I was discussing with a buddy of mine about magic and how it could easily be explained using alternate laws of physics. She replied simply "Magic that relies on alternate physics is only magic to people of our physics, would you call heat from friction magic because it works with our physics and not others?". This made me wonder; if another universe's physics allowed for what we consider magic, would they ever consider it magic or would it just be science?

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    $\begingroup$ well now i really wana know this, though i get the feeling it would just be science. If we look at some of the insaine things science is doing today, we still call it science, even though 100 years ago it would be considerd magic. That does imply though that for a time it would be called magic until their phsyics was able to properly explain it. $\endgroup$
    – Ryan
    May 26, 2016 at 17:17
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    $\begingroup$ @Ryan that's pretty much what the old ages were. Anything they didn't understand, MAGIC! Now we understand things like electricity and don't think it's weird, it's just science. So I would assume that alternate reality/physics society wouldn't consider it magic, just science. $\endgroup$ May 26, 2016 at 17:25
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    $\begingroup$ Yeah...basically: Clarke's Third Law: "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from Magic" But once you understand that technology, it isn't magic any more. $\endgroup$ May 26, 2016 at 17:35
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    $\begingroup$ This is completely opinion-based. Read a fantasy book- there's a world for you in which magic exists. But depending on the authors interpretation of the world, its inhabitants, and the magical system, how the characters in the book(s) react is entirely different from author to author. This is unanswerable unless you're seeking strong opinions on sociology, psychology, and a ton of other topics; which you are and thus this is opinion-based. $\endgroup$
    – 8protons
    May 26, 2016 at 19:14
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    $\begingroup$ Meaningless question if you don't first define what "magic" means. $\endgroup$
    – Paul
    May 27, 2016 at 7:06

18 Answers 18


TL;DR: the people of your world could definitely have a concept of magic, even if it was a "legal" part of their world. This is because a) there are always things that people don't understand, and b) there's nothing that says the Scientific Method (or a system like it) is inevitable as a system of knowledge (or at least that is a huge assumption requiring lots more discussion).

I feel like it wouldn't matter whether or not the world's physics allowed for magic. Really this is a question of epistemology; that is, the knowledge apparatus that a given culture uses to frame their reality.

Take western european culture as an example. Before the scientific revolution, the widely-used (where one was used in a methodological way) epistemological approach was the Scholastic method. This consisted essentially of "learned men" in universities engaging in debates until they agreed on an answer, at which point the "knowledge" could be codified in a written document.

Imagine introducing a smartphone to proponents of this system: it would look like magic, because Scholasticism is not equipped to investigate microelectronics to the extent necessary to atomize it and categorize each of its discrete features.

And Scholasticism was an advanced method for its time, used by only a fraction of society. The rest relied on an oral tradition totally reliant on ethnicity, geography, agriculture, and other aspects of subjectivity. A common person would quite simply have no words to describe something sufficiently complex, even though it was perfectly "legal" according to physics. At this point the word "magic" becomes a catch-all for a set of experiences that can't be categorized by a language. The degree of trepidation with which this concept is treated depends on certain qualities of the "magic," like how unpredictable is it, how likely is it to cause suffering, how much is it perceived as a tool of evil or injustice.

So really this is a matter of language. We don't talk about magic anymore in modern society, even though there are lots of things we do not understand -- like dark matter/energy, time, etc -- because "magic" is not part of the language of the Scientific Method, which is the de-facto language of most people in the world today.

Even science could be said to have its own types of magic. There are legitimate scientific problems where a majority consensus states that the problem is not solvable. For example, the problem of extraterrestrial life, the problem of observing beyond the light cone of the universe, the halting problem. These problems abut the capabilities of the scientific framework to solve (thus far). The reason these are not considered "magical problems" is that Science relies on the postivist philosophy, which takes a "wait and see," model-based approach to reality. It is very flexible, taxonomically, and has a very hard time ascribing absolute categories to things.

