The chief scientist at the Institute of Noetic Sciences (IONS) turns a critical eye toward such practices as telepathy, clairvoyance, precognition and psychokinesis. Are such powers really possible? Science says yes.
According to noted scientist and bestselling author of The Conscious Universe, Dean Radin, magic is a natural aspect of reality, and each of us can tap into this power with diligent practice.
But wait, aren't things like ESP and telepathy just wishful thinking and flights of the imagination? Not according to the author, who worked on the US government's top secret psychic espionage program known as Stargate. Radin has spent the last forty years conducting controlled experiments that demonstrate that thoughts are things, that we can sense others' emotions and intentions from a distance, that intuition is more powerful than we thought, and that we can tap into the power of intention (think The Secret, only on a more realistic and scientific level). These dormant powers can help us to lead more interesting and fulfilling lives.
Beginning with a brief history of magic over the centuries (what was called magic two thousand years ago is turning out to be scientific fact today), a review of the scientific evidence for magic, a series of simple but effective magical techniques (the key is mental focus, something elite athletes know a lot about), Radin then offers a vision of a scientifically-informed magic and explains why magic will play a key role in frontiers of science.
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About the Author
DEAN RADIN, Ph.D., is Chief Scientist at the Institute of Noetic Sciences (IONS) and Distinguished Professor at the California Institute of Integral Studies. For nearly four decades he has been engaged in consciousness research. Before joining the research staff at IONS in 2001, he held appointments at AT&T Bell Laboratories, Princeton University, and several Silicon Valley think tanks, including SRI International, where he worked on a classified program investigating psychic phenomena for the U.S. government.
Read an Excerpt
This book is about magic.
Not the fictional magic of Harry Potter, the feigned magic of Harry Houdini, or the fraudulent magic of con artists. Not blue lightning bolts springing from the fingertips, aerial combat on broomsticks, sleight-of-hand tricks, or any of the other elaborations of artistic license and special effects.
This is about real magic.
Occultists sometimes use the Old English spelling magick to distinguish fictional and stage magic from the real deal. We’ll use the more common term, magic, to avoid unnecessary associations with the occult.
Real magic falls into three categories: mental influence of the physical world, perception of events distant in space or time, and interactions with nonphysical entities. The first type I’ll call force of will; it’s associated with spell-casting and other techniques meant to intentionally influence events or actions. The second is divination; it’s associated with practices such as reading Tarot cards and mirror-gazing. The third is theurgy, from the Greek meaning “god-work”; it involves methods for evoking and communicating with spirits.
Unlike books that discuss beliefs about magic from psychological or historical perspectives, or that list recipes for spell-casting, the goal here is to explore real magic from an evidence-based scientific perspective. Why a scientific approach? You wouldn’t know it by reading most college textbooks, but there’s a vast scientific literature that informs our understanding of real magic. When I was in college, none of my coursework mentioned anything about that literature. But now, after four decades of experimentally studying magic, motivated by scientific curiosity and without a religious background that might have biased me to be overly sympathetic about metaphysical concepts, I’ve come to two conclusions.
First, there’s no doubt that science is the most accurate lens on reality that humanity has developed so far. What we’ve collectively discovered about the nature of Nature over the last three or four centuries, from the quantum to the cosmological, is an awe-inspiring testament to our creativity and imagination. Technologies based on that knowledge provide proof that our discoveries are valid. So, when considering real magic, it would be foolish to just throw away what we’ve already learned.
But second, reality viewed through the lens of science is an exceedingly thin slice of the whole shebang. Science is tightly focused on the objective, measurable, physical world. That focus excludes the one and only thing you can ever know for sure--your consciousness, that inner spark of sentience that you call “me.”
While science as a practice has primarily concentrated on the objective world, scientific methods are extremely powerful, so if we wish we can redirect our lens to look inward and explore what consciousness is capable of. When we do that, we are startled to find whole new realms of knowledge. One of the consequences of taking this inner perspective is that the idea of magic transforms from an impossible fantasy into an aspect of Nature that we can begin to study. From this stance, terms such as paranormal and supernatural are seen as quaint and antediluvian, similar to how modern medicine no longer needs the concept of “bad humors” when discussing the origins of disease.
We’ll explore this new realm of knowledge through two major themes. First, based on a substantial body of experimental evidence, we can state with a high degree of confidence that real magic exists. Second, there are rising trends in science suggesting that what was once called magic is poised to evolve into a new scientific discipline, just as medieval astrology and alchemy evolved into today’s astronomy and chemistry. The new discipline will be the study of the psychophysical nature of reality, that mysterious, interstitial space shimmering between mind and matter. Understanding how this enigmatic space works in a way that’s consistent with the rest of science requires a new worldview--the lens through which we understand reality.
