Is Magic Just Science?


In the realm of Riding the Dragon, it certainly is. Drake posits at one point that everything Cad thinks is magic is actually just science—science that might be beyond his comprehension or understanding at the moment.
That leads to a question: Is what we consider “magic” just science? Many people will argue no, but it stands to reason.

Looking to Mythology

One of the reasons this theory stands up pretty well is that we used to use “magic” or the supernatural to explain very scientific phenomena all the time. Think about the explanations of lightning we can find in Greek myths. Thunder and lightning are the work of Zeus.

Today, we know that’s not true. We didn’t begin to scientifically understand electricity until the 1700s. After that, we were able to harness it and use it. The stuff we have nowadays? People of the past would see it as “science fiction,” but there’s a good chance they’d just call it magic.

TVs? Magic. Computers? Magic. Wireless communication? Magic!
Without solid scientific understanding, almost everything we do today seems, well, kind of magical.

Think about it. You send a message from your phone. It becomes data, which electrical signals transmit over the air, through cellphone towers, to reach the person you message. This takes mere seconds (if you have a good connection).

To someone who doesn’t understand electricity or data or computers, that’s going to look a lot like magic.

There’s a good example of this from the 1700s, actually: the levitating child experiment. Old-timely folks used to break this one out at parties to impress each other. A child would be “electrified” (with static electricity, sort of like if you rubbed yourself with balloons), and they would proceed to “levitate” as the electricity held them up off the floor.

People today wouldn’t see this as any kind of magic—we probably wouldn’t call it levitation either. It might still be cool (or kind of cruel, which is why we just settle for things that make our hair act weird today). We understand this is a natural process that can be fully explained by science.

Science Has Become a New Religion

In some ways, science has replaced our older myths. Instead of talking about how Zeus is probably pissed off and shooting lightning bolts down at us again, we talk about charges leaping between the clouds. We know thunder is just the sound lightning makes, because sound is slower than light. Science can also explain why thunderstorms form and how they happen. We can even try to predict when they’ll happen and how severe they’ll be.

This depiction of Thor, Norse god of thunder, also suggests we don't want to tick him off.
Or Thor. Thor seems like a bad guy to piss off.

If religion is just a way of explaining the world around us, trying to understand it, then science must also be a sort of religion. Sure, science rests on “fact” and “natural observation,” but the Greeks also believed in observation and theorized about atoms. They also knew for “fact” that the gods caused thunderstorms.

So, really, our understanding of the world around us is evolving. Science is all about that, really. Our understanding is continually evolving as we conduct more experiments and discover more. Old theories are disproven and discarded; new ones evolve to take their place.

In a sense, then, science is also narrative. It’s a framework for understanding our world, for making sense of it. It’s stories we tell ourselves, and over time, those stories change as our “knowledge” shifts and we come to understand the world differently.

There’s Truth in Fiction

We’ve always known certain things, even if we’ve had different understandings of the world around us. A timely example might be plagues. The Elizabethans didn’t know germ theory, but they understood that getting together in crowded places wasn’t a great idea.

They also understood there could be animal vectors, although they didn’t always get that right, and they usually attributed that to things like witches, hexes, God’s wrath, and so on. Today, we know rats can be vectors of disease, as can other critters. And we don’t always identify them properly today either.

So Renaissance Europeans understood some potential of the causes of plague, to a limited extent, although they didn’t quite understand how these things happened. They still saw the phenomena and tried to explain them, in a way that fit with the framework they were using.

A Renaissance plague doctor also used a mask, to keep infected air away from his face.
They also had a rudimentary idea that masks might keep infected “airs” away from their face. Also: wicked fashion sense.

Our mythologies, then, likely contain some grains of truth. Why do the seasons change? In Greek myth, deities like Persephone and Demeter caused seasons by returning from the Underworld and making the world blossom again. They also connected these events to the position of stars in the sky.

Today, we know there’s not really a god behind this, but we still connect changing seasons to the position of the stars in the sky, to the amount of light we’re receiving from the sun. The rise and fall of the “sun god”—between equinoxes and solstices—still technically governs our calendar year. Lunar calendars are still marked by the phases of the moon. We just have a different understanding of why those phases happen, versus the explanations given to us in myth.

