Magic works by tricking the universe into thinking something is there when it isn't, or thinking something isn't there when it is. At least, in essence, that's the current theory. As a result, mages can levitate objects, make objects seem heavier, cause fires, make things much colder, and cause buildups of electrical charge where, ordinarily, there wouldn't be - and cause small lightning storms. Of course, there is something there: magic, which has, over the centuries, been observed and studied as much as electromagnetism and gravity. It follows an understandable set of laws which can be used to enhance inherent magical talent and advance technology.

In an effort to better understand magic, mages have become scientists like alchemists became chemists. At this point in time, their analogue of Neil DeGrasse Tyson could probably take on Dumbledore, but otherwise their science looks roughly the same as ours (although they have a slight technological edge in some areas). But because magic has been studied in such detail, I'm starting to question whether scientists would even call it "magic." It's an explainable, natural, recurring phenomenon which has been dissected and tested via the scientific method for centuries now.

If magic existed, would scientists call it "magic"? Or would they dismiss the word as mere superstition from a less civilized area and insist that it be called something else, with fewer supernatural connotations? Or would "magic" be nothing more than a word that high school students dread to hear, like "chemistry" and "physics"?

  • $\begingroup$ Similar to: worldbuilding.stackexchange.com/questions/22591/… $\endgroup$ – JDługosz Oct 12 '15 at 6:34
  • $\begingroup$ I think Arthur C. Clarke answered your question already long ago: “Magic's just science that we don't understand yet.” $\endgroup$ – Nils Tiebos Oct 16 '15 at 9:02
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ I think this trope page might add to the discussion: Sufficiently Analyzed Magic. >In his tower, the wizard Istar casts his fortieth fireball today while his apprentice diligently notes the exact qualities of each. On his workbench are piles of fireball spells yet untested, but Istar plans to catalogue them all. Only then can he begin to study what makes one fireball stronger than another. [...] $\endgroup$ – AmitaiB Oct 16 '15 at 13:35
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @NilsTiebos - Which was formalized into his "Third Law of Prediction": "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." $\endgroup$ – KeithS Oct 16 '15 at 15:23
  • $\begingroup$ Scientists are just people that perform science. This is entirely a cultural question, not really about the scientists, directly. They'd use whatever terminology it's in fashion in their clique. If this world had the same rational scientism push ours did, they might abandon the term, sure. Otherwise, why would they? More likely, though, they'd develop a jargon dependant on their history. "The Arts" might well, for example, replace "the Sciences". $\endgroup$ – The Nate Dec 22 '15 at 16:52

Our current scientific knowledge is the result of our finding replicatable experiments whose consistent results illuminate some aspect of our universe's underlying rules.

Your magic involves tricking those underlying rules, so that experimental results may not be consistent.

The presence of such tricks would therefore interfere with the process by which our current scientific understanding was formed.

But the tricks themselves would also illuminate aspects of how the underlying rules work. If those tricks are consistently affective, experiments would be devised to illuminate exactly how they work.

So a different science would exist in your world and magical tricks would be its trusted foundation. A unknown substance wouldn't be characterized by its conductivity, but rather by its conjurability. Not by its low density, but by its lack of predictability.

In such a world, magic would not be called "magic". It would be called "science".

  • 5
    $\begingroup$ Though to be fair, if magic is sufficiently orthogonal to all the other common properties, they might have "magical science" and "nonmagical science" as a matter of convenience of learning. $\endgroup$ – Saidoro Oct 12 '15 at 18:39
  • 4
    $\begingroup$ @Saidoro: You mean quantum physics? $\endgroup$ – slebetman Oct 13 '15 at 8:19
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @slebetman Well, quantum physics isn't magic, but the example can be illustrative. Even though we know that quantum physics is the most precise and accurate model of physics, it's still the last one we teach, only coming up after people have a good basic grounding in other models of physics. And even with quantum physics being king, we still have scientists and engineers who dedicate themselves specifically to learning and using models of physics where the word quantum will never be seen. An aeronautical engineer has no need to know what quarks are to do their job, despite working with physics $\endgroup$ – Saidoro Oct 17 '15 at 17:11
  • $\begingroup$ @Saidoro: My point is that quantum physics has a lot of things that are "orthogonal to the other common properties" - like the fact that absolute position doesn't really exist (instead, particles almost always exist at multiple places at once described by their wave function). The fact that the "natural" speed of everything is the speed of light (the only reason we don't constantly move at the speed of light is due to the slowdown caused by mass moving through the Higgs field). Or that elementary particles don't really exist (they're just excitations in their respective quantum field). $\endgroup$ – slebetman Oct 18 '15 at 0:36
  • $\begingroup$ @Saidoro: Another good candidate for orthogonality is relativity. In fact, just like the proposed magic/science division, scientists in our world make a distinction between classical/quantum or classical/relativistic. $\endgroup$ – slebetman Oct 18 '15 at 0:37

