Magical materialism: A new theory of reality

First published on 7 July 2022.

I’ve recently been involved in two discussions that seem different but have something in common. On the one hand, I’ve been thinking about magic, the idea that the laws of physics can be bent to the will of social actors in response to traumatic experience. This is the philosophy behind The Magicians, the TV show which takes after Buffy the Vampire Slayer and serves as a much funnier, and much deeper, take on ancient gods than the Marvel multiverse of madness. On the other hand, I’ve been thinking about the body, and how the modern world fetishises the material over the ideal. The connection between these two trains of thoughts now seems clear: reality has been redefined, as if by some magical spell, to mean the body rather than the soul. Words themselves have cast this spell, although within the constraints of the laws of physics, at least so far.

Coloration of Charles Darwin, philosopher of evolution and magician of science.

In Time of the Magicians, Wolfram Eilenberger argues that philosophers like Wittgenstein were viewed as god-like figures in the shadow of the eclipse of religion in the last century. Michael Rosen’s Shadow of God takes this further to argue that Kant and Hegel themselves were remaking modern philosophy in the image of medieval theology. In Nietzsche’s language, the death of (belief in) God has had surprisingly little effect on our popular imagination: we cling to the corpse of old deities, fashioning ourselves in their image, instead of recognising how deities are images of us, as much as the other way around.

Marx thought he had solved the riddle of history by developing a ‘materialist’ conception of history, grounding the explanation of change in material facts about the natural world, transformed by economic processes to meet human needs. This ‘scientific’ approach to history unended old ‘magical’ and ‘religious’ concepts of history. The irony is how generations of ‘Marxist’ scholars have clung to the tenets of ‘historical materialism’ as dogmatically as followers of a new-age (or old-age) religion. It reminds me of the parallel universe of the tabletop game Warhammer 40,000, where the ‘god-emperor’ who took humanity to the stars by outlawing fantastical belief in the supernatural (while using his own psychic ability to accelerate interstellar ‘warp’ travel) fell, upon his near-death experience at the hands of his general Horus, to religious idolatry. The scientific emperor became an object of worship, and the subject of a new religion, to the horror of his ageing undead corpse, languishing on the life support system of the golden throne.

The thing is, both Nietzsche and his critics are wrong. The old gods may be dead, but if they were produced by people, then people can always produce new gods in their wake. People have a habit, as psychoanalysis has shown, of splitting and projecting aspects of themselves onto an external object. If that object isn’t another subject, then it’s an imagined subject in the sky, looking down on us with kind (or cruel) eyes. Whether there is any reality to this imagination is a question not worth thinking too long about. Madness, after all, is Marvel‘s business these days.

Religion can’t be escaped, but nor can it be embraced. It can, perhaps, be redefined, anchoring the needs of the soul in the needs of the body, while not falling prey to the nihilistic abyss of scientific faith in the ‘laws of nature’. There certainly can be a scientific explanation of reality; but this is not the only explanation. Matter, fundamentally, is not particularly lawlike, as is abundantly evident to quantum physicists, surely the closest science gets to religion (as the book series His Dark Materials shows in abundance poetic brilliance). Science is not, as Foucault maintained, simply an instrument of power, or a blind faith in the workings of the universe. It is not any kind of magic, although it certainly is magic of a kind, anchored in physical matter rather than ideal form (to employ Plato’s language).

Science is founded in a peculiar combination of mathematical idealism and magical materialism. While ideas are neat and orderly, the world is chaotic and confused. True science bridges between blind faith in ideals and equally blind faith in material happenings, while not collapsing the distinction between the two. Perhaps the most appropriate idea for such a science is evolution, where chaotic variation and fickle competition underpin the waves of selection that lead us from one hegemony to another, from one order to the next, by means of chaotic competition in between. To produce, yet alone balance, the hierarchical powers of states and classes, you need the anarchical pressures of war and trade. These pressures produce, as if my magic, the traumatic underpinnings of order. Once these past traumas are forgotten, new traumas wield their heads to wreak havoc on a complacent world, from whose ashes a new world is born. At least, that is how things have been in the past – but perhaps, with a better understanding of the order and disorder of things, we might avoid another catastrophe from our current crisis, and revive our decaying civilisation.

Magical materialism is a new theory of reality, but it needs a bio-sociology of change, by means of social and natural evolution. These things are tied into a whole by the web of existence. Where it ends is unclear. Shall we begin?

Disclaimer: Any similarity between names mentioned and actual individuals is purely accidental and largely theoretical. These are fun ideas to entertain but, as always, I may be mistaken. After all, what do I know?

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