So I have a couple of stories I'm writing (I find it helps brainstorming better) and am wondering if magic can function quite literally as science.

In one of my stories, I have a character who currently attends a university for magic, but this character's world is nearly identical to our own except plus magic. Depending on the kind of genetic predisposition someone has, magic can be performed as general willpower- and intuition-based psychic powers (like telekinesis or pyrokinesis), channeling of a natural energy (akin to chi or chakra) based on skill, or incantations/spells and rituals based on learned knowledge.

If magic is regulated and already studied and experimented with, is it actually already a science? And if so, would I necessarily have to replace or remove traditional science with magic?


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    $\begingroup$ Welcome to Worldbuilding SO. You may want to look around a bit, there have been quite some questions around that deal with the similarities between magic and science. And as a side note: if you have some spare time, read the books by Sir Terry Pratchett, he likes to play with that idea, too. Also, his books are brilliant. $\endgroup$
    – Burki
    Aug 14, 2015 at 8:46
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    $\begingroup$ Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic, and any suffciently analyzed magic is indistinguishable from science. $\endgroup$
    – Hackworth
    Aug 14, 2015 at 9:39
  • $\begingroup$ The Kingkiller Chronicles are also a great example of this: the main character goes to a University where he learns various forms of magic, where they are treated as we treat science - technical terms, calculations, procedures etc - but the common people treat magic with superstition. In numerous places the story shows situations where he is regarded with awe, or fear, or disbelief, for doing something that he considers to be a routine, well-understood procedure. $\endgroup$ Aug 14, 2015 at 14:20
  • $\begingroup$ It can, as long as you redefine magic as within nature. Science can by definition not address what is above nature (for example, God itself). $\endgroup$ Aug 14, 2015 at 14:39
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    $\begingroup$ @AvidScifiReader Aren't philosophy and logic forms of Formal Science? Since my magic follows rules, then naturally it can address what is above nature. And couldn't I redefine nature too? $\endgroup$
    – JD Solomon
    Aug 14, 2015 at 19:14

6 Answers 6


Yes, and it did.

Science is essentially just anything borne out of the scientific method; however, good science typically adheres broadly to scientific objectivity while following that method, which to put it tersely and not completely accurately, says the following:

  • True claims are reproducible
  • True claims are objective, not based on personal perspective or value judgements
  • True claims are backed up by evidence
  • True claims are internally consistent

Except for the first, these are not startling concepts. Reproducibility is as such the center of the entire scientific world. If you claim that water is flammable, then you are expected to provide not only your data, but your experimental procedure, so that we can be sure that not only are you being honest, but you didn't screw up the experiment or the calculations.

In fact, reproducibility is how science enforces the other three goals. If others can carry out the same experiment with the same results, those results are objective. The results then are solid evidence. For the experiment to be possible, it must be internally consistent.

So, how does this relate to your question? Because the scientific method was not always in use. Once upon a time, what we now call chemistry was alchemy. What we'd call medicine might have been known as herbalism or other names, depending on the region. Before modern science existed, people still worked within the fields we now identify with solid scientific names like chemistry, physics, and biology. They merely did not follow the scientific method. As soon as science came on the scene, the best parts of those fields we now often look down upon as pseudoscience actually became the foundations of modern scientific fields.

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Yet at the same time, while the scientific method might not have been in use, many involved had some idea of what constituted good practice. What sense would it make to claim you had converted lead into gold, if you could not show it? While such extravagant claims appear throughout history, the majority seem to not be taken seriously. The scientific method, while rigorously stated did not exist, is based on a degree of common sense which predated it.

If magic existed, it would be little different. If tomorrow magic suddenly existed in our world, then it would largely be considered absurd and unscientific - yet that is because of centuries of it being so. If it truly was happening, it would not take long for it to be seriously investigated, have the scientific method applied to it, and eventually end up being exploited to menial ends no differently than we exploit quantum physics to play Angry Birds.

Essentially, anything which exists can and eventually will be investigated scientifically. Magic is only in opposition to science in our world because it does not exist - at least by the standards I have laid down. As soon as you can make it reproducible, that changes. That answers the first question in that yes, if you are already performing scientific experiments with it, magic becomes a field of science.

