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While lecturing at Stonehill I made a comment about some traditional practice, I don’t remember which, that it was “less mystical and more magical.” Or maybe it was the reverse. What I remember clearly is that, as I was about to move on, one brave and perceptive student raised her hand to ask “Could you maybe explain the difference between magical and mystical?”

I paused for a moment, a little stunned by the reminder that I hadn’t explained that distinction. I was very grateful for the question: of course I should have explained the distinction, how could I have expected them to know it? The question reminded me that the distinction between magic and mysticism is something I tend to take for granted – even though it is not at all obvious to a layperson. It’s also quite important – for the key reason that the claims of mysticism are more likely to be true than those of magic. Or at the least, they are less unscientific – likely to conflict with the evidence of natural science. So it’s a key distinction I keep in mind when I read works like Jeffrey Kripal’s The Flip, which argue for viewing the world in ways that go beyond the natural-sceintific.

I believe it was James Frazer who first used “magic” as a category to explain social practices. Magic and technology are very similar: they are both attempts at efficacious action, attempts to make the world behave as you want it to, attempts at causing effects. The difference is: can one reliably and predictably observe that the action actually causes the effect, regularly and successfully, in the way that it is claimed to? If one can, then it is technology – applied science. If one cannot, then it’s magic. Now one can’t always tell what falls into which category – the jury may still be out on acupuncture, for example – but it’s no knock on the categories to say we don’t always know what falls where. (If you’re in a sealed room with no internet, you don’t know whether it’s sunny or raining outside, but that doesn’t mean the categories of “sunny or raining outside” are meaningless.)

The science-fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke famously said that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. Clarke’s sense of “magic” in the quote is different: that is, he means that its workings will be so complex as to be utterly mysterious. But when speaking of magic as something that human beings actually practise, in Frazer’s anthropological sense, one could turn the quote around and say any sufficiently advanced magic is indistinguishable from technology, in that it would work with a relatively high degree of reliability as technology does.

Mysticism, however, is different from both magic and technology. It’s not supposed to be efficacious; it’s not there to accomplish something, beyond perhaps a transformation within the mystic herself. I most commonly use “mysticism” or “mystical” to speak of mystical experience – experiences that one can induce through drugs or meditation or other means, but which can also come unbidden, like Moses seeing the burning bush or Teresa pierced by the angel. The mystic enters a different state of consciousness – in which one is typically less capable of efficacious action, of affecting the world, because one’s mind is in some respect in a different world. But that’s okay, because unlike with magic, one is not trying to affect the world. In the Sanskrit-derived Sinhalese terms, magic is laukika, mysticism is lōkōttara. There are other senses of “mysticism” which are less focused on experience – like the idea that the divine is unexplainable – but these similarly direct our attention away from efficacious this-worldly action.

The claims of magic, it seems to me, are mostly false: once there is reliable evidence for a magical claim’s truth, it ceases to be magic and starts to become technology. The “mostly” is important, though. There are some magical claims that might turn out to be true on further research, though usually not for the reasons claimed for them. But we also need to pay attention to the very real sorts of effects that we call psychosomatic or placebo effect. Often enough, people who believe strongly enough in faith-healing actually are healed in response to it. We dismiss such effects on the grounds that “it only worked because you believed in it”, and that claim is correct, but it doesn’t change the fact that it worked! Science needs to pay careful attention to what is caused by placebo effect and what isn’t – thus medical science’s emphasis on double-blind trials – because belief is tricky, and things that work irrespective of belief are more effective. The effects of belief are real: drinkers of the same water had different neurological effects depending on whether they were told it was regular water or holy water from Lourdes! There is still reason to say magic’s claims are mostly false, though, in that these effects do not work for the reasons they are claimed to work; it is clearly not any intrinsic holiness of Lourdes water that causes the healing.

Mysticism, I think, has a stronger claim to truth, because its claims, unlike the claims of magic, are not about cause and effect in the empirical world. For that reason it is harder to verify or falsify them. (Logical positivists like A.J. Ayer claimed that such empirically untestable claims are either meaningless or trivial tautologies, but that claim of Ayer’s is itself empirically untestable, and therefore we overall have more reason to listen even to magical claims than to a claim as obviously self-falsifying as Ayer’s.) There are some cases where mystical experience is potentially replicable – psilocybin, meditation, Sufi chanting – which is where Ken Wilber gets his claim that the truths of the contemplative traditions are “open to all who wish to try the experiment…” But many such experiences simply come, unbidden, unreplicable.

However they come, many mysical experiences are accompanied by a sense of certainty. One of the notable results of Griffiths’s psilocybin studies is that the studies’ subjects had a strong conviction that what they perceived was real. Their certainty doesn’t oblige us to believe them, by any means, but neither is it something we should dismiss. For a large number of the claims they are making are not unscientific; they are not about the sorts of things that can be tested by scientific experiment, because they are not about cause and effect in the physical world.

The content of those experiences is many and varied – yet it is a regular pattern, across many and varied cultures, for it to come out as some form of nondualism. That doesn’t amount to a knockdown argument that nondualism is true. But it is reason to take nondualism seriously – especially when accompanied by the logical arguments for it. And this is a significant difference from magic. We have good reason to believe that magical cause and effect works because of the placebo effect and related psychosomatic causes, and this is generally a sufficient enough explanation for its working that we do not need to take most of magic’s claims seriously. I do not think we have any such explanation sufficient to rule out the claims of mysticism.