The psychology and philosophy of magic.

In my last article, on the history of magic, I compared magic to religion and science, but without attempting a precise definition of magic. On the assumption that certain entities can exert a hidden influence on one another, magic is a method of acting in the world through sheer power of will. The notion that the universe is pregnant with subtle connexions is supported by, of all things, the study of mathematics, and it can sometimes seem that maths is at only one remove from magic.

Magic is often considered a gift, such that some people have it to a high degree and others, the muggles, barely at all, perhaps because their will is weak, unsettled, or untrained, or because magic does not run in their family—for like madness, magic is often hereditary. Whatever the case, people without magic are usually portrayed as lacking in cognitive faculties such as insight, intuition, and imagination, and would not see possibility even if it slapped them in the face.

Magic is sometimes divided into white and black, and high and low. Black magic is selfish and does not consider other people, whereas white magic is altruistic or selfless, and seeks in general to maintain or restore the equilibrium of the universe. The magician’s psychological makeup determines what kind of magic, white or black, he or she is able or likely to wield.

Speaking of equilibrium, deflecting objects and especially people from their natural or pre-ordained course is likely to have significant repercussions, which is why, aside from the mental effort and exhaustion, the use of magic is often said to come at a price, either to the magician, his or her client (for want of a better term), or a third party. The equilibrium must, ultimately, be maintained.

The magician is, in effect, a mediator of energies. Low magic involves drawing up energies from the earth, from plants and minerals and so on, and is more the province of common folk. High magic involves drawing down raw, unprocessed energies from the sun and sky, which requires complex ritual and is more the province of an educated or trained elite.

The magician cultivates his or her will through concentration—acquiring charisma in the process—and focuses it through ritual such as ceremony, chant, or spell. Ritual also helps to create the right atmosphere and attitude for magic to take hold. Words in particular can exert a power all of their own. In the language of Ancient Egypt, the sound of a word had a magical power which complemented its meaning, a view of language which we still retain when we talk of ‘spelling’ a word, or visit a psychotherapist. And while words can change the world, getting them wrong, that is, misspelling, can have disastrous consequences.

So far, I’ve been talking as if magic actually works. But does it work, and, if so, how? Unless one broadens the definition of magic to include cognitive faculties such as insight, intuition, and imagination, or simply peak performance, magic does not work, or, at least, not in an immediate, instrumental sense. But magic might work indirectly, by focussing the mind and energies on a particular problem, or through a mechanism akin to the placebo effect or psychoneuroimmunology.

The term ‘placebo effect’ derives from the Latin placare [‘to please’] and refers to the tendency for a remedy to ‘work’ simply because it is expected to do so. In essence, people who associate taking a remedy with improvement may come to expect improvement if they take a remedy, even if the ‘remedy’ in question is no more than an inert substance, or a substance that has no therapeutic effect but only adverse effects that can be interpreted as indicative of a therapeutic effect. It may be that the expectation alone suffices to mimic the effect of the remedy, and brain imaging studies indicate that, in some cases, remedies and their placebos activate the very same mechanisms in the nervous system.

In the UK, the antidepressant fluoxetine is so commonly prescribed that trace quantities have been detected in the water supply. But, as I lay bare in my book, The Meaning of Madness, there is mounting evidence that the most commonly prescribed antidepressants are little more effective than dummy pills which, unlike antidepressants, are free from adverse effects, and cost. So, it might be said that, insofar as antidepressants work, they do so by magic—and, no doubt, would be more effective if accompanied by some kind of incantation.

Remedies that are perceived to be more potent have a stronger placebo effect. Perceptions of potency are influenced by factors such as the remedy’s size, shape, colour, route of administration, and general availability. A brightly coloured injection administered by a silver-haired professor of medicine can be expected to have a much stronger placebo effect, and therefore a much stronger overall effect, than the unremarkable over-the-counter tablet recommended by the teenager next door. This highlights the importance of the psychological, social, and cultural context in which a treatment or intervention is administered, and, more particularly, the significance of the therapeutic act or ritual. If the practitioner, the patient, and their society believe in the magic, then the magic is real by the very force of that shared belief.

