Science and Magic in the Modern World
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Science and Magic in the Modern World

Psychological Perspectives on Living with the Supernatural

Eugene Subbotsky

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eBook - ePub

Science and Magic in the Modern World

Psychological Perspectives on Living with the Supernatural

Eugene Subbotsky

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Science and Magic in the Modern World is a unique text that explores the role of magical thinking in everyday life. It provides an excellent psychological look at the subconscious belief in magic in both popular culture and society, as well as experimental research that considers human consciousness as a derivative of belief in the supernatural, thus showing that our feelings, emotions, attitudes and other psychological processes follow the laws of magic.

This book synthesises the science of 'natural' phenomena and the magic of the 'supernatural' to present an interesting look at the juxtaposition of the inner and outer selves. Fusing research into psychological disorders, subconscious feelings, as well as the rising presence of artificial intelligence, this book demonstrates how an engagement with magical thinking can enhance one's creativity and cognitive skills.

Science and Magic in the Modern World is an invaluable resource for those studying consciousness, as well as those looking at the effect of magical thinking on religion, politics, science and society.

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Part I
Magic in the mind
The magic crystal of René Magritte
Art as a window onto the supernatural
It sometimes happens that after a long flight we wake up in the middle of the night in a room unknown to us and for a few moments are unable to grasp where we are. Everything around us seems strange: the vague silhouette of the door, the moonlight coming through the window and the walls and curtains are all in the wrong places. For some time, while our consciousness is hastily restoring the events of the last 24 hours, we are trying to answer the questions “Where am I?” and “How did I get here?” And even when our memory puts the broken ends together and gives us the answer, the feeling of being in a strange place doesn’t quite disappear.
The same feeling I experienced in René Magritte’s museum in Brussels. Trees growing from the table set in the middle of a desert (‘The Oasis’), a train emerging from a mantelpiece (‘Time Transfixed’), a medieval castle on a cliff that is floating free in the air (‘Castle in the Pyrenees’), a winged man and a lion on a city’s embankment (‘Homesickness’). A half-man–half-fish, a half-plant–half-bird… A weird world of images that are both familiar and strange. Magritte acknowledged that he was indebted for his artistic style to the influence of the Italian artist Giorgio de Chirico, who founded a movement in art known as ‘metaphysical realism’. De Chirico’s paintings are particularly strange and disquieting: deserted town squares and strange juxtapositions of enigmatic objects immerse a viewer into a dreamlike world. According to de Chirico, “To become truly immortal, a work of art must escape all human limits: logic and common sense will only interfere. But once these barriers are broken it will enter the regions of childhood vision and dream”1. This theoretical statement doesn’t explain why the artistic style that escapes the limits of logic and common sense should appeal to a modern viewer who lives in the world defined by science and logic. The fact is, the appeal is there, and the question is why.
Artworks by de Chirico and Magritte always give me the feelings of anxiety and unexplained nostalgia. Ambassadors of an alien world, these paintings immerse one in that world, which in one sense resembles our everyday world, and in another sense is fundamentally different from it. Looking at these paintings, I sometimes experience the phenomenon of déjà vu – the sense that in the past I have already seen what these paintings show. It seems to me that I have been in this alien world, walked these deserted town squares lit by the sun, looked at these strange objects and sculptures. There appeared in me an unstoppable longing to understand the messages of this unusual and disturbing world. Somehow I felt that understanding these messages would help me find answers to the ultimate questions: “What am I?”, “How did I get into this earthly world?”, “What is my destiny here?”, “Where would I go after death?” But however hard I tried to grasp the meaning of these messages, my efforts were in vain. Only the feeling of disappointment and anxiety and unfinished thoughts remained. And a new question arose: “To what in our inner world are these paintings trying to speak?” Clearly, these painting are not addressing our aesthetic feeling, if under aesthetic feeling the enjoyment of human and nature’s beauty is understood. Indeed, by the grace of forms or by the richness of colours, neither de Chirico nor Magritte’s paintings match the paintings of El Greco or Vincent van Gogh. Nor do they address our logical thinking, since logical analysis of these paintings (e.g., “loafs of bread don’t fly in the sky”) brings nothing but trivialities. Yet somehow answering the above question seemed important. Eventually, and in conjunction with my own research, it occurred to me that one possible answer to this question could be found in psychological studies on the belief of modern people in the supernatural and in psycho-anthropological studies of Palaeolithic art.
