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No. 21: May-Jun 1982

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Oh magic, thy name is psi

Winkelman has written a remarkable article. Even more remarkable is the fact that it has been published in a mainstream scientific journal. In fact, this contribution is full of statements guaranteed to ruffle the feathers of any rationalistic scientist -- and 99.9% of all scientists are rationalistic. Take, for example, the first sentence of Winkelman's summary:

"The correspondences between parapsychological research findings and anthropological reports of magical phenomena reviewed here suggest that magic is associated with an order of the universe which, although investigated empirically within parapsychology, is outside of the understanding of the Western scientific framework."

As a consequence of this inflammatory tone of the article, the comments that follow are rather emotional in many instances. A philosopher could write another paper on the character and prejudices of the "scientific belief system" based on these comments alone!

Enough of the controversial nature of Winkelman's article; what does it say? Basically, it states that many magic systems; such as sorcery, witchcraft, divination, and faith healing; may have originated and still be sustained by the psi abilities of the practitioners of magic. Psi here includes telepathy, precognition, psychokinesis, etc. The body of the paper reviews the characteristics of magic and the areas "correspondence" with parapsychology. Examples of areas of correspondence: altered states of consciousness, visualization, positive expectation, and belief. Indeed, the correspondences are strong; and this fact leads to the sentence from the summary quoted above.

(Winkelman, Michael; "Magic A Theoretical Reassessment," Current Anthropology, 23:37, 1982.)

Comment. A conventional rationalistic scientist would, or should, react to Winkelman's paper by saying that: Magic is not based on psi, rather psi is magic and has no scientific basis. Winkelman, on the other hand, tacitly assumes the reality of telepathy, precognition, etc. The real issue, of course, is whether there really is an "order of the universe" beyond the ken of present-day science. The history of science shows that science has eventually accepted one impossible idea after another; viz., meteorites and hypnosis. Psi may not make the grade. Even if psi is real, it cannot become part of the scientific belief system until dogmas about the nature of life and man change.

From Science Frontiers #21, MAY-JUN 1982. � 1982-2000 William R. Corliss