On Mixing Science & Magic

Now and then I find someone who talks about "mixing magic and science" as if it's some kind of storytelling or even philosophical breakthrough. Most of the time, they don't actually understand science all that well and have a pretty half-baked conceptualization of magic. Consequentially, their ideas don't make a lot of sense, or they're only subverting ideas that were never really an issue in the real world.

On the other hand, there's the people who take a firm "magic and science never mix!" stance. Most of the time, their reasoning comes from modern philosophical prejudices combined with a bad understanding of science. The worldview presented in their works is almost inevitably smug and often downright colonialist, even if the authors ostensibly sympathize with the magic side.

I'm going to go over the issues that both types of people tend to get wrong, and describe or point out a few things that might give you some ideas to work with. And hopefully, I'll demonstrate just why concepts like "science versus magic" and "magic is just science we don't understand yet" are actually meaningless.

I hope you find this article informative and useful. If you like it, please share it with your friends and consider supporting me on Patreon.

Last revision: November 29, 2020.

Table of Contents

First of all, understand how science works.

As I've explained over here, science isn't a belief system that automatically rules out the existence of anything we might consider magical phenomena. Rather, it's a method one uses to test and determine the nature of the world. Assuming magic existed, there would be no reason whatsoever why people couldn't use it to develop more effective and reliable spells, potions, and whatnot. Considering that most magic users would benefit from that, it seems a little odd that they'd all reject the scientific method. (Heck, someone like Sherlock Holmes would make a great wizard!)

"Okay, but maybe magic resists scientific study because it's deeply personal and depends on the caster," one might suggest. Perhaps so! But even that can be scientifically studied. People can study and take data on what kind of people seem to be best at what kind of magic. They can conduct scientific studies to determine whether certain life experiences correlate with certain magical skills. And if magic tries to resist being studied in any way, shape, or form, they can study the ways in which it tries to resist being studied.

If you try to claim that magic resists study by erasing records of itself - well, the fact is that the human brain is a recording device, and information can be preserved through oral records.

Basically, the only magic that can really and truly resist any and all forms of observation and study is the kind of magic that never existed in the first place. Magic that exists can always be studied. Magic that cannot be studied never existed at all.

Understand what technology actually is.

A lot of people use the word "technology" when what they actually mean is "electronically powered technology" and/or "technology with a lot of moving metal parts." In fact, anything that has been deliberately shaped and crafted to perform a function qualifies as technology. This includes things like Paleolothic handaxes, Neolithic pottery, and Medieval grinding mills. Things like magic wands, staves, amulets, and talismans also qualify as technology, particularly in a world where magical forces are easy to demonstrate and manipulate.

Technically speaking, people have been mixing magic and technology since prehistory. Before the modern period, people didn't really distinguish between the mundane and the metaphysical the way we do today. To them, the things we tend to categorize as supernatural were simply just natural. Ghosts were as real as breath, magic was as substantial as warmth, and magnets were hard proof of invisible forces. Based on their comprehension of the world, it would have been pretty illogical not to, say, put symbols associated with benevolent protective gods on one's home or clothing, or to make knives in the season of the zodiac sign they associated with sharp and pointy things, or something similar.

While one could hypothetically draw a line between electronic and non-electronic technology, you still have to ask yourself what your basis for drawing the line here is. Lightning is a form of electricity, and it's associated with lots of mythological figures and beings. In the early 20th century, a lot of spiritualists and occultists saw electricity as working in perfect harmony with their mystical understandings of the universe. (Take for example, the Kybalion and its weird ideas about electricity and gender. Standard warnings about old occultists not being politically neutral, and oftentimes being appropriative bigoted dillweeds apply.)

If you're writing straight-up fantasy where you've made up pretty much everything, then drawing the line here might make perfect sense. But if you're trying to base your worldbuilding on real practice and philosophy, or if you imply that your fantastic worldbuilding relates to real practice or philosophy somehow, then you're imposing a modern perception on something it doesn't historically apply to.

One could hypothetically draw the line between simple technology and complex machinery, but again, you have to ask yourself what the basis is. Even if the people who designed them didn't believe in magic and had very unmagical intentions, end users constantly assign sentience and agency to machines they don't fully understand. They decide their cars don't want to start because they're feeling moody, or feel like shared computers seem to glitch out on them especially because they don't like them. At some point, you might expect the perceptions of the end users to outweigh the perceptions of the designers.

One could try to argue that modern objects tend to be unmagical due to the impersonal, irreverent way they're created; or because consumer culture encourages people to see things as ephemeral and disposable, and therefore meaningless. (When you can go on YouTube and find people in the comments asking "Anyone watching this in [year]?" posted 2-3 years after the video came out, it really shows just how much we've normalized the idea that things are only meant to be engaged with for a short time before we discard them and move on.) Of course, this would also mean that modern objects could become significantly more magical in the hands of someone who'd seen The Brave Little Toaster as a child.

Understand that a lot of "magic versus science" tropes are actually newer and more regional than you might think.

Many people think that the "magic versus science" tropes they're used to are as old as the hills and apply more or less universally. In reality, a lot of them relate to the shifting worldviews and cultural anxieties of the modern era, especially those of white Americans.

