Monthly Archives: January 2012

Any Sufficiently Advanced Magic is Indistinguishable from Technology

I’d like to talk today about technology, science, and magic.

Science is that art of discovering out how things in the world work through a rational process usually known as the scientific method. It’s make a guess, then test it; glass beakers over Bunsen burners; barometers tied to balloons; counting paramecium in a drop of stream water; digging up Babylonian batteries; control groups and double blinds.

I love science. I yearn to know the how and why of everything. As far as I’m concerned the goal of human existence should be to further the cause of science.

Yet by itself pure science is not terribly useful.

Figuring out Pi to another decimal place will not help anyone do their taxes. Knowing how many protons a copper atom has will not help you fix your car. Science only becomes useful when someone does something useful with it, i.e. when someone turns it into technology. Technology is applied science. Engineers take the theories and scribblings of scientists and try to turn them into bigger buildings and better mousetraps. Technology is levers and pulleys; generators and motors; pipes and circuits; missiles and plows.

Technology can be considerd a type of science.

Technology takes the raw discoveries of science and refines them into that which better our lives (hopefully). Science fuels technology; without the discovery of new things technology would grind to a halt (though we probably have a decent stockpile built to last us for quite some time). Without quantum mechanics we’d not have computers.

Technology enhances science as well. More advanced science requires more advanced tools, which require more advanced technology to build. We could not have discovered eurokerotic bacteria or the moons of Jupiter without microscopes and telescopes. So a feedback loop is created, where new science makes new technology possible, which in turn makes new science possible. Together science and technology can spiral ever outward into bigger and better things.

So where does magic fit into all of this? When we don’t know how something is done, we call it magic. Magic is ancient words and arcane writings; grimoires and shadow books; Loa and Manitou; chicken blood and mandrake root; rabbits out of hats; soup out of stones. A lot of people feel drawn to magic. It’s mystical and mysterious in all the ways science is not. Why is this, and why should you care?

I’m going to tell you a secret now. It’s something most good scientists know, but most laymen don’t think about:

All scientific theories are wrong.

Or at least none of them are right, not 100%. Or perhaps some of them are right, but science has no way knowing which, so we must operate as if all were negotiable. This is not a flaw of science, but rather its strength. Science advances when its theories advance, which could not happen if its theories were viewed as already perfect. Because we are aware our scientific model of reality is flawed, we can hope to improve upon it.

Many scientists can tell you why the sky is blue (Rayleigh scattering). A good number of these can explain Rayleigh scattering in terms of electrons and photons, and a few of those can generalize this explanation to the behavior of fermions and bosons. Yet no scientists can explain why fermions and bosons behave in this fashion. It’s magic! Science will likely someday understand this behavior better, but there will always be some fundamental principle to which we’ll have to say “it just is”. Magic lives on the frontiers of science; science might manage to push back these frontiers indefinitely, but magic will always wait just beyond.

Nor is this magic only found on the frontiers of science. When you step into an elevator and press the button marked “3” do you know how it takes you to the third floor? It’s magic! An elevator repair man might know what sort of gross mechanical parts are doing the work, but he very likely doesn’t know how the engine is constructed or why the pulleys pull. An engineer might know these things, but quite likely does not know the fundamental physical principles behind the operation of these things, or exactly how these things are put together to make the elevator move. A physicist might be able to tell you about the fundamentals, but little else of the process. In short, no one person knows everything there is too know about the operation of an elevator, yet we are still able to construct working elevators. This too is a sort of magic.

There is another type of unknown thing (aside from undiscovered things and things know collectively but not individually): things which we can’t wrap our logical minds around. There are conclusions we can draw and concepts we can devise which we simply cannot grasp on a completely rational level, eg. infinity; paradox; love. Kurt Gödel’s incompleteness theorem proved that for any sufficiently complex system, there will be valid statements within that system that cannot be derived from that system. If our minds were simply logical systems then there would always be some things which they cannot comprehend, yet are still valid.

