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Since I asked these questions If magic is real, can it be true that rational scientific thought should exclude it? Science, Religion, Magic: Can they be maintained in equal and parallel opposition? I realized that I wanted something that went beyond "unscientific". I've asked this elsewhere, but didn't get a useful answer.

This is for an alternate world of roughly modern level of science. Magic exists, and it shouldn't be limited to subjective / unprovable effects. It is, however, intrinsically hostile to science because it is fundamentally irrational. I don't mean hostile in the sense that technological devices stop functioning in the presence of magic. I mean it in the sense that magic is not studied as a science.

My expectation of irrationalism goes beyond science. Magic is also not the prevalent means by which wealth and power are gained. It's not the main way wars are fought, and not because magic is useless as a weapon. My expectation is that only irrational people make (good) magicians. Developing a scientific mindset impedes one from working (understanding? Does anyone understand it?) magic. Because administrators tend to be logically minded, governments don't focus on organizing magic. Because strategists tend to be rational, militaries focus on non-magical methods.

Who do I expect to be magically inclined? Playing to tropes... A lot of people from 'primitive' cultures. It is not that they have any hereditary advantage, but that they have not institutionalized rationality to a great extent. There are many magically inclined people in industrialized cultures as well. The difference is that there isn't a recognized social place for them. They might be artists like Escher, Picasso and Dali, or just the hobo who says something oddly insightful and prescient and later says, "Told you so." Maybe I'll think of more likely places, but the common factor is obvious: they're all outsiders to the mainstream of industrialized civilization in some way. Magic is a disruptive force, something on the fringe.

For an example, how I expect magic to relate to warfare: Soldiers would sometimes carry charms to deflect bullets. Some of these actually worked. Yet national armies would not issue these as standard equipment. However, if a nation happened to be led by a crazed dictator, he might just send expeditions to discover sources of occult power...

My vision seems coherent, in a handwavey thematic sense. I'm not sure how to make it work on a... I guess "rational level" is the wrong thing to ask! Work with human nature, maybe. My vision implies some rather extreme assumptions: for example, that strongly rational people not only don't get magic, but are strongly resistant to even employing anyone who is irrational enough to be magicians. And I'm probably overestimating the rationality of the average person...

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  • $\begingroup$ Related: worldbuilding.stackexchange.com/questions/27819/… (See this answer in particular) $\endgroup$ – PyRulez Apr 13 '16 at 1:00
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    $\begingroup$ What's your meaning of "irrational?" There's lots of meanings, and some of them contradict what you are talking about, so its hard to answer "can this work as I expect." Maybe yes, maybe no. There's a lot of rational thought which is considered bunk science by the modern scientific community, and a lot of rational thought that isn't even scientific in the least. One potential definition, from Rational Choice Theory, could be (borrowed from wikipedia): $\endgroup$ – Cort Ammon Apr 13 '16 at 4:00
  • $\begingroup$ "At its most basic level, behavior is rational if it is goal-oriented, reflective (evaluative), and consistent (across time and different choice situations). This contrasts with behavior that is random, impulsive, conditioned, or adopted by (unevaluative) imitation." $\endgroup$ – Cort Ammon Apr 13 '16 at 4:01
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    $\begingroup$ Why can't a rational person use a group of these people? Artists had patrons who didn't need to have an artistic bone in their bodies. Madmen can be herded by sane men. The only practical way you can make magic almost impossible to study is to link it to an intelligent entity explicitly hostile to the concept of it's gifts being studied. $\endgroup$ – Murphy Apr 13 '16 at 11:51
  • $\begingroup$ I strongly dislike the common concept of irrational being magic. Irrational is just another way to say "not very smart". $\endgroup$ – Tomáš Zato Apr 13 '16 at 12:44
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Here's the problem.

So you have these "irrational" people who can do magical effects. Sooner or later, someone who isn't "irrational" is going to find someone who can do something potentially useful and then ask them to do something specifically for them. Perhaps payment will be involved.

So... can these "irrational" people actually choose what kind of magic they do? Escher could choose what to draw, even if what he drew was unusual. Could Picasso choose what subject to paint?

Take your example of bullet deflecting charms. Could such an "irrational" person choose to create them? If so, then they will find employment in someone's army. And by "employment", I mean "do it or die". So if an "irrational" person can choose what kinds of magical effects to create, then non-magical people will benefit from them. And there's no avoiding that.

If an "irrational" person cannot choose what kind of magical effects to create, then basically what you will have is modern society, except that every now and them, someone will show up with random powers and abilities that can do incredible things. But since they cannot be controlled, even on pain of death, there will be few lasting effects of them. They might create "works of art", but they would be random, unique, and ultimately useless towards society.

But either way, once the scientific method exists and is widely employed, the problem you will have is that they will begin to psychologically study these people. They will start learning how particular forms of "irrationality" causes particular forms of magic.

If there is at all a system behind it, they will find it. Eventually. And if there is no system behind it, they will at least catalogue the particular forms of thought that lead to magical talent. And they'll likely catalogue the degree of such thought that leads to the degree of such talent.

