When does magic become science?

2 years ago | TheAdamBo (Member)

I am completely unashamed to admit that I am a total squealing fanboy when it comes to Brandon Sanderson books. He's the modern day JRR Tolkien, if you ask me. One of the things I like best is how he has magic systems that are based on rules the reader can understand. There's always a clear source where the magic comes from from, and it operates on a strict set of rules and limitations. For example, allomancers get their power by consuming certain types of metals. Tin enhances your senses, pewter makes you stronger, steel and iron let you push and pull on other metals like a magnet, respectively, etc. Each metal only gives you one power, and those powers work the same for whoever uses them. I like it because it lets you know exactly what each character is capable of, and when they fight it comes down to who uses their powers better, faster, more effectively, rather than a race to see who can wave their wand and spout gibberish faster.

That makes me wonder, though. Some people will say that Sanderson's magic is no good because it takes away the element of the unknown. Magic is, by definition, a word to describe things that are beyond our understanding. Sanderson understands and explains his magic so thoroughly that it's, in a way, more of a science than sorcery. The way I see it, the powers are still coming from supernatural means, and even if we know HOW to use them we might still not know for sure WHAT they are. Then again, look at Superman. He's got powers out the wazoo (heck, his wazoo probably HAS powers), but nobody calls them magic. To him, they're just natural abilities that his alien race has, just like the people in Sanderson's world. Then again, AGAIN, Gandalf and Harry Potter's powers are both natural in their own worlds, but people have no problem calling it magic. It's confusing.

What do you guys think? At what point does magic become science?

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Page: 12


  1. ubersoft (Member)

    Posted 2 years ago

    I won't say "no good" but I will say that I think fantasy tilts too far in the direction of "explain the rules" for my taste these days. I like there being shadows and whispers and secrets with my magic.

    To me it becomes science when it's presented as a natural force within the world, like gravity.

    Curveball (Updating)
    A Rake by Starlight (Updating)
  2. Sten Düring (Member)

    Posted 2 years ago

    Magic becomes science when it has to be explained. If magic can be explained, then it's no longer magic.

  3. TheAdamBo (Member)

    Posted 2 years ago

    But at the same time, guys, magic with no explanation almost always becomes a plot crutch. When you don't know how to solve a problem, just have the wizard thrust his staff forward and yell "HAAAAAAAAH!" and knock the entire army over. When you don't present rules for your characters to follow, that either ends up with them doing whatever the heck they want because, I mean, you never said they COULDN'T, did you? Or, the readers spending the whole story saying, "Why didn't he do this? Or that? There are so many better ways he could have done that!" Take Harry Potter, for instance. To this day, people are still coming up with better ways for Harry and Co. to have solved their problems, and Rowling is backtracking all over the place providing crappy explanations as to why her way was the only way it could really be done. If she'd only implemented some ground rules for using magic beyond "wave the stick and butcher the Latin language," that would have fixed the problem.

    My Fiction is Fantastic, Fabulous, Freaky, and FREE! Check it out on BolanderBooks: http://www.bolanderbooks.com
  4. Dary (Member)

    Posted 2 years ago

    What Sten said. Magic is just science that people haven't figured out yet.

  5. Sharkerbob (Member)

    Posted 2 years ago

    When you figure out how it works. :P

  6. ubersoft (Member)

    Posted 2 years ago

    TheAdamBo, what you're describing is a danger but not an inherent flaw. Every world building choice carries with it an associated danger. That's not a reason not to use it.

    Curveball (Updating)
    A Rake by Starlight (Updating)
  7. Dary (Member)

    Posted 2 years ago

    And "rules" have their disadvantages, too. Take the metal stuff mentioned in the OP, for example. How does that even make sense? Tin enhances your senses? But why? What's the rational explanation for why nature would work like that, besides "because the author said so"? (Looking it up, and it appears to be something along the lines of "because God designed it that way", which raises all sorts of theological questions! And what I read suggested there was 16 metals/powers ... But there are way more metals in nature, so how does that work? Or does it imply Sanderson's world doesn't adhere to the fundamental laws of science? I mean, where do his fictional metals fall on the periodic table? Etcetera etcetera etcetera.)

