Most fantasy worlds work according to real physics with magic haphazardly tacked on. I want to build a world where physics works according to magic or, perhaps more accurately, how people in ancient cultures believed physics worked.

This magical world resembles a very, very poorly researched pastiche of various historical periods and cultures on Earth. The world is an artificial construct created by deities and is maintained by a vast bureaucracy of spirits and arbitrary whims rather than inviolate laws of physics. Gravity is the result of the flying spaghetti monster holding everything down with his noodly appendages, disease is the result of disease spirits rather than pathogens, weather and natural disasters are the work of spirits, etc. Obsolete scientific theories like spontaneous generation, miasma theory of disease, orgone energy, four humors and so forth are also true. There's no distinction between magic and mundane science, and sufficiently talented or skilled individuals are capable of ignoring these rules (e.g. so skilled at healing you may raise the dead, so skilled at swordplay you can cut mountains in half, etc).

However, this runs into problems if you examine things too closely. For example, how does nutrition and nutrient deficiency work? If people are dying of rickets and scurvy despite cellular biology not existing and no way for the primitive cultures to understand why, what is the cause and why are these afflictions cured same way they are in the real world (i.e. sunlight exposure, eating onions)? Are scurvy spirits repelled by onions?

Or should I just take the Game of Thrones approach and give everyone better dental, height and overall health than in the real world because it isn't the real world, biology doesn't actually exist, and most of my readers wouldn't actually care about the extreme departures from reality? It does seem awfully inconvenient for major characters to die of simple infections because that would be realistic even though it would drag the narrative to a screeching halt.

  • $\begingroup$ Although really interesting question, I am afraid it is too broad to answer, since good answer should basically invent whole new physics $\endgroup$ – Pavel Janicek Jun 24 '16 at 13:31
  • $\begingroup$ Magic is one thing (and you could define it as you wish - an arcane art that only initiates, or favourites of some gods, can master, the use of a supernatural principle such as mana, an inherited ability, etc). The way people in ancient cultures believed physics worked is a different thing, and you would like to read ancient or medieval philosophers - or about them - to form an idea of what that would be. $\endgroup$ – Luís Henrique Jun 24 '16 at 20:14

Malnutrition is easy to explain from a mystical point of view. The body is a temple and temples require daily blood sacrifices. If you do not obey the necessary rituals, your temple collapses.
Renew your dedication to the faith. Make up for missed sacrifices and your temple will rise again.

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Science is NOT physics or the laws of nature. It is a method

There seems to be a general misconception that "science" equals "the laws of nature". It is not.

Science is a method to find out what the laws of nature are, and how the world — and the entirety of reality — works.

Science is done like this...

  1. You see something in reality. You think that you can see that this thing — whatever it is — seems to behave somewhat predictable... according to a certain pattern. This is Observation

  2. You write down what you think the behavior is. You say... "Under these conditions, when someone does that specific action on the thing, then the thing will behave as follows". This is the Hypothesis.

  3. You make a set-up, where you try to eliminate all other factors that affect the thing. Then you poke at the thing, and record its behavior. This is Experimentation

  4. You check if the recorded behavior of the thing matches the predicted behavior.

    If the prediction did not match the result, go back to 1 and try again.

    If the prediction matches the result, success! Now ask someone else to a check your experiment and your result, to see if you made any mistakes somewhere. This is Peer Review.

  5. If the peer review reaches the same conclusion as you, you have now constructed a scientific theory that explains how reality works. You have managed to find a Law of Nature.

    Congratulations. Collect your Nobel Prize in Stockholm on December 10.

Magic is quite simply a short name for "things for which we do not have laws of nature, yet". Everything else is just plain old physics.

So in your "magic" world, you simply have other laws of nature, laws of nature that have not been explored very well yet.

Someone will figure them out sooner or later, using science.

EDIT: And this will work in your world too. Because either the theories will be of the sort: "It works like this, for most of the time, unless the gods decide to mess with us because then all bets are off and literally anything can happen". Or people will figure ut how the gods work and learn to predict their behavior.

Let me note for the record though that this would be an extremely frustrating and scary world to live in. A place where reality itself behaves randomly and unpredictably — to the will and whims of creatures that are to us as we are to ants — that would be a terrible place.

Just imagine yourself being a sentient ant living in an ant-farm, in the room of some dork that thinks of you as just that: an ant. And there is nothing you can do about that... because this ant-farm is in fact the entirety of reality.

Worried yet?

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    $\begingroup$ The OP has given a fairly good explanation of how he distinguishes science and magic; without drawing some sort of conclusion from the things you stated, your answer only touches tangentially on the OPs question. $\endgroup$ – TheSexyMenhir Jun 24 '16 at 13:49
  • $\begingroup$ @TheSexyMenhir It doesn't matter... this is how people will go about trying to figure out how the reality they live in works. And I dare say this is a rather crappy place to live in because it is fraught with uncertainty. It would be like living in an ant-farm where the owners are capricious and randomly screw with you all the time, just for giggles. It would be extremely frustrating. And science in this world end up with theories of the sort: "It works like this, for most of the time. Unless the gods decide to mess with us; then all bets are off and literally anything can happen". $\endgroup$ – MichaelK Jun 24 '16 at 13:56
  • $\begingroup$ Oh, I agree. I just think, that this should be the focus of your answer, not how to define science/magic. $\endgroup$ – TheSexyMenhir Jun 24 '16 at 14:01
  • $\begingroup$ Those are the definitions of science, the laws of nature, magic and chaos. Science: how to find out how reality behaves. Laws of nature: the patterns according to which reality behaves that we know. Magic: the patterns according to which nature behaves that we do not know (yet). Chaos: the behaviors of nature that cannot be characterized, examined or worked out into patterns.... i,e. unpredictability. $\endgroup$ – MichaelK Jun 24 '16 at 14:05
  • $\begingroup$ @Anonymous To quote Arthur C. Clarke: "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic". If you or I were to be transported 2000 years back in time, we would be able to do things that would make the preachers of the day just gape at us and fall to their knees. Just the fact that you and I are entirely untouchable by things like Smallpox, Polio, TB, and a whole bunch of other illnesses are completely magical to the people at the time. That we can cure terrible diseases like scurvy and beriberi by just pointing out which foods they should eat is magic to them. $\endgroup$ – MichaelK Jun 24 '16 at 14:13

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