Science is a kind of magic

The science of magic and the magic of science

The thin line between magic and science.dc

We often think of the scientific revolution as having displaced a belief in magic, the supernatural, and the occult. But paying a closer look at premodern writings on magic, we find that they explicitly reject the supernatural. What is more, the key figures of the scientific revolution like Giordano Bruno, Francis Bacon, and even Isaac Newton, all believed in the occult. According to Newton, gravity required the supernatural. Even today, philosophers of science have a hard time demarcating science from pseudoscience or magic, argues Jason Ānanda Josephson Storm.


Sometime in the 15th century, a group of university students got together in the town of Oberdorf in Bavaria to do what students have done the world over: drink beer. After they had been at it for a while, they decided that whoever fetched the next round wouldn’t have to pay for it. One student went to get beer, but on opening the door, he saw an unusually dark fog and he refused to go out. Then, a foolhardy member of the group boasted, “Even if the Devil was present, I shall fetch the drinks.” To their consternation, those in attendance all saw the man borne aloft into the air, shouting as he was carried out the door by an invisible demon in the direction of further libations.

This event is recounted in the Malleus Maleficarum (The Hammer of Witches), a 1486 text so infamous that it has been described “the most significant ‘witchhunting’ guide published in early modern Europe” and as “without question the most important and sinister work on demonology ever written.” While its influence has probably been exaggerated, it contains a number of striking anecdotes (and a whole lot of misogyny). But from a contemporary vantage, one of the most remarkable things about the text is that it principally denied that witchcraft was supernatural or miraculous. According to the text:

The effects of witchcraft…are done through the power of some creature unknown to us, but they are not miracles, which are things done outside the order of the whole of created nature…. The magician, since he works through a pact entered into with the demon…works by means of the demon, who [operates] by his own natural power. (Part I, Question 5)

Witches were a real danger because they made deals with demons, but their powers were neither miraculous nor supernatural but came from the “natural” powers of those demons, whose capacities and limitations the text explored in great detail.

Science didn’t disenchant reality

This matters because one of the most familiar narratives of our age is one of disenchantment—that the rise of science meant the departure of the supernatural and the production of a new rationalistic world view incompatible with magic and spirits. I’ve elsewhere criticized disenchantment as a historical or sociological claim, but here I want to focus on the presumption that natural sciences automatically banish supernatural magic. The problem is that magical works, like the above, often rejected the supernatural while it was figures associated with the scientific revolution who described their projects in terms of magic, spirits, and sometimes cosmologies requiring the supernatural. So, it would seem that conventional accounts have it exactly backward: disenchanting occult texts were sometimes replaced by enchanting scientific ones. At the very least, it is difficult to sustain a clear line between premodern magic and modern science.

Part of the problem is that the supernatural itself is a red herring. In a broad historical overview, the “supernatural” (Latin supranaturalis) was an inadvertent product of the twelfth century recovery of Aristotle, which had caused the merger of two notions of “nature” (φύσις and naturalis). The problem became how to understand miracles. If miracles were “natural” then that would imply that they weren’t very special. But if miracles were “against nature” (contra naturum), then it would seem that God was unnatural or in violation of divine laws.

To navigate this thorny thicket, thirteenth-century theologians defined divine miracles as “above nature” (supranaturalis). Thus, the “supernatural” was initially referred to a divine exception. A consequence of this categorization was that it relegated demonic “wonders” (mira) and “magic” to the realm of the natural (or sometimes “preternatural,” praeternaturalis indicating a violation of ordinary causation but not natural laws). Not only was there natural magic, but even demonic magic was even in some sense natural. Another inadvertent by-product of this theology was that the Devil became a kind of protoscientist. For instance, as Thomas Browne put it in Pseudodoxia Epidemica, “being a natural magician [the Devil] may perform many acts in ways above our knowledge, though not transcending our natural power…. Many secrets there are in Nature of difficult discovery unto man, of easy knowledge unto Satan.” Nor was Browne alone, a number of Europeans understood magic and technology to be fundamentally related.


While a number of candidates have been proposed as the progenitor of the “scientific revolution,” most of these, in some sense, saw themselves as magicians


In summary, the very notion of the “supernatural” was historically short-lived and not the defining feature of premodern notions of witches, demons, or magic—all of which were described as unusual but neither supernatural nor miraculous. So any rejection of the supernatural by modern science would seem to have been unnecessary.

There is a further problem with the popular narrative about the rise of science. While a number of candidates have been proposed as the progenitor of the “scientific revolution,” most of these, in some sense, saw themselves as magicians. For instance, Giordano Bruno has been popularly described as a martyr to science, but, now that more of his works are available—including his De magia (On Magic)—it’s clear that Bruno’s aim was not to despiritualize astronomy, as was once thought, but to elaborate an infinite and richly animated cosmos that was full of magical forces, spirits, and demons.

