Magic and the Scientific Method

Posted on November 17, 2010
Filed Under Definitions & Labels, Magic, mystical journeys, Taylor Ellwood | 4 Comments

I was recently asked on Twitter the following question: Can magickal ritual stand up to scrutiny of scientific method?

My response was: Not unless science accepts that magic is a subjective experience.

Let’s unpack that statement. In my opinion, and from reading a variety of books, it seems that some magicians try to scientifically “prove” the existence of magic, Goetic demons etc., or if they are disillusioned by trying to be a magician, give it up and argue it doesn’t exist, or its all in our heads.

While I certainly appreciate that science can offer some criticisms and even principles about magic, I would argue that magic as practice and process isn’t as straightforward as science is. People customize magical practices a lot. Certainly I’ve done that, in part because I’ve found that sticking with what others have done hasn’t worked for me as well as it might for them. I’ve found that I’ve been able to achieve consistent results that tell me magic is real, and other people who’ve tried my¬† processes have also achieved results. Nonetheless, I’ve also noted that when those same people customize the process to fit their own understanding of the universe, it seems to be more efficacious, and my thought on that is that what makes magic what it is, has less to do with replicating an overt process, and more to do with understanding the process from an internal perspective. In other words, it’s not so much about objective, as it is about subjectivity, and more specifically the subject’s relationship with him/herself, others, and the universe at large.

Whereas with science the idea seems to be that you follow a set process in order to replicate results, and if you deviate from that process, it’s no longer considered to be science. This isn’t to say that some degree of customization and creativity doesn’t occur in science, but even when it does, its rigorously tested by many people, doing the same process in order to determine the validity of said process.

It could be argued that ritual provides the same kind of rigor, or that the variety of books written with spells and techniques demonstrates processes that if followed show the “science” of magic. The problem however is that what people look for in this kind of situation is irrefutable, objective proof. So if I do an evocation of a Goetic Demon, but no one sees it, people will argue its not real, that there is no objective proof to demonstrate it’s existence. Yet, I don’t know that such a criteria really applies to beings that very may well have objective existence, albeit in a different dimension. And more importantly, if we are looking for proof, then the results speak more tangibly than anything else to the efficacy of the process.

In my own work with entities and with magic in general what I’ve found to be so compelling about magic and why I continue to practice it is that it doesn’t just solve some problems or generate results. It provides me an explanation of the universe, my place in it, and how I can utilize magic to make changes to that agreement. And in that sense, what makes it work isn’t just a process but a choice, my choice, to believe…

Not very objective and scientific perhaps, but given how often magic has worked in my life, my belief in it works for me, and my understanding of the processes used also works. And I think that’s more important than trying to prove it to everyone else.


Evidence Please
Evidence Please

Wow, what an unnecessarily long non-answer. Let me take a stab at that.

"Can magickal ritual stand up to scrutiny of scientific method?"


That was easy.

The scientific method is a recursive loop of observing the world, asking a specific question, positing a possible answer, figuring out how you would prove that answer wrong, running experiments to test the model, and analyzing your data to either falsify your hypothesis or watch for the emergence of a theoretical model. Rinse, repeat, ad infinitum. Magic(k)(ch)(q) is immune to this because it's subjective and non-falsifiable.

". . . with science the idea seems to be that you follow a set process in order to replicate results . . ."

No. You observe careful experimental protocols in order to obtain good data.

". . . doing the same process in order to determine the validity of said process . . ."

No. Repeating a published experiment under controlled conditions in an attempt to falsify or provisionally confirm an outcome.

". . . if we are looking for proof, then the results speak more tangibly than anything else to the efficacy of the process."

No. This is a cargo-cult approach to science, a child's misunderstanding of science as dressing in a lab coat and playing with test tubes. Science does not look for proof, it seeks to refine models of understanding by subjecting theories to attempts at disproof. Your anecdotes of getting results from ritual have no more scientific potency than some stoned, opportunistic Bronze Age village quack's report that every night he says the Holy Mojo, the sun comes up the next morning.

Science depends on rigor and intellectual honesty. Magic has no room for either of these; indeed, the whole endeavor is an exercise in willful self-deception. Obscurantism and obfuscation about the desirability or utility of testable knowledge is all well and good when your livelihood depends on keeping your clients/market/flock high on self-important delusions of cosmic power, but don't you dare claim any of what you do is valid beyond your own fevered imaginings.

I will claim its valid beyond my own imagination because I can point to real changes in my life and in the lives of others.

Still waiting for evidence
Still waiting for evidence

Alright. Evidence, please. What did you do, when, what change occurred, why did it work (in detail, please), and how have you eliminated the possibility of other, possibly unaccounted-for causes or complexes of happenstance bringing about what you believe you accomplished by magic? Also, did a specific desired effect come about, or did you simply "will" some broad category of change to happen, and when some shift in the status quo popped up, take the credit for it? Where is the extraordinary evidence to back up your extraordinary claim? Why aren't you just another charlatan woefully abusing the word "quantum"?

First, I don't really use the word quantum.

Second, you can read my books or blog entries on here about ongoing work, with specific examples of practices I done with specific desired results achieved. Just generally willing something to occur doesn't really work. You need to have specific results.

Third, try the processes yourself. Unless of course its too primitive for you to do.