The Ontological basis of Magic

Someone asked, “So how does magic works in real life?”

The questionable part of that statement isn’t magic, but rather “real life”. What an absurd thing to say— is there such a thing as a false life?

What is “real”? And how would magic work in this supposedly other space called the “real?”

If you subscribe to Idealism or Representationalism, you have to accept that your perception and experiences is your reality, and might be the sole reality accessible to you (or in the case of Representationalism, heavily warps your perception of reality).

Magic, being whatever shapes these perceptions and experiences, then in a very real way, has altered your reality. This is how we end up developing the nascent scientific fields of transpersonal psychology, and why humanity have culture-bound syndromes (which may or may not have phenomenal basis tied into fields beyond psychology, anthropology, and so forth. We will find out one day).

“But what if you want to summon a fireball”, you ask, “how do I do that just by changing my perceptions?”

Well, you don’t just do that. Magic follows rules (insofar as any phenomena follows rules).

Many people think magic is “Harry Potter magic”. They’re looking to summon fireballs, they’re looking for a little bit of inexplicable phenomena that defies their narrow ontological views. In a way, the people who want to view magic as overt are doubtlessly ontological materialists of some sort. By presuming physicalism as true, they accept a a tentative dualistic view (although not necessarily belief) in its opposite: violations of the ontological materialist worldview. This is why stage magic tricks is so entertaining. It wows the materialists by seemingly violating their ontological presumptions (through psychological and sensory manipulation).

But many philosophies and scientific disciplines DON’T presume a physicalistic worldview. It is in these areas where magic is most alive because the miracles of everyday is magical in a way a materialist cannot easily accept. And it is only magical because we understand that they are based in mind, in ideas, in experiential phenomena, and not some unprovable religion of the physical.

For example, how does mathematical objects tie into the concrete phenomena they represent? How is it that we recognize numbers and equations as relating to experiential phenomena? For these reasons, the traditional philosophy of mathematics has been Platonic Idealism.

Technology (often seen as an “empirical” sort of power) is not the result of material culture. Or not solely of material culture I should say. It is equally the manifestation of Mind (or in some Idealisms, solely the manifestation of Mind). Some “technologies” are solely psychological and cultural in nature for example.

If you want to summon a fireball, you have to understand the nature of how fire works, you find ways to develop the technology needed to build a bowdrill (a prehistoric tool for creating fire), and you can now summon fire at will.

Technology is magic. Technological development are millennia long rituals our ancestors contributed to over time to make numerous capabilities available to our species.

Just like how the earliest knowledge were encoded as rituals to ensure repetition can be successfully done. How to make medicine, how to safely store food, how to carve stone tools— all ritualized through trial and error and passed on via repetitive rituals. The human-animal carrying out these repetitions don’t have to accurately understand why something works, only that it does. In fact, its possible that such behaviours predate the capacity for speech altogether (after all, even chimpanzees do this).

An example of magic, Scandinavian Smiths discovered that ritualistically mixing poor iron weapons using the bones of ones’ ancestors accidentally created steel. Anthropologically, our ancestors believed that the spirits of their ancestors have magically imbued these iron blades with mystical properties. Chemically, the carbon in the bones mixed with bog iron created a rudimentary form of steel. From an Idealistic POV, the Smiths know perfectly well what they’re doing: they’re applying their understanding of magic to create magical weapons. This is a TRUTH, even if it is not the full truth from the view of Chemistry.

Another example; dowsing is a form of pattern-recognition for example. It is caused by unconscious body motion, and its chance of finding water is entirely dependent on luck and subconscious environmental cues (under laboratory conditions, these cues are eliminated, making dowsing no better than random chance; but have anyone considered that these cues are a required ritual component to enable the pattern recognition?). While many dowsers believe in a form of magical rationale when it comes to explaining dowsing, some dowsers do in fact, accept this scientific view. It doesn’t make their dowsing any less magical.

More examples of magic: Psychosomatic Death Curses and Haitian Zombies.

It’s possible for people to lose the will to live and die for no real reason (psychosomatic death). In some aboriginal cultures, this is taken a step further; someone cursed with death will actually die for psychosomatic reasons due to the cultural conditioning and beliefs.

Haitian Zombies are the result of chemical or social phenomenon that causes a state of zombification.

In the chemical hypothesis, being fed certain drugs causes one to enter a state of suspended animation, and upon being “revived”, the trauma and psychosis forces them to reconstruct their identity as a zombie since they believe themselves to have actually died in the cultural environment they were conditioned into (see also ants who were doused with death pheromones walking themselves to ant graveyards, only to realize they were alive after it wore off).

In the social hypothesis, zombies are a culture-bound syndrome; in lieu of Western categorization of mental illness and schizophrenia, the people with such conditions may be identified as zombies instead.

In any case, we see just how important a role the Mind plays in all such phenomena.

It takes effort, diligence, and understanding to make magic realized. It is not only the external technologies that are built, but the contextual frameworks or world-views that we have also developed and innovated that can be passed on to other humans (ie, philosophy, metaphysics, symbolisms, archetypes, etc). It can be passed on to animals too (via training).

The people who doubt the existence of magic don’t understand just how much magic we have built already as a species, and how much of magic is internal (though if all is Mind, as Idealism posits, what is “internal” and “external?”)— it’s installed into the mind of every human animal, almost at birth. This is thanks to the effort of our ancestors in transmitting culture, knowledge, and rituals (and possibly natural selection and epigenetics as well).

Although I phrased magic as something to develop and build, the mind itself is pure magic. The uncreated is the highest creation. The natural function is the basis for all constructions. In religious practices, things like Tantra, and Pureland, and even the metaphysics of Buddhahood— these kind of things are possible (in the ontological presumptions of some religions) because of the nature of Mind (of reality itself having this property of being conditioned and liberated).

Iddhis/Siddhis (overt psychic ability in Dharmic religions) function likewise: power is incidental to insight. It is the insight that matters, the power might accidentally manifest as a consequence (again, this is presuming you accept the ontological presumptions of these religions).

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Justin C. Hsu

Designer, Artist, and Consumer of Pop Culture.

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