A Dialog About Magic* and Science by Representatives of Both Traditions – Part 3

January 2, 2024
IONS Communications Team

* The word magic in this discussion refers to esoteric practices of real magic, and not to magic tricks or stage illusions.

The following is a continuation of a dialogue between IONS Chief Scientist Dean Radin, and Magician* Peter Carroll. Read Part One and Part Two 

Peter Carroll: I have looked at your entangled photon experiments. I do wonder if the Tsirelson Bound represents a natural limit of natural magic (at the quantum scale), so if you try and play around with events limited to that scale you only have that much wriggle room. Trying to calculate how the Tsirelson Bound for quanta could scale up via the butterfly effects of so called deterministic chaos to give a measure of the wriggle room for macroscopic events seems a tough call.

It amused me that “operator hand thrown dice” is considered to degrade the value of a result in the eyes of science, whereas exquisitely delicate hand manipulation of apparatus seems acceptable and indeed necessary for so many scientific experiments. If I could subconsciously cheat at well thrown dice, I’d call that magic.    

I really liked your “voodoo” experiment. It allows for many of the ingredients traditionally considered essential for magic, and it gets a statistically interesting result.

I guess you will be familiar with Sheldrake’s ‘Telephone Telepathy’ experiments, he quotes you in his references:

These seem some of the most convincing “scientific” demonstrations of psi that I have come across, with a natural probability of 25% fairly reliably and repeatably bumped up to 40%. 

Again, it seems a “magic friendly” series of experiments involving magical links (to friends), excitement, the possibility of both interpersonal telepathy and short term precognition of an unknown but recently determined event, plus of course the pervasive folk belief that it does happen.

In general, I feel far more inclined to participate in experiments that give magic a chance and have perhaps already shown indisputable results that don’t require heavy statistical processing to show interesting anomalies.

I think that if you want to believe in magic and use it in life then you need to work to the strengths of magic and try and enhance them, rather than exhaustively test them in adverse conditions just to try and dent the official scientific null hypothesis.

The motivation to study magic

Dean Radin: I agree that the constraints imposed by scientific methods are not exactly magic-friendly. But, of course, the flip side to that weakness is the methodological strength offered by science. That is, if something interesting happens that seems magical, you can gain higher confidence that it was actually magical, rather than something like a coincidence or a mistake. If I tossed some dice and they landed pretty much the way I’d want them to, then that might look like magic, but we can’t know for sure. That’s why in the laboratory hand-tossing dice or hand-tossing a coin just isn’t good enough.

By contrast, the manual manipulations required to prepare sensitive equipment is an entirely different ball game. After the setup is completed, and certainly while an experiment is underway, manipulations of any part of an apparatus are strictly forbidden. E.g., for the SIGIL experiment I’m preparing, the device will be located with the participant outside of my direct control. So, I need a way to tell if he or she is trying to influence it in a non-magical manner (because a participant might inadvertently influence the system, or intentionally cheat). To accomplish this, I designed the apparatus to provide lots of information about the environment where the device is located. Some of those measures tell me about the state of the interferometer, which is the main point of the experiment. But many other measures tell me if the device is touched, moved, subjected to heat or cold, magnetic fields, electric fields, etc.

I think it’s important to know if magic is really real, not just because it’s curious or for academic reasons. Instead, if magic is real, it means our entire modern civilization is built on a philosophical house of cards (i.e., reductive materialism) that is arguably in the process of falling apart and possibly even poised to wipe out a significant percentage of life on Earth. I would think it is therefore a good idea to try to repair the house of cards as best we can. And if that means accepting that the mind can do things that have been dismissed as fantasy, then so be it.

Acceptance of magic does not mean everything will suddenly become sunshine and rainbows, but it would add to many other holes that are being poked into the prevailing nihilistic worldview. And I view that as a good thing.

