Missing magic

The-Healer at Work

Image by ArcheiaMuriel via Flickr

Many people believe they can fix the human body using magic of some sort. Many also claim to magically fix emotional or psychological problems or to fix other animals or even plants.

Yet there are many things nobody seems to claim they have magic to fix. Why is there no magic economics or magic organisation theory? Why do faith healers not come forward to fix the recession, or to strengthen failing businesses? Why no magic international trade? Or magic phone repairs?

And why do so many more people look for healers to fix their bodies than to fix their operating systems?

You might say there is no uncertainty in how a computer works in which to imagine a ‘god of the gaps’. But most people don’t know much more about how their computer works than how their body does.

Another possibility is that since magic doesn’t actually do anything, it’s hard to get away with claiming to fix something less subjective than the wellbeing of a body or mind. But it’s not obviously easier to pin down the exact wellbeing of a business is than it is a body.

Perhaps humans are especially easy things to practice magic on because they get better from most things pretty reliably on their own, but without any exact time schedule. And what’s more they experience placebo effects and feel better just from getting attention. But then shouldn’t there be more office management magic for instance? People get better at what they are doing naturally, and the *hawthorne effect seems to make them get even better if you do something to them.

The pattern seems to be something like ‘living things vs. non-living things’. Some people claim to be able to heal dead people, but they are talking about the living part of them which is supposedly off somewhere else. However a company is a living thing. It’s not a single organism, but it is a group of them.

Why is most purported magical fixing directed at individual creatures, mostly human?

18 responses to “Missing magic

  1. There are lots of magical services on offer for business success, economic prospects, organizational success, etc. Offerings to the god of wealth, The Secret, the Christian prosperity gospel, etc.

    Magic phone repairs would obviously and immediately fail, so they are not offered, just as faith healers do not offer to restore the limbs of amputees.

    In advanced secular societies, there is also the fact that high-status and official organs disfavor magic, so organizations (which want their actions to be more defensible) which want to seem respectable are more reluctant. Also, to the extent that businesses are more affected by processes of natural selection that promote talented managers and accurate views to prominence than private affairs, they will be less gullible to magicians.

  2. Maybe it’s important to magic’s placebo effect that the audience feels like it taps into an ancient, wise practice. Magical corporate organization healing can’t plausibly be passed off as an ancient, forbidden art of some aboriginal people, and that puts it at a disadvantage. But since we’re overthinking this, let’s take the next step and figure out a plausible untapped niche for magic. So how about magic to defeat your enemies in war while you remain unharmed? Maybe you could tap into a vein of demand for this, but a structured military would probably stamp this out (although, who knows?).

    There is already magic available for creating, maintaining or repairing relationships, but maybe this is not exploited enough. Here, the placebo effect could also do some good. In Asian cultures, students often turn to magic when they need to pass an important exam. That’s an idea with potential elsewhere. I think the common thread is this: people turn to magic after they feel like they exhausted the saner methods, and they are desperate. Find situation types which are often associated with desperation and I bet you’ll find opportunities to sell people magical solutions.

  3. Great post. Allow me to take a counter point.

    There is quite a bit of “Magic” to gambling, is there not? Indeed, those who suffer computer illiteracy believe that some people have the mental magic to fix their machines (even if it is just hitting reboot). Same goes with the believe in “green thumbs” – some element here of magic in well understood systems.

    And what about the number of astrologist in the share market? Here we have a measurable system in which there are many agents who believe their magic will yield an above average return. Of course this would deny any belief in the efficient markets hypothesis.
    Point is that there is everyday magic. But it’s not as common.

  4. The Indian Vastu architecture precepts are, for instance, an unadulterated example of pure corporate magic.


    Corporate magic is maybe less popular because

    – a group is less easily persuaded than one person.
    – Corporations operate in an environment where there is greater pressure for prudence; individuals die less often than companies go bankrupt
    – A company has to be as anti-magic as its most rational and anti-magic customer, at least in the case that the company provides goods or services that are not connected to magic in any way. That’s because a magic user customer can still buy regular stuff from sane companies but a sane customer would be alarmed by a magic user company. Of course this effect is influenced by information bandwidth between company and customer.

  5. Brian Sniffen

    Crowley wrote extensively on magic organizational structures. Some of his disciples tried his plans with predictably dramatic results.

    And then there’s est, the landmark forum, and similar: management coaching and magic all rolled together.

