Science as ¨magic¨.

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Naron
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Science as ¨magic¨.

Post by Naron »

A quote from Arthur C. Clarke: ¨any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic¨ made ​​me think about its meaning.

Thinking about it, I found a table-top roleplaying game called Numenera.
The game takes place in a very distant future (~1 billion years), in which there were 8 highly advanced civilizations. The current civilization, the 9th, is composed of the descendants of these civilizations.They are at a level comparable to the Middle Ages, and they are surrounded by the remains of the previous civilizations, that are magical for them. The interesting point is that nothing is magic (supernatural/mystical), but science (a forgotten science).

Can the science to become a kind of ¨magic¨? Obviously not in the mystical/supernatural sense, but in the sense that the science opens almost unlimited possibilities, given the time.
Think of our computers, they would appear to be pure magic for an individual from the Middle Ages. In the future, our descendants can invent devices that would be as magical for us as the computers are for a medieval man. Or prolongation of life through genetic engineering.
All these could be thought of as ¨magic¨, in the sense defined above.
I think that would lead to interesting philosophical discussion.

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Re: Science as ¨magic¨.

Post by Dugi »

It's expectable that our technologies would look like magic to people of times of old. An atomic bomb becomes the Wrath of Gods, a laptop becomes a Servant Imp, internet becomes a Divination Device, medicine and chemistry becomes Alchemy, engineering remains engineering (maybe some Wizardly Crafting). Things that were considered magic in the past was transmutation of metals into gold (we can do it), changing weather (we can do it), flying (is quite common), living for 70 years (is common), blablabla, but there were also things like foretelling the future (which can be proven impossible with mere philosophy and its paradoxes), shooting lightnings from wooden wands (a weapon that shoots some sort of lightning exists, but can't be made of wood), summoning stuff out of thin air (breaks the law of conservation of energy, some sort of teleport might not be possible), doing human sacrifices to obtain something (something different from twenty years in prison). I'd say that they would call today's technology magic, but they would easily find something that magic should be able to do and our technology can't (and would certainly not think about one of our most used technology devices, the computer, even older science fiction has no computers).

However, I see there a big difference because the fantasy thing called magic and technology. Magic is supposed to be some sort of an actually working esoteric process, while technology is all about using devices that were made in a complicated way. Supposing that some not-improbable technological inventions came, you might cast a spell if you had some body implants controlled by your mind or words or movements that would do it, or you were somehow bioengineered (this is less likely, we've seen what is living matter capable of, maybe some shocking touch in the electric eel style, releasing some fart-like explosive gases and setting them on fire, using some bioluminiscence or poison, but that's most likely all, biological matter will not generate electromagnetic fields and shoot beams of particles). In both cases, it would not be achievable by mere excavation and magic wasn't supposed to be about using implanted gadgets.

It's absolutely certain that our mind can't do anything besides commanding our body (maybe some über meditation would allow getting some extra control of stuff like subconsciousness or hormonal control, I don't know, but that still is far from magic), receiving data collected by the body (it's possible that we feel more than we notice, but hypothetical abilities like following somebody's smell, feeling where the north is or feeling weak oscillations preceeding earthquakes is still far from magic) and commanding and receiving data from machines specifically engineered so (prosthetic limbs, there were projects to make fighter jets controlled directly by mind with mixed results,...). All of this is hardly magic, all your mind is to capture signals and send signals.

There is the alternative known as virtual reality, but everything that happens there isn't real. I can fly in my dreams, no technology required.

So basically the only way to base magic on technology is to create a big Earth-sized machine that would listen to everyone's thoughts and capable of doing almost everything. But this still isn't anything the wizards do, it would be rather like praying to the god-machine. And its unbelievably intelligent constructors would most likely make sure that dark sorcerers would not misuse it, they would not create a very cruel plaything for anybody to misuse (statistically, the most intelligent people are very unlikely to go to prison, so I expect a superinteligent race not to be driven by mischief).