The Greeks used the asterism called the Pleiades to time their agricultural activities.
In particular, they timed crops to the rising and setting of the Pleiades, an asterism seen here above Venus. (Rocky Raybell/Flickr, CC-BY)

It’s not magic, per se. It’s a narrative framework that let’s us understand the world we inhabit.

There’s Still a Lot We Don’t Know

As much as we think we know how the world works, there’s still much more we haven’t discovered yet. You can see this in shifting and competing theories in physics. String theory is popular, but nobody’s really proven it yet.

There’s some discussion that Einstein’s theory of relativity may not actually be correct, that we might need to revise our understanding. There’s even people who say Newton’s laws of gravity aren’t true—or at least, they don’t work the way we think they do.

In that sense, science is as much a legend, a narrative construction. We use it to frame the world, to understand it—but over time, those understandings may evolve and change.

An example suffices. In the past, our ancestors described thunder and lightning as the work of gods or mythical creatures. Today, we know that’s not true, but we’re also still debating how lightning actually works. Some people say it’s charges in the clouds, which then are attracted to charges in the ground, so lightning stabs down from the sky. Others suggest it works completely opposite to that: lightning actually leaps up from the ground to the sky. (That wouldn’t seem to explain sheet lightning, but the point is more that neither theory is definitively proven, per se.)

Most of us learn the “lightning comes down from the sky” theory. It seems natural and normal—it looks like lightning starts in the clouds and hits the ground. It seems like common sense.

What if we eventually proved the opposite? Some of us would suddenly have an outdated paradigm; we’d likely have a hard time going against the “conventional wisdom” we learned. Eventually, though, that old story would fade and people would think we were silly for ever believing it. And then something else would come along, some new-new explanation.

That’s the beauty of science, though: it evolves and changes. So do other forms of mythology.

What about Magic?

There are some things we think of as “magic”—hexes, potions, alchemy. The ability to read minds or change shapes, like the dragons in Riding the Dragon, would also be magic.

Drake explains to Cad that this is just science, really. The dragons are able to manipulate their own DNA to rearrange themselves, to mimic anything else in creation. Since everything is created from the same materials, it’s mostly a matter of arrangement.

Now, that still seems like magic. None of us can manipulate our DNA like that. Would something like that even be possible? Wouldn’t the dragons get stuck when they shift?

Drake doesn’t answer these questions, but there’s a suggestion here: everything we think is magic, that looks like magic, actually has an underlying scientific explanation. After all, that’s sort of been what we’ve revealed this entire time.

And that, in a way, is the magic. There’s a certain amount of awe and wonder imbued in creation, no matter how we seek to explain it. There’s still poetry in scientific fact, if you will—still art in the sense that the explanation can shift and evolve to describe our world in a new way.
Many of us think of science as cold, hard fact, but it is as human as the rest of us—as magical as mythology, and as real (and as fabricated) as it as well.

Does that mean we can turn lead into gold? Probably not. Elements are elements because they don’t divide down any further. But maybe there’s a deeper understanding out there, a framework we haven’t stumbled across yet, that does allow for something so “magical” to happen.

Explaining Dragon Magic

That’s where the dragons exist—at some deeper understanding of science than humanity. What they do, what they’re capable of seems like magic.

Drake understands dreams differently. He suggests that even as we’re all melted down and reshaped, reformed, there’s something that makes each of us unique—the piece of the universe, the thing that both binds us and moves us to the universe’s will. The universe is in each of us; it does not exist separate, and it exercises its will through every individual being connected through this network.

Every event is cumulative. All the things that melted down to become you coalesce into something very uniquely you. That thing will continue on, melted down and reshaped to become yet another new, unique individual.

It’s certainly a magical, nearly religious way of thinking—little wonder dragons believe in fate. The universe moves in such a way that you are always exactly where you should be, at the exact right moment. Without this experience or that, you would not be the creature you are meant to. The balance it is important as well. The bad comes with the good, and the scales tip from side to side, reaching balance only when we tally everything up.

Where Science Becomes Magic

So there we have it: a mystical explanation for the universe, one somehow grounded, perhaps, in a little bit of science. And one, perhaps, that allows us to continue seeing both the magical and the factual in a scientific explanation of the world we live in.

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