Sufficiently Advanced Magic


Years ago, Science Fiction Writer, Arthur C. Clarke came up with Three Laws that he shared in an essay he wrote titled, “Hazards of Prophecy: The Failure of Imagination.”

  1. When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.
  2. The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible.
  3. Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

I would like to offer a fourth rule,

Any sufficiently advanced magic is indistinguishable from technology.

Let me explain for a bit. Wikipedia uses a description for technology: “the sum of techniques, skills, methods, and processes used in the production of goods and services in the accomplishment of objectives.”

Using Wikipedia again (why not?) gives a description for magic: “the practice of beliefs, rituals and/or actions which are said to control and manipulate either natural or supernatural beings and forces.”

These seem to be fairly useful descriptions, problematic only in that they are pretty vague. The vagueness is shown in that anything that fits under the umbrella of description for technology would also fit under the umbrella of description for magic .”Techniques, skills, methods, and processes” heavily overlap with “beliefs, rituals, and/or actions.”

The big difference is not directly stated in these descriptions. Technology is thought of as utilizing natural forces, while magic is thought of as utilizing unnatural (or “supernatural” forces).

But what separates natural and unnatural forces?

I can see how some people could identify a clear line between the two. Natural forces utilize laws and principles that we understand. The are predictable and deterministic. They generally can be analyzed scientifically (at least for those these can be analyzed in the “now”). Unnatural forces (if such exist) utilize laws and principles that are not understood. They are mysterious. They are not predictable and deterministic. They cannot really be analyzed scientifically.

As an engineer, I utilized technology and developed technology. I did not reject the supernatural, but I certainly felt that there was a very clear and definable chasm between the natural and the unnatural.

But I also studied electromagnetic theory, Einsteinian physics, quantum mechanics, and nuclear engineering both formally as a student, as an armchair novice, and at least for nuclear engineering as a vocation. The more I looked into this, the more I wondered whether the line was so clear. At the quantum level, particles behave in ways that are not well understood at all. They often behave in ways that are nonintuitive, and nondeterministic. One starts to wonder as one studies light phenomenon, and sub-atomic particles, whether we can say that they actually exist—- at least exist in a way that commonly view existence in the macroscopic world. And yet we use these semi-existent things to light our world, to move us from point A to point B and to carry out all sorts of calculations. It occurs to me that electrons, for example, behave in ways that defy imagination. They permeate matter, but matter is energy, and energy is bafflingly difficult to concept to wrap one’s head around (even if we are pretty comfortable with using it).

It is not a ridiculous statement to say that electrons (along with other building blocks of atoms) and electromagnetic radiation fit into magical categories pretty much as clearly as they do natural categories.

If one looks at how electrons and electromagnetic radiation are used to affect our world (for good and evil), one might argue that we live in an age of advanced magic as much as advanced technology.

Along those lines, living things also challenge the deterministic presumptions of natural phenomenon. I am reminded of the “Harvard Law.”

“Under the most rigorously controlled conditions of
pressure, temperature, volume, humidity, and other
variables, the organism will do as it damn well pleases.”

We don’t really understand life, despite shouts to the contrary, nor can we predict how life will interact with its environment, at least on an individual basis. Yet we have gotten better at understanding patterns of group behavior. Again, our ability to manipulate life macroscopically, while it defies scrutiny on several key levels could also point to advanced use of magic as much as technology.

Now for those who find this weird, don’t worry. I don’t have some big agenda here. My goal is not to redefine our age as the age of magic. But when we study other cultures, we often like to come up with nice neat categories of technology, magic, religion, science, and so forth. But these categories are not as clearcut as they may at first seem. And for people in a different culture, they may come up with very different categories than what we come up with. They may see boxes that talk and “think” as magic— communicating by invisible signals sent through space and air, powered by invisible things sent through metal. We might disagree with them and say it is not actually magic, but that is more of our own choice of taxonomy than anything else.

However, beyond the anthropological, I would say that one value is to recognize that we live in “magical” and “mysterious” times. Our ability to harness a force should not suck the wonder out of that force. Our ability to quantify a phenomenon should not keep us from embracing the mystery of the phenomenon itself. The universe is too big to comprehend and works on principles that so fare elude our ability to comprehend.

That is not at all a bad thing.

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