Why Magic Should Not Be Mystified

Martin Rezny
Words of Tomorrow
Published in
7 min readAug 24, 2016


My attempt at the disenchantment of the disenchantment of science


In philosophy and debating in which I’m trained, disagreement is what drives the discussion forward, so there’s definitely no reason to be sorry for it. I believe I do understand your position, which is based on, or perhaps encapsulated after the fact, by a famous quote from sci-fi writer A. C. Clarke:

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

Unfortunately, I’d say that this is a misrepresentation of what I was trying to say. From the definition of magic that self-styled mages use, magic and science (or technology) are not the same. Science is defined by a very specific method, which has much narrower goals than magic in general, and differs even from engineering, which is its close counterpart. The scientific method can be used by those whom J. Michael Straczynski calls technomages in Babylon 5, but mages are not limited to this method, or just to engineering.

To make these differences clear, a couple of examples. Take the steam engine. Steam engine, as well as most of its early practical applications, was devised and developed unscientifically — without any theoretical understanding of underlying thermodynamics. The approach of the engineers then, before that time, and still today is in large part art, haphazard intuitive tweaking of mechanisms based on practical trial and error, coupled with aesthetic flare.

The first notable science-wielding engineer was Leonardo Da Vinci, who mainly applied it in the fields of aerodynamics and anatomy, and he was an isolated case for centuries to come. And even after the modern scientific revolution, you still had very sharply ideologically divided theoretical physicists like Albert Einstein on one side, and purely practical engineering “wizards” like Edison or Tesla. Note that both of these approaches worked.

The important lesson of this difference that concerns magic is that you can both understand some process theoretically, but not be able to imagine and construct a device to properly exploit it, as well as you can be able to build a functional device without understanding how exactly it works. In other words, the sharp distinction between magic as a mysterious technology and science as a well understood technology breaks down when you consider that science is not the same thing as technology, and technology can be mysterious even to its maker, let alone users. Magic is something else altogether, a wish.

The Obscured Intentionality of Science and Technology

To put it another way, most natural scientists, and especially technologists, pride themselves on not being concerned with the “why” questions at all, only “how”. In a scientific way of looking at things, the only meaningful application of a “why” question is if you actually mean “how”, anyway. Mages are primarily concered with the “why” questions, what should be done in a prescriptive sense, rather than how it can be done in a descriptive sense.

Since, unlike philosophers, mages are concerned with results, they also care about the “how”, but not in the first place. To mages, technology is not neutral at all, because it is always an attempt to make some wish come true, to fulfill some sort of purpose. Purposes are never neutral. Even if you try to find the most objective kind of moral philosophy, something like utilitarianism or conservative pragmatism, you’re taking a personal stance. Scientists prefer pretending they’re not persons and that results of their work are not personal.

Whenever you call something “just science”, you’re therefore reducing it, you’re subtracting the “why” dimension and obscuring the personal motivations behind that practice or phenomenon. The magic of it still exists, but you’re defining it outside of the discussion. It’s mainly an issue of individual agency — science as an enterprise is collectivist, in practice it is answerable to the external political or economic authorities that make the magical decisions of what kind of science and technology is supposed to be made or not, and how.

But magic has always a key element of fantasy, because before science and especially before technology, some individual man (or a woman) has to imagine what it is that they want done. That’s the primary consideration, it comes even before philosophy with its basic questions of how can I know anything or what’s the right thing to do. In order, the process of making things happen is ideally Magic > Philosophy > Science > Technology, complicated by the fact that in reality, it’s more of a gradient than a set of discrete steps.

How to Prevent the Wreaking of Havoc

Even though intentional magic has a dark side, in my experience, more damage is done when people who make things happen systemically surrender any personal responsibility for the consequences of their actions, or don’t even consider them in the first place. This unfortunately normal mentality of many scientists and engineers today is best described by the motto of the fictional Aperture Science Laboratories in a brilliant logical puzzle game called Portal:

We do what we must because we can

Though it is a joke, it very smartly combines the two different problematic motivations for furthering the “progress” of science and technology — you just do something because you’re told, and/or you just do things to see what happens, as long as no one’s stopping you. Being a scientist or an engineer who sees themselves as a mage is not about boosting one’s ego, it’s about beginning everything that you do from the beginning — you keep asking yourself the key question, why are we doing this? What kind of answer you find acceptable then defines what kind of mage, and human being, you are.

If you look at any horrific doomsday technology, like nuclear weapons, through the lens of why it was invented, you’ll see that there were only a few people who had any idea of that at the root of it, and then legions of theoreticians and engineers who were just following orders, some notion of blind linear progress, aimless curiosity, or a paycheck. Technology like nuclear weapons doesn’t just happen by accident — the discovery of underlying physics doesn’t necessitate that invention, and great many people have to work very hard on it for a long time, sacrificing huge amounts of resources.

If you afterwards end up regretting being in part responsible for humans becoming “the destroyers of worlds”, it’s a sign that even though you have succeeded as a scientist or an engineer, you have failed as a mage, and arguably, a human being. It’s one of the better ironies of the 20th century that such a devastating weapon was produced by pacifists, even more ironically since they did it because of the warmongers trying to make it first, and thus out-warmongering the warmongers. While Fritz Haber ended up feeding billions of people when he aimed to make more bombs. It’s funny that way.

The Irreducibility of Magic

Ultimately, what I’m trying to say is that magic can never be reduced to science and remain magic, even if one uses science (and technology) as a tool to accomplish magical objectives. There’s always an element of mystery to magic, since “what should we do and why” is not a question that can ever be answered by science, just like it is that which precedes any technology, not something derived from it. Magic also goes much deeper than fireballs.

While making a device to shoot fireballs can be an act of magic, what’s important to magic is not that you can shoot fireballs, or how you’re doing it, but why you’re shooting them. Perhaps you want to cause senseless destruction, perhaps you have an enemy you need to vanquish, perhaps you like how it looks or feels and find it amusing. Magic is the art of knowing when to pursue which goals and by what means, as well as which obstacles in terms of rival intentions of others, personal failings, or external circumstances may be necessary to overcome, and how. Science can describe it, but it isn’t it.

Magic will always belong to mages, no less if they’re technomages. No matter what technologies will become available in the future, there will always be all of the kinds of magicks that have existed since the dawn of mankind (at least), those considered mere fantasies or illusions by the scientists, like those of love, or freedom, or justice. Science would have to actively reduce humans to machines without any subjectivity to change that, and that would be by itself a magical act — trying to remake reality according to an intangible idea.

And finally, requiring mages to disobey the laws of physics of a universe that they inhabit is putting them into opposition to reality, which is a completely useless conceptualization. As my professor of cultural studies once told me, just because something is fictional doesn’t mean it’s untrue, or unreal. Even fantasy and all of human subjectivity are a part of reality and are not isolated from our actions and their consequences, not even independent of science and technology in practice. A technomage simply opts to use the two to do magic.

I hope this addresses your concerns, I think it actually needed clarification.



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