in literature' example does not exactly work very well. So it goes.]

            • April 26, 2012 7:45 pm

              “Every ‘magical’ tradition works in its own way.”

              Yes, and many (not all) of them place their magical claims in a naturalist, not supernaturalist, framework; that alone is reason enough not to monolothically insist on a supernatural-thinking definition as you have done.

              Re. what you say about requiring evidence: fair enough. I agree. But in reality neither you (in this thread) not the skeptic community (in general) use the nuanced language you described: there is no, “most of it doesn’t work, ergo I’ll be doubtful till I see the evidence.” Instead there is firm “none of it works” talk and, shockingly, even a refusal to look at evidence.

              Note that I agree with the core principles of skepticism and the 5-step reasoning process you outlined. What’s outrageous is when skeptics themselves don’t follow it, hence this article.

            • April 27, 2012 4:03 am

              “Instead there is firm “none of it works” talk and, shockingly, even a refusal to look at evidence.”

              Because everytime someone claims it works, they do not provide evidence. Folk get tired of constantly demanding proof for extraordinary claims, and eventually just roll their eyes.

              That said, there are professionals in the skeptic community (notably James Randi, among others) who constantly and tirelessly test claims when they are presented.

              Pip has linked and discussed several of those, below. See also: http://www.randi.org/site/index.php/1m-challenge.html

            • May 1, 2012 11:04 pm

              The Randi example is tired. In this case it’s also irrelevant. Randi’s contest specifically excludes rituals and powers that claim (or can be shown) to have a *natural* mechanism. In other words Randi firmly adheres to the supernaturalist definition of magic and refuses to even look at the sorts of effects we’re discussing here.

            • Rua Lupa permalink
              April 29, 2012 1:56 pm

              “Discussing how various Native American peoples use ‘magic’ is insulting and offensive when no-one involved in this conversation IS a Native American.”

              Just for the record – Hi, I’m Metis (part ‘Native American’) and fail to see how its insulting and offensive to discuss and compare practices of different cultures.

            • April 29, 2012 3:52 pm

              When someone in a position of dominance discusses the beliefs of those in the minority of power, especially when criticising those beliefs, it has extremely racist connotations. The history of our civilisation is littered with examples of contrasting ‘our’ belief systems with those of the (at best) ‘noble savage’ and (usually) ‘lesser peoples’.

              I prefer to avoid all such connotations in these conversations- especially as, until your arrival, everyone involved was a white dude.

            • Rua Lupa permalink
              April 29, 2012 4:24 pm

              The thing with beliefs is that it actually doesn’t have to be drawn in ethnic lines, even though it often is the case in indigenous cultures, mostly because their beliefs are not as well known. For example, you don’t have to be of an ethnicity of East Asia to be able to believe and practice Buddhist teachings. The same is true for the various beliefs and practices that originate on Turtle Island (North America). Whether it be pre-colonization or modern i.e. some branches of Neo-druidism. It is only racist if ethnicity is the point of the discussion and not the beliefs.

              Now if it was a minority criticizing the beliefs of a majority, is that somehow bad or would it be okay?

              Here is one example of indigenous peoples viewed as more than ‘noble savages’ circa 16th century http://www.survivalinternational.org/articles/3208-bartolome

          • Pip permalink
            April 24, 2012 9:31 pm

            Regarding point 2 – the important distinction is not between natural and supernatural, but between real and make-believe. That’s a distinction that can be applied independently of cultural context.

            I’d also be interested in a quantification of the “significant number” of modern magicians who do not believe in the supernatural. How does it compare to the numbers of seance-holding mediums, fortune-tellers or dowsers?

            Regarding point 3 – you ignore the contentious ethical questions surrounding placebo treatments. The existence of the placebo effect is not disputed, but its application is a very controversial subject in medical ethics. In my country at least, doctors are not allowed to prescribe placebo treatments, since they constitute an act of deception.

            I have yet to be persuaded that placebo treatments can be ethically sold without eroding the very necessary controls on fraud and false advertising that surround them.

            - Pip.

            • Arden permalink
              April 25, 2012 2:44 pm

              I’m sorry, but I sincerely doubt your first paragraph. There are cultures out there where it is commonplace for _groups_ of people at a time to engage with what they perceive to be a spirit in a way that seems to them to be quite tangible and (at least perceptually) physical. But let’s see if we can get to the heart of what you mean. Can you provide a concrete definition for both?

              As there haven’t been any sociological studies on magicians that I know of, I can’t provide direct numbers. I also can’t speak for people who peddle magical services (Drew will have to do that, since he does do it). I can only speak as a member of the occult community.

              I don’t honestly think the ethics of the placebo effect in medical scenarios are relevant in this context, except where magician-merchants who are making very strong claims about the literal effects of their magic are concerned. (And to be sure, those people exist. They just aren’t what I’m interested in defending.) In my own case, any placebo effect is self-administered, and in the case of _other_ merchant-magicians– well. They’re transparent enough that purchasing from them counts as as self-administered, too. However, please elaborate on your concerns as they apply to such individuals.

            • April 25, 2012 8:45 pm

              All I can say is that I generally agree with Pips point #3, yet find Arden’s rebuttal interesting. I’d be interested in seeing your response, Pip.

            • Pip permalink
              April 26, 2012 4:11 am

              On the first point: I feel I may be missing what you’re trying to say. If a group of people hold a ceremony in which they claim to interact with a ‘spirit’, then they are engaging in make-believe as a group. The fact that there’s a bunch of them has little relevance.

              I used fairly colloquial terms in the previous post, so if I offer “clear definitions” I’m going to end up being overly specific and restrictive with how I define some commonly-used words. You asked, though, so here we go:

              “Real”: things which exist outside our imagining them. Neither a product of misfiring senses, nor a product of invented memories. The existence of things which are real can be established empirically, and their properties appear the same under testing regardless of who is carrying out the test.

              Example: protons.

              “Make-believe”: things which we attempt to convince ourselves exist, or of whose existence we are convinced by others, when in fact they are only imagined.

              Example: the monster under the bed.

              On the second point: an act of deception is still an act of deception, whether it applies to something big (like convincing someone that their children should not be vaccinated) or something small (like convincing someone that a piece of paper can cause a general improvement in their ‘luck’). The ethical concern becomes less *urgent*, but it does not become less true.

              What you do yourself, in the privacy of your own home, is up to you – I make no attack on such “solo practitioners” that exist as you describe them. There is not enough time or energy in the world to fight against all harmless silliness. But I don’t think that “merchant magicians […] are transparent enough that purchasing from them counts as self-administered” – I think that by wrapping themselves in the language of magical thinking, they embrace opacity over transparency, and deliberately sidestep a rational, reality-based approach. I will go into this in more depth in reply to Drew below.

              Finally, on the point of quantifying the number of people you were referring to earlier: I would generally not go so far as to call something “a very significant number” if I didn’t have the first idea what the number was. That’s the kind of thing that gets your science badge taken away.

            • Arden permalink
              April 26, 2012 11:14 am

              Thanks for being sporting about providing definitions. I don’t mean to make this into a semantics argument or pick things apart unnecessarily– I just think that there’s plenty of gray area within those too terms, and perceiving them as just “common sense” is culturally loaded and unhelpful.

              Where does color, for instance, fall in your real-to-make-believe spectrum? The matter that contributes to colors do, in some sense, exist in a “real” way, but our perceptual lenses filter them in such a fashion that our experiences of them can vary tremendously. The Himba tribe, for instance, experience color in a radically different way than Westerners do.

              The truth is that most of what we actually experience on a day-to-day basis falls somewhere between “imaginary” and “real.” That isn’t to say that objectivity doesn’t exist and can’t be found, of course: simply that the world is very complicated.

              Regarding placebo: I think we have a misunderstanding here. I’m not suggesting that deception be involved at all. It is perfectly possible to take a pill, know it’s a placebo, and, if the placebo is taken in the right context, have it work. Likewise, I think it’s possible to sell a placebo + context as a merchant in an ethical and transparent way, and I feel that many magician-merchants do this even if the effects of what they’re selling don’t work in a

              Perhaps we differ on whether agnosticism on the issue counts as deception – i.e., perhaps you think that unless someone says “magic doesn’t exist except through psychology,” they’re deceiving someone. (If so, we’ll have to disagree on that front, and plenty of magician-merchants will count as deceivers to you.) But in my opinion, a simple acknowledgment that the merchant doesn’t necessarily know what will happen will suffice. Let me know if there’s some aspect to your argument that I’m overlooking.

              “ I think that by wrapping themselves in the language of magical thinking, they embrace opacity over transparency, and deliberately sidestep a rational, reality-based approach.”

              First of all, what’s colloquially known as “magical thinking” doesn’t have a whole lot to do with actual magic, as it’s practiced.

              Aside from that: personally, I don’t think humans are fundamentally rational, though they have the capacity to be rational. I base that, ironically enough, on reason. To work with your term for awhile, I think rational approaches, while invaluable and to be relied upon when possible, are often not the most effective. Placing more ambiguous and murky approaches* in a an overarching CONTEXT of impassive analysis can buffer you from many of the negative effects of getting carried away with yourself– and with the benefits of more intuitive approaches.

              * There’s got to be a better way of putting that, but I can’t think of one right now; apologies.

              “Finally, on the point of quantifying the number of people you were referring to earlier: I would generally not go so far as to call something “a very significant number” if I didn’t have the first idea what the number was. That’s the kind of thing that gets your science badge taken away. “

              Pip, your real-versus-make-believe dichotomy is hardly the most rigorous, scientific, non-question-begging semantic distinction I’ve ever seen in my life. Yet it serves a purpose for this discussion. From time to time we have to do without our science badges. :)

              In retrospect I think you’re right: I should have framed “very significant number” as an impression I had. But everyone here is operating on impressions. I was, in part, combating B’s generalizations which– after all– I have grounds to do: I have much more experience with the magical subculture than he does. The number of people is certainly non-trivial compared to his assertion that the kind of magic practitioner who agrees with this essay is in the minority.

            • Arden permalink
              April 26, 2012 11:26 am

              Yikes, I left my fourth paragraph dangling. Here’s what I meant to say:

              “Likewise, I think it’s possible to sell a placebo + context as a merchant in an ethical and transparent way, and I feel that many magician-merchants do this even if the effects of what they’re selling don’t work in a direct fashion.”

            • Pip permalink
              April 26, 2012 12:00 pm

              I’m sorry if this seems overly blunt or harsh, but I was dreading (with a sense of weariness, not of fear) exactly the kind of argument you’ve just wheeled out. The colour example particularly is so tired and meaningless.

              What’s real about colour? The pigments colouring the surface of an object, the photons they reflect, the distribution of frequencies of those photons – these are real objects, real quantities.

              They are picked up by real organs in our eyes, and transmitted as real electrical signals to our brains, where they are processed. At the end of that processing, we perceive the light as having a particular colour – a cognitive tag, which maps back to some real frequency and the real reaction it elicits in the eye.

              You choose to talk about the Himba. A quick wiki-ing shows me what you’re talking about, and while it’s interesting, it seems to me to be much more likely to be more a linguistic question than anything else. Why not choose an example that works much more unambiguously? Bees!

              Bees can see into ultraviolet frequencies, which we simply can’t. We can use false-colour images to see for ourselves the patterns which bees see on flowers, or to see ultraviolet events in the stars, but that’s the best we can do – detect the unfamiliar light with a machine, and paint it onto the screen in one of the colours we know. What is the *colour* of ultraviolet to a bee?

              Thinking about it even briefly reveals the answer that *this is not a well-constructed question*. Colour is a word we use for a perceptual tag, nothing more. It is a real behaviour of brains. Try to extend our concept of colour to brains that are not equipped with eyes that have the same structure of rods and cones, and the concept breaks down.

              So yes, colour is ‘real’ – but as a biological process, not a Platonic concept. You said it was sporting of me to provide definitions, but I think it’s a little unsporting of you to take me to task for my definitions when I explicitly prefaced my definitions with a disclaimer that my definitions were inevitably going to be too narrow, since the words themselves were colloquial and non-specific. When we are talking about things like a ‘spirit’ that supposedly sleeps at the foot of Drew’s bed and has such specific attributes as appreciating (but not consuming) chocolate, that is an object to which the word ‘real’ can be applied in exactly the same sense as a proton.

              I also flatly deny that my definition of “real” is, as you put it, “culturally loaded”. I deny this on a single principle: my definition hinged around the concept that something real can be empirically tested and explored. Empirical data cannot carry cultural bias. Empirical data just *are*.

              To continue with my example of the proton: I challenge you to present me with an example of a finding of physics which is “culturally loaded”.

              Moving on, you say that perhaps we differ on whether “agnosticism” on the subject of magic is honest. My answer here is brief – yes. Yes, if someone sells magic under the banner of “not knowing” how or whether works, they are dishonest – or ignorant. Because it is possible to know, it is their duty to *want* to know, and from the past record of such tests the odds are far, far worse than 50/50 that anything more than a placebo effect will be demonstrated. “I don’t know whether this works” morphs with all too much treacherous ease into “I don’t know *how* this works”, and then, bam! – this isn’t a warning label any more, this is a sense of mystery used as a selling-point to the gullible.

              Yes, I’m aware that it’s possible for a placebo to work when the patient has full knowledge that it’s a placebo. That is not the question here – what I am saying is that the language of ‘magic’, of enchanted scrolls and familiar spirits, constitutes a set of paraphernalia which deliberately implies there is more than a placebo effect at work, even if the opposite is stated elsewhere.

              The rest of your post I find rather vague to address. You say my definition of ‘real’ is “hardly scientific”, but it’s the kind of definition that I as a working researcher use on an everyday basis to do science. With the same confidence that you tell me that you have plentiful experience of wizards, I will claim that I have plentiful experience of scientists – and statistically I don’t think you’d find many who’d have a significant disagreement with the sentiment of my definition.

              I say sentiment rather than words because I can’t pretend to know scientists without acknowledging how insanely picky they would be about the words. And probably the grammar and punctuation too.

            • Arden permalink
              April 26, 2012 2:03 pm

              Sorry if you’re tired of the color reference. It comes easiest to mind because it’s often-invoked, and it’s a good starting point. It wasn’t, I see, the best-chosen example– you make some excellent points– but I do think you miss the mark where the Himba was concerned.

              At any rate, there’s more to it than color. :)

              I’m going to do my best by my rebuttal and dig up some studies for reference, and I’ll make sure I’m better-informed on the nuances of the color example to minimize aggravation. This’ll take some digging in my bookmarks, so please be patient.

