Science Is Magic & Miracles Aren’t

Science Is Magic & Miracles Aren’t

What is it a witch is doing when she mixes up some foul concoction, or lights a black candle, or casts a spell? I am not asking what her intent is, but by what mechanism does she hope to bring about the intended effect?

Well, by magic. So what is magic?

Magic is an attempt to harness a natural, but occult, mechanism, to bring about an effect. Occult means hidden, or rather (in this context) known only by adepts. So magic is science, or a kind of technology.

This also follows if the witch is calling on a “spirit” or “entity” to do her bidding. She expects that this spirit will use the means at its disposal, its natural means, to bring about the effect.

It is not that this natural mechanism is easy to implement or approachable by every person. It does not even have to be a known mechanism. Most people have no idea how cars work. They know that if they (these days) press the ON switch, the motor starts and the car goes. In the same way, the witch can, in the absence of any theory how her magic works, press a “button” and hope the spell goes.

Of course, witches are wrong about how effects come about. Their magic doesn’t work (I do not dismiss that people can contact spirits or entities, i.e. demons, which can bring about effects by natural means). But that doesn’t matter, because they think they are right. We’re only interested in what they believe they are doing. And what they believe they are doing is obscure or arcane science.

Arthur C Clarke, as every literate person knows, said, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” This is almost right. He could have said science is magic, or magic is science, and have been done with it.

By natural means I have in mind a process that exists, that can be “tapped”, like starting a car is a process that can be tapped if one has the proper fob. Magic does not create the process; it uses processes that are thought (incorrectly, as all evidence attests) to exist.

Contrast magic with miracles. When Jesus turned the water into wine, he did not use magic. It is not that there is not some obscure, hugely energy-expensive mechanism to transform the mass of water (and trace chemical) molecules into ethanol and other molecules. This might exist. But Jesus certainly did not use it, not having the means to employ such a thing.

Instead, Jesus changed the essence of the material, the form of it, into something new. Changing the essence of a thing requires unnatural, supernatural powers; indeed, abilities no science can ever reach. Science (or technology) can only twist the pre-existent dials of nature. It can’t create those dials. Miracles aren’t interferences in the “laws of physics”, they are changing of the very nature of nature.

This is why you have to pray for a miracle, because you can never do it yourself. Miracles by definition require the cooperation of God.

Superstition is thus obviously a form of magic, of science. It (and even magic) works variously well, depending on how closely the superstitious act accords with nature. It fails when there is no accord, where the user has mistaken correlation for causation.

Is a Christian lighting a candle attempting superstition? Certainly this is not an attempt at magic. But perhaps superstition is a good charge.

In some cases the charges of superstition are probably true. None of us are perfect. But most of the time the Christian uses the candle as a means of prayer, a devotional object, therefore there is no sin; that is, no attempt at magic.


  1. DG

    Kind of a different article there Briggs! Your description of “magic ” and how science is like magic reminds me of someone describing to me a long time ago how the fantasy magic in Tolkien’s elves was a kind of deep knowledge of nature and producing special effects based on the mechanisms of nature. Now I don’t know a whole lot about Tolkien and the Lord of the rings but this article reminded me of a conversation I had about Tolkien a long time ago.

  2. Gary

    Jesus changed the essence of the material, the form of it, into something new.

    Not necessarily so. An alternative but plausible hypothesis is that he compressed time instead and localized the natural biochemical processes that produce wine from water, sugar, minerals, and sunlight. No change of essence at the basic level, although it might appear so from a macroscopic point-of-view. The atoms were not newly created, only rearranged into different molecules. The explanation works for other miracles: walking on water, multiplying bread and fish, healing, restoring to physical life. All are manipulations of ordinary mechanisms involving some element of the time dimension. This doesn’t rule out change of essence, but challenges the idea of it being the only action.

  3. Ye Olde Statistician

    Some while back I was reading a history of the Early Modern Age, when belief in magic was widespread even among members of the Royal Society, and magic was placed squarely on the same continuum as science. The causes of an effect were either hidden (occulted) or clear (manifested). Magic was the attempt to use occult natural powers, while science used the manifest, but both were about harnessing the powers of nature. Over time, as Aquinas said, what was hidden becomes manifest, or what was hidden to one becomes manifest to another; and so magic transforms into science. For example, it was long known that chewing willow bark would moderate a headache, but no one knew why. The analgesic powers of willow bark were hidden, occult. But eventually, chemists discovered aspirin from it.

  4. Sander Van Der Wal

    If magic is sometimes getting demons to do your bidding, you can think of the demons as contractors for some kind job. You pay them in exchange for their services. You can say that is economics, which is supposedly a science.

    But it is not physics.

    Secondly, science is done because the why is interesting. If the how is interesting, then it is engineering. Magic is all about the how. So, magic is a form of engineering, which is also what Clark is saying.

  5. Ken

    Well, this clears things up:

    “… the witch is calling on a “spirit” or “entity” to do her bidding. She expects that this spirit will use the means at its disposal… to bring about the effect.” Notice that’s an effect the individual couldn’t do.

