Is There Magic?

Philosophy might be a question asked too early in the life of a science. But some questions, even though they are yet to be settled by science, have become too simple. And an odd quality of the Western intellectual world is that its giants take such dim questions seriously. It is as though the social equality there makes it hard for them to be dismissive of majority opinions that are usually too naive for our times. For instance, almost every Western intellectual superstar finds the need to denounce God. But how sophisticated can any argument against God be? Stripped of all ornaments of articulation, such debates cannot be qualitatively any different from what we used to have in high school. But there is a related question that Western intellectuals are obsessed with, which is more entertaining: Is life mystical? Are some things, plainly, spooky? Is there magic?

People who are called philosophers are usually not that at all, especially in the philosophy department of a college. Most of them are in reality fans of philosophy, or actors who simulate thinkers. But I have for several years grown to accept what Daniel Dennett suspected about himself—that he was a philosopher, even though he did have that somewhat spurious label, ‘cognitive scientist.’ Dennett died a few days ago of what Indians would call old age. But he was only 82.

He said there is no magic, and even as he persuaded us to let go of our last hope of a mystical world, he somehow made it seem that the alternative was more entertaining. He said the mind can be physically explained as we begin to understand more and more about our physical state. If there is a human soul, it would not faze him. To him, the soul was probably more of a semantic problem. Whatever it might be, it’s made up of millions of tiny robots called cells, and smaller robots inside these cells, robots inside robots inside robots, all of them together creating the idea of the self, of consciousness, of a life that regards itself as life. No magic is required. He found this more beautiful than a mystical world where the Universe has a point to its existence.

We should not have happened. Human life was a freak accident. “Evolution is a process that depends on amplifying things that almost never happen,” he wrote in one of his many books, From Bacteria to Bach and Back. A mutation in DNA almost never happens. “Not once in a billion copyings—but evolution depends on it.”

The fact that we happened is astonishing. But having happened, it is not so astonishing that we think we did not happen by chance. We look at our rare occurrence and marvel at how many things had to go right, against steep odds, and wonder if there is someone out there who is responsible, or “some force” as some people say to sound scientific.

Dennett points out that many complex things in nature are so exquisite that they appear to have purpose but are a series of logical accidents. For instance, the intricate and exquisite colonies of termites. These insects don’t know what they are doing. They build their cathedrals robotically because they are programmed to do that. There is something individually ‘mindless’ about the hive-mind. The termite colony is an architectural phenomenon that has ensured the survival of a species, yet it has no purposeful design. 

The human brain is more like a termite colony than a magnificent church. Our brain is the evolution and synchronization of millions of mindless robots called neurons, the cells that form our nervous system. Dennett writes that neurons were once organisms with their own plans, but now they constitute the brain. Modern neurons “are in effect the domesticated descendants of very ancient eukaryotes… Composed of billions of idiosyncratic neurons that evolved to fend for themselves, the brain’s functional architecture is more like a free market than a ‘politburo’ hierarchy where all tasks are assigned from on high.”

The fact that millions of tiny robots can create not just the brain, but also the idea of the self, made him worry about artificial intelligence. He could never underestimate what a cluster of lifeless things can eventually become. Even there, even in the possibility of AI simulating human life, there is no magic. It can be perfectly explained.

For someone who denounced magic, Dennett also said there was no free will. At first brush, that sounds like an acknowledgement of magic. One day, you step out of the house for a walk and instead of taking a left turn, you turn right. Was it inevitable? But why should the universe make that decision; doesn’t it have grander things to do? We can see all of universe as deterministic; filled with dominos whose fates are preordained by an event from the beginning of time. But doesn’t life break that? Isn’t life chaotic enough for random actions to determine outcomes?

Dennett was probably not so interested in microcosmic free will—what made you turn right. He couldn’t have known, anyway. His idea of free will concerned the larger arcs of life. When we make a choice, he said, we appear to use information to make a rational decision, or a rebellious one. But that is not what led to our choice. Our mind is a cauldron of emotions and biases; it already knows what it is going to do, but is not aware of it. Many human decisions, he argued, were pre-ordained, a continuation of long chains of events. Choices are made for us by forces that are too strong for us to control.

So, maybe yes, there was a powerful reason why you turned right. It was inevitable that you would turn right. But even in that, there is probably no magic.

(Stay and read other pieces.)

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