Magic is often described as a phenomenon impossible to explain, yet universally experienced. How it is understood, however, often differs from person to person. For some, magic is simply the suspension of belief, and the ability to trust in an unpredictable external force of the universe. For others, it is a mysterious power governed by systematic laws unknown to humans.
Similar to how we now often try to explain natural phenomena through logical progressions based in science, humans once explained these same forces through magic. This unknown power, as it seemed, held answers that we now turn to physics and biology to find.
The way we came up with such explanations has led to a great amount of inquiry over the years. British science and science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke developed three propositions during his career, as predictions regarding the advancement of human knowledge:
Clarke’s argument demonstrates that magic is not simply a device used in the past to explain any and all seemingly supernatural occurrences. It still exists today, albeit in a different form. The way we approach technology and scientific advancements is so similar to the way we once approached magic, that both processes can almost be said to be the same.
No matter what mythology or fables you read, no matter where they originate, there’s an element of magic that seems to link all creation tales. Perhaps this was because magic seemed like a reasonable conclusion to explain the natural occurrences of the cosmos. Assuming that magic existed allowed early humans to trust in some believable element and conjure an explanation for what they saw.
In many cultures, magic was even “practiced” by worshipers, who conducted complex rituals in order to communicate with the spirits and powers of the natural world. The ancient Egyptians appointed a High Priest to their pharaoh’s court to perform magic for burials, births, and other sacred ceremonies. The ancient Greeks similarly used a combination of medical practices and magic to heal their wounded and send their dead to the afterlife. Such rituals allowed believers to experience a sense of control over the unknown, especially since modern science had yet to be developed. In a universe with almost no explanations for common occurrences like death and disease, magic was a respite from the fear of not understanding the natural world. For the societies of the past, it was a way of explaining how nature worked.
In modern times, however, science and logic have permeated our understanding of the natural universe. Today, most of us think magic exists solely in fiction, where its powers are safely confined to the artistic choices of artists and writers. Even the most seemingly inexplicable tricks of street magicians and performance magic can be easily explained. Ironically, our obsession today with using science to find a logical explanation for all natural phenomena is remarkably similar to the approach people once
took towards explaining their world through magic. From experimental rituals to theories and explanations, many modern practices mirror how people once saw magic. Only in retrospect does the truth reveal itself — magic is nothing more than an experience through a different lens. The way we perceive science is no different from the way we once perceived divinations and enchantments.
To the ordinary person, many of today’s technological advances are taken for granted. To be able to tap a button on a metal box and access the world’s information is a little mind-blowing, and yet it goes unquestioned because it is a product of science and its components were clearly created by humans. On the other hand, natural phenomena — light poles, auroras, lenticular clouds, and volcanic lightning — are endlessly scoured for a scientific explanation that can dispel the magic from their existence.
Nevertheless, the aspects of science that inspire human curiosity are built upon a set of rules that governs the universe. These rules have been proven through trial and error, and have been shown to hold in nearly all circumstances throughout the universe. However, there is nothing preventing the universe from presenting exceptions to the norm. Science produces quantifiably proven answers, but there are often times when it is impossible to guess what the results of an experiment may be, no matter how much work is put into calculating the results ahead of time.
It may seem contradictory, but consider the recent discovery of gravitational radiation by the Caltech Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) team. According to the scientists, gravity — a phenomena previously believed to be a physical force of the universe — has been shown to be akin to ripples in the space-time continuum. This discovery showcases the inevitable flux that exists in our understanding of science. To the average person such a discovery is almost unexplainable; there are few facts on which they can base their understanding, and so they take the knowledge of the discovery for granted. With all of the scientific discoveries made and laws changed every day, and all of the laymen who fail to understand yet readily accept such revelations as fact, magic almost seems stable and resolute in comparison.
It is from this exact fact that Clarke drew his conclusions. So many of us do not quite understand science. We simply enjoy knowing that there are ways to prove everything in our world, and that there is a method to the chaos of the universe. Ancient people also entrusted their shamans, priests, and magicians with controlling the universe.
Rituals, chants, and ceremonies once were performed to create an atmosphere of restraint about the world. By instituting laws and controlling what could and could not be done, people were able to perceive the world as more manageable, its many intricacies more easily understood by the average person. For instance, the ancient Egyptians trained their priests to perform rituals to heal wounds. They believed that by appealing to the powers of the gods, they could manipulate their physical world and bring miracles into being. Although we now understand medicine to be a biochemical process, there are still many aspects of the human body that are not understood, especially regarding abnormalities in injuries.
Science exists in the same way that magic once did — as a form of human expression to make sense of our world. Our current faith in science and deduction has its roots in magical practices, vying for explanations to the uncertain and apparent randomness of our existence. Both approaches share a similar imperative curiosity for discovery, penchant for drawing conclusions, and knack for building upon a foundation of laws. Both, too, are prone to elaborate rituals and ceremonies — actual ceremonies for magicians and scientific and engineering processes for scientists.
As Clarke said, the only way to test our limits is to venture beyond, “into the impossible.”
Perhaps our transition from magic to science over the years has been nothing more than a simple sign of humanity’s maturation. Rather than taking a passive approach to understanding the universe, we have opted for an active stance, with the ability to question, experiment, and test the limits of our understanding. Although we now rely on scientific explanations for common phenomena, perhaps further ventures into the impossible will reveal that there is magic in our world after all.
Jones, Andrew Zimmerman. “What Are Clarke’s Laws?” About Education. Accessed January 2016. http://physics.about.com/od/physics101thebasics/f/ClarkesLaws.htm
Seawright, Caroline. “Heka: Tales of Magic in Ancient Egypt.” April 24, 2001. Accessed February 2016. http://www.thekeep.org/~kunoichi/kunoichi/themestream/egypt_magic.html#.VthQ1-YTXMt
The Center for the Tebtunis Papyri Online Exhibits. “Religion, Magic, and Medicine at Ptolemaic and Roman Tebtunis.” The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley. Accessed February 2016. http://tebtunis.berkeley.edu/exhibit/drathbone/4
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