What We Mean When We Say Magic

“The larger the island of knowledge, the longer the shoreline of wonder.” -Ralph W. Sockman.

Magic is a slippery word. Does it refer to a trick or a glimpse of something deeper? This simple question has always puzzled me. This little essay is my attempt to nail down why that is. I want to talk about what we mean when we say magic.

But first let me tell a story.

A Wizard’s Story

Once, long ago, there was a bearded sage who dwelled in a faraway land. This man, a wizard in fact, spent his days pondering the restless energy that animates the universe. He filled books with cryptic runes and arcane formulations. After many years he brought forth the Great Runic Tetrad (sometimes called the Fourfold Physick), a sigil so powerful that it would, if studied deeply by an adept, grant secret knowledge of the earth’s hidden forces and permit him thereby to bend them to his will.

The language is exaggerated, but as it happens this story is true. More plainly, we may say that the wizard is a Scot named James Clerk Maxwell, and his runes, known as Maxwell’s Equations, are fundamental to our understanding of electricity and magnetism. They are among the great achievements of human thought. Artfully wielded, after an apprenticeship in electrical engineering, they will let you conjure the circuits that move our world.

They’re kind of a big dang deal. Here they are.


I love this story, because you really don’t have to work the story very hard to make it sound like a fairy tale. Maxwell’s Equations ARE runes of fantastic power, granting us, among other things, telepathy (telephones), telekinesis (electromagnetism), and iPads. But once you know it’s the story of a physicist, the magic somehow drains out of it. The magic was right there in the story, and then it went away. Why did it go? And where is it now?


Ordinary Magic
Science, magic, and technology have long been tangled together. Technologists are fond of quoting Arthur C. Clarke: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” The fondness is understandable; it’s flattering to be considered a magician. But Clarke is making a distinction that is easily missed: if you don’t understand the machine with the blinky lights, then you may well think it’s magic, but it isn’t. Magic is something else again. But this other thing, this technological mirage that looks like magic but isn’t, needs a name. Let’s call it ordinary magic, or techno-magic.

It turns out that most situations in which people use the word “magic” they are referring to this techno-magic. Techno-magic is just faulty or missing knowledge in exactly the sense that Clarke describes. This is the smoke and mirrors we find on stage. It’s a trick that you happen not to understand right now. If, however, you were able to examine the mirror and the wires hanging from the ceiling, you would understand that the lady doesn’t REALLY float. And, if you had an engineering degree and enough time to study the circuitry, you’d see that an iPad doesn’t actually qualify as magic, Steve Jobs notwithstanding.

The magic of fiction and games tends to follow this same path. Harry Potter, that paragon of modern wizarding, is all about techno-magic. The Harry Potter books are filled with wizards who are fumbling bureaucrats, and the Hogwarts potions class is a dreary grind. Harry Potter’s magic, exotic as it appears to us, is simply the technology of his world. So it is with computer games too. In World of Warcraft and a hundred others like it, magic is technology, pure and simple. It is devoid of mystery, being instead a consistent and mechanical means to an end.

Ultimately, ordinary magic, technology, is magic that always works. We can even turn Clarke’s dictum on its head: “Any sufficiently reliable magic is indistinguishable from technology.” It’s mundane trickery and nothing more. But if we reach past the gimcracks, down to the bottom of the bag, there’s something else squirming around.

Magic and Surprise

The dictionary definitions of magic all circle back to the use of the word “supernatural.” Somehow forces are involved that go beyond those considered “natural,” which is to say the world as I currently understand it.


So: magic implies surprise, and surprise implies expectation. Expectation means there is some model of reality, a framework within which the world is expected to operate. Rabbits should not spontaneously spring from empty hats. The magical act is one that breaks the causal link between action and consequence. But this link comes from the model, and the model exists only in the observer’s mind. In short, magic is a subjective art. It happens in the eye of the beholder or not at all. If a rabbit pops out of a hat in the middle of the woods, does it make any magic? This is the key to untangling magic from technology. Technology is something that I do. Magic is something that you see.

Now we are at the heart of the matter: Magic, if it is to be considered in any sense real, must operate outside our frame of understanding. The word magic thus resists definition because it is the thing that by definition resists definition.

Ordinary magic can be dismissed by a better model, or a better framing of the observation. See? the hat has a false bottom where the rabbit hides. But the deeper notion of magic is the fact that no amount of reframing can banish all mystery. The universe, being quite large, will always retain its ability to surprise. The shifting edges of reality resist our embrace.

That’s why we like the small tricks and parlor magic. It reminds us of the truth we all intuit in one way or another: You can’t put the universe in a box.


Rationality and magic are often portrayed as antagonists. Hyper-rationalists and mystics can both be heard fretting that the other side is “winning”. But rationality and magic are simply figure and ground. Will science banish magic? It can’t. That’s the fun of it. Magic is the catnip that leads us into the dark. It led Maxwell to his equations. It is our name for the pregnant void where mind and matter intersect.

You can’t touch the void. You can’t find darkness with a torch. But you can thank darkness for lighting the way.

2 thoughts on “What We Mean When We Say Magic”

  1. Clever and funny. My favorite: “Any sufficiently reliable magic is indistinguishable from technology.” !Nice twist on A.C. Clarke’s dictum!

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