Reality of the supernatural
One of the most striking human psychological abilities is the ability to get habituated to almost everything. Due to this ability, most of us from a certain age start viewing the world around us as something to be taken for granted, and even a little dull. The same buildings around us, the same sky over our heads – sometimes grey and sometimes blue – all this makes the world and our lives repetitive and poor in excitement. It is hard to explain to most people, scientists particularly, that they live next to the magical, miraculous, supernatural; that their own existence is a fact unexplained. Indeed, one has to make just a slight shift in one’s point of view and the magic of the everyday world becomes obvious. Take, for instance, this house, this tree or this cat running in the street. Each of these objects consists of gazillions of physical particles, but what exactly keeps all these particles together so that they don’t dissipate into the surrounding medium like molecules of salt dissolving in a glass of water? In regard to simple objects like a piece of iron or a crystal of salt, their solid structure is explained by the known physical forces, such as the nuclear forces and gravitation, but the physical forces are too general and non-specific to explain the constant structure of living organisms. Why do the particles of matter that this cat consists of stay in the cat’s body and not dissolve in the air? Why do they stay in separate organs and don’t just mix together like the grains of wheat in a bag? Clearly, there must be ‘forms’ – of this cat and this tree – that keep the molecules in the cat and in the tree. But where are these forms? One can’t see or touch these forms; one can only view them in the ‘mind’s eye’, by observing the objects that these forms make possible.
The most wonderful is the fact that objects ‘last’ – they exist not for a fleeting moment and then disappear, but stay for some time, the duration of which is different for different objects. It is this permanence and stability that the invisible forms give to every complex object, which is the greatest mystery. Even in the emptiness of a vacuum there are little disturbances – so-called ‘quantum fluctuations’2 – but they only last for infinitesimally short periods of time, while complex living structures may last for thousands of years. The fact that objects in the world are stable and unique creates a misleading impression of this world’s ordinariness. Of course, if a cat turned into a tree in our full view we would call it a miracle, a magical event. But if we just tried to ‘compress time backwards’ and look at the world through this inverted ‘time lens’, we would see that transformations of this kind happen to objects all the time. Single-celled organisms turn into multicellular organisms, animals develop into humans. We call this process evolution, and because we live inside this process we take it for granted. It seems to us that such transformations of simple things into complex ones happen ‘on their own’. But, according to the second law of thermodynamics, only the opposite process – the transformation of complex objects into simple ones – can happen on its own. In contrast, transformation of simple objects into complex ones requires some external force that makes such transformation possible and protects the complex objects from immediate disintegration. Darwinian evolution of species may seem a ‘blind’ process, but how cleverly it is designed! Random mutations of genes, the struggle for survival of the fittest, preservation of useful mutations in a population – these are only some of the necessary elements of evolution. Someone did a very good job in order to create the ‘blind watchmaker’ (the image of evolution coined by the British biologist and science writer, Richard Dawkins)3. Perhaps, the whole of evolution is nothing but a complex ‘watch’ that, once wound by someone, keeps working by itself. It is also possible that some unknown forces work in evolution that help squeeze time and reduce the astronomical numbers of individuals destined to die for the lucky few to survive. If this is the case, then the blind watchmaker isn’t so blind after all. My feeling is that science has not yet said its last word on the structure of evolution, particularly on explaining why, despite the purposeless nature of natural selection, evolution resulted in the emergence of animals as complex as humans.
And the same creative synthesis happens in inanimate matter, where simple chemical elements are transformed into complex ones. Yet in the modern industrial world, the awareness of the fact that the world is full of miracles has become a privilege of children, artists and poets. As children, we believed in miracles. As adults, we could occasionally wake up to this awareness when listening to music by Mozart or watching films by Andrei Tarkovsky, but for the rest of the time, this awareness is hidden from us until we face special moments in life, such as a threat of imminent danger or death.
