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Is there a good definition of magic which does not rule out the existence of

Is there a good definition of magic which does not rule out the existence of magic, but also does not imply that actually magic exists? Magic cannot be "the ability to do impossible things", since this is a contradiction. I wonder if we could define magic as "the ability to violate the laws of physics". The problem is that if we discovered, for instance, that uttering "abracadabra" was a good way to make rabbits appear inside hats, he would have found a new law of physics, wouldn't we? And is it possible to argue that there is no magic without implying that most religions are false? My feeling is that the concept of magic has a reasonable sense only if we accept some religion: magic would be something like the wrong use of entities posited by such religion.

It's an interesting question, and I think it's best considered the context of times and settings in which the idea of magic was taken seriously. I also doubt that there's a lot to be gained by looking for a full-blown definition, but we can learn something by looking at broad commonalities.

First on the bit about magic words and rabbits. If it turned out that saying the right words in the right way could make rabbits appear in hats, then we would have discovered a new regularity in the world, though whether we had discovered a new law of physics is a lot more doubtful. After all, the regularities of the special sciences aren't usually classed as laws of physics, even though physics has to be consistent with them.* We might want to say that this regularity is "natural" because all the events take place in nature (saying the words, the rabbit appearing...) but it wouldn't follow that it wasn't magical. Older notions of magic explicitly included a concept of natural magic.

What counted as "natural magic?" There's no tidy answer, but part of the background was the idea of an "occult quality." "Occult" here means "hidden." The behavior of lodestones (magnets) would have counted as a case of natural magic on some views. From the point of view of Renaissance thinkers, the operation of the lodestone depended on hidden properties. It also acted over distances, which tended to be characteristic of things that were labeled magical.

Neoplatonic thought had room for a concept of magic. The reason was that everything was in contact with everything else by virtue of everything being contained within/infused with the World Soul.

Was this a religious idea? There's no easy answer. It wasn't associated with any particular religion, but it clearly had a strong kinship with ideas that we think of as religious.

Some particularly important magical ideas were bound up with astrological beliefs. Belief in "astral influences" was very common in the ancient world and in the Renaissance. Some of these influences were considered benign. The Renaissance neo-Platonist Marsilio Ficino wrote quite charmingly about the things one needed to do to capture these beneficial astral influences—particularly the solar influences. But there was nothing especially "religious" about these beliefs. They were part of a broadly accepted view of how nature worked.

Some astral magic was more problematic. It called for commanding not-merely-human beings to do one's bidding. This was "demonic" magic. Were the demons supernatural? There's no good, simple answer. They were one of the kinds of things taken to populate the world, but their realm was the super-lunar—beyond the moon. The Church certainly objected to demonic magic, but one could believe in the existence of the beings themselves whether or not one was a Christian.

A good deal of what we might call folk magic didn't have much in the way of theory about it at all. My mother told a story of having had a wart removed from her hand by having it "charmed." In one version of the wart charm, the charmer would "buy" the wart for a penny. Many people believed that this worked without any particular view about how it worked. But they would likely have been willing to call it magic.

All this is just the tip of a large and very fascinating iceberg. But the most important lesson to draw is that there neither is nor ever was a single, unified conception of "magic." Magic is an excellent example of a "family resemblance" notion. Furthermore, many magical ideas existed against a background of broader views about the cosmos that have either faded entirely or exist only in attenuate from among contemporary, educated people. But even here we need to be careful. There are thoughtful, intelligent twenty-first century people who would tell you that they believe that there's such a thing as magic. Such people tend to believe more broadly that the mind can influence matter in ways that you and I might reject. However, many of these people wouldn't see any necessary conflict between their own views and science. Their particular views about science might be mistaken (for example, might include misunderstandings of quantum theory) but it wouldn't be because what they believe is somehow essentially incompatible with science.

Occasionally I'll hear philosophers trying to make claims about the concept of magic. My experience tends to be that what they say is crude, ahistorical and far too simple. If you want to get an idea of what it would be like to be a contemporary believer in magic, I'd highly recommend Tanya Luhrmann's book Persuasions of the Witch's Craft. It's a rich ethnographic study by a philosophically-informed anthropologist. And if you'd like a better understanding of magical ideas in the Renaissance, you might want to have a look at Frances Yates' The Occult Philosophy in the Elizabethan Age, among other of her works. Yates' scholarship certainly has its critics, but it's hard to read her work without getting a glimpse of a much richer idea about what "magic" might once have meant.

