I am building a fantasy setting that includes magic. The mere existence of said magic has strong impacts on reality. Basically, science in general (mathematics, physics, chemistry, logic) is no longer the only paradigm: it fails when confronted to "magic". Compare this to the reverse of our real world, where science can usually well explain and predict things. Here the "magic" paradigm overrides science.

However, as "magic" is a separate paradigm, I cannot give it hard laws and rules: this would imply science and logic is in control. I want the reverse, or at least two distinct paradigms in competition.

However, the more I advance in the development, the harder it seems for the audience to go that far against their own beliefs and expectations. Consistency and references can be challenged by this dominant "magic": like an infinite flat world, etc.

Do you have any advice on how to manage such science-breaking paradigm in a setting ?

NB: No need to remind that science works really well to explain our world. The purpose of this worldbuilding exercise is to explore imaginary yet plausible alternatives to our reality.

  • 4
    $\begingroup$ Worldbuilding isn't really the place to go to for advice on integrating a soft magic system with a hard-science approach. The focus here is solving problems with specific parameters, and this is, seemingly, a request for a set of writing guidelines. If you gave specifics about what part of the magic clashed with what part of science, that would be a lot better. $\endgroup$ – Halfthawed Jul 14 '20 at 13:27
  • $\begingroup$ Seems like this was concept was explored thoroughly in Piers Anthony's Proton/Phase books. $\endgroup$ – user535733 Jul 14 '20 at 14:08
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ If your magic system does not have rules, then what's stopping your magician character from solving the plot in two minutes using magic? $\endgroup$ – Cadence Jul 14 '20 at 14:54
  • 4
    $\begingroup$ Mathematics is not a science. Mathematics is about truth; science is about what's practical. Science uses mathematics as one of the available tools. (And logic is even more general, in a way; in another way, it is part of the foundations of mathematics.) Mathematics and logic are true and useful in any universe; they are immune to magic. $\endgroup$ – AlexP Jul 14 '20 at 15:19
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @AlexP I'd argue that mathematics is about logic, science is about understanding reality (truth if you want to call it that), and engineering is about what's practical. Science in itself is quite content to just sit there knowing what it knows and doing nothing with it...just like pure math. $\endgroup$ – DKNguyen Jul 14 '20 at 18:20

The trouble with this (and any science vs magic setting) is that Science isn’t a concrete thing. It’s a way of doing things that (in some abstract sense) provides you more information about the world around you. Asking how to make something antithetical to scientific analysis is like asking how to make something break mathematics. It can’t really be done, because neither Science or Mathematics are concrete things: they’re handy abstractions that we’ve invented to describe the world.

So. We need to break down science to find what the core thing is that makes it work in our world. It turns out that’s pretty easy:


Doesn’t matter what the thing is. If it behaves in a predictable manner you can do science on it. Even if it’s hugely unpredictable or highly complex, if it follows some rules and you can gather enough data you can do Science on it. Neatly this works even if you have something trying to mess with your Science, because once you start pulling out meta-analyses you can detect patterns in how you’re being messed with and predict the messing. Even social sciences have methods to quantify and work with esoteric or entirely imaginary variables like emotion and perception, and even though they might be inaccurate they still produce useful results and estimates of how wrong they might be.

This means the only way to make Magic work is to prevent it being predictable in any way. Sadly that puts a damper on your audience being able to relate, since narrative structures are built on being able to follow what’s happening. It also makes magic insanely dangerous, because you can’t predict what magic is going to do. If you could you could do science on it!

So really all you can try to do is make it not worth the effort of doing the science. Have magical guilds perform reverse witch-hunts. Throw in some trickster gods that love messing with scientists. Make the magic really chaotic if being measured.

If you need to then have Science be an emerging discipline. It took us centuries of hard work to get to where we are now. If we had an easier route (waving your hands and saying the magic words, perhaps) it's possible we'd never have needed to develop scientific methods and understanding in order to do useful things. If your 'scientists' are just getting started and the current orthodoxy (magicians) are against them then it's unlikely to gain much traction.

None of these thing stop scientific progress outright, but they’ll make it one hell of a lot more difficult.

They also provide lots of nice, relatable plot hooks...

