Edit: Thanks for the answers I've gotten so far, and sorry the original question was so long and unclear. Here's a shortened and reworded version.

I'm writing a treatise or research paper from the perspective of a biological or biomedical engineer who's been studying supernatural creatures in a world where they've just been confirmed to exist. These include werewolves, wendigos, Celtic fairies, jorōgumo, kitsune, etc. in a universe otherwise identical to this one.

As a biologist with a cursory understanding of physics, what terminology might this character use in forming hypotheses about the underlying processes of these seemingly magical phenomena? For example, I imagine she'd define psychokinesis as "the mental capacity to influence matter through manipulation of electromagnetic interactions"; similarly, there would be a correlation between electromagnetism and the werewolf's shapeshifting power; the mare induces hypnagogia by messing with the brain's electrical signals. What hypothetical elements would a scientist use to explain how such things could be possible? An unknown form of matter/energy? The laws of another universe encroaching on our own? A fifth fundamental force? If the latter, is there any precedent for one fundamental force changing the behavior of another, e.g. the supernatural force acting on electromagnetism/gravity?

The problem isn't so much that I can't come up with hypothetical sources of magic. It's that I'm not sure how readily a scientist with no prior background in parapsychology and woo would put forth such possibilities, or what other potential explanations they might come up with first before reevaluating current principles.

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Welcome to Worldbuilding, this seems to be an interesting question. However, I suggest that you edit it and try to form some criteria on how to judge the quality of answers. How are you planning on deciding which answer ist best? $\endgroup$
    – T3 H40
    Mar 28, 2016 at 9:07
  • $\begingroup$ Hi and welcome to Worldbuilding.SE That is some serious text-wall you wrote there (which isn't necessarily bad), and you have the important parts scattered all over it (which is bad). Maybe try to reorganize it so your question comes at the top, your criterias for a good answer come in the block after that and all background comes third. Also this looks a lot like idea-generation which is sadly off-topic here. $\endgroup$
    – JFBM
    Mar 28, 2016 at 9:11
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ I think the best way to narrow this question so it's answerable on this SE is to choose a single phenomenon that needs explanation. The banshee wail is a nice one, for example, but it could be something else. Then propose your best-guess explanation from the perspective of your scientist character. Then your question amounts to a scientific reality-check: is this explanation plausible? How can it be made so? That will I think produce some very strong responses. And welcome! $\endgroup$
    – CAgrippa
    Mar 28, 2016 at 9:52
  • $\begingroup$ First off, expect the rabbit hole you're going down to descend quite a ways. You're digging at a very nuanced topic deep at the heart of the philosophy of science. You may find unusual answers such as "the instant science can understand how a supernatural thing works, it becomes natural" which work surprisingly well. That being said, what concern do you have? Are you concerned your readers will not buy the scientific explanations, or are you looking for general patterns for building up pseudo-science for purposes of literature? The former includes the reader, while the latter may not. $\endgroup$
    – Cort Ammon
    Mar 28, 2016 at 20:05
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Register in a national database? If this is in America, "Since when are we living in a communist Russia?!" If not, I'm starts a magical refugee house. No banshees or mythological demonics allowed. $\endgroup$ Mar 29, 2016 at 0:05

5 Answers 5


"Magic" or "Super-natural" is just another name for "Things we do not know how they work, yet". Imagine we bring a polio vaccine 1000 years back in time. Behold!! I place two drops of this clear liquid on your child's tongue... and now it cannot become afflicted by polio. To them, it is absolute magic, because they do not know how this thing works. For us, it is mundane, because we have a clear understanding of how it works. And the reason we know this, is science.

Science is actually kind of easy. It is a process designed to find out how things work. Note this specific wording: how it works. Not "why it works" or "what is it".

To take a salient example: gravity. How does gravity work? Well it is easy: it makes stuff fall to the ground, that we have known for a long time. Why does gravity work that way? We have no clue. What is gravity exactly? Still no clue. But gravity is not magic to us, because we know how it works.

Science works in the following steps:

  1. Observe. What is happening? Can you find any patterns or recurring themes? Try to write down what the pattern is.

  2. Hypothesize. Form an idea of how this thing works. You want to arrive at a situation where you say "If we have these conditions, and we do that particular thing, we should get this specific result".

