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.
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.