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Clarke's fallacy

When I commented last week that I was going to have to discuss the intersection of peak oil and magic, I had a pretty fair idea what the immediate response would be, and that duly followed. Before the metaphorical ink on the post was dry, people were already popping up on the peak oil blogosphere to denounce in advance what they were sure I was going to say. For those of us who belong to the small community of people who study and practice magic, this is familiar ground; there’s a wry amusement in watching such antics, but no least trace of surprise.

Being an operative mage in the contemporary industrial world, really, resembles nothing so much as being an evolutionary biologist at a convention of Southern Baptists—or, for that matter, an educated theist at a meeting of the more intolerant sort of atheists. The great majority of the people around you know essentially nothing about the subject that concerns you, though they have an ample fund of misinformation culled from books and websites written and read exclusively by people who share their prejudices. They consider themselves qualified to judge the subject because they’ve lifted some canned polemics from these same books and websites, and if you show them that the canned polemics are riddled with ignorance, irrelevancies, and straw man arguments, they’ll just give you an irritated look and go right back to the canned polemics.

Those of my readers with a background in sociology will have no trouble recognizing this as a textbook case in the sociology of deviance—specifically, the way that human groups use seeming statements of fact the way baboons use bared teeth and threat postures, to stake out territory and drive off outsiders. As far as we know, baboons don’t try to use their territorial displays to make sense of their world, and this is to their credit. Human beings, alas, are not always so clever, and the resulting confusions play a massive though rarely recognized role in mangling communication in any complex society.

Try to talk about magic and this sort of mangled communication shows up early and often, as a recent and topical example shows clearly enough. About the time I started work on last week’s Archdruid Report post, The Oil Drum posted without comment this year’s most serenely idiotic statement about peak oil. The source was investment analyst Porter Stansberry; he was being interviewed about why peak oil isn’t a problem, and his reasoning ran as follows: "[G]eology doesn’t create oil; capital creates oil. The more capital you put toward oil, the more of it there will be." (You can read the whole interview here.)

Consider that statement for a good long moment. It’s not unique to Stansberry; the late Julian Simon used to make essentially the same claim, and you’ll hear it from quite a few economists these days. What Stansberry is saying is that if you have enough money to invest, geological limits to petroleum extraction don’t exist. Money, though, is a symbolic system consisting of abstract representations of wealth, and Stansberry is thus claiming that the manipulation of symbols wields occult powers that can override the laws of nature and conjure up petroleum from the depths of the Earth.

Most people would call this an example of magical thinking, and it corresponds very closely to the sort of thing people do in Harry Potter movies and other media portrayals of magic. It may be worth noting, though, that this is not what operative mages claim to be able to do. In point of fact, I’ve carried out a very modest survey over the last few years by presenting claims like Stansberry’s to the operative mages I know, and noting their responses. The typical reaction, edited for printability, is on the order of "You’ve got to be kidding. People actually believe that?"

What our society calls magical thinking, in other words, is not the kind of thinking that mages actually do, and the frequent denunciations of magical thinking flung at operative mages would be much more sensibly directed at economists. (I suppose there isn’t much hope of getting it renamed "economic thinking," though that’s a more accurate term.) This state of affairs unfolds from the very tangled history surrounding magic in the Western world, and is best understood via a thought experiment.

Imagine, then, that the cultural struggles of the late Renaissance that launched the scientific revolution and consigned magic to the crawlspaces of our society went the other way, and magic, rather than science, became the core cultural project of the modern world. You live in that alternate world, and one fine afternoon you step out of a bookstore on a street near the local university and head for the next stop on your list of errands, as carriages rattle over the cobblestones alongside you. It’s graduation day, and students in star-bedecked robes and tall pointed caps pass you on the sidewalk in droves. They’ve just completed degrees in astrology, alchemy, and other serious subjects; some will go on to graduate school, others to jobs—you overhear an excited young astrologer telling his friends that he’s just gotten a position at a brokerage, where he’ll be casting horoscopes to predict stock values.

You’re none too interested in the chatter, though, because you’ve just bought a bestselling novel that you’re dying to read—Harry Potter and the Scientist’s Stone. You already know half the plot, of course, since everybody’s been talking about it since it hit the bookstands. It’s about this orphan kid who’s stuck in this horrible home situation, but it turns out that his parents were actually scientists, and pretty soon a lab assistant comes and takes him away to the mysterious Warthogs Institute where everybody goes around wearing lab coats and muttering algebraic equations. There he gets to study science, which amounts to chanting chemical formulas and building big clanking machines to cause the changes in consciousness that ordinary people get done by magic.

