Sunday, July 20, 2008

Why there is No Magic in the Harry Potter Books (by guest blogger Teed Rockwell)

Philosophers and psychiatrists both use the word “magic" as a term of abuse. Intelligent Design Theory is accused of relying on magic. Psychiatric patients are accused of “Magical Thinking” when they believe that they can get what they want by simply wishing for it. Magical Thinking is often seen as the enemy of reason or science, but I think it would be more accurate to say that what Magical Thinking really rejects is causality. Knowledge and skills are dependent on knowing, and/or having a “grip” on, some causal factor that produces an effect we want. When defenders of Intelligent Design say that God interacts with the world “directly”, and that no further explanation is possible, they are renouncing causality itself. When people try to get what they want by just wishing for it, without bothering to find out how to get what they want, they are also renouncing causality, and putting their faith in magic.

Most people think that magic is just theories that aren’t true. By this definition, Newton would be a magician, because we now know that there is no such thing as absolute space. In fact, Newton also believed in Alchemy, which is often called a branch of magic because it is so different from what scientists believe today. However, none of this detracts from Newton’s credentials as a scientist, which rest not on the content of his beliefs, but on his methods of doing research. The basic ideals of the scientific method rest on principles like causality, the principle of sufficient reason, and the search for abstract unity to account for perceived regular patterns. Anyone in the past, present, or future who rigorously adheres to these kinds of ideals has a right to be called a scientist, even if much of what they “discover” is eventually revealed to be wrong.

In fact, to be completely fair, we should not deny this honorific even to our colleagues in alternative possible realities. That is why, by the definition described above, there is actually no magic in the Harry Potter books. What Harry and his friends are studying at Hogwarts are the causal principles of an alternative reality very different from ours. The intellectual rigor required of a Hogwarts-style magician is essentially the same as that required of a scientist. Or perhaps more accurately, an engineer. The Weasley twins do some original research while developing their joke shop wares, and Dumbledore probably worked in something resembling a laboratory when he discovered the twelve new uses for dragon’s blood. But students in Hogwarts classes learn what was discovered by research outside their classrooms, and like engineers, they learn how to use these skills and facts to produce practical results.

Also like engineers, if Hogwarts students don’t fully learn the intricacies of the causal order, they don’t get the results they strive for. When Hermione Granger tried to transform herself using polyjuice potion, it was not enough to wish to be transformed. She had to get all the ingredients and procedures right, and one mistake (using a cat hair instead of a human hair), turned her into a cat instead of a Slytherin girl. In fact, almost every chapter shows examples of what happens when a student doesn’t fully understand the causal order of this alternative reality. Bones get completely removed instead of healed, teacups grow fur but refuse to turn into hamsters, and na├»ve people ignore the principles of evidence and believe in “non-existent” creatures like crumpled-horn snorkacks. Ironically, the Harry Potter books could be a child’s best cure for what psychiatrists call Magical Thinking. They might even be good introductory material for a class in scientific method.


  1. I'm not sure I get just what the argument is. What is it that you think is required for magic? It sounds at points like you might be saying that any theory in which the effect is caused can't be one in which it happens magically; surely you don't think that, right?

    What is it that's required of magic that isn't met by Harry's spells?

  2. Both the Psychiatric and Philosophical concepts of Magic define it as thinking that things can happen without causal intermediaries: By just "waving a magic wand", as it were. In the Harry Potter books, waving a magic wand requires both skill and knowledge, and if you don't do it right you get results which are both undesirable and quantifiably predictable. That is the essential characteristic of science and engineering: The recognition that reality will not simply bend to your whim, but has rules that must be understood and mastered. Magic in the Harry Potter Universe is govern by such rules, and that is why it is not magic in the Philosophical/Psychiatric sense. Harry Potter's magic is just the science of an alternative reality very different from ours.

  3. Sorry, I still don't get it. At two points. First, why should we think that magic requires things happening without causal intermediaries? Why can't magic operate via causal intermediaries? I guess you think that this idea is literally incoherent -- but why?