              Anyhow, onto placebo:

              First of all,

              “Because it is possible to know, it is their duty to *want* to know”

              This is a massive ethical assumption. I’m sure there are many reasons you believe it’s objectively true, but trying to pull it into an argument without substantiation is not an effective tactic. I don’t see any absolute imperative for me to agree that this is true for everybody. But even granting that you’re right:

              “That is not the question here – what I am saying is that the language of ‘magic’, of enchanted scrolls and familiar spirits, constitutes a set of paraphernalia which deliberately implies there is more than a placebo effect at work, even if the opposite is stated elsewhere. “

              To use your terminology:

              If you insist on approaching magic completely unimaginatively, sure. Just because you treat something as though it has, in your definition, “real” attributes doesn’t mean you aren’t (somewhere in the back of your head) quite aware of the possibility that it is ultimately entirely imaginary.

              Let’s backtrack a bit:

              Imaginary experiences/beings/etc are often experienced as external, i.e., in the same fashion you experience real events. Recall my example of the spirit.

              There’s a tribe called the Piraha. The Piraha are notorious for its in-the-moment, purely-present-focused, and remarkably empirical (in the most radical sense) outlook. They’ve challenged the Chomskeyan view of universal grammar; they have no concept of deities or organized religion, per se, in the strict anthropological terms. They ignore people and things outside of their immediate experiences entirely; they don’t speculate; they are completely content to comment on what is directly in front of them.

              Yet there’s an incident where a group of them told Dan Everett, the linguist who has been studying them for many years, that there was a spirit on the beach (“one of the beings who live in the clouds”) who would kill them if they tried to enter a forest.

              Now, you might say, “But they’re wrong, there’s no spirit there.” Not literally– Dan, of course, did not see it. But this suggests that their psychology operates in such a way that the spirit is, collectively, treated as literally as you’d treat a tree. Clearly, the way something is experienced is not an indication of whether it’s real or imaginary.

              From my perspective, Drew just is being true to his experiences of the spirit, and he himself is proof that this fidelity to the way the imagination can work can coincide with an intellectual awareness of the nature of those experiences.

              The imagination isn’t going to stop feeling as though it’s real. Chances are, many of the people who read Drew’s blog have already had compelling experiences with spirits. And guess what? If some completely innocent person stumbles upon the blog and decides to try and summon a spirit– well– he quite possibly CAN “summon a spirit” and have very real-seeming experiences with it! And as long as Drew sticks to purely methodological and experiential language– why not give them the means to do that? The outcome could be perfectly beneficial to their lives. (Granted, qualitative comments like “a 10,000-year-old spirit” are quite iffy, at best, but…)

              Insisting that people tell the difference between what is personally useful and scientifically verifiable, an the difference between a real event and an imaginary one, takes discernment, and imho discernment can’t be learned if you completely do away with nuance and forbid any delusional-sounding language. It’s like trying to tell a theist that their positive experiences with God are completely unimportant because God doesn’t exist. A much better tactic is the one you often see on this blog– reframing the experiences & putting them in their proper context: as important psychological moments, not necessarily the hand of some literal divinity.

              It’s understandable to want to treat people as consistently gullible; they are. But I don’t consider it to be a particularly effective teaching tactic.

              As a final note, for now: I didn’t mean to “take you to task” for your definitions. Your definition of “imaginary” is deeply question-begging, but it has its function for the purposes of this discussion, just as, I believe, my own generalizations do. I don’t doubt that scientists find your definition of “real” to be important to their inquiries– but until one double-blind-tests that definition (and all the words in it), I’m going to hold off on considering it scientific in and of itself. :)

            • April 26, 2012 7:50 pm

              Fair points Pip, so let me give you a question that has nothing to do with the subjectivity of color or anything of that sort.

              You say:

              “If a group of people hold a ceremony in which they claim to interact with a ‘spirit’, then they are engaging in make-believe as a group.”

              You then go on to divide the world into real and not-real.

              But what is the group of people summoning a spirit say, at the outset, “We don’t think any actual spirits are involved here. We think this ritual will help us effect emotional and psychological states that we desire to effect, and the language of arcana is quite helpful in doing so.”

              What is your objection to that?

            • Pip permalink
              April 27, 2012 4:13 am

              Just testing if this is a decreasing-width thing and if my comments will drop into place beneath the two below.

            • Pip permalink
              April 27, 2012 4:14 am

              Yes it is! Score. Although this is going to be a bit tricky to read, I guess.

              In response to ARDEN’S POST:

              ————————————————–

              Well, colour is better than love, which was my first guess of what you’d go for. Please do go ahead and come back with more stuff about the Himba, it sounds interesting and Wikipedia has only a paragraph or two… but I do doubt that the example of the Himba will have more lifting power than the example of bees, which have more than a different system of colour classification – they have a completely independently-evolved eye. I threw bees to you as a more powerful, unambiguously workable example for you to use, not as a counter-point. The same could be done for many other animals.

              More than I hope you come back with more material on colour (or similar examples), I hope you will take a shot at my challenge of finding a ‘culturally loaded’ finding of physics. I choose physics specifically because (as I outline in my response to Drew below), I think that magical claims which do not immediately confess to being pure placebo are making strong statements about fundamental physical laws. Drew’s already confessed that he is ‘unsure’ whether his spirits are real, rather than admitting that they are definitely imaginary; I’d be interested to hear more clearly which of those camps you stand in.

              On to the placebo stuff:

              No, I don’t believe my ethical assumption of the duty to find out is “objectively true”. I think this is the first time I have used the word ‘objectively’. It is a subjective value of science, but it is a subjective value that has been shown to *work*. Ethics are what we make of them; this particular one works well enough that I think it should be as easily agreed upon as the subjective statement “murder is wrong”. If we believe we have found something deeply mysterious, then we cannot claim a commitment to scientific thought unless we do our damnedest to find out more about it. Where would we be if people had looked at the contradictions inherent in the theory of the luminiferous ether, then just shrugged and said “well, I guess we can’t ever know”?

              On to the Piraha – again, I suspect I must be missing your point. You say that “clearly, the way something is experienced is not an indication of whether it’s real or imaginary”. I don’t recall making this claim, and I don’t see what it has to do with what I’ve been saying. The fact that, as you say, Everett did not see the spirit; the fact that if you were to render a member of the tribe unconscious and take him into the spirit-haunted forest he in all likelihood would not suffer any adverse effects, are empirical disconfirmation of their claim that the spirit exists.

              No-one disputes the existence of dreams, hallucinations and delusions. We are humans; our brains are not perfect truth-analysing machines, they are the product of an evolutionary optimisation process that requires us only to understand our environment well enough to stay alive and reproduce. That is why we must use the structure and principles of the scientific method to check our intuitions, to examine our knowledge, and to reject that which is false even when it seems most plausible to us. Our personal experiences can and do lie to us; data cannot.

              The rest of what you say, as far as I can see, boils down to “if these people are genuinely having these experiences, why not just let them enjoy it? It’s ‘true’ for them”. I understand this point of view, but I object to it for two reasons.

              1. As I’ve outlined at length in my conversation with Drew below, I don’t think Drew (or the language of magic in general, for that matter – see B’s comments above about having one face for the skeptics, another for the true believers) *does* stick to “purely experiental” language. You acknowledge the “10,000-year-old ethereal beings” line as if it’s a minor hiccup; let’s zoom in on something more egregious. “The magician doesn’t pray, hope, fear, wish. The magician reshapes the cosmos.”

              To call that ‘experiential language’ is a barefaced lie. Perhaps you are different; you haven’t given us a concrete example to work on yet, so I can’t comment there. You certainly seem to be defending Drew’s writing as being at least roughly in line with your own vision.

              2. As I’ve said at the bottom of this threadsplosion of comments, I think that wrapping yourself in this kind of make-believe (and you are admitting it’s make-believe, now – an internally generated experience with no connection to the outside world, I believe that’s good enough for us to agree on in this case) is infantilising and mentally impoverishing for those who buy into it. It is not conducive to the important issue of the public understanding and support of science for people to indulge in this kind of boundary-blurring fantasy; more importantly, it is not healthy for grown adults to have imaginary friends.

              I am not going to engage in a discussion about ‘framing’ my position, because I have seen (and had) that discussion before. There is no quantitative evidence that bending over backwards to get the superstitious on-side works any better than being as confrontational as you like; furthermore, there’s just as much evidence (which is equally anecdotal) of people being broken out of deeply blinkered supernatural traditions by people like Dawkins as there is by a softly-softly approach. Present me with some well-sourced numbers carrying good statistics and I’ll agree to listen to this particular refrain again.

              Finally, if you think that a definition can be double-blind tested, I’m not sure you understand double-blind trials.

            • Pip permalink
              April 27, 2012 4:15 am

              In response to DREW’S POST:

              —————————————————

              That’s a reasonable question. My first problem is that what you describe above is far cleaner and more direct than what we have been talking about so far – as I go into in more detail in the discussion below, I believe you are leaving the door open for the spirits to ‘possibly’ be real in a way that is shady and unscientific, perhaps going so far as to subtly imply as the odds are 50/50 either way.

              If what you described existed in as pure and isolated a form as you describe it – rather than being a component of a larger, self-reinforcing community of occultists that provide a haven for quackery and delusional behaviour – then I can’t honestly say I would have much of a problem with it. It would still strike me as silly, but it would fall under the “do what you like with your own time” category that I mentioned before. Many of my hobbies will seem silly and unappealing to others too.

              I would point out though that this blog post and altmagic in general have two more important features which are missing from your example: your activities are for-profit, and you seem to be asking skeptics to get on board and agree with you, rather than just leave you to do your stuff in peace.

            • Pip permalink
              April 27, 2012 4:17 am

              Now that I’ve put these up where they’re easily seen, perhaps it would be easier if new replies started from a new thread at the bottom of the page, rather than us keeping on doing this.

            • April 29, 2012 6:54 pm

              >“Real”: things which exist outside our imagining them. Neither a product of misfiring senses, nor a product of invented memories. The existence of things which are real can be established empirically, and their properties appear the same under testing regardless of who is carrying out the test. Example: protons.
              “Make-believe”: things which we attempt to convince ourselves exist, or of whose existence we are convinced by others, when in fact they are only imagined.

              Pip, would you also include under the rubric of “real” mental phenomena as such, that are testable in principle even if not quite with our current technology? For example, if we dream of a unicorn, the dream image is “real” but not the content of the dream image (there are no unicorns). Likewise, if we think of a pink elephant, the thought is real but the content of the thought is not. Such things are on the cusp of becoming testable. Recently a team of scientists managed to detect specific words thought by a subject by analyzing the brain areas activated in association with the corresponding sounds of the words. Link: http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn21408-telepathy-machine-reconstructs-speech-from-brainwaves.html

              This technology is still in a crude state, but with refinement it could make specific thoughts and dream images objectively verifiable, “under testing regardless of who is carrying out the test.”

              If you grant this, I’m in total agreement with your definition of “real.”

            • Pip permalink
              April 30, 2012 9:25 am

              My answer here is very analogous to my answer about colour. Dreams, and our ability to ‘picture’ things in our imagination, are *real behaviours of brains*. So yes, I think our agreement is complete, providing you are not suggesting that the imagined picture itself has an existence as some sort of ‘thought-stuff’ outside the pattern of activity it corresponds to in the brain.

              I’m currently reading the (ambitiously-titled) book ‘Consciousness Explained’ by Daniel Dennet, and I find it to have a lot of interesting stuff to say on this subject.

            • May 1, 2012 11:11 pm

              I haven’t read that one, but am interested in it. Can you tell me: does it purport to solve the so-called “hard problem” of consciousness?

            • May 2, 2012 12:47 am

              Yep, that’s how I see it: real behaviors of brains.

        • Arden permalink
          April 24, 2012 11:40 am

          (Pardon, I just want to clarify: Drew’s definition is specific to Drew, but the sentiments he’s expressing are pretty commonplace in occult circles. Plenty of magicians do believe in the supernatural, but plenty others consider it a superfluous concept to what they’re trying to achieve. And there are a lot of magicians who are agnostic or atheists.)

          • April 24, 2012 8:12 pm

            An agnostic or an atheist simply lacks belief in a deity. That does not make them automatically skeptical toward magic, or aliens, or time travel, or other nonsense.

            Plenty of atheist Libertarians and Mens Rights Activists out there.

            • Arden permalink
              April 25, 2012 2:36 pm

              I didn’t mean to make the point that the presence of atheist or agnostic means you agree with me, or even that you should give magic more credit; I simply wanted to illustrate the variety of beliefs represented in the Western “magical” community.

              I mean, I AM an agnostic occultist, and I’m disagreeing with you. :)

        • April 25, 2012 8:32 pm

          “I feel that you are deliberately obfuscating the discussion by attempting to redefine ‘magic’ to exclude supernatural elements. ”

          The idea that magic breaks the laws of nature is almost exclusively advanced by modern scientific views, and is not native to most magical traditions I’ve studied.

          I think it’s important for you to draw a distinction between

          (a) a claim that Spell X circumvents the laws of nature, and

          (b) a claim that Spell X works within the laws of nature, where said laws are described in primitive or inaccurate terms by a tribal culture.

          The difference is that (b) makes a good faith effort at evidence-based explanation. Another important difference is that (b) is at the heart of many systems of magic, whereas (a) is largely imagined by a skeptical audience ignorant of what magicians actually claim to do.

          This is exactly what I mean by “the foregone conclusions of a less educated generation of skeptics” – it would be nice if you address the real claims of magicians, and not the things you imagine we all think while wearing funny robes.

          • April 26, 2012 4:57 am

            “The idea that magic breaks the laws of nature is almost exclusively advanced by modern scientific views, and is not native to most magical traditions I’ve studied.”

            I would need an example. Most traditions make claims that, if true, would violate the laws of physics as we know them (killing with a word, for example, or the daemons of Tibetan Buddhism).

            Also, you know that the term ‘tribal culture’ is considered perjorative, right? I cring every time I hear you say that.

  2. Pip permalink
    April 24, 2012 10:45 am

    You’re free to define magic as art, but skepticism as a movement has nothing to say about art. Skepticism is not (primarily) a group identity, it’s just an approach to claims made by others.

    The interaction between skeptics and magic will always – almost by definition – be skeptics calling magicians on claims they *do* make to special powers. And on that front, Tim Minchin says it best:

    Throughout history
    every mystery
    ever solved
    has turned out to be
    Not Magic.

    Art and anthropology already have words to describe them. The placebo effect is known to science and has been extensively studied. I don’t see where it helps to introduce the word ‘magic’ among these overlapping domains, and treat it like it’s valid – especially when you are *selling* this magic, and most people (whether skeptical or credulous) who do not read your whole backlog of discussion are going to interpret as the dictionary meaning of magic – supernatural powers.

