ANIL MITRA PHD, COPYRIGHT © 1994, updated November 2009

Home | Contact | Copyright


1        Preliminary  2

2        Context: The Field of Concepts  2

2.1        Plan  3

3        Concepts I: Foundations  3

3.1        World  3

3.2        Psyche  3

3.2.1        Ways of knowing  3

3.2.2        Functions and Origin of Thought and Concepts  4

3.3        Science  4

4        Concepts II: Magic and Religion  6

4.1        Religion  6

4.2        On the “Necessity” of Religion  8

4.3        Necessity  8

4.4        The Course of Religion Today  9

4.5        Magic  9

5        Conclusion: Completeness  11

5.1        The Concept of a Field  11

Latest Revision, Copyright and Document Status  11

In May 1991, a friend asked me to assist her write on The Role of Magic and Religion. I wrote the following essay. I spent parts of two days and consulted no references

Despite shortcomings, the essay is useful to me because the ideas and insights seem valuable, it introduces the concept of “a field of concepts” in terms of which a field of study would be formulated, and it questions explicitly the nature of scientific endeavor in a given field

In the essay it is implied that the questions “Is psychology … anthropology … a science?” are not useful questions. The real questions are, “What is – or what would be – the nature of a science of anthropology or psychology?”… and the related question, “What will make this field of study produce vital, interesting, useful results and concepts?”


1           Preliminary

To discuss the topic adequately, two preliminaries are needed:

[1] The subject: be clear on – know – what is being discussed

Explanation – definitions – of the terms “religion” and “magic”

These terms in themselves are insufficient because the “institutions” to which they refer occur in relation to others. We need a “field” of terms, ideas and concepts that will specify the whole context within which religion and magic play or occur

[2] The method: be clear on and elucidate the means or method of the study and research

In brief, the method is “scientific”

But at least some explanation of “science” is needed:

Because of the need for definiteness and clarity about the method – even today there is no complete agreement on the nature of science. Often, the term science is used as though its invocation –like a chant or mantra– will guarantee that the results of the research will be true

To allay prejudices, fears regarding the term “science”. Specifically, the requirement of rigor should not eliminate discussion of real issues and concerns

Therefore, science is also in the “field of terms” or concepts and the two preliminary kinds of need – subject and method – reduce to one, the subject

2           Context: The Field of Concepts

Science needs to be in the field since it is the means and, as means, needs clarification and, so, becomes part of the subject. But science is also in the field as a subject since it is related to religion – science and religion have common roots and were fused earlier in history as discussed in what follows

Other terms. The universe: the whole of existence; and world or the human understanding of and contribution to the universe. Every study is incomplete without some acknowledgement that its terms have relations outside its domain. This is the minimum reason for inclusion of a universal or metaphysical dimension of any study

The human psyche – defined by psychology – specifies the ways in which humans know, understand and act in the world.[1] But psyche also specifies the human way of being in the world and this must be intimately related to the nature and contents of religion and magic

Therefore, a preliminary field[2] of ideas is science, religion, magic, psyche, world and universe

World contains all the other terms. World, psyche and science need to – should – be considered before religion and magic, otherwise lack of understanding of limits on understanding of world, psyche and science will limit understanding of religion and magic. Also, the cognitive aspect of psyche helps clarify science… and magic will be treated as a way of understanding/acting in response to the religious dimension

Therefore the order of consideration will be

1. World

2. Psyche

3. Science

4. Religion

5. Magic

2.1         Plan

Terms will be introduced in the order just given and explanations and examples or references to examples will be provided. The definitions of religion and magic in the context of the preliminary groundwork will lead naturally to clarification of the roles of religion and magic

3           Concepts I: Foundations

3.1         World

Definition 1. World

Elements of the world are:



Psyche – mind, spirit

Universe – universal elements including unknown, beyond present knowledge

3.2         Psyche

Definition 2. Psyche

This will be a useful preliminary to defining science and religion. An alternative word could be being but psyche emphasizes the relationship of being to the world

Psyche can be defined or explained in terms of ways to know or relate to the world. This will be essential to a good definition of science and religion since these will be defined as specific ways of knowing or understanding the world. This does not imply that the approach here is any form of psychologism since the criteria of validity will be given independently of psychological factors. The approach through psyche, however, guides, illuminates and gives substance and meaning to more formal approaches