It is also essential to remember that science is still very new. We could probably call Gallileo the first scientist (debatable), and so you're looking at it being somewhere around 500 years old, the first 100 of which its practitioners were largely persecuted. So to state that something would be "just science" understates the strangeness of the scientific method in the history of humans, which is to say the history of sapience. Note that humans have been "around" as a species for ~200,000 years, and many cultures did not adopt the scientific worldview until the 19th and 20th centuries. Science is still a novelty.

Also consider cultures with languages that do allow for magic, e.g. "wiccans," eastern-european Romany, or shamanistic cultures such as the celts or the mayans. Or really, look at any major deistic religion (christianity, islam, judaism). These cultures are founded in the concept of magic. They may use other words, but essentially they are invested in the unknowability of some experience, whether it be having non-direct affects on the world, divining some truth, or having some metapysical experience or communication.

In these cultures, the use of magic might be expected and even routine, but is not considered "science," or other type of practical knowledge. "Magic" is still a stand-in for some kind of mystery that cannot (or should not) be investigated. Our concept of Science is really just an artifact of a specific property of an international language that presumes everything can be investigated.


Alternately, we can draw a line between the concepts of physics and magic along the distinction between the physical and the metaphysical. Physics is a description of the behavior of "the meat" while magic is a behavior of the soul or spirit or the mind (as a concept, not as an electro-chemical process).

In this case, Magic is magic because it emanates from a metaphysical realm. The set of magical events M would be the complement of the set of physical events P. Under this distinction, magic can be understandable, but only from a theological or mystical standpoint. It is necessarily separate from physics because it falls under the purview of metaphysics. A practitioner of magic would likely prioritize intuition or transcendence over lexical knowledge, believing the behavior of "the meat" to be an obfuscation of the truth inherent in the metaphysical aspect of being, even if such magic was a banal, mundane aspect of everyday life.

  • $\begingroup$ Welcome to the site zzu. Feel free to check out the help center for more information on the site, or you can always join us in Worldbuilding Chat $\endgroup$
    – James
    May 26, 2016 at 17:50
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    $\begingroup$ A minor nit: the halting problem is unsolvable. Period. No "majority consensus" involved (excepting logic-impaired cranks). $\endgroup$ May 27, 2016 at 0:49
  • $\begingroup$ Fair. Although a positivist might say that maybe it's just that our model of computation is insufficient. Of course, Turing might disagree. $\endgroup$
    – zzu
    May 27, 2016 at 0:51
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    $\begingroup$ Fabulous early answer, @zzu! Only one nit to pick, and it's a very tiny one... There's no need to pick out your edits with the "Edit:" stuff. The platform as built-in versioning. The "current" version of your answer should always be the best-possible-version of itself, so there's no need to pick out when it wasn't. :) $\endgroup$
    – T.J.L.
    May 27, 2016 at 12:52
  • $\begingroup$ Great, thanks for the tip, and the compliment! $\endgroup$
    – zzu
    May 27, 2016 at 17:11

I think my answer to that would be 'It Depends.'

Specifically, I would say that it depends on how the magic actually works in that world. If it is a system that anyone can learn how to use regardless of who they were, and it operated under a predictable, consistent, and reliable pattern...then I suppose it could be rolled in under Science. (Or if it was something that everyone had access to automatically)

An example of the above would be the Fullmetal Alchemist universe. Alchemy is a studied science that, to us, looks like magic. But anyone with the brains for it can learn how to do it. It takes a lot of hard work, but it is openly accessible to the public. It's just so much work that not too many people bother. In fact, the main character is so settled on the idea of it being a Science that he gets irritated when someone calls what he does a 'Miracle.'

On the other hand, if magic were something that was not openly accessible and was, perhaps, not as easily predicted...it may still be considered magic. This also applies if the methods to use the power are maintained in secrecy, and so even if lots of people could use that power...no one knows that. In this case, I believe it would still be considered magic.

Examples of settings that include this are the Harry Potter universe (either you were born with the ability to use magic, or you weren't) and the Dresdenverse (again, born with power or without...and it goes further because the magic in that universe is wholly dependent on the will of the user, and there is no set, codified pattern for spells...everyone's spells are subtly different).

