I would venture that one of the worst possible selling points for a materialist view of life is the seemingly inevitable diminishment of the experience of magic in one’s day-to-day life.
Here’s the basic calculus that seems to accompany the contemplation of a non-magical world: if I stop believing in magic, then magic will cease to appear, and I will then lose the the enjoyable experience of magic.
When I say “magic”, I am referring to the every-day sort of small miracle, coincidence, happenstance, kismet or surprise that creates a feeling in the chest of having experienced something just a little bit out-of-the-ordinary: You think of someone, and they walk into the restaurant; you tell God you’re in a hurry, and the lights all seem to be green; a check arrives just in time so you can pay your rent. These are events that are common to all of us (though not so common as to lose their power to impart to us that magical sensation).
These are almost always happy events. They are also almost universally confirmatory events. They tell us that we are living right; on the right path; in tune with the universe. They make us feel good. (Even the ones that tell us we were on the “wrong path”, as these, too, confirm our own feelings about a situation).
With so much cultural support for belief in magic, how do we untie this ball of existential yarn that is incident and belief? Where do we start?Is this cross a sign from God or a natural feature that fits a pattern our brain is attuned to?
The obvious place to start is with the materialist’s application of Occam’s razor to the question at hand: is there simpler explanation for the event in question which does not involve magic or the intervention of invisible, divine agents? For that, the answer is almost always an obvious “yes” (I would argue that the answer is probably always “yes”, whether or not it is obvious). For instance, the fact is that each of us lives a life in a rather restricted geographical and social area means that our paths are fairly repetitive, and the people we know and see along those paths are hardly random (as we tend to get to know people that we have actual physical contact with). So while the odds of running into your favorite movie star at the local market (assuming your star does not live in your city) is pretty low, the odds of running into one of your friends or neighbors at the same market is actually fairly high. Adding in the fact that you have thought about a particular friend just before running into them could tempt you to regard such a meeting as anything but random, but both the thought and the meeting are probably rather high probability occurrences (meaning that the two happen with a frequency such that both happening in close proximity is not the small miracle we might take it to be).
So we can probably fairly easily dispense with “magic” as the cause of such chance meetings. What is more interesting is the eagerness with which our mind frame such such events as “magical”. And this is where neuroscience comes in, in the form of a mental bias called “confirmation bias”. In short, this quirk in our cognition produces a selective preference in the data that we give weight to. In the case of running into a friend after thinking about him or her, this means that we first embrace the linkage of the two events, usually exclaiming “I was just thinking about you!” (whether the thought occurred in the last minute or the last week — time is instantly conflated to “make” the connection). The other, less obvious mark of this mental bias is the highly selective blindness to the many times we may have thought about this person in the past when they did not subsequently pop into view.
Taken together, these two traits of conflating time and ignoring counter-evidential occurrences produce the sort of confirmatory “evidence” that our happy brains just eat up! But of course, it is not “evidence” in any meaningful sense. The connections between thought and confirmatory event are “casual” only, not “causal”, much more a product of our brain’s pattern-constructing ability than any external reality.
I think there is a simple explanation for this that does not involve the dark tinge of self-deception or delusion. It is this: the firing of the brain cells that magic sets off makes us happy by releasing those happy-making chemicals in our brains. And we like to be happy (well, many of us do).
What is tricky about being a materialist (believing that there are no super-natural phenomenon going on “out there”) is that, in practice, one ends up talking one’s own brain out of a lot of fun. And who wants to be the party pooper (especially when you’re mostly pooping on your own party, so to speak)?
This is, I think, a real issue. But it is also a testament to just how strongly magical belief is hard-wired into our brain (or “brains”, since that single organ is more a sort of “layer cake” of systems). It is a reminder that belief (in some form or other) is natural to us.
But here is the funny part of this (and the part that is so obvious that we can miss it): Since the events we believe to be magical are not magical, but regular, ordinary, every day occurrences, not believing that they are magical should have absolutely no effect on whether or not these magical events occur in our lives!
I’m reminded of when I finally lost my belief in God. There was a part of my consciousness that actually asked whether there would be joy, or laughter, or sunrises in my life after that. That sounds silly, I know, but it points to something else in the way we humans think: we really do act as if the universe revolves around us. What else can explain the notion that our individual beliefs have the power to act on other people or objects at a distance (and therefore have the power to make something like the sunrise cease). Shall we call it the “Tinkerbell effect” (if we don’t clap hard enough, the fairy dies)?
It’s related to what I discussed in last week’s sermon about our expectation that the world should end when we do.
But, of course, coincidence and chance meetings will continue to happen (and the Sun will continue to rise). After all, the only condition that will change in our life is a shift in the way that we perceive those events. And, potentially, yes, the kind of joy that we derive from them.
The other day (as often happens when I’m at the gym) I got a song idea. This time it hit shortly after I’d begun a walk around the block. I had no pen, no paper, and no phone (with which I could have recorded my idea). In earlier times, I would have asked God (or later, my “Higher Power”, or “The Universe”) to (magically) “bring me” a pen. But I didn’t do that this time. I pondered stepping into a store on my route and asking for one, but decided to keep on walking. I first reasoned with my magical brain that chances were I wouldn’t find a pen as I walked, but then realized that the chances were not impossible, as I was walking a path where people worked, delivery trucks dropped off goods, etc. Sure enough, about two-thirds of the way into my walk, I found a pen. A red pen, smashed to pieces on the asphalt. I leaned to pick it up, but it was destroyed.
Note the stages of that thought process: I thought to “ask” for magic. My brain then set up the impossibility of finding a pen by sheer “chance” (while in fact there was a fairly high probability that I would find a pen, especially since I was now actually looking for one!). Now if I were of a spiritual mindset (with my confirmation bias still in play) I would have told you that the universe gave me what I asked for! But why was it broken and useless, you might ask? I could answer: because my prayer was not specific enough! (Don’t laugh — spend any time among true believers and you will hear people shamed out of their unbelief with retorts like that!) And there you have the complete mechanism for how we make horoscopes and psychics believable: They teach us what results to calibrate our bias to, and we go on to do all the heavy lifting.
So, one could say that magic (or God) does exist. Not in the world as a genuine phenomenon, but in the magical way that we transform random and non-random events into proof of an invisible metaphysical reality. To lose that magic can indeed mean to lose some of the joy it brings. At least until we can reclaim the pleasure of happy coincidence free of the burden of magical attribution. A quest that — given the kind so brains so may of us have — turns out to be no small challenge.