Magical realism

I have recently read a book by Ernesto De Martino called Primitive Magic, in which this Roman Professor in the History of Religions valiantly explains how the magic of shamans and sorcerers might well be real and yet something that cannot be understood by science. He rejects all attempts at providing plausible, scientifically verifiable explanations for those powers, such as forces science has simply not yet discovered. Instead, he aims to show that much of this magic might require a kind of participation (on the part of both the practicing shaman as well as the person upon whom the magic is being performed) which would necessarily exclude all objective, scientific observation. The ultimate claim is that the methods of science might always remain incapable of observing, and hence understanding, some aspects of the world within which we live. To quote this bold thinker:

This leads to a paradox — it is precisely the attitude that conforms to the rules of scientific observation which may have the unintended effect of making the phenomenon disappear. Also, the phenomenon will probably appear more easily if the spectator abandons his function as just an observer and makes at least some effort to collaborate with the medium. This has nothing to do with the fact, now accepted by modern physics, that the scientist, by means of his measuring apparatus, may sometimes influence the phenomena he is observing; rather it implies a criticism of science — the observer is dealing here with a level of reality which, for him, is not sufficiently given: this seems to seriously compromise the whole aim of scientific knowledge, which is to rationally resolve a given fact. Paranormal phenomena seem to evade the imposition of laws; it appears that the plasticity of a world that has an immediate link with human intention prevents the phenomenon from finding its place in some regulated and clearly-defined mould, even though this is what it is endeavoring to do. (p. 122)

This attempt at finding more reality outside of the confines of what science can see does not conflict with the Enlightenment hope of understanding our world through reason alone; it simply denies the exclusive validity of our otherwise formidable scientific method. (If i am not mistaken, this same inveterately curious impetus also lies behind Meillassoux’s respectful puncture of Kant’s almighty categories.) Of course, the same can be argued as a tale:

A devoted scientist went to visit a famous medium on a dare, intending to prove the whole venture a silly farce. The medium began the séance but soon broke off, claiming it never worked when clients projected such negative, critical thoughts. So you’re a fake! No, said the medium, it is your objective, aloof attitude that is interfering. If we are to succeed, you must participate, not merely observe. The scientist was not convinced: if i try to participate, then i can no longer vouch for the objective reality of the phenomena. It’s still a hoax. On the contrary, said the medium, it is merely something you cannot understand with your scientific method. Perhaps i can tell you a story:

When Copernicus lay on his deathbed, the learned bishop of Frombork went to persuade him of the Christian & Biblical truth that God created the Sun to revolve around the Earth. After hearing the scholar out, the astronomer replied: I deny none of what you say about God our Creator and the Bible his True Word. And yet, however correct your logic, the world within which you are reasoning is somehow too small.

Yes! blurted the scientist, that is exactly what i have been trying to explain! You misunderstand, said the medium: in our story, you are the bishop.


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