Built on Facts

Phil at Bad Astronomy opined (and it is a common opinion) that the supernatural is incoherent:

If you posit some thing that has no perceivable or measurable effect, then it may as well not exist. And as soon as you claim it does have an effect — it can be seen, heard, recorded, felt — then it must be in some way testable, and therefore subject to science.

Joshua was not so sure about this. The supernatural could, perhaps, interact observably with the universe at some times but not at others. Under normal circumstances the normal laws apply, under others, supernatural stuff happens. Chad weighed in on that:

The obvious rejoinder to this, leaped upon by a bunch of people in comments, is that if the supernatural doesn’t behave according to known laws of nature, that just means that the known laws are incomplete, and some more complete theory would encompass the seemingly supernatural. Which is true as far as it goes, but misses a subtle point, namely the determinability of those laws.

He went on to give the difficulty of observing quantum effects on a macroscopic level as an instance of even “normal” laws of nature being difficult to completely verify.

Basically this is a long-running argument which is interesting but basically totally irrelevant to the perennial arguments between theists and atheists (of New or other varities). In practice, no one cares if God or other possible forms of the supernatural would somehow ontologically “above” the laws of nature, or whether they would simply be a part of nature obeying laws that aren’t normally apparent in everyday life. Most people only care whether God exists in a way that could be empirically verified by, say, dying and waking up in Heaven.

But I’m not about to make this the bazillion and first post on ScienceBlogs to wade into that tar pit. I care about Saruman’s grad students.

In Lord of the Rings, we have a universe in which magic unambiguously exists. Sure, you could argue it doesn’t exist in the philosophical nitpick sense, since magic might just be part of natural laws that are incompletely known. But again, nobody really cares about that. In the practical sense, there’s magic. Magic rings, ghost armies, enchanted ropes, spoken incantations, a realm of gods reachable by boat, etc.

Professor Saruman lives at the top of a tower noodling around his library while his employees work underground doing arcane biology and chemical engineering experiments. At least some of this is manifestly ordinary science, in the sense that we wouldn’t consider it magic if it happened in our world. They build war machinery. Arguably they develop and deploy gunpowder weapons:

Even as they spoke there came a blare of trumpets. Then there was a crash and a flash of flame and smoke. The waters of the Deeping-stream poured out hissing and foaming: they were choked no longer, a gaping hole was blasted in the wall. A host of dark shapes poured in.

‘Devilry of Saruman!’ cried Aragorn. “They have crept in the culvert again, while we talked, and they have lit the fire of Orthanc beneath our feet…”

In the book this might be interpreted as pure magic, though both I and the films think gunpowder is more plausible. Sauron’s grad students have managed to figure out quite a bit of actual science despite living in a world where magic exists.

Conversely, not all magic in the world is available for scientific examination despite manifestly existing. The One Ring by its nature tends to spend its time on the finger of someone who’s not going to make it available for peer review. No doubt knowing there was a Nobel in it, Saruman convened professional conferences on the topic, with little success. Systematic scientific methods just didn’t work very well.

Ok, ok. I admit this post isn’t serious. But I hope it illustrates why I can’t take the whole “the supernatural and science are/aren’t incompatible by definition” argument seriously either. In any practical sense, the question of the philosophical comparability of science and the supernatural is completely orthogonal to the question of whether the supernatural exists in a way that most people are likely to care about. Nor do I claim that science is irrelevant to that question; some claims about the supernatural are testable by science. By all means feel free to argue apologetics until you’re blue in the face. But the particular philosophical question being batted around here is basically on the level of speculating whether we’re really in the Matrix.

Which I’ll admit is also fun to argue about…


  1. #1 Joshua Zelinsky
    June 27, 2011

    This seems like a bad analogy. This might be more akin to a post-apocalyptic world where there’s only example of some piece of advanced technology that can still function by itself (say a solar powered calculator). Sure, figuring out how it works will be really, really difficult. but that doesn’t mean there aren’t rules behind it.

    Moreover, in the direct context of the ring, Sauron and the elves had to spend years working out how to make the rings. Presumably they worked out the rules of magic to make those rings.

  2. #2 NoAstronomer
    June 27, 2011

    “Which I’ll admit is also fun to argue about…”

    Anything to get us off the subject of Balrog’s wings!

    I do like how JRR wove the story of a world where ‘magic’ existed yet the knowledge and ability is now fading.

