Friday, April 8, 2016

True Magic; Real Miracles

One of [the brain's] functions is to make the miraculous seem ordinary, to turn the unusual into the usual. Otherwise, human beings, faced with the daily wondrousness of everything, would go around wearing a stupid grin, saying “Wow,” a lot. Part of the brain exists to stop this from happening.  - Terry Pratchett
It doesn't stop being magic just because you know how it works. - Terry Pratchett, again 

The Raising of Lazarus
As a skeptic, I'm sometimes accused of being blind to the possibility of magic and miracles. But the fact is, I see miracles every single day. Just this morning, for example, I woke up on a great spinning sphere in space, just as it turned to slowly reveal another, gigantic sphere; one too brilliant to even look at directly. The big sphere was turning mass into energy, just as Einstein described, and I could feel the results warming my skin from 93 million miles away. All along the streets were living organisms taller than houses, also bathed in the morning light. They had used the light over the years to build themselves out of little more than air and water. Some had covered themselves in flowers. The best jeweler in history couldn't have made a single one of those flowers, and the trees were making them by the thousands, without even thinking about it. In one of the trees was a small, feathered dinosaur. It made a laughing sound that told me it was a woodpecker, and then it flew away. It was a fantastical, wondrous scene. I was surrounded by magic; encircled by miracles. We don't usually think of a scene like that in those terms, but that's only because we've so used to seeing amazing things every day that we take them for granted.

And those are just everyday miracles; commonplace magic. Every week or so I'm treated to a something unusually miraculous. Not long ago I looked out my window before sunrise, and saw Mercury, Venus, Saturn, Mars, the Moon, and Jupiter lined up across the sky. Six other worlds, and I was looking right at them across millions of miles of space. Is that not incredible? And then, last week I was walking to work and saw a puddle with a thin skin of patterned ice on top. The ice crystals had grown from a single point in the middle of the puddle; radiating and branching outward in six directions like a giant snowflake. Countless water molecules--far more than all the people who have ever lived on earth--had been milling around in watery chaos, and then lined up in perfect rank and file to create a symmetrical pattern. Order had emerged from disorder, spontaneously, as the puddle cooled. It was a miracle, right there in a mud puddle. I stared at it, and thought about how an analogous process occurred at the birth of the universe, when the universe cooled and expanded, creating pockets of order that would become stars, galaxies, and eventually, trees and woodpeckers.

Now, some readers will object to me calling these things miracles, or magic. And I'll admit I'm using both words in a particular sense. According to Merriam-Webster Online, a miracle is "an unusual or wonderful event that is believed to be caused by the power of God". That's the first definition listed. I'm using the word in the sense of the second definition: "a very amazing or unusual event, thing, or achievement." Similarly, I'm not using the word "magic" in this most common sense: "a power that allows people (such as witches and wizards) to do impossible things by saying special words or performing special actions." I'm using it in a more metaphorical sense, as in "that was a magical sunset".

Most people who talk about miracles and magic have something very different in mind than I do, and different people prefer different words. The ones who talk about miracles are usually religious--they see miracles as acts of God that suspend the ordinary laws of nature: things like Jesus walking on water or rising from the dead. Magic, by contrast, is something that's more likely to be embraced by people in the New Age or occult movements. They're impressed by mysterious alleged phenomena that seem unexplained by science: auras, ESP, astrology, healing properties of crystals, spells, magical potions, and so on. In either case, the key point is that people are more impressed by alleged violations of natural law than by natural law itself. That's why they will probably find my examples of magic and miracles unsatisfying--a poor substitute for the real thing.

I have the opposite opinion. I think the kind of miracles and magic I'm talking about are FAR more impressive and awe-inspiring than accounts of people walking on water or reading minds. Why? Because they're demonstrably real. They clearly exist in the real world, and that, in my opinion, is a distinct advantage. Things like auras and resurrection do not clearly exist; at least not in any easily demonstrable way. If they were easy to demonstrate, people wouldn't think of them as miraculous or magical (in the usual sense of those terms). They would just be part of everyday life, and people would stop seeing the wonder in them, the way they've stopped seeing the wonder in ice crystals and the sun. We would have long ago started taking them for granted.

Of course, I can't prove that miracles and magic, in the sense of violations of natural law, don't exist. I can't prove that Jesus didn't walk on water, or that my being a Pisces tells me absolutely nothing about my personality or destiny, or that magic spells are useless. But I think these are fairly safe assumptions. I could get into why I think that, but that's a big topic that would make this post much too long, so I'll just touch on a couple of points.

