In a fantasy world that behaves like our world where the same basic laws of physics, chemistry, etc. apply, except for the addition of magical abilities and forces - what prevents magic from being applied in a scientific manner and applied towards technology?

For instance, if the magic user is able to create a small spark at a distance, why not manifest that spark to some gunpowder in a long tube that's closed off on one end so as to propel a bullet out the other end? This would simplify firearm design by removing the need for a fuse, or hammer and trigger. The resulting firearm could rival the deadliness of a pure magic attack and provide a competitive advantage to any group willing to adopt the technology.

Or, to extend the spark idea, why not manifest that spark inside a piston that has some combustible fluid inside, so that the piston can turn a crank? This would simplify internal combustion engines. The productivity gains from (magic-enhanced) internal combustion engines would soon be clear to most of society, and adoption of such technology would quickly follow.

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    $\begingroup$ "the same basic laws of physics, chemistry, etc." do not cover magic. $\endgroup$ – L.Dutch - Reinstate Monica Sep 1 '17 at 5:53
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    $\begingroup$ If you can explain it, it's not magic...if you can't explain it, why would you want it in a tightly designed system? $\endgroup$ – nzaman Sep 1 '17 at 6:09
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    $\begingroup$ How is this "magic" different from non-magic? Or, phrased differently, what property of your "magic" sets it apart from everything else? "Magic" typically means something along the lines of "effect without a cause" (a spark appearing where there was nothing to cause the spark, for instance). If you can use your magic "scientifically", that would seem to imply that the magic can be explained by following the scientific process; at that point, what you are doing pretty much is science, almost by definition. $\endgroup$ – a CVn Sep 1 '17 at 6:59
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    $\begingroup$ "Arcanum: Of Steamworks and Magick Obscura" RPG game has both science and magic incompatible with each other. It is explained by saying that 'magical aura disrupts mechanisms' or something like that. Later in the game you can't even walk into some mechanical store with a magician because merchant guy would go crazy about your mere presence. $\endgroup$ – user2851843 Sep 1 '17 at 7:14
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    $\begingroup$ "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic". Arthur C. Clarke. The following corollary is relevant to your question: any sufficiently simple and understandable magic, is indistinguishable from technology. Take for instance that peculiar scar on your shoulder, that wards you from that horrible malady known as smallpox. To people that lived 500 years or more ago, that ward is magic. To us, it is simply a reminder that you got a vaccine. @davesherohman has the right of it: consistent magic that can be used in a repeatable, controllable manner, is not magic. $\endgroup$ – MichaelK Sep 1 '17 at 7:42

10 Answers 10


Anything which is consistent enough to be used in a controlled, repeatable manner to produce predictable effects is subject to the scientific method. Therefore, if you want your magic to be "non-scientific", it must be inconsistent and unpredictable. If you can reliably produce a spark at a precise location, with a precise intensity, every time you want to do it, then you're in the realm of science, even if it's a science that doesn't exist in the real world.

If it's non-scientific "magic", then the location will wander unpredictably, the timing may be off, sometimes you'll get a uselessly tiny spark and other times a massive lightning bolt, and there's a chance that it could produce a flower instead of a spark, even if you do the exact same things every time. And, most importantly, it needs to be fundamentally impossible to overcome this randomness because, as soon as you make it consistent and predictable, it becomes subject to science.

Of course, as an author, it can be difficult to maintain that level of randomness, not to mention that it tends to come off as unsatisfying to our modern scientific worldview. An alternate approach to keeping magic from becoming mundane is to allow it to behave in a manner amenable to science, but require more effort than using real-world technology. You're assuming that firing guns and running engines with magic sparks is easier than the way we do it in reality, but what if it takes serious effort each time to create the spark in just the right place? Then it's easier to use a firing pin or a spark plug than to constantly go to that trouble yourself. Or magic could simply be inefficient, requiring 100 times the energy investment to produce the same result. Who would use it then, unless it's the only option?