No wonder the magician, the priest, and the healer used to be one and the same person—and, in many societies, still is. Like religion, magic may represent a response to anxiety, distress, and a feeling of inadequacy or impotence, especially in the face of natural disaster. And like religion, it may represent a spiritual path, akin, perhaps, to a martial art, which also involves concentrating the mind, channelling instinctual drives, and leveraging forces.

But beyond all that, magic, whether it works or not, is an external projection of the human psyche, an external projection of our internal or psychological truth, which is why it features so prominently in fiction. Fairy tales often begin with a formulation such as, ‘Once upon a time in dreamland’, and magic is that dreamland. Like dreams, magic makes use of condensed symbols, and, like dreams, it is a kind of wish fulfilment.

In the same vein, magic might be compared with mental states such as psychosis and neurosis, which, like dreams, can also involve condensed symbols and wish fulfilment. Sigmund Freud linked magical rituals and spells with neurotic and obsessional thought processes, and there are arguably some parallels with compulsive acts, which are a response to obsessional thoughts or according to rules that must be rigidly applied.

Magic is, arguably, on a spectrum with madness, and magical thinking is especially prominent in schizotypy, or schizotypal personality disorder, which predisposes to schizophrenia, and also shamanism. As discussed in my related article on the history of magic, Plato distinguished between madness resulting from human illness and madness arising from a divinely inspired release from normally accepted behaviour. In Plato’s Phaedrus, Socrates says that this divinely inspired madness has four forms: mysticism, inspiration, poetry, and love. Love, according to Socrates, is not a god, as most people think, but a great spirit [daimon] that intermediates between gods and men.

Similarly, in The Sorcerer and his Magic (1963), the anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss argues that magic is a mediator between normal thought processes (common sense, reason, science…), which suffer from a marked deficit of meaning, and pathological thought processes, which abound with meaning:

From any non-scientific perspective (and here we can exclude no society), pathological and normal thought processes are complementary rather than opposed. In a universe which it strives to understand but whose dynamics it cannot fully control, normal thought continually seeks the meaning of things which refuse to reveal their significance. So-called pathological thought, on the other hand, overflows with emotional interpretations and overtones, in order to supplement an otherwise deficient reality… We might borrow from linguistics and say that so-called normal thought always suffers from a deficit of meaning, whereas so-called pathological thought (in at least some of its manifestations) disposes of a plethora of meaning. Through collective participation in shamanistic curing, a balance is established between these two complementary situations.

Some of my regular readers may have wondered why I turned my pen to so apparently frivolous a subject as magic. But we now know that magic means much more than it may at first seem. Aside from its links with madness and with healing, it is a mirror of the mind, and even, like love or beauty, and science and religion, a mode of belonging to the world.

The word ‘magic’ derives from the Latin, the Greek, the Old Persian, and, ultimately, the Proto-Indo-European magh, ‘to help, to be able, to be powerful’, from which also derive the words ‘almighty’, ‘maharaja’, ‘main’, ‘may’, and… ‘machine’. We come full circle with Clarke’s Third Law, which states: ‘Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.’

Magic, like religion, is deeply embedded into the human psyche. Though it has, effectively, been banished from the land, still it surfaces in thought and language, in phrases such as ‘I must be cursed’ and ‘He’s under your spell’; in children’s stories and other fiction; and in psychological processes such as undoing, which involves thinking a thought or carrying out an act in an attempt to negate a previous, uncomfortable thought or act.

Examples of undoing include the absent father who periodically returns to spoil and smother his children, and the angry wife who throws a plate at her husband and then tries to ‘make it up’ by smothering him in kisses. The absent father and angry wife are not merely trying to make amends for their behaviour, but also, as if by magic, to ‘erase it from the record’.

