Sunday, May 24, 2009

Magic, Religion, Technology and Science

Magic, Religion, Technology and Science

If there is one thing that distinguishes a science fiction or fantasy novel from other fiction is that the story hangs in someway on the supernatural, some novel scientific idea or a fantastic technological device.

With this in mind, I have been giving some thought recently to how you define and distinguish magic, religion, science and technology. My background incidentally is that I read industrial biology and biochemistry at Brunel University of Technology, an engineering university. Isambard Kingdom Brunel was arguably the greatest engineer since Imhotep suggested to Pharaoh Djoser that a four-sided, pointed tomb might look impressive. I switched eventually to pure science, or strategic science, taking a PhD at the British Museum (Natural History) in ecology and biodiversity.

Let’s start with magic and religion. They both deal with the supernatural, so is there any difference between them? When does a religion rise above mere superstition, for example, and is superstition identical with magic? Most modern people would assert that the two are not identical and would probably assert that religion is about worship of a deity and an attempt to live by a moral code, while magic is about the manipulation of supernatural forces to achieve some result in the natural world. Unfortunately, this dichotomy does not entirely survive examination of modern religions, or magic.

Our ideas on magic and religion are traceable directly back to the Fertile Crescent, Mesopotamia and Egypt. Many of our ideas about wizardry are Egyptian, including magic wooden wands, spoken and written spells, magic potions and so on. We know a great deal about Egyptian religion and magic because of a dodgy British Museum Curator called Budge, who was a Cornishmen like me. He ‘acquired’ an excellent version of the Book of the Dead, more properly called something like Spells For Going Out in Daytime.

The Egyptian Book of the Dead is a magic manual of spells to help the supernatural part of a human being enter heaven and live forever and many other things. It includes explanations about the Gods and appropriate prayers to them. It also includes the forty two negative confessions that deal with morality that serve the same purpose as the Ten Commandments. However, the crafty Egyptians had a Plan B ready for those who had breached the negative confessions. You could use magic spells to cheat.

It is not so different today. Mad Max, sorry Mad Mel, has opinioned that, although his wife was a much better person than him, she was going to hell while he went to heaven because she was Church of England while Mel was a Roman Catholic. Apparently, leading a morale life is less important than having the right mojo come the awful day of judgement. Many years ago while, doing the middle of an all night drive to London, I picked up an American evangelical preacher on my car radio. The preacher had apparently desired to own something called a Winnebago, which I believe is some sort of motor caravan. How did acquire same, by working hard and saving? No he said the right prayers in the right way with the right body motions and he got his prize. God was a supernatural machine for dispensing consumer items.

Magic lends itself naturally to the way human minds work. Our brains are pattern recognition machines that link cause and effect. The grass moving against the wind causes a leopard attack. So run when you see the grass move. This is a very good survival adaptation. If the grass moves without a leopard appearing then all you lose is a little energy if you run but suppose a leopard appears and you have not run? A magic spell that that fails does not disprove the magic. It just means that the magician overlooked something. Obviously extra complexity is required in some way. Maybe the spell can only be performed at daybreak, or on a Thursday, or facing east – whatever. But if a spell works just once, i.e. the desired result happens, then it shows that the magic works.

Magic has neither logic nor consistency. The Egyptian Book of the Dead includes spells based on (i) a solar heaven in the company of the sun god, (ii) an astral heaven among the circumpolar stars and (iii) a heaven in the Field of Reeds under the Lordship of Osirus. There is endless, back-breaking agricultural work required in the Field of Reeds but fear not. There are spells to animate shabti figurines that will do the work for you.

I once wrote a short story set in the Bronze Age where I went to great trouble to get the details right, including magic spells. Guess what? A critic wrote that he hated irrational magic ‘systems’ that lacked logical consistency. I just love critics.

Technology is quite different from magic because it is empirical. Engineers traditionally used a suck it and see experimental approach. They tend to stop employing a building method if the resulting structure fell down before they had been paid. On the other hand, engineers have traditionally been happy if a technique works consistently without worrying too much about why it works.

Science is a relatively modern concept. The word ‘science’ derives from the Latin for knowledge, scientia. The word came into common use in the mid nineteenth century when the modern scientific method was developed. Mathematics, sometimes called ‘formal’ science, is the language of modern science but is as old as civilisation and was used in the Fertile Crescent for construction and for astronomical prediction for agriculture. Scientists create knowledge. They invent nothing, make nothing, construct nothing.

My main educational function was to supervise PhD students. I taught them the scientific method. This is not easy because scientific thinking goes against the natural inclinations of the human mind. It dismisses cause and effect patterns and demands destructive empirical testing. Science is quite different to religion, which starts with an assumption that there is a ‘truth’. Science assumes no discernable truth. There is nothing but models used to describe natural processes. Such models are subject to constant destructive testing until they fail, whereupon a more accurate model is devised. In science, the natural world is broken down into single ‘processes’ that can be tested. This is very different to magic, which involves increasing complexity until success is achieved.