  • $\begingroup$ going "impredictable" was my first choice. However despite the interesting "pure chaos", this is were I realized no audience could cope with this. Even as an author it is a struggle to deal with... $\endgroup$ – Uriel Jul 14 '20 at 19:27
  • $\begingroup$ @Uriel Unpredictability makes science harder because it means you have to gather more evidence to be confident in your hypotheses. Sadly if wizards can't form hypotheses about how magic works (Saying 'pthhhbt' makes the Great God H'rk throw fire from the heavens, for example) it makes using magic downright impossible and reading about it downright unpleasant. $\endgroup$ – Joe Bloggs Jul 14 '20 at 19:39
  • $\begingroup$ That doesn't mean it can't be part of why science isn't utilised though. Especially if the magic becomes less predictable the more information you have on it (so knowing 'pthhhbt' works is fine, knowing it's H'rk doing it makes it fail 9 times out of 10). That would mean that although science could still technically be done (you can tell twenty wizards twenty different gods throw fire, ask them to say 'pthhhbt' and see which one fails more) getting the resources together to do the experiments needed might be much, much harder. $\endgroup$ – Joe Bloggs Jul 14 '20 at 19:42

You Can Eliminate Reducing Soft Magic to Science by Eliminating Agency

It was an unsatisfying ending, but in the television adaptation of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell we introduced to a soft magic paradigm that, I think can not become scientific. The book works differently, so you'll have to watch the show.

We're introduced to Mr. Norrell, a traditional study/study/study wizard who is trying to break in to respectability among English wizardly society (which we're told are dabblers who can't even animate a rock statue). Norrell has amassed a collection of "books that work" (contrasted to the many spell compendiums in circulation that do not).

Juxtaposed to Mr. Norrell is Jonathan Strange. His magic is impulsive. A sudden certainty strikes him that "if I do this... that will happen". And it does. He has no training or education.

At the end of series we discover that Strange, Norrell, and even the books of magic themselves are all manifestations of a greater historical wizard : the Raven King. These men never possessed free will, or agency. Once their purpose was up they (even their libraries and books) simply vanish as if they never were.

What Does That Mean for Keeping Science and Magic Separate?

There are other examples of this : prophets working through the device of the unseen spiritual army that they jointly work for, angels being the instruments of delivered prayer, or wizards who are re-incarnations or partial-incarnations of greater beings. Thoth (if memory serves) learned magic by working for the gods. Then he gave that magic to humankind. Odin, likewise, took magic from the giants, and gave it to mankind through runes. But what if these instances of magic are extensions of the mighty hero (a toe, a finger, or a tool) rather than artifacts the hero left to others?

In this case, magic has no free will. There's no repeatability (or there is repeatability as you see with Mr. Norrell), because the magic, the books, even the magic users are just tools. The magic will never be understandable because most of the action is happening somewhere else as hidden variables (in some sort of framework of the deity's will).

Humankind are separate. They have their own destinies and agency. They can glean patterns from how the world operates outside of magic and come to conclusions and hypothesis that are repeatable and hard-earned.

From the wizard's point-of-view, however, this is all philosophical mumbo-jumbo. Things work they way they work for the wizard. The wizard (or wizardess) FEELS free-willed. They must be. Right?

Multiple Titans

Maybe, even, multiple titans roam time + space as different groups of people.

  • $\begingroup$ That's food for thought! Magic as manifestation of sentient being(s) with unknown goals. This indeed breaks most predictability while opening interesting possibilities. Useful insight! $\endgroup$ – Uriel Jul 14 '20 at 19:34
  • $\begingroup$ Elegant narrative solution, though it's worth noting that the people within this framework can still do science on magic: It would just so happen to be the 'will of the magic' that it happen that way. If I remember correctly that was a large part of Mr Norrell's character: Hypothesising and testing the rules and constraints of the magic he had available to him at the time. Granted the rules were later arbitrarily changed, but while it was usable he experimented with it. And now I need to dig out my copy of the book... $\endgroup$ – Joe Bloggs Jul 14 '20 at 20:00
  • $\begingroup$ @Joe Bloggs - the book ending keeps the characters both alive and as free agents, if I'm remembering it right. $\endgroup$ – James McLellan Jul 14 '20 at 20:04
  • $\begingroup$ @JamesMcLellan It has been a long time since I read it, but I agree, they're both still alive. It's unclear how much of what they did while using magic was actually their free will and how much was just the magic happening to work when they were in tangled up with it. IIRC the rules are fundamentally altered near the end of the book, thus invalidating the work that Mr Norrell had done on working out what actually worked rather than just being theatre. $\endgroup$ – Joe Bloggs Jul 14 '20 at 20:08

You could make it non-quantifiable.Base it on quantities that science can't define yet or ever, like emotions, feelings, memories, aesthetics, or simply make the phenomena exclusively accessible by intelligent entities that humans must mediate through (i.e. the spirits) which may have arbitrary, inconsistent, ever changing, requirements to satisfy them.