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*Notice, by the way: I didn't say that the upper-level laws need to be consistent with physics. If we discovered a new psychological regularity that didn't fit with what physics tells us, then if the regularity really was stable and robust, it would represent a problem for physics, not for psychology. The regularities are what they are.)

Greetings. My four-year-old daughter asked why she could not "see" god. My

Greetings. My four-year-old daughter asked why she could not "see" god. My response at the time was something like the following. God is one without a second and undifferentiated. For one to "see" something it is necessary to distinguish that object from others. God has no other from which it can be distinguished as separate and distinct. Abstract, yes, but at least I avoided using terms like "transcendant", etc. I wanted to give her a thoughtful answer even if hard to grasp. How did I do?

I confess I have trouble grasping the answer you gave. You wrote, "God has no other from which it can be distinguished as separate and distinct," which seems to imply that God isn't distinguishable from you or from anything else there is. Did you mean to give your daughter the impression that you and your left shoe are both indistinguishable from God? I presume not. Now, on some views God just is the whole of reality, but even on those views it seems that God would be distinct from any proper part of reality such as you or your left shoe.

Why not say, instead, that according to various religious traditions God is a non-physical, spiritual being and therefore not the kind of being that we can expect to see or otherwise perceive with our physical senses?

There is this theistic meta-ethical view according to which there can be evils

There is this theistic meta-ethical view according to which there can be evils in the world only if there is an orthodoxly conceived monotheistic god that is the ‘ground’ for the distinction between good and evil. On this theistic meta-ethical view, doesn't it seem that there is something incoherent in the attempt to argue from the relevant premises in arguments from evil to the conclusion that there is no orthodoxly conceived monotheistic god? Asserting "evil exists" seems to prove the existence of god and make the problem of evil self-refuting.

If the distinction between good and evil depended on God's existence, then -- yes -- there would be something wrong with arguing from the existence of evil to the non-existence of God. For if (a) the existence of evil logically implies the existence of God, then (b) the existence of evil logically implies the non-existence of God only if the existence of evil is impossible.

But let me emphasize that the metaethical view you referred to is itself highly questionable, if not just incoherent. For arguments to that effect, see Wes Morriston, "God and the Ontological Foundation of Morality"; Erik J. Wielenberg, "In Defense of Non-Natural, Non-Theistic Moral Realism"; and Russ Shafer-Landau, Whatever Happened to Good and Evil?.

Why do some atheists so insistent, especially the militant ones, on promoting

Why do some atheists so insistent, especially the militant ones, on promoting their own atheism when it's clear that no one can conclusively prove that God does not exist? As a former atheist, I now found that God gives my life meaning, makes me happy to go through life, makes me resilient when bad things happen and allows me to forgive more and be freed from anger and resentment. I know a lot of people who found God in just the same way. Why then should militant atheists bother about our religious beliefs when God is a living person who gives our lives meaning, and when they cannot after all ultimately prove that our beliefs are just illusions? P.S. I'd like to thank Charles Taliafero for his contributions here and to philosophy of religion in general. I can't forget your answer to a question posed by a depressed atheist here (April 14, 2011) in which you said "in all honesty, i would like to welcome you back." I can really feel your words personally resonating with me, now that I once again become a...

Let me be the curmudgeon without, I hope, being too curmudgeonly.

I'm glad you've found happiness and meaning. And I'm not going to say that your changed state isn't due to God. But it's at least possible that the change is due to belief in God, and not God himself. As a sort of evidence for this, people with differing and mutually incompatible religious beliefs have been known to find happiness and meaning in those beliefs, even though as a matter of logic, some of those beliefs are wrong. (If you believe X and are happy on that account, I believe Y and am happy on that account, and X and Y aren't consistent with one another, at least one of us is wrong about his actual belief.)

Indeed: atheists can't prove conclusively that God doesn't exist. But that's perfectly consistent with atheism being all things considered the most plausible view—the one with the best arguments, evidence, etc.

