Technology and Magic

I want to begin today’s post with an interesting historical fact. Its’ about magic. Specifically, it is the fact that magic in western culture reached its zenith, not during the ancient times of Rome, nor the middle ages, but in the 16th and 17th centuries, after the renaissance, when the west was just beginning to perfect the scientific method. In other words, magic grew when science and technology grew.

C.S. Lewis, a professor of medieval literature, put it this way:

The fact that the scientist has succeeded where the magician failed has put such a wide contrast between them in popular thought that the real story of the birth of Science is misunderstood. You will even find people who write about the sixteenth century as if Magic were a medieval survival and Science the new thing that came in to sweep it away. Those who have studied the period know better. There was very little magic in the Middle Ages: the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries are the high noon of magic. The serious magical endeavour and the serious scientific endeavour are twins: one was sickly and died, the other strong and throve. But they were twins. They were born of the same impulse. There is something which unites magic and applied science while separating both from the wisdom of earlier ages. For the wise men of old the cardinal problem had been how to conform the soul to reality, and the solution had been knowledge, self-discipline, and virtue. For magic and applied science alike the problem is how to subdue reality to the wishes of men: the solution is a technique;

Philosopher Peter Kreeft calls this last paragraph, “the single most illuminating three sentences I have ever read about our civilization.” He expands on this:

Technology is more like magic than like science. If you are surprised at this statement, you do not understand the essence of technology. Heidegger does: it is the fulfillment of the Nietzschean “will to power” as the new summum bonum, greatest good, or meaning and end of life. To see this point, imagine an experiment. Children are often given boxes to sort things in, and the observer can tell much about the children’s minds by how they classify things. For instance, if a child is told to put a baseball, a basketball, a baseball bat, and a basketball net into two boxes, the “structuralist” or “static” child will put the two balls in one box and the two other items, which are not spheres, in the other box; the “functionalist” child will put the baseball and the bat in one box, and the basketball and its hoop in the other. Now suppose you are asked to classify four things— religion, science, magic, and technology —and put them into two categories. Nearly everyone would classify science and technology together, and religion and magic together. There is a point to this classification: science and technology are limited to the empirically verifiable and the scientific method; religion and magic are not. But there is a deeper classification, and Lewis uses it. Science and religion both aim at conforming the mind to objective truth, objective reality (science conforms our mind to the nature of the universe, and religion conforms our mind to the mind of God and our will to the will of God). Magic and technology, on the other hand, try to conform objective reality to the human will. That is why they both arose at the same time—not the Middle Ages but the Renaissance, not the Age of God but the Age of Man. Both are Faustian, Promethean. The difference is, of course, that technology works while magic doesn’t (usually). But their end, their goal, the purpose behind them, the human values and desires and state of soul that set them in motion, are the same.

This week I wish to talk about technology, that is, applied science issuing forth into physical form. Lewis’s words are a good place to start, because right away they warn us away from a simplistic viewpoint that technology is always bad because it destroys things like craftsmanship, nature, and simplicity, as well as from an equally simplistic viewpoint that technology is always good because of all the cool stuff it gives us. To think Christianly about technology will be to think deeply.

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This video from the Bible project is a wonderful overview of the epistles of John.