The world is magic
but not the way you might think it is
This is the world as it looks, at a first glance, to a modern person.
If this modern person is religious or spiritual, or they believe in any way in the supernatural, the world will look like this to them.
They conceptualize the spiritual world as being behind the natural world and somehow creeping into the natural world, influencing it, determining it or in the extreme generating it. Here is where the fight between skeptics and believers is fought. Something remarkable happens in the world, the ones say “it was chance”, the others say “it was the influence of the spiritual world”. We could call “the influence of the spiritual world” magic.
I have believed (or wanted to believe) in a spiritual world for a time (no need to go into details about my particular creed here). Now I tend to think any belief in this sort of magic has been undermined by the philosopher of science Popper. Here’s how I’d summarize his argument:
If there is nothing that could at least in principle convince you that your belief is wrong, then your belief explains everything and is thus meaningless.
That’s why it’s easy for modern skeptic people to look at the world’s religions and mythologies and wave them away as superstitious and meaningless. I’ve passed that phase too.
But here’s the thing: there are reasons to believe that that’s not how ancient people actually saw the world. There was something deeper going on. Bear with me.
Let’s go back to the modern view of the world.
We actually left something significant out in this picture, namely your mind. Your inner world, or subjective world, made of thoughts, feelings, impulses. It is somehow different from the world “out there”, it is what makes you feel separate from the world in the first place. A more accurate description of the world thus looks like this:
But wait, there’s still something missing.
When was the last time you saw an optical illusion? Here is one for you.
In an optical illusion, what you see is not what is there. So what you see must be something different and somewhere else. Right, it’s in your subjective world as well. If you ever had a discussion about whether “my green is the same as your green” you know what I’m talking about. Colors and sounds are part of your subjective experience, and the world is actually made of things like space, matter and electromagnetic waves.
Here’s where it gets tricky. What about atoms, space and light? How do we know the world actually is structured that way? Maybe we are in a computer simulation simulating atoms. Maybe we are dreaming about a world made of atoms, space and light. We are able to create a model of the world (which in the end is also just a bunch of thoughts) that allows us to predict what we will experience when we act in determinate ways. But who knows what the world “in itself” really looks like?
The point is: “what does the world in itself look like” is the wrong question! If it looked like anything, that would still be inside of our subjective world. The only thing we can say is that somehow the world affects our subjective world, and that the only thing we can learn about is how its influence populates and structures our subjective world, which we shall appropriately call consciousness.
Let’s now look more closely at our little map of the contents of consciousness.
Here’s where an interesting psychological truth comes into play: it’s not natural for human beings to think of these as separate compartments of consciousness. To split out all these categories was a monumental achievement of the modern mind that took thousands of years. This is the only reason we are able to think of the world as “objective”, as separate from us, the “subject”. To the archaic mind, thoughts, feelings, impulses and perceptions are all interlinked. It’s a unified field of experience.
The thoughts and feelings and impulses of the archaic mind were “out there” together with the things that elicited them. They were the words and influences of gods. Things spoke to them, revealed themselves to them, demanded things from them.
The modern mind might be tempted to conflate this world view with the “spiritual” view we described above, and just dismiss it as ignorance or superstition. But this is something altogether different.
Because even though we have forgotten it, we haven’t abandoned that strange world at all. Even though we don’t think of it that way, the “objective” world still appears inside our consciousness (remember the optical illusion?). Inside your consciousness, everything is still connected to everything else. Things aren’t just things in our experience. They are tools and obstacles, they speak to you, want things from you. Think about what you experience when you come back to a place you left years ago. Think about people you admire or despise, think about things that attract your interest like a magnetic field, things you keep doing without knowing why, almost like rituals, things that scare you unreasonably, the strange ways you take life important decisions. Your world isn’t neutral. It’s warped, it’s oriented, it’s a field of meaning. It’s magic, if you will. And because we have forgotten it its magic operates on us without us even knowing it.
It turns out that there is a ton to learn about the rules of such magic. Psychology surely explores that. But in a way classic humanistic culture is even a deeper exploration into this field. Ancient mythology and fairy tales, religious stories, literature and art are all attempts to explore and understand the structure of the magic world, where things aren’t just things, and everything is deeply meaningful.
I believe that the person who most represents this view was the psychologist Carl Jung. He spent his whole life studying how the ancient mind experienced the world, and how this still affects the modern mind. Recently I have been following the Canadian professor Jordan Peterson, who has expanded upon Jung’s theory in a most interesting way in his lectures and public talks (which you can find in his Youtube channel) and his book Maps of Meaning. I came to know him through a couple of interviews by Sam Harris, another public figure (an atheist) I deeply admire for his sobriety and intellectual honesty.
In this article I tried to articulate the way I understand the foundation of Peterson’s and Jung’s perspective. This rabbit hole goes very deep, I highly recommend you watch Peterson’s Message to Millennials as a start. At the very least, Peterson has given me back an access to our culture that I had lost, and I intend to engage more with it to deepen my relationship with the “magic” of the world, which in the end is nothing else than trying to live a more meaningful life.