Analysis by Keith Rankin.
The fundamentals of existence are difficult to explain, which is why we need to fall back on abstract ‘creators’; ie beings sufficiently abstract that they themselves do not need to be explained.
Here is my big three list of origin magics that underpin our existence.
One. The origin of the universe, otherwise known as the ‘big bang’. Cosmologists have enough evidence to suggest that, for whatever reason, at some singular point in our past, ‘nothing’ became ‘somethings’; some things that add to ‘zero’.
Here is a symbolic representation of the creation of the universe:
X is matter, -X is anti-matter. While the result is ‘zero’, it is by no means ‘nothing’. That’s fundamental magic; to convert ‘nothing’ to a ‘zero’ that is not nothing. Our conception of such magic is a triumph of the human imagination. (This simple magic of the mind is essentially ‘a priori‘ knowledge, inferred rather than observed. The maths, while uncomplicated, is profound.)
We don’t know what happened to the anti-matter; maybe there is a parallel anti-matter universe. Probably we can never know for sure. In an imaginative accounting sense, the anti-matter represents a kind of debt. A debt that we never want to repay!
We essentially invoke the same fundamental imagination to explain money:
M is a quantity of money, a set of credits. It exists in opposition to a set of debts (-M). (Anti-money?) These debts (liabilities) are societies’ obligations (promises) to exchange money for goods and/or services.
We may create additional money:
The ‘Δ’ is called ‘Delta’; while in mathematical symbolism Delta means ‘change’, we can think of it as meaning ‘new’. Thus, ΔM means new money and -ΔM means an additional societal liability to provide goods and services on request. This process of creating new money (and new liabilities) is an example of double-entry bookkeeping, the conceptual magic which underpins capitalism in all its forms.
In this case, we do not need an abstract creator; just super-accountants, or, more prosaically, ‘bankers’. The world’s money supply changes on a daily basis, through mundane bankers creating new ‘zeros’ on balance sheets; zeros that are not ‘nothing’.
Two. The origin of life. This origin magic supposedly links from the ‘primordial soup’ of at least one ‘goldilocks’ planet (Earth), and a propensity for systemic self-organisation enabled by an energy source such as the sun. (In an anti-universe, presumably life could arise from the energy of an anti-sun.)
Three. The origin of species. While Charles Darwin evoked the principle of natural selection – a mechanism of self-organisation – he did not actually explain the origin of new species. While science tells us much, we do not actually know how new multicellular species form. What we do know is that biology has a way of filling environmental spaces; and that, after catastrophic events, new spaces are created and new species form. Surprisingly quickly.
We know enough to know that the underlying principles evolution are important, and that there is much more to evolutionary change than the creation of distinctly new species. Indeed, the principles of evolution apply to institutions, cultures, knowledge, and technologies.
Microbes (cellular and sub-cellular species) evolve – into new varieties – at a comparatively rapid pace. Nobody ever seriously argued that microbes susceptible to antibiotics could never evolve to become antibiotic resistant. The problem is that too few people last century posed the necessary questions about bacterial evolution. This blindness was especially true of the all-important third-quarter of the 20th century; the quarter-century of scientific hubris.
Six Day-to-Day Magics (science we take for granted)
We experience magic in our everyday lives. We understand enough science – and have developed enough technology – to harness these various prevailing magics.
One, domain of biology. Microbes and their contributions to higher (multicellular) life, personal health and population health. Probiotics.
All higher organisms depend critically on squillions of biota which keep us alive and healthy; ie, which silently and thanklessly regulate and enable higher life. In particular, the immune system depends on their mutability. These benevolent microbes include viruses (eg phages) and bacteria; we should include microbial ‘carnivores’ such as certain protozoa and amoebae. Our daily survival depends on their magic. We seek to maintain or repair our immune systems through various probiotic infusions.
Magic, as we know, may be malign. Thus microbes (such as the SARS-COV2 virus which gives us Covid19) become the antagonists in epic epidemic stories. Infectious diseases would appear invisibly, as if by magic. For millennia they were attributed to ‘miasmas’ brought on by anything from celestial comets to terrestrial muck. We now know that certain viruses – and bacteria, protozoa, amoebae – can be malevolent towards multicellular organisms in a wide range of environmental contexts. Whether invisible bugs or miasmas, they affect us and infect us ‘as if’ they were magic.
To deal with these harmful microbes, we have developed ‘magic bullets’ such as vaccines, antibiotics and chemical disinfectants. These bullets – underpinned by science – have worked. But they have to evolve as the wider microbial world evolves; their magic powers cannot be taken for granted.
