Musings on Magic and Science

2016-07-14 09:06

Musings on Magic and Science

Since Facebook posts and comments aren't as useful for longer form writing, I've taken the liberty of reformatting and placing the discussion as a web page.

This was originally posted by Ronald Wochner (editor's note: name to use here? link?), with the following preface, by way of explanation:

A short preface to a not very short post: submitted this as an english assignment requiring a 400 word 'freewrite' post to the class discussion group. As the thoughts have bubbled in my brain a while, I thought some people here might enjoy them too. Or at least enjoy trolling my terrible arguments. :D Take everything in this with much humor! The video mentioned was meant as a writing prompt, but didn't much interest me.

There are a lot of interesting, thoughtful, and well written posts and thoughts regarding the posted video. Given that this is a free write, however, I thought I would write about something completely unrelated. In part, for a change of pace, but also as an opportunity to express some thoughts that have been percolating in my own mind for quite some time, and yet have never quite made it into one of my occasional Facebook stream-of-conscious rambles. I have thus chosen to inflict it upon all of you instead. Do keep in mind, please, that I tend to be very tongue in cheek, and the following thoughts are probably best classified as 'philosophical humor' more than a serious argument for or against the points I present. Additionally, I usually don't discuss politics or religion, simply because I find that people are rarely capable of arguing either topic objectively. So any mention of either should be taken with a healthy grain of humor and respect. Without further ado, here goes.

I have also taken the (small) liberty of formatting these posts for better legibility; I have mainly added paragraph breaks.

The Magic of Science, and the Science of Magic

So a lot of these thoughts spring from consideration of Arthur C. Clarke's (in)famous Third Law: Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. My rather simple (and slightly humorous) assertion is that this law can, in fact, be extended to include the fields of study that we commonly refer to as 'Science'. First, some definitions.

Magic, as defined in the Webster's Twentieth-Century Dictionary of the English Language, published in 1939 is stated thus:

  1. Any occult art or science; especially, the supposed art of putting into action the power of spirits; the science of producing wonderful effects by the aid of superhuman beings or of departed spirits; a knowledge and control of the secret operations of nature; sorcery; enchantment, necromancy, etc.
  2. The practice of sorcery, conjuring, enchantment, black art, etc.

And so on. I will freely confess to having cherry-picked this definition because first, it is far more comprehensive than those of most of the common INTERNET dictionaries (, Miriam-Webster, etc.) It does, also, support my assertions better as well. Lastly, there is something rather satisfying about using a dictionary that itself resembles a magic tome, for this discussion.

Science, from the same dictionary:

  1. Knowledge; comprehension or understanding of the truths or facts of any subject.
  2. Knowledge amassed, severely tested, coordinated, and systematized, specially regarding those wide generalizations called the laws of nature. Herbert Spencer classifies the sciences as, (a) abstract sciences--logic and mathematics; (b) abstract concrete sciences--mechanics, chemistry, physics, etc.; (c) concrete sciences--astronomy, geology, biology, sociology, etc.
  3. Knowledge regarding any one department of mind or matter, coordinated, arranged, and systematized; as, the science of botany, of geology, etc.
  4. Art or skill derived or resulting from precept, principles, or training; exceptional or preeminent skill.

And there is much, much more that follows. This, however, should suffice for the conversation. One last definition, that is not actually relevant to the discussion, but interesting in it's own right:

Science, v.t. To cause to become versed in science; to make skilled; to instruct. [Rare.]

So apparently, one may science as a verb.

Ok, so I promise these lengthy definitions are not merely to pad my word count. Really, I swear! In fact, I will most likely be drastically OVER the word count, and if anyone is still reading at this point, I commend you.

My simple argument is this: Science has, in the past century, replaced and dispelled the common belief in magic. Science is also commonly referenced as an argument against religion, which is somewhat outside the scope of this discussion, except for the observation that many who seek to replace religion with science only, often exhibit a fanaticism that rivals any of the religions that they seek to displace. But we are discussing magic. Clarke's Third Law, referenced above, has been debated heavily, and much more skillfully than I can cover. However, my interpretation of his meaning is that, technology that is sufficiently advanced will perform or provide an effect that to the average person might as easily be magic. Some people consider this to imply that the person must be ignorant to assume it is 'magic', but I think that that interpretation is a bit narrow. Most people cannot explain how a cellphone or wifi router works, and most don't care to know. They understand that they are the products of 'science' and research, and - given enough time and effort, they might even learn enough about it to reproduce it themselves, or at least understand the underlying principles. The effect, being able to talk to a person or communicate with a machine across vast geographical areas, might as well be magic. Is it? No. Then again...