    HOWEVER, “…you have to PRAY for a miracle, because you can never do it yourself. Miracles by definition require the cooperation of God” Notice that’s also an effect the individual couldn’t do.

    Notice the subtle but significant distinction:

    “calling on a spirit” — witchcraft
    ‘praying to god for’ — right religion

    Huge difference there!

    “Of course, witches are wrong … they think they are right.”

    How does one ensure that they’re aren’t a witch? Because everyone with such a belief believes they are right and its the other belief that is wrong… That’s how someone can say such things as: “We’re only interested in what they believe they are doing.”

    People – you need to do a lot less judging and a lot more introspection. And, consider other objective evidence that, maybe, what you think you believe is right and true might just be another version of age-old mythic nonsense. Confirmation bias — its a problem that Briggs, among many others, seem to refuse might apply to themselves. Here’s the kind of clue that might tip one off that the institution and/or faith they are convinced is true just might not be at all:

    When your faith & beliefs include “miracles” and someone proves — PROVES — that the “miracle” is explained by mundane reality, and the institution benefiting from the false belief does not endorse the revelation of objective truth, maybe its time to question that institution and what it stands for a little more rigorously?

  6. The articles here provide regular illustrations of formal logical fallacies “in the wild”, and so are useful at least for that. Today we have the author believing that he has shown that science is magic, because magic is science. This fallacy has several names, including affirming the consequent. It has the same form as saying that cats are tigers because tigers are cats.

  7. Doug M

    Any sufficiently analysed magic is indistinguishable from science.

    If you lived in a world where magic was real, and wizards and alchemists could alter reality, then the study of this mechanism would be science.

  8. Ken

    SELF-DELUSION = EXTREME CONFIRMATION BIAS(rejecting disagreeable facts)

    “… for holding as true the false doctrine taught by some that the Sun is the center of the world and immovable and that the Earth moves, and also with a diurnal motion; … and for replying to the objections from the Holy Scriptures, which from time to time were urged against it, by glossing the said Scriptures according to your own meaning… in order that a doctrine so pernicious might be wholly rooted out and not insinuate itself further to the grave prejudice of Catholic truth, a decree was issued by the Holy Congregation of the Index prohibiting the books which treat of this doctrine and declaring the doctrine itself to be false and wholly contrary to the sacred and divine Scripture.”
    – June 22, 1633, Papal Condemnation of Galileo, translated from the original language (see )

    Because of SCIENCE humanity has come to recognize truths and accept as fact that the Earth orbits the sun instead of being the center of the universe. Even though sacred and divine Scripture SAID otherwise.

    Sacred Scripture was at some point re-interpreted to mean something else to accommodate a reality revealed by science — the heresy that the Earth is not the center of creation is now accepted fact.

    Science, a favorite target to be undermined hereabouts, continues to nibble away at the realm in which ignorance and unsubstantiated belief may reside unmolested by doubts and confrontational challenge by alternative explanations.

    Just like Pope Gregory and his Cardinals who tried to suppress the discoveries of Galileo, Copernicus, and others, even brute force was invoked to suppress facts from consciousness. Many today are determined to condemn scientists and science for the very same reasons … easier to hold onto a false but comforting belief than accept reality, or even the evidence that what is understood as reality might be something else. The problem is, reality doesn’t go away even if a scientific fact or scientist is seemingly discredited in the eyes of one’s chosen audience.

    To my question posed in the earlier post, “How does one ensure that they’re aren’t a witch?” the means to that validation certainly cannot include suppressing evidence and sources of evidence based on the criteria it challenges one’s beliefs.

  9. Milton Hathaway

    I really have nothing to contribute to this conversation, so feel free to skip ahead.

    YOS writes “but no one knew why”.

    After the release of the first product I worked on, a Marketing guy asked me to explain how a product feature (that I had designed) worked. Before starting, I paused to consider my audience. I knew he just wanted a high-level overview, so I started off at 30000 feet, with a plan to spiral in with more detail until he was satisfied and left. After one circle over the target, he interrupted to ask a couple questions. I answered them, and . . . he left.

    Predictable, I suppose, but I was still caught off guard by how little detail he required to feel like he understood the feature well enough to sell it to a technical customer base.

    At some point after that, I was talking to the designer of one of the components I had used in the design. My eyes quickly glazed over – I understood very little of the technical detail he was relating to me, and realized how little I needed to know about the component to use it successfully in my design. If he attempted to have the same conversation with the Marketing guy, I doubt that even one usable bit of information exchange would occur between them, in either direction. Similarly, the component designer had been working with a physicist, and I suspect that the physicist and I would couldn’t exchange one usable bit of information in either direction.

    I concluded after this experience that none of us really knows much of anything. This was many years ago, and I have learned a lot since then, with a much greater breadth and depth. But . . . I still feel like I don’t know much of anything, really.

  10. RB

    Lee, I’m not sure what you are getting at; you certainly haven’t given an example of an invalid argument form (maybe you were trying to say “All A are B: therefore, all B are A”, which really is such a form?) But to substitute in your example from Njal’s Saga, which has plenty of magic, a little “science”, and a miracle or two, it’s perfectly reasonable to say, for instance, “Flosi is the slayer of Helgi Njalsson: therefore, the slayer of Helgi Njalsson is Flosi”. But, again, I’m not really sure what you are getting at; it seemed to me the idea of this post was to discuss the differences between the natural and supernatural in a somewhat unusual context.

