Friday, March 18, 2011

Things I Did Today
  • Worked from 10:00 a.m. to 10:00 p.m.
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Thoughts -- Magic And Technology, Part 2

In my previous post I argue that technology is defined by its systematicness and its teachability. How exactly a given piece of technology works may be mysterious, but there is nothing mysterious about how to implement it. One can teach another how to make a gun even if the learner has no conception of combustion or ballistics.

So what about magic? My initial inclination was that the term "magic" should be restricted to occurrences that violate the laws of physics, such as turning someone into a frog with a mere gesture and incantation. But I now believe that this definition is unsatisfying. For one, we don't know exactly what the laws of physics are. We are quite confident about many of them, but there are plenty of mysteries left in the physical world. The upshot is that we cannot use "physically impossible" as a criterion for distinguishing between magic and highly advanced technology. Something that seems physically impossible to us may not, in fact, be physically impossible. Nor can we simply maintain that something is magical when it violates the laws of physics as we understand them. After all, the whole point of Clarke's axiom is that sufficiently advanced technology does the same thing. A TV would blow a caveman's mind, but there is nothing magical about it. Lastly, I believe that defining magic with respect to the laws of physics is too restrictive. Suppose someone correctly predicted the outcome of 1,000 coin tosses in a row and then repeated this feat on another occasion. Assuming I somehow knew there was no cheating involved, I would suspect magic, even though this spectacle is clearly within the realm of physical possibility.

In light of the above, I think magic should be thought of roughly as technology minus the systematicness or the teachability. That is, magic is something that functions like technology but cannot be reduced to a process that others can follow to achieve the same result. Rather, one must possess certain magical powers (or equipment) in order to wield magic. And it is these powers -- as opposed to how well one follows a set of instructions -- that determine the strength of one's magical acts, provided that one has engaged in any necessary prerequisites such as reciting a spell. It is these powers that constitute the "ineffable core" of magic that I mentioned in part 1.

In short, magic is like the Force.

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