In order to say that something was magic would not only require evidence of magic but a definition of what magic is. If we define magic as anything that would violate the laws of physics then magic is by definition impossible. Even if something that would violate the known laws of physics such as anti gravity, walking through walls, telekinesis, ghosts, and talking to the dead, or free energy were conformed using the scientific method that would not mean that the laws of physics could be violated just our understanding of them and in that case we would have to modify what we know about the laws of physics in order to account for these phenomena. Basically if any so called magic was conformed using the scientific method it would not be magic regardless of how extraordinary.

  • $\begingroup$ On one hand, I theoretically agree with the definition you formulated, but on the other, defining something that does not exist by definition is a bit strange. That is why I suppose that such kind of physics would be called magic anyway. $\endgroup$ – BartekChom Oct 12 '15 at 6:51

I've written on this a few times here. See this post: Can magic be science? for example.

In one sense, learning about the universe is "science". That is, the rules of extracting the rules through observation: physics and chemistry emerged from superstition and alchemy.

But the rules have a particular nature to them: they are simple relationships based on the most fundamental things. More complex behaviors emerge from lower-level rules.

If you are not describing "physics" but real behaviors that we would call magic, it is operating on a teleological level rather than the moat fundamental constituants.

How can there be rules defined that operate like primate social behavior, with attributes that match human perception of the macro scale?

The nature of the universe would be very different, and I've indexed some posts reflecting on that in the one I linked to.

If rules are fuzzy and hard to isolate and reproduce results, understanding them will be more like economics and phycology as opposed to our idea of physics.

  • $\begingroup$ I'm reminded by Feynman's famous quote: if it turns out (laws of nature) is like an onion with millions of layers... whatever way it comes out it's nature, it's there, and she's going to come out the way she is. A scientist doesn't care if the laws of physics are reducible to fundamental principles or is made up of ad-hoc rules. Science is not about making nature obey your pet theories, it's about finding the truth about nature. So it would still be science, just not as we know it. $\endgroup$ – slebetman Oct 13 '15 at 8:25
  • $\begingroup$ Heh. This was true until the printing press. Then mages started printing standardized runes and then (a century or two later) had the brilliant idea to put them on microchips. Since they removed the human element, magic's been more like chemistry than economics. This is good to know and a very helpful way to think about it for the earlier epochs of my world; thank you. $\endgroup$ – Midwinter Sun Oct 16 '15 at 21:53
  • $\begingroup$ Runes are letters. Standardized runes means they didn't write the characters the same way evey time, before? $\endgroup$ – JDługosz Oct 17 '15 at 14:01
  • $\begingroup$ More like sigils, in this case, than letters. Standardized runes means precise measurements of font and applications of magic to ensure that every time a rune is used, it does the same thing. They were the same before that, but variations in handwriting changed things and made the results fuzzy. $\endgroup$ – Midwinter Sun Oct 23 '15 at 3:51
  • $\begingroup$ en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Runes Btw they are in Unicode now. If people used them with any frequency, they would just be "letters". Just like in Greece they call the Greek Alphabet nothing special. If a civilisation used Norse letters (like Germanic languages before the Romans spread their alphabet), they would just be "letters" and these things would be "Roman Letters". $\endgroup$ – JDługosz Oct 24 '15 at 2:55

Yes, they would call it magic.

Just as we call chemistry chemistry and physics physics.

The study of magic would just be another branch of science.

The reason magic is something "different" now is because it doesn't work. Any scientific study shows that it doesn't work...so study of it becomes quite futile except for excitable amateurs running around with electronics turned way past any meaningful sensitivity setting and pattern matching for any possible result they can find for a TV show.


I think that sceptics would legitimise their scepticism by being passively derogatory of their opposition. Like, they would use words like "tricks on the weak minded" or "mass hysteria" or "gullibility factor" or "mental illness" etc. In this way they can imply that the reason that anyone disagrees with their conclusions is that they are irrational, and therefore should be regarded dismissively. They would not be subject to any kind of peer review because contrary opinions are the result of this so called "magic" phenomenon and therefore must be dismissed. Any scientist who actually "saw" the magic would be out of a job, and no longer able to publish papers.


Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

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