  8. Patrick Rochefort (Member)

    Posted 2 years ago

    I'm a big fan of Charles Stross's "The Laundry" series, that treats magic with scientific rigor and manages to preserve the spine-tingling awe and wonder (and especially horror!) of magic while still treating it as part of a scientific phenomenon.

    My story, From Winter's Ashes (http://www.fromwintersashes.com) gets compared pretty often to Sanderson and Stross's work in reviews. I share that love of making magic emotionally powerful while still giving it a comprehensible structure for the reader to hang their suspension of disbelief upon. :)

    From Winter's Ashes: A Detective with nothing left to lose, against a Necromancer with a world to gain.
  9. GeneralRincewind (Member)

    Posted 2 years ago

    What is Science?

    According to wikipedia it's "a systematic enterprise that builds and organizes knowledge in the form of testable explanations and predictions about the universe"

    In other words, it is a way of studying the world.

    Magic is an element of the world, but not a way of studying the world, thus it can be studied using Science, but it is not and can never be Science, and thus the question is moot and pointless.

  10. TheAdamBo (Member)

    Posted 2 years ago

    Kind of confused by what you mean by "an element of the world." Correct me if I'm wrong, but that sounds more like a Wiccan way to look at it. Most people consider magic to be something *not* of the natural world, or at least OUR world. Plus, if you could study it using science, wouldn't the study of magic, in itself, be a science? Like, the study of living things is biology, the study of rocks and minerals is geology, etc.

    My Fiction is Fantastic, Fabulous, Freaky, and FREE! Check it out on BolanderBooks: http://www.bolanderbooks.com
  11. Stable (Member)

    Posted 2 years ago

    This is one of the things that Tales of MU did really well - the whole point (it's been a while since I read it, so forgive me if I misremember) is that you couldn't study magic, or even maybe the world, scientifically because it just won't work. So you can't measure the distance from the ground to the moon because the moon goddess will be offended, smite you and put the moon somewhere else (or something like that anyway).

    A lot of people conflate science and technology. For example, all the people who say that they don't want food with "chemicals" in it, they want "natural" food (good luck with that guys, watch out for the dihydrogen monoxide). Since writers are people too it's not surprising if they do it too.

    You could say that magic is a natural element of the world, or something outside it and alien. You could say it's just natural forces that we don't have in our reality (probably), or whatever you like. There's definitely room for both approaches, but as Rincewind said the whole point of science is that it's an approach to finding knowledge. If that's not going to work you need a good reason why.

    The Archive Of Unusual Events
  12. unice5656 (Member)

    Posted 2 years ago

    I don't think magic has to stay mysterious and unexplained in order to be magic. I love Brandon Sanderson's systematic explanation of well-thought-out magic systems that have internal consistency. All of his characters have to act within the magic system, which makes his plot much more reasonable than when an MC randomly pulls miracles out of nowhere and says "because magic".

    What makes it magic from the reader's point of view is that it accomplishes things that aren't physically possible, or even theoretically possible, using our science and technology. It's very possible, however, that within the author's story world, whatever magic system they use is so thoroughly studied and understood that it is a science to the characters. "Magic" to them might just be another energy source to get things done, much like how we use electricity in society.

    Honestly, other than really improbable miracles being pulled out of nowhere, I think stories can succeed very well with either detailed, systematic magic or more mysteriously accomplished magic. The thing that pisses me off is when people attempt to use "scientific" explanations for things that are clearly physically impossible, even with just my Physics 101 understanding. Biological explanations get me even more because I majored in biochemistry, so I'll catch even more errors. If people want to go with scientific explanations based on Earth's science, they'd better do their research and get it right. It's much easier to go with a magic system, which only needs internal consistency.

  13. GeneralRincewind (Member)

    Posted 2 years ago

    @TheAdamBo The study of magic is a science, but that doesn't make magic science. And the element of the world stuff? That was me trying to say that usually magic exists as part of the setting and is also something that can affect the setting. I'm not that good at succinct descriptions

  14. TanaNari (Member)

    Posted 2 years ago

    Right. Electricity isn't science. Gravity isn't science. Life isn't science. They just are things natural to the universe. Science is the act of trying to understand and harness these natural things.

    Author of Price.

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