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Re: Science as ¨magic¨.

Post by Crushmaster »

Dugi wrote:However, I see there a big difference because the fantasy thing called magic and technology. Magic is supposed to be some sort of an actually working esoteric process, while technology is all about using devices that were made in a complicated way.
This hits the nail on the head.
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Re: Science as ¨magic¨.

Post by Sapient »

In the Myth Adventures series by Robert Asprin, there's a character named Maasha who's a magician but but relies entirely on gadgets. This is known in the magik business as a "mechanic". ;)

Also, I'd be curious how Dugi thinks foretelling the future is philosophically impossible. Didn't the prophets in the old testament do it? Or maybe you just mean it is impossible by human technology alone. But even if we limit ourselves to human technology, people are able to predict some things with a high degree of accuracy.
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Re: Science as ¨magic¨.

Post by Velensk »

In general I tend to take the idea of 'magic' as being another set of laws that a fictional universe uses in addition to the ones common to our own. As such, the word magic wouldn't describe anything in our universe going by that definition. I also sometimes use it for our universe to describe ways in which it works that are not understood by human reasoning by which definition there's plenty of magic out there but less and less of it as time goes on and our technology by definition is not included (as if nobody understood it we couldn't have built it).

In fiction there's plenty of instances where a setting has 'magic' that is actually technology by either definition and sometimes both at once.
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Re: Science as ¨magic¨.

Post by Naron »

Sapient wrote:In the Myth Adventures series by Robert Asprin, there's a character named Maasha who's a magician but but relies entirely on gadgets. This is known in the magik business as a "mechanic". ;)

Also, I'd be curious how Dugi thinks foretelling the future is philosophically impossible. Didn't the prophets in the old testament do it? Or maybe you just mean it is impossible by human technology alone. But even if we limit ourselves to human technology, people are able to predict some things with a high degree of accuracy.
Please, I don´t want a religious flame war.
I think Dugi was referring to the principle of uncertainty. To predict the future, you should be omniscient, which is impossible. But I believe that this principle does not preclude precognition. You can not see the future, but you can see a set of possible futures, and you can deduce that it´s the most probable.
It would be interesting if Dugi's Earth-sized machine would be capable of precognition, because it is assumed that it can do almost anything.

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Re: Science as ¨magic¨.

Post by Dugi »

Sapient wrote:In the Myth Adventures series by Robert Asprin, there's a character named Maasha who's a magician but but relies entirely on gadgets.
You mean a magician like David Copperfield?

Anyway, this sort of reminds me the video game Path of Exile. It is mostly a dark fantasy, but its magic and most special abilities turns all around things called 'virtue gems' that enable these abilities. The game gives no clue what these items are, only that they were originally mined somewhere, but it may be added later because the game is still developed and developers like adding pieces of lore in small steps (they could be pretty much technology). The players end up with gear filled with these gems because without them all they can do is to hack enemies for little damage.

Regarding the mentioned philosophical paradox:
I wrote philosophical, not physical. Ideas that there are some more physical laws bellow the currently used ones are as old as the currently used ones, so some laws of physics can be doubted (however, every time an alternative theory is tested by experimentation, the alternative theory fails). But logical proofs can disprove stuff regardless of physics.
It's quite simple. A precognition foretells that your future chain of actions. You try what happens if you do something else. For example you see that three seconds after seeing it, you'll raise your hand to scratch your head. You don't scratch your head because you don't want. What happens? Does an invisible force of destiny raise your hand and scratch your head? Will you mysteriously forget what was supposed to happen and scratch your head? Will your head start itching so horribly that you'll have to scratch it?
All prophecies in mythology avoided this paradox because it was not cool. It's all about stories about somebody knowing some unclear signs of future actions that definitely didn't describe how they happened. They usually fulfill, either because he knew he could do it (destined for glory trope) or because he was trying to prevent it and it happened because of him (Oedipus complex).
I will prefer to avoid commenting on Old Testament stuff because it would most likely raise religious arguments like Christians vs. Atheists. But I'd like to link this article.