  3. Experiment. Set up the conditions, do that particular thing, and record the result.

  4. Verify. Compare the expected result with what you actually got. Do they match?!

    4 a. If "Yes", success!!! Publish your hypothesis, what you did in the experiment, and your results. Ask others to repeat the experiment. If they get the same result, go to point 5.

    4 b. If "No"... try to figure out what went wrong. Was your experiment wrong? Or is your hypothesis bad? Start over from point 1.

  5. Enjoy fame and recognition for making something that was Magic & Mysterious™ into something understandable and mundane.

Magic and supernatural things suddenly appearing in our world would not be exempt from this process... it is how we would go about trying to figure out how they work. And unless these things are completely chaotic and random, we would eventually figure out what the patterns are.

EDIT: What would the implication be for "modern science"? Well, in short where would be lots and lots of work to do. These suddenly appearing things means a so far unknown and unexplored area of reality has suddenly opened up. Scientists everywhere would be overjoyed and thrilled because this is something entirely new. And with a bit of luck, it may even explain some of the old stuff better.

What does it mean for the knowledge that we already have, and that we have gained through "modern science"? What if — for instance — there are gravity-manipulating creatures/things/entities/things-that-defy-description? Does that mean our old knowledge of gravity is suddenly null and void?

Not at all. The only thing it means is that all our current knowledge gets a footnote. What used to be "This is how gravity works" becomes "This is how gravity works (unless some magical thing comes along and messes with it, because then all bets are off until we figure them out)".


I think the scenario was dealt with quite well in the fan-fiction "Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality" (HPMOR):


"You turned into a cat! A SMALL cat! You violated Conservation of Energy! That's not just an arbitrary rule, it's implied by the form of the quantum Hamiltonian! Rejecting it destroys unitarity and then you get FTL signalling! And cats are COMPLICATED! A human mind can't just visualise a whole cat's anatomy and, and all the cat biochemistry, and what about the neurology? How can you go on thinking using a cat-sized brain?"

Professor McGonagall's lips were twitching harder now. "Magic."

"Magic isn't enough to do that! You'd have to be a god!"

Professor McGonagall blinked. "That's the first time I've ever been called that."

A blur was coming over Harry's vision, as his brain started to comprehend what had just broken. The whole idea of a unified universe with mathematically regular laws, that was what had been flushed down the toilet; the whole notion of physics. Three thousand years of resolving big complicated things into smaller pieces, discovering that the music of the planets was the same tune as a falling apple, finding that the true laws were perfectly universal and had no exceptions anywhere and took the form of simple maths governing the smallest parts, not to mention that the mind was the brain and the brain was made of neurons, a brain was what a person was -

And then a woman turned into a cat, so much for all that.

A hundred questions fought for priority over Harry's lips and the winner poured out: "And, and what kind of incantation is Wingardium Leviosa? Who invents the words to these spells, nursery schoolers?"

"That will do, Mr. Potter," Professor McGonagall said crisply, though her eyes shone with suppressed amusement. "If you wish to learn about magic, I suggest that we finalise the paperwork so that you can go to Hogwarts."

"Right," Harry said, somewhat dazed. He pulled his thoughts together. The March of Reason would just have to start over, that was all; they still had the experimental method and that was the important thing. "How do I get to Hogwarts, then?"

If you want to have your character investigate it you might be best off avoiding giving a full explanation for what's really happening underneath.

Indeed almost anything you can think of will probably not be totally consistent.

The hallmark of a scientist confronted with a problem isn't what they already know, it isn't even what they come to believe, it's how they go about trying to disprove their existing hypothesis.

She might start out thinking that shape shifters are merely camouflaging themselves but then disprove herself by putting one on a scale while they change.

The important thing is that the hypothesis she comes up with must be falsifiable and she should do her damnedest to test every hypothesis she comes up with trying to disprove herself every time.

She doesn't even have to solve the problem. Merely approach it the right way.

"Professor McGonagall," Harry said to the bemused witch strolling beside him, "can you give me two words, one word for gold, and one word for something else that isn't money, in a language that I wouldn't know? But don't tell me which is which."

"Ahava and zahav," said Professor McGonagall. "That's Hebrew, and the other word means love."

"Thank you, Professor. Bag of ahava." Empty.

"Bag of zahav." And it popped up into his hand.

"Zahav is gold?" Harry questioned, and Professor McGonagall nodded.

