Thursday, January 06, 2005

A few words on magic

The following is something I wrote soon after my vacation--it's something I'd been sitting on for a long time and never had the time to write down, but by the time I got to it, the gist had mostly left me. Consequently, I make no claims about its coherence, but here it is, in the interest of getting back into writing.


I haven't written a blog post in a ridiculously long time-actually, I haven't written anything at all without recourse to"mathematical grammar" for an awfully long time--so you will have to forgive me for the sad state of my prose. Probably I should start with an easier topic, but I've been sitting on this for a while. And so, on to magic.

I've never met anyone--or a respectable anyone--who would claim to have seen actual magic occur, although people do like to describe things with more-or-less magical terminology. Films and TV shows and such do tend to be "magical"or "marvelous"or "amazing," and all sorts of things are "weird"and "fantastic." But what do these mean? It seems to me that none of the things these words are used to describe are particularly magical or mysterious. For example, I've been called weird a few times, but I'm certainly not unearthly. I can think of any number of technological marvels which I understand so little that I have to call them magical, but I don't in fact call them magical in real life. The computer I'm using right now is a good example; the important parts of it probably weren't designed by humans at all, but rather by another machine, so in principle one could figure out how the millions of circuit gates work together but certainly not in a human life time--we may as well call the thing a mystery. I have no reasonable picture of what Advil or Sudafed actually do in my body, even if I can construct an image to match whatever chemical explanation you want to give me. A friend of mine recently described the training jet he was using as some sort of gizmo with "just an old F-something radar slung on the nose." Okay. I get this notion of bouncing light rays off of things and putting that information back together in some clever way; I can probably even hack through the math involved. But it still sounds like crazytalk to me. You'll find that the whole gadget lives inside a metal dome; the light rays, which are sometimes particles, too, just make it through metal most of the time because they're so teenie-weenie. And what the hell does it mean to "sling" something like that onto something else? It sounds like magic to me, but none of it is called magic. I think that's because we have a set of ridiculously superficial explanations between us and the more-or-less magical truth of the matter.

There are three gargantuan stories that take Magic as the starting point, these being the Lord of the Rings (Tolkien), Harry Potter (Rowling), and Discworld (Pratchett). You might be able to guess which one of these is my favorite. It's not Potter.

What's the difference?

All three have to claim that magic is embedded deeply in the world, although only Tolkien and Pratchett make a special effort to demonstrate just how so. Tolkien wrote a whole mythology of Middle Earth that bleeds through into the Lord of the Rings and the heroic, as in an "Age of Heros," tone that codes the story beyond the Shire convince you that the Otherworld (sorry) is just beyond your site. There's straight-up magic around from time to time (more so in the movies), but for the most part no spells are cast. The wizards and others have a dim memory of the future, but they're not diviners. It's not really even clear what the Ring does for the most part except scare the shit out of people and make little folks invisible. Pratchett gets to detail the goofy all-magical world of his story and forces his reader to replace himself to a world in which there is no explanation for anything expect magic. Even light moves sort of lethargically. Rowling, in contrast, calls non-magical people "muggles," which, I suppose, means that magic is something the world is imbued with while not everyone is sensitive enough to realize it. But the feeling of the story is really that magic is just something that sits on top of the world like an after thought. Knowing about it is, to my mind, just a way to get around the need for technology. Consider the need for a wand. (She does note the similarity between magic and technology by way of Mr. Weasley's fetish for muggle stuff in her second book.) Rowling's Magic says nothing at all about the nature of the world, and her characters (at least in the first three installments) don't put much effort into understanding how magic and, say, physics are related in their world.

So why do I like Tolkien and Pratchett better?

Rowling seems to allow that ignoring the actual construction of the world is completely acceptable. You can use stuff without having any idea how it works. Of course, I'm doing that right now, like I said, but I think I have a better idea of how this gizmo works than, say, Harry knows how his invisibility cloak works. (Come to think of it, I probably have a better idea of how the computing part works than of how the chassis was fabricated.) But doesn't this sound dangerous? Paranoid as I am, I have to point out that our gross ignorance makes us terribly easy to take advantage of. Does my computer broadcast my identity? I can't really say it doesn't. On the other hand, there is obviously no way a person could expect to understand even a nontrivial fraction of the technology that s/he uses. He can try though. Which is the important thing. Accepted ignorance allows us to accept highly simplified, even wrong, explanations of things-the sorts of ludicrous explanations that Pratchett has so much fun with. For example: the CPU is the brains of the computer. Okay. This allows us to rip the real mystery from things. If just the CPU is the brain, then what the hell is the rest of it? (Those folks who like to study computation as a model of mental processes are not really just wankers-there's something to it: the running computation can interact with its own program in some way, and blah blah blah--that's profound.)

My point is that highly simplified explanations are basically the same as Pratchett's brand of ironical magic-and the same as Rowling's brand of unquestioned magic. Both present a kind of magic that is essentially mundane, so mundane in the lives of their characters that no additional explanation of it is necessary. (In each of these, it is very easy to see what is magical, when magic is happening, and in each the actual workings of magic are largely ignored. In Tolkien, in contrast, it's often difficult to determine when magic is in play, but you can usually interrogate the magic and figure something out, if not the whole thing.) To me, this sounds just like the way we deal with cellphones and chemistry and global positioning systems--they just work.

It seems to me, it would be hard to pull an "Intelligent Design" claim if you had really considered what goes into building a communications satellite. You can't make one work without a theory of general relativity. If you've got one of those, though, you've also got a theory of the way the universe is shaped, how it's changing, and how old it probably is. You also get to see firsthand that if the universe is intelligently designed, it was designed by an intelligence that is, basically, nothing at all like ours, so that the "intelligent design" discussion is basically vacuous. But instead of forcing people at least to look at (and probably fail to understand) general relativity, we break the idea into morsels so bite-sized and mundane that the bizarreness of the truth is obscured--a communications satellite is just a gussied-up watch on top of a firecracker, something I could sling together in my garage.

I guess my point is that we should allow ourselves to fail to understand more readily. (To toot my own horn, I fail to understand something almost everyday.) If we face up to just how dark the universe is to us... well, I don't know what happens then, but I think it's better.

(A friend of mine recently spent a day asking all the other folks in the math department for 5 minute spiels on what exactly they study; this turns out to be a non-trivial exercise. It does make one feel just how small one's powers really are. Math seemed a bit a more magical thereafter. On the subject of math and magic, I have an ongoing fantasy that some of the professors may have actual magical powers--like, if you understand algebraic geometry completely, then you can also levitate or something.)