  6. How is Keynesian economics not magic?

  7. “You might say there is no uncertainty in how a computer works in which to imagine a ‘god of the gaps’. But most people don’t know much more about how their computer works than how their body does.”

    It is known that it is known how a computer works. It is also known how precisely it is known how a computer works. It is not known that it is known how a body works, or, if it is, it is not known how precisely it is known how a body works.

  8. The computer industry resembles the magical cures industry in a number of important ways:


  9. There are a lot of correct answers to this, which I think is making people miss the forest for the trees. Even trying to be brief (really!) this comment is rather long, which is okay in some places but discouraged in others; feel free to delete it if it breaks policy here.

    Okay, background facts: Magic performed to heal humans has been around since the dawn of humanity. Some of it actually worked/works. The placebo effect is strong. Humans are much more sacred and mysterious than groups of humans. Ritual sacrifice to save cities/nations/humanity has fallen out of favor. Instead, the modern fad is directed meditation or much more commonly Christian prayer sessions of thousands of people or more, which don’t get aimed at economies but often do get aimed at nations or regions perceived as in need of help due to natural catastrophe or what have you. Mass prayers also get aimed in a less organized way at sports teams which are in many relevant ways the equivalent of modern armies. Dissolving the rest of the implicit question is a little tricky because prayer doesn’t seem to be the kind of magic that’s being asked about in the post. The post seems to be about the memetics of modern/Western healing magic, so I’ll mostly focus on that.

    So, just focusing on the cultural evolution aspects: The Pagans lost, the Christians won, the Enlightenment happened. Modern Christians entirely lack a caste of mundane miracle workers, which one could claim stems from a combination of trickle-down Enlightenment wisdom and Christianity’s predisposition to emphasizing a personal relationship with God, though maybe there’s a missing piece there. You still hear about Christian healers on the fringe, and maybe a New Age healer, but even if there were a few tech repair magicians they’d be so rare you wouldn’t hear about them, simply because healing magic is already incredibly marginal despite its long cultural history and evolutionarily guaranteed psychological appeal. Besides Christian prayer, magic in general has nearly disappeared, let alone obscure magic. Memetic inertia from the beggining of culture is the only reason ritualistic healing magic is still around outside of Christian prayer. Quiet Christian prayer and spiritualist meditation have subsumed group magic almost entirely. Technology like computers came way too long after the Enlightenment for magic to show up around it in any organized way. This low resolution view is basically the default state; it seems to me that we’d have to have strong positive reasons to expect something else.

    Economics: Even if I advertised myself as an all-around magical fixer I’d still end up healing the sick the vast majority of the time; maybe every time. There already exists a decent group of experts for tech repair and somewhat less so for organizational structuring (and with groups/organizations there is also regression to the background memetic mean, i.e. bland ‘separate magisteria’ Christianity which does not approve of non-prayer magic). Doctors on the other hand are seen as generally trustworthy but not sufficient in a crisis, which allows non-negligible demand for an alternative.

    Media bias: Not only is there basically no demand for generalist magical healers, nor psychological appeal in thinking of oneself as the kind of person who can magically fix radios (other delusions are not only more grandiose but more plausible), there’s also no demand for news about them. A mundane task done magically is still mundane; even assuming you somehow got a gig using magic on an almost-noteworthy non-profit or some such, calling on the forces of Nature to better organize a team building exercise sounds pretty lame, and possibly not even lame enough to mock. There are small amounts of magic that often go into group exercises, according to Hollywood, but they’re always a small addition to some larger group-bettering strategy and don’t really seem like the kind of thing this post is asking about. (Too much like standard prayer and not done by a specialized healer.)

    Psychology of potential generalist healers: As I mentioned above, not only is it harder to delude yourself into thinking your magic can accomplish anything in a simple system or anything easily testable, it’s a significantly less prestigious identity. Also the placebo effect actually works, which explains some of the continued existence of body and mind healers, but could not plausibly mislead otherwise sane/well-intentioned folk into thinking they could magically fix computers. Neurologically intact but non-well-intentioned folk, even if their status whoring is subconscious, would almost certainly claim to have cooler and more credible powers. The only people left are the insane ones who no one listens to, again seemingly falling outside the scope of this post.