  3. #3 Matt Springer
    June 27, 2011

    Sure, but the point is that in any practical sense the rings are still magic. The fact that rules are involved doesn’t change that. After all, most real-world religions contain beliefs about how supernatural actors are constrained by the rules of the supernatural world.

    But I mostly agree with you – my LOTR argument isn’t meant to argue that religion/magic and science are or aren’t philosophically compatible in an abstract sense. It’s meant to argue that the presence or absence of that incompatibility isn’t actually relevant to whether or not a particular belief about the supernatural is true in a practical sense.

  4. #4 Matt Springer
    June 27, 2011

    Comment #3 is in response to #1, just for clarity.

    As for the Balrog wings question, I’m always surprised about the crazy nonsensical arguments nerds get themselves into. Obviously Balrogs have wings. *ducks for cover*

  5. #5 Dunc
    June 28, 2011

    Balrogs are Maiar (albeit minor ones), they have whatever they want to have.

  6. #6 Shawn C. Madden
    June 28, 2011

    I am waiting for Sheldon and Leonard to speak on this. Footnote nod to Howard and Raj.

  7. #7 N Kalanaga
    June 28, 2011

    I’m with Dunc on the subject of Balrogs. As Maiar they can take any form they want, with or without wings. And, presumably, they can change forms, so any given Balrog might have wings today and not tomorrow.

    As for Magic and Science, remember Clarke’s Law: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Somebody else said that “Magic simply means ‘I don’t know how you did that'”.

  8. #8 Kaleberg
    June 28, 2011

    In contrast, I’m with Dr. Who who said, “Any sufficiently advanced magic is indistinguishable from technology.”

  9. #9 Joseph Hertzlinger
    June 29, 2011

    Consider the following thought experiment:

    If intelligent creatures in a simulated universe tried creating their version of physics, they might be able to get as far as identifying the characteristics of the machine language used. On the other hand, the Source Code is clearly more fundamental (from the point of view of the Programmer) but they could find out that only by looking at large-scale patterns.

    We can imagine philosophical debates between the skeptics and believers in the Source Code in which the skeptics correctly point out that nothing that violated the rules of the machine language had ever happened and think that meant they won the debate.

    Identifying an analog of the Symbol Table will be left as an exercise for the reader.

  10. #10 Paul Murray
    June 29, 2011

    My car is magic. It’s quite clearly not alive, and yet it moves under its own power. Deviltry!

  11. #11 Annonymous
    June 29, 2011

    Regarding Phil’s remarks –

    The ontology of theoretical physics is to a first approximation the ontology of Zermelo-Fraenkel Set Theory.
    I say this because theoretical physics seems to be basically
    mathematics. Thus the hypergeometric function is part of the
    ontology of standard physics even though it has no perceptible or observable properties.

    I am not very familiar with physics but I assume that somehow theoretical physics must relate to ordianry language
    so I suppose that “the cat on the mat”, the Moon and the
    deep blue sea are part of the ontology of physics (though
    not theoretical physics).

    What is not very clear to me is whether something like
    “electrons” for example are part of the ontology of physics.
    From the descriptions of “electrons” in books on popular
    science it seems that names of electrons cannot be substituted for free variables in the language of physics.
    Therefore, at least in a Quinean sense, electrons are not
    part of the ontology of physics.

    Presumably one doesn’t want to incorporate willy-nilly the
    ontology of ordinary language into physics since that would
    include God, ghosts and other problematical entities. What
    doesn’t seem very clear is what parts of the ontology of
    ordinary language should be accepted into physics and how
    the ontological component of physics from ordinary language
    meshes with the Platonistic ontology of mathematics.

  12. #12 N Kalanaga
    June 29, 2011

    I’ve heard the “sufficiently advanced magic” before, but it was credited to writer Poul Anderson. As it’s the natural response to Clarke’s Law it’s probably be said many times, and is just as true. If one can find and learn the laws of magic it BECOMES a science!

    Go back as little as 300 years and ask people which was more likely, a talking animal or a talking box. Then show them an iPod… If there are two time travellers, a cellphone conversation would really spook them. The talking dog would probably attract relatively little attention.

  13. #13 J-J Cote
    June 30, 2011

    Go back 300 years, and the cell phones won’t work. Heck, go back 30 years, and you won’t be in range of any towers!

    (Now, two-way radios, that’s a different matter…)

  14. #14 Wow
    June 30, 2011

    “If one can find and learn the laws of magic it BECOMES a science!”