    Here are a few quotes of your own from altmagic:

    “I have a familiar spirit. [...] He used to always want offerings of chocolate.”

    “…with time and experience you can easily sense spirits and know what they’re saying. [...] This is all in your head, *but it isn’t*. Welcome to sensing spirits.”

    “Spirits are the nuclear weapons of magical practice. Anything you can do with spells, 10,000 year old ethereal beings can do better.”

    “The magician *doesn’t pray, hope, fear, wish*. The magician reshapes the cosmos.”

    Asterisk emphases mine – I wish I could use boldface.

    I found these quotes just by scanning the current front page. There were only one or two posts which, to my quick reading, contained even a hint that you were not being literal with these claims.

    If you are selling a product, and advertising yourself as an ‘honest magician’, you need to repeat what you say here *every time* – that the things you are selling (literally or figuratively) aren’t supernatural, they are performance art and confidence-building exercises. You need this discussion in every post just as much as homeopathic remedies need labels saying “not medicine”. You can’t rely on your customers digging into your archive, and you can’t rely on your customers being hard-nosed skeptics. However sophisticatedly you spin it with these occasional science-y posts, there are a lot of credulous, vulnerable people out there, and by using the word “magic” you are pushing their buttons.

    Respectfully,
    - Pip.

    Postscript: I also think the dig at the end about a “less educated generation of skeptics” is ungracious, and a very transparent attempt to draw the reader into a conspiracy of superiority with the author. Cynicism towards magic is well-grounded in over a century of experiential evidence with charlatans, snake-oil merchants and the sadly deluded. If you want to set out to rescue something from that discredited tradition, you shouldn’t start by insulting the often very well-educated figures who worked – usually pro bono – to expose how people were being tricked and exploited. The first person I thought of when you referred to a previous generation of skeptics was Carl Sagan. It felt like you’d slapped my grandad :P

    • April 25, 2012 8:59 pm

      “You’re free to define magic as art…”

      I’d prefer to define it for what it is: a cultural tradition*. Discussing it solely in terms of perceived-versus-proven “supernatural” effects is de facto an avoidance of the bulk of what magic tradition does, which is innately tied to many aspects of a given culture, art among them. Its ability to inspire and empower rank high among its notable effects, in my opinion.

      *I consider that my definition of it as “art-and-tech” fits into this, and doesn’t reduce it to “merely” art.

      With that said, art serves as one of the best parallels for magic on one way: critics or art prefer to focus on its perceived-versus-proven benefits, which once again is a narrow and inaccurate way of evaluating what art’s good for.

      “Tim Minchin says it best:

      Throughout history
      every mystery
      ever solved
      has turned out to be
      Not Magic.”

      Fun quote, but misplaced. Minchin implicitly uses a definition of magic that begs the supernatural. Replace “not magic” in his quote with “not a psychological effect of ritual” and he sounds like an idiot.

      Regarding quotes from altmagic:

      I feel the phenomena I discuss can be explained without reference to the supernatural, but that’s neither here not there.

      “If you are selling a product, and advertising yourself as an ‘honest magician’, you need to repeat what you say here *every time* – that the things you are selling (literally or figuratively) aren’t supernatural”

      That point is well taken. It’s a line I’ve had to tread timidly: focus too much on “magic may be nothing by psychology” and every article has 400 extra words that are redundant with the article before it. Mention it too infrequently however and people can be left in the dark.

      At the time of this comment, *every single page* on altmagic links to a page entitled “Magic?” which explains what I mean.

      I share your concern whether that’s enough and will consider how I can better integrate my main message in all of my articles without distracting from the individual article’s point.

      “I also think the dig at the end about a “less educated generation of skeptics” is ungracious”

      You may think that, but your own posts here illustrate the point, Pip. The core views of the Skeptic movement solidified in the 1950s-1970s. At that time there was little information available to anthropologists about the thinking behind magical traditions, and skeptics formed ideas you yourself have voiced: that a magical claim is by definition a supernatural claim, and that no magic has been shown to work.

      That’s patently false, and it would be nice if skeptics could keep up with new information and flex their ideas accordingly. Sagan had an excuse: he was using the best information available to him. You have no such excuse. You’re using the best information available to Sagan, and ignoring better information that 40 years of research offers you.

      • Pip permalink
        April 26, 2012 4:11 am

        “I feel the phenomena I discuss can be explained without reference to the supernatural, but that’s neither here not there.”

        I disagree. You cannot skate over this; whether these statements are misleading is the absolute heart of the problem. I resisted doing this before, but if I must I will pick them apart to show what I’m talking about.

        “I have a familiar spirit. [...] He used to always want offerings of chocolate.”

        First and most obvious implication: this is an entity with preferences separate from your own. Nowhere in the surrounding text is any intimation given that you consider its culinary tastes to be an artefact of your own imagination. In fact, doing a bit more research, in the comments you reinforce this impression of the familiar spirit being a separate entity by saying that you didn’t name it, it told you its name. You do not hedge this with any qualifying statements.

        “…with time and experience you can easily sense spirits and know what they’re saying. [...] This is all in your head, but it isn’t. Welcome to sensing spirits.”

        The “but it isn’t” says it all. In what way is it *not* all in your head? In some way, or you would not have said so. There is a direct implication here that you are sensing something real (in the sense of real defined in my reply to Arden above).

        “Spirits are the nuclear weapons of magical practice. Anything you can do with spells, 10,000 year old ethereal beings can do better.”

        Two implications here. Firstly, “10,000 year-old ethereal beings”. I believe you’re in your thirties; to pin an age of 10,000 years on these entities is to clearly identify them as existing outside your own imagining of them.

        Applying the principle of charity, you could be talking about the cultural conception of such entities – but I think you would be very hard-pressed to find a religion or culture existing today with a genuine historical continuity of ten thousand years. Only the most general, nebulous concepts (perhaps fertility goddesses, sun gods, that kind of thing) could qualify for such a long-standing pedigree, and your posts make it clear that you are talking about a great multitude of diverse spirits with distinguishing attributes of their own. For example, the one you claim to have as your familiar has such specific qualities as having an animal form, being able to change size, and liking chocolate.

        You also might be equating your spirits with the natural world, but then your figure is too *low* – 10,000 years doesn’t even cover human prehistory. Really, either interpretation is such a stretch that, to a casual reader, the simple interpretation is much more plausible – that you are claiming these things have a genuine existence independent of humanity, and are ten thousand years old. It’s really a very specific and direct statement to be interpreted as meaningless figure of speech.

        Secondly, “Anything you can do with spells, [they] can do better”. This implies that they import expertise that *you don’t have*. Something that’s not within you, something they bring from outside. Again, this carries a strong implication that these spirits are literally real.

        “The magician doesn’t pray, hope, fear, wish. The magician reshapes the cosmos.”

        This is probably the vaguest of the examples I chose, but also I think the most powerful. It makes the direct statement that by using magic you don’t “pray, hope, fear, wish” – things which go on inside your own head, which affect only your own psychological responses – but “reshape the cosmos”. The cosmos is that which exists *outside* ourselves; saying you can “reshape” it is in direct contradiction to claiming that the effects of your magic are all psychological and naturalistic.

        This is the tone of your sales blog, as perceived by an outsider. I did miss the link you have to the “what is magic?” post, but I would point out that this link

        > is in a smaller font size than the text of the articles.
        > is off to the side in such a way that it is easy to miss (I missed it!).
        > is *below* the links to your online store and its checkout page.

        Finally, you say this:

        “The core views of the Skeptic movement solidified in the 1950s-1970s.”

        to which I say the same thing I said to Arden: citation please? Off the top of my head, Harry Houdini and his work in exposing spiritualists, or the vigorous skeptical enquiry that was directed at the Cottingley Fairies hoax both spring to mind as examples which pre-date your period of ‘solidification’ by thirty years or more, and display all the salient features of the modern attitudes you talk about.

        As I said at the very beginning, skepticism an attitude to claims made by others, not a religious denomination. Magic’s cultural milieu is not of interest to skeptical enquiry – by definition, skeptical enquiry only cares whether the claims it makes are true. Nothing about the concept of empirical testing – whether used in 1917, 1950 or 1970 – is affected by anthropological information in such a way that it needs revision.

        Any remaining points I think would be better addressed in response to your general reply below.

        • Pip permalink
          April 26, 2012 8:35 am

          Something I accidentally omitted from my points about the ‘warning label’ link – not only does it have the above problems, it also doesn’t actually say what it is up front.

          The text of the link is simply “Magic?”. If I were someone already predisposed to believe in magic, I think there is a strong possibility that I would see that question mark as indicating a resource for the doubtful, and skip it.

        • April 26, 2012 8:34 pm

          There’s my personal answer, and then there’s the best guess science can give us.

          My personal answer is that: I don’t know if spirits are objectively real. I know the lack of evidence and all, but if you personally felt what it’s like when in the presence of a “spirit,” you’d have your doubts. You’d wonder if maybe they are, actually, real. So in my personal practice I maintain a respectful doubt: maybe they’re real, maybe they aren’t,

          The best answer we have from science is that there is no evidence of spirits and plenty of reasons to explain it all as psychology.

          The view I wish to promote on altmagic is that even if spirits are not objectively real, the ceremonies and experiences we do with them can have real effects.

          The use of arcane language and symbols is part of practising those ceremonies, and their use in that context is compatible with a naturalistic worldview. If you want to pull out the arcane language without the context, sure, you can make it sound pretty funny.

          The posts you quote from are part of a 6-part series. The first post says:

          “So how does the belief in an invisible companion jive with a non-supernatural worldview? Pretty much the same way worshipping the gods does: I’m not sure they, or my familiar, are real outside my mind. I don’t expect my familiar to stop landslides or divert hurricanes for me.”

          That’s stated at the outset. You can’t expect every episode in a series to repeat the point made in earlier episodes. No series does that.

          However, Pip, I want you to know that you’ve made me think very seriously about whether I state my non-supernatural position on magic often enough or clearly enough. I do want it to be very clear to visitors what my theory of magic is, and I intentionally want to drive away customers who expect supernatural effects.

          Dealing with deluded people was part of why I stopped offering magic ceremonies as a priest years ago, and why altmagic offers them only in the form of high-end art products.

          If I’m failing to present that clearly, that’s an issue I take seriously and want to remedy, so I’m glad you spoke up.

          • Pip permalink
            April 27, 2012 3:26 am

            You claim repeatedly to believe in the power and principles of science. If you do, you have to understand that the ‘personal experience’ of a spirit holds no water with me, and should hold no water with you or anyone else. Human beings are prone to hallucination; most of the planet’s population practice it every night in their sleep. Millions more people than you have had similar personal experiences with Jesus, but I don’t think you see that as evidence that he really is the Son of God. Maybe your personal experience gave you a *hunch*, but until you seek out empirical evidence, that hunch has zero worth – you are deliberately allowing yourself to be fooled.

            Am I right in thinking that you believe you can communicate with your familiar? Why not carry out a simple test? Have a friend (or preferably a stranger) write something (or make a picture, if the familiar can’t read) on a piece of paper, and leave it in an accessible place in an empty room. The object on the paper should be something you should not be able to guess – for example, the first five digits of a number given by a random number generator, or the dots of five dice that have just been rolled in the ‘can’t read’ case (I assume it must be bright enough to count to six). Have your friend leave that room, leaving the door open, while another friend waits with you in a separate room to make sure that you cannot in any way see what is on the paper. In your room, ask your familiar to go and look at what’s on the paper, then come back and tell you. If your familiar is real, this should present no difficulty. If for some reason it can’t stray far from your physical location, allow yourself to enter the room, but wear a thick blindfold and face backwards, with a skeptical friend to ensure that the protocol is observed. Ideally that friend should not see what the numbers are either, but must of course be able to observe you.

            I have only one other thing to add to your picture of agnosticism. I don’t think this sentence:

            “The best answer we have from science is that there is no evidence of spirits and plenty of reasons to explain it all as psychology.”

            covers the question fully. Science has more to say than that. You say you are a naturalist; your magic is a part of the material world, you disavow the supernatural. In that case, what are your spirits *made of*? What interactions does spirit-stuff have with the matter we know about? It must have some, or you – with your eyes that detect photons, your skin that detects pressure and temperature, your nose and tongue which detect chemical traces and your ears which detect sound and balance, could not possibly be made aware of them. Even if they were able to bypass your senses and intervene directly in your brain, your brain is an electrical machine. To modify the patterns in which synapses fire, they must have some physical interaction, which in turn must be measurable – and if it can operate on the level of something as complex as a synapse, it should probably be easily measurable on the level of simpler systems. Where then does this term appear in the Standard Model Lagrangian? Is it something we already know, like the weak interaction – or should we be looking to expand our model to include some new force? Since high-energy physicists spend practically all their time these days looking for weird and exotic new particles and force-carriers, why haven’t we seen it already?

            To evade this question is to resort immediately to supernaturalism. You cannot simultaneously carry a commitment to naturalistic science, and disregard the imperative to test and collect evidence on such extraordinary claims as you claim to be ‘agnostic’ on. Saying you don’t know and *letting it lie*, when there are so many easy tests and investigations you could carry out, is completely anti-scientific. I’ve already outlined one; if there are problems with it, I would enjoy thinking up others.

            Moving on, I take your point about the opening paragraph in the familiar spirits series, but I guess I must repeat myself in a more condensed form – when you say stuff like the stuff above, you contradict it, sometimes implicitly and sometimes explicitly. And when you say this stuff at such great length, you contradict it more forcefully than you originally stated it. You are consistently getting carried away and overreaching your premise.

            Let me finish with some quotes from your commenters on altmagic:

            “A psychic “mark” leaves a lasting impression upon the area, building, room, land, etc., where you did ritual. Be sure where ever you do your magic is perfectly in aligned to you and your spirit and is left in balance after you both are gone. This is something a lot of magicians forget to do.”

            This person (one of the most frequent commenters I saw) thinks that magic leaves literal scars in space-time. She uses the word ‘psychic’.

            “When I stumble into places where a spirit is in pain, people just don’t understand it and think I’m the one who is crazy. I would like to prevent spirit abuse.”

            The same person: she believes that other people are summoning their spirits *wrong* in such a way that causes the spirits – not the people – pain. She thinks the spirits are independent entities that need to receive some kind of field surgery to fix them up.

            “I suppose the most important part would be basic protection (as is the case with most things). And then the actual summoning. Saftey first and all that.”

            A different person. They think that they require protection from the spirits they summon, as an external threat.

