Magical Realism
Bill Quick

Jonah Goldberg:

This is a hard thing for some to hear, but science operates as magic for most of us. Most of us don’t really know how things like electricity, copy machines, computers, medicine, and rising-crust pizza actually work. We’re just told that scientists worked it out and we believe it because that stuff works. I open up my laptop and it lights up (I’m talking about my portable computer, sickos). But Arthur C. Clarke’s Third Law still holds true: Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

I’ve heard this for decades, and used it many times myself, but I don’t really believe it.

You see, Clark was using “magic” as a synonym for “impenetrable,” when, in truth, perceiving something as magic is a function of the observer, not the observed.

Magic is irrational, unprovable, and has never actually been demonstrated – ever.  Magic, in other words, does not exist.  If I see something happen that I don’t understand, I don’t assume that it is caused by unicorn farts, pixie dust, big sky gods, or sorcerors.  I assume that it is a natural process I don’t understand – yet. 

So, no, I don’t buy into the notion that something real is indistinguishable from something that does not, and cannot, exist.

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Bill Quick

About Bill Quick

I am a small-l libertarian. My primary concern is to increase individual liberty as much as possible in the face of statist efforts to restrict it from both the right and the left. If I had to sum up my beliefs as concisely as possible, I would say, "Stay out of my wallet and my bedroom," "your liberty stops at my nose," and "don't tread on me." I will believe that things are taking a turn for the better in America when married gays are able to, and do, maintain large arsenals of automatic weapons, and tax collectors are, and do, not.


Magical Realism — 8 Comments

  1. If I see something happen that I don’t understand, I don’t assume that it is called by unicorn farts, pixie dusts, big sky gods, or sorcerors.

    That puts you in the minority. Today, even, let alone throughout human history.

  2. Let us not forget the contrapositive of Clarke’s Law: “Any technology distinguishable from magic is insufficiently advanced.”

    But Bill is essentially right. Magic, as distinguished from the simply not-yet-understood, implies some kind of metaphysical anti-realism — either supernaturalism or primacy of consciousness (“wishing makes it so”). Neither of those doctrines is true, and the fact that phenomena exist that we don’t understand is not evidence that they are.

  3. A savage would consider modern technology impenetrable magic. One might try to explain the technology but such an exercise would be futile.

    However, I don’t imagine that Ben Franklin or Thomas Jefferson or Isaac Newton, to name a few, would long wonder at modern technology and would, I suspect, wonder instead at the wilful ignorance of those that benefit so much from it.

    • That’s the point, though, Alfred. The savages might believe it was magic, but that wouldn’t make it magic.

      Franklin, Jefferson, and Newton were all scientists. They wouldn’t think it was magic either, but then, they weren’t untutored savages.

      And if you could take one of those savages at the age of three or four and raise him in a civilization that understood scientific principles, he probably wouldn’t think it was magic, either.

      BTW, I doubt that Franklin or Jefferson would have been much surprised at the willful ignorance of many people. These men framed our government with a careful eye on protecting it from the failings of mankind.

      • Of course, the belief that it is magic doesn’t make it magic. I suppose you could say that we’re in violent agreement on this.

        And, point taken regarding the founders understanding of human ignorance and failings but still, I do think there would be great surprise and perhaps profound disappointment that proportionally far fewer are able to produce the values that sustain their own lives and thus exist only by the grace of those few that produce far more.

  4. The English language is such a delight. Logically by stating that magic is a force that does not exist, well that just takes the ‘magic’ out of the Clarke quote.

    Magic as defined by ‘supernatural’ can be seen as almost a definition of advanced technology because one takes natural forces and blends them into something greater.

    Then there is the overwhelming majority of the population of these dis-United States who either believe in a god, or in the godhood of our obamanable leader. It’s not magic, but it sure as death, is a mystery.

    Bill, I am not taking issue with, nor contradicting your statement. I am just having fun with the concept.

    • I’ll play, Haverwilde.

      Saying that something does not exist does not remove the concept of it.

      I know that magic doesn’t exist, but I know what people think magic is: Something that is not real and natural. Clark’s Law works perfectly well from that viewpoint: For people who believe in the concept of the unnatural, irrational, and impossible, and call that magic, when they see something they don’t understand, they may well decide it is magic. That doesn’t make them any less wrong in their evaluation, but it doesn’t invalidate Clark’s Law.

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