Science and Magic: more reflections on complex ideas

I was inspired to continue writing about science and non-science things by the amazing response I got to my science and religion post. I figured a good companion would be to talk about science and magic. However, as I have pointed out before the words “magic” and “deity” have a lot of cultural meanings and to make it super clear what I am talking about I am going to use a different word. I am going to talk about the known “science” and the unknown “sparkle”. I am using sparkle because in this context it doesn’t make sense with its normal cultural definitions, therefore it stands out. I am going to use sparkle to talk about magic, spirit, energy, and deity. Sparkle is the essence of the unknown. Now that we have our variables defined (like a good scientist) I am also going to use two examples to illustrate my points, the favorite whipping boy the placebo effect, and dreams.
I don’t like be super serious all the time so here is some My Little Pony fan art. This is called Sparkle by Richard W. 
 To me the word is a place we seek to understand. Humans developed a rigorous system to systematically try to understand the world and we call it “science”. Alchemy was once considered a “science” and was treated with the same rigorous testing. Over the years science has branched as human knowledge has grown. When we first evolved there was a vast amount of knowledge that we now take for granted that was a huge unknown mystery. If you think about it, a sunrise is a beautiful amazing thing, and to know why the sun rises you need to know something about astronomy. Where the sunrise used to fall into the category of “sparkle” miraculous things we didn’t understand, we have now slid it into “science” because we know whats going on. But does that make it any less amazing?
Medicine
Let us now talk about medicine. One of the most amazing discoveries in my mind is the placebo effect. We now know that if you give someone a sugar pill they can actually feel better. We know that this happens, and we now test things against the placebo effect. New medicines must have a higher success rate than the placebo effect. Personally the placebo effect is the perfect example of science and sparkle. We know that the placebo effect works, and we know what it is. It is a defined entity so it lives in science. However, that now tells us something about us that I think is vitally important to those of us who also practice traditional healing. The brain can be the source of a malady. That is what it tells me. If you can trick the brain into making you feel better than sometimes it can be reasoned it is the brain that is making you feel bad in the first place.
There is an excellent example of this thinking in my Hawaiian Medicine book. As with most Hawaiian teachings there is a story that opens the book. The book is Kahuna La’au Lapa’au: The Practice of Hawaiian Herbal Medicine by June Gutmanis. I am not anywhere near finishing this book, I usually pick it up every once in a while and flip through it. I got it along with a bunch of plant ID and animal ID books when I moved here to help me learn my new environment. The prologue starts
“The year was about 1900, Auntie was telling her troubles to her haole friend and physician, Dr. George Herbert in his office on Alakea St. It was pleasant to call on Dr. Herbert. He spoke some Hawaiian and he understood the pilikias of Hawaiians as well as haoles. Auntie talked on and on. Her great breast heaved with emotion as she described the sick in her head and throat which did not cure with the medicines he had given her. Finally Dr. Herbert said, “Auntie, I don’t think I can cure you. You get Kanaka sick. We are old friends, I understand. Better for you to try Kanaka cure.”
Historical Photograph (source) circa 1932
This is exactly what I think ties traditional healing, the brain and western medicine together. When you are physically ill, physical cures are what you need. When you are emotionally ill, physical cures will not work because the problem is not physical. In that case, traditional healing goes after the actual problem. Sometimes a sparkle problem can only be fixed with a sparkle solution.
Knowing this doesn’t make traditional medicine and healing any less amazing, it just means we understand its place in the array of options for healing. Western Medicine is great at physical problems that can be studied and quantified, but the problems that arise from the more abstract source of our mind and emotions, they are horrible at fixing. It all comes down to the source of the problem.
To summarize the rest of the talk story: Aunties illness in the book was due to an argument that she had with her son, he had left home on a ship shortly after. The anguish about this situation had caused her pains and the gods were asked for help. Auntie was cured.
Dreams
I hope that made sense, because I am going to move further into the mind and talk about dreams. I want to start with a story. Last week I had a dream. In this dream I went up to my chicken coop and instead of the single egg that is brown that I usually get from my laying hen, there were two eggs, one brown and one white. In the dream the second one was from one of my new hens, and I was ecstatic and then the dream went abstract. When I woke up I remembered the two eggs and the colors. Two days later when I came home from work my husband told me “We got two eggs today!” and sure enough one was brown and one was white.
Good girls! Look at those pretty eggs!
There are two ways I can explain what happened. The first is with sparkle. I could see the future and predict that the she was going to soon lay an egg and what color it would be. The other way to explain it is, the person I bought the hen from probable told me she would lay white eggs and I just forgot. I might have also subconsciously picked up on some subtle cues in her behavior. This information was processed by my amazing behind the scenes computer, and the solution was fed to my conscious via a dream. To me that is even more amazing than “I saw the future”. I think this example perfectly illustrates how just because you are starting to understand how something works, doesn’t make it any less amazing. How cool is it that my brain was able to process all this information in the background and then feed me a cute dream to tell me the results!?

I am going to leave you with a quote from the amazing Author C Clake  “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Which has been popularly misquoted (I think anyways)  as “Magic’s just science that we don’t understand yet.” 
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3 Comments

  1. Totally agree with that quote! I think, in the case of the eggs for instance, sure it could be either thing but you processed it and “looked” for an explanation beyond “I had a dream that foretold the future” and in doing that, logic provided a possible explanation. I often wonder – does logic make anything less “sparkle” though? Sometimes I think it is sad that we try to figure everything out. I do it too – I have this NEED to analyze in order to explain away…

  2. obviously my whole job is trying to push back the unknown and explain things. I think the important thing is to step back and not say “oh well now I know how THAT works” but keep the awe that THATS how it works! 🙂 Mars isn't less awe inspiring because we have litter robotic geologists on it! Its just proving to have more mysteries and that is the beauty of science! Every time you answer 1 question it brings up 10 more!

  3. I think this is fabulous and almost exactly explains what I was trying to say. I like that you're trying to achieve balance by saying “It could be A, but it might be B.” I think we're being foolish if we automatically credit Sparkle for everything, but we're shortchanging ourselves if we never allow ourselves to believe that maybe Sparkle had a little to do with it. I love the quote and will probably put it on my dry erase board at work.

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