            Again, I sourced this sample only from the front page of altmagic, and I would point out that the replies you make to these people are always positive and affirmative – I’ve not seen you call them on this stuff, even in such a blatant case as the “psychic mark” supposedly left on buildings. Are you really still unsure that you’re dealing with the deluded?

            • May 1, 2012 11:25 pm

              Pip, I’ll divide my answer in two parts.

              ——–

              Re.: everything you said about science

              I totally agree. I understand the shortcuts, hallucinations, cognitive glitches and errors of the human brain. Confronting that body of knowledge is the only reason I as able to shake a deep and committed belief in magic based on my personal experience.

              And I suspect magic is entirely natural for that reason.

              Since science has not actually tested the kind of magic I practice, I remain slightly agnostic on whether it might have effects or not. Mind you, I don’t do this gladly – I do it grudgingly.

              I would *much* prefer if science tested more authentic magical practices, because I wish I could know for sure, and not just tell myself “all in your brain wires, Drew, all in your brain wires.”

              ——–

              Re. quoting my readers

              First off I consider this rather inappropriate since it’s unlikely most of them are going to see this and have a chance to explain their views.

              The particular reader you quote at length is someone I deeply disagree with on almost everything about magic. We’ve known each other for years, and she knows I disagree.

              Beyond that, I do try to maintain an open dialogue with people of many magical backgrounds. I do make an effort to identify my own view as “nothing supernatural, thanks;” but that doesn’t mean I want any site I run to be hostile to people who see otherwise. If I did it would make me an asshole – and remind me of what I like least about most skeptic forums.

  3. April 24, 2012 5:56 pm

    Perhaps it would clarify the discussion if we concentrated on actual claims made about what the magic scrolls can do. Drew, specifically what are the effects that these magic scrolls are supposed to have? I haven’t read up on all the latest altmagic posts, so apologies if this has already been spelled out.

    • April 25, 2012 9:02 pm

      The purpose behind each scroll is listed on its product page. You can see them at http://www.altmagic.com/scrolls/.

      I don’t intend to use this space to discuss the efficacy of my own spells. I note on altmagic that I don’t even know if they work at all; that statement is linked from every page.

      The essay is about how to view magicians and magic-believers in general.

  4. April 25, 2012 9:21 pm

    A general reply is in order here. The ending statement of my article is, “it’s time for critical thinkers to look at the reality of the art of magic, and not just the foregone conclusions of a less educated generation of skeptics.”

    So far our two critics have failed to do that, and have in fact perfectly exemplified the outdated views I mention. I summed these up as:

    “There’s also a great deal of misinformation spread about magic: that it has all been proven not to work. That it all relies on supernatural thinking. That anyone who practices it is a liar.”

    It’s worth noting why exactly each of these three views is incorrect and unacceptable as a serious objection.

    #1 “Magic has been proven not to work.” Both B and Pip treat this as a definite fact and seem unaware that it’s inaccurate. Skeptic testing has debunked showmen, but has (almost?) never been used on practitioners of traditional magic. By this I mean the shamans and sorcerers who serve neighborhoods around the world using handed-down magic techniques. I don’t mean gurus and TV psychics who make a fortune impressing millions.

    In over 10 years of following skeptic literature, I haven’t seen testing conducted on these sorts of traditional practitioners. If B, Pip or anyone else have examples of testing of this sort, I welcome them.

    For three specific examples of such traditional spells being proven to work, see my article here: http://www.altmagic.com/three-spells-that-work/

    #2 “Magic relies on supernatural thinking.” A simple survey of the anthropological literature on the topic suggests the opposite: most cultures fit their magic claims into their empirical understanding of how the world works, not vice versa.

    #3 “Magic practitioners are frauds.” Generally to be a fraud you have to believe you are selling people something that doesn’t work. Since most magicians themselves believe their magic is valid, the word makes no sense here. Even if you assume they are wrong – a treacherous claim given #1 above – the correct view would be “magic practitioners are honest but mistaken.” Since some magic actually works, even this is over-reaching.

    I would invite B, Pip, and any other skeptic readers to try their hand at a critique of magic that doesn’t rely on one of these three fallacies.

    • Pip permalink
      April 26, 2012 4:12 am

      I’m afraid that unless I’m massively misunderstanding you, you seem to be attacking a straw man position – and I think the biggest clue that this is so is that you are so closely repeating what you said in the original post.

      #1 ‘Magic has been proven not to work’ – I have been careful to read your definition of magic, and to immediately concede that it can achieve significant effects through the placebo effect. I have also read your three examples, and while I think that ‘proven’ is a strong word to apply there in some cases (particularly in the case of voodoo zombies), I’m definitely not jumping out of my chair to deny that they occur. I would definitely repeat my call for citations on the factual claims that you make, however – I for one have *not* conducted the ‘extensive review of skeptical literature’ you claim, but I can immediately think of two very long-standing traditions of magical practice that have been comprehensively debunked – astrology, and dowsing.

      Here is a link to a video of a double-blind trial of dowsing:

      Can you provide any quantitative analyses supporting your claim that the subjects of investigation are disproportionately or entirely ‘showmen’? I do not think you can argue that about the people in the video (although I don’t hold up the video as ‘proof’ that you’re wrong – it’s a quick trial from a TV documentary, I don’t have a link to anything Chris French has published on the matter).

      In any case, what I am saying, and have been saying all along, is that magic has been proven to be *wrong*, not that it has been proven not to work. It achieves its effects through a mechanism that has nothing to do with the mystical framework it promotes, and which is better understood without resort to magical traditions. A good comparison is to homeopathy and other alternative medicine – the placebo effect is present, but the method is fallaciously and damagingly understood as something else.

      The comparison to alternative medicine is useful, because a misunderstanding of the mechanism frequently leads to
      A) a failure to properly understand the reach and limits of the practice
      B) a hostility among users to other, clinically tested treatments, because they come from a scientific framework which has no place for their pet belief system.

      Example of (B) above: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/programmes/newsnight/5178122.stm

      The misunderstanding of the mechanism was the point of my quote from Minchin. When a magical practice turns out to work on the level of a placebo, it has been shown to be Not Magic.

      You are in the peculiar position that you *admit* that what you are selling works by pure placebo. However, when you are not saying this, you seem to fall right back into the language of magic, and so I argue that what you are engaging in is an exercise in compartmentalised doublethink, not a consistent synthesis.

      Why dress up your product with this stuff at all, if it’s just empty metaphor and decorative mysticism? Why care about skeptics’ opinions at all, if you believe that *your* magic is not in the class of objects that are within the domain of empirical testing? If you believe that, their criticisms are not directed at you. Why not coin a new term for yourself, rather than demanding that skeptics accept a redefinition of the colloquially well-understood word ‘magic’ to be in line with your own niche beliefs?

      # ‘Magic relies on supernatural thinking’ – I have not contested your claim that your interpretation of magic is naturalistic. Tying back to what I said above, something does not have to be supernatural to be wrong – consider perpetual motion machines, or efforts to square the circle.

      I have merely tried to point out that you are dressing up your practice in openly supernatural language, which at least *seems* designed to suck in those who do genuinely believe in the supernatural. The posts on altmagic are 99% spookery, 1% warning labels. I challenge anyone to read your posts on spirits and conclude, from the text of the articles alone, that you are not making a strong statement that these supernatural entities exist.

      # ‘Magic practitioners are frauds’ – this is the least supported characterisation of all. I repeatedly made the statement – in one form or another – that fraudulent practitioners of magic are *common*. I’ve never made a statement that I believe them to make up the totality of magicians, or even the majority. I avoid numerical statements for which there is no evidence.

      This isn’t a common generalisation among the ‘skeptical community’ either – at least, not one common enough among educated skeptics to fairly lambast people for. Refer to the end of the dowsing video above, where Chris French and Richard Dawkins go to great lengths to make clear to the camera their impression that the people they tested seemed absolutely sincere in their beliefs.

      Using your definition of a fraud as someone who knows that they’re lying, French and Dawkins are making a clear statement that they do not believe the dowsers to be frauds – instead, they would fall into the category of the “sadly deluded” that I mentioned before alongside the category of charlatans. If you asked me for a guess, I would say most occultists are deluded, not fraudulent. Unfortunately, you make it impossible to position yourself in the same category of innocent delusion – you know you are selling placebos. You sell them on a blog which is brimming with material that will appeal to the deluded, and on which the statements that will disillusion them are tucked away in sidebars, at the back of the archive, or in this case a link to a separate site, and often seem to be contradicted by your more frequent statements.

      I have one last thing to say. It doesn’t necessarily follow on from the above, but it is complementary to the argument. You said that magic “injects wonder into [people's] lives”, but from the scientific skeptic’s point of view, the exact opposite is true. Magic, whether rank supernaturalism or your own ‘cultural’ expression, is about digging back into the infancy of our species, wallowing in the mystical worldview of, in your own words, “less educated generations”. The fairytale conceptions of the past are invariably more parochial, more anthropocentric and simply *less wonderful* than the world revealed by hard empirical analysis. How much more mundane and narrow is the conception of Apollo’s chariot than the reality of what the Sun actually is? Perhaps you’ve read it already, but I would recommend Carl Sagan’s “The Demon-Haunted World” on this front.

      Magical thinking brings with it a paucity of wonder, a satisfaction with gazing at the shadows on the inside of our own head rather than looking out at the wider world. It may be rich in culture and history, but that is no reason not to leave it behind as we leave behind the other relics of history. We have a brighter, clearer future to look forward to – we don’t need the old demons on our back.

      • April 26, 2012 5:11 am

        I would like to point out that my agreement with Pip’s response here is only to a point. While the reality of the Sun is indeed way more powerful and awe-inspiring than Apollo’s chariot, Apollo’s chariot (or Thor’s Hammer, or the Irish heroes) are way more interesting *stories*.

        Literature is awesome, even when it is not true, and I do not believe that we need to leave myth *behind* as we move forward- just move it to another location.

        The truths that myth speaks are Jungian rather than literal, but they are still important.

        But before this can be taken as a defence of ‘magic as art’, I would say the same thing about Shakespeare, or Tolkein, or Anais Nin, and ancient myths belong in a category very near to those.

        At my university, the Religion department is in the same building as English- not Physics.

        • Pip permalink
          April 26, 2012 9:03 am

          I don’t disagree with what you say here.

          When speaking about Apollo’s chariot, I’m talking about the sense of wonder derived from looking at (in this case) the Sun, and considering its existence – not the enjoyment of a good story that one might read in a book. I liked to read Greek myths as a child, and I don’t disown that child now – they’re good stories, but they’re fundamentally stories about people.The place for magic and myth which you talk about is *as* stories, as historical objects – not as a worldview. When it comes to that, science provides a perspective that simply can’t be matched by an imagined world of spirits and gods.

          I’m currently in Japan, and the flight from Heathrow to Narita meant that we ended up chasing the sunrise. I was sitting on the left-hand side of the plane and got to see the Sun come up after only a few hours of night. The first thing that could be observed, pre-dawn, was a patch of bright red reflection on the upper surface of the cloud cover below, which grew brighter and more resolved into a circle as sunrise grew closer. Then the Sun itself rose, being first visible as a distorted hemisphere through the clouds on the horizon, and then a blurry circle that was attenuated enough by the intervening cloud that you could look at it for a second or two without much discomfort. At this point (being a bit sleepy), I thought the sunrise was ‘finished’, but as it moved higher it grew brighter and brighter until I had to close the shutter in order not to dazzle everyone on my row.

          It was a great experience for something so simple, and I think my appreciation for it was enhanced a thousandfold by my appreciation of what it really was – of the processes of refraction that allowed the sunlight to bend over the horizon to create that red reflection on the clouds (and whose mathematical form caused it to be red, rather than any other colour), of our movement relative to the Earth’s rotation causing the sunrise to come so quickly, and of the sheer size and remoteness – in relation to myself – of the vast thermonuclear furnace appearing over the horizon, and the uncountable numbers of photons scattering and diffracting through the atmosphere to create the amazing lightshow that I saw. If I imagine someone watching that same scene and instead thinking first of such fundamentally *human* objects as spirits or gods, I pity them. It seems to me an impoverished way of looking at the world.

          I’m doing a bad Sagan impression now though, so I’ll stop.

          • April 26, 2012 8:39 pm

            Wonder can be derived from various sources, and an appreciation of our grand, bigger-than-man universe is certainly one of them. But that’s not the *only* source of wonder we need, any more than Cubism is the only kind of art that we need.

            In this context it’s very important to remember that part of the wonder involved in magic is that it’s participatory. Preserving it only in the form of books and never in the form of practiced ritual is like preserving sheet music but never listening to symphonies.

            • Pip permalink
              April 27, 2012 3:48 am

              What I was trying to express is that I think a belief in a world of spirits and magic *overwrites* this appreciation of natural grandeur with something far poorer. I think that is true even of the kind of hazy belief that scurries between myth and literalism, because of the kind of linguistic slippage I have discussed elsewhere.

              My analogy would be this: you find an old, faded mural in your house. Its varnish has darkened and its pigments have crumbled and faded to such an extent that you cannot tell what on earth it is supposed to be any more. It’s just a confusing smear.

              The ‘magician’ notices that this is a good wall for a mural, and so whitewashes it and paints their own one over the top. Their efforts are heartfelt but the result is amateurish. The scientist carefully restores the original mural to its former glory, and discovers it is a Da Vinci.

              Not the best analogy, but the best I could come up with.

            • May 1, 2012 11:29 pm

              “I think a belief in a world of spirits and magic *overwrites* this appreciation of natural grandeur with something far poorer.”

              Right, but some people feel that an empirical-only belief *overwrites* the appreciation of myth, dream and poetry with something far poorer.

              Different people thrive on different sources of wonder; if you’re trying to establish an objective wonder-value for “ooh, science” and weigh it against “ooh, myth” then I think you’re far from fact-based shore. There are lots of objective reasons why science trumps myth, but a greater capacity to inspire wonder is not among them.

            • April 27, 2012 3:54 am

              Sometimes, things are lost. That is always a tragedy, but when we are losing things that cause harm, the loss must be weighed against the gains. The rituals and high power of a Catholic ritual are awe-inspiring and transformative- yet I doubt many in this discussion would mourn the loss of the Catholic church.

      • April 26, 2012 8:23 pm

        Pip, this is an excellent reply and I appreciate it. To your main points:

        1. Dowsing and Astrology. These are divination, not magic. Before you jump to say it’s all the same, I should point out that divination – to the extent that it claims to predict the future or the unknown – is beyond the reach of even what psychologically-explained spells can claim to do. I can’t imagine any version of a charm that would make you so confident in your water-finding ability that you can, in fact, find water you never knew about.

