This week my four-year-old son Liam went to an appointment at the eye doctor. While we were there, both of my children were very curious about everything in the exam room, so we had to say “no, don’t touch that” and “I’m not sure. I think they’re lenses” a lot while we waited. Amelia wanted to push buttons and pull levers. Liam wanted to know what everything was.
When the doctors came in (there were four of them, in two pairs) Liam continued to ask them questions, and they did something that bothered me. On three separate occasions, Liam asked what they did, or how something worked, and they said “It’s magic!”
Now, there’s a long tradition of adults using these kinds of explanations on children. Bill Watterson satirizes it with Calvin’s dad, and it’s hilarious. Enjoy. It wouldn’t bother me much, but Liam was not asking very complicated questions. He wanted to know how they made the animals on the wall move and light up, and how the figure on the end of a popsicle stick changed from one animal to another (it was double-sided).
I like Liam’s eye doctor, and I do not want to complain about him. Rather, I want to talk about magic. There’s a type of skeptical materialism that argues kids should not be taught fairy tales because they teach them to believe in magic, because it is impractical and untrue and all that. I tend to think people who make arguments like that fall into the category of “answer not a fool according to his folly.” If you can’t see the value in fairy tales, there’s no hope for you.
There are things that are magical, and they are the things of the imagination: giants and beanstalks, hobbits and wizards, Aslan, dragons, and Hogwarts. Stories, in general, are magical — even when they are about everyday things.
And of course, there are things that are not magical — like a two-sided picture on a popsicle stick. Electricity is one of those things that tends to cross into both categories. It is scientific, but the nature of it, how it works, and why it works is fantastic. There is a lot to be gained by explaining to a small child how the animals move on the wall because a switch on the desk is sending the outer components of atoms flying along a copper wire to create a magnetic field that turns a motor that makes the hippo open his mouth. I’m not asking the doctor to explain that, but at least say “I have this switch here, that makes them move.” I’d rather have my kid leave with a burning “why?” than a trite explanation.
And let us also never fall into the other trap and settle for material descriptions of magical things. When Liam asks what falling in love is, I can say magical. When he wonders what it would have been like to watch Roger Federer play tennis, I can say magical. When he asks how gravity works I can say “no one knows! What do you think?” That’s magic. But I’d hate to think that one day he’d ask what kindness is, and be satisfied with a confused answer of “the same thing that let the eye doctor move the hippo on the wall.”
Electricity becomes magical as one learns about it. All of electromagnetic theory is one vast “well huh, who would’ve thought that?” The whole world becomes magical, but not when it is mystical. The world is magical the more it is understood. That there should be such a world is magical enough. That it should fit inside our brains and be reasonable is delightful.
Learning about the world and asking questions about it, creates this sort of ontological magic in children (and adults)! Dismissing questions with teleological magic does great damage. The magic we’re after is the good kind of magic of why the world exists at all in the way it exists. Magic is why and false magic is how.