Originally published by Robert Beisert at fortcollinsprogram.robert-beisert.com

Magic, Infinity, and the Brain’s Simplifying Mechanism

On Monday, I looked at the concept of Infinity and noted some of the very real problems we have with the concept. But, if infinity is an irrational concept (a fact Aristotle pointed out thousands of years ago), why do we still employ it so frequently?

Magic

I think the problem of infinity can be expressed effectively by “magic.” I hold that the word is an acronym:

Mystical

Attempt to

Give

Ignorance

Credibility

When we talk about “magic,” we are throwing in the towel about understanding the phenomenon. A magician made the Eiffel Tower disappear by “magic,” because we don’t understand what our senses told us, and we give up on understanding. A series of improbable events was “magic,” because we don’t know how they all could align to produce the result, and we give up on understanding. Shaolin monks can withstand stresses that would kill most people by “magic,” because we don’t understand how their physiology can be so different from our own, and we give up on understanding.

When the mind finds a hole in reasonable patterns, there are only ever two options: determine what that hole is, or ascribe it to a supernatural phenomenon. Because people are inherently lazy and aware of their finite perspectives and lifetimes, it’s usually the latter solution.

Luck, Chance, and Infinity

Self-proclaimed “skeptics” scoff at the idea of magic, but they are no different from everyone else on the planet: they have holes in their patterns that must be filled.

Take, for instance, the biggest problem of evolutionary theory: how did life first arise? We know that there are any number of conditions required to create an environment in which life (as we understand it) can exist. Furthermore, we know of no scientific process by which life can arise out of non-life – attempts at abiogenesis (creating living tissue from non-living chemical components) have universally failed. Faced with the problem that life DOES exist, the skeptic usually calls on “chance” to resolve it. They assume there is an undiscovered mechanism that allows non-living components to become living, posit that it has a very small (but non-zero) chance of occurring, and say that it “just happened.” Fundamentally, their understanding of the origin of life relies on magic every bit as much as the creationist understanding.

This is also the reason physicists propose multiverse theory. Based on the estimated energy and mass observed in the universe, the probabilities of the earth and life arising as they did, and the vast complexity of DNA, they realized that even with constant interactions of matter over the proposed billions of years there is still almost zero probability of things occurring as they did. They propose an infinite array of possible universes so that the amount of possible interactions can be virtually guaranteed (as any non-zero probability multiplied by a large enough constant can be guaranteed to occur once). The theory arises from the holes in their patterns, not from observable phenomena, in much the same way the “God of the Gaps” arises from holes in religious interpretations of the same phenomena. In short, it’s “magic.”

Finally, on a more human note, things happen in our lives that we cannot predict. Out of all the cars in all the lots in all the world, yours was broken into – “bad luck.” Out of all the people in all the world, you accidentally make friends with a man who manages to drag you to fame and fortune – “good luck.” In all such cases, “luck” is a word we use to fill in the gap between our patterned expectations of events and the reality of those events, much the way “divine intervention” fills the same gap for religious people.

Why?

I have yet to find a single person who does not rely on some form of “magic” to paper over their ignorance.

Most programmers lean on “magic” libraries because they accomplish things the programmer does not know how to do. If they understood how it worked, they could recreate the “magic” in a more specific state for their purposes. Logically, they should know that it can be done (because the existence of the “magic” library proves that it can be done), but their ignorance precludes their ability to do it. Whether through willful or unconscious ignorance, they leave holes in their patterns.

As noted in this and the previous post, mathematicians and scientists lean on “magic” concepts to paper over the holes in their theories. Sometimes the magic comes from ignoring problems (as with the “infinity” problem), and sometimes it comes from leaning on conclusions derived from research they don’t understand or have never seen. Sometimes, the model they have constructed or received for reality may not mesh with reality itself, and so magic is required; the geocentric theory of the universe worked perfectly so long as a nebulous “magic” constant was applied to calculations.

And, most notably, all religions consciously lean on “magic” for their understanding of the universe. When they observe the problems of probabilities, the impossibility of infinite logical regress for the existence of all things, or issues of the “soul”, they explicitly call on the supernatural and divine to fill the gap. Sometimes the gaps shrink or disappear as further knowledge is acquired (as the Church had to abandon the concept that God is the source of the geocentric constant when the heliocentric theory replaced it), but they actively embrace the certainty that their patterns of thought have such holes, and strive to define their “magic” as consistently as possible. I find that an important, oft-overlooked value to the religious worldviews.

As to why we rely on magic, whatever we choose to call it, it’s very simple. The brain is a limited thing which is designed to produce patterns out of observations. We naturally seek out the “why” of things more than the “what,” and in the process we run into issues we do not know how to resolve. When these issues come up, we are faced with the question of discarding the whole pattern until it can be fully constructed, or embracing the pattern with the holes intact. Ultimately, we tend to retain patterns we have decided are “good enough” (based on patterns we already have stored), and discard patterns we deem insufficient (based on those same stored patterns). From different perspectives, it can be seen as both the source of confirmation bias and its effect.

Summation

This post is not a condemnation of the skeptic for being unable to fill in all the holes, because that’s impossible for any individual. However, it is highly disingenuous to assert that you do not lean on “magic” at times to resolve the issue. We are creatures of finite life and finite mental storage, and our minds are particularly designed to produce patterns. Ideally, those patterns are tight and consistent with reality, requiring no “magic” to fill in any holes, but that is far more rare than we care to admit. When we are forced to admit what we do not know, we open the possibility for further knowledge and the development of improved patterns.

And, I believe, we tend to become much happier people when we embrace the truth.