Apart from the ‘everyday miracles’ mentioned above, which are in peace with science, there are things in the world that can’t be explained by science. Thus, everyone has a soul, but what the soul is, how we got it and what will happen to it after our deaths – to these questions science doesn’t know the answers. What is consciousness? Philosophers have been searching for the answer to this question for over 2000 years, but there is still no commonly accepted theory. Where did the universe come from? Despite all the efforts of cosmologists and physicists to explain the origins of our universe, we are still as far away from the answer as people were hundreds of years ago4. We don’t even know what a random event is. Scientists talk of random processes all the time, but what is a random event? By definition, a random event is impossible to predict, but then it must be a miracle – a ‘something’ that emerged from nothing. And if a random event is an effect of certain causes, then the event is not random and must be predictable. An example of a random event is a dream at night. Psychologists try to study dreams and even influence them, but why we see this particular dream in exactly this form and at this particular moment is impossible to causally explain. And what is creativity? If a creative process could be understood logically, it would turn into an algorithm and immediately stop being a creative process. To logically understand creativity would be as fatal for creativity as stopping a jet in mid-air would be fatal for the jet.
So, a modern person in the Western world lives in a sort of an ‘enclosure’. The world inside the enclosure is known and explained by science and the world outside is unknown and unpredictable. For the people of earlier epochs, the size of this enclosure was tiny, and those people well realised the vastness of the world beyond. They tried to speak with the world beyond by praying or chanting magical spells. But for the last four centuries in Europe, and in other cultures that inherited the European style of thinking, the situation changed drastically. The size of the enclosure grew immensely, and for most people the borders between the enclosure and the world outside went out of view. This happened because of the phenomenal success of science and scientific education. Science denies magic as a false belief. To support its argument, science provided powerful proofs: the Industrial Revolution, the increase of people’s well-being and the length of an individual’s life, modern medicine and education, flying in the air and space, radio, television and the Internet5. Magic couldn’t stand such proofs, so it retreated into the ‘backyard’ of consciousness.
It retreated, but it did not vanish. Wizards, astrologists, and palm readers keep offering their services in the media, and there is no shortage of customers. Still, the role of the traditional magic in modern Western societies is relatively insignificant. Traditional magic takes its strength from people’s explicit magical beliefs, and when these beliefs faded, the effectiveness of traditional magic weakened as well. Everyday life’s magic (love magic, fate reading, astrology) is cognitively too simple in order to impress a sophisticated modern mind, which is armed with knowledge and logical thinking. More successful are practices that grew out of magic – religion and psychotherapy. Like magic, religion and psychotherapy exploit the ability of the human imagination to affect human thinking and behaviour – the so-called ‘placebo effect’6. But even these ‘babies of magic’ occupy a relatively modest niche in modern life. Under the burning sun of science, religion is fading. Psychotherapy pretends to be a science, but most of its methods are indistinguishable from magic7; besides, it takes a lot of time, costs dearly and its results are unstable. So, where is a niche for magic in the modern world? Such a niche exists, and this niche is magical thinking. It is in the context of magical thinking that I would like to ponder de Chirico and Magritte’s paintings.
Magical thinking and the belief in magic
Magical thinking is the kind of thinking that follows the laws of magic and embraces objects and events that do not conform to the laws of logic, physics, biology and psychology. People going through solid walls, animals speaking human languages, gods readin...


  1. Cover
  2. Half Title
  3. Title Page
  4. Copyright Page
  5. Contents
  6. Preface
  7. Introduction
  8. Part I Magic in the mind
  9. Part II The supernatural in science and religion
  10. Part III Magical thinking in politics, economics and education
  11. Epilogue: imagining the unimaginable
  12. Bibliography (transliterated)
  13. Index
Zitierstile für Science and Magic in the Modern World

APA 6 Citation

Subbotsky, E. (2018). Science and Magic in the Modern World (1st ed.). Taylor and Francis. Retrieved from (Original work published 2018)

Chicago Citation

Subbotsky, Eugene. (2018) 2018. Science and Magic in the Modern World. 1st ed. Taylor and Francis.

Harvard Citation

Subbotsky, E. (2018) Science and Magic in the Modern World. 1st edn. Taylor and Francis. Available at: (Accessed: 14 October 2022).

MLA 7 Citation

Subbotsky, Eugene. Science and Magic in the Modern World. 1st ed. Taylor and Francis, 2018. Web. 14 Oct. 2022.