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Science & the Decline of Magic

January 2007

I am optimistic that science is winning out over magic and superstition. That may seem irrational, given the data from pollsters on what people believe. For example, a 2005 Pew Research Center poll found that 42 percent of Americans believe that “living things have existed in their present form since the beginning of time.” The situation is even worse when we examine other superstitions, such as these percentages of belief published in a 2002 National Science Foundation study:

  • ESP 60%
  • UFOs 30%
  • Astrology 40%
  • Lucky numbers 32%
  • Magnetic therapy 70%
  • Alternative medicine 88%

Nevertheless, I take the historian’s long view, and compared to what people believed before the Scientific Revolution, there is much cause for optimism. Consider what people believed a mere four centuries ago, just as science began lighting candles in the dark. In 16th- and 17th-century England, for example, almost everyone believed in sorcery, werewolves, hobgoblins, witchcraft, astrology, black magic, demons, prayer, and providence. “A great many of us, when we be in trouble, or sickness, or lose anything, we run hither and thither to witches, or sorcerers, whom we call wise men … seeking aid and comfort at their hands,” noted Bishop Latimer in 1552. Saints were worshiped. Liturgical books provided rituals for blessing cattle, crops, houses, tools, ships, wells, and kilns, not to mention the sick, sterile animals, and infertile couples. In his 1621 book, Anatomy of Melancholy, Robert Burton explained, “Sorcerers are too common; cunning men, wizards, and white witches, as they call them, in every village, which, if they be sought unto, will help almost all infirmities of body and mind.”

Just as alcohol and tobacco were essential anesthetics for the easing of pain and discomfort, superstition and magic were the basis for the mitigation of misfortune. As the great Oxford historian of the period, Keith Thomas, writes in his classic 1971 work Religion and the Decline of Magic, “No one denied the influence of the heavens upon the weather or disputed the relevance of astrology to medicine or agriculture. Before the seventeenth century, total skepticism about astrological doctrine was highly exceptional, whether in England or elsewhere.” And it wasn’t just astrology. “Religion, astrology and magic all purported to help men with their daily problems by teaching them how to avoid misfortune and how to account for it when it struck.” With such sweeping power over nearly everyone, Thomas concludes, “If magic is to be defined as the employment of ineffective techniques to allay anxiety when effectives ones are not available, then we must recognize that no society will ever be free from it.” The superstitious we will always have with us.

Nevertheless, the rise of science ineluctably attenuated this near universality of magical thinking by proffering natural explanations where before there were only supernatural ones. Before Darwin, design theory (in the form of William Paley’s natural theology, which gave us the “watchmaker” argument) was the only game in town so everyone believed that life was designed by God. Today less than half believe that in America, the most religious nation of the developed democracies, and in most other parts of the world virtually everyone accepts evolution without qualification. That’s progress.

The rise of science even led to a struggle to find evidence for superstitious beliefs that previously needed no propping up with facts. Consider the following comment from an early 17th-century book that shows how even then savvy observers grasped the full implications of denying the supernatural altogether: “Atheists abound in these days and witchcraft is called into question. If neither possession nor witchcraft (contrary to what has been so long generally and confidently affirmed), why should we think that there are devils? If no devils, no God.”

Magic transitioned into empirical magic and formalized methods of ascertaining causality by connecting events in nature — the very basis of science. As science grew in importance, the analysis of portents was often done meticulously and quantitatively, albeit for purposes both natural and supernatural. As one diarist privately opined on the nature and meaning of comets: “I am not ignorant that such meteors proceed from natural causes, yet are frequently also the presages of imminent calamities.”

Science arose out of magic, which it ultimately displaced. By the 18th century, astronomy replaced astrology, chemistry succeeded alchemy, probability theory dislodged belief in luck and fortune, city planning and social hygiene attenuated disease, and the grim vagaries of life became less grim, and less vague. As Francis Bacon concluded in his 1626 work, New Atlantis: “The end of our foundation is the knowledge of causes and the secret motions of things and the enlarging of the bounds of human empire, to the effecting of all things possible.”

