In an otherwise erudite essay on the deterioration of knowledge due to atrophying web links, Jonathan Zittrain unfortunately chooses to introduce the subject with a reference to Arthur C Clarke’s quote on sufficiently advanced technologies being indistinguishable from magic. The point of course is that magic isn’t real, that it’s just science that we don’t know yet. Clichéd and overused perhaps, but it did trigger the thought about what magic really is, what we mean by it when we say ‘magic’. It’s a contentious thing: do you believe in magic? The cosmopolitan contemporary answer should be ‘why of course not! that’s just a childish diversion!’ Magic tricks are just that: tricks, entertainment, distraction. Yet the question of what it is that we believe has never seemed so pertinent, so immediate as it appears today. The US Government recently released their UFO files, and a good deal of Americans believe in aliens – 29% according to a USA Today poll in 2013, one third in 2019 according to Gallup. What is as interesting is what people do not believe – namely, that the government is telling the truth. 68% of those surveyed in 2019 believed that the Government was hiding what it really knew about the aliens – a fair achievement given those same people didn’t believe the Government was particularly competent. But belief in things like aliens has little to do with statistics, numbers and science.
In Tom Holland’s epic history of the Christianization of the western mind, Dominion, he is at pains to point out that his is not a history of Christianity; rather it is an accounting of the way in which Christianity has come to dominate how we think about the world. ‘Time itself,’ Holland wrote, ‘has been Christianized.’ Time, of course, was Mumford’s gateway to modern technics through the invention of the clock, arguably therefore a Christian technology. While the specifics of the scientists and developers of the technology can be argued about, Holland’s structure of a Christian ontological framework that birthed this structure holds. Thinking itself had become Christian, for believers and non-believers alike. The boundaries of science and the knowable were met with Christian teleology and fantasy that, so to speak, filled in the blanks. There was the knowable realm – of which science was in the process of discovering everything there was to know – and then there was a presumed unknowable beyond, which science could simply not discover, either because it was supernatural, i.e. beyond the possibility of the mortal universe, or superhuman, i.e. beyond the conscious capacity of mankind to discover. Magic was in that liminal space between what was knowable and unknowable.
Baruch Spinoza specifically denied the concept of the miracle in the 17th century. A central element of Christian (and possibly other) theologies, the miracle was a supernatural event demonstrating the power of the almighty creator. In Christian teaching, Christ raised people from the dead, cured incurable diseases, and fed thousands of people with a few loaves of bread and some fish. Spinoza argued that this was all a bunch of hooey – for nothing can be contrary to nature. The suggestion of the miracle is that a dichotomy exists between the natural and the not-natural, that God is somehow intervening in a non-natural way to pervert nature. Spinoza’s analysis, and its interpretation (Hume too, and others), are not short of criticism and controversy; though the idea of the miracle continues to be a compelling element of faith for Christians, and Catholics in particular.
Specifically, the order of sainthood requires that miracles have been performed, unless you’ve been martyred. In order to have an act or an event declared miraculous, a Miracles Commission (yup, it’s a thing) made up of scientists and theologians need to make a declaration. There’s even an evangelical TV show dedicated to the idea, called Miracle Hunter. There are rules – for example a medical miracle needs to be spontaneous, instantaneous and complete. One of the reasons that most miracles are ‘medical’ is because they are easy to measure and track: a terminal cancer diagnosis, with scans etc., then the tumor disappears. The miracle is therefore explicitly unnatural as determined by enlightened scientific method. That that intervention in the natural order was directed by, facilitated by, or channeled through a specific mortal individual (our wannabe saint) is even more tricky to attribute, but we’ll leave that part of it for now.
More stats then: almost 80% of Americans believe in miracles, as does a clear majority in Eastern Europe and 72% of folks in the UK. As Fox Mulder’s poster in the X-Files said, ‘I Want to Believe!’ There’s a persistent and gnawing sense that the science and the numbers and the statistics aren’t all there is, and people’s personal beliefs and feelings are often very different from their public and professional positions. Science, as represented by scientists, is often more dogmatic than it can sustain; room for doubt is seen as weakness. Science is directly opposed to magic and miracles; there’s an explanation for everything. Along with that there’s economics, and the voodoo of neoliberalism with its invisible hand, that scientifically explainable force that balances markets and distribution equilibria. People just don’t believe in all of it blindly, and this is often the failing of policy makers.
The recent documentary Philly DA followed newly elected Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner on what was an undeniable crusade to fix the criminal justice system based on data. Time after time, Krasner and his team were exasperated by the failure of their message about science (a word repeatedly used) to hit home. The subtext was that only crazy people chose not to believe science. And yet people – smart people, who understood science – felt differently, and didn’t see what the science was telling them they should be seeing. Reduced crime statistics don’t mean much when there are used needles on your doorstep in the morning.
People believe in magic, and miracles, and aliens. This is different from saying that people have had it proven to them that these things are in some sense real; but it is no less real than statistics, science, and stuff that other people tell them. People want these things to be true, because these things represent hope; people feel these things to be true because to think otherwise would be too awful.
Just think: if science is all that there is, if facts are the only things that are real, then the only thing that matters is that we will all die. And then by logical, scientific extrapolation, nothing matters anymore.