The Axis of Magic

Magic, Religion, Technology & Science

There is something which unites magic and applied science [=technology] while separating both from the “wisdom” of earlier ages. For the wise men of old the cardinal problem had been how to conform the soul to reality, and the solution had been knowledge, self-discipline, and virtue. For magic and applied science alike the problem is how to subdue reality to the wishes of men; the solution is a technique. --C. S. Lewis

Not too long ago I happened on a conversation by @swardley, one of my favorite tweeters. He was describing magic in the realm of corporate desire. The thread is here: 

X : Culture eats strategy for breakfast
Me : Magic eats culture for lunch
X : What?
Me : I asked 20 tech executives - “Do you think your workplace is magical compared to others” and 40% said yes. Magic is real.
X : This is bullshit
Me : You started it with culture.

— Simon Wardley #EEA (@swardley) August 27, 2019

And the idea of magic occurs to me in two contexts. The first is the series Magic 2.0 by Scott Meyer. My review of the first book is here.

What a fun book, and what an exceptionally diabolical villain. Scott Meyer's protag is an ordinary bumbling, self-deprecated cornball of a 'Greatest American Hero'. All good intentions and smarmy sentimentality of a Millennial Charlie Brown, Martin Banks can't figure out a purpose for his life and becomes a marvelous fish out of water in the series. And having read the audiobook, one of the greatest voice actors in the business does a pitch perfect mentor in Phillip, the wise and conscientious mentor to Martin the Magnificent. But the true genius of this book is found in the character of Jimmy, social engineer par excellence. I cannot think of a villain who exemplifies so much of what is wrong in this world than this ruthless manipulator. He is the kind of glib evil that permeates so much of American society that recognizing the lengths he goes to is a revelation. 

The book is an excellent meditation on ethics and power, wrapped up in fantasy and fun, a brilliant and entertaining combination. Trekkies will immediately recognize the centrality of the Prime Directive in this work. 

But Lewis' is deeper. I remembered what he said about the expertise of technologists. He said that they cannot explain what it is they do, because they're all wrapped up in technique and their specialization has a necessary measure of opacity and obfuscation. I have certainly felt that in my profession, and mustn't we all eventually? I mean if we really become proficient, we learn the underside of our business. Lewis said however, any child can understand magic. If you want to explain why all rockets don't explode on the launch pad, someone who understands all of the 735 components of the the rocket assembly couldn't explain it in a year. But if you say "it's magic", everybody gets it.

There's another tangent to this which is the explanation of the infinitely contingent nature of human decision making. Jordan Peterson made a remarkable impression on me in describing how humans handle tools. A car, for example, is just a tool to get you from point A to point B. It's only when the damned thing breaks that you bother to look under the hood. You will spend as little effort in using this tool as possible so you can accomplish your goals. When the tool begins to fail you, it becomes a problem and so you get into its innards, yet only up to a point. You then decide that all of its complexities are a waste of your time & money and you discard the entire thing. It is no longer relevant to your purposes. You find an alternative tool.  In that respect, it doesn't matter if your car runs on electricity, squirrel farts or vampire blood. It's technology you're never going to learn unless it is your purpose to serve the function of the tool. Most people just want to use the tool.

Philosopher Peter Kreeft writes in clarification of Lewis:

Science and religion both aim at conforming the mind to objective truth, objective reality (science conforms our mind to the nature of the universe, and religion conforms our mind to the mind of God and our will to the will of God).

Magic and technology, on the other hand, try to conform objective reality to the human will. That is why they both arose at the same time—not the Middle Ages but the Renaissance, not the Age of God but the Age of Man. Both are Faustian, Promethean. The difference is, of course, that technology works while magic doesn’t (usually). But their end, their goal, the purpose behind them, the human values and desires and state of soul that set them in motion, are the same.

The abuse of religion always is involved in the establishment of the illusion of supernatural magic. The charlatan seeks the authority granted by inverting the idea of approaching God, the sacred divine by objectifying God as the ultimate authority to which the charlatan naturally appeals. The abuse of science always is involved in the established of the illusion of supernatural technology. The charlatan seeks the authority granted by inverting the idea of practicing the scientific method by objectifying Science as the ultimate authority to which the charlatan naturally appeals. 


Religion vs Spirituality
What’s interesting about the matter of religion in the hands of the charlatan is that he already claims to know the mind of God. For most who work religiously or apply religious discipline in this manner, the goal is already in mind. This is the difference then between a proper religion and a religion as a front for ideology. A proper religion must account for the huge gap between God and man. Faith is thus transformed into an infinite stream of questions some answered by previous theology, some ever emergent or mysterious and unreachable. If a religion becomes mechanistic and loses the emergent properties requiring human creativity in a dynamic engagement with life then it is reduced to nothing more than a creed, a clubhouse, a tribe whose rituals are empty of spirit. When people notice this, they may blame God, the church, the clergy or themselves. Either way their heart is not in it. The discipline becomes hollow. So it is entirely reasonable for them to search elsewhere for the spirituality, the awakening, the fulfillment that is missing when the target of faith doesn’t move.

It’s easy to find someone engaged with a proper religious discipline. They are likely to say that God has a new challenge for them every day. They have internalized the animating spirit of engaging mystery and problems. This is the same animating spirit of the curious scientist or engineer engaged with puzzles, mysteries and rabbit holes.

Technology & Magic
These are devoid of mystery so much as there is a trick, a cheat code, a mechanical process or blueprint that reveals the secret. One could never mistake a patent troll for a scientist. The aim of the troll is to maintain the secret, not to let anyone profit from learning; to purposefully keep others mystified rather than invite them to share in the delight of discovery.

Penn & Teller are extraordinary because they’ve raised the bar in a declining market for magic by teasing out some secrets and thereby illuminate and inspire curiosity in more than just the traditional aspirant magicians. A favorite of mine is the popular Destin Sandlin of Smarter Every Day. He’s a double threat who is clearly both scientific and religious. I like him as an explainer, who like P&T enjoys showing us how things work and engages the ‘what if’. I often think about the difference between musicians and recording artists along the same axis. Pitbull is a recording artist. You already know his target. On the other hand Hendrix explored the mysteries and brought you along. I might not be fair to Pitbull, but I am not saying in any of these ways that the difference is a matter of skill, so much as it is the exercise of will. The explorer invites you, the other sort tries to tell you what you need to do.

As a Stoic I aim to increase the duration between my emotional reaction and my considered rational action. As I seek wisdom I hope not to be didactic or tell you how to think. I’d rather only tell you if I think you are misinformed or are making an error. As I double down on the philosophy of science, I think I’m engaging the liberal ideas, the ideas behind the concept of liberty. We all individually must be free to discover, to question, to solve problems and do so, not disinterestedly but dispassionately as we engage the dissonant chords of our fellows. I happen to think it helps to develop a dark sense of humor about inevitable errors and foolishness. That is my current emotional reaction to bad news, thinking about what might have been worse with slapstick dramatizations in my head. Like the Three Stooges in a prison camp, there is often a serendipitous way out of hard times. Yeah it doesn’t even seem funny in writing but Curly, Larry and Moe on the River Kwai whistling Colonel Bogie’s March trying to build a bridge?

I leave it as an exercise for you to consider that vexing juxtaposition. Clearly, however magic and technology are very different than religion and science.