Abra-abra-cadabra 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.”
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.