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Re: Science as ¨magic¨.

Post by Sapient »

I'm not convinced. First of all, you didn't specify that the foretelling had to be all-encompassing.
But let's stay in the realm of the hypothetical possibilities please, I'm not interested in disproving articles full of biblical misrepresentation like the one you linked.

When we begin to imagine a being capable of gathering effectively unlimited information about the future, it is not a far step to also imagine other rules and constraints which may not apply to such a being.

A person who exists outside of time, or exists in all times simultaneously, may be thought of in simple terms much as a time traveler who is able to gather information for as long as needed, then go back and make as many changes as needed. This is similar to the godlike powers gained by Bill Murray's character in the movie Groundhog Day. He was able to gather information and change his decisions as often as he wished until he arrived at the perfect outcome. So when such a being decides to scratch their head at a particular moment, they are deciding it for all times.
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Re: Science as ¨magic¨.

Post by pyrophorus »

Hi !
To add my two cents on a very complex topic, I would say that magics is stricto sensu another way to think and interact with reality: through language and words. To make short a long explanation, the magician don't craft things directly. (S)he summons, orders, or prays some spirits to do the job (it can be some kind of powerful god or merely things' spirits). His skill is knowing which spirit to call and the good way to deal with (which can involve some technology or crafting), for instance knowing their secret name or the good sentences to speak. So, it's not mere ignorance, it's something else. Science and technology start when language is used to describe reality, not to drive it.
Both views can coexist: I think we all spoke in angriness about or to our computer saying "this d...d thing must be bewitched !" or more directly "if you persist refusing to do this, I shall trash you soon !"

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Re: Science as ¨magic¨.

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@Sapient:

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Re: Science as ¨magic¨.

Post by johndh »

Dugi wrote: If we assume that there's something bellow quantum physics so that everything is deterministic like many people (including Einstein) expected, had infinite computing power and could know everything, he might actually foretell the future... if we make a very strong assumption that he's the only one who can do that, that is quite a problem as technological inventions are replicable. If there was somebody else able of doing it, he would be able to expect all things the other one would do depending on his actions and the other guy's actions would be able to expect everything he would do.
In that case, you'd be able to predict every interaction of the things that you observe. You could even predict the interactions of all of the parts of everyone's brains to know exactly what they would do in reaction to those events. Then maybe people will start giving up on this nutty idea of free will that they seem to have for some reason. :P But yeah, it kinda creates a feedback loop sorta thing when you see the future and decide to change your actions based on it, then you see the future based on those changed actions, so you change again, and on and on to infinity. That notwithstanding, you could potentially know all of the events that are possible, and in the grand scheme of things the actions that one individual takes do not have an appreciable effect on the universe as a whole, so the prediction could still be correct to an overwhelmingly high level of precision.
Indeterministic actions would result from this, breaking the assumption of deterministic universe.
I wouldn't say so. It would still be 100% deterministic. The first person to have this prediction device would have known that everyone else was going to get prediction devices, and would know exactly how everyone would react to it.

Anyway, I don't think it would be correct to call technology magic, but if magic were real then it would be a form of technology in a broad sense of the word as the application of knowledge to achieve an outcome. The way we usually think of technology (as machines and gadgets) is extremely narrow. Language, money, religion, storytelling, and government are all technology. Certainly a method for affecting the universe by ritual would be technology as well, and could be studied scientifically and built upon like any other process. Now, the source of the power might affect how it is studied. Are there spirits and gods to appease? Then it's some kind of theopsychology. Is it just the natural processes of the universe responding to certain cues? Then it's physics.
It's spelled "definitely", not "definately". "Defiantly" is a different word entirely.

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Re: Science as ¨magic¨.

Post by Celtic_Minstrel »

I think the entire question in the initial post is based on a common misunderstanding of what "science" is (and, possibly, what "magic" is in a normal fantasy setting; and also maybe what "technology" is).

