The Magic of Science

Suppose that it were discovered that knocking on wood reduces the incidence of premature death by, say, 10%. Suppose that the provenance of this statistical regularity were impeccable. That it were found not only in data gathered from life, but also in carefully constructed experiments involving millions of subjects observed over decades.

Suppose, further, that a great deal of research were done on the mechanism behind such a connection between a knock-knock-knock and longevity, and that all possible mechanisms were ruled out. Knocking on wood in a vacuum produced the same result. So too did knocking with a mechanical prosthetic rather than knuckles. Even asking someone else to knock for you did the trick.

Science would, then, be forced to conclude that the connection between knocking on wood and longevity is a fundamental law of nature, up there with gravity, albeit an eccentric law given its startling narrowness (suppose that it were only to work for humans—animals knocking on wood were not to live longer) and seeming lack of integrability with the other laws of physics.

Question: would we then be forced to conclude that magic is real, since, in effect, an element of human superstition had been found, in the light of science, to be empirically verifiable? Or would the fact that it had come to be empirically verifiable make it cease to be magic?

In other words, is our disenchantment with the modern world due to the fact that the laws that science has proven are, well, boring, and don’t involve the superpowers we once so hoped were real? Or is our disenchantment caused by science itself, by an orientation to the world that seeks always to shine a light on things instead of to respect the mystery?