I am building a world that has both magic and technology. I'm wondering how to make magic that is different form fields of science such as biology or chemistry. Simply put I don't want magic to become just another field of science, but to stand apart from it. How can I do this, yet still make magic reliable enough that some people would the interested in learning how to use it.

For example of what I want would be Game of thrones. Would have be different from Game of Thrones since that takes place in medieval Europe and my world has the same technological development as ours.

I thought about making spells or incantations of magic do different things every time they were use but that seemed too chaotic and unreliable. Is there something else I could change about the way magic works to make it less like another form of science? Is there anyway to make changes the system I had above that would make it more reliable but still keep it separate from science?


9 Answers 9


Magic is like Art, Science is like... Science

The biggest mistake you could make with this question is to let your answer be too analytical. You don't just want your audience to understand the difference rationally, but also feel the difference and therefore not even question it or need it explained.

In real life we already have something that people very often compare to magic, and it's Art.

Some songs are incredibly moving and powerful right? So obviously there are some real principles underneath them that make them do that. And some musicians are really good at creating powerful and moving songs right? So obviously there must be something in their heads that aligns their efforts with those principles.

But has there ever been a musician who so thoroughly understood those principles that they could, without any variation or failure, manufacture powerful and moving songs? No, obviously not.

So, Art is something in our real life for which there are rules, or at least guidelines, and there is skill and talent which helps individuals align themselves with those guidelines. But there aren't hard and fast laws like there are in Science, and any individual will differ in the way they make Art and the nature and effects of their Art. Even when two different artists are playing the same song, the nature and effects are different.

So, some story-telling rules:

  • Magic is a craft. It's highly skill based, and tied to individuals and their training. The more you tie the magic to things about humans that we don't quite grasp, or for which our understanding is fuzzy (our emotions, our motivations, our personalities), the more the magic is humanized by the individuals practicing it. In the same way that a handmade pot bears the personality and eccentricities of it's maker, the magic should work this way too. In this way it becomes more of an art or a craft. Science is all about reproducability and predictability, so if your magic is unpredictable and unreproducible in the same way that art is in real life, you've gone a long way towards making your audience feel the difference rather than merely rationally understand it.

  • Magic requires a craftsman. It can't be enacted without the active involvement of a skilled person. In our world, Science very often produces processes that can be repeated by anybody anywhere and they'll work the same. If someone breaks down the exact chemical steps to make dynamite, anyone who's smart enough to follow those directions can make it. Have your magic defy that sort of pattern. Do you have magical objects in your world? Make them either things that have just always existed or make any attempts to mass produce them fail. Only a skilled magician should be able to do magical things.

  • Magic is Rare and Special, Science is Common and Cheap. Again, since scientific processes lead to easily followed directions and repeatable processes, once a scientific discovery is made it can proliferate as fast as information can. But magic should defy proliferation and imitation. I could give someone a reasonably short book that would explain everything humanity knows about music theory, but just because someone read it wouldn't mean it would be useful to them. Your magic should be similar.

  • Magic is surprising. Sometimes, for reasons that can't quite be grasped (maybe guessed at but never in a satisfying way), the magic simply doesn't work as expected. And again, the guessed reasons for why should involve fuzzy, human forces like emotions or motivations, so that even if the audience felt we could be sure that was the explanation, it would still be impossible to analyze sufficiently.

  • Magic is from people, Science is from matter. Have magic achieve completely different kinds of effects in the real world from the science. The best example is the way The Force is treated in Star Wars. The Force isn't ever produced from objects, only ever characters. Related to my above points, science in Star Wars is relegated entirely to the visible or the mechanical. The Force on the other hand is relegated entirely to the invisible and to the biological.

This way of doing things makes it so you don't have to have your characters be genetically magical (which is limiting), or come specifically from a higher power (you still could) and your magic won't succumb to the sufficiently analyzed magic trope.

