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Science, religion and magic, oh my!

Just discovered not one but TWO interviews with one of my favorite authors, Ted Chiang! If you don't know Ted Chiang, you are missing out on some truly stunning work. He's a technical writer by trade, but on the side a writer of science fiction or possibly fantasy or perhaps speculative fiction, depending on your definition). A consistent theme of his work is the interplay between science, religion and magic, and many of his stories explore the places where these three intersect or blur into one another. This also happens to be a big interest of mine, so of course I devour anything he writes. As someone famous once said, "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic" and Chiang's stories often play with this idea, pushing the boundaries or rather showing that the boundaries are perhaps fuzzier than we think. You can read several of his stories, including the wonderful "Hell is the Absence of God," here.

In the first interview, he says this:

There is a similarity between science and religion in that they're both attempts to understand the universe, and there was a time in the past when science and religion were not seen as incompatible, when it made perfect sense to be both a scientist and a religious person. Nowadays there is much more of an attitude that the two are incompatible. I think that's sort of a 20th century phenomenon.

I find this an interesting observation. Time was, in the not-so-distant past, one could be both a good Christian and a good scientist (*koff*Jesuits*koff*). Even during the Enlightenment, a scientist working diligently to fully understand the natural world was not (necessarily) seen as a threat to belief in God but as paying tribute to it, by uncovering new marvels and demonstrating the incredible complexity and beauty therein. Likewise, no scientist felt obligated to denounce religion as a bunch of hokum and say that anybody who believed it was a fool. But these days it's not uncommon to run across some fairly strong rhetoric that makes the two seem fundamentally (ha ha) incompatible, such as the anti-science stance of some on the far right.

On the other hand, just last week I learned that my former home state is trying to remove evolution from the curriculum on the grounds that science IS a religion, so perhaps the two are closer than we think...

But I digress. I was talking about how masterfully Chiang explores this in his writing. I don't want to give away any spoilers (because I REALLY want everyone I know to go and read him for themselves!), but the best examples are in his collection Stories of Your Life and Others. The title story manages to combine alien linguistics with the problem of free will AND will make you cry, an impressive feat for a single story. "Tower of Babylon" and "Seventy-Two Letters" are excellent examples of the religion of magic, or the magic of science, or the science of religion, however you want to think about it, each with a twist at the end that makes you go "woa..."

To leave questions of religion aside, the last story in the book is particularly pertinent to women, I think, since we live in a society that places an abnormal priority on female beauty, and one narrow form of it to boot, with photo-shopped models and the constant selling of beauty products. The story is called "Liking What You See: A Documentary" and is about a near-future invention that allows people to switch off their perception of whether a person is beautiful or not. (This is not as far-fetched as it sounds -- scientists are increasingly fine-tuning their knowledge of where in the brain things happen.) The story is written as a documentary, with interviews with college students, parents, scientists, religious figures, business people (advertising!), etc. all arguing for or against it on one or another grounds. All of the interviews are interesting, but the most poignant is perhaps the main character, a college-age girl trying to decide which is right for her. Like most of Chiang's stories, the purpose is more to make you think rather than convince of a certain way of thinking. It's fascinating and eerie and discomfiting all at once.

In the second interview, which actually was first since it was in 2002 and the other one was in 2010, he has this to say:

[M]agic is always esoteric, whereas science and technology are fundamentally egalitarian. Magic's something for the few, the elect, the anointed, or someone who has a gift, but science is ultimately amenable to mass production, so we can all enjoy the benefits.

What do you think about this distinction, of magic as elitist and science as egalitarian? If, for example, in the world of Harry Potter, some mutation made everyone magical, would it no longer be magic since it's available to everyone? Or what if magic were attainable by anyone willing to work really hard, or pay a certain price?


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Oct. 15th, 2013 03:29 am (UTC)
This is rather eerie, especially after my own entry...
Oct. 17th, 2013 01:47 am (UTC)
Indeed! I hadn't seen yours when I wrote this, but yes...
Oct. 15th, 2013 05:25 am (UTC)
Interesting... verrry interesting. (as Artie Johnson would have said).

I love some of your posts, they are very 'thinky' and make me have 'thinky' thoughts.

As someone famous once said, "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic"

I LOVE this quote, and would append it to say "... indistinguishable from magic or miracles"

I have this bizarre theory that I would never voice to any devout Christian friends for fear for being stoned, that maybe JC wasn't God, but an advanced human/wizard/alien from a galaxy far, far away. Think about it... immaculate conception--invitro fertilization, walks on water--levitation, fishes and loaves--duplication spell or device, raising the dead--advance medical treatment, ascention into heaven--returning to the mother-ship. Well anyway you get the gist of it--hey, it could have happened that way!

ETA: edited to add my 'thinky' snape icon.