That said, I have a lot of sympathy for what you're saying. I don't "get" militant atheists. Overall, I'm not inclined to theism. Overall, it doesn't seem to me plausible enough to command my belief. But I don't think that makes theists idiots, fools or dupes. And I don't feel any need to talk theists out of their beliefs (except when some of those beliefs lead to needless harm and suffering.)

This goes with a larger commitment I try to put into practice. When it comes to matters that are mostly beyond our ken, I try to hold my beliefs lightly. Even though I have various such beliefs, I try to keep myself from being bothered if others disagree and I try not to worry about how I can talk others into thinking the way I do. Maybe that's a place where theists and non-theists might be able to find some common ground.

I believe that God is the greatest conceivable being, and I also came to believe

I believe that God is the greatest conceivable being, and I also came to believe again, having been a former agnostic, that He really exists. My question is regarding the responses of some atheists to some traditional arguments for God's existence, most especially to the design argument, that for these designs in nature, we should not remove the possibility of a finite god, an evil god, or many gods who designed our universe. I think all those opinions are false because being the greatest conceivable being God cannot be finite or evil and there cannot be two greatest conceivable beings. But I just wonder why should God be the greatest conceivable being. Is it not possible for there to be a God or gods who are finite and/or evil and leave it at that?

Stephen is right. We should distinguish the Design Argument from the Ontological Argument. Your question concerns neither. Your question is about the Problem of Evil, so called. How can a being who is all-good, all-powerful and all-knowing allow evil to exist? The simplest way to solve this problem is to deny one of these three propositions, and it is perfectly acceptable to deny the second: God's power is limited. This approach is taken by process theologians, who say that God is developing. For the typical process theologian, as for the Mormon, God cannot break the laws of nature, for example. The trouble with this solution is not that it does not work for the theist. The problem is that it does not work for the traditional Christian theist, and as far as I know also for the Jewish and Muslim theist. A god with limited powers is simply not recognizable as the Creator of the Universe, the Father Almighty, and so on. So the solution is logically acceptable, but theologically unacceptable.

In the context of "The Problem of Evil" can you help point me to the literature

In the context of "The Problem of Evil" can you help point me to the literature on this sub-category? Lacking this I have dubbed this sub-problem the "God for a day paradox": “If I had only some of the powers of God, I would cure cancer” Am I therefore more merciful than God? Supposedly the most merciful possible Being… Therefore is God’s omni-benevolence (not even that much is needed) itself a contradiction? How can a lesser being even think of a more merciful action (take curing cancer down to a single child; even to just answering a prayer for such a child) than God Himself? It is almost certainly possible to write a computer simulation that would, discover the “cancer mercy” action / rule on its own given an appropriate set of rules guiding “advance being behavior” This outcome would probably be another notch in favor of the Bostrom's “The Universe is a Simulation” argument. Thanks in advance, --JCN

Since you asked for literature on the topic of the problem of evil, let me offer you some sources:

God, Freedom and Evil by Alvin Plantinga (focuses on a 'free-will answer' to why evil exists)

Evil and the God of Love by John Hick (focuses on a 'moral development' answer to why evil exists)

Wandering in Darkness by Eleonore Stump (focuses on a 'superior relationship with God' answer to why evil exists)

The Problem of Evil (Marilyn and Robert Adams eds.) an edited collection with many influential essays from many viewpoints on the issue.

The reason that Pascal's Wager doesn't seem convincing to me is that to me it

The reason that Pascal's Wager doesn't seem convincing to me is that to me it seems that you can't assign a probability to something that doesn't have any empirical evidence. So all gods seems equally improbable. And so I would be equally likely to suffer eternal torture if I chose Islam, Mormonism or nothing. Although on further thought, I don't feel so sure any more, largely because of the same reasoning that lead me to the question I'm about to ask. But, after I read the thought experiment "Roko's Basilisk," it seems to me that you could also make a Pascal's Wager-style proposition without metaphysical claims, one that would involve probabilities. Something along the lines of this: Biologists know a lot about the human body. Those that know a lot about the human body are more likely to have the capabilities to torture me for eternity. Those that are more likely to have the capabilities to torture me for eternity are more likely to torture me for eternity. If I go spend time near biologists it is...

I am much more familiar ... with human (or human-like) beings who lust after young peasant women than I am with ones for whom the very experience of lust is unimaginable ...