  • $\begingroup$ Came to write just this. +1 $\endgroup$ – MichaelK Sep 1 '17 at 7:37
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    $\begingroup$ It doesn't necessarily have to be unpredictable or inconsistent in that way, it could just not work for everyone, or do something entirely different for certain people. Predictable enough to be useful to those who can use it but useless for many or even a majority. $\endgroup$ – Separatrix Sep 1 '17 at 9:25
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    $\begingroup$ @Separatrix Not all adult humans can drink cow's milk without getting sick. For some people it works to drink milk as adults, for others it does not... they get ill to their stomach. That does not mean that people living in northern Europe and on the British Isles are magical... we just happen to have been "blessed" with a genetic mutation that makes the enzyme Lactase continue to be active into our adult years. $\endgroup$ – MichaelK Sep 1 '17 at 12:02
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    $\begingroup$ The only way you can make magic not subject to scientific inquiry is to have the magic be entirely unpredictable in such a manner that nothing that humans do, say or think can in any way have an effect on the outcome. But then you also have (for most cases) useless magic because no-one can control it. $\endgroup$ – MichaelK Sep 1 '17 at 13:25
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    $\begingroup$ @Separatrix Well I contend what you said is no more mysterious or magical than Lactase persistence. It is just an individual trait... some have it, others do not. And unless the author wants to end up with something like the Midi-chlorian debacle, then this stuff should not be over-thought. Just leave it at "Some people have the magic/the Force, some do not". The allure — the magic if you will — of magic is that is not explained. Once it is explained how it works, it is just plain old boring science. $\endgroup$ – MichaelK Sep 1 '17 at 13:39

I don't know if you're a developper, but you could make magic work like an API. Magic is Black-boxed


Your mage can produce a result with a set of commands (spouting latin incantations or making sick gestures), but the key-point is that your mage don't know HOW the gesture connects to the result. He's totally oblivious of how the result is produced.

The result is that you can't reverse-engineer your magic. Maybe you know how to make a fireball, but you can't analyse the process to deduce how to make a little fireball, or a star-shaped fireball. Maybe these things are possible, maybe not ? But you can only cast a basic fireball.

That makes magic very limited : you can use it for what it's meant to do, like burning a bunch of dude or transform a prince into a frog, but neither of these spells can be used scientifically or industrially. Magic isn't flexible enough to be used like this.

Why is it like this ?

I don't have any special Lore idea to explain this situation. Maybe because magic is by nature explainable ? Maybe because a God don't want it to be this way ? Maybe because you have demons workers behind every spell and these guys don't want to go full Germinal ?

  • $\begingroup$ Welcome to WorldBuilding GlorSf! Interesting idea. If you have a moment please take the tour and visit the help center to learn more about the site. Have fun! $\endgroup$ – Sec SE - clear Monica's name Sep 1 '17 at 9:28
  • $\begingroup$ The web comic El Goonish Shive has something similar to this answer going on in the background. Magic in EGS is essentially an undocumented API. People can learn to use it, but both the interface and the internals are subject to change at any time. $\endgroup$ – Dave Sherohman Sep 2 '17 at 8:45

Make magic be dependent on emotions.

For example, you would need to use anger to create a spark, and depending on exactly how angry you are and what other emotions you're feeling, the spark manifests differently.

This wouldn't hinder normal use of magic. Getting a bigger spark when you're angrier could be considered a feature. The spark might emit more light if you're scared, shying away others.

Using something dependent on emotions for precise industrial processes is a bad idea.

  • $\begingroup$ Welcome to WorldBuilding usernumber! This is an interesting idea. If you have a moment please take the tour and visit the help center to learn more about the site. Have fun! $\endgroup$ – Sec SE - clear Monica's name Sep 1 '17 at 11:49

To quote a great philosopher Tim Minchin:

You know what they call alternative medicine that's been proved to work? - Medicine

So to explain with your spark and piston. There would be no piston. The whole idea behind engine would never occur to anyone because why? They have magic.

