Archive for Asmolean Museum

rationality and superstition

Posted in Books with tags , , , , , , , , on December 4, 2019 by xi'an

As I am about to read The Secret Commonwealth, the second volume in his Book of Dust trilogy, I found that Philip Pullman wrote a fairly interesting piece inspired from a visit to an 2018 exhibition at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, dedicated to magic and witchcraft. Which I enjoyed reading even though I do not agree with most points. Even though the human tendency to see causes in everything, hidden or even supernatural if need be, explains for superstition and beliefs in magics, the Enlightenment and rise of rationality saw the end of the witch-hunt craze of the 16th and early 17th Centuries (with close to 50,000 executions throughout Europe.

“…rationalism doesn’t make the magical universe go away (…) When it comes to belief in lucky charms, or rings engraved with the names of angels, or talismans with magic squares, it’s impossible to defend it and absurd to attack it on rational grounds because it’s not the kind of material on which reason operates. Reason is the wrong tool. Trying to understand superstition rationally is like trying to pick up something made of wood by using a magnet.”

“Whether witches were “filthy quislings” or harmless village healers, they and those who believed in witchcraft and magic existed in a shared mental framework of hidden influences and meanings, of significances and correspondences, whether angelic, diabolic, or natural (…)  a penumbra of associations, memories, echoes and correspondences that extend far into the unknown. In this way of seeing things, the world is full of tenuous filaments of meaning, and the very worst way of trying to see these shadowy existences is to shine a light on them.”

“I simply can’t agree with (Richard Dawkins’): “We don’t have to invent wildly implausible stories: we have the joy and excitement of real, scientific investigation and discovery to keep our imaginations in line.” (The Magic of Reality, 2011). If we have to keep our imaginations in line, it’s because we don’t trust them not to misbehave. What’s more, only scientific investigation can disclose what’s real. On the contrary, I’d rather say that there are times when we have to keep our reason in line. I daresay that the state of Negative Capability, where imagination rules, is in fact where a good deal of scientific discovery begins. “

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