Our definition above actually states "Any occult art of science;... a knowledge and control of the secret operations of nature;...". We have all been taught about the scientific method in school, and in fact our definition above says it is simply "Knowledge; comprehension or understanding of the truths or facts of any subject." So, while magic is dismissed as fantasy, and science as fact - it strikes me that in fact science itself is magic, and magic can be a science. I am certainly manipulating words here, for fun and profit.

An example of magic and science comes to mind in the form of alchemy and chemistry. If you have ever taken a high school chemistry course, or read about it, or alchemy, you have likely learned that alchemy existed mostly in a time before the scientific method was discovered. That is, rather than a focus on meticulous measurement and recording of data, forming and testing hypothesis', etc. alchemy was rather - slipshod. It was also heavily rooted in notions of magic, the supernatural, the divine, etc. In other words, magic and religion. And, while many valuable discoveries were made by those alchemists, their true aim, later discovered to be impossible by modern science, was to transmute one element into another - that is, something common and cheap, into gold. Modern science has proven that this is impossible: you cannot change one element into another. Well.....

It turns out that is not exactly true either. When it comes to making gold from another element, that is, indeed, not possible. However, it IS possible to turn one element into another. Rather, by smashing atoms of two elements together, it is possible to create an atom of a NEW, heavier element. Many of these do not exist in nature, due to the fact that they are too unstable, and often decay out of existence in fractions of a second. By our definitions above, if anything falls under "knowledge and control of the secret operations of nature" or even as conjuring, I would argue that the use of a super collider probably counts. So, science is really just the organized knowledge of magic. But what makes magic a science? Perhaps that would make a good follow up post, as this one is so long. Additionally, I wanted to discuss parallels in computer science and 'magic', though that also begs reference to the short story True Names by Vernor Vinge.

Hope this rambling intrigues some of you, or at least amuses, and once again I stress the humorous intent.

Response by Conor O'Bryan

editor's note: again, name? link?

Ultimately this comes down to a partitioning of the definition of magic.

The first element of the definition is relatively simple to approach, and that is its component that delves into the notion of the supernatural. Well, "supernatural" is a fascinating notion, that actually makes no sense.

Supernatural suggests something that is above, beyond, or otherwise outside of nature, which now requires a definition of nature. The most logical definition of nature would be that which is allowable within the confines of the laws of the universe. However, this is not the definition commonly used: we either treat nature as being of the organically evolved world (think, like, the forest), or we treat nature as those laws of the universe which we understand. Both of those definitions are subdivisions of that greater universal law.

If we restrict nature to our personal understanding, then there is a great deal of things that would qualify as supernatural. If we take the wider definition of nature that encompasses all laws of nature, then something that defies expectation would simply be subject to laws that we, as humans, have yet to qualify and/or comprehend. Therefore, the "supernatural" definition of magic becomes irrelevant or meaningless.

We now progress to the second element of what makes magic "magic", and that is "occult science". Well, the occult is inherently connected to the notion of the supernatural, but we've already demonstrated that that doesn't mean anything except within our restricted definition of nature being that which we understand. This now becomes "incomprehensible science".

But of course, the limit of comprehension varies from person to person, and greatly depends upon individual education. The nuances of quantized behavior in the tiniest subunits of matter is an absolutely mindboggling concept, and even that is more approachable than that same matter's delocalized nature, dependent upon observation. Passing knowledge will recognize those observations as the two key takeaways of quantum physics. Those lacking knowledge will recognize that as absolute gibberish, leaving aside the fact the immediately previous sentence gave away the punchline.

As it stands, Facebook's spellcheck is also telling me half the words I used in that paragraph were also complete gibberish.

So here's another one, that still may as well be magic to us: DNA. At its basic form, it's a programming language. It's a quaternary base that has the capacity for artificial numbers (we've synthesized artificial amino acids that can fit) that predictably depends upon the actual "coding" (1s, 2s, 3s, etc) and also depends on the 3D configuration of the DNA in terms of how its folded and arranged in space. It's information coded in an immense, multi-dimensional manner that we are only barely starting to make sense of outside of "This makes things."

Ah, but I've picked things beyond the comprehension of just about, if not absolutely, everyone. Let's pick something innocuous. Plumbing. Now expose it to a four year old, and ask them how it works. To them (unless they're incredibly sharp and like to rummage about the insides of walls) they'd probably describe it as magic. It's beyond their own personal understanding, even though most adults, I would hope, at least have a basic grasp of its behavior.

Except, I probably picked an unfair example. A brief explanation of its behavior might elucidate the operations of plumbing to that child and it would no longer be magic to them, though they may themselves not be able to replicate its effects right then. It then becomes, in its own little way, science, that they could eventually test.

