Things That Go Bump in the Mind

Things That Go Bump in the Mind
Look for a new post every Sunday morning.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Do You Believe in Magic (Part 2)

I want to reach out and grab ya -- Steve Miller

Last week, I began a discussion of the relationship between magic and reality by introducing the rhetorical concepts of ontology, epistemology, and doxa.  To briefly recap: Ontology refers to the philosophy of “what is real?” so an ontological question regarding magic is “Does magic exist?”  Epistemology is concerned with understanding the nature of knowledge, and thus, an epistemic question would be, “What can we learn about magic?”  The study of Doxa considers the intersection between reality and knowledge and, thus, questions the general assumptions that typically go unchallenged because popular opinion would not think to dispute them (Doxa sometimes operates under the pseudonym “common sense”).  A good example of a doxastic question regarding magic would be, “If superstitions are the foolish convictions of a bygone era, are there any contemporary magical beliefs that we could differentiate from ordinary, traditional folklore?” Doxa might also ask, “If one begins with the assumption that science can “disprove” all things magical, how can magical ideas survive the razor of scientific scrutiny?”

The purpose of this blog is not to answer these questions, but to survey the rhetorical landscapes from which other people attempt to answer these questions.  One of most basic assumptions rhetoricians make is the understanding that where questions get asked and who gets asked to answer them have significant and inevitable consequences for the answers that are produced.  This is to say, for example, if you ask about the propriety of drinking alcohol, not only do we need to pay attention to whether we are asking a doctor, a lawyer, or a priest, we may also notice a conspicuous difference between answers originating in Rome, New York, or Salt Lake City.

In coming months as the topics jump from one “out there” or “peculiar” belief to another (the existence of bigfoot, ghosts, space aliens, and The Bermuda Triangle to name a few), perhaps the most fundamental question this blog will explore will be the question, “Do people have a right to maintain odd beliefs especially if the vast majority of society consider these beliefs to be eccentric, antiquated, or irrational?”  My simple answer is “Yes, people have a right to maintain strange or far-fetched ideas.”  However, the other side of the coin remains just as viable. If people maintain some inalienable right to strange ideas, then others also have a right to challenge the veracity of those strange beliefs as well.   Sometimes it is in society’s best interest to challenge the risk of fringe ideas when they threaten the welfare of others who could be harmed by those beliefs.  If, for example,  parents belong to a religious sect that fundamentally believes it is immoral to seek medical care for their children, I would argue the state’s concern for the welfare of these children supersedes parental rights when lives are on the line.  I would say the state absolutely has the right to intervene when a six-year-old is in dire need of an emergency appendectomy.

Returning, then, to such questions as “Is magic real?”, “What can we know about magic?”, and “Are magical beliefs the foolish hangover of medieval thinking?”, it is important to pause to consider “Who are we asking?” and “What do we think makes someone qualified to answer these questions?” before being ready to accept “authoritative” answers.  When dealing with ideas that most people might consider improbable or dubious, issues of credibility become paramount.  

Frequently in contemporary society, popular opinion is shaped by the political ideology of famous people who may have nothing but their fame to support their perspectives.  Fame, in and of itself, does not offer expertise, and thus, celebrity brings nothing extra to support the opinions of people who just happen to find themselves famous enough to be put in front of microphones.  Furthermore, many celebrity pundits who develop massive followings on pseudo-news channels admit in private that they do not actually subscribe to the ideas they loudly and vehemently promote on their television or radio shows; when challenged, they sometimes defend their distortions by claiming that they are not really “news-people”  but are “entertainers” and that, somehow, this gives them license to say whatever they believe will give them their highest ratings regardless whether their propaganda has any relationship at all to any known “facts” or “truth.”

Unfortunately, the popularity of news channels that are thinly disguised vehicles for propagating corporate disinformation have eroded many otherwise intelligent people’s ability to question rhetorically the correctness of what they are being told.  For many people, truth has become so dislodged from any ontological expectations of reality that these viewers have been left enfeebled by the cynical calculations of whatever corporate hucksters think they can get by with.  When McDonalds, for example, advertises that they are “the official restaurant of the Olympics,” how many of their patrons actually believe the world’s top athletes train for years to reach the peak of their physical abilities only to consume a hearty meal of Big Macs and fries before competing on the world stage?

When it comes to the the ontological, epistemic, or doxastic truth of magic, it is not my place to say what is (or is not) real, what can (or cannot) be known, or what should (or should not) be popularly accepted as true.  It is my place, instead, to point out where misleading rhetorical intentions can divert people from finding their own answers.  Science, for example, can tell us plenty about the natural world, but it is ill-equipped to evaluate the truth of phenomena it cannot determine how to measure.  The window of truth that science offers us affords a breathtaking view on reality, but it would be a substantial mistake to believe that any other perspectives (from any other windows) only serve to distort our ability to know “what is out there.”  I will have much more to say about this, of course, in the weeks to come.


  1. Interested to see what follows. Please comment on the reality of voodoo and how folks turn into zombies because they believe.

    1. That's a great idea. I'll add it to the list of topics to come. My short explanation is that consciousness fits on a continuum that stretches from a heightened awareness of external stimuli (perceptive reactions to empirical sensation) to floating thoughtlessly in the sea of The Ever-working Id. Somewhere between those two extremes, "zombies" develop a psychotic fixation with a particular level of conscious that both denies their ability to access to other levels of awareness and destroys their capacity for self-reflection. When there is an "evil" shaman who through the use of psychotropic herbs reduces his (or her) victims to this narrow band of consciousness, the "voice" of the shaman becomes the surrogate ego for these poor bastards who brains have become chemical shackled to nearly subconscious existence. What is really fascinating rhetorically is the mythos that develops around this type of situation to explain what's happened to the victims in order to heighten the political power of the local shaman, a situation that is extremely analogous on a national level to the contemporary Republican Party.

  2. Best line: "popular opinion is shaped by the political ideology of famous people who may have nothing but their fame to support their perspectives. " And that is the challenge that lies therein to have dialogue with friends, relatives, students and acquaintances on anything political! They just rely on the "fact" that Rush said so (I am sure there are liberal examples but can't think of any - lol) .
    Here is the big problem with reality check -- When confronted with facts, there is little effective cognitive dissonance - why? Why do supporters, people in general cling to the ridiculous and clearly untrue? (cough, cough, Todd Akin). Admittedly, our media's presentation of facts is difficult to sift through and it is the burden of the reader to find media outlets that are trustworthy and minimally biased. Good luck with that!

    1. There's a pretty funny video on YouTube of Glenn Beck on "The View" back in 2009 where Whoopi Goldberg and Barbra Walters calls Beck out about a lie he spread on his own show about them. When confronted with facts he couldn't deny about lying to his audience, Beck says he's an entertainer not a news person so he's not under any obligation to stick to "facts" or "the truth." This is a real issue in teaching students to consider the integrity of their sources.


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