3.2.1        Ways of knowing

Conscious: cognition including perception and thought; emotion and will

Modes of conscious knowledge or knowing: the categories

Unconscious – direct: acquired memory

Unconscious – indirect: social, race, animal levels

Levels of the unconscious: preconscious, sub-conscious, and deep unconscious

Modes of unconscious: language, icon… the seen but not recognized… the possibility of “languages” of the unconscious – the “language” of, e.g., the peripheral or autonomous nervous systems… communication between the peripheral and central systems…

3.2.2        Functions and Origin of Thought and Concepts

A primary evolutionary adaptation of humanity is its adaptability to new circumstances not defined in genetics – including instinct – but through knowledge that may be developed by individuals and learned by others

The adaptability or the capability to develop such adaptability, however, may be genetically coded

The original process of knowledge developed in this way is:

First: Symbolic and iconic-pictorial – imagination-hypothesis formation. The forms of hypothesis formation include the inspired, the psychotic and the eidetic

Second: Selection at social – tribal – and cultural level: groups with “better” adapted knowledge prevail

Four functions of this type – or mode – of knowledge:

Statement about “objective reality”… Science

Social bonding and unity… Tradition

Relating humankind to society… Culture

Relating humankind to the universe… Religion

Science and religion are difficult to define in an acceptable way because:

They represent ultimates in human knowledge and presence – they concern human relationships with the world universe … There is no agreement among philosophers, theologians, and scientists as to a definition of science or of religion

They are at once method of knowledge and object of knowledge

But definitions can be offered as suggested above

3.3         Science

Definition 3. Science

A two-step process:

Symbolic and iconic representation through symbols [concepts], tentative patterns expressed as – “hypothesis

Selection by reason and empirical test – “deduction” and “experiment

Therefore, science introduces a third element: a field of anthropological facts[3]. This field, however, is included in the subject

Science would be useless if it did not allow summary representation and prediction. So there are laws and or concepts that correlate the quantities that are observed. The law, however, is not the pinnacle of summary representation. The world has structure [including temporal relations] or patterns. The patterns occur at various levels. A snowflake is a hexagonal pattern. What patterns might correspond to the variety, the patterns and chaos of the world? To find deep patterns we appeal to abstractions or concepts. That is, concepts do not correspond to single situations or simple facts. As an example, in the archaic Newtonian picture, the world was pictured as particles moving in space under their mutual influences or forces. In different situations, different forces were effective. Newton’s Universal Gravitation was the most pervasive but there were others such as tension, compression, friction. This system was at once a paradigm and a theory for it allowed explanation and prediction in a vast array of situations. Science has, of course, come a long way since the Newtonian world view but the law, the principles or laws at deep levels and the theory are some elements that flesh out the austere two step process

Implicit, then, in the two-step process is the elaboration: empirical development, concept formation, application, and testing. Any particular science pertains to a domain of like phenomena, e.g. physics begins as the study of material systems and their behaviors. In the unfolding, distinct domains coalesce. The empirical phase refers to the study of phenomena and empirical generalizations or laws. Concept formation is the development of the most fruitful terms of description. As a simple example, in Newton’s mechanics, momentum the product of mass and velocity superseded the Aristotelian focus on bodies at rest; the use of a system of concepts that included momentum made possible the fruitful development of mechanics. The idea of a system of concepts is fundamental for it implies that that there is logical coherence among the system; and continuation of the logical coherence beyond its initial application constitutes a theory and its potential to explain and predict. Application does not refer to “applied science,” but to expanding the range of phenomena that are explained or predicted. Testing is subjecting the principles or theories to a kind of verification. The verification is tentative in that additional valid prediction adds confidence in the theory; confirmed incorrect predictions invalidate the theory. The stages intermesh – empirical development does not abruptly stop, application and testing are not fully distinct, testing may suggest and require fine-tuning of concepts and theories; and do not strictly apply to discovery which contains discovery and insight

The foremost scientists in the history of Western civilization excelled in the use of iconic – symbolic imagination:

Archimedes – “Eureka”

Newton – “Universal Gravitation”

Einstein – “Unification of Space-time-matter”

The ideas – hypotheses – of these individuals continued to be tested after they were formulated. The earlier ideas – Newton – were tested, refined and applied over about two hundred fifty years, c. 1660 – c. 1900, when their inherent limits became apparent. The ideas introduced 1905 – 1915 by Einstein are a conceptual leap relative to the earlier system of Newton. They also overcame empirical limits. Each individual formulated and refined the system for conceptual and empirical consistency before arriving at the “final” version