Another example of undoing is the man who damages a friend’s prospects and then, a few days later, turns up at his door bearing a small gift. Rituals such as confession and penitence are, at least on some level, socially condoned and codified forms of undoing.

‘Magic’ is difficult to define, and its definition remains a matter of debate and controversy. One way of understanding it is by comparing and contrasting it to religion on the one hand and to science on the other.

Historically, the priest, the physician, the magician, and the scholar might have been one and the same person: the shaman, the sorcerer.

In the West, pre-Socratics such as Pythagoras and Empedocles moonlighted as mystics and miracle workers—or perhaps, since the term ‘philosophy’ is held to have been invented by Pythagoras, moonlighted as philosophers. Pythagoras claimed to have lived four lives and to remember them all in great detail, and once recognized the cry of his dead friend in the yelping of a puppy. After his death, the Pythagoreans deified him, and attributed him with a golden thigh and the gift of bilocation.

In Plato’s Phaedrus, Socrates argues that there are, in fact, two kinds of madness: one resulting from human illness, but the other arising from a divinely inspired release from normally accepted behaviour. This divine form of madness, says Socrates, has four parts: love, poetry, inspiration, and mysticism, which is the particular gift of Dionysus.

While Socrates, in some sense the father of logic, seldom claimed any real knowledge, he did claim to have a daimonion or ‘divine something’, an inner voice or intuition that prevented him from making grave mistakes such as getting involved in politics, or fleeing Athens: ‘This is the voice which I seem to hear murmuring in my ears, like the sound of the flute in the ears of the mystic…’

Far from being a thing of the distant past, this trope of the philosopher-sorcerer outlived the sack of Athens and the fall of Rome, and perdured well into the Enlightenment. The economist John Maynard Keynes, upon buying a trove of Isaac Newton’s papers, observed that Newton and the physicists of his time were ‘not the first of the scientists, but the last of the sorcerers’. Other notable later occultists include: Giordano Bruno, Nostradamus, Paracelsus, Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, and Arthur Conan Doyle, yes, the father of Sherlock Holmes.

Yet since antiquity, the West has had an uncomfortable relationship with magic, usually regarding it as something foreign and ‘Eastern’. In Plato’s Meno, Meno compares Socrates to the flat torpedo fish, which torpifies or numbs all those who come near it: ‘And I think that you are very wise in not [leaving Athens], for if you did in other places as you do in Athens, you would be cast into prison as a magician.’

For the Greeks as for the Romans, magic represented as improper and potentially subversive expression of religion. After centuries of contra-legislation, in 357 CE, the Christian Roman emperor Constantius II finally banned it outright:

No one shall consult a haruspex, a diviner, or a soothsayer, and wicked confessions made to augurs and prophets must cease. Chaldeans, magicians, and others who are commonly called malefactors on account of the enormity of their crimes shall no longer practice their infamous arts.

The Bible, too, inveighs against magic, in more than a hundred places, for example, picked almost at random:

  • Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live. —Exodus 22:18 (KJV)
  • Regard not them that have familiar spirits, neither seek after wizards, to be defiled by them: I am the Lord your God. —Leviticus 19:31 (KJV)
  • But the fearful, and unbelieving, and the abominable, and murderers, and whoremongers, and sorcerers, and idolaters, and all liars, shall have their part in the lake which burneth with fire and brimstone: which is the second death. —Revelation 21:8 (KJV)

Early Christians, perhaps unconsciously, associated magic with mythopoeic thought, in which all of nature is full of gods and spirits, and therefore with paganism and, by extension, with demons. During the Reformation, Protestants accused the Church of Rome, with its superstitions, relics, and exorcisms, of being more magic than religion—a charge that transferred all the more to non-Christian peoples, and that, notoriously, served as a justification for large-scale persecution, colonization, and Christianization.