Gunpowder (emphasis on GUN) was made because we needed to inflict dead on someone from a distance greater than sword length. When you can create a spark at that distance why would he need to invent "traveling substance"?

There is a series of books called "The Magic Engineer". Where magic and machines exist but only in the way that black magic is used to make better steel and products while white magic is used to create fireballs and such things. BUT the "mana" is the key factor. Black magic engineers infuse materials with mana while white wizard suck mana out of things to create the wibbly wobbly stuff.
So in the terms of science "mana" is actually energy. To push bullet forward you need to spend energy while to create Cured glass you need to store it.


The thing that sets magic (well, one type of magic) apart from physics is that a controlling mind is required for it. Imagine having to cast a spell everytime you want to create a spark in that piston engine! Sounds rather impractical to me.

Also, who can cast magic? Is it everybody or only some talented few? Do they need extensive training for it?

In many lores, magic is more of an art than engineering. Difficult and not that tightly controllable. Standard physical technology may outcompete magic simply due to it's repeatability and ease of use. The same reason firearms replaced bows, even though they were less effective at first. But you could equip a group of peasants with guns, train them a couple weeks to shoot volleys, and mow down those archers that had trained for their whole life.

Of course, magic wouldn't disappear completely. Maybe magical heat can be used to produce a superior steel, the wizard being a high prized specialist in the industry...


Anti-inductivity: it works opposite of whatever past observations would have you believe. Like the stock market!

You can imagine this in any number of ways. Maybe magic is like a fabric or a grid, and if too many pull on the same string or use the same circuit, there's a tear or a congestion, and everything goes haywire. A bit like a magical tragedy of the commons maybe. You could still apply the scientific method, but sharing your results would invalidate them.

In the case of your spark spell, its potency and reliability would diminish with the number of people who knew how to cast it and with the frequency it was cast.

The consequences of this would be that there would be relatively few powerful wizards, all protective of their secrets. Magic items would tend to be unique, and all efforts at mass production of any one pattern would be thwarted by the reality itself. Conservarion of ninjutsu follows naturally. And a clever or lucky protagonist could create a big upset by pushing when everyone's pulling.

  • $\begingroup$ Interesting approach. I would definitely +1 this is you can explain further how this works, and why (I know that already, but it will be helpful to future readers) $\endgroup$ – Vylix Sep 1 '17 at 10:22

Nothing stops it. But consider whether your examples are actually helpful or practical.

Firearms have evolved to a stage where the firing mechanisms are highly reliable. The mechanical problems with a gun are not about how to make it go bang - they're all about reloading or (for rapid-fire weapons) barrel overheating. Magic might help to cool the barrel, but it won't solve problems with badly-designed mechanisms (like the infamous SA-80).

Similarly with a car engine. Spark timing on an engine is rather important, and at 6000RPM that's 50 sparks per second on a 4-stroke engine. A human being simply cannot do it fast enough or accurately enough.

Now guiding a bomb to a target - that certainly would be a good application of telekinesis. Telekinesis could also be useful for remote manipulation where getting people or even robots in place is impractical - think blast furnaces or nuclear facilities, for example. Lateral thinking with those kind of skills is a weak point in many works of fantasy. In Star Wars, for example, why do the Jedi not have lightsaber throwing knives? This is one of the hallmarks of modern fantasy - the impact of the magic system is usually analysed properly, not just for fighting but also for its impact on economics, working practises and everyday life.

Charles Stross has two running series of books where magic is systematised and studied scientifically. The Merchant Princes series, starts with the premise that travel between alternative worlds is possible (initially by skilled humans, but eventually reproduced technologically) and expands the scope of this to how it affects economics, societal development and warfare. The Laundry Files has more traditional magic, but with the premise that this magic is the result of algorithms which can be run equally well on electronics as on human grey matter.

