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So we discover an alternate Earth, inhabited by humans, whose technology roughly corresponds to that of our late middle ages (think 13th or 14th century). Surprisingly, those people do not believe in magic, nor in fact have a concept for it. Things either happen because people do them (you have to sow in order to reap), or because that's the way it is (spring comes after winter), or because the Goddess so wants (that's why our army defeats our enemies). Praying to the Goddess is useless, praying to other entities useless and heretical, reciting incantatory formulas isn't an idea, etc.

Is this possible, or would it be too much of a stretch? What could cause such a state of things?

(One Earthan scientist, a geologist, made the most elegant hypothesis, unhappily made in jest, and unacceptable for everyone else: they don't have a concept of magic because there is no mana in their world, as opposed to Earth. Unfortunately, no one could come with a better idea...)

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  • $\begingroup$ There are still people in modern era who believe karma , astrology or religion is science ... so it would be unlikely. $\endgroup$ – άλεξ μιζέρια Jul 4 '16 at 22:31
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    $\begingroup$ I think Socrates, Plato et al used to think like that. The ancient greek generally believed in gods, but there were many atheists and naturalists amongst them. Granted, their science wasn't advanced like ours - but they did develop things like a credible atomic theory and a calculation of the size of the universe that differs from the current one by only one order of magnitude. Because Science. $\endgroup$ – Renan Jul 5 '16 at 0:06
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    $\begingroup$ The fact they still have a goddess in there suggests they still have an idea of magic, you probably need to lose the religion too (even if the goddess is real) $\endgroup$ – Separatrix Jul 5 '16 at 7:02
  • $\begingroup$ magic came from the same three concepts, sickness was either god's will or witches (people). the supernatural was just an attempt to explain what happens. That's the way it is is never a good answer. $\endgroup$ – John Nov 19 '16 at 21:17

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Magic fills a gap in our understanding of patterns

Humans (and probably any intelligent species) are hardwired to detect patterns. Not just in the moment (that silhouette looks like a tiger!) but also in time, linking a sequence of events together. It is an essential part of learning: Eat pink berries - feel sick, eat purple berries, feel good.

The problem is that we see patterns all the time where there really are none: I slaughtered a goat - the rains finally came. I can make the rain come by slaughtering a goat!

Most of these are unlearned when they are not repeatedly successful, but if other people hear of your pattern and have their own remembered patterns, they reinforce each other. With no way to explain how such a pattern actually works, we imagine it's "Magic".

A second aspect is that humans are also hardwired for social interactions, meaning we automatically infer other people's intentions and emotional state from their expressions and actions. This filter can also be triggered (wrongly) by other events and lead humans to imagine spirits and gods. Lightning struck Oona's hut at the top of the hill. Someone must be angry at her.

How to have humans without the concept of magic

Doing without pattern recognition is out of the question, as the humans would probably never have made it to the stone age development level. Having an advanced understanding of physical laws (as we do in the modern age) doesn't quite fit with the medieval theme.

"The Will of the Goddess" is actually quite useful to explain most patterns, but the danger is that humans apply human motivations to Gods (because we're hardwired to do that) and inconsistencies will lead to questions and then likely to the idea of other powers... and magic.

To have a satisfactory explanation for all the weird and inconsistent patterns humans see, an abstract concept works best. Karma is a good example, though because of it moralistic nature it would greatly change the nature of society. The basic idea works though: Anything (good or bad) happening to you happens because of something in the (unknowable) past.

You can make up your own more neutral concept, say "Flow", inspired by water : It can keep your plants alive or wash away your village, it doesn't care. Whenever there is an obstacle to the flow, there will be eddies and swirls, which manifest in the form of all those patterns we perceive but don't understand. The critical part is that it is so abstract/inhuman/complex there is no way to influence it. Trying to change the Flow is like standing in the river pushing the water aside. It will simply flow around you or drag you under.

All together, people wouldn't need the concept of magic, since any pattern can be explained by either the will of the Goddess (if the event makes sense from our ideas of what She would do) or just "Flow" at work if it doesn't make sense.

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    $\begingroup$ I like this point of view. Understanding cause and effect without understanding why is magic and superstition. Doctor, Doctor, my arm arm hurts when I go like this, what should I do? Don't go like that. $\endgroup$ – candied_orange Sep 21 '16 at 5:41
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I wish I could say that this could totally happen, but the fact is that it's unlikely in the extreme - at least as far as humans are concerned.