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ I always think of magic as science that just isn't understood yet, but the music angle really struck a chord with me (was that pun intended?). Great musicians just 'get' it, and they can't explain it to someone else. They just need to 'get' it too. You don't 'know' magic, you 'feel' magic. I like it! $\endgroup$
    – GRW
    Commented Mar 8, 2016 at 9:33
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    $\begingroup$ +1 on the answer (would +more if I could), but: "The Force doesn't ever interact or power or explain objects, only ever characters." is quite incorrect, I am afraid. Force users can certainly move objects around: Yoda raising Luke's X-wing, Vader battering Luke with Cloud City debris, Qui-Gonn influencing Watto's die, etc. $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 8, 2016 at 13:03
  • $\begingroup$ Oh I worded that awkwardly that's not quite what I meant. What I meant is simply that The Force always originates from characters. Objects never produce or interact with the force, but objects routinely produce scientific energy. $\endgroup$
    – blaineh
    Commented Mar 8, 2016 at 22:03
  • $\begingroup$ I always imagine a lecture like: "If a scientist can light a fire with magic, it will only ever be a fire. A true magician can make the fire do things it was never meant to do. That is the difference between learning the rules and breaking them to suit your will." $\endgroup$
    – IT Alex
    Commented Oct 17, 2018 at 20:14

They say that sufficiently advanced technology can be indistinguishable from magic; I would suggest that the reason this is true is because sufficiently advanced technology defies understanding.

For instance, imagine you have a one-way radio, and you want to use it to contact someone. If you don't know anything about electronics, you probably won't be able to figure out how to get this to happen, no matter how long you fiddle with the device. Similarly, you could give a computer to some cavemen and no matter how long they looked at it, I bet they couldn't figure out how to make another one.

So if you want magic to be distinct from science, I say all you need to do is make it impossible to understand. You can have spellbooks, and people can spend their whole lives learning how to use magic, but if the underlying principles are so far beyond our comprehension that no one has ever been able to figure out how any of it works, and the only way new spells are discovered are by blind luck or chance, then magic science will be pretty much impossible.

  • 5
    $\begingroup$ Better: there are no underlying principles. Each spell is a sui generis entity which cannot be used to figure out other spells. Knowing a fire spell to light a candle doesn't help if you want to get a bonfire going in a hurry; spells for lifting a pebble, a boulder, and a mountain are completely unrelated. $\endgroup$
    – Mark
    Commented Mar 7, 2016 at 22:35
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    $\begingroup$ In other words, don't explain how magic works. It just does. That's why it's magic and not science/technology. $\endgroup$
    – user458
    Commented Mar 8, 2016 at 0:54
  • $\begingroup$ For you to have a radio or a computer, there has to be somebody who understands how it works, or it would never be built. $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 8, 2016 at 9:20
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    $\begingroup$ @StigHemmer Well, magical worlds usually also have gods. So the gods probably built the magic. $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 8, 2016 at 14:13

Two features that you could consider as setting apart science and magic are (inspired from what I know of consideration about magic during the middle age and renaissance) :

  1. Magic is not learnt
  2. To perform magic you borrow power from a superior being

Generally both at the same time.

1. Magic is not learnt

Sorcerers just happen to know how to use some magic, or even to just use some when needed.

For example, for what I know, the character of Merlin the wizard never followed an education in magic. He just has the powers (because he is the son of some kind of devil) and that is it.

For your scenario it is not really helpful, but if by studying magic you mean mastering the powers you are born with (a bit like the X-men).

2. To perform magic you borrow power from a superior being

That is a recurring pattern in medieval literature. You either get your powers by passing a contract with the Devil, or by receiving the blessing of God (the latter is basically what a miracle is).

Therefore to use magic you are dependant on the good will of some superior entity (which is beyond your understanding). You can not directly study magic, but you can study how to please different entities, or how to ask them a favour the right way.