        Interestingly, Chinese astrology has been proven to succeed in one particular way – in “predicting” that people of a certain birth year are more likely to die of given illnesses. But only among those of Chinese descent who were raised believing it.

        I learned of this here: http://goo.gl/yJvZ9

        The power of the mind to cause physical effects through psychosomatic means should be considered separately from the claim of the mind being able to sense unseen, future or remote events.

        2.
        “When a magical practice turns out to work on the level of a placebo, it has been shown to be Not Magic.”

        This is just a re-statement of the fallacy that you claimed you’re not falling into. Some traditional and many contemporary magic systems define magic in psychological terms: unveiling it as psychological isn’t exactly an “aha!” moment.

        More to the point, It’s important to note that not all psychological effects are created equal. (I’m saying psychological, not placebo, since placebo refers to a more specific type of psychological effect than we’re discussing here.)

        For example, our best theory on why tumo works is that it’s psychosomatic using the normal mechanism of biofeedback. However, that knowledge alone does not allow us to replicate the effects of tumo using, say, clinical techniques. Dramatic tumo effects have only been achieved to date using the ritual techniques of Tibetan yoga, and never using simple concentration and other techniques tried by non-mystics.

        Mystic trappings have a unique value and are not easily replaced by other techniques that lack the language and symbols of the arcane.

        Despite your wish to the contrary, this is notably *different* than, say, homeopathy. The best effects of homeopathy can be duplicated with a sugar pill and a smiling doctor. The best effects of magic ritual require, at least so far, actual magic ritual.

        3. Fair enough. I only wish all skeptics were as level and nuanced in their views as yourself.

        Sadly many *do* generalize all magicians as frauds, Take a few weeks to tell friends and acquaintances you’ve started selling magic talismans to help pay for school, and you’ll see for yourself.

        • Pip permalink
          April 27, 2012 3:30 am

          Keeping the numbering to keep things clear:

          1. Defining astrology and dowsing as not being magic is special pleading – you said we should define magic as magic practitioners do. I think (and this is only a guess, so maybe I’m wrong) that if you asked astrologers or dowsers whether what they did was magical (from a sympathetic, in-group position), a large proportion of them would say ‘yes’.

          Furthermore, you are excluding them on a definition that defines magic as “magic that works”. That rather undermines the strength (though not the factual accuracy) of your claim that none of the magic you like has been proven not to work.

          When it comes to the example of Chinese astrology, I take your point, but I would like to point out that “succeeding” is a perverse way of putting it. Does a self-fulfilling prophecy “succeed”? I think I would prefer “killing”. Reading the article, I would say those people were killed by Chinese astrologers as much as the 7/7 bombers were killed by their imams. This is not something to hold up in favour of magic, this is shameful and twisted. I will remember this example next time someone describes astrology to me as ‘harmless’.

          2. “Some traditional and many contemporary magic systems define magic in psychological terms”

          Of the three examples you gave of ones that worked, all three defined magic in terms of the supernatural (my term, not theirs; I don’t care for the fine distinctions of what they want to call ‘natural’ if it does not follow real natural laws). The Tumo practitioners believe themselves to ‘channel wind’ through nonexistent pathways in their bodies. The zombie and the death curse also have clearly supernatural roots; in the case of the death curse, if it was understood by its victims to be psychosomatic, it would not work.

          I haven’t studied this as extensively as you, so can you provide some better, more specific examples of what you’re talking about in the quoted sentence?

          On to Tumo in particular: with Tumo you talk like the case is closed. From what I’ve read of what you’ve put up, all that’s been established is that the monks can do it. It’s interesting that the way they do it is so effective, but I don’t see any indication that further work has been done to establish *what components* of their practice give it a unique edge. Find that out and I’m sure it could be stripped down and replicated on a secular basis. I’m not going to lament that that work isn’t being done, though, because I don’t think it’s that interesting – the idea that they can do it in the first place does not exactly astonish me.

          More to the point, what *you* do is – absolutely – comparable to homeopathy. I could convincingly fake your scrolls with ease. I could manufacture them myself (skipping the production-end hocus pocus), or I could buy some of yours and use mechanical means to make many copies. I could assume a persona similar to yours and write a sales blog with the same flowery language. The customer wouldn’t know; the believing customer would get exactly the same effect. The ‘sugar pill’ in this case is still a discrete material object – just one slightly more complicated than a little white pill.

          3. I can only repeat what I said before; my view of the majority of occultists as being innocently deluded rather than actively fraudulent is not rare and enlightened, it is mainstream. Again you seem to be trying to pull me into a conspiracy of superiority with you.

          Take a look at this video, starting at 15:40.

          That’s James Randi, one of the real aggressive bruisers among skeptical figureheads. He’s saying the same thing: he believes the people who come to him to be tested are overwhelmingly sincere in their beliefs. He says the frauds *avoid tests*. How does that jive with your previous claim that skeptics have tested only fraudulent showmen?

          Here’s the quote:

          “We get lots of them. Hundreds of them every year come by. These are dowsers and people who think that they can talk to the dead as well, but they’re amateurs. They don’t know how to evaluate their own so-called powers. The professionals never come near us…”

          Furthermore, personally, if one of my friends had told me he was selling magic charms? I would laugh at him, and I would not feel bad about it. The addendum “to get through school” is a complicating social factor, but it’s not as if there aren’t other ways to make money.

          Friendship is another complicating social factor; in the end, my attitude to someone I know and like selling relatively innocuous nonsense has to be “well, more fool his customers”. My aunt, who is otherwise a very nice and bubbly person, is a homeopath who has refused to vaccinate her children. I am polite and friendly to her, but not about that stuff. If she mentions it in conversation, then the armistice for that conversation has been broken.

          You get to complain about being picked on on grounds of your race, gender or sexual orientation; things you don’t choose. You don’t get to complain about being taken to task for holding beliefs that others consider damn silly; if you start the conversation, expect the argument. And if you want to call it a common word like ‘magic’, expect people to hear the dictionary meaning of that word. I’m guessing you did not precede the statement that you were selling magic charms with a minute or two of explanation regarding your wholly different definition of magic.

    • April 26, 2012 5:06 am

      Pip’s reply spells everything out a lot better than I could, but:

      “Skeptic testing has debunked showmen, but has (almost?) never been used on practitioners of traditional magic. By this I mean the shamans and sorcerers who serve neighborhoods around the world using handed-down magic techniques.”

      Someone claiming to read your future from your bedroom and someone doing it inside a New Age shop smelling of sandalwood and covered in glass beads are both doing the same trick. My criticisms are not only levelled at TV psychics- the ones in your local magic shop are also culpable for taking advantage of the gullible. But here’s an article about a tv show that apparently does exactly that: http://skepticfreethought.com/2011/08/beyondbelief-nightline/

      Or, as Pip says being ‘deluded’ themselves. [although I wouldn't phrase it such]

      I realise my language is inflammatory, but I do absolutely realise that these folk genuinely believe in what they do. John Edwards may or may not, but most folk genuinely believe the things that they say- con artists are actually fairly rare.

      As for #2, I am not sure what you mean by the claim that we said ‘magic relies on supernatural thinking’. Traditional claims of how the world worked were of course framed in the empirical understanding of the period.* Um. Obviously.

  5. April 26, 2012 8:45 pm

    Imagining that a phone-in psychic is using the same technique as (for example) a traditional shaman is inaccurate, and it’s the kind of inaccuracy that this essay is written against; it also weakens the value of skepticism.

    Properly used, skepticism is one of the best tools humanity has. But that only attains when we question and investigate actual claims. Putting words in the mouths of claimants without looking at what they actually do is, well, not helpful.

    • April 26, 2012 10:33 pm

      (That should read “obtains,” not “attains.”)

    • April 27, 2012 3:53 am

      My point wasn”t to place the phone-in psychic against the traditional shaman, but to place the phone-in psychic against the lady in your neighbourhood who does psychic readings for people. The ‘village practitioner’, as it were.

  6. April 26, 2012 8:48 pm

    Since this dicussion is quite lively, I should say that I’m about to go on a 4-day trip and won’t likely to be able to keep up; I do however plan to read further responses and appreciate the quality of the debate. Many thanks to all who are participating on both sides. You’re helping me better understand these issues even as I write about them.

  7. Pip permalink
    April 27, 2012 3:52 am

    Peculiarly, Arden’s post at 14:03:20 26/04 and Drew’s at 19:50:46 26/04 appear to me to be lacking the ‘Reply’ link at the bottom. What’s up with that?

    • Pip permalink
      April 27, 2012 4:37 am

      Figured it out – it seems to do with the diminishing width of page available for successive replies.

      • April 28, 2012 7:34 pm

        Right. It’s because WordPress has a limit to how deep comment replies can be nested, which is annoying in a lively discussion like this. I already have it set at the max of 10. To make further replies, probably best to start over as if replying to the article itself, but quote the message to which you are replying. Thanks for your patience.

        And thanks, everyone, for a heated *but civil* debate! I’m barely able to keep up with all the replies, but so far all I’ve seen has been meaningful and respectful commentary.

  8. M. Jay Lee permalink
    April 28, 2012 8:18 am

    It seems to me that in this article Drew is asking for a little respect. Drew is saying that even if you don’t believe in magic, magical products can still be viewed as providing real and useful psychological and social benefits, and therefore the makers and sellers of these products should be given some respect and not treated like charlatans and frauds. Drew does say that he assumes that most magical rituals have primarily psychological effects, but he never says that he believes this is the only possible effect or that magical rituals can never work via invisible beings or paranormal forces. He simply asserts that magical rituals and objects can and do provide real benefits even if those benefits are sometimes nebulous and hard to quantify and is agnostic about the mechanism in which these benefits are realized. His article simply offers the non-magic believer several alternative ways that magic can be viewed as real and useful without needing to believe in invisible beings and paranormal forces.

    I don’t know anything about magic or Drew’s scrolls, but I see product’s like magical scrolls as kind of a novelty item that might be used like greeting cards. If someone is getting married or has a baby, instead of a card you could give a magical scroll to convey your wishes of good fortune. Cards are kind of boring, but a magical scroll would be unique and attention grabbing. I remember reading that the attire of both brides and grooms in traditional eastern European weddings is covered with various motifs symbolizing fertility and protection and that some of these motifs go back to the Neolithic period. No doubt these motifs were a form of sympathetic magic, but even if you don’t believe in magic, you may still find great value in continuing to use these ancient symbols. To convey ones good wishes using a scroll with such ancient symbols, especially to someone interested in their cultural heritage, well that would be truly special. I can also see how someone going through a tough time or making a great transition might want to purchase a magical scroll for themselves as a symbol and reminder of their commitment to change and their belief that change will happen.

    I think B and Pip are taking an overly narrow view of Drew’s scrolls that is stuck in the mind set of atheist verses religion, skeptic verse superstition. Even though I am skeptical about paranormal claims, I can see the value in things like Drew’s magical scrolls.

    • April 29, 2012 4:12 pm

      Drew tries to have it both ways. I like to give him the credit he is due for acknowledging that magical belief has no basis in reality, because that takes some courage to admit. But five minutes later he tries to claim that his magical scrolls will improve financial success because they are made with ‘magic potions’. Either one is a skeptic and a naturalist, or not. You cannot readily twist a knob in one’s brain between ‘woo’ and ‘science’- at least, not without being readily criticised for it.

      He is not selling his magical scrolls in the manner you describe. He is selling them as genuine magical artifacts that provide genuine magical aid. If they were simply art, simply neat paintings that were reflecting his personal religious (for want of a better term) belief… then sure. Why not. I like art, and am personally willing to spend money on all kinds of silly things, so I have no problem with this.

      These scrolls are sold as being ‘powerful’ and bringing the ‘presence’ of mythical beings into the lives of those who purchase them. That the ‘enchantment’ is ‘strong’. This is not the language of someone who believes that the effects of his magic are all in the mind; it is the language of a true believer.

      His post here, and your defence, claim that he is a modern sort of magician, one who is practicing an esoteric kind of psychology and lacks the arcana and ‘nonsense’ (as skeptics decry it) of those ‘other’ kinds of magicians. Because he does not describe magic in these terms, we should be willing to grant him (and others like him) more respect.

      There are two problems with this argument. The first is that Drew *simply does not do this*. He does *not* speak of magic as psychology, *except when he does*. When not speaking of magic as a fun thing that some people do that might make them feel better, he uses exactly the same kind of language that Pip and I and other atheists have been criticising in others for years.

      One cannot wear one mask around skeptics and another around believers.

      The second problem is this: if magic is a kind of folk psychology, that has placebo effects, or otherwise real psychosomatic effects that can influence reality, then that is not the end of the argument. One cannot make a claim that ‘magic works in a psych kinda way…. so therefore magic is cool, buy my not-magic scrolls’ and not expect some people to say ‘citation needed’. One cannot also then city some handful of disparate traditions that have some interesting evidence about them and then use language as if to indicate that all or most magical traditions have some truth to them.

      It is blurring boundaries and shifting the conversation. If some magic is cool, that may well be true- but more investigation is needed before we are willing to cool the fires of skeptical inquiry.

      If some magical practicses in some magical traditions may have some merit, that does not mean *your* magical practices in a completely independent magical tradition may have some merit. They may! But the case needs to be made *for them*.

      There is no relationship between the traditions of some indigenous Australian peoples and Drew’s vaguely pan-Celtic American belief system. To imply otherwise is disingenous.

      These are two of the major problems I have with Drew’s ‘defence’ of magical practices. While our discussions have roamed among a bunch of different things, these two problems have been the core of the issue.

      “I think B and Pip are taking an overly narrow view of Drew’s scrolls that is stuck in the mind set of atheist verses religion, skeptic verse superstition. Even though I am skeptical about paranormal claims, I can see the value in things like Drew’s magical scrolls.”

      We would not be stuck in this ‘narrow’ view if Drews claims did not invoke the language of deities and superstitious beliefs. He speaks of ‘spirits’ and ‘gods’ and ‘magic potions’. What else are we supposed to think he means?

      • M. Jay Lee permalink
        April 30, 2012 7:49 pm

        You seem to be saying that one has to believe either that magic is only psychological or only supernatural (involving invisible beings and paranormal forces). It seems to me that one could and that many do believe both.

        • Pip permalink
          May 1, 2012 4:49 am

          I don’t think B is saying that at all. I completely agree with his post above, I think it is a very articulate summing-up of the position we’ve both taken.

          Sure, one can believe in magic that is in part psychological, and in part supernatural. I have no problem imagining that, I don’t think from what he’s written that B would either. If any part of the magic someone believes in carries a supernatural explanation – whether or not other parts carry psychological explanations – then the part which invokes the supernatural is counter-scientific and overwhelmingly likely to be a sham (if not, have it rigorously tested, prove it exists under robust test conditions and collect the many prizes that await you. Not just cash-bearing challenges like James Randi’s, but the Nobel Prize for physics). You cannot expect skeptics to get on board by wheeling the psych explanations to the front of the shop when you still have all this supernatural junk out the back.

