Who Are The Magical Thinkers?

Philosopher Edward Feser, who is turning out to be one of the preeminent defenders of theism, writes an excellent piece on his blog about the atheist misperception of the term ‘magic’, and the application of it to theistic (especially Christian) beliefs. Indeed I find in reading Feser that he often clarifies thoughts I have intuited previously, but never elaborated on.

One warning – Feser expects readers to come with their brains fully engaged. Unlike atheist blogs by Coyne, Myers, and Harris which are nominally about ‘science’ but are in actuality paeans to New Atheism (and in Coynes case, cats) and diatribes on the evils of religion, Feser actually discusses philosophy and it application to thought, culture, and politics. And he does so utilizing the proper terms and with a deep understanding of the history of thought on various subjects. So it is never a light read. It is however quite refreshing for those willing to plow through it.

That being said, Feser’s latest is on the misapplication of the term ‘magic’ to theistic belief. As he notes, a proper definition of magic is “powers which are intrinsically unintelligible”. A Christian at least holds no such beliefs which is why the primary bulwark against paganism and mysticism over the ages has been Christianity, not atheism. Christian notions of God are overtly intelligible; God follows certain comprehensible purposes and acts in a way one would expect of a Being of His type.

As Feser points out, by the proper definition of ‘magic’, it is actually atheists who hold to magical thinking, because they hold that the universe arises by powers which aren’t ultimately intelligible:

Indeed, if any view is plausibly accused of being “magical” in the sense in question, it is atheism itself. The reason is that it is very likely that an atheist has to hold that the operation of at least the fundamental laws that govern the universe is an “unintelligible brute fact”; as I have noted before, that was precisely the view taken by J. L. Mackie and Bertrand Russell. The reason an atheist (arguably) has to hold this is that to allow that the world is not ultimately a brute fact — that it is intelligible through and through — seems to entail that there is some level of reality which is radically non-contingent or necessary in an absolute sense. And that would in turn be to allow (so the traditional metaphysician will argue) that there is something which, as the Thomist would put it, is pure actuality and ipsum esse subsistens or “subsistent being itself” — and thus something which has the divine attributes which inexorably flow from being pure actuality and ipsum esse subsistens. Hence it would be to give up atheism.

But to operate in a way that is ultimately unintelligible in principle — as the atheist arguably has to say the fundamental laws of nature do, insofar as he has to say that they are “just there” as a brute fact, something that could have been otherwise but happens to exist anyway, with no explanation — just is to be “magical” in the objectionable sense. In fact it is only on a theistic view of the world that the laws of nature are not “magical”; and the Mackie/Russell position is (as I argue in the post linked to above) ultimately incoherent for the same sorts of reason that magical thinking in general is incoherent. As is so often the case, the loudmouth New Atheist turns out to be exactly what he claims to despise — in this case, a believer in “magical powers.”

I see this sort of thinking so often in discussions with atheists. I can’t count the number of times I have seen atheists counter something like William Lane Craig’s Kalam Cosmological argument by claiming the first premise , “Everything that has a beginning of its existence has a cause of its existence” simply isn’t true and that things can begin to exist in nature ‘uncaused’, often citing something like virtual particles. The moment they do that they are engaging in magical thinking i.e., that the universe operates according to forces which are intrinsically unintelligible.

This is just one of many ways that in the final evaluation it is atheists who undermine logic, reason and ultimately science through magical thinking.


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