First the "magical" things that impress New Agers and occultists: There is no good evidence that they work, and no known mechanism by which most of them could work. There's no force known to science that could explain how an arrangement of stars in the sky could influence your personality or destiny. There's no force known to science that could explain how crystals could heal you. Of course, it could be that they work because of forces science hasn't yet discovered, but there's no evidence for that, either, because there's no evidence that they work at all.

As for miracles, I look at reports of miracles in much the way David Hume did:
When anyone tells me, that he saw a dead man restored to life, I immediately consider with myself, whether it be more probable, that this person should either deceive or be deceived, or that the fact, which he relates, should really have happened. I weigh the one miracle against the other; and according to the superiority, which I discover, I pronounce my decision, and always reject the greater miracle. 
In other words, which is more plausible--that a dead man came back to life, or that a few people mistakenly believed he did? How many times have you talked to someone who was mistaken? And how many times have you seen someone come back from the dead?

Another issue I want to raise about miracles is one noted by the philosopher James Keller. Lots of people believe that if someone makes an unexpected recovery from cancer, for example, it means God performed a miracle. But what about all the people who don't recover? Why would God single out one person to miraculously save, and let all the others die? Or, as Keller put it, "If God intervenes to save your life in a car crash, then what was he doing in Auschwitz?" If God cured your cancer, why didn't he do anything about the child rapes and terrorist attacks we read about in the papers?

As I said, though, this isn't the place to get into a deep discussion of the plausibility of miracles and magic. You could write a whole book about it, and others are better qualified than me. The point I want to make is about what we should think of as a miracle. What should we consider magical? Does something have to violate the laws of nature to merit our awe? I don't think it does. In fact, I think people all too often become blind to the real wonders in this world because they're looking for imagined ones.

One reason I know this is that I work in a public library. Every day, I help people find books on things like astrology, witchcraft, angels, ancient aliens, crystal healing, Nostradamus, demons, bigfoot and other things that are entirely at odds with a scientific understanding of the universe. If someone asks for books on astronomy, I can usually assume they really mean astrology, and don't know there's a difference. If they use the word "quantum", they almost always want some kind of New Age pseudoscience that has nothing to do with the actual science of quantum mechanics (again, they don't usually know the difference). And how often do people ask for actual science? Maybe once every six months. Maybe. If I do some very rough math, that means the general public is about 150 times as interested in alleged violations of natural law as they are in learning about natural law itself.

Why is this? Why is it that people are so much more excited about what is unexplained (and often completely made up) than what is explained? It's really bizarre, when you think about it. Consider this discussion of miracles by Thomas Aquinas:
an astronomer is not astonished when he sees an eclipse of the sun, for he knows the cause; whereas one who is ignorant of this science must needs wonder, since he knows not the cause. Wherefore it is wonderful to the latter but not to the former. Accordingly a thing is wonderful simply, when its cause is hidden simply: and this is what we mean by a miracle, to wit, that is wonderful in itself and not only in respect of this person or that. Now God is the cause which is hidden to every man simply: for we have proved above that in this state of life no man can comprehend Him by his intellect. 
Aquinas is defining a miracle as that whose cause is hidden to everyone, not just the ignorant. It's an interesting argument, and he was a brilliant man, but consider what he's saying in the first part of that quotation, "one who is ignorant of this science must needs wonder." Here wonder can mean two different things: to ponder how a thing can be, and to be amazed (it's telling that we use the same word for both). If we think of wonder as being amazed, then Aquinas is saying that the more ignorant people are about a thing, the more amazing they will find it. And he's right! That's usually how it works. Human nature is such that what we wonder about--what we are ignorant of--is what seems wonder-ful.

That's our natural impulse, but does it make sense? Why should things be more amazing the more ignorant we are about them? Why shouldn't knowing more about something make it even more amazing? For example, if I look up at the planet Saturn, and didn't know anything about it, all I would see is an unusually bright star. But when I read more about it, I discover its true wonders: how it has rings, colorful bands, and a whole litter of moons; how it rains helium there, and how hundreds of Earths could fit inside it. All these things make Saturn more amazing, not less. They make it more magical. More miraculous. Not because they violate any laws of nature, but because they show us how much more incredible it is than it seems when we first see that little bright dot in the sky.

What I want to ask with this post then, is whether we should reconsider what we think of as magical or miraculous. What if the real miracles aren't things that violate the laws of nature--it's not even clear that such things exist--but are instead the incredible things all around us; the things we've become so used to that we've forgotten how incredible they really are? What if the goal of spirituality isn't to find miracles and magic in the sense of violations of natural law, but to learn to see what's miraculous about the real world? If so, then the true magic--the real miracles--are the things that surround us every day of our lives.