It may be hypothesized that the early toolmakers and healers also proceeded by a trial and error process conforming – in effect – to the general formula[4]

1. Idea,

2. Test,

3. Repeat

Thus “science”, ancient and modern, is a fusion of symbolic-iconic and empirical knowledge

Modern science has become associated with quests for certainty and power and is therefore – institutionally – literal and empirical, as well as detail oriented. This is a source of political-economic strength but is, perhaps, an ultimate limitation. The quest for certainty and power is based in rejection of real knowledge, in fear[5]

Science has many roles and accordingly is many things – it appears differently to different people. Here I am looking at one idealized role of science: a method of creation and discovery

4           Concepts II: Magic and Religion

4.1         Religion

Religion – preliminary to definition:

Recall the many ways of human knowledge – see Definition 2: Psyche. Therefore, knowledge is not mere academic-pragmatic knowledge. Knowledge as understanding here includes all ways of human relating to the world, the universe – to all of existence. This could be a definition of knowledge. Relate this to gnosis and so to religion

Definition 4. Religion

Religion is that which orients and relates the whole of the human individual to all of existence – to the world: see Definition 1: World; whereas the sciences orient part of the individual and certain social functions to specific parts of existence and uses restraint in its choice of modes of discovery and confirmation

There is no restriction of the mode or object of religious knowledge – except that in real religion validity is a concern. Especially of concern is the meaning and nature of validity



Genesis to Revelation… universal aspects

Taboos and rites – Old Testament … pragmatic, social aspects


Rhythm of creation-destruction… universal aspects

Laws of Manu… pragmatic, social aspects

The evolutionary analogy is useful in understanding religion. Evolution is an ongoing process; therefore each characteristic of an individual need not be “maximally” adapted. Rather, the whole individual will be well enough adapted. Adapted to what? The adaptation is to the universe of the individual – to the social and natural environment of the individual[7]. Adaptation is to society and nature. If each individual is socially adapted, this must mean that society as a whole has adaptive characteristics

Additionally, since human adaptation includes adaptability, this introduces universality into human adaptation: and the means of this adaptation includes imagination: symbolic and iconic

Religion – if it is adaptive i.e. orients humans to existence, is so as a whole: some of its parts may be “wrong” – that is, certain beliefs and taboos, but the religion as a whole will be “right”[8]

This is a realistic interpretation of religion. Specific claims of a formal religion need not be “literally” correct even in uncorrupted religion. The language of religion is not the formal language of formal religious texts and institutions. How do the institutions relate the whole individual to all existence? If they do not or do not do so well enough then the formal religion is not functioning as religion

Although actual religions, through abuse or degeneration, may be “wrong”, “the function” of religion is valid

Since religion represents knowledge, and knowledge is not absolute in itself but occurs in a context of action – there is a source of ritual. Psychologically there is a relation between action-inaction and anxiety: so – the war dance, and bonding, and the healing – medicine – dance. There is a psychic translation: from ritual to consciousness to action or directly from ritual to action; ritual may also catalyze communication between the conscious and the autonomic or animal modes. It is never given that formal knowledge – whether science or religion – results in or induces the “best” action; formal philosophy contains concepts but no final definitions of the nature of “best” actions

From a sociological perspective, religion is a force not only of social control, but also of social – group – cohesion and action

Real religion – real institutions – do not fit neat categories. The concept itself is a linguistic institution and the idea of fitting a neat category is a neat category. Real institutions always fit a multitude of “needs” including ones not imagined. The corrupt is enmeshed with the ideal. The separation of the real from the ideal is an ideal

From a consideration of the “formula” for knowledge:

1. Idea,

2. Test,

… which applies also to religion – per Definition 4: Religion is a form of knowledge – we can equate idea of religion with reflection and tragedy. This is the conflict between reality and hope. The realm of human life is not one of mere material reality. Human beings create their own world. Then: religion is born – in part – out of reflection and the real tragedies of human life. But to take this as a definition of religion is to mistake the ideal for the real. It is a materialist’s psychologism. It is the desire to regard one sometime function with the whole; it ignores the fact the human beings live in a whole universe and the relationship with that whole has positive as well as negative expressions

4.2         On the “Necessity” of Religion

Note that the definitions are not complete. Discussion proceeds and definitions will be taken up again below in Magic