  • $\begingroup$ I would say most stories liken magic use to talent. Like in sports, you can learn the game, but you can't learn the talent to play it well. $\endgroup$
    – user458
    Commented Mar 8, 2016 at 0:56

For magic to be known as magic, it must defy a known law of our universe namely that matter/energy can neither be created nor destroyed.

Your magic wand must be able to create forces and energy, which is something that science and technology can never do on our planet. I can make a frog disappear just by my will, using no energy; or I can create a giant ball of fire without exerting anything but magic.

Things that defy the conservation of mass/energy will be considered magical.

There will still be science; theorizing and postulating about how something magical works in certain conditions, etc. and you might even get Theories and Laws. E.g. - McClure's First Hypothesis of the Magic Ring: if you point it at the frog, then the frog will disappear.

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    $\begingroup$ I'm really tempted to downvote. I can envision, for instance, calling up a genie who brings me gold bars from Ft. Knox. When the bars arrive, they experience a temperature rise or fall depending on the relative heights of Ft, Knox and my basement, and they arrive with a relative velocity consistent with their location on the rotating Earth. All conservation laws are satisfied, but it's magic nonetheless. $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 7, 2016 at 21:51
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    $\begingroup$ Just because it violates the known laws of physics doesn't mean it can't be studied, analyzed, and converted into a science. $\endgroup$
    – Mark
    Commented Mar 7, 2016 at 22:37
  • $\begingroup$ @Mark - yeah that's my last paragraph. The OP specifically separates Magic from Technology. Both Magic and Technology will still be studied by science. $\endgroup$
    – Mikey
    Commented Mar 8, 2016 at 0:43
  • $\begingroup$ I dunno. I think things could get pretty weird for science if magic could blatantly break science. You kind of have to strike a balance. Unless you let your world blend magic and science in a lot of the tech. E.g. letting things like a physically sound power plant but with a magic infinite-fuel source be possible. You just have to be careful. You don't want to e.g. devalue the scientists by having them dedicate research time to doing something that can already be done easily with readily available magic. $\endgroup$
    – Jason C
    Commented Mar 8, 2016 at 3:02
  • $\begingroup$ @JasonC - of course, we're talking about an impossible scenario to begin with; I'm just trying to help OP have a line that she or he can draw. $\endgroup$
    – Mikey
    Commented Mar 8, 2016 at 5:13

To answer this question, one must first define science. Luckily enough, a definition exists and is very specific.

To make advance via science, one must do the following (I admit I'm just copying over from Wikipedia):

  • observe universe;
  • come up with a question;
  • postulate a falsifiable hypothesis (i.e. such that it can be rejected in an experiment);
  • make predictions based on that hypothesis;
  • test predictions in a reproducible experiment.

A hypothesis is considered good (and renamed to theory) as long as its predictions hold. Then it's either thrown in the trash can (phlogiston), amended (which species evolved into which), or narrowed to a scope where it still holds (Newton's mechanics < Einstein's relativity). The whole point of falsifiability is to only keep theories that work.

And it seems that such approach yields some great results indeed, at least in our universe, and they can be replicated on large scale as a bonus.

Now the requirements for magic to coexist with science are:

  • it's part of how universe works (otherwise you can just wave hands and not ask this question);
  • it's obviously efficient (or science overcomes);
  • the universe can still be studied scientifically in general (or no science at all - at least science as we know it);
  • one of the rules above has to be broken in case of magic (otherwise converges with science).

Of course, one can think of a magical knowledge process completely different from a scientific one, but I wouldn't even try to take on such broad topic.

Now breaking (1) and (2) is obviously out of question for a sentient being. (4) seems too practical to be avoided, as in "I'm casting a spell, but I'm unsure if that's fireball, invisibility, or healing".

(3) seems more like a divine power to me. As in, God exists and His existence cannot be disproved, and all experimental outcomes are altered at His discretion.

So we're left with breaking symmetry (5) by exclusion: magical experiments that, unlike scientific ones, cannot be fully reproduced based on a reasonable description.