For another fantasy example, Scott Lynch's Gentlemen Bastards series is set in a loosely Renaissance-based context, but one in which alchemy works. In medicine, plant breeding, poisons and various other areas, this world does not draw a line between what is alchemy and what is not, because in this world it is all "natural". (Yes, there is also more traditional magic, but the magicians have mostly hidden themselves away, and they don't publicise the extents of their power.)


In one word, Science.

In the case of the internal combustion engine, I cannot see how magical sparks would either simplify or enhance. How does your magic synchronize with the cycle of the engine so that it would fire at the right time? However the spark is generated, I cannot see how it could not be driven in terms of timing by the mechanics of the engine. So one question which you must tackle would be - how does a machine perform magic?

  • $\begingroup$ Achieving internal combustion without spark plugs, distributors, coils, wiring harnesses, etc. would definitely simplify and enhance the engine. As for how to synchronize the magical sparks with the rotation of the engine - magic! Maybe to the magical operator it would feel like pedaling a bike, or blowing motorboat noises to anticipate the RPMs of the engine. In any case, it would save a lot of energy to harness the chemical energy of hydrocarbons rather than having to telekinesis the entire mass of the vehicle and occupants. $\endgroup$ – glyphin Sep 1 '17 at 6:32
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    $\begingroup$ @glyphin "internal combustion without spark plugs, distributors, coils, wiring harnesses" is what happen in Diesel engines. No magic there. $\endgroup$ – L.Dutch - Reinstate Monica Sep 1 '17 at 6:40
  • $\begingroup$ @glyphin what makes you think that producing a spark magically requires more effort than moving the mass of a vehicle and occupants using magic, (without answering 'science')? Maybe creation by magic is much harder than transportation? $\endgroup$ – Lee Leon Sep 1 '17 at 9:21

I guess the answer really depends on how your magic is defined.

In the "Black Prism" series, magic is derived from light, which can be transformed into solid/liquid state. Different colors of light have different properties, some are used to build walls, others for a very big range of differnt items. I recall that they at least built a magic granade. So there you might find some inspiration.

In the "Kingkiller Chronicles", magic is devided into three (?) schools, where one of them is runes. Those can be used as triggers for items (and weapons). And if I recall correctly, also for engery supply, by taking that engery from cinetic energy of e.g. arrows.

So without a very clear definition of how your magic works, it is hard for us to tell you how you can apply it. But if people have the prcision to fuse a spark at exactly the place they want (note that they can not see into the barrel of your guns), then I am sure your weapon could be used. And if captured by non-magic opponents, they dont give the opponents anything to fight with. It even allows the magician to fire the gun while held by the enemies, which might reak quite some havoc.


No beeing of this reality can actually cast spells. But we can plead with higher or lower beeings to do something for us. Trouble is, all we have to offer to these beeings is entertainment (this is why we have ritaul dances, fancy sigils, and mumbl spells - the beeings apreciate creative arts) and the spirit of sparks is bored already. In fact, these beeings are like fans of a franchise everywhere: They claim to want the next installment of their performance just like the last one, but in fact want some change, but to have it recognizable. There can be not only infinitvly many of these beeings, but also uncountably many - trick is to come up with a name for a as-of-yet unknown one for a new spell effect.

What stems from this?

  • Magicians have to be creative spirits, able to think up new forms of expression for the same idea

    • Magicians need to understand the tastes of the beeings they perform for, to know when they wander to far off formula

    • Magicians can't really practice, they can research how other mages performed for the same beeing

    • Magicians need to be really secretive, else someone copies their art before they can use it

    • Some of the beeings will be angry if adressed in the wrong way. A wise mage may well send an apprentice ahead to try a ritual for a new spell the first time.

    • Magic becomes harder over the ages, as the extradimensional beeings have seen it all


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