Or like steel making before it was well understood where you just followed a process that somebody figured out by trial and error in the past, and your chance so of getting what you want increased, though still nowhere near 100% and pretty much an art. You basically have to find an excuse to make things unquantifiable, arbitrary ever changing requirements, and somewhat up to chance even if you do everything "right".


Magic itself is Science. Magic is a kind of energy person can harness. However, if people cannot accept the word "science" for magic, then make the religion, where "science" is a part of magic of divine entity.

Use different word. Don't use "science", use something like "knowledge".


An example that blur the line between "science" and "religion". In this example, "Science" are completely turn into something arcade, religion. (Source: https://regimental-standard.com/2020/05/13/your-guide-to-machine-spirits/). Because magic is a science itself, you can make something similar.

This is guide to "Machine Spirit". (Machine Spirit is a spirit live in every machine/tool made by man-kind. If the Machine Spirit happy, the tool work as expect, sometime create miracle. If the machine/tool do not work, because the Machine Spirit is not happy).

Divine Entity: Machine-god. Machine Spirits are parts of Machine-god.

enter image description here "The first act of awakening a machine spirit is to recite the specific prayer for that spirit "(science: could be voice command, like "hello Google ?, or just purely religion). "If the prayer is initially unsuccessful, deliver a sharp reverential impact with your hand to the side of the engine" (science: hit it until it work, no so science but ...)

enter image description here.

"To the layperson, it may seem that engines don’t require anything other than fuel to run. However, if you don’t also use the special perfumed oils, which are only available from the Adeptus Mechanicus, then the machine spirits may get restless." (science: yeah, engine lubricant, maybe)

enter image description here "Simply strike the green rune marked with the sacred Low Gothic symbols “O” and “N”. After the battle, be sure to placate the machine spirit by striking the red rune inscribed with the blessed marks “O” “F” and “F”". (science: ON and OFF button, simple as that)

  • $\begingroup$ This was according to the rules laid down by Scotty the engine-seer, if I recall... $\endgroup$ – DWKraus Jul 14 '20 at 21:06

Make magic unique to the caster

Science is a thing where one person's actions can be repeated by another person; so, the first step to resolving this is to make each person's actions have different outcomes. One person might draw on magical energy by getting angry, another by being relaxed, another by being afraid, another by playing music, another by scribbling "runes"... there is no one size fits all way to access magic, and in most cases it is a matter of personal discovery whereby one person's experience and tutorage would be of no use helping someone else to learn to do magic, because how you do it is inherently different. Because each person's experience is unique, there is no pattern to explain the causality between what a person does and the outcome. With no predictable cause-and-effect, it make sciencing magic impossible outside of an individual's personal experiences.

This also solves the issue of not having to resort to chaos magic because each person can learn to predict thier own magic.

Every time I hum baa-baa-black sheep while chewing gum, lightning shoots from my eyes... I had to learn this the hard way, but now that I know it I just need to focus my mind to think about that song and the flavor of bubble gum, and "bang" I have a perfectly controllable lightning spell.

Explaining it in a world where science exists

To explain this in a world where science exists, you could say that magic comes from a sort of tumor that grows in the brain. Many people have the gene to develop this tumor, but if and where it forms is rather random so manipulating it means using the part of your brain where it is located to activate it. This tumor is the only thing in the world that can create magic, and like many biological processes, it is too complex to fully understand; so, through observing it, no scientist has as of yet figured out the first thing about how it does what it does. They just know that it does a thing that can locally change the laws of science.

You could make this tumor even more esoteric if does magic on itself. IE: not only does it make magic, but it's physical form is non-physical by our strictest definition because it builds itself up with magic. When a person dies, the tumor loses its magic and becomes what is for all intents and purposes a mundane tumor. There is some moment in time where the tumor does a things to itself to make itself magical, but without witnessing that exact moment (which can only happen inside of a living human brain), no one knows what sort of biological process is responsible for this moment of biological transcendence. So it is a virtually impossible phenomenon to study.

Scientists in you setting will probably refer to the science of magic the same way modern scientists talk about unified field theory: "Of course there a scientific explanation here, we just have no clue what it is..." Many scientists will have thier own theories on it, but no real way to test or prove them.


Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.