Fantasy Magic II – Lacking in Chemistry

Following on from last week’s discussion of the possible boundaries between religion and magic and the impact it might have on a fantasy world, I am moving on to the boundaries between magic and science. A distinction both more immediately obvious and harder than that with religion.

Just as a cleric and a spirit magician may both drive out possession, so a pyrokinetic and a fire magician may both hurl flames but have a different reason for being able to do it. So, as before, an examination of the results does not separate magic from science.

I defined magic before as:

Magic: the art of producing marvellous results by compelling the aid of spirits or by using the secret forces of nature, such as the power supposed to reside in certain objects as ‘givers of life’; enchantment; sorcery; a secret or mysterious power over the imagination or will….

Where the definitions dealing with spirits sit against the bounds of religion, so the secret or mysterious power over things touches the bounds of science. Taking my definitions from Chambers Dictionary again, science is:

Science: knowledge (archaic); knowledge ascertained by observation and experiment, critically tested, systematized and brought under general principles; a department or branch of such knowledge or study; a skilled craft (obs.) trained skill, esp in boxing….

So, the surface distinction is that magic is applying power that is not openly understood whereas science is understanding or knowing about things. However, this does not aid in separating a fire magician from a pyrokinetic. Is this because there is actually no difference, or because the difference is not in the words but in their context?

If we base our fire magician on one of the standard tropes, that of the old man living in a tower carrying out complex experiments to learn magic, then he certainly obtains his magic by observation and experiment; in learning – especially if he corresponds or associates with other magicians – he could be said to critically test it; if he can adapt or build spells, he can systematize magic.

The first key to a distinction with science is that science is brought under general principles. A concept in science fits with the world in a way that can be explained by reference to other concepts from other areas; biology and chemistry, for example, both learn from a better understanding of complex molecules. Therefore, a system of power that cannot be explained by reference to outside sciences is magic: if our fire magician can cast flames but the casting cannot be explained by mundane methods it is magic, however tested and documented the magic is internally; whereas, a pyrokinetic’s ability can be explained by reference to other mundane methods, however rare or complex those methods might be.

This does not mean that one is more common or accessible than the other: a system of magic might work for anyone who uses the method but defy explanation for why it works; or an effect might be caused by an entirely natural structure in the brain (for example, like an electro-magnet or voltmeter) that can be understood but not replicated artificially.

Where the distinction between magic and religion is often one of real concern traditional fantasy world building, the distinction between magic and science is more often the concern to the urban fantasist: to the lay person quantum mechanics, with its (misquoted) principle that the presence of an observer changes the world, might as well be magic; but how does magic find a unique place in a world with rifles that can kill at great distance, and mobile telephones that can bridge continents? By being a system that provides power that is not openly accessible to all.

It is probably not necessary to determine every the answer to every question about the interaction of magic and science in your world but, as with religion, if is useful to have a general overview: a magician from a world where magic is a secret system anyone can use might well be more paranoid of having his ideas stolen than one who needs the correct destiny to use magic.


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