I’m familiar with Rupert’s telephone telepathy studies (and his other very clever designs). As he admits, the results of the telephone telepathy experiments cannot strictly exclude people who decide to cheat. And it is a certainty that if the opportunity arises, some people will definitely cheat. So, the impressive 40% hit rate may be inflated to some extent. How much it is inflated is unknown, but again this is why annoying super-strict measures are used in lab studies – so when we get results we can exclude intentional or inadvertent cheating from the get-go. The results are usually weaker than studies that include possible loopholes, but they are not zero. That’s how we know with high confidence that these effects are real. Otherwise, we’d never know for sure. 

I exclude from the above comment Rupert’s telephone telepathy studies that were captured on video. The high hit rates in those studies appear to be quite real, perhaps because they included a very strong magical link among the participants (they were sisters). This is why pre-selecting people for talent is very important when doing any sort of psi/magic experiment, even though that aspiration cannot always be achieved.

You suggested that you’d feel more inclined to participate in experiments that gave magic a chance. The way I figure it, magic always has a chance. If magic exists, then yes it will be modulated by all sorts of things that inhibit or mask it. But it’s still there.

And I understand that simple statistical methods are more readily digestible than complex ones, but that’s really just a matter of what one is used to. I am reasonably comfortable with all sorts of statistical methods. But sure, it would be preferable to get results that did not require heavy statistical lifting. And in a few cases, we do have such examples, like in the Ganzfeld telepathy experiments. Those studies rely on extremely simple measures (the number of hits vs. misses), and it has been repeatedly demonstrated under high security conditions and in dozens of labs over long periods of time. 

I agree that working to a phenomenon’s strength is always preferable, and that the constraints of some scientific methods can squash those strengths. But I personally also prefer to believe in things where I can gain high confidence – first-hand — that what I’m observing is actually real. It’s very easy to drop down a rabbit hole and end up believing in all sorts of nonsense. E.g., consider today’s fractious political arena where millions of people have been convinced to believe in things that every objective piece of evidence screams are dead wrong.

Likewise, I think of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s belief in fairies. Sherlock Holmes is the exemplar of a hyper-logical, hyper-aware character, and Holmes emerged from Doyle’s mind. But given the historical evidence that the fairy images were faked, how did that same uber-rational mind come to believe in fairies? I think the answer is that we are all Doyle, anxious to believe in things that we want to believe in, some of which may or may not be true. I believe (we can’t get beyond that) that scientific methods are the best ways we currently have to help us avoid wandering into false wonderlands. If I’m going to drop down into a wonderland, I’d prefer that it was a true wonderland.

Closing thoughts of the dialogue

Peter Carroll: I’m not sure that getting people to accept the objective reality of magic will improve their moral behavior. Some will certainly want to weaponize it. Magical fights remain a feature of my magical cultural milieu. Historical cultures which believed in magic do not seem notable for their humanism, and they often persecuted people for magic. Getting people to believe in spiritual and religious ideas has rarely given good results either.

Maybe the problem lies not with reductive materialism in itself but in the whole duality of material/spiritual. Someone once opined that no real difference exists between the viewpoints that “everything is spiritual” and “everything is material.” I’d feel quite happy with the axiom that everything is material (or spiritual) including weird stuff like parapsychology and quantum physics.

Dean Radin: Sadly, I agree that getting people to accept that magic is real will not improve moral behavior. Most of humanity already believes in one form of magic or another, but that hasn’t encouraged the world to become a paragon of morality. And some would definitely weaponize magic, if they could.

However, I do think it’s time to readdress the nihilistic philosophy that underlies modern civilization, and to do this in a secular way that is backed by science. Perhaps such an effort won’t change anything, but perhaps it will. To do nothing and let evolution, raw in tooth and nail, take its natural course would be the easiest approach. But still, I think it’s worth a try. 

Thank you for this dialog, and perhaps when I get closer to getting the SIGIL project actively under way, we can pick it up again. 

Dean’s SIGIL experiment is now live. Click here to learn more.

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