    Psychology of typical people: People don’t understand computers or humans but they do know that one was built by God/Nature and the other was built by man. You just don’t call up a shaman to fix your artesian well. This is speculative but I would predict that people have rather different ontologies for these two magisteria considering there’s been a somewhat natural dividing line between the two since the dawn of humanity, and this dividing line would persist and be especially apparent since division of labor became commonplace. Medicine and eventually other technologies made the line less clear, but I would expect that the kind of person who is willing to buy (or propagate memes about) magical solutions even in cases where they’re not very desperate would be the kind of person who has a pattern matching system that sees immediate absurdity in the prospect of magic/God/Energy working on something so mundane and artificial as technology. If for some reason we wanted to delve deeper into the origins of the human-technology/nature-magic category system I’d think we’d have to enter into even more speculative evopsych waters and yammer on about near/far, agency detection algorithms, et cetera, which seems beyond the intended scope of this post. The relevant human psychology pertaining to group healing magic can be explained by all of the biases supporting regression to the background memetic mean when people form groups of size and influence large enough that we’d ever hear about them. People will pray for the healing or fortune of groups of people but all non-prayer group healing magic basically stays off the radar. It exists boringly in subcultures, but I don’t this post meant to include those either.

    Throughout this analysis I looked mostly at non-prayer magic. Perhaps we should be looking more closely at why Christian magic is so private and easily forgotten that it is almost missing.

  10. Humans like to ascribe personal significance to things that are easily understood and seem intuitively important – examples are health, animals, weather, interpersonal interactions and finances. We like to believe that there’s some way that personal desire can assert itself in the outside world beyond our own tissue but WITHOUT the mundane mediation of tools, critical thinking and hard work. Consequently you have things like magic symbols (visual, written and spoken) that express that desire and are supposed to have such an effect. The general prediction is that the less natural, or less post-paleolithic that something is, the less likely someone is to use “magic” to fix it. So, illness, repeatedly finding snakes in the bushes near your house, getting angry at people or wanting to defeat them in a conflict – all happened to hunter-gatherers just as much as they happen to us. Economics and operating systems, not so much.
    You could also argue that anything which requires focused, consciously logical and semantic, disciplined thinking, puts the spotlight on one’s own cognition too much for the thinker to allow voodoo to sneak in.

  11. Businesses in Hong Kong will absorb costs rather than go against the advice of a feng shui master. In general, though, it has to be a question of how easily the ‘magic’ is proven ineffective.

  12. Superstition certainly rules many of our approaches to complex systems. It doesn’t go under the “magic” brand name in various domains, for reasons other commenters have described, but wherever there aren’t sufficiently strong selective pressures against inaccurate models of reality, expect them to thrive.

  13. Consultants do do corporate “magic.”

    It’s harder to do “magic” on systems that have a defined and verifiable output. I.e., magic phone repair: Well, does the phone make calls? Magic auto repair: Does the car drive 100 miles without breaking?

  14. I agree with some others… are you sure there is no magic for business etc.? Reagan and other presidents supposedly consulted psychics regarding running the country. I imagine many consulted priests and it was not even noteworthy. If a superstitious CEO consulted a psychic / faith healer / etc to help run his company, would you even hear about it?

    • No, not sure. But I didn’t mean to talk about such a wide range of magic. People certainly seem to believe in the ability to magically forecast on pretty much any topic, and also to ask outside powers for help or good luck for just about anything. But people’s own purported magic powers to affect the world seem more limited.

  15. Isn’t magic in this context just a label for following a set of practices which one believes is successful without understanding the mechanics which makes it so? Once sufficient knowledge is acquired about the process, then either the magic is lost (ie the process is understood to not contribute any strong intended effect), or explains that the process has some efficacy. In either case, this is no longer magic.

    If you endeavor to pull into a field (org theory, economics, other hard or soft sciences) which intuition leads one to formulate a hypothesis, then this hypothesis is tested. The struggle is that one or a series of tests may not prove the hypothesis, but more is learned of the mechanics or atleast the correlations of the actions in complex processes. Magic has no place in this arena because by definition you are attempting to explain or understand the underlying processes, which leads to discounting or ultimately disproving magic.

    Why is this more common for individual humans versus collections or groups of humans? Collections or Groups tend to be more skeptical — think of this as the comparison between anecdotal evidence vs data, or individual experiments vs follow-up experiments. Also in matters of personal health, the placebo effect has been well studied, sometimes higher efficacy in “strongly believing” a positive result, versus a weaker efficacy due to weaker belief by understanding the causal relation between the action and effect.

  16. there are LOADS of people selling magic to fix your business problems. They are called management consultants. just like magic for individuals it often even works, and many many people believe in it.


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