    Second, what is it to "make things happen without causal intermediaries"? The example you give, "by just waving a magic wand" sounds like a causal intermediary: it's not just a brute fact that I made it happen; I made it happen by waving my wand. And presumably, I waved my wand by flexing a pattern of muscles; I did that by activating a certain neural pattern. So what would a world that did have magic in it look like? (Also, I'm not up to date on philosophy of science, but I would have thought that most people believed in some causation without intermediaries, to stave off worries about regress.)

    Can you say a bit more about what you mean by "causal intermediaries"?

  4. Interesting post; it appreciates that even in this branch of fiction being methodical, developing skills, uncovering the laws that govern reality etc. might count for something. It would have been easy for the author to just discard these and replace them with some appeal to magic. (The same easy option exists for science fiction, just with some unexplained future or alien technology instead of magic.)

    Still it's not clear to me what the difference between 'magic' proper and otherwise would be in your view.

    Isn't magic practically always portrayed as involving some labours and eventual mastery of the rules and laws of, well, magic (or the spiritual realm or whatever)? Wizards are typically grey-bearded, highly-experienced old fellows who were long in training, so to speak (think of Merlin, Gandalf etc.). Faust (in the Goethe play) goes through some elaborate procedures to conjure up spirits. (And then he finds out that 'Hell itself has its rules', which prompts him to make a deal with Mephisto - so it's not just causality and physical laws that's in play here, but also social and legal rules.) So insofar the contrast is really between discovering and using some rules and laws (science, engineering) and
    not doing so (magic), by your definition much of what is presented as magic in fiction would count under the former. Where would you draw the line?

  5. My point is that if magic is seen as operating by means of causal intermediaries it is no different from science formally and structurally. Most of what is referred to as magic is really either outdated science or science from an alternative reality with different laws of nature. Historians of Medieval science study people like Paracelsus and Nicolas Flamel, who are often called magicians today. Flamel actually appears in the Harry Potter books.

    The reason this point is important is that the pathological concept of magic is often unjustly applied to our ancestors and/or people from other cultures. 19th century Anthropologists often said that non-European cultures were stuck in a "magical" phase of thinking and were incapable of 'scientific' thinking. This was one of the justifications for colonialism. Clifford Goertz used evidence from his own field work to show that this was false. These culture often are unfamiliar with our scientific facts, but they often use the same fundamental kind of scientific reasoning as Europeans.

    Magical Thinking as practiced by Intelligent Design advocates and unmotivated psychiatric patients, is a real pathology that needs to be condemned. But those who are called magicians in history and literature are usually not afflicted with that pathology.

  6. Howdy Teed,

    That's great fun! Magic is surely a difficult word to pin down. To me, everything outside of "science and religion" qualifies.

    "If you must locate me in relation to the debate between religion and science, place me firmly in the leftover territory; that of magic, the occult, shamanism and all the forces of Nature."


  7. Why isn't the correct conclusion to draw that, in the world of Harry Potter, magic is a kind of science?

    What would a world with magic look like? Or do you think that all magic is incoherent?

  8. Hi Teed,

    A colleague of ours (who runs our distance learning support lab) appends to all of his emails the following pair of quotations:

    "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic."
    -- Arthur C. Clarke

    "Sometimes the magic works, and sometimes it doesn't."
    -- Chief Dan George in Little Big Man

  9. They call it "Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry" and not "Hogwarts School of Magic" for a reason!

  10. To Jonathan,

    Yes I am saying that in Harry's world, the word "magic" refers to a kind of science. But it doesn't mean that in the philosophical and Psychiatric communities of our world.

  11. I asked:

    Why isn't the correct conclusion to draw that, in the world of Harry Potter, magic is a kind of science?

    Teed, your response confuses me. It starts by saying "yes", indicating that you might agree after all that Harry performs magic that is a kind of science. But as you continue, it looks like you've just changed the subject: Yes I am saying that in Harry's world, the word "magic" refers to a kind of science. But it doesn't mean that in the philosophical and Psychiatric communities of our world.

    The suggestion after the "yes" is not the one I asked about -- obviously you think that Harry performs something that he calls "magic", and that it is a kind of science. I agree with you about this.

