The Case for Magical Thinking

I believe life is magical. Not the new age magic that sprinkles rainbows and fairy dust on everything in a vain attempt to paper over the uncertainties of life, but a more mature view that sees magic in the alchemy by which the very uncontrollableness of life leads to greater wisdom and insight.

What we believe about life is important. We will experience life very differently if we think “Life’s a bitch, then you die”, than if we believe something more positive. The central question here concerns whether we believe that life is benevolent, indifferent or malevolent.

“The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference”. – Charles Darwin.

Charles Darwin, the naturalist who wrote the seminal work “The Origin of Species”, seems to believe that life is indifferent. I don’t think this view is really supported by the facts of evolution, as I will try to show.

The age of the earth is estimated to be about 4.5 billion years. Fossil evidence suggests that single celled life arrived about 3.9billion years ago.


It was only around 610 – 750 million years ago that cells learned to cooperate with each other and formed communities; cells specialized to meet certain needs of the community and began to function as a unit. Thus multi-celled life was formed, and the Cambrian explosion soon followed around 540 million years ago; lasting about 80 million years, it resulted in a large diversity of life forms.miracle2

The first transition from inorganic chemicals to single celled life is not well understood, and people have tried to replicate it in a lab. If life has evolved according to some underlying order, then that underlying order must have supported the emergence of life. During the time when only single celled life existed on this planet, there was competition between the cells.

The transition from single celled life to multi-celled life seems equally as miraculous. What would cause single cells which are in competition with each other to cooperate? Again, there must have been something about the underlying order that supported this change. Instead of competition, cooperation was the foundation of this change. We humans can be considered a cooperative organization of cells; cells separated from our bodies can be cultured and grown independently.

What we can observe in the process of evolution is that life forms have grown in awareness and complexity. The increase in awareness took a big leap when multi-celled life appeared, and has continued this march toward greater awareness ever since. Though there is certainly competition between different life forms, there is also a lot of cooperation. Fish swim in schools, and lions live in a pride. Birds flock together, and humans have formed tribes which support each others survival. There is cooperation between the cells of our bodies and between people and groups of people. We live in a world in which there is both cooperation and caring, as well as competition and indifference.

“In the long history of humankind (and animal kind, too) those who learned to collaborate and improvise most effectively have prevailed.” Charles Darwin

So how can this understanding of evolution help us understand whether life is benevolent, malefic or indifferent? In my own experience, it seems that life is indifferent to whether I succeed or fail. I will thrive based on my own efforts, luck, and the help of those people who do care about me. But I have also observed that the growth of my consciousness proceeds in both success and failure. Life may be indifferent to my success and failure, but it seems like it has a bias toward greater and greater consciousness.

Could it be that consciousness is part of the order of existence, and uses us as vessels for increasing itself? Something must explain the two great evolutionary leaps that occurred. Is there some greater intelligence within the order of existence that is proceeding to create greater and greater vessels for consciousness? Although I cannot prove that this is the case, the path that evolution has taken seems to support this view. It does not seem to care whether an individual survives or thrives, or even a species. It does seem to have an inherent bias toward success and an increase in consciousness.

If this is true, then the things that happen to us will tend to support the growth of our consciousness, even if they interfere with us thriving on a physical level. It is absolutely magical that life exists at all, and the direction that evolution has taken is also quite magical. In my own life I am always astonished how just the right thing happens to encourage, shock or bludgeon me into greater awareness. I’ve come to believe in this kind of magic, and I don’t see how I have suffered for this belief in the least. Believing that everything that happens to me supports the growth of my consciousness is a great comfort, and also helps me to engage directly with the challenges that come my way.

Everyone needs a little magic, even Darwin:

“If I had my life to live over again, I would make it a rule to read some poetry, listen to some music, and see some painting or drawing at least once a week, for perhaps the part of my brain now atrophied would then have been kept alive through life. The loss of these tastes is a loss of happiness.” Charles Darwin

If there is such an intelligence within the order of existence, can we get in touch with it? Feel it in our bodies? Can we align ourselves with it’s direction? Maybe the collective unconscious that Carl Jung spoke about is not just human consciousness, the intelligence inherent within the order of things. Who are we to say?

Our understanding of the organizing principles of life is very incomplete, and we would do well to keep an open mind. Life exists and continues to evolve toward greater awareness and complexity; that’s magic enough for me. Let us celebrate the beauty and uncertainty that comes with being alive, loving life with all it’s challenges and confusions, knowing that engaging directly with the way things are has it’s own magic.

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