Does science take all the magic out of life?

As a kid I was totally absorbed by Tolkien. I must have read Lord of the Rings five times at least. As an adult I read all the Harry Potter books. Hell, I wrote my own fantasy novel: Bozo and the Storyteller.

But for all the time I’ve spent in my life thinking about witches and wizards, elves and orcs, there was always a wistful sadness when I reached the last page of the book or when the end credits came rolling down.

I wanted to live in a magical world.

Wouldn’t you?

But the world around me seemed anything but magical. It was a place dominated by cars and shops, houses and jobs, qualifications and commerce. People were interested in being popular, making money, having fun.

No one seemed interested in learning how to fly.

Then I discovered drugs.

From the first puff of marijuana to the first hit of LSD, it seemed like another world was being revealed to me, a world just beyond our habitual perception, a place of insight where anything might be possible.

No, I didn’t jump out of any windows to see if I could fly. In any case, It seemed to me more sensible to try and take off the ground…

A misspent youth in second hand bookshops

Psychedelic experiences led me, of course, to Carlos Castaneda and Aldous Huxley, as well as to many more titles on the occult section of second hand bookshops where I read about telepathy and yogic powers, shamans who could talk to animals and healers who could cure cancer with their hands.

Like so many hippies in the 60’s and 70’s, drugs led me to mystic works of the East like Sufism and Zen, and then to travelling in India where I would have been quite happy to find Enlightenment if it found me.

Life certainly felt more magical for a while.

I wanted to believe that yogis could levitate. I wanted to believe that shamans could talk to the spirits of the jungle. I wanted to believe that ascetics could live on sunlight alone.

But eventually I realised for myself the old sobering conclusion: wanting something to be true doesn’t make it so.

Science is a spoilsport

From the point of view of someone who believes in the supernatural, science really does take the fun out of the world. I remember the conversation I had with a scientist friend when I was first going to India about the miracles I believed yogis could do.

‘So why don’t they get rich?’ he said. If they really had all these magical powers why didn’t they use them for their own personal advancement?

I claimed that these powers only came once they had transcended the ego and so they had no interest in power, sex and money.

I told him stories of people who lived without eating, who lived to several hundred years old.

Great stories, he replied, where’s the evidence?

Determined to prove him wrong, I went online to find evidence but only found stories. And after all, anyone can tell a story.

Then I remembered Uri Geller who had gone on primetime British TV when I was a kid to show how he could bend a spoon with his mind alone. Like millions of others, I held a tea spoon in my hand while he did so and tried to repeat the trick.

My search took me to the magician James Randi who demonstrated that he could also bend a spoon. But it was just a magic trick. In response Geller said that just because a magician could bend a spoon with trickery didn’t mean that he wasn’t using the power of his mind.

But I had to admit that would be like Air India saying, yes, everyone else can make planes fly with jet fuel and the laws of physics but our planes, on the other hand, fly because of yogic power.

For a while I clung onto the notion that it was only spiritual people like myself who could understand these things. If scientists didn’t acknowledge magic that was because they had their heads in the sand.

I repeated often the Shakespeare quote:

There are more things in heaven and Earth, Horatio, / Than are dreamt of in your philosophy

But eventually I had to admit that there were many more things in heaven and Earth than were in my knowledge.

So does science take all the magic out of the world?

The first thing to say is that science would accept the existence of elves, wizards and spoon-bending if there was evidence for them. Evidence, not stories.

But it’s not as though the laws of physics, chemistry and biology make the world a dull place. On the contrary, I learned they open up mind-bending questions about the nature of who we are, how the world works, where it all came from and where it’s going.

Yes, it takes a little more effort to appreciate the findings. Like most people, I don’t read research papers for fun and prefer to get the juicy bits from popular science books and blogs. But here are a few examples that convinced me that science makes the world seem more magical:

There’s actually a wood wide web where trees share information and nutrients through their roots, helped along by tiny fungi.

We are all made of star dust. Every element in our bodies and the world around us came from stars exploding long ago. Joni Mitchell was right when she sang that at Woodstock.

Our brains are the most complex, beautiful things in the universe. Our minds are an incredibly complex braid of space-time.

Although we use quantum theory successfully – your GPS wouldn’t work without it – we still don’t understand quantum mechanics. It’s just totally weird.

Magic is in our minds

I still remember when I first came across wifi. I had just gotten my first laptop computer and a friend offered to give me some jazz. His finger moved across the touchpad and music flowed through the air to my desktop. It was like magic.

But the thing about magic is that the wonder fades pretty fast. Now I get annoyed if I can’t watch a Youtube video in the garden because I’m too far from the router.

It’s the same with magic in the world. Sunsets. A flight of birds. The presence of our loved ones. If we take it all for granted then the magic fades.

But in every breath we take a whole host of amazing things that happen. Oxygen leaps through our lungs into our blood, it’s carried up to our hearts and distributed to the rest of the body, some of it flowing up to our brains to allow us to read this sentence.

That’s magic.