In this alternate world, mind you, there are people who actually try to practice science—this despite the efforts of the Committee for Paranormal Investigation of Claims of the Scientific, whose members go around heaping disdain on anybody who claims to have experienced a repeatable cause and effect relationship. A lot of would-be scientists simply dress up in lab coats, fill their apartments with test tubes and similarly spooky decor, and leave popular books with titles like Secrets of the Physicists Revealed! on the coffee table to impress dates. Those who get beyond this sort of thing, as often as not, still have a great deal of Harry Potter mixed up with their science, and keep on trying to figure out how to make science do what magic does, with no significant success.

It’s only among the more experienced and serious practitioners in this alternate world that you find people who have realized that the difference between science and magic isn’t a difference of means but of ends—that science isn’t about causing changes in consciousness, as magic is, but about learning and then applying the properties of matter and energy on their own terms. In a society that embraces magic as its central cultural project, mind you, most people don’t see much value in this latter endeavor. The irony is that some of the most serious problems facing the alternate world can’t be solved by changes in consciousness. They could conceivably be solved by using the properties of matter and energy, but if you try telling people that, you’ll get an irritated look, and then a bunch of canned polemics.

Step back through the looking glass at this point, and you’ll find that the same situation applies once you reverse all the signs. Science, not magic, became the core cultural project of our civilization, and the things that science and technology can do—learning and applying the properties of matter and energy—are the things we consider important. Popular images of magic thus have it imitating science and technology in one way or another. The sort of fake magic you get ad nauseam in the Harry Potter franchise is as good an example as any; Harry and his classmates fly around on brooms, zap people with wands, and manipulate matter and energy directly, which is exactly what magic does not do.

The apotheosis of this sort of thinking is Arthur C. Clarke’s famous Third Law: "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." I mean no disrespect whatsoever to Clarke, who was among the best of SF authors; it’s hardly blameworthy that he shared misunderstandings of magic that were all but universal in his culture. The point remains that since magic does not do what technology does, and vice versa, the Third Law should properly be renamed Clarke’s Fallacy; no matter how advanced a technology may be, it does the kind of thing technologies do—that is to say, it manipulates matter and energy directly, which again is what magic does not do. I’d like to propose, in fact, an alternative rule, which I’ve modestly titled Greer’s Law: "Anyone who is unable to distinguish between magic and any technology, however advanced, doesn’t know much about magic."

To understand what it is that magic does do, it’s crucial to look at the specific purposes for which magic is used in practice. Since every human culture known to history has practiced magic, this isn’t exactly hard, and the purposes of magic have varied remarkably little over the centuries. Why do people turn to magic? To tilt the odds their way in hunting, gambling, war, and any other activity that combines high uncertainty with high stakes; to establish, improve, and shape the whole range of human relationships; to heal illnesses of body and mind; to integrate the personality and bring it into harmony with the structures of the cosmos, however those are understood; and, not least, to deal with the fact that other people are using magic for these same purposes, and not always with your best interests in mind.

What do these things all have in common? They all deal with mental phenomena, individual or collective. Grasp that, and you start to grasp what magic is all about.

Philosophers and psychologists down the centuries have tried to bring our attention to two important but generally neglected facts: we know more than we realize, and we affect more than we realize. Look at the human organism from an evolutionary standpoint and this isn’t hard to understand. Our rational, conscious, symbol-using minds are recent and rather rickety structures built over the top of a superbly adapted mammalian nervous system. The tangled relationship between the two shows up, for example, in the way that athletes have to learn to get their thinking minds out of the way in order to reach peak performance. It’s a dirty trick well known among tennis players to ask your opponent just how he holds his thumb when hitting backhand, knowing that the unwanted awareness will mess up his coordination and quite possibly cost him the game.

The same factors apply in most other aspects of human life. When two people fall in love, for example, their rational minds have little to do with the matter; the same nonrational, nonverbal patterns of mutual communication that handled pair bonding for our prehuman ancestors do the same thing for us, and as often as not our rational minds simply get hauled along for the ride, squawking and complaining all the way. Social status is determined the same way; read up on social hierarchies among baboons and then visit, say, an activist group trying to find consensus, and if you pay attention to body language and other nonverbal cues, you’ll quickly spot identical patterns at work. In my experience, at least, the more egalitarian a group claims to be, the more completely it depends on baboon politics to maintain group cohesion and direction—though if you mention that in such circles, you’ll get an irritated look followed by canned polemics.

I could list any number of other examples, but I trust my readers will have gotten the point: a great deal of what goes on in our lives depends not on our rational, linguistic, symbol-using minds, but on an intricate and richly communicative nonrational substructure inherited from our animal ancestors, most of which we never notice at all and much of which is highly resistant to any kind of conscious control. The main current of our industrial culture, which has made the rational mind central to its core cultural project and fixates on a particular mode of conscious control—more on that in a later post—has few resources to offer for dealing with that substructure, other than ignoring it, white-knuckling it, or drugging it into temporary submission. There are better tools to hand, though: the tools of magic.

