Finding Magic in the World


Serious-minded people — rational adults — do not believe in magic… or so we are led to believe. To suggest that magic is in any sense real is often to disqualify one’s ideas from consideration. Even those who believe in burning bushes and talking snakes would likely be offended at the suggestion that what they believe in is magic. The phrase ‘magical thinking‘ is used for a variety of common logical fallacies and mistaken ways of thinking. The belief may be considered natural in children but almost pathological in adults. Belief in magic is amongst the ‘childish things‘ that we are supposed to shed. And, indeed, most do shed the belief but I suspect they do it because it is expected of them rather than through any carefully considered decision or gathering of evidence. As children the world is overflowing with magic but as adults we collectively pretend the world is more of a machine than an animal, more of an object than a subject, something to dominate rather than revere.

So am I suggesting that magic might be real? Well, I want you to keep reading and so, for moment, I’ll need to keep those cards close to the vest. But it wouldn’t be unreasonable to suspect that something may be up my sleeve.

Much like asking if God exists, the answer hinges almost entirely on the definitions being employed. He or she who defines the terms will surely win the debate. A world full of magic may look identical to a world completely void of magic if interlocutors are employing the term in radically different ways. Likewise, even the most zealous of atheists may happily concede that gods exist provided certain definitions. The assertion that ‘there is no god’ is often made within the context of traditional Western theism; stepping outside that context toward a radically different understanding of what is meant by ‘god’ makes for a significantly different conversation and different possibilities.

Returning to magic, consider the following dialogue from Richard Linklater’s recent film Boyhood:

Mason: Dad, there’s no, like, real magic in the world, right?
Father: What do you mean?
M: You know, like elves and stuff… people just made that stuff up.
F: Well, I don’t know, what makes you think that elves are any more magical than something like a whale, you know what I mean? What if I were to tell you a story about how underneath the ocean was this giant sea mammal that used sonar and sang songs… and it was so big that its heart was the size of a car and you could crawl through the arteries? I mean you’d think that was pretty magical, right?

The confusion is created by incorporating the idea of the supernatural into the very definition of magic. Many standard dictionary definitions will include the idea of the supernatural but this is not helpful; indeed, it’s a trap. It means that if something is part of the natural world that it is not, as a matter of definition, magical. We already know (or assume) that there is no magic in nature. So, for example, we know whales aren’t magical because we can go out and observe them or convert them into oil for lamps. Magic is supposed to be more elusive.

Anselm argued one need only to adequately understand the concept of God in order to know, with certainty, that He exists. For Anselm, God was ‘that than which nothing greater could be conceived’. To trace the consequences of this definition meant that God necessarily exists. If you are thinking of a being that is perfect in every way but lacks existence then you not thinking about God; you are not thinking about ‘that than which nothing greater could be conceived’. Anselm thought that to exist would certainly be greater than to not exist.

And yet Anselm’s Ontological Argument is not very convincing and is widely considered to be inadequate. The generally identified flaw was initially provided by Kant who pointed out that existence is not appropriately described as a characteristic or a perfection.

We ought not incorporate existence or (non-existence) into our definitions.

Returning to the natural world, Robin Wall Kimmerer in Braiding Sweetgrass writes:

‘The very facts of the world are a poem. Light is turned to sugar. Salamanders find their way to ancestral ponds following magnetic lines radiating from the earth. The saliva of grazing buffalo causes the grass to grow taller. Tobacco seeds germinate when they smell smoke. Microbes in industrial waste can destroy mercury. Aren’t these stories we should all know?’ (Kimmerer 345)

While not explicitly about magic, Kimmerer breaks down the wall that many of us have erected in our minds that divides poems from facts. The former are often treated as fluffy and frivolous while the latter are regarded as solid, dependable, and gathered through the hard work of trained professionals. We entertain ourselves with poems and build spaceships with facts. But the divide is artificial and the characterisations of what can be found on each side nothing but stereotypes and superstitions serving to convince us that the divide makes sense, that it needs to be there, that something must be one or the other and not both.

So who is really guilty of the sleight-of-hand when answering this question about magic? No one and everyone.

Whether there is magic in the world is, on a certain level, purely a matter of definition. For most of my life I have defined magic out of existence. It is only in recent years that I have been finding it everywhere as a ubiquitous part of everyday life: as mundane and as exciting as the air.

Ian Erik Smith lives in Eugene, Oregon. His academic background is in philosophy and his writing has appeared in Fifth Estate, Philosophy Now, the Journal of Critical Animal Studies, and the recently released volume Animals and War: Confronting the Military-Animal Industrial Complex. He blogs at

Image © Karen Snyder

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11 thoughts on “Finding Magic in the World

  1. Thank you for sharing this beautiful, and dare I say, magical reflection, Ian. Within the past few years I too have rediscovered a sense of the magic that envelops us. I can think of few things more magical than the giant Amazon water lily, which Orion magazine recently featured. And even “mundane” events as you point out are startlingly magical. The acrobats of common ground squirrels and invisible chemistry of photosynthesis consistently hold me in a state of “child-like” wonder.

    • Magic is real and cryptically kept in nature’s systems of lock(s) and key(s)

      The eternal life of light and energy of this behold from bark matter….

      This is a specialist spiritual realm bestowed to the intended recipient of course. ..

      One to pose or ponder the ideals of “one who gave into the looking Glass”…

      The idea of life and conscious belief attached to the meek via understanding of wisdoms approach to knowledge that unlocks the eternal circle of life as a result rather than a destiny. .
      The ark of nature to endure it’s children at war with peace and tranquillity in your account of journey versus offering!

      Intention plays the biggest part in managing your soul and nature’s grasp like the hand of mortal gods. Versus the immortal belief in simply what exists beyond the now available because of the gift of life and it’s perils or pearls?

      To be ..? Or not to be?

      If your own thought makes me intent on destruction of self catering to the Crown of eternal belief in the though of life forces beyond current comprehensive foundation or faculties.

      Present magic to the craft of holder and it’s weight over throws the need of knowing all mystery.

      On Earth humans are not ready yet to encounter nature’s magic because the square plot is still being processed over the circulation or circle of life and nature’s logic.

      It will take place in time.
      Magic and it’s kingdom.
      This act of faith in goodness and healing is for those who possess the birth right as a gift to this world to counter the opposition of war !

  2. Hi

    I found your article interesting. I have always wanted to do a study into real magic. Ultimately it often comes down to the question of what is magic. If never seen before most things would be considered magic as they are not understood.

    I think real magic must ultimately be definable as miracles that are unnatural. As those things that are natural can be explained by someone knowledgeable in that area. I find that only the truly unexplainable can be classes as true magic.

    I am on the search for these truly unexplainable events in history or the present if anyone could help?

  3. Much knowledge has been lost to time. During the dark ages, studying science was forbidden and books were burned to destroy that knowledge. Today we continue to learn more about the universe, and nothing is more magical than creation.

  4. I believe in the wonderful things that happen to this natural world we live in is magic. People may think otherwise, because they believe that we have searched the whole world for anything of the sort. But really we haven’t looked deeper into these amazing results of this planet we live on. There could be more, there could be the dreams coming true of when you were little, there could always be a way of finding a reality, but who knows, if you really believe it could be possible there is always a way of living that dream. :) ( I am 13)

  5. Hey Ian,
    That was a beautiful explanation and I loved the way you tried justifying the existence of magic. I have always believed in magic and see wisps of it in everything, or simply quoting you, “…a ubiquitous part of everyday life: as mundane and as exciting as the air”. Thank you once again :)

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