I'm back from my trip and it appears that the guest posting has fallen through. So a quick discussion on magic, which was brought up by a friend on a discussion board I frequent. The question: Does magic exist?
I suppose this depends on how you define magic. Arthur C. Clarke once infamously said that "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." And that's probably true, right? If some guy can bend spoons with his thoughts, there's probably a rational explanation for it... we just haven't figured it out yet. Does it count as magic if we don't know how he's doing it? What about when we do figure out how he's doing it? What if it really was some sort of empirically observable telekinesis?
After all, magicians have been performing for hundreds of years, relying on slight of hand and misdirection1 (amongst other tricks of the trade). However, I suspect that's not the type of answer that's being sought.
One thing I think is interesting is the power of thought and how many religious and "magical" traditions were really just ways to harness thought in a productive fashion. For example, crystal balls are often considered to be a magical way to see the future. While not strictly true, it was found that those who look into crystal balls for a long period of time end up entering a sort of trance, similar to hypnosis, and the human mind is able to make certain connections it would not normally make2. Can such a person see the future? I doubt it, but I don't doubt that such people often experience a "revelation" of sorts, even if it is sometimes misguided.
However, you see something similar, though a lot more controlled and a lot less hokey, in a lot of religious traditions. For instance, take Christian Mass and prayer. Mass offers a number of repetitive aspects like singing combined with several chances for reflection and thought. I've always found that going to mass was very helpful in that it put things in a whole new perspective. Superficial things that worried me suddenly seemed less important and much more approachable. Repetitive rituals (like singing in Church) often bring back powerful feelings of the past, etc... further reinforcing the reflection from a different perspective.
Taking it completely out of the spiritual realm, I see very rational people doing the same thing all the time. They just aren't using the same vocabulary. When confronted with a particularly daunting problem, I'll work on it very intensely for a while. However, I find that it's best to stop after a bit and let the problem percolate in the back of my mind while I do completely unrelated things. Sometimes, the answer will just come to me, often at the strangest times. Occasionally, this entire process will happen without my intending it, but sometimes I'm deliberately trying to harness this subconscious problem solving ability. And I don't think I'm doing anything special here; I think everyone has these sort of Eureka! moments from time to time. Once you remove the theology from it, prayer is really a similar process.
Once I noticed this, I began seeing similar patterns throughout my life and even history. For example, Archimedes. He was tasked with determining whether a given substance was gold or not (at the time, this was a true challenge). He toiled and slaved at the problem for weeks, pushing all other aspects of his life away. Finally, his wife, sick of her husband's dirty appearance and bad odor, made him take a bath. As he stepped into the tub, he noticed the water rising and had a revelation... this displacement could be used to accurately measure volume, which could then be used to determine density and ultimately whether or not a substance was gold. The moral of the story: Listen to your wife!3
Have I actually answered the question? Well, I may have veered off track a bit, but I find the process of thinking to be interesting and quite mysterious. After all, whatever it is that's going on in our noggins isn't understood very well. It might just be indistinguishable from magic...
1 - Note to self: go see The Illusionist! Also, The Prestige looks darn good. Why does Hollywood always produce these things in pairs? At least it looks like there's good talent involved in each of these productions...
2 - Oddly enough, I discoved this nugget on another trip through the library stacks while I was supposed to be studying in college. Just thought I should call that out in light of recent posting...
3 - Yes, this is an anecdote from the movie Pi.