Preliminary discussion: The objective is to show that religion is not just “necessary”, but inevitable

Formal and pragmatic knowledge do not answer all questions, despite the fact that the existence of these questions and attitudes toward them affect conduct and our relation with existence – and life

Some eternal questions: the fate of human consciousness – life beyond death. Possible attitudes:

Theistic… Consciousness does not die at physical death

Atheistic… Consciousness itself dies forever at physical death

Agnostic… The fate of consciousness is not known

Anti-gnostic… The fate of consciousness cannot be known

Non-gnostic… The issue has no importance, does not truly touch human life

The choice of response does affect attitude, conduct and quality of life. And, yet, none of the responses can be justified by formal, pragmatic knowledge – and this includes institutional science

Tradition: In the field of social relations and behavior not all questions can be answered explicitly or specifically or according to science – at any given time. Additionally, even when “reason” is sufficient to supply answers, it may be insufficient to affect behavior. Taboo and categorical ethics may be significant

Representation of the eternal in the pragmatic, the immediate, the everyday:



Stories of connection of the eternal with the immediate strengthen relations with both. The ritual of the hunt, including respect for the animal spirit, has the following literal interpretation: the spirit is the continuity of the animal herd that provides for the future

In so far as human destiny is unknown, this representation of the eternal in the pragmatic provides an orientation to this circumstance. This orientation includes openness and wonder. It is clear that despite the beauty and power of science and related formal functions, the need for representation of the eternal is neither eliminated nor satisfied by the formal functions

4.3         Necessity

Each individual has a choice of attitudes: theistic type, atheistic, agnostic, anti-gnostic, ignorance, and minimization. In each case the choice exists in a religious dimension

Recognized religions express the insights of individuals possessed of a higher intuition. Although actual religions do become degenerate through stagnation and abuse, formal group religion provides channels for the religious orientation or nature of each individual. It is dogma that holds that these channels – especially in their fundamentalist forms – are necessary and unique

4.4         The Course of Religion Today

The course of religion in the twentieth century seems to stand against “necessity”. To the extent that this is true, it is so only for – some of – the institutionalized religions, but not for religion itself

C. G. Jung said that the core problem of essentially all of his patients was a lack of true religious orientation

As human awareness grew and rose to symbolic consciousness, the science-religion or reason-intuition modes of knowledge were fused and science was part of religion. The shaman, possessed of intuitive-psychotic experience of a greater existence – is also a healer

Religion and science are part of a movement from prehistoric time to the present. The era, from Zoroaster and the Buddha, through the Christ to Muhammad, corresponds to a rise in symbolic consciousness in religion – and in science. This made possible a split between symbol and world. While this split is a source of increased understanding and action, it is fragmentary when either symbol or world is regarded as complete in itself or when symbol and world are isolated from each other

A fragmentation, made possible by heightened consciousness, occurred in response to flight from fear, and quest for power: the partial success associated with increased awareness of the symbol-object relation was assumed to be absolute

The decay of institutional religion as true religion – predicted by Nietzsche – occurred as religion became invested in the clergy and power through conservatism – and so fell behind science in its appreciation of the magnitude of existence and being

At the same time, science, an amalgam of intuition, inspiration and rationality or criticism, became dogmatic in its institutional form, becoming over bound by conservatism and criticism – also for reasons of power and fear and expressed positivism, mere empiricism, materialism…

The existentialist movement of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries is a response to the failure of institutions to address human religious nature. The course of the institutionalized religions and the response show the necessity of religion, and that religion is essential in the nature, in humanity and world. The true religious spirit is alive despite the corruption of formal religion and, as shown above, cannot be explained away by science, philosophy or psychology

This ties in with the evolutionary analogy. Evolutionary thought does not see the world as deterministic, but as containing unpredictable elements, which are both threat and opportunity

4.5         Magic

Consideration of magic is interesting because it shows the existence of a religious sense. However, it will be seen that this sense is not special or compartmentalized, nor is it born essentially of fear and weakness. The sense can be seen as human essence[10], and its expression can be occasioned by fear and tragedy but also by beauty and wonder

Earlier discussion showed religion to be intrinsically connected to symbolic-iconic consciousness and this consciousness to be psycho-biologically based: It is an adaptation that enables a single species, human beings, to be adapted to multiple, previously unknown, mental and physical environments without genetic change. This adaptation, adaptability through symbolic-iconic thought, is orientation to all of existence. It was also noted that the process of symbolic knowledge was:

