Reading other questions I see that a quote by Arthur C. Clarke - "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic" - is often being treated as an axiom. However, in a world where magic is developed side by side with technology, there must be a strict difference.

What that difference is? There could be worlds where all magical powers come from one single source - that allows us to call them "magical". Another simple version - technology exploits the laws of nature, magic breaks them.

In less trivial cases, how "magical" could be defined? What is the guiding principle that could let us actually distinguish technological achievements from magical ones?

For them who say the answer is heavily depended on how magic works in a particular world - no it is not. In a sci-fi world we don't know the ways how technology work, but we still call it "technology". The same must concern "magic" as well.

  • $\begingroup$ possible dup: worldbuilding.stackexchange.com/questions/101/… $\endgroup$
    – fi12
    Feb 20, 2016 at 17:52
  • $\begingroup$ Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. $\endgroup$
    – HDE 226868
    Feb 20, 2016 at 19:40
  • $\begingroup$ enkryptor, I think the main problem with the question is that to answer it we have to design a magic system for you and that is not what this site is designed for. But the other commenters are correct, when you are trying to distinguish between two things you logically need to know something about both...in this case how they function. If you have questions or want to discuss your scenario please visit Worldbuilding Chat. we have many discussions in chat about idea generation that we consider off topic on the main site. $\endgroup$
    – James
    Feb 26, 2016 at 4:08
  • $\begingroup$ @James have you read the "upd." section? In sci-fi we don't need to know how a future technology works to call it "technology". Why do you say it's necessary to know how a particular magic works to call it "magic"? In other words, why do we use the very term "magic", what does it mean? $\endgroup$
    – enkryptor
    Feb 26, 2016 at 8:09
  • $\begingroup$ @James have you seen "how can I explain ... without magic" questions? Don't you think it's necessary to design a magic system to answer such a question, do you? Why do you think that in my case? $\endgroup$
    – enkryptor
    Feb 26, 2016 at 8:23

1 Answer 1


Here I'm trying to answer my own question.

Implying Descartes' dualistic approach, all things we perceive are either objective or subjective. Objective things can't always be seen by the naked eye, but they exist, and they always can be detected with proper instrumentation. Subjective things (like your own sentience) can't be detected by any equipment (so far?), but they exist as well, you sure they do because you perceive them directly.

Objective things can affect subjective ones, we used to treat that as natural. So, when subjective things affect objective, we call that unnatural, or supernatural. We call that "magic".

In other words, "magical powers" is an ability to affect reality with your mind. In general - ability to project your own mental state to other's reality, shift realities, or directly perceive one's reality.

That definition implies obvious consequences. Several comes to mind:

  • magic users are live sentient beings; non-magical machines (say, modern computers) can't use magic

  • you can't steal magician's powers by physical (non-magical) means (but you still can affect their mind using, say, pain or drugs, hence, mitigate their powers)

  • you can't detect if somebody is a magician by physical means, unless they are using their powers right now

  • no magical device can be built by non-magician

  • magic is related to art (and other subjective things that exist but their existent can't be scientifically proved)

  • supposing "spirit" concept, magical powers are accessible for spirit, not for physical body

  • magic comes from consciousness, self-awareness; consciousness may not be the source of power, but it is the only tool for wielding that power

  • $\begingroup$ 1. If I could build a computer that does a pretty accurate simulation of a brain, feed it with your brain-image before the spell and end up after simulating with a brain-image similar to your own after casting, will there be a magical effect? 2. We can already affect the brain with electricity (for various effects). Given a real neural interface, could I stimulate the right neurons of a brain to trigger a spell? 3. Proves or disproves itself with 2 4. Can magical devices be triggered by mundanes? Can I built a magical PC? 5. Fluff, can't argue about it 6. unclear? 7. So no 2 on coma-mages? $\endgroup$
    – JFBM
    Feb 20, 2016 at 17:55
  • $\begingroup$ Answering your own question, interesting strategy. $\endgroup$ Feb 20, 2016 at 18:24
  • $\begingroup$ @J_F_B_M you've missed the point. I distinguish mind from brain activity. $\endgroup$
    – enkryptor
    Feb 20, 2016 at 18:28
  • $\begingroup$ @J_F_B_M by the way, how is it possible to steal magical powers from somebody in coma? $\endgroup$
    – enkryptor
    Feb 20, 2016 at 18:44
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ So in the Buffy the Vampire Slayer universe, vampires and demons are not magical. Vampires drain the demons magical powers by the physical drinking of blood. In the Chronicles of Amber, there is no magic, as Merlin made a computer that wielded seemingly "magical" power. Any series where magic users have a distinctive DNA marker does not have magic. Any series that relies on measures isn't magic. Any series where anyone can learn "magic" is not magic. Any series where "magic" can react intelligently is not magic. By your criteria, it's hard to find any series with magic. It's all tech. $\endgroup$
    – Brythan
    Feb 20, 2016 at 19:46

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .