We All Believe in Magic


Magic—it’s not just for Disney wizards and fairy god-mothers. We all believe in magic. In fact, we all not only believe in magic, but we rely on it constantly.

I admit this provocative claim needs some qualifications, the first of which is a somewhat broadened definition of “magic.” Many current definitions of magic focus on the arcane means and methods of manipulating reality to achieve the magical result. But this narrow focus leaves a huge question open for begging: how does it actually work? The practice of magic through will power, charms, spells, potions, etc. assumes an efficacy of those things to preternaturally affect reality, but the “how” of their causation is really a question without an answer. The answer to the question of how magic works is a tautology: it’s magic. Magic in this sense, as that “just so” causal phenomenon in the cosmos, is what I’m talking about.

Some people may think that folks in the olden days were comfortable believing in magic but that now we’re advanced enough to know magic isn’t real. This is inaccurate. Thinking people have long been unsatisfied with magic as an explanation for things.

From at least the ancient Greek natural philosophers onward, man has tried to learn the secret workings of the physical cosmos, postulating explanatory (if unobservable) qualities of nature to account for what could be observed. For example, all physical things can be cut, crushed, or otherwise broken down into smaller things, so in order to avoid the logically problematic infinite regress of smaller and smaller bits of matter, “atoms” were postulated by Leucippus as the most fundamental, indivisible units of matter. And because all causation seemed to logically require contact between the thing acting and the thing acted upon, the “æther” was postulated as a “substance” in which light could move, objects could fall, and the heavenly bodies traveled (vaccums, or “voids,” being disdainfully rejected). This insight especially—causation as contact—has driven so much of natural philosophy and scientific investigation since antiquity.

From the ancient Greeks through the late middle ages and renaissance, those same general insights about the movement of the cosmos prevailed. Then in the seventeenth century a man named Isaac Newton had the audacity to mathematize the movements of physical bodies (and even of light!) without postulating the cause of their movements. By turning motion into math, Newton needed only to name the variables in his equations, using, for example, the word gravitas (gravity) for the G in his brilliant law of attraction: F = G(m1m2)/R2 . This gravitational constant didn’t need to be explained or theorized; Newton, in fact, said it was sufficient to observe that the data implied some attracting force, but beyond that said, “Hypotheses non fingo,” or “I frame no hypotheses” about what the force is or how it works.

This seemingly magical force was immensely unpopular among many, especially those who espoused Descartes’ theory of matter and motion (from a generation before Newton) which claimed that there must be vast vortices of tiny particles (“corpuscles”) of matter swirling around the sun and literally pushing the planets along (again, disdainfully rejecting the idea of space as a vacuum). But it was Newton’s theory, not Descartes’ nor Kepler’s nor Copernicus’, that best fit all the observable data. It was a mind capable of conceiving of a magical connection, a “force”, between objects that produced the most reliable and useful predictive models—“laws” we might say—of the universe.

Newtonian mechanics—which describes “the motion of bodies under the influence of a system of forces”—was a practical tour de force that revolutionized the world through its applications in the industries of manufacturing, building, travel, etc. But as useful as Newton’s system of forces was in practical terms, in philosophical terms it was disastrous. Magical forces of attraction and repulsion simply could not be allowed to govern the cosmos. Mercifully, then, the early twentieth century supplied a new paradigm in which to approach physics.

In 1900, Max Planck hit on the novel idea of describing electromagnetic energy as being emitted in discrete packets of energy (quanta) to effectively predict a certain kind of radiation. Planck himself, at the time still committed to classical Newtonian physics, originally only thought of this postulation as a mathematical trick, not a description of a physical reality. But five years later Albert Einstein would use Planck’s “trick” to successfully explain the photoelectric effect, and would assert that these quanta of energy (“photons,” in the case of light) were real things: particles.

Particle physics opened onto a bright new horizon of explanatory jackpots, concluding that particles were the causal keys in subjects ranging from chemistry to optics to medicine to computing and electronics. Even the fundamental forces of nature themselves—the weak nuclear, strong nuclear, and electromagnetic forces—were subdued to the causal mediation of physical particles (with gravity’s attending particle stubbornly avoiding detection so far, but preemptively given the name “graviton” in the meantime). With the magical forces now explained as just so many particles of one kind physically interacting with particles of another, Leucippus, the ancient Greek father of the atom, and Descartes with his corpuscles could rest easy again in their graves.

But particles quickly proved to be treacherous bedfellows. The little creatures haven’t behaved as we’ve always expected or preferred. When they team up together, they like to act like waves instead of discrete objects. Their location in space and their angular momentum are completely unpredictable and (presumably) completely random. And most frustratingly, they appear able to affect one another instantaneously at great distances through no apparent contact with each other (e.g. quantum entanglement), violating the crucial causation as contact insight. This behavior fits to a T the definition of magic given by 20th century anthropologist James G. Frazer as the notion that “things act on each other at a distance through a secret sympathy.” Einstein abhorred the idea that there wasn’t a more reasonable explanation for this quantum entanglement, what he called “spooky action at a distance.” Just as particle physics was supposed to be definitively removing the magic from the motion of the universe, the movements of the particles themselves began suggesting magic.

Surely, then, particles can’t be at the bottom of nature; there must be something else more fundamental to explain them. Experimental physics has only gotten us as far as detecting the particles (though extremely tiny ones), but theoretical physics is taking us deeper through logic and mathematics. Quantum Field Theory, for example, sees particles as merely localized “excitations” (undulations, ripples, waves) passing through infinite fields of potentiality spanning and crisscrossing the universe. Particles, in this theory, aren’t truly discrete objects in themselves, but are rather little moving bumps on the more fundamental realities of the fields—little pimples on the buttocks of the cosmos. But as physicist Brian Skinner notes, “it’s not quite right to say that fields are the most fundamental thing that we know of in nature.  Because we know something that is in some sense even more basic: we know the rules that these fields have to obey.”

And here we arrive at the magic. The inescapable, irreducible magic of the cosmos. Even if the fundamental fields of Quantum Field Theory, or the strings of Superstring Theory, or whatever other basic building blocks we can theorize are put forward as the most foundational, primary, essential unit of “stuff” in the whole cosmos, they will still have qualities—properties intrinsic to their being—which are . . . “just so.” The properties of light may be explained by the properties of photons; the properties of photons may be explained by the properties of the photoelectric field; and the properties of that field may even be one day explained by the properties of something more fundamental still. But the properties of that most basic unit will always turn up “just so.” They will have no physical causation at all. They will be there because of magic.

Poof. There they are.

Because we all have faith in the universe continuing to go on as it has, according to its own internal rules and laws—laws that magically appear at the foundations of reality and govern everything up the material chain of causality to galactic superstructures and beyond—we essentially not only believe in magic, but rely on it constantly to carry on our lives. We trust we won’t fall through the floor because solid surfaces behave a certain way, because electrons in atoms behave a certain way, because the fermion field has certain characteristics, because . . . ? Just because. It’s magic.

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