As for your last question, the answer is a little more nuanced. As I said, magic would become another component of science as a whole. It would not replace it, just as quantum mechanics did not replace chemistry, even though it revolutionized physics. However, magic is, as a concept, incredibly broad and potentially powerful, and might have serious implications for other fields of science. If you can destroy entropy, the second law of thermodynamics ceases to hold. If you can teleport, relativity might break down. The exact nature of these implications depend on the exact nature of magic in your world, so I cannot answer them. I can say, though, science as we know it would adapt, not be replaced.

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    $\begingroup$ I'm very interested to know how Quantum Physics is used to play and exploit Angry Birds?? I'm aware that they used the brand to make a teaching program but that seem different from making a claim that Quantum physicists are better at Angry birds than the rest of us Muggles? $\endgroup$
    – Mystra007
    Aug 14, 2015 at 20:32
  • $\begingroup$ @Mystra007 I meant the use to design/manufacture things like computer chips and displays that allow one to play the game, not literally the game itself. I'm not sure if a quantum physicist would be better at it, but if I learned anything from Star Trek Enterprise, it's that a Vulcan might be! $\endgroup$
    – user5083
    Aug 14, 2015 at 20:47
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    $\begingroup$ @acbabis "anything which exists can and eventually will be investigated scientifically." There! :D $\endgroup$
    – user5083
    Aug 14, 2015 at 20:59
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    $\begingroup$ @acbabis To be more serious, though, not really. Any proof for it would be somewhat self-referential if you use science to determine what is real and exists. A better way to think about it might be, "if you think it exists and you're right, then it is only a matter of time until it is proven." It's a prerequisite of science you actually have something to study. And if you're wrong, well... $\endgroup$
    – user5083
    Aug 14, 2015 at 21:04
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    $\begingroup$ @DavidMulder Alchemy and chemistry are most definitely part of the same continuity and I find it absurd to claim otherwise. Almost every aspect of chemistry originated in alchemy: distillation, isolation of elements, the synthesis of compounds (including the basic reagents like acids and bases), right down to the equipment like retorts and test tubes. "The intentional partition of the two terms with the restriction of alchemy to the sense of metallic transmutation was not widely accepted until the end of the seventeenth century, if even then" - ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11620328 $\endgroup$
    – user5083
    Aug 14, 2015 at 21:53

Of course it can work like science, as long as it is predictable, i.e. given an input, you will have known outputs.

Treating it like science ("you can study it and it makes sense") and engineering ("you can learn it, no innate shit") is actually a very good thing to do, since it "makes sense" and so makes your world more believable, as opposite to "just random stuff hihihi" like many low-care settings do.

You may consider it an area of scientific study, like there is biology, chemistry, etc. I have no clue why you suggest "replacing" science with magic, however, since it doesn't make much sense. It would be just another field of study, among many.

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    $\begingroup$ For some decent reading where magic and science are hard to tell apart, see Mistborn by Brandon Sanderson (if you can stand the very depressing, filled with trauma-triggers setting), where the magic is inherited through bloodlines but limited and predictable - usually; or The Name of the Wind by Pat Rothfuss, where there are at least four types of magic and at least three of them follow scientifically quantifiable rules. See also: the Mage books in the Old World of Darkness roleplaying games, where all science is magic (but not magic is science). $\endgroup$ Aug 14, 2015 at 13:34
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    $\begingroup$ -1 because it needs not have known outputs and be predictable. Quantum physics or psychology both handle situations where one has an infinite number of outputs given a certain input and one would hardly call those situations predictable. Either way, see my answer for a bit more on that. (And please don't use bold text like that...) $\endgroup$ Aug 14, 2015 at 14:07

In this context Clarke's third law has to be mentioned:

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

This seems to be the other way round but it still explains the same thing. An advanced technology seems like magic to some. Magic that can be explained can't be distinguished from technology. Where would be the main difference between (scientific) bioengineering and witchcraft with plants? They are both about the same subject. They probably both use the same methods. But even if the witch does things that are not explainable by science yet it can still be a subject of science. Neuroscience can't still explain everything that happens in the brain but we don't try to explain processes that we don't understand with magic.

So the law has been reversed for fictional universes:

Any sufficiently analyzed magic is indistinguishable from science!

The one thing you have to avoid is to fall into the trap of creating moron characters who believe everything they don't understand is magic:

Any technology, no matter how primitive, is magic to those who don't understand it.

It may be magic, it may be technology (or science). But when shown such most people won't stand there with the mouths open.

