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Thursday, 12 January 2017

Magic, Puppy Dogs and 'Post-Truth'

"To cure a headache, tie a thin bag of mixed foxglove and fennel around the patient's temples and have him recite ten Ave Maria. This cure is especially effective during the gibbous phase of the moon, or when his sign is in the ascendant."
If you're anything like me, the foregoing sounds completely insane. The fact is, though, that this is one of many headache cures recorded in various medical volumes across thousands of years of human history. Luminaries and authorities such as Galen, Aristotle, and others are known to have proposed similar cures, and it can only be assumed that they were widely trusted. We do have records of some controversy regarding the astrological aspects of physiology, but on the whole, astrological, occult, religious and downright loopy medicine was widely accepted and decidedly mainstream.

It's very easy to look back on the credulity of our ancestors with a certain degree of smugness. A commonly used cure for colic, as late as the eighteenth century, was to "hold a live puppy on the belly". Which is frankly ridiculous, until we remember that meaningful physiological analysis as we know it was not available until very recently, and that this treatment is based on the ultimately sound empirical observation that heat treats pain. Unless we have this thought, however, the tendency is to laugh at the puppy while privately viewing our forebears as critically stupid. Not at all like us.

A great many authors have bewailed the death of magic in the modern age. From Dickens to C S Lewis, there is a frequent tendency to view the simpler, mystical mentality of the past with deep nostalgia. Science, technology, and discoveries in both have frequently been seen as making fatal inroads on the liminal or fantastic part of our lives. It's reasonable to see the great revivals in mysticism and spiritualism of the early and middle twentieth centuries as rebellions against a rising wave of rationalism and skepticism. Arthur Conan Doyle's belief in mental telepathy and faery folk, and the general drug addled new-ageism of the sixties and seventies probably have their roots in this reaction against a perceived destruction of mystery.

I'd contend that none of this was really necessary. I really don't think our 'natural' capacity for reason is any better now than it was then. Sure, our frame of reference has changed, but I think that closer examination will reveal a lack of any substantive change. In the secular west, we claim to base our world view on science, but how many of us really understand the principles on which the relevant sciences are based? We all know the Big Bang Theory, but given the average level of understanding, I'd say we mostly know it in the same way that our ancestors knew the story of Adam and Eve, and that the fundamental basis of that knowledge is, for most people, equally mystical and faith-dependent in each case.

And then there's the fact of the staggering numbers of people who believe in the existence of various interventionist gods, conspiracy theories, alien origins, the ability of various commonplace foodstuffs to cure everything from cancer to AIDS, or all of the above. I say nothing about whether any of these beliefs is true or not, but what they certainly are not is based on any recognisably valid process of evidence-based reasoning. In short, our minds are just as wired for magic and delusion as they've always been.

Sure, we might be better equipped to fight this tendency in the modern age, but I think it's demonstrably apparent that we're not bothering. The bizarre realities we can access through the internet are not created by the new medium, but rather revealed and magnified by it. This is what annoys me about all this talk about 'post-truth' times. The underlying assumption is inherently invalid, as it's impossible to find an epoch in which 'truth' has ever been primary.

While we clearly have some ability to transcend our stupid monkey brains, only a few ever come to believe that this transcendence is our primary business in life. The vast majority of us use our capacity for thought solely in order to rationalise and justify our feelings and biases, a behaviour designed to perpetuate, not defeat, our tendency to view the world as 'magical'. Forever and ever, amen.

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