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Archive for October, 2011

Greetings, people of Earth. I am no longer in Scotland.

Posting is still going to be a bit irregular for a while, but there’s a lot to discuss when I find the time. Here’s Richard Dawkins talking about magic.

 

 

The title of his new book, The Magic Of Reality, is an excellent summation of an approach that deserves to be pushed more by skeptics, scientists, atheists, and reality-based thinkers generally. It’s an important myth to bust, that of the skeptic as the humourless spoiler of all things fun. We might insist on pointing out the non-existence of things which don’t exist, but there’s so much that’s really going on in the world, which is thrilling for all the same reasons.

In the above video, he’s discussing what he means by the word “magic”, by breaking it down into three separate categories of event to which the word usually refers. Because of how I’m such a wild and unrestrained free spirit, I’m going to characterise his point as outlined in the title of this post.

Harry Potter. Actual witches and wizards doing actual spells, subverting natural laws and invoking supernatural forces. This kind of magic doesn’t exist. (Boo, party-pooper, etc.) If it did, it would be fascinating – but mostly in the context of a rigorous scientific study of it. Everyone would be dying to know how it works. What are the factors that affect how the magic actually functions? Can certain potion ingredients be substituted while maintaining the effect? Do you get more power if you shout the magic words louder?

Fiction can explore hundreds of questions like this in fascinating detail, and weave wonderful worlds around such ideas. I don’t know of any skeptics who are against the idea of enjoying made-up stories. But they are made-up.

Paul Daniels. Tricks, conjuring, illusions. Stage magic. Rabbits out of hats, coins behind ears. It clearly exists, but only creates a fa├žade of the Harry Potter kind of magic by means of deception. This can also be very entertaining and uncontroversial, so long as you don’t get the two kinds confused. You don’t have to believe that David Copperfield can really fly in order to have a good time being fooled.

Scotland. It might not seem obvious why I’m bringing this up for the third example. But have a look at this.

I’ve just spent a week on the Isle of Skye, looking at stuff like that.

Now, I’m sure you’re all worldly people. You’re more well travelled than me, and have no doubt basked personally in such glorious vistas that my holiday snaps seem dull and meagre. But I’d never been before, so let me revel a bit.

The point is, there are things in the world which can be experienced, and which are just amazing. Scotland is gorgeous, and you don’t need to sit through my slide show to remember or imagine views of the world that fill you with awe and which are worth trekking across the globe to experience.

That right there is the magic of reality.

And one of many reasons why it’s superior to Expecto Patronum is that there are extra layers of wonder beneath the experience itself. There are some views of nature which people almost universally find pleasing to look at – and science can tell us why.

With reality, you get to delve further and find out about things like the evolutionary pressures that have led our species to feel a sense of pleasure or comfort from the presence of bodies of water, which historically has been a positive sign for our survival. You get to find out so much about what’s going on in the magical world around you, and so much of it is truly extraordinary.

…This totally isn’t just a post about how amazing and life-changing my trip to a secluded and unblemished part of the countryside was. It’s totally not. I’m making a serious point here. Shut up.

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