Defining Magic

Recently, I attended a fascinating discussion about the definition of magic and how it fits in with scientific investigation. I found it really interesting and I’d like to share some of the points here.

When we talk about magic, most people have some idea what we mean by this word. Images of wizards, witches or stage magicians come to mind, and we understand magic to be some form of manipulation of the physical world by means that cannot be explained by the usual laws of physics. Whether we’re talking about magic tricks or magic spells, we’re generally looking causing some effect that seems to be physically impossible. We also tend to expect that if we perform the same trick or spell, we’ll see the same physical result.

If we define magic in this way, we come up against an issue when we also try to define science. Science is the study of the world around us, and scientific investigation involves observing the outcomes of an action or force to try to form a better understanding of what is happening.

If magic is defined as performing a trick or spell, an action, that results in a particular outcome, this can be studied and investigated until we can understand how and why it works. Therefore, this idea that magic is outside the realm of scientific explanaition simply doesn’t make sense. Either the trick or spell isn’t magic, or this definition of magic is incorrect.

The group discussed the idea that it’s not the act of performing the spell or trick that creates the magic, it’s the frame of mind of the practitioner. If you perform a spell whilst believing it’ll work, you are more likely to see results than if you don’t believe that what you’re doing actually affects anything. This idea brings us to a better definition of magic, in which the beliefs or will of the practitioner are able to influence the physical world.

Perhaps the best example of this kind of magic is the placebo effect, where a patient believes they are taking medicine, when they are actually taking a useless substance, yet their condition improves. We see this effect in all sorts of other situations too, if someone attends a job interview with confidence and self belief, they are more likely to perform well and win the job than someone who believes they won’t do well and won’t get the position.

This idea that a person’s frame of mind can affect the physical world exists in our lives in many ways; prayer, the law of attraction, cosmic ordering, positive thinking, affirmations, creative visualisation, superstition, making a wish and so on are all forms of using the power of being in the right state of mind to affect change in our lives.

Perhaps this definition of magic too could be studied, understood and quantified by psychologists, in which case we would no longer call it magic, it would become something that was understood in a scientific way. However, looking back at the history of magic and science we can see that many things that were once considered magic have been investigated by scientists and are now understood. Perhaps the best example of this is the magic of alchemy which became the science of chemistry.

My personal view is that the practice of magic is a tool to help the practitioner focus their will and create the right state of mind to bring them confidence, happiness or whatever else they seek. The act itself carries no magic, but the belief of the practitioner is powerful beyond our understanding.

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