Either way, they're going to learn something about how "irrationality" affects magic.

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    $\begingroup$ Not mentioning the fact irrational people are usually easy to control, as they tend to oversee long term consequences of their actions. $\endgroup$ – Tomáš Zato Apr 13 '16 at 12:46
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You can assume that magic is no longer possible. That for example the "mana level" of the world has decreased over time so that it is no longer sufficient for magic to happen and everything works according to science.

Magic being impossible would seem to prevent the setting having magic, but it actually doesn't. Our bodies are full of atoms that were formed in events so energetic they can't happen on Earth. Similarly some of the primal magic might survive in stable entities despite the magic no longer existing. Essentially the magic contained by such entity makes the local mana level higher, which causes the physical laws to bend enough for the entity to have magic. It would be impossible for such an entity to form, but any pre-existing would be stable.

Thus only way to use magic would be to interact with entities alien to the rules of the current reality. If you further assume the type of interaction is mental, you need for the magician to think in way that is alien and incompatible with reality as seen by non-magicians. They'd certainly seem irrational and even insane.

They'd probably try to practice some mental discipline to keep the mental patterns of the two realities distinct, so that they can operate in the normal reality, but it wouldn't help enough to make them appear normal. The best would be to have such strict separation between the mental patterns that you'd think normal then not using magic and magical then using it. But the two patterns would appear so different it would look like you have two personalities, one of which is totally insane and the other suffering from weird memory issues. Not sure if that would convince anyone you are sane and rational.

As a bonus since the entities would be discrete and rare, they could also be unique in how the magician needs to interact with them. Also variation in the amount of magic they have would naturally lead to differing levels of mana, and thus different entities would follow different rules of reality. And the magicians of course would be unique individuals. If the entities are rare and unique enough, it might be genuinely impossible to deduce general rules of magic from observing individual magicians do magic. And more sensitive a scientific instrument is, less likely it would be to work correctly near the reality distortions caused by the entities.

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  • $\begingroup$ Brilliant! I'd love to read a novel built on such setup $\endgroup$ – Giacomo Tesio Apr 13 '16 at 12:22
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Science and religion should not be considered in conflict, Science is about asking "how" the world works while religion (and philosophy) ask "why". Magic in your system isn't in the realm of science since it is essentially not reproducible or falsifiable, but does not seem to clearly fall into religion or philosophy either.

If magic is "irrational" and cannot be reliably reproduced or explained, then it will end up in society much like cryptozoology, chemtrails, the Face on Mars or other "fringe" ideas, followed obsessively be a few people who try to explain or rationalize it, while a legion of debunkers will also be analyzing it for any holes or weakness. It will be terribly frustrating for all sides, since you will have snippets that may or may not point to magical events and powers, but they are not reproducible, provable/falsifiable or explainable by normal means.

Kind of like today.....

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I don't think there was a clear question here, but you may enjoy the Orks from Warhammer 40k, which have many traits you seek in a magic system. From the linked Wikipedia article:

Orks prefer close combat weapons as they are represented in-game as being terrible marksmen, which they compensate for by building comically powerful guns, which are often manned, again for humorous effect, by the weedy Grots or Gretchin who are portrayed as being slightly better handlers of ballistic weapons than their bigger cousins, having a similar proficiency as an average human soldier (Imperial Guardsman). The Ork WAAAGH gestalt also works on their equipment. Aside from allowing Orks to form some form of hierarchy, this gestalt psychic field allows slapped-together weapons, vehicles, spacecraft, and aircraft to function when, according to all laws of physics, they should explode, fall apart or simply not work- for example, when a human or Eldar attempts to fire an Ork gun, it usually explodes. In the same way, the generalized Ork belief that vehicles or aircraft painted or otherwise colored red have higher top speeds than those painted or colored otherwise ('da red wunz go fasta!') actually results in measurably higher top speeds for Ork vehicles painted red. It is theorized by fans that at some point in the past, orks built two vehicles that were identical in their eyes, save for some internal difference that resulted in the red painted one going faster. This effect can be included in the game, with an Ork player using 5 army points to buy a "Red Paint Job" for any vehicle, giving it an extra inch of movement. In a similar vein, Orks desiring stealth will paint themselves purple; the logic being that 'no one has ever seen a purple Ork'. All this combined suggests that the only thing supplementing the Ork war machine is their own confidence in their methods- were there to be logic applied to the situation, the Orks would not be half as effective as they are.

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Magic is guided by the subconscious and blocked by the conscious mind

From the descriptions in the question, it sounds like a vital part of interacting with/controlling magic is done through the autonomic nervous system, which in turn is influenced by the desires, images, etc in the subconscious mind.

First, let's establish breathing as a reference: Breathing is normally controlled by the autonomous nervous system, with the rate etc being influenced by both the body and the brain to adapt to momentary needs. It is possible for the somatic (active/conscious) nervous system to override this control, as in holding one's breath, but only up to certain limits. The moment that control is lost, automatic breathing resumes.

Magic in this scenario is also controlled by the autonomic nervous system, but any attempt to override it will suppress all activity rather than taking over control. This makes it impossible to consciously control magic when you want to do "Magic". (it also prevents toddlers from blowing up their parents the first time they hear "No!").

