The Difference Between Magic and Science was one of those definitional panels, and true to form, Max Gladstone, Lev Grossman, Andrea Hairston, Kenneth Schneyer (moderator), J.M. Sidorova did not exactly define either magic or science (at least not in opposition to one another). Instead, they brought up some interesting frameworks that we use to think about science and magic. The following is a synthesis of their discussion and my ideas about the frameworks.
J.M. and Max distinguished science as the conceptual framework of technology, and technology as stuff that works. Useful distinction. It led Andrea to explain out that people evolve with technology with a story of grub-eating chimpanzees who learned to use sticks, got the best grubs, had the best babies, and generationally, became the best chimps. J.M. said, “All living organisms are scientists. If you hear a rustle in the bushes, your first thought is not magical.”
While I like the idea of science as a practical response to a given situation, I do not think it’s quite the case. Maybe it is more like a spectrum between basic association and hard science. If an animal is having a startle reaction to rustling bushes, it is not thinking. In its little prey-brain, it associates rustling with potential doom, and it reacts before it has time to think. The more leisure a critter has to imagine, to make multiple connections, and to contemplate underlying logic, the more the process resembles scientific thinking.
That said, scientific thinking is not the only useful way of thinking. Consciousness is the mere tip of an iceberg that is actually made of meat. Magic addresses the submerged meat of the human mind, the concepts that don’t fit in well with rationalist thinking.
Lev Grossman proposed that material realities of modern life are alienating to the inner self, and magic is a way of negotiating and defining that disconnect. Andrea brought up the Enlightenment, with which came the idea that the universe is inanimate. In some African American cultures, however, the universe is an actor with agency. Magic animates the universe.
Animating the universe brings intractably vast concepts to a human scale and makes them relatable. This is hugely and impossibly important. It is why parables are so damn useful. It’s why religions tend to be collections of stories. I think this is why the panel started talking about mystery and wonder in relation to magic. Magic is supposed to be taking that on. It’s magic’s job. Interestingly, it also seems to be science’s.
Max pointed out that not very far into science you get into the infinitesimally small, and therefore weird indeterminacy. He said, if you’re relating to science in the right way, it’s a gateway to the numinous. Andrea expressed a similar sentiment, “I am dazzled by the fact that in all the possible universes, there is the statistical possibility my hand could go through the table.”
Science, though, begins at a human-scale, proceeding by careful step-by-step facts the numinous. Magic, on the other hand, takes in the numinous and brings it back to human-scale in a place, a being, a story.