So that is where I would draw the distinction. If it is as accessible to everyone as our Science is, and it can be understood using something similar to our Scientific Method (specific actions net predictable results) then it would not be considered Magic. If it is something that only certain people can do and/or does not operate in a universal or consistent manner, I would say it would be considered Magic.

Of course, as you said...something once considered Magic could later be understood better and thus be rolled into Science. The Nasu-verse has a great example of this where they draw this distinction: Any working that can be replicated by science is 'Magecraft,' which is treated as a Science. Any working which cannot be replicated by science is 'Magic,' which is treated as something incredible that no one but the practitioner (and sometimes not even they) fully understands. As science has progressed, more and more things became possible with it, and thus more and more 'Magic' was reclassified as 'Magecraft.' In that universe, there are only 5 Magics left.

  • $\begingroup$ I love your analogies, but I do have a small bone to pick about the Harry Potter section. Harry Potter doesn't explain with any type of physics how the magic works, which is why it is still magic, even to the magicians. If they could explain how it works, would it still be considered magic? Even in FMA: Brotherhood there's a connection. I'll continue in the next comment. (SPOILER WARNING) $\endgroup$ May 26, 2016 at 17:39
  • $\begingroup$ (SPOILER for FMA: Brotherhood) Edward gives up his alchemy and yet he still doesn't consider it magic because he understands how it works. So long as it is explainable, it doesn't seem to fit the idea of what magic is. I may not be able to eat a whole plane without dying, but I can understand how someone can due to a slightly different stomach. Seriously, that guy is weird. tailgatefan.cbslocal.com/2012/10/01/… $\endgroup$ May 26, 2016 at 17:42
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    $\begingroup$ (SPOILERS as well)I wouldn't generally change a ruling based on outliers. Ed is an outlier...the one person in all the world who can't use Alchemy, ever...because he used the understood methods of Alchemy to give up his ability to use Alchemy. So yes, I suppose it would ground further in 'explainable using the scientific method' than commonality, but accessibility would still be a factor. $\endgroup$ May 26, 2016 at 17:48
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    $\begingroup$ If its "magic" until such time as you can figure out how to repeat it and predict what will happen when you try it, then it basically boils down to Clarke's 3rd again, doesn't it? $\endgroup$
    – T.E.D.
    May 26, 2016 at 18:26
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    $\begingroup$ @DamianYerrick then if it's not cannon, I don't think we can really consider it an explanation of how it works, right? $\endgroup$ May 29, 2016 at 17:08

I'll just drop you this one: You wrote that on a magic machine that prints text onto a screen which can vanish or change 60 times per second and bases its functionality on bit manipulations. You then sent the text to a different magical device with two thirds the speed of light without even thinking about it.

So either magic is normal or it isn't considered magic any more as soon as its proven to be doable in the universe you live in and has been explained using a model.

Let's go straight to it being explained: In either case (magic being normal or not being considered magic) there is nothing considered magic worth wondering about in the universe. It's scientific phenomena in the bast case and phenomena which are being ignored in the worst case.

Now to the case in which it isn't explained: Then it is considered magic. And we can see this in history. A lot of phenomena were thought to be magic until they were first explained. (I'm not counting "Oh, it must be magic." as an explanation. Because it isn't. Because it's an absence of an explanation.) However, once explained, there weren't considered magic any more. Would you consider talking to someone 100 km away magic? Would people 500 years ago consider it magic?

Plus, we still have Clarke's third law:

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.


Magic refers to the knowledge and practices held by magus, which could be thought as priests or people with high knowledge in the subject.

So the word magic in its pure form refers to craft of the wise (wo)men.

