Saturday, May 17, 2014

The Science of Magic

A review of James Frazer's classic of anthropology and religion, The Golden Bough.

While the Golden Bough has come in for a great deal of criticism over the ninety years since it was published, it remains as a highly readable and innovative analysis of religion, magic, and superstition. Frazer hangs the book (an abridgement of a nine-volume monster) on the question of an obscure ritual of antique Italy, where a sacred grove of oak trees has a resident "king", the king of the grove of Nemi. This king is supposedly subject to replacement by any challenger who breaks a golden bough from the sacred tree, and defeats the king in battle. Frazer ranges (700 pages) over space and time to assemble an explication of this ritual, based on the sacred-ness of the oak to the old Celts, the especial sacredness of the mistletoe that grows on the oak, the impersonation of the god of the oak and mistletoe by the king, and the need of the community to have this king/avatar in a healthy and fertile state (i.e. killed while in good health) for its perpetually renewed fertility and happiness.

But Frazer's more important program is far less prone to criticism, surely appropriate, about the validity of his specific and quite fanciful speculations and associations, with regard to oaks, death by trial, fecundidty of crops, and all the rest. That program is to show in very general terms that magic is the science of the primitive conditions, and religion a somewhat more chaotic, though equally logic-driven, intermediary between the two. It revolves around a few key premises, on which are built, with inexorable logic, the myriad rituals and superstitions of humanity. Human history becomes a very continuous, more or less desperate, and highly affecting, effort to make sense of our bewildering surroundings and hard fate.
"In magic man depends on his own strength to meet the difficulties and dangers that beset him on every side. He believes in a certain established order of nature on which he can surely count, and which he can manipulate for his own ends. When he discovers his mistake, when he recognizes sadly that both the order of nature which he had assumed and the control which he haad believed himself to exercise over it were purely imaginary, he ceases to rely on his own intelligence and his own unaided efforts, and throws himself humbly on the mercy of certain great invisible beings behind the veil of nature, to whom he now ascribes all those far-reaching powers which he once arrogated to himself. Thus in acuter minds magic is gradually superceded by religion, which explains the succession of natural phenomena as regulated by the will, the passion, or the caprice of spiritual being like man in kind, though vastly superior to him in power."

Unfortunately ...
"Small minds can not grasp great ideas; to their narrow comprehension, their purblind vision, nothing seems really great and important but themselves. Such minds hardly rise into religion at all. They are, indeed, drilled by their betters into an outward comformity with its precepts and a verbal profession of its tenets; but at heart they cling to their old magical superstitions, which may be discountenanced as forbidden, but cannot be eradicated by religion, so long as they have their roots deep down in the mental framework and constitution of the great majority of mankind."

Naturally, the conception that the wheels of nature are entirely without personality, remorse or recourse, is extremely foreign, and remains foreign to human nature. Yet when the more careful investigations of modern science point in that direction, religion inevitably (if reluctantly, and noisily) trails off towards ever more impotent and indiscernible deities, falls by the wayside, and becomes a species of psychotherapy rather than an unassailable, holistic system of explanation for the social, moral, physical, and invisible worlds.

Ironically, as Frazer puts it, the scientific world-view is closer to the primitive magic than it is to the intermediate stage of religion. Magic assumes a relatively law-ful system of invisible nature, where supernatural beings and arcane rules, though plentiful, are also easily compelled by ritualistic formulae. For example, step in a crack, and break your mother's back. Or break a mirror, and get seven year's bad luck. On a more positive note, wearing the costume of an animal will make that animal more available, and less reluctant to be killed. Just because none of the magic works doesn't mean that logical thought based on lawful premises isn't taking place. The propositions of religion, however, are typically far less certain. Gods can not be so easily compelled, so the idea of cause and effect recedes into the background, from which it can take a very long time for scientific thought to proceed to the next stage of existential theory.
"The fatal flaw of magic lies not in its general assumption of a sequence of events determined by law, but in its total misconception of the nature of the particular laws which govern that sequence. If we analyze the various cases of sumpathetic magic which have been passed in review in the preceeding pages, and which may be taken as fair samples of the bulk, we shall find, as I have already indicated, that they are all mistaken applications of one or other of two great fundamental laws of thought, namely, the association of ideas by similarity and the association of ideas by contiguity in space or time. A mistaken association of similar ideas produces homeopathic or imitative magic: a mistaken association of contiguous ideas produces contagious magic. The principles of association are excellent in themselves, and indeed absolutely essential to the working of the human mind. Legitimately applied they yield science; illegitimately applied they yield magic, the bastard sister of science. It is therefore a truism, almost a tautology, to say that all magic is necessarily false and barren; for were it ever to become true and fruitful, it would no longer be magic but science. From the earliest times man has been engaged in a search for general rules whereby to turn the order of natural phenomena to his own advantage, and in the long search he has scraped together a great hoard of such maxims, some of the golden and some of them mere dross."

