Last week I talked about a quote from David Bentley Hart’s new book Atheist Delusions and contrasted it with the old line from Arthur C. Clarke that any sufficiently advanced science is indistinguishable from magic. Hart seems to me to argue convincingly that the distinction between magic and science, speaking historically, is complicated, because they both arise from the same context at the same time for the same reasons with largely the same set of assumptions. It was just one method worked and we call that science and one didn’t and we call that alchemy.
At the end of the book he comes back to this theme by talking about the sense in which our appropriation of and faith in technology is magical.
For the most part, ancient culture regarded magic not as a supernatural power called down from above (though there were certain forms of “theurgy” or higher “magia” that were conceived of in this way) but as a kind of terrestrial technology concerned with impersonal cosmic forces, a technology neutral in itself but susceptible of uses both “white” (in which case it was called simply “magia”) and “black” (in which case it was called “goetia”). In the Christian period, however, belief in magic was discouraged and treated as a superstition; the world, according to Christian teaching, is an internally rational creature, governed by God’s providence, and so contains no hidden extraphysical mechanism that can be manipulated by word or gesture.
Or in other words, within Christian theology, magic is not “supernatural”. It is the pursuit of some forces to which we are blind to that exercise power in the world as we know it.
He goes on:
In modern society, technology and science (both practical and theoretical) are often treated as exercises of special knowledge and special power that should be isolated from too confining an association with any of the old habitual pieties regarding human nature or moral truth (these being, after all, mere matters of personal preference). That is, we often approach modern science as if it were magic, with the sort of moral credulity that takes it as a given that power is evidence of permissibility.
Hart is not claiming that magic was scientific. He is claiming instead that we slip into the magical mindset when we think that because we have unlocked the Arthur C. Clarke-style magic of turning wind into electricity and sand into computer chips that we always should do it. The problem with the alchemist was not that they wanted to turn lead to gold but that they were willing to do it, regardless of the price. Hart is keen to point out that his is not an alarmist’s call,
I do not, I should say, fear that the honorable and industrious race of research scientists will all, any day now, suddenly cast off the fetters of reason and morality and devote themselves to projects to exterminate the race or breed supermen or invent new kinds of biological and radioactive weapons and then use them, just out of curiosity or just for the amusement the exercise might provide.
But when we look at the nu-atheist writings and their antipathy towards faith we have yet to see any one of them even dare to do business with the very real history of magical-scientism’s use of knowledge for truly evil projects, as Marilynne Robinson outlined in her famous review of Dawkins years ago. Any number of similar ethical issues from embryonic stem cells to transhumanism right through to porn on mobile phones could be raised as citations of this alchemist’s desire to do what we can do simply because we can do it.
And because we can make profit from it.
Your Correspondent, Let him not erect a new religion of the letter