Everyone has a worldview. Whether we realize it or not, all of us look at life’s experiences through the window of certain assumptions about what is real. Our worldview defines what we believe about magic. So let’s begin by looking at three popular views of magic.
THE OCCULT VIEW: EXPERIMENTING WITH MAGIC
Believing That Unseen Spiritual Powers Can Be Controlled. A growing number of people who believe in magic see the material world as more than matter and energy. They believe it is also composed of supernatural powers that are personal and nonpersonal. By learning how to use secret formulas, charms, or spells that have been passed from generation to generation, they believe they can make contact with these unseen forces. Such persons are convinced that the supernatural can become an ally by providing them with extraordinary knowledge and by enabling them to exert paranormal power over events and objects for their personal benefit.
This dimension of magic opens the door not only to a world of the supernatural but also to efforts to communicate with spirits.
Communicating With And Controlling The Paranormal. A medium claims to be a channel of communication between the earthly world and the world of spirits.
On a popular TV show, a self-professed psychic claims to carry on a dialogue between guests and their deceased relatives. Sometimes the medium uses leading and emotionally manipulative comments like, “Your relative is laughing at what you just said,” or “He is telling me he is happy and not to worry.” At other times, however, participants are astonished as the medium appears to share specific details that only they and the departed could know.
There are many questions about how the medium gets the information and to what extent the bereaved are contributing to the experience out of their own emotional needs. But it does appear, at times, that the medium is getting information from the other side.
A longing to contact departed loved ones is not the only reason some are drawn to experiment with occult practices. According to author and researcher Ron Enroth, the occult view of reality often includes “the promise of godhood.” People who delve into occult literature are likely to be introduced to pantheism, the idea that everything is God. Thus, according to such a worldview, “everyone and everything in the material world is part of the Divine.”
Those who are trying to expand their awareness through witchcraft and sorcery come to believe that humankind is basically good. They see evil only as an imperfection or illusion, so they conclude that the root of the human dilemma is ignorance, not sin. In the occult worldview, enlightened individuals will rise above moral distinctions, so there’s no need for redemption or forgiveness (“The Occult,” Evangelical Dictionary Of Theology, p.787).
To sum up, the occult view is held by practitioners who experiment with magic and think of themselves on the same level as gods, who can learn how to safely access and manipulate supernatural powers to their own advantage.
It’s important to keep in mind, however, that belief in the supernatural is not limited to an occult worldview. There is another view held by people who try to apply the controls of science to claims of the supernatural. They are called parapsychologists.
THE PARAPSYCHOLOGICAL VIEW: INVESTIGATING MAGIC
Seeking To Verify The Untapped Powers Of The Mind. Because parapsychologists have committed themselves to objectively explore the paranormal, they find themselves in an awkward position. On the one hand, they want to follow the scientific method in exploring phenomena. But on the other hand, they do not believe that matter and energy are the only realities. The very fact that they are experimenting shows that they are committed to documenting “something beyond.”
Parapsychology, which might simply be defined as the study of psychical phenomena, . . . deals with cognition such as telepathy or foreseeing the future that is not based on the five senses. It also studies those experiences where physical movements of objects are not caused by any normal power . . . popularly referred to as mind over matter (Parapsychology—A Century Of Inquiry, p.13).
The line between parapsychology and the occult, however, is not always clear. Those who want academic respectability from the scientific community try to be selective in what they study and meticulous in how they record their findings. Yet not all in the field are that focused. Indeed, some open the door wide to occultic studies of all kinds.
As Dr. Rogo writes in Parapsychology—A Century Of Inquiry:
One problem we must face with the current vogue in “pop” parapsychology is the confusion between parapsychology and the occult. . . . Parapsychology has little to do with these systems [of the occult] since it is, above all, an experimental science. That is, its facts and theories are based on empirical studies, experiments, or observations. However, it has not been ruled out that some peripheral element of ESP might not be an occasional factor in the . . . pseudosciences [occult] (pp.14-15).
Keeping in mind that parapsychology ranges from carefully controlled experiments to overt study of the occult, we now turn our attention to how parapsychology methods developed.
Investigating The Paranormal. During the Enlightenment, a number of scientists began to focus their attention on the unseen powers of paranormal phenomena. A Viennese physician named Franz Aton Mesmer (1734–1815) used his own form of hypnosis to theorize a scientific explanation for extrasensory perception. Later, E. Dawson Rogers and eight members of the British Royal Society founded the Society for Psychical Research (SPR) in 1882. The research of SPR used anecdotes and case studies to examine various psychic experiences. “Gifted individuals” were tested in their ability to predict the next card or roll of the dice. In the 1920s, parapsychology took on the methods of experimentation that have persisted until today. J. B. Rhine provided a systematic approach to studying “psi phenomenon” latent in everyone, not just “gifted” people. Rhine founded the Journal Of Parapsychology and The Parapsychological Association, and helped to coin the term extrasensory perception (ESP).