  11. Ye Olde Statistician

    It’s important to deal with facts, including the facts of history and not the myths that we have built up out of those factoids. The scientific consensus of the day was squarely in favor of geostationarity and this was the background against with the Qualifiers made their judgments.

  12. RB

    What is interesting, or rather one among many other interesting things, is that the Church has always forbidden witchcraft and suchlike dealings to its members outright, and generally assumed there was little or no substance to them, even when the verdict of human experience seemed to go the other way.

  13. Mactoul

    Magic and witchcraft are not exactly the same thing. Magic harnesses impersonal forces.
    Witchcraft prays to the demons as personal entities. After all, the hocus pocus in the divine worship is just analogous. That one is doing something with material things does not mean that one is not praying to personal entities.

  14. Mactoul

    “Changing the essence of a thing requires unnatural, supernatural powers;”

    I don’t think so. I burn something. The essence is changed. I kill a bug–the essence is changed again.

  15. John


    I wonder if this has something to do with the difference between Science-Fiction and Fantasy?

    In SF, every thing that seems superficially to be wonderful and magical can all be explained in quantitative and physical terms. While in Fantasy, the explanation of how, for example, magic teleportation dust, invisibility cloaks and spells work is intentionally left unexplained (or occulted) in a scientific-physical way – because to explain all of the wonderful effects in a scientific manner would be to suck the wonder dry and turn the Fantasy genre into a sub-category of SF.

    I guess this is because to explain the mechanism of something, especially in a physicalistic-scientific manner, would no longer make it magical or wonderful and would reduce it to mere physical mechanism. It wouldn’t be hidden science then, but clear.

    However, the Fantasy genre clearly wants to distinguish itself from Science-Fiction in this, and the magic of Fantasy is clearly meant to be differentiated from the merely quantitative-physical science of SF – meaning that the magic of Fantasy and the science of SF are supposed to be two completely different things.

    If so, then magic as is understood in the Fantasy genre and in popular culture overall isn’t exactly on the same continuum as science.

  16. John

    Quote: “Instead, Jesus changed the essence of the material, the form of it, into something new. Changing the essence of a thing requires unnatural, supernatural powers; indeed, abilities no science can ever reach. Science (or technology) can only twist the pre-existent dials of nature. It can’t create those dials. ”

    Changing the form of a thing is different from creating something out of nothing. In the former, one is acting on something that already exists and changing the nature of it. The thing that undergoes change would be the prime matter which receives a new form. In the latter, one is not acting on anything because there is nothing to act on when creating out of nothing. One would be combining essence and existence full-stop without any pre-existing material reality of any kind.

    So changing the nature / form of a thing wouldn’t require supernatural power, only preternatural, since angels are in theory capable of doing this.

  17. trigger warning

    “People – you need to do a lot less judging and a lot more introspection.”

    People who judge other people’s judgementalism might benefit from more introspection.

  18. Joy

    Ken, very well put. Even though I am one who believes in miracles. I still think you’re right up until that point.
    No problem at all with the atheist view of what is happening, in particular when wrongheaded Christians are so combative and at times just wrong without blushing.

    Lee’s cat analogy is good.
    The trick is in the use of the word cat which is either a category or a specific example of a cat. So the CATegory confusion and tiger mistake is made possible. This is the meat and gravy of the deceiver, if he wishes to use deliberate vagary for his purpose. Works like the false dichotomy.
    For cat and tiger, substitute accordingly.

    There is an analogy with golem’s power lust, with the all seeing eye, with the green eye, dark and light, which is all too clear.

    On magic:
    Star Wars, which is a fairy tale, and a ton of other stories use these themes, dark and light forces.
    Forget Luke’s magic wand!

    Magic, in my view, is used for the convenience of the writer. Particularly in children’s stories, where they need to get from one state of play to another. The magic is the less interesting part, except to an engineer. Nobody but a cranky man would wonder how cinderella’s coach turned into ta pumpkin. Or a mouse into a horse. Only an engineer can make it happen!

    Yet in science fiction, yuck, there is an attempt to pretend there’s some science in the nonsense. To keep the older viewer believing!

    In reality, in my view, there are miracles and there are answered prayers: (Not the same things).

    I don’t believe in the so called miracles which some are forced to believe in or fear excommunication. Tell me the story and I’ll tell you if I believe it. Miracles are profound, private matters. They are of no conflict or threat to anyone. They are useful in a pastoral way. If I’m right then there can’t be a conflict with The Truth.

  19. DG

    Forget Luke’s magic wand? The character Luke carried a light saber!

  20. Joy

    DG, You got it! Thank heavens for that.
    Not just Luke, My brother had one too! My Nephew had a sonic screw-driver, probably still has it.
    Might explain quite a bit.

  21. c matt

    the Church has always forbidden witchcraft and suchlike dealings to its members outright, and generally assumed there was little or no substance to them

    The reason it was forbidden was precisely because there WAS substance to it. And it was bad substance.

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