However, if magic is completely unreproducible, it will be too unhelpful. First off, it should be reliable enough for the mage him/herself. If it is completely irreproducible by others and has to be learned from scratch, it will get surpassed by science at some point (shotgun invented = fireball useful no more).

Now my suggestion is as follows (YMMV):

  • Magic depends on the mage's personality and is mediated by their own body perturbing a chaotic physical process of choice (the setup is impractical to reproduce until very advanced science).
  • Envisioning the desired result is required for a spell to work (or else butterflies flapping their wings will ruin the whole world).
  • Magic can be taught, but individual formulation of hypotheses is still required from every pupil.
  • Last but not least, mages can take state of the art scientific theories into account. E.g. cure disease spell < kill a virus spell.

In such setup, magic is going to be one step ahead of science for individual usage and two steps behind in mass usage, creating a shaky equilibrium. Well, at some point science becomes advanced enough to take on replicating a mage's personality, and the two finally converge, but that's a long long way to go.


If a mage were to appear on Earth today, and didn't hide their abilities, we would study the heck out of them until we figured out how they did their magic.

And, as you say, then magic would be just another science.

So, what could stop us?

One cornerstone of science is repeatability. The same experiment done by me today and by you tomorrow should give the same result. For magic to stay magic it would have to be non-repeatable somehow.

Unfortunately, this also makes magic less useful and more dangerous.

Possibility 1: Magic is less useful and more dangerous. Sane people doesn't use magic. Insane people use magic, and can do amazing things before eventually destroying themselves. Desperate people also use magic. Since these people haven't trained as mages, magic can't be too difficult to do.

You might get suicide bombers entering an enemy city and invoking a massive spell without knowing what it will do. One way or another it will probably be destructive.

Possibility 2: Magic is actually acts of a god. If you are a nice follower and do things the god approves of, you can ask that god for help and they give you a miracle. These gods doesn't enjoy being studied by scientists and will ignore their requests. Persistent scientists might get hurt.

If you go this way you should put some thought into the god's motivations. Preferably something more than "They want to be worshiped". That kind of god has been done to cliche by both mythology and fiction.

Possibility 3: Magic could in fact become a science, if only mages and scientists would cooperate. But they don't. Mages enjoy the aura of mystique and don't want to be studied. Mages do in fact use semi-scientific methods in their own studies, but since they don't cooperate the proto-science doesn't advance.

This situation is not stable. Sciencists will collect every scrap of information they can get their grubby hands on and eventually solve the mystery. Mages could fight back by killing scientists and burning libraries, but it is very hard to stop knowledge from advancing.


"Yerr a wizard, Harry"

In a universe in which there is magic, magic is part of nature. You can separate it from the mundane world by requiring magical practitioners to be born different from regular folk.

Anyone can be scientist/technologist you just have to work hard. But perhaps not everybody can be a magician. You have to be born to it, perhaps it runs in the family, or the 7th child of the 7th child gets the gift. Perhaps it is gifted by the fairies or is seen as a curse of the fey. But a "muggle" can never become a wizard.


I'm going in a different direction from the other answers. My interpretation from the fiction I've consumed is that magic is when something physical happens as a result of concepts, symbols or ideas, instead of the result of a physical force.

Some examples:

  • A person with a fiery personality can do a fire spell
  • A person who is spontaneous and flighty has superspeed
  • Bad things happen to bad people, good things happen to good people
  • A god has more power because more people believe in him or her (e.g. Discworld)
  • Astrology - A person's personality depends on what picture the stars appear to form when that person is born
  • Feng Shui - Putting shiny things in your home will make you richer

Anything where thoughts, ideas, interpretations affect the physical world despite there being no physical link between mind and matter.

Avatar: The Last Air Bender is the clearest example this, where characters' powers depend on their spiritual affiliations.


Magic could be a conscious entity. As with Harry Potter where the wands make choices about owners but possibly more so.

I have heard a rule in story telling that magic should either be clearly defined in it's rules, or too complex for the characters to understand. So either a science or not understandable.


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