Similarly, the so-called “father of modern science”, Francis Bacon, argued that “Magic aims to recall natural philosophy from a miscellany of speculation to a greatness of works,” which was exactly what he was trying to do with his own project, as is clear from his definition of magic “as the science which applies the knowledge of hidden forms to the production of wonderful operations; and by uniting (as they say) actives with passives displays the wonderful works of nature.” Magic was a pragmatic or instrumentalist form of natural philosophy of exactly the sort Bacon saw as missing from scholasticism. Moreover, although Bacon often gets accused of despiritualizing nature, in texts like Sylva Sylvarum and the Historia vitae et mortis, he described a natural world overflowing with spirits with their own particular powers and appetites. Science, in this account, was the manipulation of spirits, not their elimination.

We could say something similar about Isaac Newton. It is well-known that Newton was obsessed with alchemy and hidden codes in the Bible. But Newtonian physics was also not a stripped-down mechanics, but a dynamic cosmos inclined toward apocalypse and dissolution. Not only was gravity an occult force, but, and this is an important point, Newton’s physics required active divine intervention and the supernatural. As he put it, “nothing is done without [God’s] continual government and inspection,” and added:

For if there be innate gravity, it is impossible now for the matter of the earth and all the planets and stars to fly up from them, and become evenly spread throughout all the heavens, without a supernatural power, and certainly that which can never be hereafter without a supernatural power, could never be heretofore without the same powers.

Paraphrased, Newtonian physics required the supernatural to explain why gravity doesn’t collapse everything together.

Newton has often been described as the last of the magicians, but this was not the case.  Historians of science have provided plenty of counterevidence by focusing on individual scientists’ and philosophers’ alchemical experiments, magical preoccupations, or mystic visions—addressing everyone from Robert Boyle to Alfred Russel Wallace to Thomas Edison to Wolfgang Pauli, from the early natural philosophy to quantum physics. Indeed, according to some, science still has its demons. At the very least, as I argue in the book, the mechanization of the world picture is not an accurate description of the history of science. The very act of producing a systematic image of the world is often supposed to have automatically produced the evacuation of meaning and the departure of wonder. But a closer look at the history shows nothing of the sort.


Instead of philosophers defending the “scientific worldview” we should really be thinking of the longevity of specific localized theories


The rationality of magic, and the demarcation problem

What are we to make of all this?

First, the supernatural is alleged to be what distinguishes magic from science. But the whole natural-supernatural binary was a short-lived product of Christian theology that rarely made sense either at home or abroad. Anthropological descriptions of so-called “primitive witchcraft” or “magical thinking” notwithstanding, non-European cultures lacked indigenous terms for the “supernatural” before the period of contact.

Second, magic is often described as either irrational or its own form of rationality. But premodern Europeans who used the term “magic” seemed to have believed that insofar as magic was efficacious, it worked according to the same principles explored by their theology and philosophy. Magic was not a violation of causation, but rather bounded by the same kinds of natural laws that would be explored by scientific experimentation. In this respect premodern magic was rational.

Third, it is often assumed that magicians must have been irrational not to have noticed that their spells did not work. But the simplistic idea that science is falsifiable, and magic isn’t, is incorrect. One can apply the famous Duhem-Quine thesis to both magic and science alike. A specific experiment or magic ritual never exists in isolation. A background theory can always be modified regardless of outcome. If a spell to summon a storm or an experiment to measure a cannonball’s velocity does not yield the desired result, the failure can always be explained by adjusting auxiliary hypotheses (such as air resistance or the willingness of demons) without considering the grand theory to have been disproved. Hence, no single scientific experiment or magical spell is ever sufficient on its own to support or refute a theory.

Finally, on a philosophical level, a key issue is the problem of demarcation. It is harder to demarcate the boundaries of magic and science than is popularly supposed. There is no single scientific method that all the sciences share. Knowledge is produced differently in different scientific disciplines. Attempts to define science in terms of falsifiability have been unsuccessful. Part of the meaning of science comes from its putative opposition to magic. But this opposition cannot be fully maintained. Every attempt to define science to include astronomy but exclude astrology turns out to either leave out a well-recognized science or include a denigrated pseudoscience. Popular statements often treat science as a unitary agent. But there is not one science, nor one scientific consensus.

Does this critique of the unity of science lead us into a grand abyss of unknowing? No. Many contemporary debates are really about confidence about the contemporary scientific cosmology. Yet if science is not a unity, then all these conversations are misguided. Instead of philosophers defending the “scientific worldview” we should really be thinking of the longevity of specific localized theories. Whether or not quarks are merely mind-dependent, or part of the universe is a question for physicists in a field that already has methods for adjudicating such issues. The social construction of quarks is not a grand issue for science as a whole, because there is no science as a whole to be attacked or defended. But this should not be seen as a tragedy, we do not actually need an inflated and universalized category of “science” to support the search for knowledge. Nor does the advancement of knowledge necessarily mean the end of wonder.

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