ReaderCon: Further Thoughts on Magic and Science

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.

3 thoughts on “ReaderCon: Further Thoughts on Magic and Science

  1. I enjoy your phrasing of magic addressing the “submerged meat” of the human mind and mental experience of the universe. That’s a good tool by which to tease out what some authors do with magic. I enjoyed both of the Magic panels that day even when they delved into frameworks I don’t necessarily respect, such as the notion of an “inanimate” universe. Not only is our second-to-second existence a yield of sub-atomic vibration and atomic motion, but our sentience makes us animate eyes of the universe. I’m chuffed to have landed the role.

  2. I spent so many years pretending that I did not need to pay any attention to my emotions except when they made my life into a trainwreck. Serious meat iceberg. Could you talk more about what you mean about our sentience making us the animate eyes of the universe? I want to understand that.

    1. Sure! It’s not my idea, nor my phrasing – I think phrasing it as us as the eyes of the universe comes from Alan Wilson Watts. But if we believe that we are material beings, then we’re constituted of the same particles as everything else in the universe. My body is animated matter. Humans are little bits of the universe, distinct from most of what we’ve observed in that we can observe and think about it. Particles in this universe have always interacted dynamically, but we consciously observe and interact – we may be the first little bits of the universe capable of self-awareness, akin to how radical the first eye was to an organism. We can appreciate our self-awareness setting us apart from other organisms (except others that are self-aware), but we can also appreciate it as a radical achievement of matter. Planets, comets, black holes, lightning, solar winds – so far as we know, none of these things can consciously look out and consider the universe that they are all a part of. We know we can, we do it a lot, and I find it highly cool to play this part.

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