Another theme we’ll discuss is that magic didn’t miraculously disappear with the rise of the scientific worldview. Magic is still intensely present. Prayer is a form of intentional magic, a mental act intended to affect the world in some way. Wearing a sacred symbol is a form of sympathetic magic, a symbolic correspondence said to transcend time and space. Many religious rituals are forms of ancient ceremonial magic. The abundance of popular books on the power of affirmations and positive thinking are all based on age-old magical principles.
From a conventional scientific perspective, these widespread practices are considered examples of infantile magical thinking, fairy tales. Some scientists even use the word magic as a synonym for nonsense, because it implies the scientifically appalling idea that some things “just happen” for no discernible or plausible cause. But magic doesn’t mean “no cause.” It just means that we haven’t yet developed scientifically acceptable theories to explain these effects. As we’ll see, there are already important hints that may lead to such theories, so it’s best to think of real magic not as something impossibly mysterious, but as a forerunner of the future of science.
Magic Is Everywhere
The possibility that magic is real can be terribly unsettling to those who’d prefer that it not exist. Consider A. J. Ayer (Sir Alfred Jules Ayer, 1910-1989), a prominent British philosopher who specialized in logical positivism. This is a critical philosophical position that utterly rejects any sort of metaphysical, religious, or magical concepts. As might be expected, Ayer was a hardcore atheist. At age seventy-seven, he died. Fortunately, he was resuscitated, and to everyone’s surprise he reported a near-death experience (NDE). He described it as consisting of repeated attempts to cross a river and “a red light, exceedingly bright, and also very painful . . . responsible for the government of the universe.” Ayer retained his atheism, but declared that the experience had “slightly weakened” his conviction that death “will be the end of me.”1
That Ayer reported this experience is more astounding than it may seem. Lifelong logical positivists are tough. They don’t “slightly weaken” their intellectual positions on anything. The link between magic and Ayer’s NDE is theurgy, the third category of magic. NDEs suggest that there may be forms of disembodied awareness, or spirits. For many who’ve experienced an NDE it’s a virtual certainty that such spirits exist.2 But so far there’s no strictly objective way to tell if that’s the only viable interpretation. We’ll revisit this issue in more detail later.
Another example of magic intruding into the mundane world involves William Friedkin, the director of the movie The Exorcist. Before he made his famous film, Friedkin hadn’t witnessed an exorcism; afterward he decided to do so. He spent time with Father Gabriel Amorth, a Vatican exorcist. His experience with Father Amorth did not overcome his prior agnosticism. But after showing a video of a terrifying exorcism to three prominent neuroscientists and three psychiatrists and not getting the blithe dismissal that he expected from those experts, it “scare[d] the Hades out of him.”3
A third example is provided by historian Michael Shermer, a prominent skeptic of all things paranormal. In Shermer’s September 2016 column in Scientific American, he asked, “Is it possible to measure supernatural or paranormal phenomena?” His answer was an unambiguous no:
Where the known meets the unknown we are tempted to inject paranormal and supernatural forces to explain unsolved mysteries. We must resist the temptation because such efforts can never succeed, not even in principle.4
“Not even in principle” is reminiscent of a quip attributed to Mark Twain: “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.”5 Shermer justified his confidence by citing Caltech physicist Sean Carroll, because Carroll concluded that the laws of physics “rule out the possibility of true psychic powers.” Why? Because, Shermer continued, “the particles and forces of nature don’t allow us to bend spoons, levitate or read minds.” Furthermore, according to Carroll, we know that there aren’t new particles or forces out there yet to be discovered that would support them. Not simply because we haven’t found them yet, but because we definitely would have found them if they had the right characteristics to give us the requisite powers.6
Sidestepping what history teaches us about going public with such conceits, Shermer nevertheless concluded with certainty that searching for paranormal or supernatural forces “can never succeed.” With that, he slammed the door shut.
So far, this is standard skeptical fare. But the peculiar aspect of this story is that two years prior to slamming the door, Shermer encouraged the exact opposite. In his October 2014 column in Scientific American, he opened with the following surprising admission:
Often I am asked if I have ever encountered something that I could not explain. What my interlocutors have in mind are not bewildering enigmas such as consciousness or U.S. foreign policy but anomalous and mystifying events that suggest the existence of the paranormal or supernatural. My answer is: yes, now I have.7
He went on to describe an event in June 2014, when he was planning to marry his fiancée, Jennifer Graf. Her grandfather was the closest she had to a father figure, but tragically he died when she was sixteen years old. One of the few heirlooms she kept from her grandfather was a 1978 Philips transistor radio. Shermer tried to get it to work. He put in new batteries, looked for loose connections, and tried smacking it on a hard surface. It still wouldn’t work. So he gave up and placed it in the back of a desk drawer in their bedroom. Three months later, Shermer and Graf were married at their home in California. She was feeling sad that her grandfather wasn’t there to give her away. After the wedding ceremony, something strange happened. They heard music. They traced it to the desk drawer in the bedroom. It was the grandfather’s radio, playing a love song.
