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Harry Potter and the Metaphysics of Magic

George P. Simmonds
Oxford Brookes University


1. Rowling’s Substance Dualism

Gregory Bassham’s paper on Rowling’s metaphysics of soul-splitting moots an interesting point of discussion: the substance dualism of Harry Potter. Substance dualism is, in simple terms, a theory of metaphysics suggesting the world is comprised of two really distinct substances, each wholly independent of the other. It can be most easily understood in diametric opposition to the physical monism to which we are accustomed today – the idea that all is reducible to a single physical substance which cannot be freed from its ties to the physical world. Though modern science appears to work well on the latter assumption, substance dualism has not been unpopular over the course of philosophical history.

As Bassham proclaims, ‘Rowling’s world does seem to presuppose some sort of dualism,’ and in this I think he is correct. Judging from the evidence presented in the Harry Potter novels, it is clear that Rowling conceives of the soul as an independent entity, sheathed by yet not ontologically dependent upon the body. This is evident in the Dementor’s kiss, a procedure by which the soul can be removed, or consumed, leaving behind an empty bag of quivering flesh bereft of its former humanity. The body, it seems, can survive the soul and continue to function without its ethereal contents. We see this also in the case of Voldemort’s ability to weave in and out of physical forms unharmed by the grievous injury inflicted upon each of them. It is clear that the soul, too, can exist independently and does not itself rely on a physical form. Bassham proffers Rowling’s soul as some sort of composite substance, as a physical entity of a ‘spiritualized nature.’ Though the very notion of such a thing is highly contestable, this article will, for argument’s sake, accept his interpretation. The soul should from here be understood as a ‘special’ sort of material entity, able to behave in such a way disallowed in the case of physical objects.

In what follows I will deliberate the possible sources of a wizard’s magic in Rowling’s world, and conclude in theorising the necessity of theological intervention if it is to remain metaphysically plausible.

2. The Source of Magical Power

We might begin by considering the involvement of the soul in the wizard’s ability to use magic. Could it be that his powers originate in his possession of this soul? This would spare the wizard of being physically different in makeup, since the soul is independent of the body, but would simultaneously raise a number of further questions. First, would this not grant magical powers to all in custody of a soul? It is clear that muggles possess them too, for they are in as much danger of the Dementor’s kiss as are their wizarding cousins. Nor can they be identified with the glazed-over husks of those so punished; they are conscious, coherent, and resemble wizards in almost every respect. The same can be said of the demi-human races of Rowling’s world: centaurs, giants, mermen, goblins, and even giant spiders appear to share in the characteristics of the ensouled. Why, then, can wizards use magic and these creatures cannot? Second, if the wizard’s ability relies on the soul, how is it that it remains intact when it is torn and hewn into several pieces? Voldemort divides his own on several occasions and yet seems to retain all his original faculties. By the laws of reduction sharing a power amongst multiple vehicles results in less power being available to each – and yet Voldemort does not appear weakened by the procedure. These points create problems for any soul-based account of magic and cast serious doubt on the soul’s significance to the present inquiry.

It is possible that Rowling understood the soul as a simple unit of identity, a capsule of personhood unconnected to the wizard’s capacity for magic. If this is the case we are left with two remaining explanations: an account concerning physical substance, and an account concerning non-physical substance. With an eye to the former, suppose the wizard’s brain, upon desiring a certain outcome, is able to release a set of chemicals through the body which, through the implement of the wand, creates a desired effect. Say, for example, the wizard longs to murder his neighbour: his brain would begin by making changes to the body which are then interpreted by the wand and converted into magical power. This would of course necessitate a unique aspect to the wizard’s brain, since not all humans possess such faculties, but would otherwise provide a good explanation as to how he is able to achieve magical feats.

Features belonging to certain spells used in Harry Potter may lead us to question this theory, however. The imperius curse, for instance, a spell which forces its victims to obey the will of the caster. The charm appears to transmit commands to the victim without need of verbal instruction, somehow motivating him to act as if the caster’s thoughts were his own. Considering the physicality of the above formulation, how could such a thing be achieved by a physical mind? The wizard may well think ‘I want you to pour me a butterbear,’ but to this there is no physical correspondent at the brain’s disposal, no chemical able to bear so specific a message. The brain’s communicating with its victim does not appear traceable to any physicalist understanding of magic. Similar is the patronus charm, which requires its caster to summon a memory inciting a feeling of happiness, safety, and security. This said, how can the feeling of an emotion be communicated by the aforementioned physical process? Emotions can no doubt be analysed in terms of chemical balances and activities in the brain, but these observations lend nothing to the experience of happiness, safety, and security—an experience which in this case appears central to the charm’s success. The model of the physical brain is unable to provide an explanation for all cases of magic, and cannot therefore be relied upon to explain the mystery of its origin.