You have two different approaches to that word, apart from the trickery meaning (illusionism, which anyway is quite related to one of the concepts):

  • A sort of knowledge you don't understand. Then you say magic is a hidden knowledge totally beyond what you understand about the reality.
  • A modern definition totally varies depending on the tradition:
    • Wiccans say it is the force of nature. Every soul can cooperate with nature spirit (in the form of a god and a goddess) to make them bend their laws for a while and produce an effect.
    • Christians would say like it is a Devil's craft (this definition is not new but it is still held today, in the world of science and information). Actually magic is (under the hoods) the Devil fullfilling favors to you if you vow to him, and has the limit of what the power of the Devil can provide you. This is true, at least, for catholicism.
    • Kaoists say magic is the ability to bend (or twist, even break) the rules of reality according to your will. A common phrase there is everything is true.
    • Andean people held no difference (and still hold no difference) between magic and what they understood as science.

They have in common that magic, as a craft, is mainly an act of will, instead of a life-agnostic matter of fact.

You can take these alternatives:

  • Reality is quite predictable, and acts of will do not actually exist. You can invent the concept of magic in a despective way for pseudoscience pretty much our reality does. Here: magic is not an actually useful concept outside of epistemology.
  • Reality is quite predictable, but (uncommonly effortful) acts of will performed by some species or every live specie can alter the laws to an extent we could understand at some degree. You could use the concept of magic there as a physiological or spiritual known effect related to a singularity. Here: both magic and science are useful here, and magic could be studied inside science.
  • Reality is quite predictable on isolated environment, but acts of will are quite frequent. You can ask yourself if there is need for a difference between science and magic: Would you actually hold the current (ours) concept of science when the reality is just... volatile? The initial reaction of the people will be trying to understand why the acts of will occur, and the only science that will exist is one involving what we call magic. The science concept will be entirely useless if the magic could not be studied (although commonly executed) at all. Here: Science and magic could make a hybrid knowledge, perhaps only either of the words would be used and not both.
  • Reality is not predictable since the minimal act of will can alter it. Then you don't have, perhaps, even a surviving society under those rules. Not only magic or science will be useless under that reality: the very concept of knowledge will be meaningless there. Here: Using a word for something not useful (because there would be no concept of reality) at all in an unpredictable reality is totally meaningless, so there would be none, if either life was possible there.

Magical magic

Magic can be magical even if fully understood. Consider a magic system that works based on belief. If someone is alone, her own beliefs determine how it works. If she joins someone else, their beliefs compromise. Behavior is different. In that system, results will be non-reproducible. To get identical results, you need the same beliefs. That's not achievable with different personnel.

Even if the same people try to reproduce a study, their beliefs may have evolved over time. This can lead to different results, particularly if the experiment is sensitive to small changes.

Magic would work differently for different people in such a world. It can even work differently depending on who is present for the experiment.

Scientific magic

Things that we'd call magic can also follow clear, quantifiable rules. It can work the same for everyone. In that case, "magic" would become part of the science.


Linguistics says the question is a non-starter. They would not call it "magic" because their language would not contain an English word. They would have words they find useful, drawn along boundaries which make sense to them.

A more language neutral question would be to explore a case where we pick three events, A, B and C, such that A is beyond the laws of physics in both worlds, B is beyond the laws of physics in our world but is within their laws, and C is within the laws of both physics. We currently might label A and B as "magic" and C as "physics -- A and B are "grouped together" while C is not. How would they group them? Most likely they would have A on its own, while B and C are grouped together.

This is very close to saying "no, it would not be considered magic," but it sidesteps the linguistic puzzles that lead to false solutions.

Related to this is the Twin Earth thought experiment, where there is an earth which is identical to ours, except our water is replaced with a new substance called XYZ which has the same properties as our water, but is chemically different. Individuals on both planets call their substance "water." The question in this thought experiment is whether, when a twin says "water," it means the same thing as if the other twin says "water." It turns out to be really hard to pin arguments either way, suggesting our concept of the "meaning of words" may be insufficient in exploring such scenarios.


Tolkien suggested that the elves of Middle Earth did not view their powers as magical. In The Fellowship of the Ring in the chapter The Mirror of Galadriel, Galadriel the elf has an exchange with Sam the hobbit (hobbits being a non-magical race from our point of view) about her mirror, which can show possible futures. She says "For this is what your folk would call magic, I believe; though I do not understand clearly what they mean; and they seem also to use the same word of the deceits of the Enemy."