1. Idea-hypothesis,

2. Test

Definition 5. Magic

Magic identifies symbol with object:

And, therefore, symbol manipulation is object control – magical influence. Belief in magic implies: belief in extraordinary influence – impossible influence from the skeptical view, and belief that hypothesis formation is reality

Actually, there is “magic” in the idea-test scheme of symbolic-iconic consciousness[11]-- power from the inside of substance – atom – grew from ideas, the theories of nuclear physics

A hypothesis – there is power in magic. Explanations:

Social power: belief and trust lead to heightened action,

Personal power: for the same reason, and

Power over nature and the real: magical thought and magical action may, of course, be “mistaken”. But the alternative – rational thought and action – may be impotent in crucial situations. In these situations magic provides the leap-of-faith: which may sometimes succeed; and this success is enhanced by “magical” intuition

Magic is a special sense

An example of magical thinking in twentieth century civilization: institutional science is the answer to the world’s problems. This is surely a belief, since the belief has not been shown to be true. That science is not the full answer is not a criticism of science, but may be a criticism of the nature and magnitude of the investment in science

Belief in magic may stem from a desire to reunite symbol-object: this is the expression of “life-as-flow”. Despite this psychological interpretation as a possible weakness, if magical thought were essentially and excessively destructive, it would be self-eliminating

Magic is sometimes necessary, “useful” orientation to existence. Myth and ritual create a magical environment

5           Conclusion: Completeness

A difficulty in understanding religion is its confusion with institutions. Therefore, a concept of religion is a necessary preliminary to understanding. The concept provided here – Definition 4: Religion – suggested an essential, central role to religion. Incomplete knowledge and limits to rationality suggested a role for magic

There is a role for religion and magic even in science. Formally, science proceeds by first separating from psyche and, later, reintegration is necessary. Understanding religion and magic may be helpful in the separation. True religion is essential in reintegration. The motives of science are not fully distinct from the purpose of religion. These motives also have effect on the strength of scientific imagination

5.1         The Concept of a Field

An important concept has been introduced: the concept of a Field of Concepts. The concept is a natural one and arises as follows. The understanding of a topic such as science, religion or magic does not occur in a vacuum. For each topic or concept, there are a number of related concepts. The system of concepts defines a “total field” of understanding within which the topic of concern is given meaning. The actual object or institution defined or pointed to by the concept exists in interaction with the related objects. There is some field of objects that is essential to the existence of the given object; and, correspondingly, some field of concepts that is necessary for complete understanding of the given concept. It is not clear that the field of objects is given in advance even in the “hard” case of the physical sciences – we do not know what came before the origin of the universe as it is known to us; clearly and almost trivially, the formulation of a field of concepts has elements of construction or creation. An essential feature of the elucidation of a field of concepts is that the formulation of each concept in the field must depend on the formulation of the system of concepts. In the ideal case, the formulation is simultaneous; in practice there is iterative correction

Additionally, the objects themselves, to speak simplistically, are known as “facts.” The facts, also, are not fixed owing to interpretation and error. There are thus three fields involved in any conceptual study: the fields of facts, of objects, and of concepts. These constitute The Field. In general, conceptual study occurs in this multi-dimensional and complex [since the dimensions are not each of the same character] space

Perhaps there is no complete field but the world; in that case all limited but seemingly independent fields of conceptual study are approximations that, for some reason or other, are, under the conditions of study, effectively independent

Latest Revision, Copyright and Document Status


No further action for Journey in Being

The idea of a field of concepts has been absorbed

The concepts of belief and magic as given here have influenced the corresponding ideas in Journey in Being

The document is maintained for its intrinsic interest

It may be useful as a source of ideas and if I return to write in the area

[1] In defining these terms, it will be seen that they define “levels of being”. Therefore body
should also be in the field. Additionally, body – knowledge is significant. It lies in between the fixed
and the free – which two condition each other

[2] “One thing.”

[3] Since the study here is anthropological; in fact, the entire field of facts may be relevant

[4] Accidental “discovery” can be incorporated in this science

[5] This quest has no closure, because it is based in a flight from existence and fear

[6] Another example is Shamanism – see the sections on religion

[7] Including internal environments

[8] This is an evolutionary analogy

[9] See source of ritual above

[10] The core freedom: choice, symbolic – iconic knowledge – its possibility – as a means of relating beyond the given …  and to the whole universe, including the unknown