Today, magic, like mythopoeic thought, is seen as ‘primitive’, and has largely been relegated to fiction and illusionism. But as a result, people have come to associate magic with delight and wonder; and with the retreat of Christianity, at least from Europe, a growing number are returning to some form of paganism as a path to personal and spiritual development.

So, what exactly is the difference between magic and religion? It is often held that magic is older than religion, or that religion was born out of magic, but it may be that they co-existed, and were not distinguished.

Both magic and religion pertain to the sacred sphere, to things removed from everyday life. But, compared to religion, magic does not split so sharply between the natural and the supernatural, the earthly and the divine, the fallen and the blessed. And whereas magic involves harnessing the world to the will, religion involves subjugating the will to the world. In the words of the anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss (d. 2009), ‘religion consists in a humanization of natural laws, and magic in a naturalization of human actions.’

Hence, magic tends to be about specific problems, and to involve private rites and rituals. Religion, in contrast, tends towards the bigger picture, and to involve communal worship and belonging. ‘Magic’ said the sociologist Emile Durkheim (d. 1917), ‘does not result in binding together those who adhere to it, nor in uniting them into a group leading a common life. There is no Church of magic.’

So, one hypothesis is that, as man gained increasing control over nature, magic, as it came to be called, lost ground to religion, which, being communal and centralized, evolved a hierarchy that sought to suppress those practices that threatened its dogma and dominance.

But now religion is, in its turn, on the decline—in favour of science. What is science? Within academia, there are, in fact, no clear or reliable criteria for distinguishing a science from a non-science. What might be said is that all sciences share certain assumptions which underpin the scientific method—in particular, that there is an objective reality governed by uniform laws, and that this reality can be discovered by systematic observation.

But, as I argue in my book, Hypersanity: Thinking Beyond Thinking, every scientific paradigm that has come and gone is now deemed to have been false, inaccurate, or incomplete, and it would be ignorant or arrogant to assume that our current ones might amount to the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.

The philosopher Paul Feyerabend (d. 1994) went so far as to claim that there is no such thing as ‘a’ or ‘the’ scientific method: behind the facade, ‘anything goes’, and, as a form of knowledge, science is no more privileged than magic or religion.

More than that, science has come to occupy the same place in the human psyche as religion once did. Although science began as a liberating movement, it grew dogmatic and repressive, more of an ideology than a rational method that leads to ineluctable progress.

To quote Feyerabend:

Knowledge is not a series of self-consistent theories that converges toward an ideal view; it is rather an ever increasing ocean of mutually incompatible (and perhaps even incommensurable) alternatives, each single theory, each fairy tale, each myth that is part of the collection forcing the others into greater articulation and all of them contributing, via this process of competition, to the development of our consciousness.

A common trope in fantasy fiction is the ‘thinning’ of magic: magic is fading, or has been banished, from the land, which is caught in a perpetual winter or otherwise in deathly or depressive decline, and the hero is called upon to rescue and restore the life-giving forces of old.

It is easy to draw the parallel with our own world, in which magic has been progressively driven out, first by religion, which over the centuries, became increasingly repressive of magic, and latterly by science with its zero tolerance.

When we read fantasy fiction, it is for the side of the old magic, always, that we root, for a time when the world, when life, had meaning in itself.

In my next article, I will look at the psychology and philosophy of magic.

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The psychology and philosophy of laughter.

When looking for romance, on dating sites and apps, people often ask for, or promise to offer, a good sense of humour (GSOH).

Today, we tend to think of laughter as a good thing, but, historically, this has not always been the case. Laughter seldom features in Plato’s dialogues, and, when it does, it is usually in the mouths of sophists and fools. In Plato’s Republic, Socrates advises that, to set a good example, heroes in myths and stories should never be portrayed as being overcome with laughter.