Medieval morons from TVTropes

Normal people try (and tried) to explain it, to fit it into their world view, or just ignored things they don't understand. So, to answer the question, as magic can be and is a normal subject of science you don't need to remove or replace science. Stories that try to keep magic out of the science complex tend to be very unrealistic or exaggerated - and typically fail. Someone does something that others can't? It is random? Well, you still can and will try to explain it, the circumstances, the prepositions, the effects. There you go, science.

  • $\begingroup$ Although a lot of this answer is great, a lot of it seems to miss the point as well. Take for example your statement about witchcraft with plants: Although I agree it could be studied by science it definitely could be differentiated from pharmacy (I have no idea why you wrote bioengineering), because pharmacy would be limiting itself to the reaction within the plants and their effects, whilst with a science studying witchcraft with plants the witch is a part of it as well. And that's true in general for magic as well: Technology is a self-contained system, whilst magic always makes the (cont.) $\endgroup$ Aug 14, 2015 at 14:01
  • $\begingroup$ caster a part of it. In magic Joe the technician and Jane the mage could do the exact same things and the result could be different, something that would never be true for technology. So, main point is just: even in a magic world where mages would use their own variation of the scientific method to study their craft they could still easily distinguish magic from technology. $\endgroup$ Aug 14, 2015 at 14:02
  • $\begingroup$ @DavidMulder You assume one specific kind of magic that depends on the caster but that's not the only kind that was invented for fiction. Take e.g. magic scrolls or potions that "work" independently from the user. On the other hand a lot of technology and the quality of the result of application depends on the knowledge of the user. $\endgroup$
    – his
    Aug 14, 2015 at 18:56
  • $\begingroup$ Well, in all works I have ever read magic is more than just 'knowledge'. True, some works have non-magical potions, but in those cases they aren't considered magical. Magical potions in contrast tend to be about a witch casting a spell whilst making the potion or similar stuff. Magic scrolls are somewhat rare in literary fiction, but in table top rpg's they also only can be created by mages and couldn't be reproduced by even the highest level scribe. It's the very defining factor of magic in fiction. I am able to think of a few dubious cases, but it's true for all clear cut cases of magic. $\endgroup$ Aug 14, 2015 at 19:16

Yes, you can treat magic as a scientific discipline, but you have to do it well or it makes your writing look bad. Perhaps the best discussion of the topic I've seen comes from Brandon Sanderson, who is famous for creating stories with strongly rule-based magic systems and then analyzing what can be done with them. His thesis is stated as Sanderson's First Law of Magics:

An author’s ability to solve conflict with magic is DIRECTLY PROPORTIONAL to how well the reader understands said magic.

He says that generally speaking, there are two basic ways to deal with magic in your writing: give it strong rules that the reader (not just the characters!) can understand, in which case it can be used as a neutral storytelling tool, or keep it "mystical" and deliberately loosely-defined, at the cost of not being able to be helpful without looking like a deus ex machina. (Deus ex magia?)

He calls the first style "hard magic" and the second "soft magic", essentially a direct reference to "hard" and "soft" sci-fi, and points out that both styles can be quite successful, pointing to The Lord of the Rings as an exceptional example of soft magic. But because LOTR is soft magic, magic can't be used to resolve conflicts--though of course it can always make things worse for our protagonists. For example, when they have Gandalf hold off the Balrog with his magic, they end up losing his guidance for a major part of the story. (This is also why you can't "just have Gandalf fly everyone to the volcano on giant eagles;" it violates the convention and would ruin the story.)

In "hard magic", on the other hand, if the reader knows the rules and is able to follow along, then he doesn't feel like the author's pulling a fast one when the protagonist uses magic to solve a problem, because it makes sense that he can do that. He uses Spider-Man as an example, even though his powers aren't technically magic, because it's an example that will be (presumably) familiar to all readers: because the audience knows that he can shoot webs, sense danger, cling to walls, and has superhuman strength and agility, "therefore, we’re not surprised when Spider-man shoots a web in a bad guy’s face. We’ve established that he can do that, and it makes sense to us when he does it. It is narratively a Hard Magic system, rather than a Soft Magic system."

To give an idea of what not to do, one example (my example this time, not Sanderson's) of hard magic done badly is The Sword of Truth, in which the magic working by strict rules is basically an informed attribute: we're told, over and over and over in the story, that there are very strict, well-defined rules that magic works by, and several of the characters clearly have a very good understanding of those rules, but they are never explained to the audience, and so when, at the climax of several of the books, Richard resolves things by suddenly figuring out how to work some magical marvel, it ends up feeling like the author simply extracted the resolution from his nether regions.


