Magical Realities

Some of the articles on magic systems have prompted objections based on how magic “really” does or does not “work”. All right then; it’s only peripherally involved with gaming – but let’s take a look at that.

Magic – whether in the form of ceremonial magic, psychic abilities, or c’hi, is a very popular idea. It’s generally stated to offer benefits that can be obtained in no other way or (in the case of those attempts at magic commonly called superstitions) to offer the benefit of avoiding various disadvantageous events.

  • Now, if Magic has a biological basis, then biological evolution can select for or against it. If advantageous, it should be almost universal; evolution actually works fairly quickly when an advantageous trait starts occurring in an existing population (for example, the rapid spread of adult lactose tolerance when herding is introduced to human populations). If disadvantageous it should be bred out, and thus go unobserved save when brought out by negative mutations.
  • Magic is not universal. In fact, despite large prizes for anyone who can demonstrate ANY kind of currently-unexplained ability, and tens of thousands of attempts to claim those prizes, magical abilities of any kind have yet to be demonstrated – and there is no reason not to demonstrate them if magic is biological. The upper limit on the occurrence of biological magic is thus one in many millions.

If Magic has a social basis (such as training or the “old wisdom”), then social evolution can select for or against it. If advantageous, societies using it should come to dominate. If it is severely disadvantageous societies that permit magical thinking should tend to lose out. If it is simply a waste of time or otherwise mildly disadvantageous, then it may persist as a parasitic meme as long as the societies hosting it are competing against equally or more affected societies.

  • Currently observed societies seem to fit the “waste of time” scenario. Evidently magic does not have a social basis and thus cannot be “trained” or otherwise acquired in a controllable fashion.

If Magic has an environmental basis, such as exposure to high levels of “mana”, being “touched by spirits”, or some other external influence, then it may either occur in particular areas where those influences exist, when various controllable circumstances occur, or at random – at least as far as humans are concerned.

  • If it occurs thanks to influences in particular areas, than those areas should believe in magic and tend to exploit it – or to suffer from it – predictably. This does not seem to happen; new groups entering areas tend to carry on their own magical traditions, rather than converging on the ones that work locally.
  • If it occurs thanks to controllable circumstances, than we’re back to a social basis; magic can be “awakened” by some form of ritual or procedure. That has already been eliminated.
  • If it occurs at random (at least as far as humans are concerned) then we’re back at “why has no affected individual come forward?” prize-money problem.

Now, it’s possible that no one would come forward if Magic is inherently secretive – but in that case we know that no form of “magic” that you have ever heard about is valid, and that no one with actual magical abilities will ever come forward. Certainly nothing is going on that has a really large – even if secretive – impact on human life or it would show up as an unexplained bias in the statistics which are so enthusiastically collected these days.

  • Those seem to be pretty reliable; insurance companies, social planners, and all kinds of other groups successfully use them to make money.

Can we combine more than one of those possibilities? Certainly we can; that just means that multiple test apply UNLESS we presume that this makes magic so rare that it’s never going to be observed.

That leaves us with “I am sure that some mysterious force we know nothing about and cannot detect either directly or indirectly might be influencing human lives in some extremely subtle fashion for no observable reason!”.

I can’t argue there. That’s essentially a religious viewpoint – and no one can prove that something doesn’t exist. All I can say is that – in the absence of any observable evidence that something DOES exist – speculation and debate on such a topic is only useful for entertainment purposes or if the speculation and debate itself offers some (probably social or psychological) benefit.

Thus I do find speculation on magic and exploring magical systems beneficial and enjoyable; if nothing else it helps make for entertaining games*.

I’d also be delighted to see functioning magic. New and currently-unexplainable observations mean new physics – and that’s a delight and a wonder for everyone interested in science. That’s why scientists are so eager to find, and then investigate, new things – any why claims that “the establishment doesn’t want to look!” really don’t work. Scientists are frantically eager to look at anything new – although, sadly, they’re often short on social graces, which is why they can be downright rude when you waste their time demanding attention for something that isn’t actually new.

*Religious belief systems do seem to offer benefits on the social level under historical circumstances; otherwise societies lacking them should have come to dominate the world – and religious belief systems occur in virtually every known human culture. Whether this will continue, and whether or not such systems are ultimately valid, isn’t something that can be effectively debated. On both the personal, and social, levels we’re just going to have to wait and see.


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