In a commentary posted on the NPR web site, Nancy Ellen Abrams writes:
“God” is a word. If we define it, even subconsciously, as something that cannot exist in our universe, we banish the idea of God from our reality and throw away all possibility of incorporating a potent spiritual metaphor into a truly coherent big picture. But if we take seriously the reliable — and, thus, invaluable — scientific and historical knowledge we now possess, we can redefine God in a radically new and empowering way that expands our thinking and could help motivate and unite us in the dangerous era humanity is entering.
I actually have had similar thoughts myself, once upon a time, and can still feel a bit of sympathy for this point of view. I think, however, that any comment I could make on this article would be best made by restating her arguments with one slight substitution. Instead of taking this as an argument for a “scientifically real God,” what if we view it instead as an argument for magic?
Here’s the bulk of her argument (with my substitutions in red).
“Magic” is a word. If we define it, even subconsciously, as something that cannot exist in our universe, we banish the idea of magic from our reality and throw away all possibility of incorporating a potent thaumaturgical metaphor into a truly coherent big picture. But if we take seriously the reliable — and, thus, invaluable — scientific and historical knowledge we now possess, we can redefine magic in a radically new and empowering way that expands our thinking and could help motivate and unite us in the dangerous era humanity is entering…
Does magic have to be part of our understanding of the universe? No. But if scientists tell the public that they have to choose between magic and science, most people will choose magic, which leads to denialism, hostility to science and the profoundly dangerous mental incoherence in modern society that fosters depression and conflict. Meanwhile, many of those who choose science find themselves without any way of thinking that can give them access to their own thaumaturgical potential. What we need is a coherent big picture that is completely consistent with — and even inspired by — science, yet provides an empowering way of rethinking magic that provides the human and social benefits without the fantasy. How can we get this?
Science can never tell us with certainty what’s true, since there’s always the possibility that some future discovery will rule it out. But science can often tell us with certainty what’s not true. It can rule out the impossible. Galileo, for example, showed with his telescope that the medieval picture of earth as the center of heavenly crystal spheres could not be true, even though he could not prove that the earth moves around the sun. Whenever scientists produce the evidence that convincingly rules out the impossible, there’s no point in arguing. It’s over. Grace lies in accepting and recalculating. That’s how science moves forward.
What if we thought this way about magic? What if we took the evidence of a new cosmic reality seriously and became willing to rule out the impossible? What would be left?
We can have real magic if we let go of what makes it unreal. I am only interested in magic if it’s real. If it isn’t real, there’s nothing to talk about. But I don’t mean real like a table, or a feeling, or a test score, or a star. Those are real in normal earthbound experience. I mean real in the full scientific picture of our double dark universe, our planet, our biology and our moment in history.
These are characteristics of a magic that can’t be real:
- Magic existed before the universe.
- Magic created the universe…
- Magic can… violate the laws of nature.
I explain in my book, A Magic That Could Be Real, why physically each of these is impossible, but I don’t think the scientific readers of this blog need that. The point I want to make here is that this list pretty much agrees with most skeptics‘ reasons for dismissing the existence of magic. But this is no place to stop. We’ve merely stated what magic can’t be. We haven’t considered yet what magic could be.
We’ve all grown up so steeped in some religious tradition or other, whether we’ve accepted it or rebelled against it, that it’s hard to grasp that the chance to redefine magic is actually in our hands. But it is, and the way we do it will play a leading role in shaping the future of our planet.
To me, this is the key question: Could anything actually exist in this universe that is worthy of being called magic? My answer is yes, and in my next blog post I’ll explain what I mean by “a magic that could be real.”
As you can see, substituting “magic” for “God” does little or nothing to alter the basic logic of the argument. It does make it a little easier to see the bigger question, which is why we would even want to find some way to call magic “real.” Who cares if redefining “magic” would give us greater access to our “thaumaturgical potential”? If we’re going to redefine magic to make it fit into a scientific perspective, then we’re also going to need to radically revise our understanding of thaumaturgical potential as well—just as desupernaturalizing God is going to change what it means to be “spiritual.”
But still, like I said, I’m somewhat sympathetic to this desire, at least. Religion has so much power over people’s lives. What if we could tame it, and put it to constructive use? What if we could end war, and live longer, and never have disease or crime or intolerance or injustice? That’s not a bad goal, but then again, I have to ask, what are the odds of actually pulling it off? I’ll have to read her second blog post, and see where she’s going to take this.