Let's start with "technology". Wiktionary defines it as "The organization of knowledge for practical purposes", which is kind of vague, so I checked on dictionary.com as well and got the following (emphasis mine):
  1. the branch of knowledge that deals with the creation and use of technical means and their interrelation with life, society, and the environment, drawing upon such subjects as industrial arts, engineering, applied science, and pure science.
  2. the application of this knowledge for practical ends.
  3. a scientific or industrial process, invention, method, or the like.
The first bolded part together with the notion of "application" is probably the main point of technology in my mind, but notice at the second bolded part, implying it could draw on subjects not listed there.

Next is "science". Wiktionary lists several meanings, but I think the most important one is this (emphasis mine):

"The collective discipline of study or learning acquired through the scientific method; the sum of knowledge gained from such methods and discipline."

The scientific (or empirical) method is, quite simply, a means of learning about the world through experimentation. You formulate a hypothesis, determine how you could test the veracity of that hypothesis, then perform the experiment. If you get the result you expected, great! You've gathered evidence in favour of your theory (but, notably, this is not necessarily proof of your theory). If you get a different result, great! Now you can use that information to formulate and test a new hypothesis. There is nothing about this method to exclude certain aspects of a world form its purview.

Lastly, "magic". Wiktionary defines it as "The use of rituals or actions, especially based on supernatural or occult knowledge, to manipulate or obtain information about the natural world, especially when seen as falling outside the realm of religion; also the forces allegedly drawn on for such practices.", but in fantasy it's frequently considered to be an esoteric force that functions by rules significantly different from the physical laws we are familiar with.

Here's the key point. In a universe where magic (in the aforementioned sense) exists, it's not excluded from the scientific method. There's no reason why you can't perform science on magical phenomena (and, in fact, this occurs in many fantasy scenarios, though the words "science" and "scientist" are usually not used — instead it's ascribed to a research wizard, for example). There's no reason you can't apply magical principles to create technology (and, arguably, enchanted items such as wands or magic weapons could be considered to be just that).

Arthur C. Clarke's statement makes a lot of sense in the real world (or a science fiction world), where we lack any evidence for any kind of esoteric force like the magic of fantasy. He uses magic in a more generic sense, which is probably the one listed as sense 3 on Wiktioanry at the time of this writing: "Something producing remarkable results, especially when not fully understood; an enchanting quality; exceptional skill." His statement means that, to a less advanced society, (sufficiently) advanced technology will seem to be magical in nature. This works because magic is not a coherent thing, just a catchall for lack of understanding. In a fantasy universe where magic is a separate, tangible thing, his statement may not apply.

But in both interpretations, yes, you can have "science" or "technology" that involves magic — either technology that incorporates supernatural forces into its design, or technology that is so advanced that it is difficult to understand.
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Re: Science as ¨magic¨.

Post by Midnight_Carnival »

How we define things does not always determine their nature.
To illustrate the differences between science and magic, I'd like to suggest a parrallell beteween myth and history. We all know that recorded histories can be wrong or be used to support all kinds of prejudice, etc, so history isn't 'the truth', but there is a major distiction between a histroy, even a discredited one and a myth. Simply put, if it's compatible with our view of the way the world works we call it history, if not we call it myth, or more simply, history makes sense, myths don't.

Now we can look at magic and science.
Science is our understanding of the way the universe works, scientists pride themselves on how infallible scientific method is and how indubitable the results obtained are... and yet we find so often that while in principle the method is infallible, through human error and misrepresentaion of findings, conclusions, even aparently logical conclusions based on scientific findings can be dead wrong.
Magic, like myth is something which doesn't fit with our understanding how the world works.
I've used this example before:
Imagine there were some small blue men who walked through walls, we all saw them, it wasn't something which could be put down to psycholgical factors. For a while we'd think of them as 'magic', but then, assuming we didn't stomp the crap out of them for creeping us out, we could study them. Finding out how they do it could lead to a new branch of quantum physics and interesting new technologies. Going through walls would be no more 'magical' than me writing this message in sub saharan Africa and someone in North America reading it and responding 'instantly' is today.