Harry thought over his collected experimental data. It was only the most crude and preliminary sort of effort, but it was enough to support at least one conclusion:

"Aaaaaaarrrgh this doesn't make any sense! "

The witch beside him lifted a lofty eyebrow. "Problems, Mr. Potter?"

"I just falsified every single hypothesis I had! How can it know that 'bag of 115 Galleons' is okay but not 'bag of 90 plus 25 Galleons'? It can count but it can't add? It can understand nouns, but not some noun phrases that mean the same thing? The person who made this probably didn't speak Japanese and I don't speak any Hebrew, so it's not using their knowledge, and it's not using my knowledge -" Harry waved a hand helplessly. "The rules seem sorta consistent but they don't mean anything!

  • 2
    $\begingroup$ I hate fan-frictions. With a bleeding passion $\endgroup$ Mar 29, 2016 at 0:13

I have by chance, been studying the secular evolution of "magic" in several different cultures throughout human history. It dovetails quite nicely with my interest in scientific and technological history, because all science started as magic e.g. astrology --> astronomy, alchemy --> chemistry.

Short Answer:

Magic feels like magic, when its effects are created by communication with personalities that can arbitrarily alter material reality in some fashion. Magic feels like another form of physics, when no personalities are involved. Characters should have to learn specific words, rituals etc to evoke personalities and should often have to bargain with them.

In your story, I think it would best to introduce magic first as apparent anomalies in materialistic measurements, something that could be explained with more materialistic knowledge and then gradually make the characters aware that magical personalities of some kind can manifest material effects, based on their the will or whim of non-material personalities.

The effects on working science might be fairly minimal if magic is rare. Scientist would just define magic as a "special case" and go on. The social and political implications could be huge, however. Our political institutions and most of social assumptions in the modern West rely directly on the clockwork model of reality built by Descartes, Newton and other early scientist. If reality suddenly becomes arbitrary, even little pockets of it, a lot political, legal and social processes could breakdown.

E.g. In a criminal criminal investigation, the investigators would first have to element a magical cause, i.e. the murder victim was killed by the Fey Wild hunt, or because they evoked the wrong magical personality and pissed it off etc all before they get around to the the abusive spouse.

Engineers and programs might actually have to check for gremlins or build gremlin resistant systems. Police and military might have to adapt to fighting magical creatures or effects.

We'd also start burning witches again, this time for valid reason. The ability to alter other people's minds, torment, injure or kill remotely with no obvious link between the attacker and victim, is utterly horrifying. Moreover, as long as the "witch" was alive, could anyone ever be certain they weren't casting spells from prison? Likely, witchcraft would become a capital crime.

Long Answer


It's important to not that prior to the 16th century at the earliest, no culture made a hard distinction between a materialistic "natural" world, the supernatural or the cosmology of the local religion. They were all part of the same set of phenomena and blended together seamlessly. Newton for example, spent a lot of time working on alchemy seeking what we would consider non-material magical results. Likewise, he saw the cosmology of his Christian faith as the basis for his "clockwork" cosmology.

The key defining attribute that separates a magical world view and a materialistic scientific world view is the concept that the non-human and non-living world contains cognition, memory, desire, language and personality.

In other words, in a magical world, you alter that world by communicating with some non-material being which in turn can influence the material world.

In a materialistic world view, only living organism can be communicated with. Non-living objects, like rocks, are manipulated by apply various material effects to them e.g. heating, cooling, acids, smashing etc.

In Western magic you have to periods or groups: the Pagan era which overlaps and was eventually subsumed by Abrahamic magic which is magic associated with the world models of Judaism, Christianity, Gnosticism and Islam all the religions that trace back to Abraham. The major pre-Abrahamic influences come Egypt and Summaria

The major differences between the Pagan and Abrahamic magics lays in the immediacy of personality they communicate with. In Pagan magic, one evokes a specific non-material personality, which usually has specifically defined powers and regional range. Usually, dealing with the supernatural personality is pretty much like bargaining or trading with a powerful human being. Just as there are rituals for an audience with a king or priest, their are rituals for getting an audience with the entity. Just as humans won't do much for free, neither will the entities.