          B points out that this is especially true when the psych explanations themselves are very sparsely and poorly tested, and when strongly-worded claims are being made about completely untested products being sold for profit on the grounds that they share a tenuous cultural or philosophical connection with other practices, which have been tested a bit and shown to produce… some kind of a result. Some of the time.

          Just as with B, I have no trouble with ‘magic as art’. I’ve looked at Drew’s scroll gallery; aesthetically there are some of them that I think look really good. It’s ‘magic as technology’ that we’re taking issue with.

        • May 1, 2012 4:56 am

          Pip’s comment address this quite well, which is convenient as I had completely neglected to reply to your post! I am so rude.

          I do accept and realise that plenty of people (I would imagine something close to a majority, actually) believe that magic is both psychological and supernatural. I encounter this thing all the time in my usual habitats on religious and atheist blogs; to have it in the arcanosphere is unsurprising.

          My problem is with the supernatural part, and with the psychology being used as a smokescreen to conceal said mysticism. I apologise if that were not clear.

  9. April 29, 2012 4:36 pm

    :”The thing with beliefs is that it actually doesn’t have to be drawn in ethnic lines, even though it often is the case in indigenous cultures, mostly because their beliefs are not as well known. For example, you don’t have to be of an ethnicity of East Asia to be able to believe and practice Buddhist teachings. The same is true for the various beliefs and practices that originate on Turtle Island (North America). Whether it be pre-colonization or modern i.e. some branches of Neo-druidism. It is only racist if ethnicity is the point of the discussion and not the beliefs.

    Now if it was a minority criticizing the beliefs of a majority, is that somehow bad or would it be okay?

    Here is one example of indigenous peoples viewed as more than ‘noble savages’ circa 16th century http://www.survivalinternational.org/articles/3208-bartolome

    For some reason your post lacks a ‘reply’ button. SO:

    Beliefs pertaining to religions that are evangelical in nature obviously do not need to be drawn on ethnic lines, no. Buddhisms or Islams or Christianities all rely on showing others their respective truths, and spread by conversion.

    But some belief systems *are* based on inclusion in a minority group. Judaism is one of the least-minority of such religions, but indigenous practices around the world also fall into the group. The traditions of indigenous Australians or Americans do not convert followers from outside the in-group. Conversation with various Native Americans at other locations have led me to the conclusion that non-natives following their belief systems are seen by many (most? some?) indigenous Americans is seen as cultural appropriation.

    So I prefer to avoid discussing those belief systems, even when they are practiced by white hipsters.

    “Now if it was a minority criticizing the beliefs of a majority, is that somehow bad or would it be okay?”

    Of course it would be okay. I don’t even understand the point of the question.

    As for your example- yes, there were folk in the 16thC and later who viewed indigenous peoples with something more nuanced than ‘noble savages’ or ‘cruel heathens’. And?

    • Rua Lupa permalink
      April 29, 2012 6:08 pm

      You can still be Jewish and be not ethnically Jewish – I knew a convert. Their beliefs are openly debated about without having to be racist.

      “The traditions of indigenous Australians or Americans do not convert followers from outside the in-group”

      They don’t proselytize, but people still convert who do not have any blood connections – I know several such people, two of whom are not ‘white’, one being Armenian, the other of El Salvador. The two primary medicine people teaching them (whom are full bloods and well respected elders) are encouraged by seeing, not only their people, but all peoples benefiting from their teachings. The four colours often associated with the different coloured peoples from those directions coming together to make a better world that respects all the relations. Many elders want people to be interested in their culture and teachings and be able to hand them down to younger generations, often being disappointed that many of their own young people are not interested. They are very pleased whenever anybody wants to hear the teachings, its not an ethnic thing, its a culture thing. A culture thing that is feared to soon be lost. More and more, if not most, young native peoples don’t know much, if anything, of their people’s culture. Its a sad reality, so talking about it, whether or you agree with the culture or not, is valuable in and of itself.

      As for the ‘cultural appropriation’ argument. What say you on the adoption of Greek culture by Romans? The cultural appropriation thing is, in my opinion, laughable. It doesn’t matter who is making the point, its a natural phenomenon that has occurred throughout history. Even in wildlife populations, especially predators adopting tactics from other predators, and more commonly acting like their prey to blend in. Mimicry is quite common everywhere.

      Look at the history of almost any musical instrument – bagpipes originate from the middle east, guitars originate from central Asia and India, harps originate from Persia, etc. Are the use of these instruments a bad thing because it was originally from a different culture? Of course not. Its the same for anything else in a culture. “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery” It is only really offensive when done mockingly. Even people who are full blood end up doing the same things when trying to rediscover their traditions. One prime example is when one guy got a tattoo that was traditional to his people and when he finally met traditional practitioners they all laughed because he had a woman’s tattoo.

      Rua: “Now if it was a minority criticizing the beliefs of a majority, is that somehow bad or would it be okay?”

      B: “Of course it would be okay. I don’t even understand the point of the question.”

      B: “When someone in a position of dominance discusses the beliefs of those in the minority of power, especially when criticising those beliefs, it has extremely racist connotations.”

      The point is that it was implied that criticizing a minority’s beliefs is bad and that criticizing a majority’s beliefs is okay. It is contradictory – why is it okay one way and bad the other?

      B: “As for your example- yes, there were folk in the 16thC and later who viewed indigenous peoples with something more nuanced than ‘noble savages’ or ‘cruel heathens’. And?”

      B: “The history of our civilisation is littered with examples of contrasting ‘our’ belief systems with those of the (at best) ‘noble savage’ and (usually) ‘lesser peoples’.”

      Just was expressing that the spectrum presented was flawed.

      • April 29, 2012 8:50 pm

        This is well and truly beyond the subject material under discussion. If you wish to have a conversation about cultural appropriation, feel free to submit a guest post yourself, and I will comment upon that.

        Until such a post emerges, I will no longer engage in such an off-topic conversation.

      • Pip permalink
        April 30, 2012 9:24 am

        I don’t have any input about this topic as a whole, but I do have two things I want to say.

        1.HOW DO YOU DO BOLDFACE?

        2.“It’s OK because it happens in nature” is a fallacy. Your own example says it best – predators use mimicry in order to get closer to their prey, and then kill them. There are other examples of mimicry in nature but they are just as morally neutral, and often just as undesirable as a model for human nature (many infanticidal parasites are mimics). Natural != ethical.

        • Rua Lupa permalink
          April 30, 2012 7:16 pm

          1. Boldface is done with ” . Hopefully the example shows when posted, if not its a “less than” symbol a “b” then and a “greater than” symbol.

          2. I didn’t say it was good because it was a natural phenomenon. I just said that it was a natural phenomenon, which is to say that it is not something solely in the human purview. As that is how it has been presented as, which is why I find it funny.

          How is people mimicking each other bad? For its not at all an appropriation, its in reality just cultural exchange. Do you need permission to use chopsticks because they’re from East Asian cultures? Are you appropriating when surfing because its from Hawaiian culture? How does any of this harm anybody? If anything this exchange of cultural items and activities benefits people. Math, different dishes, spices, meditations, yoga, etc. Are examples of “cultural appropriation”. Without this cultural exchange cultures would stagnate and are susceptible to decay and likely death.

          Anybody that gets displeased when a person is participating in their culture because their ethnicity is different from theirs is the one who is racist.

          • Pip permalink
            May 1, 2012 4:12 am

            testing

            testing

            testing

            As I said, I’m not trying to get involved in this part of the discussion as a whole; I don’t think I’m in a position to have an educated opinion on it. I just wanted to draw attention to the ‘from nature’ point, which seemed a non sequitur to me.

            I didn’t see B implying that such appropriation was unique to humans or that it needed to be for his argument to work, but maybe I missed something.

            • Pip permalink
              May 1, 2012 4:13 am

              Dammit, got that formatting wrong then.

              testing

              testing

              testing

            • Pip permalink
              May 1, 2012 4:14 am

              Yes! Thank you.

              testing endtags.

            • Rua Lupa permalink
              May 1, 2012 10:22 am

              *thumbs up* :D

            • May 1, 2012 4:54 am

              You did not miss anything; my argument had nothing to do with animal behaviours.

            • Rua Lupa permalink
              May 1, 2012 10:23 am

              How not, we’re all animals ^_^

            • Rua Lupa permalink
              May 1, 2012 10:53 am

              The natural phenomenon thing was mentioned because “cultural appropriation” is usually viewed as something that only occurs between humans. B’s reply of “my argument had nothing to do with animal behaviours.”
              is my case and point. We are all animals and this “cultural appropriation” behaviour is in fact an animal behaviour that can be observed outside the human species.

              This is important because to be able to view it as something that happens beyond the human scope sets up a different way of looking at things. Because when you look at it occurring between groups of a different species, Chimpanzees for example, it is easier to not take it personally and have a fresh look at what is really going on. Providing a better understanding of why it happens within our species and better evaluate the results while avoiding personal bias.

              So with the Chimpanzee example, there is a troop that hunts with spears – which is believed to be a fairly recent thing (between a couple of generations within that troop at least). The adoption of using tools has already happened with breaking open nuts with stones, and stems to fish out termites from their mounds. With this example would a different troop adopting spears to hunt from their neighbors be a bad thing? (With this example does the mention of natural phenomenon make more sense?)

            • May 1, 2012 4:32 pm

              I love how me saying ‘I am not going to continue to speak about this’ doesn’t stop you from doing so. You go right on dancing across the cosmos, nyan-commenter.

            • Rua Lupa permalink
              May 2, 2012 1:07 pm

              http://www.hotimg.com/direct/mFcanBm.gif
              :D

            • Rua Lupa permalink
              May 2, 2012 1:09 pm

              Lets try to embed this, for kicks :P

            • Rua Lupa permalink
              May 2, 2012 1:12 pm

              Didn’t work :(
              *hopes the link keeps things light hearted* ^_^

  10. April 29, 2012 8:50 pm

    Perhaps it would be helpful to distinguish various gradations of “naturalism” within the broad sphere of Occult, Pagan, and traditional magic. We may be applying different standards of what qualifies as “naturalistic.” Locating ourselves along the following spectrum might clear up some differences (feel free to critique the spectrum of course, as I’ve no doubt forgotten/neglected some things).

    1. Naturalistic by definition – consistent with naturalism by virtue of definition alone. Example: Many Pagans consider their religion a nature religion, hence they object to their magic and gods being labeled as “super-natural” (i.e. outside nature). They define their magic and gods as existing within nature, hence “natural”, even if most modern Western outsiders to their traditions would likely consider them supernaturalistic. Almost all traditions prior to the development of the concept “supernatural” in the 13th-century theology of Thomas Aquinas, and many after, would qualify as “naturalistic” by this account.

    2. Naturalistic by speculation – consistent with naturalism by virtue of speculation, but without substantial evidence. For example, many Pagans hold out hope that quantum physics may one day prove magic true. The view of quantum physics touted to support this speculation is usually so vague and poorly understood that virtually no substantial evidence currently links the two (so far as I know – would love to see some, if anyone can recommend it).

    3. Naturalism by anecdotal evidence – consistent with naturalism by virtue of speculation, buttressed by anecdotal support. For example, the reports of many, many who have observed magic “work” in their personal experience. This probably provides the bulk of current evidence offered by the majority of Occult and Pagan practicioners to support the claim that magic works, including some published authors and other “experts.” Unfortunately, it seems to me quite rare that any attention is paid to what is meant when saying magic “works.” The goals of any given magical effect are often stated so vaguely, and with so little indication of what would count as “success” and what “failure”, that little can be ascertained for certain from such reports. Nevertheless, anecdotal evidence is not insignificant, and should not be dismissed out of hand.

    4. Naturalism by qualitative empirical evidence – consistent with naturalism by virtue of speculation, buttressed by rigorous, peer-reviewed study by experts in the field. This one-ups the previous category by introducing more formal means of gathering, reporting, analyzing, and critiquing data. This is sufficiently rigorous to warrant serious consideration in much of current academia in the humanities and social sciences. I would guess that the three examples cited by Drew – tumo, vodou zombies, and killing with a word – would fit here, but I’d have to look more closely at the specific studies to make that determination.

    5. Naturalism by quantitative empirical evidence – consistent with naturalism by virtue of speculation, buttressed by quantitative empirical support. Studies of Zener cards and CIA studies of psi phenomena might belong here (note that critiques of methodology may still make or break such evidence). Also, many highly respected but as-yet unverified or partially verified theories would also fit here. Until recently, string theory probably fit here (recent evidence from the Large Hadron Collider failed to confirm its particle predictions, which makes me question its current status). Only very rarely have I heard of such studies among practicioners of Occult Pagan, or traditional magic, though in principle it should be fairly simple for many touted effects. A weather spell, for example, might be tested by asking a wide variety of magicians, whose talent is recognized by their communities, to perform the spell. The desired weather pattern they hope to create may be recorded on a public website prior to performance of the spell, then cross-checked with actual weather reports for their local region later that day. This could be compared with two control groups: the predictions of professional meteorologists, and random selection of weather patterns. If the weather spell is genuinely effective, statistical analysis should reveal the magicians to be significantly more accurate in “predicting” the weather later that day than both random selection and professional meteorologists. Another experiment applicable to purely psychological effects, which would employ technology on the cusp of being developed (see my previous reply to Pip), would scan activity in brain regions to objectively verify that the intended psychological state (e.g. confidence, love, etc.) has been effectively evoked. Even with current technology, some evidence might be obtained. For example, a test of a spell for confidence in face of a problem might measure perspiration, galvanic skin response, or other signs of fear or stress compared with control subjects facing similar problems.

    6. Naturalism by elimination of competing theories – consistent with naturalism not only by definition and evidence, but also by virtue of being the best, most parsimonious theory to explain the data. This is the arena where any theory really proves itself. Buttressed by both anecdotal and quantitative empirical evidence, magic as a theory must still explain the relevant phenomena more reliably and more parsimoniously than other competing explanations. If successful in this, I see no reason why any theory, including magic, should not be considered 100% naturalistic, scientific, and in every sense “real.”

    Note that even at the sixth level, some anomalies may remain. As historian of science Thomas Kuhn says, few if any theories ever completely resolve all their puzzles, and those that do cease to interest scientists as they become relegated to engineers.

    • Pip permalink
      April 30, 2012 9:26 am

      I certainly find your definitions of naturalism strange, so it’s probably best that you posted this point of view.

