377. Science vs. Magic (2)

This is post two of three in another set which acts as a backdrop to one of the Westercon  panels. In this case the panel is Science & Technology versus Magic: what makes this such a compelling trope? This post continues from last Thursday’.

Religion has a relationship to magic, but it is not straightforward. It is more in the nature of finger pointing, as in, “My religion is the truth that underlies all things, including science and technology, but his religion is just mumbo jumbo.

You could say that religion and magic both are attempts to influence or control supernatural powers, but that doesn’t seem too accurate in our modern world. It might have made some sense when they were still burning witches.

Any Southern Baptist will tell you that no matter how much you pray for rain, if God has other plans, it isn’t going to happen. In fact, there is a Southern Baptist saying, “God always answers prayers, but his answer is often, ‘No.’” That doesn’t stop people from praying.

At least one of the major components of religion is also shared with science.  Recognition that we are so small and the world is so big — also known as humility — is a pan-human trait. Scientific types walk around looking at the sky and wondering when the next asteroid strike will come. Religious types walk around waiting for the Second Coming, or Ragnarok, or whatever terminal event their sect provides. Maybe magicians walk around wondering if their next spell is going to backfire and turn them into a toad; who knows?

All these types recognize that the universe is essentially beyond human control, and then set out to try to control it anyway..

Control over the uncontrollable is a pretty good starting point for the discussion of magic. Here is where religion flies in two directions. Many sects recognize that God cannot be controlled. He sets things in motion then wanders off, or maybe he pays attention to our everyday trials, but has a plan of his own. In any case, he can’t be compelled.

That position is a lot like science.

Other religions believe that God answers prayers, pays attention to burning candles, likes the smell of incense, and generally can be bought off. That type of religion is a lot like the magic we use in our fantasy fiction. If we make an incantation (light fantasy), some Thing will make an event happen. Or (dark fantasy) if we make a sacrifice, some malign Thing will make an event happen.

Actually, this is also a lot like science. Once the observation and experimentation phase is over, the results of science are used with confidence, not skepticism — just like prayer and supplication, are used.

(Is anybody out there chuckling at the similarity between A=9.8 m/sec2 and — as they say in Harry Potter’s world — Descendo?)

Not understanding what-the-hell is going on in the universe is the most basic of human experiences. Understanding brings about control. Believing that we understand brings about a felling of control, even if that feeling is unfounded.

Science seeks to mitigate this unease by reducing our ignorance. At its best, science is humble about this. However, when a physicist declares that we now know, fundamentally, how the universe works — and points to technology that works most of the time to prove it — it’s time for him to take off his lab smock and put on priest’s robes.

It all comes down to control. One of the things that makes Science & Technology vs Magic so interesting to us is that we all use science, everyday experience, and common sense to navigate and make sense of the world. And it works pretty well, most of the time — but not all of the time.

Ultimately tragedy strikes us, our families, our nation, or, potentially, our planet. Mortality walks behind us every day with its breath on our necks. We reach that place where logic and understanding fail, and we need more.

They say that there are no atheists in fox holes, but there are also no persons so sure of their place in heaven that they don’t feel fear when the reaper comes.

We all trust science — to a point — and then we need the hand of God. Or at least a good magic wand.  more tomorrow

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