Later, the stoics also frowned upon laughter, as did, for centuries, the monasteries. Even the mild Rule of St Benedict—the most commonly adopted monastic rule—condemns laughter in the strongest terms, for example, in Chapter VI, Of Silence: ‘Coarse jests, and idle words or speech provoking laughter, we condemn everywhere to eternal exclusion.’

The notion that laughter can overcome reason or corrupt moral character finds an echo in the superiority theory of laughter, according to which laughter is a way of putting oneself up by putting others down. The superiority theory is most closely associated with the English philosopher Thomas Hobbes (d. 1679), who conceived of laughter as ‘a sudden glory arising from sudden conception of some eminency in ourselves, by comparison with the infirmity of others, or with our own formerly.’

When we think of mediaeval mobs jeering at people in stocks, or, in our time, Candid Camera, we can see that Hobbes had at least half a point. But the superiority theory is unable to account for all cases of laughter, such as laughter arising from joy, surprise, or relief.

According to the relief theory of laughter, most often associated with Sigmund Freud (d. 1939), laughter represents a release of pent-up nervous energy. Like dreams, jokes are able to bypass our inner censor, enabling a repressed emotion such as xenophobia (or, at least, the nervous energy associated with the repression) to surface—explaining why, at times, we can be embarrassed by our own laughter. By the same token, a comedian might raise a laugh by conjuring some costly emotion, such as admiration or indignation, and then suddenly killing it.

More flexible than the superiority theory, the relief theory is able to account for how we might use laughter as a form of release, or to tell or reveal an uncomfortable truth. But, arguably, not all laughter arises from a release of pent-up energy—not, for example, laughter at a pun or word play—and those who laugh the hardest at offensive jokes are not generally the most decorous or repressed of people.

Much more popular today is a third theory, the incongruity theory of laughter, associated with the likes of Immanuel Kant (d. 1804) and Søren Kierkegaard (d. 1855), according to which the comedian raises a laugh, not by conjuring an emotion and then killing it, but by creating an expectation and then contradicting it—a technique first advocated, in fact, by Aristotle in the Rhetoric.

For the story, both Kant and Kierkegaard were terrible at telling jokes. Here is Kant in the Critique of Judgement, telling a joke to illustrate his theory of laughter:

A merchant returning from India to Europe with all his wealth in merchandise was forced to throw it overboard in a heavy storm, and grieved thereat so much that his wig turned grey the same night!

In the Poetics, Aristotle states that ‘the ridiculous may be defined as a mistake or deformity not productive of pain or harm to others…’ Leaning on Aristotle, Kierkegaard highlights that the violation of an expectation is the core not only of comedy but also of tragedy—the difference being that, in tragedy, the violation leads to pain or harm.

Possibly, it is not the incongruity itself that we enjoy, but the light that it sheds, in particular, on the difference between what lies inside and outside our heads. Kant compares the pleasure of laughter, the free play of thought, to the pleasure of music, the free play of sound, and the pleasure of gambling, the free play of fortune. Perhaps the only difference between the comedian, the psychologist, and the philosopher is that you can’t pretend to be a comedian.

The incongruity theory is arguably more basic than the relief and superiority theories. When someone laughs, our inclination is to search for an incongruity; and though we may laugh for superiority or relief, even then, it helps if we can pin our laughter on some real or imagined incongruity. At times we laugh with the truth, at others against it.

In Umberto Eco’s novel, The Name of the Rose, the monk Jorge de Burgos commits a string of murders to prevent the sole surviving copy of Aristotle’s treatise on comedy (the lost second book of the Poetics), hidden in the abbey’s labyrinthine library, from ever coming to light. For Jorge, the book is dangerous, because laughter, once understood, could undermine the very foundations of religion and society.

After Aristotle, the first major philosopher to write a book specifically on laughter was Henri Bergson.

In On Laughter (1900), Bergson begins by making three observations.