Increasingly, science and engineering are converging into ‘science & technology’. Engineers are discouraged from trial and error methods because error can be disastrous in the modern world so they turn to scientific knowledge when planning novel technology.

To summarise:
1) Magic is the manipulation of the natural world by supernatural methods.
2) Religion is belief in the supernatural with an implication of universal truth and moral standards.
3) Technology is making things, partly by empirical experimentation and partly by application of scientific knowledge.
4) Science is a technique for investigating the natural world.
5) Magic involves complexification but science uses reductionism.
6) Religion is about truth, science is about useful, temporary models.
7) Magic lacks logical consistency.
8) Magic involves gathering evidence to ‘prove’ something. Science works by destructive testing.
9) Religion and magic require belief, science and technology don’t.
10) That’s it folks!

Well those are my thoughts but philosophers have argued over this for, well, for ever.

How do you feel about magic and science?

Do you want logical magic systems? Isn't that just wierd science and technology and not magic at all?

For God's sake someone comment, please. Pretty please.

I know - Try Bribery!

I will send a signed copy of my only novel to the most insightful comment.


Ori Pomerantz said...

Abraca(a)dabra (= "I create as I speak" in Aramaic - amazing what you can learn by attending synagogue services). By the power vested in me by the great demon Brown, I declare that this is the most insightful comment on this topic.

More seriously, we live in a technological age. That is the reason we expect our methods to make sense: whether they are called "technology" in a Science Fiction book, or "magic" in a Fantasy book. The Pyramid series is a good example of magic that makes sense to a modern reader.

What does it mean for "Temple of Thorns"? Frankly, nothing. I may be prejudiced because of my love of edutainment, but I believe when you write about Greek mythology you should be as Greek as possible. Your heroes are not modern people thrust into Greek mythology, but actual Greeks - you might as well make them authentic and teach some history while doing it. I'd love to see you doing more Greek mythology.

It would also be interesting to read a book from you where one of the heroes is trying to turn magic into science. Especially if the failures are particularly funny.

Ori Pomerantz said...

Rereading my comment, it reads as if it's a criticism of the Pyramid series. It's not. I love it, and the only problem I see is that there's a sequel missing (something after "Pyramid Power").

But it's fun to have different authors to look at things from different angles. Dave Freer's writing is a lot more scientific that yours. Your is more mythological.

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

I believe Mysticism (whether traditional religion or new age) is hard wired into most brains.

It is amazing science has come as far as it has, when the condensation in a hospital window which looks vaguely like the outline of a woman can draw people to pray below it.

Sigh ...

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

well, good magic, should have an internal logic of its own. I like following historical patterns that make the magic seem logical. And I agree with Ori on keeping-period-accurate.

If you study ancient Greek Magic -- I've been reading it off and on for a few years, because there's a plot throbbing like a migraine at the back of my conscious -- you'll find it is essentially a "logical" magical system, except the things it's funded on -- its basic assumptions -- are hokum.
Now, in your parallel world, assume that beans and bacon REALLY give you the ability to communicate with the dead... can't you avoid it when you DON'T want to visit the underworld in dreams? Or vice versa?

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Oh, and every writer I know -- answering Rowena -- has "magical" beliefs. I understand they're normal in professions where you don't have a lot of control over the ultimate outcome of your venture. Actors. Writers. Speculators. That sort of thing.
Mine? Uh. They're mostly tied in with not writing in certain places/reading certain things while writing. For new projects, the post office I mail from. Downtown mail -- good. Our local post office... probably not accepted. From what I hear, there are MUCH worse ones.

kesalemma said...

I have been trained by a historian/fantasy writer to believe that if you are going to write a book with magical elements set in a particular time that did exist, you must make your magic as true to the period as possible. And I find myself looking at this as I read other writing. In many historical periods, religion and magic were as one.
I also, studied a religious history/archeology subject when I (briefly) went to University - and the whole point of the course seemed to me to be that ancient man's logic was very different to our own, and to interpret religious - and I apply it to magic too - beliefs, one must attempt to think the way they did - and if you believe bad weather is a god's punishment for man's bad behaviour, you are going to explain anything you can't understand as religion or magic.
As such, I think your list is how many logical people today would explain the difference between the two, I still think that in many cases religion and magic - while not being one and the same - are inescapably intertwined.

Anonymous said...

The Placebo effect. Lamaze Breathing techniques. Acupuncture.

Oh sure, there's all sorts of scientific explanations, but they just don't sound logical. Our minds, in trying out logic, are trying to simplify what were looking at. At some point, the complexity pops the bubble of belief in the chain of logic, and "it just works that way" takes over. And that's just a modern way of saying, "Magic". The smarter we are, the better our educations, the longer and more twisted logical paths we can follow.

But at some point we trip and fall off the convoluted path. We have faith that what few germs survive the chicken soup will be killed by the vitamin C.