How then can people use magic?

  1. They discover it by accident/providence. Something, somehow triggers the first magic effect.
  2. When attempting to repeat the magical effect, they discover that focusing on the magic doesn't work, and vitally, accept this. Whether they imagine it's God granting their requests or unknowable inspiration doesn't matter, as long as they stop consciously thinking about it.
  3. They learn to trigger their subconscious mind with trances, drugs, prayers, images, sounds, feelings and/or memories. The subconscious then activates the magic controlling part of the brain... maybe.

Effects will be unpredictable because of stuff floating around in the subconscious. Feeling bad about the cake you burned this morning? That healing spell just might end up cauterizing the wound instead of healing.

Why magic is permanently unavailable to the scientific minds

Any person that strives to be rational and scientific will suppress expressions of their subconscious, act according to established goals rather than instincts or feelings. This blocks any activation of the magic part of the brain and over the years causes it to atrophy, so that even when a scientist reverses course and tries to go all instinctive and subconscious, no magic will come of it.

Any successful magic user forced into a laboratory setting will be forced to do exactly the one thing that will block his magic: think about it. Everything about the laboratory setting screams this into the magic user's brain. Even just an observing scientist in the sacred grove will trigger a blocking reaction as long as the magic user cares about that. This makes magic not "reproducible" and thus no "serious" scientist will risk their reputation on it.

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Springhole actually has a fantastic article on this subject, but the basic gist is:

Science is the study of things that exist. If Magic exists, then it can be understood scientifically ;)

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    $\begingroup$ Actually, the study of things that exists is ontology. Science is a discipline within empiricism, which is a school of epistomology. Epistomology is the study of knowledge. It might be better to phrase it as science is the study of repeatable things that can be known through empirical observation. $\endgroup$ – Cort Ammon Apr 13 '16 at 3:58
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In our world you can look at how our society treats hypnosis. There were open heart surgeries performed without anesthetics under Dave Elman. There aren't any scientific publications of using hypnosis for that use case.

There are a few scientific publications that suggest that supplementing classic anesthisia with hypnosis generally improves health outcomes. Doing hypnosis well often coindides with a state of mind that very different from the mind of a scientist. That's because it's important to be in certain states of mind when doing hypnosis. A hypnotist is more effective if he strongly believes in the suggestion that he gives.

Why have a doctrine according to which clinical effects created by suggestions aren't supposed to count because they are placebo. Hypnosis genereally works through creating clinical effects through suggestion.

I know multiple people who got their wisdom teeth drawn without anesthesia and without any pain. Yet that's not the topic of scientific attention.

Using hypnosis to reduce pain is a topic that's openly discussed. Dave Elman didn't try to keep his knowledge secret from science.

There are other communities that do try to keep what they are doing secred. In Tantra that happens a lot. MIT trained computer scientist Dave Chapman has an interesting article about the Windhorse technique where he speaks about it but doesn't reveal what it's about because he promised to keep it secred.

Secrecy is the anti-thesis to our system of science. In a world with working magic it would be easily imagineable that magicians can cast binding oathes of secrecy about not telling non-magicians about the way magic works. At the moment a magician violates the oath of secrecy he dies.

A complex system of binding oathes might also reduce the number of magicians that exist because magicians regularly die for violating some oath they swore. When they get into a situation where two different oathes they swore require them to engage in different actions they die.

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I was always quite fond of the way Fullmetal Alchemist handled it. In FMA, theres roughly speaking two universes, the one we live in which is governed by science, and the one of FMA which is governed by Alchemy. Alchemy then is studied rigorously, empirically and known to follow particular laws, most importantly being a sort of conservation of energy/matter one that you cant take out of the equasion more than you put in. The alchemists hold the highest scientific pursuit the search for the philosophers stone, and its implied that the stone might hold the answer to why sometimes alchemy doesnt appear to follow the conservation law as neatly as it ought to. The search for the answer to that question is explained at the end (which I wont go into, spoilers and all that, needless to say, its horrifying) and ties the whole ark of the story wonderfully.

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One possible angle you could use is that the effectiveness of magic is tied to the emotions of the wielder and the 'novelty' of the spell. It could be similar to art - you can teach the principles and techniques of art and study them rationally, but to create an actual work of art in practice you need to break away from the 'science' and paint from the heart. Once you are simply copying previous works, or painting for the money, they are no longer as 'authentic'.

When a person performs the same task over and over, it becomes "routine" and they tend to lose the emotions associated with that task. If the magic is associated with the emotions themselves, it will be virtually impossible to 'mass produce' magical items.

For example, a person might channel their emotions to create an anti-bullet charm in order to protect a loved one going to war. A particularly empathetic person might be able to do this repeatedly and/or for strangers, but such individuals are rare, and once it becomes routine labor for them, the charms no longer work. Military equipment is usually constructed either by machine or in sweatshops - arming thousands of soldiers with the same items is virtually impossible otherwise. Therefore, the 'Industrial Revolution' is naturally opposed to the principles of magic.

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