      When I describe myself as a naturalist, I mean that
      A) I am a scientist, and science is methodologically naturalistic
      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Methodological_naturalism#Methodological_naturalism
      B) I believe the established scientific theories we have add up to a consistent picture of the universe as a whole, and that that picture is metaphysically naturalistic
      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Metaphysical_naturalism

      You may argue that (B) is argument from induction and therefore has problems. I completely agree, but that doesn’t stop me from holding to it – as soon as I see good *empirical evidence* that it is not so, I will re-evaluate the position. As it stands, the trend is very convincing: different fields which you would not assume *have* to be connected end up integrating and reducing into the same metaphysically naturalist picture.

      For example, if the picture was not valid, and if we were instead dealing with a universe essentially set in motion by magic (to use a strong dictionary definition of magic, and not anything connected to Drew’s definition – for example, any interpretation of the account in the book of Genesis), then why would we assume that living organisms had to fit within a framework built up from basic chemistry, itself built up from quantum physics? They could very well be animated by a “vital principle” completely distinct from inanimate matter. They aren’t, and that’s quite telling when you repeat the comparison for other fields, even systems with the most unique and high-level properties appear to be compatible with being built from the bottom up out of fundamental physics, involving nothing more than fields and particles. The act of carrying out that complete construction may be beyond our power to compute (in part simply due to the immense numbers of particle units involved), but there is no step in the ladder of reduction at which the introduction by fiat of an extra ingredient appears necessary.

      All I’m doing is outlining my position, rather than arguing its case, so I’ll leave my pre-emptive justification at that. What I find peculiar with *your* definition is it seems to have little to do with any philosophical stance; rather, you’re just parameterising how well the evidence stacks up in favour of a hypothesis.

      Definition (1) seems to me to be a laughable exercise in nonsensical semantics. “We choose to define the non-existent phenomena we believe in as part of nature, though they cannot be found in nature by any independent empirical observation. Therefore our position is naturalist”. No, therefore their position is incorrect.

      Definition (2) is better classified as wishful thinking. They hold their beliefs before they come across the science they hope will bolster it; they appropriate the science as a means of adding a stamp of plausibility to their beliefs, cherry-picking phrases and concepts which appeal to them and usually mutilating them horribly in the process. I have been proof-reading an article for Drew on this very subject.

      Definition (3) falls simply under the heading of “deficient evidence”. In establishing this type of claim (I think it’s fairly clear we are talking about literal truth claims now – forgive me if I’m misreading you), anecdotal evidence is worth very little indeed. It might be persuasive grounds to look into something properly, but it is not persuasive grounds to *believe* something in and of itself. After all, if the effects reported in the anecdotal evidence really exist, there’s no good reason why they should evaporate under rigorous test conditions!

      Definition (4) seems peculiarly misplaced to me; it could be folded into a footnote to definition (5). Both of them are describing hypothesis testing, but we are discussing claims that fall into the domain of science, and therefore we require quantitative data. You use Drew’s three examples in category (4), but – without getting into the minutiae of how well they actually have been tested, or can be tested – all of them require measurement of quantitative data. In the case of Tumo, body temperatures and time intervals which can be endured; in the case of the zombie, physiological responses; in the case of the curse, a death rate.

      Definitions (5) and (6) describe (loosely) scientific hypothesis testing, skipping over the important nuts and bolts of what makes a valid test (the scientific method) – which is perhaps why you’ve included Zener cards and ‘psi phenomena’ as examples when they absolutely do not pass properly-constructed tests. Methodology isn’t an afterthought, it is vitally important. On the same note I might criticise the details of your proposed tests for a ‘weather spell’ or a psychological effect, but that would be me being picky – I should try not to get mired in tangential details.

      I am going to get mired in one, though – in your discussion of definition (5) you mention string theory, and I’m wondering what result from the LHC you’re referring to. Recent results from the LHC have ruled out large sections of the parameter space for super-symmetry (or SUSY for short), but the problem of string theory that its critics have centred on is that it makes *very few* testable predictions – it’s obviously tuned to reproduce what we already know, but beyond that its inputs can be twiddled to make almost any observation fit. Some people have questioned whether, on a Popperian basis of falsifiability, string theory is scientific at all (although it’s certainly a convincingly elegant hypothesis, mathematically). When you call it “highly-respected”, it’s important to be clear that it’s always been speculative and contentious.

      Moving on, the distinction between definition (5) and definition (6) seems to me a bit blurry, as when you have competing theories with the same solid body of evidence, the way that a ‘winner’ is chosen is by looking for places where their predictions differ and carrying out further, more specific empirical tests – as in definition (5).

      In summary, to me your definitions represent a spectrum of empiricism, not different categories of naturalism. That’s probably the more important point, but the one I think I’ve spent more time saying (things do tend to work out that way, don’t they?) is that whatever you want to call it, if you want to claim to *share a position* with scientists and skeptics, it’s not enough to redefine that position into ‘grades’ or shades of grey – you need to adhere to the gold standard of evidence set by scientific enquiry. If you don’t, you can’t expect to get sympathy by appropriating the same words – you are in fact undermining the scientific position, not aligning yourself with it.

      • Pip permalink
        April 30, 2012 9:32 am

        Apologies for the run-on sentence in the paragraph justifying metaphysical naturalism; I need to proofread this stuff better.

      • April 30, 2012 7:51 pm

        Good critique, Pip. The breakdown was intended to be “strange.” I was aware that the breakdown would be quite divergent from the typical ways of framing naturalism, and hoped that by virtue of that it might bring to light some of the ways naturalism has been applied and mis-applied.

        It seems to me the accepted definitions of methodological and metaphysical naturalism, which I hold pretty much the same as you (slight nitpicking aside), depend on the question of “what counts as natural?” Both the wikipedia pages you linked to, for example, define naturalism using the term “natural”, without defining that term. It seems to me that “natural” tends to be defined either against the supernatural or in terms of consistency with the findings of modern scientific methods of inquiry. The range I presented, while acknowledging all the problems you rightly point out, aims to start at the definition against the supernatural and then progress toward greater and greater degrees of adherence to rigorous scientific method. Apologies if scientific method itself was not stated explicitly enough, it was not meant as an “afterthought.”

        I find that these different levels, which are not intended as competing definitions of naturalism per se so much as different levels of what people feel count as natural, often come into play in contemporary discussions where science and spirituality converge. You get some people arguing a tradition or practice is naturalistic because it is at least conceivably within nature, or maybe because there’s some smidge of empirical evidence, while another disagrees because it’s not the best explanation. The word “woo” comes up a lot, which seems to cover everything from the supernatural to the not-quite-scientific, maybe even as far as not-the-best-explanation.

        Empiricism is certainly fundamental to both naturalism and scientific method, so there should appear to be a great deal of overlap.

        A few notes:

        Level 1 – See Benson Saler’s 1977 essay “The Supernatural as a Western Category” for a development of the concept of the supernatural in Aquinas’ theology, and its differences today.

        Level 2 – For example, Isaac Bonewits calls magic an art and a science that “deals with a body of knowledge that, for one reason or another, has not yet been fully investigated or confirmed by the other arts and sciences” (Bonewits, Real Magic, 1979).

        Level 4 – There are many academic disciplines, not usually “hard” sciences, that seem okay going on qualitative data without quantitative support. Humanities to be sure, and possibly some of the “soft” sciences as well. That’s why I separated this one out from #5.

        String theory – thanks for providing a better view into that context. I’m not well-read at all in string theory. But since you asked, here’s the news item I was thinking of: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-14680570

        • Pip permalink
          May 1, 2012 5:23 am

          I don’t think that trying to define natural against the supernatural is a good idea.

          Firstly, the meaning of ‘supernatural’ is ‘that which is not natural’, so the definition is kinda circular. Secondly, I think it’s a poor choice generally to try and construct a fundamental definition for something as real and meaningful as the natural world with respect to something as empty and fictional as the supernatural.

          I think when the word ‘natural’ is used in defining metaphysical and methodological naturalism, it has a straightforward and intuitively accessible meaning – natural objects obey consistent, mathematical physical laws. They obey them in the same way; when we observe an exception, it indicates a deeper, more fundamental law for us to understand. They are accessible through empirical investigation. This is not a concrete definition, but you see what I’m getting at – being a part of the natural world is not a property dependent on how well something conforms to the models we have at the present time, it is about conforming to the idea of physical laws in the first place. Nobody in physics or any other hard science believes that our current models are 100% accurate. In many cases we know where they must be wrong.

          One of the salient features of supernatural claims in practice (rather than in some abstracted philosophical sense) is how they retreat from the analysis that natural laws are so amenable to. The dowsers who fail the double-blind trial in the Dawkins video barely even consider the possibility that their powers do not exist; instead, they insist that “the test was all wrong”. Alt med quacks claim that laboratory conditions ‘put out the wrong vibrations’ for their snake-oil and crystals to work. Creationists say the devil put the fossils there. Even the ‘agnostics’ like Drew prefer to shelter their uncertainty from investigation, rather than watch it evaporate – I notice he has not responded to my suggestion of how he could conduct a test of whether his familiar spirit genuinely is a product of his imagination, a subject on which he claims to maintain a “respectful doubt” because of an absence of conclusive evidence. Perhaps that’s not fair, though, as he has been busy.

          This is where the term ‘woo’ comes from. It’s not a precisely defined word, it’s a pejorative describing a culture of marketable nonsense rich in scammers and the deluded. There’s no need for something to be supernatural for it to be woo, it just needs to be counter-scientific. A magnetic bracelet that claims to alter your body’s ‘energy field’ – a thing strictly confined to the natural world, if it existed at all – is just as much an example of woo as a magic scroll or a guardian angel.

          I think the term comes from the idea of someone waggling their fingers and making the noise of a ghost in lieu of an explanation – whether it’s actual ghosts or meaningless technobabble (sorry, that should probably be meaningless quantum technobabble), it’s all woo. That’s how I picture it, anyway.

          Regarding the LHC article – yep, that’s about SUSY. Where did you get the impression it was about string theory?

          • May 1, 2012 6:16 am

            >yep, that’s about SUSY. Where did you get the impression it was about string theory?

            Dammit! You’re right. (scratches head) I must have confused it, or read an article before that which referenced string theory. I can’t find that other article now, but here’s one that connects supersymmetry with string theory while being careful to note, as you say, that the LHC results do not debunk string theory: http://www.pcmag.com/article2/0,2817,2392094,00.asp

            Or maybe there were just some colliding particles in my head when I wrote that… :-(

  11. May 1, 2012 7:48 am

    I think that the main problem here is a question of where to draw the line between false or misleading advertisement and normal, promotional hyperbole.

    If someone sells vanilla incense and waxes on about its relaxing properties, is that going too far? I personally do feel relaxed when I smell vanilla incense, but other people find incense annoys the hell out of them. Is it OK to give that spiel to me and wrong to give it to someone else? If I buy it, light it up and feel more relaxed as I unwind from work, I won’t be the slightest bit interested in participating in a double-blind experiment to determine whether chemical properties of the incense or the placebo effect, if any, produces that effect. For me, it will have “worked” and that will be enough.

    But what if I were suffering chronically from anxiety and did not have enough money for medication, and so convinced by this pitch, I started stocking up on vanilla incense? That’s potentially much more sinister; it could be taking advantage of the desperate. But it all seems very difficult to gauge. Where does the obligation of the seller end and the obligation of the buyer start?

    To use another example, I recently bought some jeans which I think make me better than I have recently. I’m not sure how beneficial it would’ve been to me or anyone else, if the check-out clerk had said, “Sir, I just wanted to inform you that there is no scientific evidence that this outfit will improve your self-esteem, social standing, or chances of marriage in the near future.” It would break the mood and they would be out of a sale. On the other hand, I can’t help but think a disclaimer like that might be useful for patients undergoing cosmetic surgery.

    “Magic” according to Merriam-Webster is “1a : the use of means (as charms or spells) believed to have supernatural power over natural forces b : magic rites or incantations”. It’s interesting that the passive voice is used in this definition–”believed” by whom? It’s almost like saying “rumored”, but doesn’t necessarily mean the practitioner or the beneficiary have to believe that it is supernatural in nature. It could be referring to practices that historically or in other cultures are/were “believed” to be supernatural. Maybe that’s where the subjective appeal in these types of items and practices is for many people…the unknown source of this rumored and unconfirmed power; the mystery as it were. They may know very well there is no scientific evidence and would never make any kind of hazardous decision on the basis of a scroll. That’s not necessarily exploitation. It could be, just like me buying jeans, they may not want to hear it at that point because it would spoil the mood.

    I don’t know where the answer is definitely. I rarely do spells for other people, and when I have it has been (so far) for university-educated people who are Agnostic or nominal Christians in first-world countries who don’t believe in magic, in theory. And even still, I made some “business” cards (no money changes hands) that I gave to some of them which said my name and “Good, Non-for-Profit Naturalistic Witch” and had my logo which has an Atheist symbol on the conical hat. And I’ve explained it to them my philosophy about things and took care of practical details (i.e. ensuring they weren’t allergic to any ingredients, explaining the symbolism). I think I’ve covered my bases as much as possible, and they know what’s going on and yet they’ve decided on occasions that it serves them some subjective benefit. If everyone’s on the same page, I’m not sure there’s anything wrong going on.

    In short, I guess what I’m saying is that I agree with a lot of what Pip and B are saying, but I think there’s room for nuance.

    • May 1, 2012 4:42 pm

      Advertising is one thing. That is, after all, to a certain extent, lying that everyone is familiar with. There are watchgroups and consumer advocacy organisations (at least in my country) to ensure that advertising toes the line between ‘hyperbole for marketing’ and ‘malicious lying’.

      Your example of the incense is good, because anyone who stocks up on incense instead of acquiring health care is clearly someone who *needs* the latter. It is not the fault of the advertiser for saying that incense is relaxing, but the fault of the consumer for reading too much into that statement.

      Statements about magic potions increasing one’s financial success, or physical strength, or what have you- these are not hyperbole. They are representing the actual traits of the product. Incense packets do not claim the magical power of the wood will make your muscular system more adaptable, or help your stock options, through magical means.

      I don’t really understand the jeans comments, though. No-one buys jeans to improve their chances of marriage or whatever, do they? I myself dress pretty well, but it’s solely to look good- a pure and entire social construct, that has everything to do with the humanities and very little to do with science. This can help with self-esteem and the like, but in a socially constructed, people-think-I-am-cute way, not in a way that is compatible with the hard science that Pip discusses.

