September 23, 2021

Consider, for a moment, a world in which magic actually worked, where the things that we most deeply wish for in life could be achieved with a spell or a charm. Forget for a moment that such things don’t happen. Would there be anything problematic with such a world?

Two spring immediately to mind. First, and most obviously, we should fear the power that this sort of thing would place in human hands. We couldn’t be certain whether it would be used for good or ill – or rather, knowing what human beings are like, we would rightly fear its destructive potential.

Like what you’re reading? Get the free UnHerd daily email

Already registered? Sign in

But also, and less obviously, I think it would threaten to undermine the way in which human beings make sense of their lives and come to find meaning within it. If I can make myself immediately slimmer, say, with a quick bit of hocus pocus, then it would make no sense to think of my getting slimmer as the story of overcoming my inner demons, of struggle and achievement. There would be no inner drama in front of the fridge or the toaster. In such a world, diets would lead to two different types of weight loss: physical and existential, as in what Kundera calls “the unbearable lightness of being”. That is the deeper problem with magic. It robs life of its meaning, of its weight.

I was thinking of magic when I pondered my reaction to Tom Chivers’s piece for UnHerd about diet pills. He was writing about technology not magic, of course. His concern was to defend “fixes” to various social ills and specifically to defend technology against the charge of “solutionism” defined as the “foolhardy belief that technology can sidestep thorny social or political problems”.

Those, like me, who have a problem with “solutions”, think there is something wrong about – for example – a quick pharmacological fix to obesity. Pop a pill and you will be thin. That simple. What’s wrong with getting what you want like this, Chivers asks? Nothing at all, he concludes. But I don’t think he gave the solutionist argument a proper run for its money. So here goes.

The one area where there is widespread anxiety about the use of technological – especially pharmaceutical – fixes is within the field of elite sport. Here we call it doping. And why do we worry about doping? Because, ultimately, it drains sport of its meaning. If we allow any and every chemical fix to enter sport, then the difference between success and failure would be achieved in the lab and not on the pitch or piste. And that would rob sport of the very reason we find it compelling – that it is a battle of wills, of skill and of human courage. To replace all this with chemistry, where the winners are the ones with better lab teams, would fatally undermine the very existence of sport.

“Modernity is a surprisingly simple deal” wrote Yuval Noah Harari. “The entire contract can be summarized in a single phrase: humans agree to give up meaning in exchange for power.” It is a brilliant aphorism, and it sums up what is at stake between me and Chivers. He welcomes the (technological) power to change the world for the better; I worry that this process has an unexpected effect on the way human beings construct meaning in their lives.

“The simple technological fix” impacts meaning because, in my view, meaning is overwhelmingly a question of narrative. Meaning is held by the stories we tell about ourselves and who we are. Human meaning is narrated. Not just through the so-called seven ages of man, but through thousands of little mini narratives all overlapping and interweaving. What Salman Rushdie calls the “Oceans of the Streams of Story”.

And “technological fixes” represent a jump or a glitch in the narrative — a going from one place to another that does not respect or, even acknowledge, the inner logic of the story.

This is all a bit abstract – meaning generally is – so let me offer a small example. At the end of the Monty Python film The Life of Brian, as Brian is about to die on the cross, a spaceship of little green aliens comes down from the sky and rescues him from his predicament. Everything in the story so far has been about the life of a first century Jew. And yet here, right at the end, the ridiculous intervention of little green men becomes a kind of absurd parody of human redemption.

Set aside for a moment the idea that for some the resurrection is also a kind of absurd skip in the story – and I can see the argument even though I disagree with it. What is going on here is a knowing reference to the kind of thing people have been complaining about since Euripedes. Sometimes also known as the deus ex machina, it is the sudden arrival of something that has no connection with what came before, and which solves the problem that has built up within the story in such a way that renders all that came before irrelevant and unimportant. Monty Python do this as a deliberate joke. But when it happens in most stories it is experienced as a kind of cheat, robbing the whole story of its meaning. This was precisely Nieztsche’s beef with Euripedes whom he held responsible for the death of tragedy, the meaning making matrix of the ancient Greeks.

Consider all this in relationship to the diet pill fix for human obesity. Chivers concentrates on the simple fact that being thin, however achieved, would bring happiness to the formerly obese. It is instructive that those who argue this way tend to reach for the word “happiness” to express the benefit of what they describe. But in the meaning-creating world, happiness is often considered a rather thin idea, superficial even.

Some of us – most of us perhaps – seek a life that has a meaning that is a great deal more than happiness. We want a life that has a meaning and purpose that is deeper than mere personal happiness. And the technological fix — the deus ex machina of modernity — can threaten to undermine all of that. It can make our life absurd. All that struggle with overeating. All those hours on the therapist’s couch. All that human-all-too-human effort. And in the end the “answer” is a small pill. Suddenly, the story of my struggle with food looks absurd. It’s the “little green aliens” answer to my weight problems.

The science fiction writer Arthur C Clarke once formulated three laws that grew out of his writing. The third, and most famous, is “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”. Technology is not the same as magic, of course. Magic is fantasy, technology is reality. But in meaning terms they can be “indistinguishable” and have similar effects.

This is why religion as a meaning-generating activity holds magic in such low esteem, why the Bible has such harsh things to say about it. Magic is not so much about the supernatural — that was the world view of the whole ancient world, indeed of the world before, say, the 17th century. No, magic is problematic because of the power it wields, and also because it is the “get rich quick” approach to human salvation. Magic is to human meaning as winning the lottery is to prosperity. Both disrespect the process by which we can tell a noble and compelling story about who we are. Technological fixes — fixes that represent a radical discontinuity in the story of human endeavor — can do precisely the same. “Go the bloody hard way” Wittgenstein advised his students. And I completely agree. Those who offer shortcuts to human flourishing should be routinely distrusted.