In 2020, with Covid19, humankind has been shocked at the insufficiency of antimicrobial magic. The wide-ranging lives we took for granted have been severely curtailed.
Two, domain of hydraulics. Clean and abundant water. Waste disposal.
We expect clean water to flow, anywhere, and in copious quantities. To us, and from us. Sanitary problems can be dealt with just by turning a tap, or pressing a button on a toilet cistern.
We can easily take our waterworks for granted. We allow the sale of ‘flushable’ wipes that are not really flushable. Nevertheless, we use hydraulic magic to flush them anyway, giving the illusion of disappearance. Fats, wipes and sewage do not go away of their own accord – of course – even if it seems that they do.
Three, combustion. Fire and its contribution to human mobility.
Fire was one of the four ‘elements’ of antiquity. It was the most magical form of day-to-day magic for early humans. Initially, fires were caused by natural electricity, lightning. Fire was the first form of magic to be harnessed, for warmth, for food preparation, for defence (and offence), and for agriculture.
Today it remains the form of magic most associated with industrialisation. The industrial revolution was principally the process through which humans learned to exploit the eons of accumulated natural capital which we call ‘fossil fuels’. In our day-to-day lives, the burning of fossil fuels (in particular, fuels derived from crude oil) gives us the daily magic of automobility, and the magic of aviation.
Today, fire, the burning of (in particular) coal remains our principal means to create electricity, another modern day-to-day form of magic.
Fire, like microbes, has its downside. The more obvious downsides are the dangers of wildfires, and the depletion of forests and firewood. Less obvious, but still obvious, by combining with non-renewable fossil fuels, fire has become an integral part of the economy of non-sustainable carbon emissions.
Four, domain of physics. Electricity and magnetism. Internet.
Electricity was the form of magic most directly connected to the gods of yore. There was nothing like a good thunderstorm to communicate the displeasure of (some of) the gods, whether that displeasure be aimed at us or at other gods.
Today we generate and harness electricity, always with the help of magnetism and most commonly through the harnessing of firepower or waterpower. Electricity has become our most important immediate source of power.
The most ubiquitous daily symbol of magic in our lives is the light-switch. Hey presto, at the flick of a switch, a dark room is illuminated. We know, of course, that the magic is backed by science and fallible technology. We have all, at times, flicked a switch to find that nothing happened. While we behave ‘as if’ the light switch is a magic button, we know that the real magic is the infrastructure of the generation, transmission and retailing of electricity.
While electrical force is a fundamental magic, physical science describes how it works through the discovery of ‘the laws of physics’. Thankfully for us, these laws work, infallibly. But the infrastructural technology is fallible. Just ask anyone who was in Auckland in 1998.
The electromagnetic spectrum is magic. It gives us light, and waves, and wireless; and much more (including malign influences, such as sunburn). Waves and Boolean mathematics gave us the digital revolution, starting with wires, the telegraph, and Morse code. The magic of wireless gave us radio and television; the entertainment, gossip and information revolutions. Combining the digital and entertainment revolutions, we have the Internet; Entertainment, Gossip and Information 2.0.
Five, domain of chemistry. Molecular and nuclear chemistry. Alchemy.
The magic of chemistry is that of the states of matter (solids, liquids, gases), the bonding of atomic elements (into molecules and lattices), and the reactions of these materials to make other materials. And of the splitting and fusing of atomic nuclei, radioactive processes that transform some elements into others (eg uranium to lead; hydrogen to helium).
A magic show in the school classroom is most likely to be conducted in the chemistry lab.
Chemical magic has its downside. It leads to the manufacture of explosive materials that underpin the modern weapons’ industry. Nuclear chemistry accentuated that, with the arrival of nuclear warfare in 1945.
The origins of modern chemistry – molecular and nuclear – lie in the pre-science of alchemy. Alchemy – like pre-scientific medicine, predicated on miasmas as the source of disease – had foundations in magic and imagination. Without these predecessors, scientific chemistry (and medicine) would not have been possible.
Alchemy, in the narrower sense of the word, was a specific project of proto-nuclear-chemistry. The aim was to transform elements; especially to synthesise gold. (The world’s most eminent alchemist was Sir Isaac Newton. Although Newton ‘squandered’ most of his academic career in failed attempts to make gold, the scientific co-products of these attempts represented essential steps towards our modern world of scientific magic.)
The alchemy project was inspired by the most difficult of all magics for people to visualise and comprehend. Money. Newton – among many other otherwise intelligent people – confused money for wealth. His most famous predecessor in this regard was King Midas. Midas, in reputation at least, was a too successful alchemist. He deployed magic to create magic. Everything he touched turned to gold. He should have been careful what he wished for.