Now if we bring that child to a lightbulb, things get more interesting. I use the lightbulb as an example because its premise is quite simple, but from an engineering and scientific standpoint, they are remarkably complicated.

It's entirely possible even the adult doesn't know beyond the rough operating principles of how a lightbulb works, little more than an apprentice using a wand after the barest hint of instruction (assuming D&D wands, of course). They may not actually be aware of electron flow, resistivity, or the mechanism by which the light is produced (black-body radiation in the case of incandescence, and electron energy-level transfers in the case of fluorescence or phosphorescence). They just know it works, and carry on from there.

Is that beyond their comprehension? We'll say yes, for argument's sake. Would the explanation of how it works reveal to them their nature? Maybe. Would it make it less magic and more science? Possibly.

It almost seems then that magic and science are a spectrum of sorts, wherein magic is the far end nature, beyond our understanding, while science is the near end which we have categorized and believe to be understood. Note my use of the word "believe", since we have often been proven wrong.

One would imagine in a fantasy setting that the principle is much the same, and since D&D provides a convenient set of definitions to go off of, I'll use that as the setting for the comparison.

The magic posed in the setting makes little sense within our own universe. We can imagine it, but it does not behave under any natural laws we have observed. Therefore, it is incomprehensible to us, beyond quantification, and therefore, magic. Simple enough.

Within the universe though, one can imagine a different setting. Magic can be taught, and to those wizards, it is simply a mechanic of the universe in which they live. It obeys certain rules, and the greater the wizard's understanding of those rules, the greater that wizard can harness those mechanics to their whims. To them, magic becomes less of a "magic" and more of a "science", in that they have an understanding of the laws they believe these effects follow, and their applications of those laws give them results.

It is no different from physics or chemistry to us. Both are fields that can be taught, and a greater comprehension within them allows for the user to achieve a variety of results, whether the desired effect is a matter of precision or scale. Really, the scale comes in on the part of engineers while the precision comes more with the scientists, though those two fields exchange hands frequently enough that it just becomes a matter of semantics.

Sorcerors are a little different, but we can use them too. To them, these laws are not quantified, and those quantifications may even be incomprehensible to them. Instead, they "intuit" their way to the answer, taking advantage of things that they feel seem to work and yield them better results. It's not unlike a curious teenager tinkering with computers, robotics, chemistry, or in one case a nuclear reactor, in their garage. They don't know the math, they may not even understand why what they did worked, and in that way it is incomprehensible. It is still a magic of sorts however, and it is still usable by this hand-wavy approach.

The analogy isn't perfect. Sorcerors and wizards can achieve equal capability in their harnessing of this law of their universe (Yay, game mechanics!), wherein our own universe, no-one has yet been able to "intuit" their way into, say, a net-positive fusion reactor (to be fair, the math took its sweet time to get there too).

So it would seem that the best way to describe magic and science as being a spectrum of understanding and definition, and probably applicable on both a person-to-person basis as well as to the society as a whole. A given phenomena will follow some sort of law, and depending on the observer's understanding of that law, it will appear either as fascinating science, or wondrous magic. Or, maybe it will be somewhere in between, say if they have a vague idea, but don't really know the specifics. If they know how it works, they may be able to replicate it in a way that is useful to them. If not, well, their options vary.

So in a way, that "sufficiently advanced technology" quote becomes slightly inaccurate, in that what it describes isn't "indistinguishable" from magic, it IS magic. It is something beyond comprehension, is inaccessible, and while an enterprising prodigy might be able to make it dance for them a little bit, it's still beyond the finest math developed: for those of us who aren't the ones who made it, of course.

That was a fun philosophical venture. I wasn't actually sure where I was going with it when I started, but it closed rather nicely. I'm pretty sure I smashed that 400 word limit pretty hard too.

Have fun with this one.

My Owns Musings

It seems that both Ronald and Conor (editor's note: names?) have posited that the phenomena of magic, and the phenomena of science are not distinct, but necessarily intertwined. These phenomena exist in the same universe, either fictional or our own, and comprise the sum total of the possible.

However, I would like to address the use of the words, "science" and "magic". If we take the assumption that we are describing the same set of phenomena with them, should we then discard the use of one word or the other? "magic" is still an active part of our language, one whose modern usage has certainly changed with the society our language lives within.

Use of "Magic"

I cannot claim to have rigorously studied the usage of the word "magic", but I will use examples from my experience to describe how I perceive the word to be used, both by myself, and others. Specifically in the sense discussed above by two other authors; I will exclude party tricks and grand illusions meant for entertainment.

In my experience the most common usage of "magic" is to explicitly invoke the unexplained.

A: "How does the firewall know that my connection is real and the spoofed one should be blocked?"