      Like I have said elsewhere, if the advertisement for magic was just ‘this is a fun ritual you and your loved ones will enjoy! with dinner for another $40′ then I would have no more objection to it than I do dinner theatre or museums or plays. Art is art. It has no ability to affect the material world.

  12. May 1, 2012 6:02 pm

    Maybe I can clarify that point on the jeans and compare it with another situation to make my point.

    Ads for jeans or indeed many other types of products and services (i.e. clothing or cosmetics) may imply or state that you will be “hipper”, i.e. more socially acceptable (and thus have more love and/or economic status) if you buy them. Those assertions and implications are rarely (if ever) backed up with any scientific evidence, but I would guess that most people buying them are aware of that. Those people believe if they buy a new suit or have their hair done in a particular way, they will actually feel more confident to be seen in public in social situations or be more assertive at work.

    On the other hand, someone selling an untested herbal tea as a cure for leukemia is clearly fraudulent and anyone doing so should be put in jail. They are clearly passing off as medicine something that is not, and trying to make a profit off of it.

    Given the two scenarios, my point is:

    1.) While both may involve, “untested claims”, I don’t think these two situations are genuinely comparable. The first scenario’s “untested claim” is almost like to an inside joke between client and vendor. The second is a criminal taking advantage of someone’s gullibility and/or desperation.

    2.) Selling a “wealth potion” or a “love potion”, at least in some situations, may be more akin to the first situation than the second. Is a love potion necessarily different from any cologne or perfume advertisement implying that the person wearing them will garner more positive attention from people in their surroundings? Maybe, yes, but maybe not. If anything, it might be considered more honest than those other advertisements whose implications about the future are sometimes very subtle and have a more subconscious effect. At least calling it a “love potion” is direct.

    • May 5, 2012 2:15 am

      Selling a wealth potion or a love potion is the second example, not the first.

      Additionally, you appear to be assuming that I am not also critical of advertising for blurring these same lines; I am.

  13. May 2, 2012 12:20 am

    I’ve done my best to catch up with comments, but the discussion has just grown too big too fast in the four days I was away. This will likely be my last major comment on this particular post. I think it’s best if I make a general reply about what I’ve gotten from this conversation.

    There are three things that stand out at me.

    1.
    I feel like there is a profound communication difficulty. I notice that at times Pip and B will engage the views I’m presenting, but other times they revert to describing magic as “not real” and its effects as lies. I’m not sure if this is just an overly cynical view of psychological effects – which by all accounts are real, and can be offered without lying – or if our skeptics here are too entrenched in viewing magic as total bunk to remember the psychological effects when discussing it. The arguments that apply to, say, Uri Geller do not apply to a naturalistic theory of magic, but I sometimes feel skeptics are unable to differentiate the two. This conversation seemed to reinforce that, regrettably

    I also realize that my choice of language – calling naturalistic magic “magic” among other things – contributes to this communication gap. Even though I consider this a fair and well-attested usage, it seems to really put off skeptics and make the conversation harder.

    ——-

    2. This conversation made me think deeply about how often I need to repeat my “no supernatural effects” belief on my blog, altmagic. It comes up regularly as-is, and my customers to date have all found it interesting and been aware of it before purchasing. But I don’t want there to be any element of deceit, even unintentional deceit.

    I definitely feel that Pip and B are overstating their case – if I followed their suggestions, the blog about magic would never mention magic at all – but if the blog as-is can even come off as hiding the true nature of its products, that’s a serious issue.

    The task of using arcane language (because it’s part of the art form) without promising impossible results (because I’m not a dick) is at the heart of altmagic, and I’m grateful to have heard critics’ voices on it.

    ——-

    3. Something I didn’t see in this conversation, that I would like to see, is a middle ground from skeptics. This would not be unprecedented: it’s the kind of view skeptics usually take of meditation.

    Meditation is associated with many mystical claims, and also with a specific set of proven benefits. Meditation can help with relaxation and anxiety relief. It can actually change the behavior of the brain. On the other hand it cannot do miraculous things – meditators cannot use their practice to heal people.

    Many (most?) meditation proponents continue to speak in very mystic terms about meditation, and promote the idea that it can do miraculous things. Just like many magicians still talk about their spells that way.

    Skeptics have succeeded at condemning false promises by meditators while simultaneously promoting the very real health benefits of meditation. Doctors even suggest it to patients.

    But skeptics have not succeeded at a similar middle ground approach to magic. I suspect that is partly because

    [a] most skeptics are unaware of the examples of effective magical practices (which I hope this article helps in some small degree);

    [b] many skeptics remain wedded to a supernaturalist definition of magic and reject the language of naturalistic magic; and

    [c] the exact degree to which magic has real effects is not well tested or well demonstrated; lacking more data, a few examples must not be generalized.

    My essay ended with a call for critical thinking among skeptics. The response has helped me better understand the very deep thinking that already goes into the issue. I hope it also provokes some thought among skeptic readers about what a “middle ground” view of magic, similar to that toward meditation, would really look like.

    Many thanks to all who are participating. By all means, I hope you continue to discussion, though I’m moving to the sidelines from here out.

    • Pip permalink
      May 4, 2012 11:24 am

      I too feel like it’s time to retire from this discussion, but I do want to reply to this post.

      You’re right that B and I have continued to discuss concepts regarding the genuinely supernatural. I would say that that’s because they have continued to be brought up, not because we have been conflating them with your discussion about psychological effects. Mr Newberg (sorry if this sounds overly formal, I don’t know your first name!) has been talking about the definition of naturalism; you yourself admitted to believing in the possibility that the spirits you believed in had a real, external existence, and presented your personal experiences with them as some form of evidence.

      These discussions have been a parallel thread to the discussion of magic-as-psychology, a proposal which I think both myself and B (from my reading of his posts) have understood clearly from the outset. We’ve been arguing that the language you use muddies the waters between magic-as-magic and magic-as-psychology, but we have not claimed that therefore the arguments against the first apply to the second.

      We have made separate arguments about magic-as-psychology (I say ‘we’, but B has expressed them most clearly), and you haven’t answered them; in fact, you’ve scarcely acknowledged them. Aside from the potential misdirection of using “the language of arcana” to describe mundane psychological effects, when you make a statement like this:

      “…Psychological effects – which by all accounts are real [..] can be offered without lying”

      we as skeptics object. This is an extremely strong statement which you repeat like a mantra, and which is not justified on a sound empirical basis. It is justified to say that it is plausible, and nothing more.

      You make the leap from plausibility to ‘proof’ by sleight of hand, in two successive jumps.

      The first: you claim psychological explanations have been found for some “traditional magic”, a separate category from that of modern ‘showmen’ that has not been given a fair trial by skeptics who lump them together. To back this up, you give a handful of plausible but highly specific examples (referring back now to your original “three spells that work” post), with a striking dearth of meaningful citations and a rather shaky and variable standard of proof. Notably, you don’t pick out any commonalities in the way your examples work – either the rituals that go into them, or the effects they produce. You just lump them together as members of one supposedly well-defined group, “traditional magic”.

      Therefore (here it comes) we are supposed to take it on trust that all magic that is “traditional” is good, honest and scientifically sound. “Traditional” begins to be used as a buzzword, in much the same way as the frequent references to exotic tribes and the (frankly irrelevant) quasi-pejorative repetition of the word ‘Western’ with respect to scientific attitudes towards the supernatural. This is a substitution of alternative culture and identity politics for logical inference.

      Digging into your posts on this subject, you do give some thin reasoning to back this up: you claim that long-standing magical traditions evolve by handing down ‘what works’, and thus converge on the genuine, naturalistic psychotherapy you attempt to define; unfortunately, you present no evidence that this mechanism works. If it is the case, then why have astrology or dowsing survived as traditions? They don’t work. Neither, for that matter, do transubstantiation or prayer, components of a tradition as rich in history, ritual and sincere belief as any of the examples you raise, and probably more so. Does prayer work? No, and the scientific studies and meta-analyses establishing that it doesn’t have been extensive. What is the operative difference between your examples and prayer? In the case of the death curse, none – you yourself even tantalisingly dangle. So what justifies the generalisation? There is no solid evidence to support the move from the specific to the general.

      Beyond the lack of supporting evidence for this step, the conjectured reasoning behind it is also faulty. The survival and spread of traditions is not necessarily a function of its truth or worth, but quite probably a function of how good a replicator the idea is. The commandment to convert or exterminate those not of your own religion we would all recognise as being a bad idea, but it’s a fantastic replicator, and has done pretty well for itself. Similarly, fraudulent magic tricks are impressive, and a great way to impress the people around you with the ‘truth’ of your mystical claims: there’s no immediate reason why a tradition of impressive fraud would not be just as good a survivor as a tradition of trial-and-error-honed placebo psychology. Looking at seances, we have a con-trick tradition going back over a century. Looking at astrology, we have a tradition of bullshit going back to Babylon. They have survived because they are superficially impressive, and because they tell people what they want to hear. Their survival has nothing to do with any truth behind their claims, or any benefit they confer on those who listen to them.

      History has not winnowed out these frauds from the mysterious set of ‘good guy’ traditions you seek to rescue from the mess, because the general public is a very bad bullshit detector. It’s not difficult for something to survive in spite of – or even because of – being downright wrong. I would recommend Dawkins’ discussion of Darwinian “memes” at the end of The Selfish Gene for a far more interesting exploration of this exact topic. To quote a Minchin song again: just because ideas are tenacious doesn’t mean that they’re worthy.

      The second jump you make (pretending for the moment to accept the supposition that there is a well-defined class of “traditional magic” which always provides tangible and beneficial effects) is far simpler to dissect. You implicitly assert that what you do falls into that class, when as far as I can tell, your enchanted scrolls are invented out of whole cloth. You use historical gods, historical symbols and historical concepts, but you blend them together with a bit of this and a bit of that. There’s no deep historical continuity that you’re drawing on; druids didn’t hang scrolls like yours on the side of the henge when disembowelling birds to ask the gods what the Romans were planning next. Even if the historical winnowing process worked, it cannot have acted on your product, because you invented it.

      There’s nothing wrong with that when it comes to your scrolls as works of art: they’re original. There is something wholly wrong with it, however, when you try to sell your work under the moniker of “magic-as-tech”, claiming it will bring people real benefits, and pinning that claim on your argument from tradition – traditions that didn’t create your product. Never mind the problems with the argument that traditional magic works; you have presented no reasoning to show why, if that was true, this would imply that your magic works. More importantly, you have collected no evidence to put any such reasoning to the test.

      You conclude your post above with what is tempting to interpret as a straightforward middle ground fallacy. The fact that we have a strong disagreement does not necessarily mean that we should meet in the middle. However, I’m going to make a very speculative statement and say that I think there is something in what you say… you just have it the wrong way round. It’s not the skeptics who are “failing” or “succeeding” to find this middle ground – it’s the magicians.

      Nothing about the way skeptics assess evidence or regard claims of the supernatural needs to change. No revision of skeptical or scientific thinking is needed to appreciate effects rooted in psychology; such effects are already the subject of wide-ranging scientific investigation. What the magicians need to do is start cleaning house. Update the language, repudiate all lurking supernaturalism, start applying some rigorous standards of proof to any claim that is made, and maybe you can synthesise a consistently acceptable definition of working ‘magic’, rather than the momentary flashes of compatibility with skeptical enquiry that your post here exhibits. The occultists here and on altmagic have been largely a positive echo chamber; what you need to be having is an argument.

      You said that your last post was probably your last response; I’ll say that this is definitely mine. If anyone wants to stick up a last word in response to this, I’ll read it, but I’m going to abstain from any further replies in this thread.

      • Pip permalink
        May 4, 2012 11:27 am

        Damn, proofreading fail. Please ignore the half-sentence “you yourself even tantalisingly dangle”, it was a point that I misremembered. I meant to delete it after I checked the post I was thinking of on altmagic.

      • May 4, 2012 8:57 pm

        I have stopped replying, because I have been so busy in the real world. While I obviously did not write or contribute to Pip’s above reply, it can be taken as speaking for me. In entirety. He has clearly and concisely outlined the problems I have with this post; indeed, this entire conversation.

    • May 5, 2012 2:14 am

      RE: Meditation.

      Skeptics acknowledge the psychological benefits of *some* forms of meditation, because the benefits from those forms have been extensively tested. Mindfulness, for example, can have great benefits for some practitioners. [It doesn't really for me, but that's okay; I benefit from other psychological treatments.]

      Crucially, these forms of meditation are useful *even when divorced from their mystical origins*. This means that there is no need for the mystical wossname that surrounds the things; there is a core of useful insight available at the root of the practice. Accepting this does not, in any way, legitimise the traditional, religious, or spiritual practices from which these forms of meditation originate. Yoga has many benefits, psychological and physiological, and one can perform Yoga without attaching the slightest shred of the supernatural to it.

      That said, those practitioners of meditation that continue to attach mystical woo to their practice *are* criticised, and rightly so, by the skeptical community. Because the mystical bits are the bits that have *not* been demonstrated to have any health benefit (beyond the placebo effect which also works for prayer, lighting candles, etc) and are veiled in the kind of explanation-begging, generally-demonstrated-not-to-work *stuff* that skeptics always criticise.

      The way Pip and I have responded to your presentation of magic-as-tech, to your scrolls, to your post here, are *exactly* the same way I would respond to any meditator or yoga instructor who claimed that rituals and dharma and mystical language are beneficial to their practices.

      You want a middle ground? This is it.

  14. May 3, 2012 9:44 am

    I agree with your premise here: tolerance and respect for people’s beliefs. It is something that seems hard for a portion of society to embody. As time goes on, I believe that will change for the better.

  15. March 19, 2013 10:46 am

    To all those subscribed to the comments here, you may find a new post to be of interest.

    One of the main issues raised in this conversation, and in many discussions of magic, is whether the practice is ethical when people who believe in supernatural powers are paying money for something that may not be supernatural at all.

    I’ve recently launched a new project to practice magic in a way that doesn’t run into that issue, and to make magic accessible with no financial barriers, more as a social service than a product. It’s called Magic to the People. BT was kind enough to run an article about Magic to the People here: Taking Money Out of the Equation.

Trackbacks

  1. Magic in the 22nd Century « Rogue Priest
  2. Magic in the 22nd Century | altmagic
  3. Upcoming work « Humanistic Paganism
  4. Essay: How to Make Real Magic « Alchemy of the Word
  5. altmagic rebooted: spell cards, how-to, and telling it like it be | altmagic
  6. Humanism, Magic, and Wicca « Magical Patchouli
  7. An Open Letter to John Halstead «   Rogue Priest
  8. How to Make Real Magic | Alchemy of the Word
  9. Magic services: Taking money out of the equation, by Drew Jacob | Humanistic Paganism

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