  • Laughter is a human preserve: ‘Many philosophers have defined man ‘a laughing animal’, but they could also have said a ‘laughable animal’—for if another animal can make us laugh, this is only insofar as it reminds us of man.’
  • More than that, laughter is a social activity. Even when we laugh alone, it is because we have conjured up a social context, a gathering of ghosts—’for laughter implies a certain complicity with others, whether real or imaginary.’
  • Emotion is the enemy of laughter, inasmuch as laughter presupposes a certain distance, a certain indifference, even if it is only momentary—and, in fact, creating this distance can be one of the purposes of humour.

These, then, are the conditions for laughter: a human dimension, a social aspect, and a detached attitude. But what is laughter, all laughter, actually about? It is, replies Bergson, about a kind of mechanical rigidity, either in body or mind.

Nature is full of vital energy and never exactly repeats itself, but we human beings tend to fall short, to fall into patterns and habits, to ossify, to lose ourselves to ourselves—and laughter is how we point this out to one another, how we up our collective game.

For example, we may laugh at one who falls into a hole through absentmindedness, or at one who constantly repeats the same gesture or phrase. More subtly, we may laugh at a pun or a literal interpretation of a figure of speech; or at a misunderstanding that arises from a scene so formulaic that it is able to belong at the same time to two completely independent series of events (in French, a qui pro quo).

I would add that we may also laugh at, or from, an unusual or unexpected lack of rigidity, as, for instance, when we break a habit or have an original idea—although this kind of divine laughter, as I call it, may only arise out of contrast with our usual rigidity.

Ultimately, says Bergson, we are laughable to the extent that we are a machine or an object, to the extent that we lack self-awareness, that we are invisible to ourselves while being visible to everyone else.

Thus, the laughter of others usually draws attention to our unconscious processes, to our modes or patterns of self-deception, and to the gap, or gulf, between our fiction and the reality. This gap is narrowest in poets and artists, who have to transcend themselves if they are to be worthy of the name.

In the end, Jorge de Burgos accidentally burns down the entire abbey, destroying not only the last copy of the second book of the Poetics, but also every other manuscript in the library. Jorge de Burgos is the antithesis of a poet, a destroyer of the arts, a fanatic who might have been cured by the laughter that he scorned.

Another way to understand laughter is to look at it like a biologist or anthropologist might. Human infants are able to laugh long before they can speak. Laughter involves parts of the brain that evolved long before the language centres, and that we share with other animals. Primates in particular produce laughing sounds when playfighting, play-chasing, or tickling. As with human children, it seems that their laughter functions as a signal that the danger is not for real—which may be why characters such as Batman’s Joker, who send a misleading signal, are so unsettling.

While laughter may not be a human preserve, Bergson was surely right in highlighting its social dimension. Most laughter, even today, is not directed at jokes, but at creating and maintaining social bonds. Humour is a social lubricant, a signal of acceptance and belonging. More than that, it is a way of communicating, of making a point emphatically, or conveying a sensitive message without incurring the usual social costs. At the same, humour can also be a weapon, a sublimed form of aggression, serving, like antlers or plumes, to pull rank or attract a mate. The subtlety and ambiguity involved is in itself a form of play, and we know that laughter is associated with stress reduction and other health benefits.

If laughter began as a signal of play, it has, in human beings, evolved a number of other functions, none of which are mutually incompatible. Humour is shaped by culture and education, and, if people laugh differently in Berlin, imagine how differently they must have laughed in Ancient Greece or Ancient India. Kant must have thought his joke funny, but in the age of TikTok we have come to expect something more, or different.

Zen masters teach that it is much easier to laugh at ourselves once we have transcended our ego. At the highest level, laughter is the sound of the shattering of the ego. It is a means of gaining (and revealing) perspective, of rising beyond ourselves and our lives, of achieving a kind of immortality, a kind of divinity.

Upon awakening on her deathbed to see her entire family around her, Nancy Astor quipped, ‘Am I dying, or is this my birthday?’

Today laughter gives us a bit of what religion once did.