Sic itur ad astra — Thus do we reach the stars.

This opinion editorial was originally published on www.edge.org.

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7 Comments to “Science & the Decline of Magic”

  1. Ronald M. Wade Says:

    I agree there is at least hope for pulling mankind out of the pit. But we have a long way to go.

    As always, Mr. Shermer, your voice is that of reason and logic. You DO realize, don’t you, that you must not pass on but must hang around this benighted world permanently?

  2. Rachel Says:

    Just this morning I was having a conversation with my partner, wondering if people really did believe in these things. Daniel Dennett put it well in his example of a person hanging by a cliff asking for help and then, following God’s invitation to trust and let go, asks if there is anyone else.

    In other words, do people truly believe in lucky numbers? Would they invest their money only according to these, and not any other logic of the market? The issue of alternative therapies is a bit more ambiguous, as people are called to decide whether to accept modern medical practices and drugs – some choosing alternative therapies (which indicates to me that they do truly believe in them). Other beliefs are not so clean cut though. Leaves me hopeful that people ‘say’ they believe but don’t actually.

    Rachel

  3. George Says:

    It appears to me that in a sense, science may have been too successful. People expect that there be explanations for everything. They understand the scientific method not well enough. They believe it is a method to prove hypotheses, whereas, it is really a method to check whether predictions are reliable and to disprove conjectures. What is needed is the honesty to realize that there are things even the brightest people are never going to understand.
    It is probably true that overtime belief in supernatural things will decline, but it is difficult since children spend so much of their young lives being told that belief in things which they cannot understand is so important, and this, by the people who love them and have only their best interests at heart.

  4. Galo E. Villarán M. Says:

    Hope that some day Mr. Shermer optimizm could be true; but, at least in this country (Perú, South america) superstición and “magic” is icreasing even in the “educated” and well-being people. In some way, it looks like here was no “scientific revolution” -and now there is a scientific involution.

  5. Peter Bairey Says:

    A few years ago I was working on a project at the home of a family of Krishna devotees. The young man who was helping me, seemingly reasonably educated and sincere, expressed the opinion that the moon landings were faked. I was shocked, perhaps naively, especially considering his belief in the Indian religious traditional writings.

    I’ve come to the conclusion that we will always have at least half the people in any society will be of the magical persuasion.

  6. Vichy Says:

    “A great many of us, when we be in trouble, or sickness, or lose anything, we run hither and thither to witches, or sorcerers, whom we call wise men … seeking aid and comfort at their hands,”
    But couldn’t we say that in many historical instances these ‘wise men’ and sorcerers were the modern equivalent of doctors. Certainly, many of their theories were certainly wrong, but there is also good evidence that much of modern medicine is BS; likewise for as much as most people know about medicine, or their doctors individually, they may as well be ‘wizards’.

  7. Bill McG Says:

    I’m looking forward to Dr Shermer’s presentation re The Believing Brain 5/25 in Berkeley. Please ask him to connect /reflect his thinking with that of neurologist Robert Burton in On Being Certain, wherein Burton shows that feeling certain — feeling that we know something — is a mental sensation, rather than evidence of fact. Burton cites a growing body of evidence suggesting that feelings such as certainty originate within primitive areas of the brain and are independent of active thought and logic. The feeling of knowing just happens; we cannot make it happen. This happens to everyone in a variety of ways, most especially sad I think is when it happens to scientists who, as a class, seem so strongly to get “stasis stuck” on the paradigmatic shifts; so much so that historically it seems always to take a generation or two, at least, to advance the field further until after the older dies off and the younger, those who grew up with the new paradigms on the table, can get things moving again. One wonders how much faster science might develop if so-called scientists actually practiced the provisionality of factuality they preach.

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