B: "Magic"

In this example, B may not be willing to explain the details, or may be unable to. This could be a temporary state, B could simply be busy, it could require that B go look up the details, or it could be that B has no ability to answer the question. This sort of answer is often tongue-in-check, with the humor designed to mask the otherwise fairly harsh dismissal of the questioner.

A: So the accelarator uses magnets in a magic configuration to confine the particles to a narrow beam, which intersects with another beam moving in the opposite direction at the detector.

This example shows an intentionally omitted detail, not relevant to the explanation—the precise arrangement of magnets, their natures, and how such confinement works is not discussed; It is taken as given that it is possible.

Again we see that the speaker is using the word "magic" to indicate to the listener that details are not available; it is possible the speaker does not know them, or does not wish to explain them.

A: We do not know the nature of the singularity at the center of a black hole, whatever magic is there necessarily combines everything we know of gravity, everything we know of quantum mechanics, and more.

This final example is closest to the distinction drawn by Connor; that magic is used as a placeholder not only for the omitted, or personally unknown, but to the broadly unknown. No physicist or cosmologist has yet found a satisfying explanation, so the only way to talk about the nature of black holes is to reveal that some knowledge is missing.

Now, the interesting thing to note is that in all cases the above example uses of "magic" can be replaced with "science" (or "scientific" in the case of the second) to produce the same general meaning.

The perception of the difference in diction, then is in the connotive aspects. "Magic" often invokes a sense of wonder, or mystery. "Magic" is still appealing, perhaps moreso now that it is rarefied by our broad understanding of the world. There is a romance to magic. The use of "science" in place produces less evocative and inspiring statements. They provide no more information, but produce less inspiration.

Description of Science and Magic

The pursuit of hidden knowledge, mystery, and deep understanding are human traits generally, and we can describe those who pursue them as many things, among which are both "wizards" and "scientists". "Magic" evokes the secret knowledge.

Indeed, the contemporary practice of science is based on the sharing of the knowledge gained. And it is here where we see the application of Clarke's Third Law take an instructive turn.

If the difference in description of "science" and "magic" is that science is shared, and magical knowledge is not, then a sufficiently advanced technology is simply one that is not explained. This could be due to the inability to understand the explanation (the sufficient advancement is wholly incomprehensible without changing the nature of the listener) or due to a refusal to explain (the sufficient advancement is witheld from explanation, but the listener may be able to understand an explanation).


Ultimately, I beleive we (Ron, Conor, and I) agree that the nature of describing something as either "science" or "magic" is one of primarily communicative significance. A description of a phenomena as "magic" is one which omits to explain, and indicates the inability or unwillingness of the speaker to do so.

A description of a phenomena as "science" can also function in this way; though, often a speaker will be omitting the explaination for pedagogical reasons rather than out of inability, nor are they likely to attempt to retain secret knowledge.

This description of the use of the words, "science" and "magic", avoids the need to define them carefully, to define "natural" and "supernatural", or even to assert or deny the existence of any specific phenomena, so long as we posit that there do exist phenomena which are called both.

If we do seek to understand the phenomena, we would then be required to define and communicate the nature of the phenomena we would study. There, the challenge is to communicate effectively; the rigourous discipline used in the contemporary practice of science will often provide a framework to validate the study of phenomena, providing a large body of work in mapping the descriptions to observations.

End Matter

There are a few comments I'd like to make that do not directly follow the line of reasoning in my response, but are relevant as they respond to specific claims or points made which are interesting, but tangential to the discussion.

Firstly, in response to:
When it comes to making gold from another element, that is, indeed, not possible.

This is not actually true. It is certainly possible to synthesize gold from other elements, in much the same way new elements were synthesized. For practical reasons, including the energy required, the small yield, and that the apparatus used is more useful as a lab instrument than a factory, this is just not a useful thing to be able to do. (See )

And secondly, in response to:
The nuances of quantized behavior in the tiniest subunits of matter is an absolutely mindboggling concept, and even that is more approachable than that same matter's delocalized nature, dependent upon observation. Passing knowledge will recognize those observations as the two key takeaways of quantum physics.

This repeats the popularized ideas from the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics, which while still popular among physicists is losing ground to less magical interpretations.

One specific thing to point out here is that the two seemingly unintuitive behaviors of quantum systems, that of entanglement, and that of observation changing the system are mathematically identical.

By including the measurement device in the modeling of the system, we find that "measurement" is the process by which the state of the measurement device is correlated with the state of the system being measured. This correlation is entanglement.

There's a fun tech talk that goes into this in some more detail:

Interpretations vary, clearly; but an interpretation that gives no special place to consciousness, and does not involve non-locality is generally preferred. This particular approach is called a "relational approach", and follows similar reasoning to that of special relativity; that the reference frame of an observation is required for the observation to make sense.