For example, the idea of contamination by contiguity is surely very close to the truth of the germ theory of disease, so it counts as a dim harbinger of a true scientific theory, however much abused. And even imitative magic, if one counts it under the banner of the placebo effect and related social influences which we learn increasingly have strong effects on health, has its place in the history of proto-scientific ideas.

But what seems to me even more basic than these two principles which Frazer returns to time and again is the power of thought itself. What seems to run through the core of magical thinking is not just the rituals of imitation and purification that make up its outward preoccupations, but the conviction that our thoughts themselves are enormously powerful, and are listened to with great attentiveness by one's adversaries and boon-givers, from the lowly animist placation of vegetable spirits to prayers sent to highest theological riddle. Just as a baby assumes that its intensely thought will, accompanied by a good bit of crying, will, indeed must, gain a response, adults habitually assume that they inhabit a world that is always paying attention. To them.

We seem naturally to assume that the whole world thinks as we do, and indeed with even greater clairvoyant responsiveness. Magic generally involves an effort of thought, by individuals or a whole community. When the hunt is danced in the costumes of the prey, no one thinks that the deer are lurking in the shadows watching and awarding points for artistry. No, the thought-waves are assumed to radiate through the magical channels, to make known the intense desire of the tribe, and bend the prey or its superintendent deities to the people's will.

Likewise with voodoo, with sympathetic medicine, and all sorts of magical thinking. The critical component is not the stage prop, but the intense thought and will brought to bear in a ceremonial ritual, combined with a healthy dose of optimism. Why would anyone think this works? One reason is that our natural milieu is social. We are even more social than we think we are. Our brains seem to have evolved principally out of social competition, and we hang desperately on our social status, which is indeed a matter of life and death. The second reason is that our principal mortal adversaries are conscious agents, whether other people (such as in war) or wild animals for whom we are (were) prey. So naturally we evolved to think of our most significant interactions with the world in social terms, with some thinking entity on the other side, just waiting to do us in, or help us out.

But even those two reasons don't fully suffice, since however close we are to someone, they still do not read our minds to such an extent. No, the fundmamental reason has to be simple narcissism & immaturity. That if we wish for something hard enough, the cosmos is sure to listen and heed. However wonderful Neil DeGrasse Tyson's vast and orderly Cosmos is, it can't hold a candle to that cosmos.

Surely, we didn't have much else to go on in primitive times. So making ourselves feel a bit more powerful by way of intense thought concentration couldn't have done much harm, and might have done a great deal of good, by way of vivid visualization of intended results. However little effect it may have had on its intended targets, it had very significant, and probably quite beneficial effects on us.

And that is one reason to bring magical thinking back, at least a little. Medicine is an example of science gone a little overboard, with patients pinioned in a sterile, inhumane, unsupportive environment. This environment used to betoken a priestly class of innovative healers, with white lab coats and all, but by now it is just a harried and unwelcoming factory. The enormous success of alternative medicine, herbalife, and all the rest is a testament to the failure of the regular medical system to truly care for its subjects. A rapprochement would not to allow bad medicine, like homeopathy and noxious herbs, in the door, but would encourage ritual, arts, community interaction, and supportive psychological practice to permeate the medical establishment at all levels, putting people, not diseases, back into the focus of medico-community care.

The basic point is, insofar as ritual, hope, and narcissism are conducive to comfort and social ease, we may need more of them, even while keeping magic well away from the philosophical and scholarly pursuits that drive our rigorous knowledge of reality forward.