In Abrahamic magic, the cosmos, materialistic and otherwise, is created and manipulated by specific words e.g. which came originally from the words spoken by the creator God. "And god said, 'let there be light.'" Probably the best analogy would be that we all exist in a computer generated virtually reality, ala "The Matrix" and a magician is someone who knows the words to rewrite the program on the fly.

Note that in Abrahamic word magic, speaking, writing or sometimes even thinking of the word/sign/sigil, triggers their effects because the "word" and its effect are one and the same thing. Therefore, the real words an symbols must be encoded somehow so that people can learn them, without activating accidentally activating them.

Interestingly, specific personalities were reintroduced to the Abrhamic magical system by making specific angels and demons either the manifestations of or care takers for specific words or concepts of creation. The apocrypha of all the Abrahamic religions are full of complex hierarchies and relationships for these beings. Some historians classify the cults of Saints in Catholicism, each the patron saint of some activity or event, as form of personality based magic.

Modern Concepts What most people think of as "magic" in modern West, even Wiccan and the like, is actually Abrahamic magic were the magic words themselves can create a direct effect. As well, in many stories, magic is actual a form of physics, devoid of personalities, were the mage tosses around "energy" in some form. I think we tend to shy away from true traditions of magic of any form because they are inherently linked to specific religious cosmologies.

Strongly Differentiating Magic from Materialism in a Contemporary Fantasy

1) Don't evoke any concepts even vaguely materialistic e.g. energy. 2) Magic should violate fundamental scientific laws such Conservation of Energy, Conservation of Momentum or violations of Newton's laws of motions.

... most importantly...

3) There should be somewhere in the magic a definite personality of some kind. It can be a distant creator god who leaves knowledge of the words of creation behind attached or not to other beings, or it can be specific non-material personalities strongly attached to place or concept.

In any case, magic is about speech and/or communication and nothing else. Again, the concept of programing a virtually reality program from within the program is a good analogy. The magician doesn't have to worry about energy or conservation or anything else. He alters reality by effectively rewriting the rules of reality on the fly using either the words that created reality in the first place or by evoking a being who knows how to do the same.

For example, a magician would set something on fire by either 1) summoning a personality that can arbitrarily create fire or by 2) creating a spell/program that alters the properties of the target such that it burst into flames.

All science is based on the Great Assumption i.e. everything that exist is subject to materialistic measurement and everything follows specific rules, even if we don't always know what those rules are. Scientific models are judge by their ability to predict the future evolution of the modeled system.

All you have to do to throw a monkey wrench into scientific method is arbitrarily alter some aspect of the material universe by means that cannot be measured and which follow no rules other than the whims of the magician or supernatural entities.

For example: Turning a human being into a sentient frog capable of speech, simply cannot be done under materialistic rules even if you evoke bizarre levels of quantum probability. The extra mass has to go somewhere, the movement and reconfiguring of tissue from human to frog would have to generate heat and you can't cram a human brain into a frogs neurology. If performed repeatedly and at will, that would make quantum fluctuations so incredibly improbable that a non-materialist effect would be more plausible than unknown materialistic effects.

But you still need the Second Law of Thermodynamics

The story paradox created by magic boils down to one of limitations. To have story, one must have conflict and struggle and that means that any magical elements must come with some kind limitation, usually attached to the material world, that limits what magic can do. Otherwise, magic either immediately resolves the problem or someone sneezes in the middle of a spell and causes the universe to implode.

All our human perceptions of reality and story are ground in the 2nd law. Our intuitive model of realty says we can't get something for nothing, and that includes magic. Magic CANNOT use pseudo-physics like "mystic energy" but it must have a cost in time, knowledge, trade or consequence.

Ideally, the cost should be utterly unrelated from the effect sought e.g. the cost of having a supernatural personality fix a flat tire would be to have the mage perform the "naked chicken dance" in public. The only linkage between the dance and fixing the tire is the entity who thinks it's funny to humiliate you.

Well, you get the idea.

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ I don't think the 2nd Law actually matters much. You seem to be using it as a metaphor, but it's just an observed physical fact. We don't experience it as a universal truth in our everyday life, as the Earth is not a closed system: we get "free" energy from the sun every day. Even in a world where the law is broken and energy is not necessarily conserved in a closed system, other kinds of costs will likely still exist for humans, such as opportunity costs (it may take valuable time to create energy). Relevant answer about perpetual motion: worldbuilding.stackexchange.com/a/1125/4811 $\endgroup$
    – zeta
    Mar 30, 2016 at 3:06

Of course many people would say that the supernatural does exist in the real world, and that this has been proven over and over. Some people have philosophical beliefs that lead them to dogmatically reject the evidence.