    Where I take myself to disagree with you is with the question whether Harry performs magic. Common sense screams at us that yes, Harry Potter is a paradigmatic example of a person who uses magic. Your post, however, suggested that he doesn't after all use magic; he uses something that is too science-like to be magic.

    My response was: why can't magic be science-like? Your response to this question confused me: you seemed to take yourself to agree with me, but then, instead of saying that magic is science-like in the world of Harry Potter, you said something about the meanings of the words that Harry Potter characters use.

    So let's get clear: do you agree with my suggestion that Harry uses science-like magic?

  12. Howdy Teed,

    To really define any discipline one must be knowledgeable on the subject. That's hard to do if you don't "believe" in it.

    Magic assumes a causality that comes from a realm that science denies altogether. How can a non-believer be expected to explain magic? :-)

    Magic assumes that thoughts and ritual actions in the present can influence the future without an obvious physical connection. That makes the thoughts and actions of the practitioner part of the causality.

    Wishing for something doesn't necessarily get it for you, but it is an important step. It identifies your goal and gives your system an emotional boost in the right direction. From there on, it is focus that gets you there... augmented by more wishing.

    Once you get the hang of it, magic works just fine. :-)


  13. I should have also said, divination seems to have be a special case in the Potter books. It's portrayed as a pseudo-science, even within the world of magic, but then we see a few actual cases of prophecy that appear to be uncaused or at least come out of nowhere...

  14. In intelligent design, there is certainly is a cause, and so "causality". The cause is God.

    "Science", or what any educated western person before the 19th century would have called "natural philosophy", deals with *secondary causes*, i.e., those which are not God. More strictly, it deals with causes that are not intellective -- not God, angels, demons, or the human intellect operative per se.

    The "magic" Teed finds objectionable would seem to be the western (and Arabic) tradition of *demonic* magic (taking "demon" in the original classical sense of being operative without a physical instrument). That would be magic in which the cause is some intelligence that is above nature -- be it demons, angels, astral intelligences, prophetic human souls, or God herself.

    The "good" magical tradition, the one Teed approves of, is that of "natural magic" which is the harnessing of "occult" force ("occult" taken in its original sense of "hidden" -- that is, expressly NOT demonic). See Roger Bacon and his theory of the "multiplication of species" (universal radiation of force) deriving principally from al-Kindi's De radiis ("On rays") by way of al-Haytham and perspectivist optics.

    Occult force being distinguished from "manifest" (=sensible) force, such as heat, cold, light, and pressure.

    But in both cases, there is causality. It's just not a causality Teed accepts to be real.

    Western magical traditions may be *wrong* -- but they are not *irrational*. That's a major historical mistake.

    It's probably a philosophical one, too.

  15. In the world of investments, we call your idea of magic, "illusion," and in extreme cases, "delusion," which, in my humble opinion, are both products of ignorance.

    Thanks for the post...

  16. Thanks for the great post Teed.

    You wrote,

    "Magical Thinking is often seen as the enemy of reason or science, but I think it would be more accurate to say that what Magical Thinking really rejects is causality. Knowledge and skills are dependent on knowing, and/or having a “grip” on, some causal factor that produces an effect we want."

    In response, why can't a believer in magic endorse causality but just respond that it's a causality different from that studied by the physicist?

    I suppose my idea here is this. You say that magical thinking is a rejection of causality--to be specific, the sort of causality studied by the natural sciences. Someone who endorses magical thinking could say that magical causality is just plain different from scientific causality. So, while there may be some similarities in discovering how magical and scientific causality work, they're ultimately different.

    So, magic is science-like in its methodology but magical thinking isn't a rejection of causal relations. In the case of Harry Potter, Harry uses magic to disarm his opponents. The causal relation involved is magical causality that is discovered through a method analogous to the scientific method. (I say "analogous" since the scientific method discovers natural scientific causal relations; the scientific/magical method discovers magical causal relations.)

    So, we can do justice to your intuition about the role of the scientific method in the Wizarding World but still assert that there is magic there.