Some other species might lack the imagination, or emotional triggers which leads to superstition being adopted, but humans have it all in spades.

Quite simply, the reason we moved away from religion and superstition is because we started to better understand the world around us. This is a very recent shift as far as the span of human history is concerned.

Remember that these medieval humans will have been descendents of even more primitive people. People who would have beheld the stars in the sky, the power of natural disasters, and depended on the weather to grow crops and survive.

When you don't understand how the atmosphere works, or what causes plants to grow and thus provide you with the food your family needs to survive it's very easy to fall into the trap of blaming your good or ill fortune on otherworldly beings.

Adopting a view that the world is what it is, and everything is based on action and reaction would require society as a whole to very fundamentally embrace a method of thought which doesn't come naturally to the uneducated mind.

The only way I see this working is if your society is fundamentally different from ours going back several centuries, such as everyone being educated to a point, and their religion itself being very technocratic, and generally revolving around machines, and engineering. And even then, it's very likely that many people would start regarding technological achievements as being granted by the gods, and the engineers themselves not as inventors, but as priests who are guided by said gods.

Take a look at the "Thief" series universe (the older games, not the most recent one which totally rewrites the universe). There too you have a technocratic and a magic based faction battling each other for control.

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  • $\begingroup$ To note, these people are quite religious. They just don't believe that their goddess can be bribed by offerings or persuaded by prayers. So, they do believe in the otherworld; they don't believe that humans can manipulate the otherworld. $\endgroup$ – Luís Henrique Jul 4 '16 at 18:25
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    $\begingroup$ @LuísHenrique - my guess is that another religion would pop up which would claim that the Godess is powerless, and that other God will accept sacrifices, prayer, etc. Simply looking at the many civilizations which have existed in the past you would be very hard pressed to find one which didn't pray or offer sacrifice to their gods. That one particular religion might preach that the Gods are indifferent is not that unlikely, but like all religions, it would have to be quite militant to impose its views on everyone. $\endgroup$ – AndreiROM Jul 4 '16 at 18:49
  • $\begingroup$ Indeed, a really militant religion which has answers for everything and punishes other views very effectively is the most plausible way to reach this condition. For an example of what its life of the mind might be like, see modern-day North Korea. $\endgroup$ – John Dallman Jul 4 '16 at 20:41
  • $\begingroup$ It is a militant religion - a religion of conquerors. It can be accomodating regarding other religions, but it is demanding in doing so. First, if there are other deities they must be subordinated to Sara (their Mother Earth Goddess); second, there can be no sacrifices. It is the dominant religion worldwide; dominant in every "civilised" polity indeed. There are two other tolerated religions, one politheist (that however recognises the supremacy of Sara), and other quite agnostic. And one non-tolerated religion that has another supreme God, but is restricted to desertic areas. $\endgroup$ – Luís Henrique Jul 4 '16 at 22:42
  • $\begingroup$ @LuísHenrique - you seem to have answered your own question then. Just keep in mind that people usually take it pretty poorly when you try to interfere with their religion. $\endgroup$ – AndreiROM Jul 5 '16 at 13:26
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This would heavily depend on your definition of magic. If a human gets sick(Say a cold), but has no way of knowing about microorganisms(virus in this case), how does he explain it?

The problem is: "any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic".

You need a fundamentally different "human" to remove the concept of magic. One that doesn't try to explain things around himself. Because to explain something you don't understand, there's a good chance you're explaining it wrong. And explaining things wrong usually ends up as magic.

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All Humans are now Vulcan's!

basically, since magic was used to explain the unexplained (because explainable things are frightening), If some plague went through that only cut off a human's ability to feel emotion, they would become completely logical. (They may believe fantastic things could exist, but once faced with hard facts, they would drop the notion. They would also put in more effort to find out What/Why something was.)

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Superstition is pretty closely related to the unpredictability of life. The fewer surprises people have, and the more people understand what does happen, the less they need an alternative. So, if the environment was very stable (same weather every year, crops never fail, etc.) and education even on a folk basis was adequate to explain what people experienced, there might be very little magic or religion.

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As I see it mad science and wizardry are pretty much the same thing, in both cases someone has knowledge of a phenomenon and know how to exploit it but they don't really know exactly how it works.