I'd like to propose we look at definitions since it appears that some think they know all about distinctions, etc...
The disctinction between 'possible' and 'impossible' is not as important to us right now as the distinction between that which we can understand and that which we can't.

I maintain that people try to understand thigns mostly becasue they want to use/control them and that there are things we can understand and we can use, things which we can understand (given enough monkeys and typewriters) but can not use or control and those we can use or control without understanding them in the slightest (such as the infernal difference endjninn on which I write to you) then there are things we can neither understand nor hope to use or control.
Many who claim that their world view is based on scientific fact like to dismiss all but the first of these catagories. Such people will never be able to understand or use magic if it exists.
I can't know what the case is either way, but my personal feeling regarding sufficient monkeys and sufficient typewriters allowing humans to understand absolutely everything about the way the universe works is that it is unlikely to the point at which I would call it improbable. Those who claim that we already do know everything (important) or most of everything and the rest we'll soon be able to work out as we trip over it... well such people I laugh at openly or I invite them to watch Cosmos to see how small we really are and how limited our perspective is.

Precognition, telekeniesis, unaided human flight, etc could well be a fact of everyday life in a thousand years time, since I don't have enough precognative powers I can't say for sure :mrgreen: but when/if they are accepted and studied they will become 'science' and not the stuff of myth and magic.
Never mind trying to fly for now, I invite people to consider a universe in which we can't know/control everything... it may not change your own capablilities, but it will surely make life more intersting. :hmm:
...apparenly we can't go with it or something.

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Re: Science as ¨magic¨.

Post by Celtic_Minstrel »

People claiming we already know everything are wrong even without resorting to the possibility of anything supernatural — it's reasonably well known that modern physics is based on two incompatible theories (the standard model of particle physics, and the general theory of relativity).

It's quite true that "magic" is often used simply for something we don't understand. (By the way, "myth" is something completely different and has nothing to do with our understanding of how the world works.) By that definition, you can certainly study it and try to understand it.

I don't think your comments about the failure of the scientific method due to human factors are particularly important — the scientific method is by its very nature self-correcting. Sure, it might sometimes go off and make some wrong conclusions, perhaps due to human error, or maybe even just coincidence, but if the method continues to be applied, those mistakes will be discovered. As for misrepresentation of findings, that's really a departure from the scientific method.

As for myth and history, the distinction isn't as great as you might expect. A myth is a story which claims to be historical, for which the origins and most of the evidence have been lost; in some cases, myths are probably just stories. However, some myths could be degenerate histories, mutated over hundreds or thousands of years of retelling from a simple, straightforward account of actual events into an incredible and possibly magical account.

I'm not sure whether I agree on your four categories (basically +understand+control, +understand-control, -understand+control, -understand-control), but I'll point out that, whe quantum mechanics was first developed, none of the scientists involved in it really understood it. I'm not quite sure, but I think that's no longer the case now. So, if we can understand quantum mechanics, I think we can probably understand most things, given enough time.
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Re: Science as ¨magic¨.

Post by Dugi »

it's reasonably well known that modern physics is based on two incompatible theories (the standard model of particle physics, and the general theory of relativity)
Wrong. They contradict only if it comes to highly specific and poorly understood phenomena like black holes (and I think that recently Stephen Hawking found an explanation that resolves the black hole contradiction). The problem of these two theories is that they appear to be unrelated so that if you try to merge them, the result does not give any new predictions (the strings theory is one of the known fuse attempts, but because it didn't make any predictions that fit experiments and contain too little maths, it's on the edge of pseudoscience).

However, it's quite likely that there is something bellow, maybe the missing link between the standard model and general relativity or just a few additions here and there, because there are still some mysteries that aren't explained, like dark matter, high temperature superconductors, dark energy, absence of antimatter, etc.

Not trying to attack your point, I just wanted to correct one thing.

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