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The Rational Magicians

Can real meaning be experienced in a godless world? The postrationalists are trying

In the era of scientific enlightenment, progress, and technological sophistication, “magic” might be the last word one might use to describe the activity of modern Western culture. We live in an age of reason, not superstition. Right? The old world of myth, mystery, and religion is holed away in museums and cathedrals; these are relics of an admirable but outdated generation.

After Reason

In a fascinating new article from The New Atlantis, writer Tara Isabella Burton writes about the “postrationalists,” an Internet subculture disillusioned with the technocratic rationalism of Silicon Valley and in search of a sense of the mystical and divine. “Reason,” or the modern conception of it, has left the postrationalists disappointed. Neither, however, are they flocking to traditional religion to satisfy their appetites for the transcendent. So, what’s going to take its place? Burton writes,

Rationalist culture — and its cultural shibboleths and obsessions — became inextricably intertwined with the founder culture of Silicon Valley as a whole, with its faith in intelligent creators who could figure out the tech, mental and physical alike, that could get us out of the mess of being human.

-Tara Isabella Burton, Rational Magic — The New Atlantis

She also connects the transhumanist movement to the rationalists. Technological progress, achieved by reason alone, will somehow pave the way for human longevity. She also goes on to describe the shift in the rationalist blogosphere in the 2010s. The rationalists started becoming interested in religion, or at least the extraneous benefits religion can offer. Weird religion substitutes started to bud as a result. She mentions new age thought, the renewed interest in ritual and myth, and even political movements. Witchcraft and magic get a shoutout, too. The materialistic framework of the rationalists could no longer buttress motivations for doing good, or, for that matter, why “progress” should be such a good thing, either. At the heart of the postrationalist movement, however, is a recognition that the spiritual and emotional is just as important as the intellectual. Burton continues,

While few of them find a home among the seemingly implausible dogmas of traditional, organized religion, they’re far more willing than their rationalist forebears to see in religious, spiritual, or even esoteric or occult practice an avenue toward self-transformation in the service of a meaningful life. They at once evoke the classic Californian Ideology famously described in 1995 by Richard Barbrook and Andy Cameron — equal parts hippie mysticism and relentless self-development — and subvert its linear narrative of human progress.

Against Cartesian Computation

Much of the problem that the postrationalists encountered was the limited view of reason as mere “computation.” This cold, Cartesian view of reason is “truncated,” and needs to be reconciled with a more classical view of wisdom, which always asks the question, “What does it mean to live a good life?”

Towards the end of the essay, Burton summarizes the postrationalist movement as a disillusionment with Enlightenment thought in general:

The promise proffered by so much of Silicon Valley — that we can hack our way to Enlightenment, transcending our humanity along the way — no longer seems plausible amid the broad ennui and general pessimism that has settled into our culture over the last decade.

Despite the postrationalist fascination with religion and the transcendent, however, Burton notes that both they and the rationalists place their fundamental hope in human potential. It’s what unites the two groups. The faith their movement evinces is centered on “human godliness.” Religion, then, as in drug use, should be entertained only insofar as it can confer benefits to the self. So, whether or not God or the divine exists is of secondary importance, if any. She writes,

Indeed, it’s little wonder that so many metatribe members find themselves drawn to esoteric or occult spiritual schools of thought like chaos magick or Traditionalism, schools in which it is difficult to distinguish the human power to shape and persuade from the outright supernatural.

Arguably, all this stems from materialism, the idea that nothing really exists beyond the physical. The postrationalists, as Burton brilliantly shows, have tried their hand at crafting meaning in a godless world. They have tried to enjoy the benefits of religion and spirituality without entertaining the idea of a transcendent moral order. Question is, how long can they keep that up?

Peter Biles

Writer and Editor, Center for Science & Culture
Peter Biles graduated from Wheaton College in Illinois and went on to receive a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from Seattle Pacific University. He is the author of Hillbilly Hymn and Keep and Other Stories and has also written stories and essays for a variety of publications. He was born and raised in Ada, Oklahoma and serves as Managing Editor of Mind Matters.

The Rational Magicians