Yet our minds are not completely logical systems. This is often viewed as a bad thing (and often it is a bad thing, for much pain and suffering is a result of illogical thinking), but it has its benefits as well. We are not simple Turing machines and thus are not subject to the same halting problems] We can change our viewpoint and “step outside the box”. We have ways of understanding beyond traditional logic. Humanity has a grand tradition of dealing with that which is beyond our comprehension and beyond our ken; we have magic.

Science paints a good picture of reality. It is very carefully conceived and thus its answers can be trusted. Yet the picture is not complete, there are a lot of important questions that science cannot answer. Science can not tell you the meaning of life (though it might help you actualize that meaning). It can’t tell you what love is (though it might tell you what physical signs to look for). It can’t tell you if God exists (though it might tell you how God operates if he did exist). It can’t help you experience someone else’s feelings (though it might tell you what what’s happening in their brain while there were having said feeling).

Magic provides a different picture of reality. Sorcerers, witches, shamans, and priests have been dealing with these sorts of questions for millennia. They’ve been delving into the unknown and answering the unanswerable (not to mention questioning the unquestionable) long before Sir Francis Bacon. To get a whole picture of reality (or more whole, anyway) we need more then science and technology, we need this viewpoint as well. We need touch that which is beyond our current knowledge. We need to able to tap into our collective unconsciouses. We need to be able to deal with things we cannot understand. We need inspiration to guide our scientific progress and give our technological quest structure.

We all need a little magic.

Magic is an attemtpt to master the unknown. The scientific method is one way to do this. It’s one of the better ways, but is by no means the only way (or even the best way in many situations).

Really, science is a type of magic.

Original article posted by wheloc on the Everything Squared BBS on 19th September 2001.

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Posted by on January 28, 2012 in Faith & Magic, Quotes



When the day has careened off course and I feel the hiraeth (a lovely term for ‘all-encompassing self destructive black mood’, nabbed from a Katherine Kerr novel) descending upon me again, I used to go down to the sea. But such luxuries of contemplation are defied by a tumultuous mind, where the need to do something strikes sparks of frustration from the anvil of having to wait.
So, one spends valuable funds on medicine for the soul: a large coffee from Caffe Nero. Pint cup in hand it is time for the second stage of the cure, to consume the potion at the most salubrious time.
Thus a peregrination around the back alleys of Worthing town, where the past has not been painted over, streetlamps jostle with verdant overgrowth and the murmurs from pedestrian streets could be from any era blends a perfect tonic.
I am fortified by the momentary solitude of the wanderer, that rare calm and self-depreciating, rueful ‘smile within’ that restores perspective and heals without reserve.

May your fears never paralyse you into inaction. Blessed Be.

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Posted by on January 6, 2012 in Daybook


That Was Great, Let’s Not Do It Again

2012. Ye gods. Seems like barely a few weeks ago I sat in my house in a black mood that had no mercy for me or any unfortunate dumb enough to come near me as 2011 rolled in.

It has been quite a year: House gone, cats gone, possessions reduced by sixty percent, published three books, reviewed over 50,000 job vacancies, become a staff writer for a web flash fiction site, failed to make a penny from my writing, realised what I want to do with the rest of my life and who I want to spend it with.
Then realised that I cannot afford to do the former and the latter is an outside chance (where is the classic work that tells you what to do when it turns out that you are probably not the love of the love of your life’s life? – email me, I badly need it). Add some unpleasant revelations over the fickleness and weakness of friends, contrast with the sterling help and support of other friends and I will confess to finishing the year in a state of deep dissatisfaction over several aspects of my situation.

I have not done new year resolutions since I realised the truth about Santa. However, I think that in the spirit of the resolution itself, one is in order:

Some things are going to change in 2012. Some people are not going to like it. To be closer to the me I want to be, I will have to bring the honesty I value to all aspects of my life. Which means that polite may have to be put aside in some instances. (Gods willing, I will not make an asshole of myself too often 🙂 )

Check back on the first of January 2013. I’ll update with my progress or lack of it.

Happy New Year. Let’s have less shit and more fun, shall we? 😀

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Posted by on January 1, 2012 in Life & Self

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