So fictionally, I don't need the whole train of logic for the magic to work. I need a vague hand wave toward a start of a logical explanation, then the Evil Wizard can wave his hands in irritation and exclaim that he has no time to explain it all to imbeciles and he's just going to get on with incorporating them into his elixir of youth.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...


Um... I think your professors wanted to believe they were better than our ancestor. Not meaning to argue, but if you dwelve into the actual writings of contemporaries, the logic of magic is very much like our own. In fact it is still ROUTINELY used in the soft sciences.

It is predicated on an error called (and I'm sorry, I'm quoting this from memory, because I only have a year of Latin) ad hoc, propter hoc I believe, which is studied as a logic fallacy. What it means is something like "it came before, therefore it caused it." (The soft sciences. I was recently reading a blog post about whether increased unemployment would cause greater crime. This is accepted as gospel by certain branches of sociology and entire policies are based on it, but there doesn't seem to be a CAUSAL relationship. Losts of things other than increased prosperity since the eighties can explain the fall in crime, including but not limited to the fact that some of the more dangerous drugs KILL. And during the Great Depression there was a fall in crime, which increased after WWII, not because conditions were more difficult but -- at a guess -- because a lot of the returning men felt like fish out of water. The whole once they've seen Paree.)

I'll ask Dave to correct me if I'm wrong, because this is his field, but I believe -- certain books to the contrary notwithstanding -- that there hasn't been THAT MUCH evolution in the last ten thousand years, and what there was has been in specialized areas and not at the basics.

You can sort of see how ad hoc propter doc would serve a hominid in the wild well (or your cat in the house.) "I ate those berries and I was ill. Must not eat those berries" was just good sense, even though the illness might have been the flu and not poisoning. Chances were it was poisoning. Ogg lived another day and passed his brain structure to his children.

That it doesn't serve us that well now -- in most cases -- isn't enough to make us change that dramatically. Our brain structure is the same.

This is way it is very important to follow the scientific method even in -- particularly in -- the soft sciences.

I'm sorry. I didn't mean to soap-box. I too took a humanities degree. If you disagree with me, feel free to throw things, tell me I'm an idiot -- whatever. I won't take it badly. (Rather used to is, really :) )

Ori Pomerantz said...

Religion seems to encompass two separate things: morality and magic. The best I can make out is that religion should be about morality, but morality is hard work. To teach morality, we resort to ritual. Often the ritual takes over and we wind up with magic. The best example I can think of this is early in The Silver Chair when Eustace explains that all the rituals to call Aslan (= God) are useless - as if you're trying to compel Him. The best you can do is just ask for Him to come.

This gives up one type of magic - the type that compels spirits to do your bidding. Given the human tendency to anthropomorphism, that was probably the most common type of magic.

The second type would be more similar to engineering - dealing with inhuman forces. That part could evolve into engineering, for those rituals that started with some basis in reality(1). Those that didn't probably got more and more ornate, because the simple rituals didn't work. Any sufficiently complex ritual would work when applied correctly, 100% of the time, because when it fails you can find reasons it was not applied correctly.

(1) For example, building large structures in pyramid shape so they won't be cursed with falling down.

Science goes against a lot of the heuristics embedded into human psychology. Scientists tend to be a tiny minority of humanity, and good ones a subgroup of that.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...


actually religion = morality if only in the relatively recent religions. In most OLD religions, religion = do what the god wants you to -- and those things could be things NEVER considered moral in human society.

Ori Pomerantz said...

Sarah: actually religion = morality if only in the relatively recent religions. In most OLD religions, religion = do what the god wants you to -- and those things could be things NEVER considered moral in human society.Ori: I think this was true for Greek religion. But the Code of Hammurabi is specifically justified as both divine in origin and moral:

Anu and Bel called by name me, Hammurabi, the exalted prince, who feared God, to bring about the rule of righteousness in the land.The same might have been true for ancient Roman religion - I'm not sure.

kesalemma said...

Quote Sarah Hoyt: Um... I think your professors wanted to believe they were better than our ancestor. Not meaning to argue, but if you dwelve into the actual writings of contemporaries, the logic of magic is very much like our own. In fact it is still ROUTINELY used in the soft sciences.

That's not what I'm saying at all. Maybe I didn't write my point well enough (and I will apologise now for the formatting, it certainly did not come out as I intended or thught I'd typed it).

I'm saying their thought - and therefore, logic - processes were DIFFERENT, and that does not mean better or worse. It's certainly not what I believe.

Any magic system developed by a person using the logic systems of today will use today's logic. And most people interpreting magic systems from another time will interpret it using today's logic no matter how much they try not to.

I have to stop there as I need to be elsewhere, but I hope that clears up somewhat what I meant by my last post.

Anonymous said...

That's a very good point.

A guy I know who is fluent in Farsi said the language does have the same implications of cause and effect that English has, and that it leads to a very different way of seeing the world.

Any ancient magic system is going to have that same sort of problem, even if it was translated correctly and with no bias in the first place.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Sorry, probably me. I was painting the porch this morning (Ah, the exciting life of a writer!) and the fumes made me funny the rest of the day...

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