Any Sufficiently Advanced Magic is Indistinguishable from Technology (so there!)


I'd like to talk today about technology, science, and magic.

Science is that art of discovering out how things in the world work through a rational process usually known as the scientific method. It's make a guess, then test it; glass beakers over Bunsen burners; barometers tied to balloons; counting paramecium in a drop of stream water; digging up Babylonian batteries; control groups and double blinds.

I love science. I yearn to know the how and why of everything. As far as I'm concerned the goal of human existence should be to further the cause of science.

Yet by itself pure science is not terribly useful.

Figuring out π to another decimal place will not help anyone do their taxes. Knowing how many protons a copper atom has will not help you fix your car. Science only becomes useful when someone does something useful with it, i.e. when someone turns it into technology. Technology is applied science. Engineers take the theories and scribblings of scientists and try to turn them into bigger buildings and better mousetraps. Technology is levers and pulleys; generators and motors; pipes and circuits; missiles and plows.

Technology can be considerd a type of science.

Technology takes the raw discoveries of science and refines them into that which better our lives (hopefully). Science fuels technology; without the discovery of new things technology would grind to a halt (though we probably have a decent stockpile built to last us for quite some time). Without quantum mechanics we'd not have computers.

Technology enhances science as well. More advanced science requires more advanced tools, which require more advanced technology to build. We could not have discovered eurokerotic bacteria or the moons of Jupiter without microscopes and telescopes. So a feedback loop is created, where new science makes new technology possible, which in turn makes new science possible. Together science and technology can spiral ever outward into bigger and better things.


So where does magic fit into all of this? When we don't know how something is done, we call it magic. Magic is ancient words and arcane writings; grimoires and shadow books; Loa and Manitou; chicken blood and mandrake root; rabbits out of hats; soup out of stones. A lot of people feel drawn to magic. It's mystical and mysterious in all the ways science is not. Why is this, and why should you care?

I'm going to tell you a secret now. It's something most good scientists know, but most laymen don't think about:

All scientific theories are wrong.

Or at least none of them are right, not 100%. Or perhaps some of them are right, but science has no way knowing which, so we must operate as if all were negotiable. This is not a flaw of science, but rather its strength. Science advances when its theories advance, which could not happen if its theories were viewed as already perfect. Because we are aware our scientific model of reality is flawed, we can hope to improve upon it.

Many scientists can tell you why the sky is blue (Rayleigh scattering). A good number of these can explain Rayleigh scattering in terms of electrons and photons, and a few of those can generalize this explanation to the behavior of fermions and bosons. Yet no scientists can explain why fermions and bosons behave in this fashion. It’s magic! Science will likely someday understand this behavior better, but there will always be some fundamental principle to which we'll have to say "it just is". Magic lives on the frontiers of science; science might manage to push back these frontiers indefinitely, but magic will always wait just beyond.

Nor is this magic only found on the frontiers of science. When you step into an elevator and press the button marked “3” do you know how it takes you to the third floor? It’s magic! An elevator repair man might know what sort of gross mechanical parts are doing the work, but he very likely doesn’t know how the engine is constructed or why the pulleys pull. An engineer might know these things, but quite likely does not know the fundamental physical principles behind the operation of these things, or exactly how these things are put together to make the elevator move. A physicist might be able to tell you about the fundamentals, but little else of the process. In short, no one person knows everything there is too know about the operation of an elevator, yet we are still able to construct working elevators. This too is a sort of magic.

There is another type of unknown thing (aside from undiscovered things and things know collectively but not individually): things which we can't wrap our logical minds around. There are conclusions we can draw and concepts we can devise which we simply cannot grasp on a completely rational level, eg. infinity; paradox; love. Kurt Gödel’s incompleteness theorem proved that for any sufficiently complex system, there will be valid statements within that system that cannot be derived from that system. If our minds were simply logical systems then there would always be some things which they cannot comprehend, yet are still valid.

Yet our minds are not completely logical systems. This is often viewed as a bad thing (and often it is a bad thing, for much pain and suffering is a result of illogical thinking), but it has its benefits as well. We are not simple Turing machines and thus are not subject to the same halting problems] We can change our viewpoint and “step outside the box”. We have ways of understanding beyond traditional logic. Humanity has a grand tradition of dealing with that which is beyond our comprehension and beyond our ken; we have magic.

Science paints a good picture of reality. It is very carefully conceived and thus its answers can be trusted. Yet the picture is not complete, there are a lot of important questions that science cannot answer. Science can not tell you the meaning of life (though it might help you actualize that meaning). It can’t tell you what love is (though it might tell you what physical signs to look for). It can’t tell you if God exists (though it might tell you how God operates if he did exist). It can’t help you experience someone else’s feelings (though it might tell you what what’s happening in their brain while there were having said feeling).

Magic provides a different picture of reality. Sorcerers, witches, shamans, and priests have been dealing with these sorts of questions for millennia. They’ve been delving into the unknown and answering the unanswerable (not to mention questioning the unquestionable) long before Sir Francis Bacon. To get a whole picture of reality (or more whole, anyway) we need more then science and technology, we need this viewpoint as well. We need touch that which is beyond our current knowledge. We need to able to tap into our collective unconsciouses. We need to be able to deal with things we cannot understand. We need inspiration to guide our scientific progress and give our technological quest structure.

We need a little magic.

Magic is an attemtpt to master the unknown. The scientific method is one way to do this. It's one of the better ways, but is by no means the only way (or even the best way in many situations).

Really, science is a type of magic.

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