Science and Magic

[Back to Science and Faith]


Everyone seems to be familiar with the quote, "Sufficiently advanced science is indistinguishable from magic," but I sometimes talk with people who appear to think that our inability to distinguish between the two implies that there is no real difference.  There is one obvious difference: science works in the real world, but magic only works in fiction - but this seems unimportant to many people, and many others actually believe that magic works - that it can be effective - in the real world.  But there is a deeper difference between them: the reason why they work.

We do not always need to distinguish between science and magic - not in the real of fiction, anyway.  There is a reason why one large literary genre is called 'Science Fiction and Fantasy': very often, the distinction between the two is unimportant.  Sometimes, the ambiguity is part of the charm of the story - the core event in the TV series 'Life on Mars' had to be either supernatural or scientific in nature, and the question remained open right to the end of the final series.  And sometimes confusion between the two is integral to the story - for me, Poul Anderson's 'The High Crusade' is one of the most delightful examples.  But, in the real world, confusion between science and magic can be both damaging and dangerous.

Real Magic

A few years ago, when the latter books were still being written and published, a significant number of people objected to the Harry Potter books because they contained 'real magic'.  Putting Harry Potter to one side for the moment, a surprising number of people believe in magic - in 'real' magic (as they often call it) - in other words, they believe in something which we can't explain - something which is neither advanced science, nor the technical tricks and misdirection used by stage magicians.  But, when I talk with them, it seems that very few have considered what 'real' magic might actually be.

If someone is demonstrating activity which genuinely cannot be explained by science as we know it (so we are ignoring stage 'magic'), then (it seems to me) there are only two possibilities: either they are using science we don't yet understand, or they are calling on the services of an unseen ally.

The implied context here is the exercise of power: someone is demonstrating activity which science, as we know it, cannot explain.  They are demonstrating cause and effect - when I do this, then that happens - but we don't understand how the cause connects with the effect.  Magic, like science, is about power and control.

In passing, spirituality is quite different: you can connect with a spiritual reality and, perhaps, affect the material world through prayer but, while your actions can affect the spiritual reality, you cannot control it - so, for example, you do not decide which prayers get answered.  A few people may explore spirituality with the aim of exercising power, but they are both misguided in their aim and mistaken in their means.  (For more about the difference between magic and spirituality, please see Star Wars, Magic and Spirituality.)

Seeking Control

It is a normal human desire to seek control.  A large part of childhood consists of developing skills and abilities which give you control.  A newborn baby can only lay where it is placed, but then it gains the ability to crawl and later the ability to walk, each development giving it greater control.  A young child is spoon-fed, but later gains the ability to feed itself and select what goes into its mouth.

The development of technology also grants us greater control. Hunter-gatherers have to go and look for food, but farmers can control where the food is found, and modern technology enables us to get food delivered to where we are.  Shelters give us some control over our immediate environment; central heating and air conditioning give us even more control.

As soon as we start to think about gaining control, it becomes obvious that there are two distinct kinds: control over the natural world, and control over the living world - and over people in particular.  There are similarities between these two kinds of control, but there are significant differences too.

We gain control over the natural world through understanding it, then using that understanding: wood and heat together produce fire, and fire is useful in all kinds of ways; our control of fire lies in our ability to understand how this works and then manipulate the circumstances in which fire is produced.

The living world also starts with understanding, but it is not so predictable.  If I push a stone, it moves away from me.  If I push another stone, it behaves in exactly the same way.  If I push one person, he moves away from me; if I push another, he swears at me; and if I push a third, he hits me.  People behave differently towards me, depending on the context, their background, their priorities, and their relationship to me.  I can use the material world to accomplish my objectives, but I can't use other people in the same way, because they have their own objectives too.

Science is about learning to predictably manipulate the material - that is, nonliving - world in order to accomplish our objectives.

The Magical Mindset

Think yourself back to the Middle Ages.  Things have not changed much since then, in reality, but some things were more obvious back then.

The world - the human world - is hierarchical.  The world is full of people who have powers which control and shape your life in all kinds of ways.  There are people above you, who tell you what to do, and, if you are lucky, there are people below you who you tell what to do.  The King tells the Barons, the Barons tell the Lords, the Lords tell the common men, the common men tell the women and the women tell the children; sometimes, you also have an Emperor who tells the King what to do.