To say nothing of the doctrine, central to one of the major monotheistic religions, that God became a flesh-and-blood human being while somehow remaining an omnipresent and perfect spirit who continued to rule the universe. It's hard to see how the Zeus story is "significantly less plausible" than that!

Okay, so I'm currently taking a philosophy of religions course at a community

Okay, so I'm currently taking a philosophy of religions course at a community college. Anyway my teacher had asked where morals come from and I responded with a social-evolutionary type of theory and his response was: Teacher: "Your faith in reason is matched only by the most devote religious believers." Me: Let's examine that word 'faith'. Faith by definition can mean two different things, one definition of faith is confidence. For example, I have faith in my abilities to win at a sport competition or something like that. The second is belief in something without any proof at all, like for example God. It is important that we note where this difference in usage, because depending on context - they mean two different things and using them interchangeably in the same way is equivocation. If one were to say - well you have faith in science, just like I have faith in god - this is an example of equivocation. Teacher: For the record, dictionary definitions are great for learning general senses of a...

A fascinating reflection. You should write it up in the form of a Socratic dialogue.

Perhaps your prof meant that your belief in science amounts to a faith in reason which is basically unsupported by reason or I suppose empirical data. Therefore, it is in the same league as faith in God.

I have heard people hold that it takes faith to believe that the sun is going to come up tomorrow -- therefore religious faith is nothing that peculiar. I myself tend to agree with Kierkegaard that faith as in faith that, say, Jesus is God - that He is coming back - that He has forgiven our sins and gives us life eternal - that all this involves a radical collision with the understanding, that it is more than improbable but instead an offesne to reason, and that it is categorically different from an opinion.

As for the etymolgy issue, I am a dunce, but it is true that the dictionary only provides a glimpse into the way a word tends to be used at a given time. The word in Danish that Kierkegaard uses is "tro" which also means trust --- and that is how I think of faith as a trust - which of course would involve a hope-- but not as an opinion alongside my opinion that the Boston Tea Party was caused by ... Thanks again for the interesting discourse and question.

Religious people often claim that human rights must come from God. It seems to

Religious people often claim that human rights must come from God. It seems to me that they could be wrong about their claim because of the objection posed by the Euthyphro dilemma. Am I right about this? Can we have a solid grounding of human rights even if there is no God?

For what it's worth, I'm confident that you're right: moral rights needn't come from God. On the issues raised by the Euthyphro dilemma, let me suggest that you start with the SEP entries linked here and here.

As for human rights properly so-called, I'd urge you to question that concept for the reasons that I gestured at in my answers to Question 5602 and Question 5402.

Isn't evil prove that God exist ?

Isn't evil prove that God exist ? 1. Evil exists. 2. Evil is a departure from the way things ought to be. 3. If there is a departure from the way things ought to be, then there is a way things ought to be. 4. Therefore, there is a way things ought to be. 5. If there is a way things ought to be, then there is a design plan for things. 6. If there is a design plan for things, then there must be a Designer. 7. Therefore, there must be a Designer. If the universe is the product of chance as opposed to intelligence, then there is no design or purpose built into the universe. Since one can rationally apply a standard of goodness to an object only if that object was designed with the purpose of meeting that standard, isn't evil which itself is a deviation from that standard of goodness prove that God exist?

Thanks for the interesting argument. I'd challenge premise (5) for starters. Not all normative truths require a designer or decree-giver. Consider this valid form of reasoning: P and Q; therefore, P. That form is a way that people ought to reason (and fortunately, most do). Or consider this invalid form of reasoning: If P, then Q; not P; therefore, not Q. That form is a way that people ought not to reason (even though, unfortunately, they sometimes do). Who decreed that it ought, or ought not, to be that way? Who designed that? Answer: No one. Or at least we needn't assume that anyone did.

Indeed, if "P and Q; therefore, P" is a way people ought to reason only because someone designed things that way, that suggests (and perhaps even implies) that someone could have designed things so that "P and Q; therefore, P" was a way people ought not to reason, or so that "If P, then Q; not P; therefore, not Q" was a way people ought to reason. But those suggestions (or implications) make no sense, as far as I can see.

Granted, my example involves logical norms rather than moral norms, but I can't see how that difference rescues premise (5).

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