"Thus the old magical theory of the seasons was displaced, or rather supplemented, by a religious theory. For although men now attributed the annual cycle of change primarily to corresponding changes in their deities, they still thought that by performing certain magical rites they could aid the god who was the principle of life, in his struggle with the opposing principle of death.
And as they now explained the fluctuations of growth and decay, of reproduction and dissolution, by the marriage, the death, and the rebirth or revivial of the gods, their religious or rather magical dramas turned in great measure on these themes. They set forth the fruitful union of the powers of fertility, the sad death of one at least of the divine partners, and his joyful resurrection. Thus a religious theory was blended with a magical practice. The combination is familiar in history. Indeed, few religions have ever succeeded in wholly extricating themselves from the old trammels of magic. The inconsistency of acting on two opposite principles, however it may vex the soul of the philosopher, rarely troubles the common man; indeed, he is seldom even aware of it. His affair is to act, not to analyze the motives of his action. If mankind had always been logical and wise, history would not be a long chronicle of folly and crime."

  • Luhrmann on god: the imaginal dialog.
  • Epilepsy and god ... a tangled history!
  • What happens when truth loses to mythos and shameless egoism.
  • A history of Social Security "reform". Remember that about 1.5% of every 401K goes into the pockets of the financial industry, year in and year out, with no risk, while participants are lucky to break even.
  • The man who saved Wall Street, and let Main Street rot.
  • Are unions the answer to inequality and excess corporate power?
  • The GDP we devote to climate care will not be "lost".
  • Dysfunctional culture, dysfunctional religion.
  • The Phillips curve is dead. The inflation-unemployment environment is more dynamic.
  • Summers on Piketty.
  • Bruenig on Summers.
  • Economics needs some help. "I sincerely doubt that methodology is discussed little because mainstream macroeconomists think it is unproblematic. I am quite confident that it is discussed little, because the methodology of mainstream economics is indefensible."
  • WSJ Quote of the week, a neat bit of circular logic on climate heating, er, global warmism:
"This columnist is probably as unqualified as Marcus or Lapidos to evaluate the scientific merits of global warmism. But because we distrust climate scientists, we're with Rubio in being inclined to think it's a bill of goods. The trouble for global-warmist journalists like Marcus and Lapidos is that an appeal to the authority of a distrusted source undermines rather than strengthens one's argument."


  1. Burk, thanks for the review. I read The Golden Bough several years ago, and loved it (despite having to extract the truth from the bits mired in Frazer's time and place). I recall a quote from the text which is related to your point about medicine, in fact - to paraphrase, thought can harm someone just as surely as a dose of prussic acid. Modern medicine has so divided the psychological/mental/"spiritual" realm from the corporeal realm that it can only fail to holistically treat someone. Despite the fact that everyone has known since it could be known, it was only a few years ago that the commercials started advertising drugs by stating that "depression hurts."

  2. On a related note, have you read Chesterton's The Everlasting Man? He builds on the ideas in TGB (though perhaps not explicitly), but uses the information to argue that Christianity is different from all other religions. I found it interesting, in that one could see his argument as compelling almost in the opposite direction, especially when taken in Frazer's context. Thoughts?

  3. Hi, Kelly-

    Isn't this a fun book- the writing alone is exquisite. I had a personal interaction that left me disturbed and jittery for a week, and led me to a deeper appreciation of how much we hang on socialiality, while appearing to be, and hero-izing ourselves as, individual beings.

    "Compelling in the opposite direction" .. Yes, I can understand that reaction, though I have not read Chesterton at all. (I will check out this book though.) I hear alot about C. S. Lewis.. a similar story, surely. Historically, one thing that Frasier was really after was to clarify that this dying and rising god motif is immensely common in human history, usually revolving around the vegetable cycle, but in Christianity expanded to more abstract dimensions. So he was trying to address Christianity, if a bit obliquely, which I hope was clear from my concluding quote.

    And I think he was right about that, expecially in light of the many cases of human sacrifice through the ages. So it was extremely odd to read in Bart Ehrman's recent takedown of the Jesus myth theory, which I covered a few weeks back, that in his estimation, there were *no* dying & rising god cults in that era in the West and Middle East. The rest of his book is very good, but that stretched things way too far. One can define "rising" narrowly, and so forth, but the fact that this archetype is deeply embedded, is an obvious way to interpret nature, and was present in many forms in this time and at other times.. seems clear enough.

  4. I was under the impression that there were lots of mystery cults around that time and place in which initiates went through ritualistic "death and rebirth." Even Jesus himself uses a lot of agricultural allegory.

  5. Hi, Kelly- I am reading through some of the Chesterton book online. I can't believe you could stand it, or that any takes him seriously. It seems to define the word "blithering". One self-serving meaningless paradox after another.

  6. Though I suppose it's hard to fault someone who is brought up within a certain pervasive context.