    I suspect this would be true if the “magic” were predictable.

    If you got a different set of requirements to enact the same result, you couldn’t actually use it as a science because you wouldn’t be able to replicate or formulate a theory you can test.

    However, if you found that the cut holly under a pure black skeepskin with a silver sickle done at midnight on a moonless night was because you didn’t want ANY light on the subject because it worked deep underground in daytime too, then you can find the common thread and work out the basic underlying constants.

    But you NEED those constant causations, else you couldn’t test to see if they were valid.

  15. #15 N Kalanaga
    June 30, 2011

    True, but if it was unpredictable, one couldn’t very well learn the laws. Even if one doesn’t know WHY it works, if you can find enough basic rules to predict the results, it will be a science. We still don’t understand subatomic particles, but electricity was a science by the mid 1800s.

    As long as there are basic rules, and repeating an experiment, or a spell, under the same circumstances gives the same results, one can make it a science. It’s entirely possible that it would also require some type of “talent”, but if that “talent” can be detected and trained, it wouldn’t be any different than other talents. I have no musical talent, but I could still study musical theory, and possibly write music, given the basic rules of what separates “music” from “noise made on an instrument”. Someone else would have to play and sing!

    It would be interesting if your sample spell worked one way with a sheepskin, and differently with a goatskin… Wonder what it’s supposed to do?

  16. #16 Kaleberg
    July 4, 2011

    -> N Kalanaga – Thanks for the Poul Anderson tip. I couldn’t find anything better than Dr. Who.

    re: Source Code – The problem of determining the nature of the processor we are executing on was addressed in the venerable HAKMEM -> http://www.jjj.de/hakmem/hacks.html#item154

  17. #17 Neill Raper
    July 13, 2011

    I would not necessarily agree with your assertion that the existence of a complete ruleset for the universe (or not) is irrelevant to religious belief, at least to particularly thoughtful religious belief (and if you are having this conversation you are very likely to be thoughtful).

    For example anyone who believes in a reward/punishment system in their religion should be fairly disturbed by the implications of a complete set of rules. Anyone who believes in any kind of narrative involving “choice” by God or anyone else should be disturbed as well. You can always hide in quantum mechanics I suppose but that seems to be fairly unsatisfying.

  18. #18 Wow
    July 13, 2011

    I don’t believe that is the contention here, Neill. The contention here is that if magic and/or the supernatural had consistency, then that would make the investigation scientific. Or at least in potential, it would be a scientific nature.

    If fairies really DO exist, then how do they manage to fly? If you can find that out and apply it to, for example, getting humans to fly, then it’s at least in essence scientific to work out how.

    If fairies fly because that’s what fairies do, then it isn’t scientific.

  19. #19 supratall
    July 22, 2011


  20. #20 Someone Somewhere
    September 26, 2011

    You’re missing the point. In fiction, the writer is God. Magic exists in Lord of the Rings because J.R.R. Tolkien aka God for the purpose of the book, deemed it so. If I write fiction, I get to suspend the laws of physics and/or write my own so my charters can travel faster than the speed of light, travel in time, not be bound by gravity, whatever I want, because it’s fiction and in fiction the writer is God. The difference between fantasy and science fiction is in science fiction the writer tries to keep the laws of physics consistent, while in fantasy the writer doesn’t give a damn.

    You’re confused because you’re putting your mind in a universe where liberal arts majors write the laws of physics. Whenever you read or watch fiction, especially fantasy, you can drive yourself crazy assuming laws of physics apply; they don’t.

  21. #21 Wow
    September 26, 2011

    “The difference between fantasy and science fiction is in science fiction the writer tries to keep the laws of physics consistent, while in fantasy the writer doesn’t give a damn.”

    In discworld, this is incorrect.

    In fact, it’s only generally simpler fairytales that have “anything can happen”. Most fantasy have consistency as much as Science Fiction has it. Magic doesn’t fix everything and the consequences are still consequent on events and actions.

    Wish fulfillment is a very very small part of Fantasy storytelling.

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  23. #23 david essiam
    April 15, 2012


    Theory that the earth is not spherical but is flat.

    Since light travels in a straight line called ray a “spherical object”could only be seen from one direction showing us a “concave surface”.
    Again the rays which bounce of that “concave surface” would not have reached the eyes,since the rays hitting the surface would have dispersed at angles that wouldn’t reach the eye.

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