Six, domain of economics. Market supply, and money.
As already mentioned at the beginning of this essay, the origins of money lie in the imagination, if not in magic.
Just as the magic of the light switch and the toilet flush button depend on artificial infrastructure, so does the magic of money. Money is not wealth, just as the light switch is not light. Yet money is the key to wealth, but only when activated through a process (called spending); just as the magic of the light switch only occurs when we activate the switch. There is never a 100% guarantee that activation will actually result in the magic we expect. If we undermine – or neglect – the supply systems that deliver actual scientific magic, then the chance of disappointment incrementally increases.
So, in economics, the real magic is the market, not the money. Money is a social technology – a technology of the imagination – that enables us to access the market at its most powerful. The market is an evolving human mechanism – a mechanism that can both progress and regress – that can be regarded as ‘social scientific’ magic. Thus, it is neither more nor less magical than electricity. Unlike electricity, however, it is subject to soft laws (human behavioural laws); not the hard laws of physics.
The most important principle of market maintenance through money is ‘use it or lose it’. Just as toilets that are rarely flushed – and switches that are never turned on – may lead to deterioration of the systems behind them, so accumulations of unspent money lead to regression of market supply chains. The apparent magic of money lies in its circulation, not in its accumulation.
(We note that, after the Covid19 lockdown, there were reports that many people could not start their cars; indeed, some needed to buy new batteries. A good down-to-earth example of ‘use it or lose it’!)
Many alchemists – and I would include Isaac Newton in this category – wanted to revere gold rather than to spend it. They wanted to possess gold (as a metaphor for money) more than they wanted to enjoy the things that the spending of money provided. (In the latter part of his life, Newton successfully made money as Master of the Royal Mint. Newton lost a personal fortune – gained from his later job, not his alchemy nor his science – in the South Sea Bubble of 1720. Yet still had enough left over to leave what was – in today’s terms – a multi-million dollar will.)
People who prefer ‘money’ over ‘what money buys’ are called misers, the root word for ‘miserable’. Misers prioritise having an underlit room with many light switches, over having good light to read by.
In these days of Covid, we are exhorted to both spend more – especially to stop local businesses from folding – and, by the financial literacy industry, to save more to provide for our combined individual futures. Contradictions abound. To be fair, todays politicians are mainly asking us to spend; albeit in a way that discriminates against foreign vendors. It is the missionaries of financial literacy who constantly exhort people to spend less (save more), without any understanding that widespread attempts to follow that advice could lead to the decimation of the market mechanism that enables our money to have value.
Magical Thinking: Tokens of Scientific Magic.
Day-to-day magic is science. Indeed, much science in our daily lives seems like magical magic. The danger is when we confuse the tokens of scientific magic – such as switches, buttons, money – with the real magic, with the magic that is underpinned by natural science and social science.
At the push of a button, some of us flush unflushable ‘flushable’ wipes and create fatbergs and the like in our sewers. We press electrical switches, taking for granted the infrastructure that enables the subsequent enlightenment to happen. And we too easily believed that the magic of vaccines and antibiotics had put an end to the threat of infectious diseases.
We see money as a form of magic that can be stored, can even reproduce itself at a few percent each year, and, at any time in the future, can be exchanged for the same amount of goods and services as in the present.
All of these perceptions we expect to hold in the future because in our experience they worked in the past. Confusing the visible tokens with the underlying systems is known by anthropologists as ‘cargo cult’ thinking.
Science is magic. But not all magic is science.
Magic can be constructive; empirical magic known as science, and conceptual magic which is imagination. Or magic can be fallacy. Isaac Newton was a master of all three forms of magic: science, imagination and fallacy. Mathematics is an important example of magic of the imagination. It is pre-scientific magic.
To ascribe magical qualities to money – or light switches – is to engage in the cargo cult fallacy. The symbols of real systems – such as money – become the systems themselves. Hoarding money comes to be seen as an assured means to economic security, when the real means to economic security is the maintenance of a healthy market economy.
It can be difficult to convey the message that the flushability of flushable wipes is a fallacy; we keep flushing them, despite being advised not to.
It is even more difficult to communicate the message that money is not wealth, and that the market system is maintained through the spending rather than the hoarding of money. Spending means ‘circulation’, and the market economy is a circular process. Hoarding of money – or gold, or anything else – is an unsustainable linear process. One important danger today comes from the missionaries of the financial literacy movement, who preach the magical fallacy that saved money, of itself, is future wealth.