Parapsychology began as a careful study of “gifted” people who could predict the future and know specific information without aid of the five senses. But as the discipline evolved, there were some who began to look into magic and occult practices. What they ended up investigating reads like a table of contents for a book on the occult: telepathy, clairvoyance, telekinesis, survival of death, apparitions, hauntings, poltergeists, mediumship, out-of-body experiences, and reincarnation (William Braud, Resources For Parapsychological Inquiry). As a result of the eccentric and fringe elements that have entered into their field, parapsychologists have had problems being accepted by the academic community.
Ghostbusters, a popular movie from the 1980s, illustrates this point. Actor Bill Murray plays the part of a parapsychology professor who fakes expertise in examining the paranormal. In the opening scene, Murray is conducting an ESP experiment in which he seems more interested in a pretty blonde student than he is in real research. A colleague bursts through the door excitedly shouting, “At 1:40 p.m. at the main branch of the New York Library on 5th Avenue, 10 people witnessed a freefloating full torso vapor apparition. It blew books off the shelves from 20 feet away and scared the socks off some poor librarian!”
Murray and his colleagues’ confrontation with the “library ghost” is a total fiasco. When they return to their office at the university, the dean informs them that their grant for psychic research has been canceled. “Your theories are the worst kind of popular tripe, your methods are sloppy, and your conclusions are highly questionable. You are a poor scientist!”
Despite the humor of this scene, there is a kernel of truth that illustrates the tension between “hard sciences” like physics, chemistry, and biology and “soft sciences” like parapsychology. Parapsychologists investigate paranormal events, but mainstream scientists deny them.
THE SCIENTIFIC VIEW:DENYING MAGIC
The Laws Of Physics Are Reality.Carl Sagan has had a profound and widespread influence as the apologist for “pure” science—a commitment to the laws of physics and the scientific method with no attempt to blend in religious or spiritual elements in the quest for truth.
Sagan had no disagreement with spiritual beliefs reflecting the human quest for the transcendent and the eternal. But he drew a clear line in the sand when it came to believing that any religious theory had any merit of truth in the objective world.
Tragically, Carl Sagan contracted a bonemarrow disease called myelodysplasia. And despite varied kinds of chemotherapy and other treatments, his condition became terminal. During this time of declining health, he was interviewed on television. With the likelihood of Sagan having to face death in the near future, the interviewer asked him if this prospect had caused the great scientist to change his mind about his denial of a possible afterlife.
Carl Sagan’s response was in keeping with his unwavering atheism. But then he surprisingly revealed a paranormal experience he had just had. “I heard my deceased mother calling to me,” Sagan commented, “but it was just an auditory hallucination.”
This shows the power of one’s worldview. The voice he heard may very well have been only a product of a brain in ill health creating some connection with his mother from years before. But notice that even though Sagan received data from one of his five senses, he rejected it out of hand because his naturalistic presuppositions had no category for it other than mental illness. To him, science was all there was and nothing more.
Like Sagan, some hold to the scientific worldview with the same dogmatism. But what exactly are these scientific convictions, and why are they held with such passion?
There are several reasons why scientists hold their “physics only” worldview and deny anything supernatural. Science is seen as the great catalyst that has taken a primitive, unenlightened society filled with superstition and brought it to the light of sound reason. The hostility that has persisted for centuries between religious faiths has left a bad taste in the mouths of many scientists. They believe that if a theory can be proven with the scientific method, there is consensus in the scientific community. This is not possible between religious faiths, since many of their doctrines fall beyond the reach of science to verify or disprove. And clearly the growing achievements of science include healthcare, food production, and many other enterprises beneficial to the human race. A likely question they would ask is, “Why argue religion, since it’s impossible to prove?” (see The Universe Next Doorby James Sire, pp.61-75; and Broca’s Brain by Carl Sagan, pp.3-76).
Denying Paranormal Phenomena. What happens when magic and the supernatural cross the path of a scientist?
A parapsychologist at UCLA had been contacted by a woman who claimed to be harassed by a malevolent “spirit entity.” She said it would push her around and make her life miserable. When the team for psychic research arrived, they were equipped with various instruments for recording the phenomenon. According to their report, after the team spent some time in the woman’s home, the “spirit entity” entered the room where they were standing.
The parapsychologists said they witnessed the formation of a full-bodied apparition. They saw the head and then the shoulders. Eventually, a greenish white light took the shape of a human form. Cameras took photographs of paranormal images that appeared before the astonished scientists.
The film that captured the form was successfully developed. Excitedly, the parapsychologist showed the “proof” to one of his colleagues in one of the “hard science” departments.
“There must be something wrong with your camera or film. These can’t be photographs of what you tell me they are,” the scientist replied.
The parapsychologist was disappointed. “All my life I had been looking for proof of the paranormal. Then when I finally got it, my friends in mainstream science wouldn’t accept it.” The scientist didn’t have a category for the evidence, so he dismissed it.
One thing is clear, a person’s assumptions about what is real will determine how he responds to the whole subject of magic. The answer to the question “Do You Believe In Magic?” depends on a person’s worldview. Occultists experiment with magic, parapsychologists investigate magic, and scientists deny magic.