Later, when the fellowship is given cloaks made by the elves, Pippin the hobbit asks "Are these magic cloaks?" The elf giving him the cloak replies "I do not know what you mean by that."

  • $\begingroup$ This is all because the Eldar in Tolkien's legendarium had a different relationship with the physical world than Men (including hobbits), and because of that were able to do things that Men could not do. They could put some of their selves into the objects they manipulated (as could the Maiar). Legolas, prior to the Fellowship's entry into Moria, remarks on how the stones in the region through which they were passing remembered the Noldor. $\endgroup$
    – EvilSnack
    May 28, 2016 at 21:10

If in that culture everyone would be able to do magic I do not think they would consider it special. They'd probably even consider non magical people as the "weird" ones.

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    $\begingroup$ A related show: My Hero Academia. Almost everyone has "quirks," which are like superpowers, to varying degrees. They're so common that the main character, who is born without a quirk, is considered the weird one for being normal. And if you watch the show, some of those people with "quirks" are REALLY weird looking. $\endgroup$ May 26, 2016 at 17:27
  • $\begingroup$ @ChronoD yeah thats pretty much what I tried to say with my answer here! $\endgroup$ May 26, 2016 at 17:43

"Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic". If "magic" was common place it would probably cease to be wonderful. A firearm would seem 'magical' to a pre industrial society. In a modern society, its simply a mechanical object.

Likewise widespread use of what we'd term as magic would dull the sense of wonder and awe around it. If only mages could cast fireballs, it would be magic. If streetvendors regularly used it to cook food, it would be somewhat less exciting. Chances even if it was less common, it would be treated much as science was or the 'natural sciences' with different schools of thought and specialisations.

At some point however "meh, he's just levitating an apple"


It's an interesting question, and one that crops up repeatedly in fantasy fiction. Terry Pratchett repeatedly riffed on this, most obviously with the magic-based computer called Hex and his parody of geek/hacker culture surrounding it, but also in "Raising Steam" where the steam engine starts as purely mechanical but becomes magically aware due to its effect on the people around it. (In the Diskworld universe, belief/faith is a source of magical power.)

Tad Williams's book "The War of the Flowers" is more interesting this way, in that a parallel fairy Earth becomes a warped-mirror version of our own. Fairies drive cars, use laptops/phones/tablets with email/IM and other stuff, run heavy industry which pollutes the environment, etc.. All run through magic rather than science. In that world "science" is an old discredited hypothesis in the same way as "magic" is in ours, because magic in their world means that if you run the same experiment twice then you won't necessarily get the same result twice, evolution is Lamarkian not Darwinian, and so on. This does still rely on the "magic-is-inherent-to-the-individual" concept though, but different races have different abilities, and hence their roles in society are largely predetermined by race.

Another version, and perhaps more relevant to how science works for us, is Scott Lynch's "Gentleman Bastards" series. (Sadly progressing slowly due to the author's struggle with clinical depression - strength to you, Scott.) Magic here is a part of the world, but it coexists with science instead of being an either/or option, because it isn't inherent to a person and it can be systematically studied. So we have normal mechanical devices, but perhaps with a magical light in there, or magical colour changes, or whatever. Or we have plant breeding assisted by magic to allow otherwise-impossible cross-pollination. Or we have normal doctoring, but with magically-assisted healing as an extra option (and poisons too, of course). All of these are straightforward things that people can learn, so you have guilds and lone genius inventors and all the usual stuff that goes with science.


This is mostly opinion based if you ask me, but I lean towards No, though I'm not sure it would be proper to then call it science.

Magic, as we humans use the word, usually refers to things that exist/function outside the parameters of physics, as they exist on this world and as we understand them. The line about magic/advanced technology is fun, but the tech is clearly complying with the laws of physics. Magic is the set of all things that do not conform to these rules and limitations.