Science is nothing more and nothing less than building models on a certain level of abstraction. You observe stuff in the past and try to predict how stuff will behave in the future. This is true for the natural sciences, but this is just as true for the human sciences or social sciences. Now, the important thing to realize is that building a model can not explain anything. Science is just building a black box which attempts to give tools how to control certain outcomes.

Either way, in regards to magic this means that:

  1. Yes, it can be studied by a science
  2. No, it needs not be predictable. As long as there is any relationship between what you do and what the result is science will try to model it, no matter how unpredictable and choatic it is. Take for example something like psychology, humans can be predictable in certain situations, but in general I wouldn't call human nature predictable. And the same goes for something like quantum physics: It's totally not predictable, but it definitely is modellable.
  3. No, it can not be treated as a science, just like humans or machines are not a science themselves. Reality comes first and science is just trying to describe reality. To give an example: Gravity doesn't exist in any absolute sense of the word exist, it's just a name we have given in our physics model to a certain imperfect1 rule in our model. A science studying magic would create a simplified model of magic which will be (likely2) great for people learning magic. Concluding: You get both magic (the subject) and a science studying magic (magicology maybe?).


1 Imperfect, because it's a simplification. For example, a statement like 'we drop this apple in a perfect vacuum and calculate how long it takes for the apple to move from A to B' sounds reasonable, but in reality a 'perfect vacuum' doesn't exist (neither in deep space, nor in a lab) and in any calculations we're more than likely to ignore the nihilistic quantum physical chances of stuff happening to the Apple which in theory could affect the velocity of the Apple. And that's fine, because all we care about is 'good enough' and 'usable', but understanding that all rules in an abstracted model are necessary imperfect can result in a far better treatment of the magical sciences.

2 Just likely, because for example if you wish to become better in interacting with humans you're better of just practicing it directly rather than studying psychology or sociology. Not to say there is no place for a scientist studying human interactions, but sometimes science can give us very valuable models at a macroscopic scale, but still only marginally help with controlling the subject of its study at a microscopic scale.

  • $\begingroup$ So would you say science is more a way to advance our knowledge about a given subject rather than govern how we go about dealing with this subject (or maybe science would merely inform how we go about it)? $\endgroup$
    – JD Solomon
    Aug 14, 2015 at 17:37
  • $\begingroup$ @JustinAlexander I would say the only thing it allows us to do is to exert more control over outcomes. Nothing more and nothing less. It can't really govern anything nor is it teaching us any Platonic ideas (well, Plato might disagree with that of course)... but I am not entirely sure what you're asking? :S $\endgroup$ Aug 14, 2015 at 19:21
  • $\begingroup$ Please give me your Apple instead of dropping in an a perfect vacuum. I could use a new smartphone ;) $\endgroup$
    – Mystra007
    Aug 14, 2015 at 20:33
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    $\begingroup$ Arguing along the lines that gravity is just something that happens is and neither pertinent to the question nor helpful in the broader scheme of how science operates. Huge swaths of physics deal in gravity, which means a science of magic would really be no different than physics. Such an argument is questionably sound semantics. Further, the definition of science has almost nothing to do with models, and instead is a process of experimentation and review. Modeling is important, but not the core of what makes science science. $\endgroup$
    – user5083
    Aug 14, 2015 at 22:19

I've posted several times here on the theme of "real" magic in a universe that includes it. The difference from science would be the teleological nature of the laws.

Science, Religion, Magic: Can they be maintained in equal and parallel opposition?

if physical law were teleological, an attempt to understand physics would be more like psycology or politics. It would have more in common with Madison Avenue than Mathematics.

What might be dangers of connecting your own soul to a stronger soul?

Underlying laws should be simple and "dumb". Making value judgements is not going to be fundamental.

Quantum mechanics doesn't know about the boundaries of macroscopic objects. We can't describe some special rule for whales because an atom doesn't know where a whale ends and the water begins, or that a particular collection of atoms is a whale.

So, rules need to apply to the smallest things, and know only about context in the same level being described. There are exceptions that are appoximations of emergent behavior: quasi-particles apply emergent behavoir of a large system back to primitive level quantum field theory.

Magic, as commonly understood, would need to be driven by human brains, or the minds of gods that work like ours. Why would weather, for example, act in the manner of primate social behavior?


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