One trope I'd like to tackle is the concept of magic as something that, by nature, cannot be explained and exists outside of causality. As I've explored in Writing Historically Accurate European Magic & Witchcraft: A Starting Guide and A Brief Primer On The Four Elements, pre-modern and early modern people had explanations for things we'd consider magic today - lots of explanations. The fundamental forces believed to drive magical effects weren't believed to exist outside of nature, either; they were thought to be a vital part of nature, even if their origins were thought to be supercelestial.

Another one of these tropes is the concept of magic and manmade objects as intrinsically averse to each other. First, manmade objects are frequently part of folk charms (take the classical witch bottle, for example - it's a clay bottle filled with things like nails and bent pins), and sympathetic magic often involves people's personal belonging because of their perceived magical link to their owners. Folk charms are also employed to bless and protect manmade objects. Some folkloric beings are even manmade objects come or brought to life.

I've had some people basically try to claim that things like haunted cars and whatnot don't contradict the "magic and science don't mix" rule because supposedly, there's a difference between magical and supernatural phenomena. However, this is a modern distinction with no actual background in pre-modern beliefs.

As far as I can tell, the idea that science and magic have natural antipathy has a lot to do with mid-20th century American culture. I haven't really been able to find a lot of this thinking pre-WWII; instead, early 20th century fantasy often included contemporary or speculative technology. I've mentioned L. Frank Baum's Tik-Tok the Wobblin' Goblin before; in addition, the 1902 film A Trip to the Moon blends the aesthetics of magic and science, and Windsor McCay's Little Nemo included products of modern science like derigibles.

Post World War II, the capitalists who'd just invented consumer culture placed a huge emphasis on the wonders of modern science and living to encourage people to buy new things. Of course, this created a lot of pollution, alienated people from nature even more, and didn't exactly fill their emotional and spiritual needs the way the advertisements promised. And this seems to be where the trope of science and technology as inherently oppositional to magic really seems to kick off. This pops up in the 1982 film The Flight of Dragons, and the 1991 tabletop RPG Changeling: The Dreaming positioned scientific thinking as responsible for the destruction of magic. I've also mentioned before the 1988 Turkey City Lexicon, where the authors boldly asserted that magic and science fiction elements had no business being in the same story because they represented incompatible worldviews.

Finally, I just gotta point out that things like divination, astral travel, computers, and cars alike all fall under the domain of the planet Mercury, so yeah. Trying to appeal to traditional schools of thought to uphold this divide really does not work.

Of course, if you're writing fantasy magic based on your own rules, you can do pretty much whatever you want. But acting like magic and science have a natural antipathy and that's just how it has to be (especially if you're trying to take inspiration from real life practice and historical schools of thought) is ridiculous, because you're essentially projecting a modern philosophical problem into times and places it just didn't apply to.

Finally, it has to be acknowledged that certain aspects of the "magic versus science/technology" trope have some pretty racist origins. Specifically, parts of it go back to that whole thing where science and technology were framed as something that advanced, civilized (read: white) people had, while "primitive" (read: non-white) people only had superstition. According to this narrative, "civilized" people are guided by the benevolent hand of science and reason, while "primitive" people are subjected to the whims of capricious priests who exploit their ignorance. White people, allegedly, are therefore doing them a favor by colonizing and assimilating them. In reality, most of these non-white people had lots of scientific knowledge, and the white people trying to oppress them weren't nearly as scientific as they wanted people to think.

How to figure out what you should do

The exact nature of how magic and technology should relate to each other depends a lot on what kind of story you're trying to tell. Again, if you're writing straight-up fantasy with little to no relation to the real world, you can do pretty much whatever. If you're tying it to something in the real world, then you should pay some respect to its real life counterpart.

In either case, you need to figure out and outline how everything works. Where does magic come from, or how is magical power generated? How does one harness and manipulate it? What are its limitations? (Setting Rules & Limitations In Your World: Why & How You Need To Do This might help you further.)

If you need ideas for developing your magic, Writing Historically Accurate European Magic & Witchcraft: A Starting Guide might be helpful. So might A Brief Primer On The Four Elements. (If you need non-European resources, I'm afraid I'm not the person to ask.)

If you want to include magical gadgets or machinery, think about how and why it works. How do the physical components and the magical forces interact? Do you have a machine that harnesses and controls the magic, or does the magic power and drive the machine? Is it both? What are the mechanisms at play here? (You might also find Creating Plausibly Functional & Useful Tools, Gadgets, & Weapons For Fiction useful!)

Also, check these out:

Keeping Magic From Taking Over Your Story
Magical & Supernatural Tropes To Reconsider (And Tips To Build Up Your Magical/Supernatural Settings!)

Phlebotinum-Development Questions
Tips & Ideas To Write More Believable Masquerades
Getting Science Right In Film: It's Not The Facts, Folks (Offsite)

Tips To Create Richer & More Realistic Fantasy & Science Fiction Cultures & Civilizations
Tips & Ideas To Create More Believable Sword 'n Sorcery Worlds
Things Your Fantasy Or Science Fiction Story Needs
Things You Need To Do In Your Science Fiction Or Fantasy Story

Back to Worldbuilding
Go to a random page!