Let us carry this definition of magic on to your other culture/universe with alternate physics, which allows the kind of things we would classify as magic. In this other universe, while the definition of magic has not changed, the things that fall into the category of magic has. Conjuring matter from nothing is decidedly magic in our realm, but may not be in another. Electrolysis may be a perfectly normal process here, but magic somewhere else if the physical laws that govern it prohibit electrolysis.

Magic, we now see, is relative.

Your friend is mostly right, but it would not be right to say they would call it science instead. We call the things we call science that because we understand how and why they work, we can explain them. We have a whole method devoted to it. If your other culture cannot explain how/why the things they do work, it would not be science. I'm not sure what to call it, but as they do not understand it it wouldn't be science, but because it conforms to the physical laws of the universe, it wouldn't be magic.


I want to answer your question with another question:

Do you consider electricity to be magic? Because people call it 'the power'.

Again, The concretion of Ice will not endure a dry attrition without liquation; for if it be rubbed long with a cloth, it melteth. But Crystal will calefie unto electricity; that is, a power to attract strawes and light bodies, and convert the needle freely placed

Pseudodoxia Epidemica, 1st edition, p. 51

Power is clearly a reference to the supernatural, i.e. magic.


It depends, how do we define "magic".

Some comparison, analogies:

  • In the ancient Egypt, the sanctuary of their gods was opened with a primitive steam machine. The priests initiated a fire, and the door of the temple opened. For the common people, it was magic. For us, it was primitive technology.
  • Even our, current technology is magic for the people not understanding it! As yes, Many of them have even an instinctive fear from the technology, especially from the nuclear technology. This fear from a psychological sense is essentially the same to the fear of the medieval common people from the witches.

So, we can see two extremes.

1. As "magic" is defined in the RPG worlds, it is essentially physics, but with highly different laws. For example, in the physics, if you say something, a magic word, nothing will happen. On the laws of the magic, magical sayings can cause effects on the world. But, it is essentially a physics, with very different laws. In the RPG worlds, the capability to use magic words is very similar to the capability to understand the General Relativity in ours. The "magic" of the RPG worlds is essentially physics, but with radically different laws.

2. Or there is another possibility: we can see magic as something which is not governed by laws. Consider if there would exist laws of the nature, which work only once. Or consider a world, where the laws of the nature are not predictable, and not deterministic, but they can be affected by the conscience of the intelligent beings.

There are many possibilities, but you need to somehow define a philosophical background to the magic, to define how does it work.


That entirely depends on your definition of magic. Most people consider magic to be a foreign element, but a culture that incorporates magic will take it to be native. So they would consider it magic but not foreign or strange.


It depends on how well the people understand magic and can control it . If it something that can be easily understood and measured then it would be just another science. However if even the people that use magic didn't quite understand how it works then it would retain it's mysteriousness that separates magic for science.



Once you understand the pattern of nature's methods it is no longer magic but, as you indicate, some sort of science.

  • $\begingroup$ Doesn't this contain an assumption that everything which is possible has patterns which can be understood? $\endgroup$
    – Random832
    May 27, 2016 at 14:20
  • $\begingroup$ It also assumes that magic is completely unpredictable and idiosyncratic. $\endgroup$
    – The Nate
    May 28, 2016 at 15:22
  • $\begingroup$ @The Nate, low probability events are supposed to happen in a natural universe and, when observed, would appear as "idiosyncratic". $\endgroup$ May 28, 2016 at 19:07

Well, besides what others have already discussed, it would depend on what magic relies upon. It is possible that magic is something that can be learned by all, but it depends on some principle - let's call it mana - that sets it apart from other human endeavours. If so, something is called "magic" if it uses "mana", even if is something that can be learned by anyone; it is called "science" (or "art", or "craft", or etc.) if it doesn't (and in this case, even if it cannot be learned by all - suppose a society in which everybody except a few mutants are daltonic. The ability to make a difference between red and green is still not magic, even though the vast majority of the populace cannot achieve it by effort or study).


Depends. If magic were no longer mysterious, it would no longer be magic. However, "magic" might be their word for particular science, like we use "electricity" and "physics". It's possible that humans took the word "magic" from them.


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