Edited at 2013-10-15 05:27 am (UTC)
Oct. 17th, 2013 01:50 am (UTC)
I like that theory -- it's intriguing. There's a great YA book called Enchantress from the Stars which explores this idea very well (not about Jesus, just about technology looking like magic). A space age girl meets a poor woodcutter...but I shall say no more so as not to spoil it :)

Edited at 2013-10-17 01:51 am (UTC)
Oct. 15th, 2013 08:08 am (UTC)
Oooh! He sounds cool. *googles*

Regarding religion vs. science... Well, both sides are kind of insecure, aren't they? In general what it feels like to me is that each side doesn't believe that people can make up their minds, but rather that they have to be indoctrinated. Learning about the other side seems to be a threat, because if they get to choose, they might choose the wrong thing, y'know? Plenty of people do manage to balance their religious faith and being scientists.

Magic! Now that's a whole different question. Is magic defined by the fact that it is not understood or by the fact that it is not attainable? Because if we go by the 'inability to distinguish magic from technology' rationale, then magic can still be attainable to everyone - plenty of us use stuff we don't understand on a daily basis. I think the question in HP isn't 'is everyone magic due to mutation' but what happens once everyone is magic. Do they all get to go to Hogwarts? I doubt it. There will probably be even more pronounced racism against Muggles and class distinctions and whatnot - pure/half bloods would go to Hogwarts, Muggle borns who are rich enough and influential enough would go to Hogwarts, the rest... would never learn how to use their magic properly and would be left with very little they can figure out, stolen wands and textbooks and whatnot. So now we're moving not to 'magic is elitist' but to an extremely similar situation to our world today. It's not about your abilities but where you're born, who you're born to, how lucky you are etc. that determines your level of access to magic.

Hmmm.. that has been extra rambly :|
Oct. 17th, 2013 02:02 am (UTC)
Magic! Now that's a whole different question...

It is, and yet in another sense it isn't. I think of them more as points on a continuum. To an unsophisticated person, technology might look like magic. To an atheist, religion might look like (belief in) magic. That's what makes the interconnections between these three things so fascinating to me.

...what happens once everyone is magic...It's not about your abilities but where you're born, who you're born to, how lucky you are etc. that determines your level of access to magic.

Interesting, yes. So in that case magic would be egalitarian in the sense that everyone has it, but elitist in the sense that not everyone will be able to exploit it to the full. So it's not like science -- which is truly egalitarian, e.g. a car or a laptop works exactly the same for everyone no matter what -- and it's not like magic as a rare inborn skill, but a sort of middle ground. Hmm...
Oct. 17th, 2013 04:33 am (UTC)
well, is science truly egalitarian? At the purest form yes, it will work for everyone - but not everyone can afford to buy technology or medicine or lessons to explain how these things work. So while science is egalitarian, it is facilitated by technology, which isn't egalitarian. So I guess that's what I was thinking last night - sure, magic would be egalitarian, but you have to have some facilitator - a wand, lessons etc - in order to use it, just like technology in the real world.
Oct. 15th, 2013 04:48 pm (UTC)
It seems that in the HP world, the ability to perform magic is some sort of genetic mutation. Now if they would only get together with a Muggle geneticist, it would undoubtedly be found out how to manipulate the genetic code, rendering everyone who could afford such medical intervention the ability to choose magical ability for their children. But, yes, like the genetic testing we already have, and the fertility drugs, it would only be available to the rich... or those willing to go heavily into debt.

As to magic in the real world, I think we call "magic" the processes that no one understands... not even scientists. I mean, very few of us understand electricity.. how a television works... how the internet works... but we use it every day regardless. The thing is, someone understands it... has the specialized knowledge required for it. So the thing is deemed "science". But if no one understands how something works, then it is magic... or a miracle, which is pretty much the same thing.
Oct. 17th, 2013 02:12 am (UTC)
Interesting! This fits in with the point about sufficiently advanced tech being indistinguishable from magic. The things that no one understands (assuming that everyone is aware that there's no explanation) are considered magic. Thunder is the gods bowling; your child dies because the old woman in the hovel next door is a witch.

That suggests that there's a tipping point in human evolution: a point at which enough previously inexplicable things have been explained, that the response to a new inexplicable thing is not "It's magic!" but "Hm, I shall have to find out what's causing this." When the default reaction to mystery is not that of a superstitious mind but a scientific one.

I wonder what that point is, if it can be measured, identified or predicted...
Oct. 17th, 2013 02:28 am (UTC)
It's been postulated that there is a morphogenic field around the earth, which functions in the way the aura does for the individual human. That the sum total of human thought and emotion is what makes up this morphogenic field. So that when there is a glut of need or desire for something... oh, say, a device that can enable me to speak instantly to my sister across the country... the desire for this thing impresses itself upon those in a position to DO something about it... and so the telephone is created! It is also why so many different people will be working on the same device, unknown to one another. It's just a theory, mind you. But quantum theory and magic are practically indistinguishable from one another. And once the theory is satisfactorily proven, it becomes science rather than magic.
Oct. 16th, 2013 12:52 am (UTC)
I'll definitely read him. Thanks for the rec!
Oct. 17th, 2013 02:12 am (UTC)
Yes, do! And then come back and tell me what you think :)
(Deleted comment)
Oct. 17th, 2013 02:13 am (UTC)
You haven't yet?? You MUST. You will love him, I guarantee it.
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