This leaves us with an account of magic that concerns non-physical substance. Since the role of the non-physical mind is fulfilled by the soul in Rowling’s world, any such theory wanting to avoid confusion would need to posit magic as the relevant non-physical substance. Such an illustration fits nicely to our general perceptions of the magic-user: a physical body mastering a non-physical substance existing either within itself or floating about the external environment. Though this would avert many of the abovementioned issues, the idea would fall immediately to the problem of interaction. We understand a physical substance to be spatially extended; it bears weight, size, form, hardness, and a number of other physical properties. These features allow physical objects to involve themselves with force and contact as a means of affecting others. A non-physical entity, however, is by nature devoid of these properties: it has no weight or size, no form or shape, nor any sort of surface or specific locality. Observing these substance this way raises the question of how such entities hope to interact with one another. How could a physical substance compel a non-physical substance to move, change, or in fact do anything? Non-corporeal substance has no form with which the brain can interact, and seems, therefore, isolated in terms of physical causation. The wizard would in this case be no different to his muggle kin, for he would have no control over, nor any connection with, the magical substance that inheres within him.

3. The Inevitable Role of God

Have we found ourselves in a quandary? We cannot look to the soul for resolution in our attempt to understand the source of a wizard’s magic; nor are we able to adopt any physicalist or dualist account of how the wizard might harness his powers. There is a necessity of an additional ‘something’ to make sense of the phenomena described in the Harry Potter novels, something able to bridge the gap between the wizard and his inherent magical abilities.

Considering the above lacunas in reasoning we might find ourselves tempted to claim the workings of magic beyond our grasp. Perhaps our ideas concerning magic are subject to the limitations of the human psyche. Such a notion would welcome God as our ever-present deus ex machina, whose application would be rather convenient. He would allow for the magical exploits of wizards to proceed without having to adhere to logical reasoning. His presupposed existence would permit physical matter the capacity to carry thoughts from one individual to another, or the power to interact with immaterial substances despite their lack of corporeal form. It could even render things as simple as God granting wizards magical abilities because He wills it so, a prospect that should itself beg no further question.

Though this may seem an unlikely manoeuvre for a philosophical paper, the involvement of God as a panacea for all logical ills has been somewhat common in classical metaphysics. Nicolas Malebranche, for instance, remedied Descartes’ problem of interaction in just such a way. He posited God as the only true causal agent, maintaining that creatures, objects, and even human beings provide only ‘occasions’ for divine action. This was to say all causation is motivated by the active hand of God, which means it is neither subject to probability nor restricted by our perceived laws of physics. In this view, Malebranche was able to validate the interaction of the non-physical mind with the physical body, or, less specifically, the interaction of material and immaterial substances. His use of God’s higher powers allowed Malebranche to avoid the problem of interaction and logically validate his dualistic beliefs; and it may be that we must take similar measures in avoiding the issues raised above.

The insinuating of God into Rowling’s world would be of little difficulty considering the books’ numerous references to Christianity. Wizards do, after all, appear to truly mantle themselves in Christian values: their morality focuses on the purity of the soul; they celebrate religious holidays; they seem to conceive of some sort of afterlife; and they even have a mind to recite the occasional biblical scripture. Given the extent to which wizards appear to embrace Christian culture, would it be so unreasonable to posit their magic as contingent on the power of a Christian God? It would not seem so, but whether we are to reckon such equivocation as satisfactory is another question – and one that moves beyond the enterprise of this paper.

To form a finishing thought, then, we might consider whether magic was ever meant to be understood. Do we not conceive of it as a mysterious thing endemic to those adept in the arcane? Would we even recognise magic as such if it were not so strange and unspeakable an enigma? Of course this may simply be the result of our not possessing it; an uninspiring thought, but one with which a mere muggle such as myself must learn to be content.


Works Cited

Bassham, G. (2012). Harry Potter and the Metaphysics of Soul-Splitting. Reason Papers. 21-31.

Kim, J. (2011). Philosophy of Mind. 3rd ed. Boulder: Westview Press. 40.

Lee, S. (2007). Passive Natures and No Representations: Malebranche’s Two ‘Local’ Arguments for Occasionalism. Harvard Review of Philosophy. 15, 72-91.

Lee, S. (2008). Necessary Connections and Continuous Creation: Malebranche’s Two Arguments for Occasionalism. Journal of the History of Philosophy. 46, 539-65.

Robinson, H. (2012). Dualism. Available: http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2012/entries/dualism/. Last accessed 04/06/14. Part 2.3.

Rowling, J.K. (1999). Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. London: Bloomsbury. 247.

Rowling, J.K. (2004). Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. London: Bloomsbury. 213.

Rowling, J.K. (2009). Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. London: Bloomsbury. 497.


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