A Non-Magic Universe is Still Magical
The Absence of Magic is Even More Magical To Me Than Any Magic Ever Could Be
Some people really want to believe in magic. It’s true.
I think lots of ideas in popular consciousness are a kind of magic.
Some people hear “magic cause”, and go, “GREAT, that’s just the thing I need to believe in because contemplating a sterile, mathematical universe kills some sense of mystery and wonder in me, a sense which is necessary for me to keep operating on a day to day basis, said operation being more important to me than ‘refining’ my mental map of the world by replacing the legend with a shrug emoji.”
Other people hear “magic cause” and go, GREAT, that’s just the thing I need to discard this idea entirely, and reject the possibility of well-formed, coherent, near-neighbor concepts because magic doesn’t exist, and that sense of mystery and wonder is merely a mechanism for wishful thinking, surely not an invitation to look deeper, and all smart people are miserable and anxious like me, and any concept that remotely sounds like magic is polluted with stupid juice, and should therefore be rejected without further consideration because what’s better than taking the risk of exploring magic-feeling conceptual neighborhoods is knowing you are smarter than people who are happier and more functional than you.
But fortunately, dear reader, you aren’t one of those caricatures. By mere virtue of your readership here at APXHARD, you are that most magical of things, the epistemic unicorn, simultaneously open minded and skeptical at once, able and willing to joust with any steelman because you identify not with a body of ideas, but instead with the process of refining your beliefs in order to better align with truth, that greatest of pointers.
And you likely know this already: ideas can’t be infected by each other.
There is No Stupid Juice.
Every true complex idea is surrounded by poor approximations of it, which are also easier to communicate.
If you’ve heard a concept many times, and it’s always been defended with nonsense whenever you’ve poked at it, sure, you might consider this set of experiences as evidence that there is no truth there. But you might also consider that some true ideas are so powerful that even cartoony approximations of them still work, and that the cartoon versions spread more easily because they contain less information.
Whenever someone says “there is no reason to believe X,” what they are really saying, if they are honest, is “I am not aware of any reason to believe X.” Unless they are claiming to have knowledge of everything everywhere, there may indeed be reasons to believe X, of which this person is currently unaware.
No, ideas can’t infect each other. They can certainly waste your time. You can also look silly to your peers for considering that something they consider beneath them might be true. The difference between courage and stupidity is indiscernible to people who live their lives in fear.
I think lots of people reject the exploration of ideas that ‘sound magical’ because they think these explorations are a waste of time, and because they are afraid of wasting their time on something their peers would likely mock them for. For most people, not exploring magical sounding ideas is probably wise. It’s probably a mistake to go looking for treasure in a field where many people have gone looking for treasure, and many have come back with epistemic diseases.
But I think it’s also a mistake to reject the idea that anyone has explored the space around a magical concept and found something real there - or that anyone could do such a thing.
I think that widespread ideas with magical feelings around them are areas worth carefully exploring for something that is absent magic. I think an idea’s popularity over long periods of time is evidence of some selection bias in its favor, and I think ideas which are entirely false simply don’t help a person navigate reality better. I think many ideas which humanity discarded upon entering its “we now know everything phase” in the early 20th century are simply truth which we haven’t yet figured out how to translate into experiments that can be performed with our current level of technology.
There are not yet sufficiently large toy universes to test all kinds of theories that used to be widespread, and were discarded by intellectual elites because they were seen as being a kind of magical thinking. We’ve only been doing this ‘lead by elites who say materialism only’ thing for … maybe 100 years, and there are all kinds of signs that it won’t last a whole lot longer.
I don’t think we need to abandon commitments to empirical testing and epistemic humility in order to keep the magical feeling alive. What could be more magical than a non-magical universe full of true non-magical ideas that, when dumbed-down and simplified enough to relate to a child, still work while feeling magic, and yet, in their full-resolution versions, are totally devoid of magic?
So yes, some people think the universe is meaningful and beautiful, and if pressed for an explanation, will point to a kind of magic.
Other people think the universe is devoid of meaning, a sterile, scary, depressing place, a lifeless machine we were unfortunate enough to be born in, will suffer through, and then die in, perhaps having maybe a bit of pleasure or fun along the way.
Me, I’m over here just going WOW isn’t it nuts that a (possibly) purely deterministic system (or maybe one with some tiny bits of acausal noise in the farthest reaches) could behave in such a wild and rich way, and that I’m somehow inside of this system, arising naturally from it, a recursively self-generating structure that emerges temporarily from the entropic mists, to gaze about itself, and go, “holy crap I need to file my taxes again, damn, every year I got to fill out all these papers to figure out how much money I’m sending to a government that spies on me, lies to me, and then tells me it’s not really lying, just helping to tamp down disinformation, which is…”
Wait.. where was I?
Oh right, arguing that believing in a deterministic universe doesn’t rob it of a sense of magic and mystery as long as I don’t intentionally kill that sense of magic. I can use the magic and keep it alive by following where it leads, without losing my skepticism and commitment to truth. I can still feel this non-magic universe is magical so long as I broaden my perspective and don’t hyper fixate on admittedly not-so-great details.
I hope you have a magical-feeling, but entirely realistic, 2023.
I'll have a handful of whatever magic mushrooms you're eating, Mark. This is sterling (and as I've said before, you're clearly completely out of your tree, in the best possible way).
Mark, this is excellent. For some reason I can't find the like button for this post. But I did click the like on your other post about a million stupid cousins.
Half of my brain is mystical. Half of my brain is materialistic. And those two parts fuck with each other for a very long time.
The problem was resolved for me when I read an essay by Ken Wilber, in which he talked about the eye of (materialistic) science, the eye of mathematics, and the eye of spirit.
He pointed out that science neither proves nor disproves mathematics and mathematics either proves nor disproves science. They are completely independent domains it happens to be a fact that mathematics is useful in understanding science.
Proof is part of mathematics, but not science. Mathematics, science, and spirituality are all subject to the "scientific methods" One of which is to make hypotheses, perform experiments, observe the results..
In the world of spirit there are experiments you can do. You can sit on a cushion and meditate. You can pray to Jesus. You can look for the magic in the universe. You do these things in an open-minded scientific way, and something may or may not occur to you.
People have been doing some of these things for millennia, and as you correctly point out the fact that these ideas have stuck around is some evidence of their value.
So I stopped trying to use science to prove spirituality and accepted the fact that they were different ways of looking at the universe. Just as materialistic science and mathematics were different ways of looking at the universe.
Have you read or listened to Bernardo Bastrop ZThe points out that the one thing we can be certain of is consciousness,. Yet we wrong-mindedly attempt to try to explain consciousness in materialistic terms, when the material universe appears to us only in consciousness, and our experience of it at least is certainly an illusion. (The universe may or may not exist, but what we experience is the result of sense data being processed through the neural networks of our brains, and the visual cortex making a prediction about what is out there, and that is what we experience)
Anyway, keep up the good work!