Decomposing Magic


Edited by Zenya Siyad 


I’ve been thinking about magic an awful lot lately. Actually, I’ve almost exclusively been thinking about it in my spare time. Nearly every other stream of thought meanders through different ideas only to lead me back and merge into the same musing. And it’s not the kind of daydreaming I do after reading a fantasy novel, wand in hand and all. Instead of thinking about how my life would have been had magic existed, I’ve been thinking about the shapes in which it could already be here. 


The years have played a kind of telephone game with the whole idea of magic, with each generation whispering to the next their take on the word; so what we hear today is radically different from what was said centuries ago. Before there was understanding, there was magic. Now we believe that since we have discovered the processes of understanding, magic cannot exist, at least not in the way it did before. Even if there are things that we don’t currently understand, we are confident enough to believe that they will be understandable some day. In other words, ever since scientism emerged, it has almost entirely overlapped with what was known to be magic. I’m not trying to say that that’s a bad thing, or that magic exists and science is oppressing it (on the contrary, the more science I study, the more I’m encouraged to believe in the unexplainable). I’m only trying to question whether what we call magic today is the same as the magic that once was. 


Stereotypically, magic has always been an overarching concept of enchantment and sorcery. However, this idea has been played with so much that it’s starting to take shapes that seem unconventional. "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” This is Clarke’s Law, a widely popular perception of magic today and a very different notion from the one that existed centuries ago. I find this law immensely unsettling for two reasons. The first is that if this should hold true, then dark magic is inevitable. The misuse of technology already exists, there’s no doubt about it. However, if humankind ever does reach this supernatural level of progress, then the level of its exploitation will also be supernatural. Perhaps this threat is even scarier than those in our fantasy novels because technology, unlike magic, is not beyond our comprehension and we know exactly how to use it. Secondly, I can’t help but sense a hint of ignorance in this statement. The Law subtly hints at the claim that there is nothing us earthlings won’t be able to do someday. I know this is a childish thought, but it terrifies me that our minds are so conditioned to believe in the factuality of scientism that we won’t know magic if it smacked us in the face. If we ever see a levitating object, we will undoubtedly try to figure out the logical explanation behind it. That’s great most of the time, but what if, on the off chance, it’s levitating without any scientific backing? Again, childish thought, I know, but I hope we don’t one day see magic and accidentally remain oblivious to it because we think it must be ‘science’. 


The reason I’ve been thinking about this so much recently is because I came across something called the hollow-mask illusion experiment which shattered my world-view in a matter of seconds. In this, several people were shown two pictures of the same hollow mask. However, one of the pictures showed the convex side of the mask while the other showed the concave side. Most people could not differentiate between the two pictures since they looked extremely similar. Moreover, our brains process so much information on a daily basis that they install countless filters to process details more efficiently, causing people to see what they expect to see rather than what is actually in front of them. Here’s the interesting part - it was concluded that people with schizophrenia and people on psychedelic drugs are immune to this illusion. They could distinguish between the two sides of the mask with much more ease since their filters were less stimulated and less dependent on past experiences. They saw what was actually there instead of seeing what they were expected to see. It has been asked, since then, if this can be extended to beyond just the hollow mask. Schizophrenics see a world of hallucinations in a transcendental state, implying it is possible that their hallucinations are merely a clearer insight into our surroundings. Our brains, trained to more or less filter out the unexpected, rid our minds of these visions. If this is true, then are we in reality surrounded by what we would otherwise consider other-worldly? 


I’ve lost a considerable amount of sleep dwelling over these thoughts. Still, at the end of the day, they’re only thoughts. I don’t think we could ever know if magic exists. Even if it didn’t, there is a need in humans to believe in it anyway. Since we are human beings, we have a tendency to attach an animation, a sort of humanness, to everything around us. We thrive on this idea of something intelligent and dynamic that extends across the world(s) because we are intelligent and dynamic. Whether it’s to stop ourselves from feeling like outsiders among the non-living or simply to soften the fear of the unknown, this belief in magic is entailed in some quantity. As for me, even though I might not believe in conventional magic, I have a deep appreciation for how perfectly nature has worked out for us. In that perfection itself, I sense the hand of something supernatural.