Looking for a little magic

I’ve been thinking a lot about magic lately.  What is it?  How do we define it?

In times long past, the things we now know as science were often considered magic.  The ability to make an illness go away or a cake rise or a new metal emerge from the combination of two others.  The creation of new life.

Magic has also long been connected to religion.  The pagan ritual, the shamanistic trance, the demons lurking within a summoners circle.  There’s the power of illusion too — glamors, of course, but also the fleeting beauty found in between the lines of musical compositions or under the deft brush strokes of a master painting.

So, the unexplainable, the mystical, and the genius have given rise to the belief in magic in the past, but where do we find magic today?  Is today’s magic the next frontier of the scientific unknown? Teleportation.  Faster than light travel.  Death rays.  The zombie apocalypse.  Is much of what we like to think of as science fiction actually magic?

Maybe magic is nothing more than the belief in the impossible, the act of wishing the unthinkable and unreal into existence.  Maybe novelists are magicians.

What do you think?  How do you think of magic and where do you find it in today’s world?

4 thoughts on “Looking for a little magic

  1. seancraven (@seancraven)

    This is a subject that I’ve been thinking about for some time, and my opinion is a little eccentric. Kindly inform me if I wander into foil-hat territory.

    I’m an atheistic materialist. I reject the notion of supernatural influence in a physical world. There is no point at which supernatural explanations for events make the events easier to understand, whether we’re talking about engineering or psychology.

    However, most people live in a world that seems to them rife with supernatural influences. By providing a framework of mythology, ritual, and meditation, it is possible to bring these essentially hallucinatory experiences in-line with consensus reality. This is an unexamined function of religion in culture.

    I do believe that the same affinities that draw us to religion draw us to elements of the fantastic in other stories. If you look at the early modern fantasies of people ranging from William Morrison to Lord Dunsany to E.R. Eddison and Tolkien himself (bit of a Johnny-come-lately, that one), you find over and over and over the influence of the King Jame’s Bible and Scandinavian mythology. Fantasy’s origins are explicitly religious. And genuine, rigorously science-based fiction is a true rarity. Most SF is F, period.

    I see magic as a mental technology useful for consciously relating to and structuring the ‘deep mind,’ the different areas of the brain whose interactions evoke consciousness. The techniques originally developed for socially-binding rituals may be used to explore the nature of one’s relationship with consensus reality.

    And magic can also be used to restructure one’s relationship to conventional reality. Our mental habits and cultural assumptions are far more limiting and in fact damaging to us than we can understand until we’ve tested them.

    Which is weasel-talk for, “I don’t believe in the stuff, but my golly, it seems to work when you actually do it, and when I’m in the right mood I can convince myself there’s a perfectly rational explanation.”

    Or, to put it another way, “Yes, writers are magicians. All fictions are magic spells, and they all have effects beyond what we see and expect. They reverberate through our lives and the greater life of the world. And if you’re smart? You’ll make sure you know what spell you’re casting.”

  2. Vlad

    Sorry to be the grouch here, but this dude (James Randi) has been looking for magic too, to the point that he’s offering one mil to someone who can perform it for real.


    With respect to the relationship between science and magic – I think that magic, by definition, is something that you can’t fully explain, while Science is exactly the opposite. So even though the outcomes may seem magical, the detailed explanations make the outcome far more mundane.

  3. Stephen Buchheit

    Magic in the modern world is the black box phenomenon. People use technology without really understanding it. Thirty years ago we would talk about how the internal combustion engine was a black box. People just knew to put gas in the one end, take it to specialists every so often, hit the right pedal and it goes, left peddle stops it.

    You can think of the internet or cell phones as the modern equivalent. People don’t often know how they actually work, just that they do. The perform their “magic incantation” and picture of LOLcats comes on the screen without their need to know anything about networks. The use cell phones without understanding wireless communications. Just punch the numbers in the right order, and do you magic dance and you’re talking to your Mom or texting your cousins.

    It’s magic. The little people in the TVs and radios. And you know they’re there. Just a few of them.

  4. mirandasuri

    I don’t know if I agree with the idea that people not really understanding how technology works is the same as considering them “magical”. Even if someone doesn’t know exactly how their cell phone works, they’re still aware that there IS an explanation for it. In fact, in today’s world, I’d say that a majority of people now believe science has an explanation for pretty much everything, whether we’ve found that explanation yet or not. They may not be able to understand all the scientific explanations, but they believe in their existence.

    Not much has that magical quality of being truly unknowable anymore (except god, if you go in for religion).

    It’s sort of depressing, like there’s nothing left to genuinely inspire wonder.

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