Consider a healing spell, the sort of thing that shamans, sorcerers, and mages have practiced down through the centuries. Do these work? Quite often, yes, and the mechanism in many cases seems to be what today’s science calls the placebo effect. Today’s science treats the placebo effect as an obstacle to be gotten out of the way, and it’s right to do so. If you’re trying to find out the properties of matter and energy on their own terms, the placebo effect and its kin are major sources of confusion. You need to keep mental phenomena from bollixing up your perception of physical phenomena, or the results aren’t good. What’s an obstacle to the scientist, though, is the mage’s bread and butter.

The operative mage doesn’t want to get rid of the placebo effect. Quite the contrary, he or she wants to amplify it and use it, to direct the body’s healing resources toward a cure. That’s what the psychologically charged symbols, the ritual psychodrama, the emotionally evocative herbs and incenses, and all the other tools of operative magic are there to accomplish. Apply the same logic to the other purposes of magic mentioned above, and the same interpretation applies. We know more than we realize, and affect more than we realize; tapping into that unnoticed knowledge can lead to better choices, just as tapping into that unnoticed ability to affect situations can lead to better outcomes. These two taken together are what’s generally known as "luck."

But what about the spirits, planes, powers, and all the other metaphysical hardware that fills books on magical theory? Are those real? That’s a very good question with a very complex and uncertain answer. Anyone who takes up serious magical training will start to experience such things within a year or two of beginning daily practices; the effect is reliable enough that those of us who teach magic all know to expect the panicky phone call or email that comes right after each student has his or her first experience of the kind. The experiences we’re discussing are mental in nature, not physical; they have the appearance of real beings, places, and so on, but then the same thing is true of the people and places encountered in dreams.

There’s a lively and continuing debate among operative mages about the ontological status of these things—are they hallucinations? Dissociated complexes? Archetypes of the collective unconscious? Actual entities existing on a continuum perceived solely by the mind?—but so far, at least, it’s proven wretchedly hard to come up with a verifiable answer. The traditional lore offers useful guidance in how to deal with these experiences while maintaining a state of relative mental balance, and for the time being that’s about all that can be said for certain.

The debates over the nature of magical experience stray into some weird territory on occasion. Still, I’ve been studying and practicing this stuff for more than three decades, and in my experience, the only way an operative mage is going to get a broom to fly is to buy round trip airfare and take the broom as checked baggage. It really is that simple.

The same logic applies at least as forcefully to the intersection between magic and peak oil. Porter Stansberry can brandish the arcane symbols of the stock market and intone the ritual gibberish of economic textbooks all he wants; his incantations aren’t going to cause petroleum to materialize in the depleted reservoirs of America and the world. Chanting "Drill, baby, drill" may well put the chanters into a trance state—certainly the people who’ve made this their mantra seem to have achieved a blissful unconcern with the realities of petroleum geology—but that’s all it’s going to do. "The planes," to cite a magical maxim, "are discrete and not continuous," which means in ordinary language that petroleum reserves are one thing and daydreams quite another, and trying to insist that the former has to follow the same rules as the latter is a sucker’s game.

That being said, there’s another side to the story, because peak oil is not only, or even primarily, a problem of what magical philosophy generally calls the physical plane. The finite nature of petroleum and other fossil fuel reserves, and the very limited prospects for replacing fossil fuels with anything else, are a function of hard physical limits, of course, but the three decades of bad decisions that have backed America and the industrial world into a corner of their own making, and foreclosed any number of technically feasible responses to the impending end of the age of cheap energy, are not physical in nature. They belong to the plane of consciousness—to the realm of choices and worldviews, of the unrecognized motives and unacknowledged desires that run rampant through our civilization’s profoundly murky inner relationship with its technology and the energy sources that power the latter.

Over the last decade or so, quite a few people have tried to solve the technical issues of peak oil without grappling with, or even recognizing, the existence of this other dimension of our predicament, and the result has been a great many technically appealing solutions that sit gathering dust on the shelves. (Mention this to those who are busy coming up with new additions to the same dusty shelf and—well, you know what kind of look and response you’ll get.) The green wizardry of the Seventies, to its credit, went deeper, and attempted—with some success—to address these other issues: issues that could be called cultural, or psychological, or (let’s whisper the word) spiritual. To make sense of their explorations and build on them, though, we’re going to have to go a good deal further into the topic of magic, talk about the black hole in the history of Western philosophy, and—why not?—break out a bottle of Love Potion No. 9. We’ll do that next week.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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