And of course "supernatural" is a broad term, covering everything from vampires and zombies -- which I think almost every would agree are fictional -- to ghosts and pychic phenomenon, to a creator God.

How can we reconcile the supernatural with science? I would say, easily.

There could be forces at work in the universe that our present science does not understand. Three hundred years ago electricity was a mysterious force of which people had only the vaguest glimmerings of knowledge. Today it is well understood. Perhaps there is some force behind ghosts or telekinesis, that today is viewed as at best fringe science, but that three hundred years from now will be well understood, and people will build machines to detect and measure this force.

You say that you doubt there could be another form of energy that is presently unknown but that our science has not yet detected. I'd say, why not? It is just within the last hundred years that two of the four known forces, the strong force and the weak force, were discovered. People didn't know that electricty and magnetism were two forms or perspectives of the same thing until James Maxwell in 1873.

Consider human understanding of electricity before the 1700 and 1800s. People observed some mysterious phenomenon that they couldn't really explain, like lightning, some crude early batteries, etc. These things were on the fringes of science. Advocates of psychic phenomenon could argue that we're at a similar place now in their field: a few phenomenon that are poorly understood, and therefore difficult to reproduce and difficult to study. But someday there may be a breakthrough, some fundamental new understanding, and then people will look back at our day and say, "Wow, why didn't they see that telekinesis, the Bermuda Triangle, gamma radiation, and ball lightning (or whatever) are really the same thing? It seems so obvious."

(BTW For the record, I sincerely doubt that most psychic phenomenon, like mind reading, telekinesis, astral projection, et al, are anything but hoaxes and muddled observation. But I try to keep an open mind.)

It's easy to imagine phenomenon that are rare enough that people rarely observe them "in the wild", and so have no idea how to reproduce.

There could be beings who are capable of acting in ways visible to us, but who generally do not. Perhaps they are trying to hide, or perhaps they just don't care whether we know they are around or not. This description could apply to ghosts, angels and demons, aliens, etc.

For example, I came across a study once where the researchers set out to investigate whether people can really be healed of illnesses by prayer. So they got a group of sick people, and then they got people to pray for half of the sick people but no one to pray for the other half of the sick people, and compare how many in each group recovered. They found that slightly more of those prayed for recovered, but the results were not statistically significant, and so concluded that prayer does not work.

Except ... they mentioned in their report that they only told the people saying the prayers the first name of the sick person for privacy reasons, and they said that they didn't think this would matter as an all-knowing God would presumably know who they meant. But by the same reasoning, wouldn't an all-knowing God know that this was all an experiment? Wouldn't he know that the prayers were not genuine expressions of concern for the sick person but a cynical test? And wouldn't an all-powerful God be capable of healing or not healing regardless of these fake prayers? He might heal only those prayed for to prove his existence. He might ignore the prayers and heal or not heal in accordance with his own plans. He might heal only those NOT prayed for just to mess with people and get a good laugh.

I've seen other such experiments that claimed to find that prayer does work. They're all meaningless.

My point is, if some supernatural phenomenon is produced by intelligent beings, it could be almost impossible to study scientifically. An intelligent being who knows that you are experimenting on him could decide not to go along with the experiment, or to deliberately screw up the experiment, for any number of reasons.


I don't know about much how magic works in the world, or what Supernatural creatures are in your world but here or if you have ideas of how a scientist might explain the supernatural.

  1. Supernatural phenomena is caused or facilitated by a unknown energy source or particle that we have yet to detect. I know in your question you said that you think this answer would be unrealistic but remember we still can't detect dark matter even though we know it exists because we can see the results in our equations. That's why we called it dark matter because we cannot see or detect it with are instrument. Your scientists might try to use dark matter as an example in her Theory.

  2. Intersecting in the universities. Natural laws that we see in our universe don't necessarily apply to other universes. The theory of other universes have been around for some time. You are scientists might theorized that the scientific laws of Another Universe was somehow superseding the laws of our own. While I think this Theory more likely personally, but I think a scientist would most likely choose theory number one if she were trying to explain Supernatural creatures.


You must log in to answer this question.

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