The only way your people could lack the concept of magic (or mad science, same thing) is if they lack the concept of the unknown, so perhaps said goddess does answer prayers and has been answering every question asked of her, leaving only the most incredibly obtuse questions unanswered, those being the ones where the answer cannot be given in a way people can understand.

I'm educated, fairly intelligent (at least I think so) and curious but in all honesty quantum mechanics baffles me, my engineering and programming brain just cannot accept a non-deterministic universe.

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Actually, why SHOULD they lack an idea of magic? You said they know that everything is done because of natural reasons. So I suppose they believe in a "natural" Godess (some sort of "Avatar of nature").

But even this doesn't contradict the idea of magic. Because if they believe in things they see, and try to explain each and every thing with natural reasons and if they see e.g. psychokinesis (even in our world there are some examples of "possible psychokineses" like Nina Kulagina or Swami Rama) or spontaneous human combustion aka SHC (there are also examples even in our world) they can name such things as "magic".

But may be, just may be, they are more clever than us. They wont call it "supernatural" (so their scientists will think that it is bull***t). Rather they may call it "rare occuring and unexplained natural phenomenon" (If magic or gods really exist in any possible world, they are, in fact, natural, not "supernatural").

PS. I hope my post won't raise another atheist - religious holy war against me. Please, don't start it. I heard both sides. I'm tired of this war. There shouldn't be any...

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If it is always possible to explain any unknown with:

"the Goddess so wants"

Then it could be possible.

The belief in a all powerfull unknowable Goddess, who rules all and works in mysterious ways, could make the idea of magic redundant.

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Magic is originated from legends, tales, fairy tales, anecdotes, and the fear of the unknown.

While it also depends of technologic advancement (gunpowder might seem mystical, for example, if you can't or don't examine it*), cultural factors also heavily play role in it. Christianity, for example, oppressed several concepts of magic, but also created others, when it was coming to faith in satanism and witchery, for example.

Either way, you have to manage a fragile balance of tech and culture, as ordinary people really often tend to believe the supernatural, and may even start spreading the word.

Consider banning such things, for example - but the rest is up to you!

*Gunpowder is not the best example, as it's clearly a man-made material, but what if others have invented it before? Like the Chinese in real life.

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Simple: Don't have religions that persecute scientists, and you won't have a Dark Age.

Also, don't burn books (I'm talking about the Library of Alexandria, not the Nazis, but them too). Imagine where we'd be now, if the internet burnt down sometime in the 90s and we had to start all over. We'd still be trying to catch up to where we were in the 70s. That's what happened, circa 48 BC ~ 642 AD. Centuries worth of knowledge were lost in that library, and it took centuries to get most of it back.

Knowledge is power. The stretch here is (other than there not being those types of religions) that you have people in power willing to lessen their hold over society, by never hindering the progression of science or the dissemination of knowledge. Imagine where we'd be if Earth's greatest scientists didn't feel they had to publish their best works posthumously, from fear of heresy.

It is generally accepted today that magic does not exist, but for no other reason than because we know better, which came via platforms from which consensuses were drawn and made known to the masses, and are indisputable though sheer logic (and most importantly, reproducible according to the scientific method).

In a single word, what would cause that? (and what has caused that?) : SCIENCE.

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They don't have the idea of magic, because they have actual magic*

*or at least psionics

Let's start with this premise: 'the idea of magic' is inventing fictional and supernatural explanations for things that they cannot explain. Whether it is because they don't have the scientific knowledge or methodology to try, or some other mental or social reason, instead of trying to figure out the mechanism behind lightning (as an example), it gets blamed on witches, gods, or spirits.

So what if they had a supernatural (at least to us) way to study the universe? They can use their spells or psychic powers to detect the build of and release of energy, resulting in lightning. They might not know (yet) about electrons or resistance in measurable terms. They might not be able to store electricity and use it to power machines. But they have a basic factual understanding of how lightning happens. And they similarly understand that static is the same thing.

Even their own power could be basically explainable to them, so they don't need to come up with stories about it. It may be magic to us, but it is not to them. Assuming it is magic and not some form of psionic powers.

That might even contribute to why they are at a medieval level of technology. If their powers provide them with other utilities, they could have less incentive to invent. And if they already have said basic scientific understanding of nature, physics, chemistry, etc. they would have less need to experiment and stretch the boundaries of their knowledge.

But this is probably not what you were looking for. So I'll reiterate the idea of the mean, nasty Goddess worshippers beating it out of them.

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