In this world, your station determined what you were allowed to do, where you were allowed to go, what you were allowed to wear, how you addressed the people above you, below you and on your level, and pretty much everything else in your life.  Within each level, there are those with greater power and those with less, those whose power is increasing and those whose power is on the wane.  You gain power by pledging allegiance to and being useful to someone with more power than yourself.

The people above you have powers which you do not posses, but which you sometimes need.  If you want to get married, you need your parents' permission; if you want to build a new house, you need the landowner's permission; if you want to do anything which might be considered 'above your station' you certainly need the permission and active support of the person above you.  How do you gain their support?  If you are lucky, they are kind and generous, and you only have to ask; but much of the time you need to offer something they want - just as today, in much of the world, if you need an important document, you must bribe the official who issues them.  With powerful people, you don't call it a bribe: it's a tribute, or a token of your loyalty; but whatever you call it, you pay to get the help you need.

However, the powers which control and shape your life are not only exercised by the people above you.  Your success is mainly determined by things which are not under any person's control: how well your crops grow; whether the wind blows your ship into its harbour, or onto the rocks; whether your children grow strong or weak, or die.  It is obvious that non-human powers control the wind and waves, health and fertility, love and success in battle.  These were not gods in the modern sense of the word - they were gods in the functional sense: you did not choose to believe in a thunder god, but you experienced the power of thunder every time you survived a storm; you did not choose to believe in a fertility god, but you knew that sometimes your crops grow and sometimes they do not; some people have many children and some people do not.

You know how power works, so it's a reasonable assumption that these powers operate much like the other powers in your life: you want something from them, and all you need to do is to work out what it is they want from you in return.

What we call 'magic' is simply an attempt to ensure that the unseen powers which shape your life will operate in a way which helps you.  You cannot manipulate people to accomplish your objectives in the same way you can manipulate objects, but you can sometimes persuade people to act in a certain way.

Going back to Harry Potter for a moment: one of the common criticisms of the 'spells' in the books was that they are 'only Latin'.  But, for those of us who trace our culture back to Europe in the Middle Ages, spells have always been in Latin.  For a very long time, if you wanted to communicate with any educated person, you spoke in Latin.  If you wanted to communicate with the unseen powers, the obvious way to do it was to speak in Latin.

A magic spell - a 'real' magic spell - is a combination of words and actions: the words tell (beg, implore) the unseen power to do something, and the actions are an expression of your gratitude and loyalty for the help you are about to receive.

Science and magic are both attempts to control the world, to impose our will upon it.  The difference is that science attempts to do this through using what we understand about the properties of the things around us, and magic attempts to do it through persuading the unseen powers to help us.  Most people in the Western world claim to disbelieve in magic, in the reality of these unseen powers, although you may be surprised by the number of people who do believe in these powers, and across the world this is almost certainly the majority view.

Doing Science

(This is just a short attempt to provide a bit of balance, and a slightly different perspective on the subject ...)

I have described science and magic as two ways in which people seek to control the world.  I think this is a reasonable starting point, but it is clearly not the whole truth: people also engage in science and magic simply for the joy of exploration, satisfying their curiosity, and seeking discoveries for their own sake, not because they will be useful.  It is hard to balance these two motives.  I suspect that the majority of the time, people are seeking the practical benefits - because, whatever the activity, someone has to pay for it.  But I also suspect that most of the important discoveries grow out of 'blue sky' research, undertaken with no thought of the potential value.

And I have emphasized the difference between science and magic, but these two activities are more alike than most people recognize.  I suggest that the main reason why science and magic feel like very different activities is because we are likely to be comparing fictional representations of these two activities.  Alchemy slowly developed into Chemistry: looking back, we see them as two very different activities, but at the  time all you had were people using all the resources at their disposal to try to understand the world.

Scientists and magicians both have their textbooks, reference works which tell them what previous generations have discovered about the workings of the world.  Magicians usually utter verbal spells in an attempt to persuade the unseen powers to grant their wishes, while scientists tend to write their spells down in funding applications, in which  they make rash promises to unseen powers about what they will accomplish if their work is supported.  If you consider the activity undertaken, rather than the nature of the power whose support is requested, there is not a great deal of difference between the ancient Alchemist and the modern Chemist.

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