They were stunned into silence. Finally Graf whispered, “My grandfather is here with us. I’m not alone.” The radio continued to play that evening, fell silent the next day, and never worked again. Shermer’s reaction: “I have to admit, it rocked me back on my heels and shook my skepticism to its core.” As a result, he wrote, still reeling with awe:
[If] we are to take seriously the scientific credo to keep an open mind and remain agnostic when the evidence is indecisive or the riddle unsolved, we should not shut the doors of perception when they may be opened to us to marvel in the mysterious.
What happened between his modest proposal calling for openness in the face of the mysterious and two years later when he slammed the door shut? I can’t speculate about Shermer’s change of heart, but one thing we do know is that when one encounters a belief-shattering event it’s not uncommon to promptly forget about it, or even to deny that it ever happened. Psychologists use the term repression to describe such cases.8 As magician Peter Carroll once put it, “When people are presented with real magical events they somehow manage not to notice. If they are forced to notice something uncontrovertibly magical they may become terrified, nauseated, and ill.”9
Shermer’s experience suggests that real magic is always present, patiently waiting just below the calm surface of the everyday world. Every so often its tentacles brush our leg, causing shivers to shoot up our spine. It’s that electrifying quality that makes magical fiction so captivating, magical stage illusions endlessly entertaining, and magical fraud so easy to perpetrate.
The word magic comes from the Greek word magos, referring to a member of a learned and priestly class, which in turn derives from the Old Persian word magush, meaning to “be able” or “to have power.” In the early nineteenth century, the word magic also took on the connotation of entertainment, delight, or attraction. Magic also implies exotic, alien, or the “other.” This subtext is an important reason why magic is persistently alluring. But that allure often manifests in the sense of watching a train wreck--simultaneously attractive and repulsive. Our magic, which is a core facet of our religious practice, is of course fascinating and perfectly acceptable. But their practices are dangerous, outrageous, and evil.
Incidentally, the word fascinate comes from the Latin fascinatus, meaning “to bewitch or enchant.” The words bewitch and enchant have roughly the same meaning as magic, as do the words charm and glamour. Magic is everywhere.
As in ages past, many people interested in real magic today are motivated by a desire to wield power--power to get wealth, fame, love, or sex. All of these applications are possible, and there are plenty of books, videos, websites, and smartphone apps that provide recipes for magical rituals and spells.
Some folks, especially those who subscribe to an orthodox religious faith, may recoil from the idea of spell-casting. Many traditional religions teach that magic and witchcraft are fundamentally demonic and evil. But the way magic is used is completely up to the magician. The power itself, like any fundamental force of the universe, is morally neutral. Atomic fission and fusion are just aspects of the way the physical world works. Questions of morality arise when we use such natural phenomena to create weapons.
Magical power intended to manipulate or exploit others is called black magic. It’s intensely seductive because, as the existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre once wrote, “Hell is other people.”10 That is, as social creatures, we must depend on others who may or may not be interested in our desires, and that can easily lead to personal conflicts. Use of magic to resolve these conflicts egregiously violates the Golden Rule, so it’s immoral.
1. Douthat, R. (December 24, 2016). Varieties of religious experience. New York Times.
2. Alexander, E. (2012). Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon’s Journey into the Afterlife. Simon & Schuster.
3. Douthat, R. (December 24, 2016). Varieties of religious experience. New York Times. Also Friedkin, W. (October 2016). The Devil and Father Amorth: Witnessing “the Vatican Exorcist” at work. Vanity Fair.
4. Shermer, M. (September 1, 2016). Is it possible to measure supernatural or paranormal phenomena? Scientific American.
5. This quote by Twain is doubly instructive. Besides suggesting in Twain’s charming style that “what everyone knows” ain’t necessarily so, there’s no evidence that Twain ever wrote or spoke this quip. See Shephard, A. (2015). “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you in trouble,” which must be why The Big Short opens with a fake Mark Twain quote. New Republic. newrepublic.com/minutes/126677/it-aint-dont-know-gets-trouble-must-big-short-opens-fake-mark-twain-quote.
6. Shermer, M. (September 1, 2016). Is it possible to measure supernatural or paranormal phenomena? Scientific American.
7. Shermer, M. (October 1, 2014). Anomalous events that can shake one’s skepticism to the core. Scientific American.
8. Loftus, E. F. (1993). The reality of repressed memories. American Psychologist, 48, 518-537.
9. Carroll, P. J. (1987). Liber Null & Psychonaut: An Introduction to Chaos Magic. Red Wheel Weiser. Kindle ed., 162.
10. From Sartre’s 1943 play, No Exit.
Excerpted from "Real Magic"
Copyright © 2018 Dean Radin.
Excerpted by permission of Potter/Ten Speed/Harmony/Rodale.
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Table of Contents
1 Beginning 1
2 Science and Magic? 11
3 Magical Potpourri 19
4 Origins of Magic 35
5 Practice of Magic 73
6 Scientific Evidence 94
7 Merlin-Class Magicians 169
8 Toward a Science of Magic 183
9 Concluding Thoughts 212