The philosophy of magic

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The philosophy of magic

Postby gib88 » December 6th, 2015, 12:22 am

Hello HP fans,

Can we talk a little philosophy? I like philosophy. I talk about it all the time. I usually hang out at (under the username gib <-- Imagine that! :lol:). And my recent obsession with the Harry Potter series has got me thinking about the philosophy of magic.

Oh yes, this is a deeply philosophical subject, so can we get into it? Is anybody interested?

My first thought, off the top of my head, is that there has to be some distinction between magic and the ordinary run-of-the-mill laws of physics. If it were all just laws of physics, there wouldn't really be such a thing as magic--there would only be physical laws that we understood and physical laws that we don't. I'm not saying that magic must therefore be real (not saying that it isn't either), but that by "magic" we must mean something different than physical laws--in other words, this is a semantic analysis, getting down to the concept of magic and how it differs from physics or any other science.

As depicted in the world of Harry Potter, however, there certainly seems to be a science to magic. You couldn't have Hogwarts otherwise. If you can wave your magic wand and say "expecto patronus" and consistently get a radiant apparition of your most cherished memory ready to fend off dementors and other agents of evil, then you have what scientists call a "law of cause and effect"--you wave your wand and utter the incantation (the cause) and you get a spell or a charm or some magical outcome (the effect). How can this be taught to students of witchcraft and wizardry unless it fit the formula of a natural law? It couldn't be a violation of natural laws--like the leviosa charm violating the law of gravity--because any such violation would manifest in random happenings and chaos. If you suspend the laws of nature, you create a void of lawlessness. Lawlessness just means randomness and chaos--no law to determine what happens. But the fact that every charm and spell and potion and incantation has a consistent and reliable outcome means that they count as laws themselves.

So what is the difference between scientific laws and magic? Could it be that they represent whole different categories of laws that have a kind of preempting affect on each other? Like people would levitate under certain conditions, but the law of gravity usually preempts levitation. But there are special ways of inverting this. Waving your magic wand and uttering "leviosa" has the effect of reversing the order of preemption, effectively giving the law of levitation power to preempt gravity? But if this is the case, what is the difference between this and a bird or an airplane defying gravity? Would we call the latter examples magic? Would we say they are operating under an entirely different set of laws, a set of laws that are somehow "outside" that of physical laws? I don't think so. I think most scientists will tell you that the way birds and airplanes flying is by applying physical laws, applying them in special ways under special circumstances such that they seem to defy the law of gravity but really are perfectly compatible with it. They are compatible because it's not quite true to say of the law of gravity that it pulls objects down under absolutely all circumstances--there are special cases, in other words, where an object may move against gravity and soar through the sky. So if the laws of magic really are a whole other category of laws, I don't think they ought to be considered a whole other category in an absolute sense. I think if we understood them deeply enough, and understood their relation to physical laws, we'd find they are really laws belonging to one overarching unified category of laws--magical and scientific--and that everything that is currently considered magical is really natural (though maybe occurring too rarely for us to recognize as natural).

Then there's the theory of familiars--spirits who help a witch or wizard in carrying out their bidding. If I point to an open door and utter "alakazam!" and the door shuts close, am I utilizing a magical power, like a force of nature, or could it be that I am accompanied by a spirit or a helping agent who understands that when I say "alakazam", it is supposed to go shut the door for me? This is a bit of a different theory than that of magical laws akin to physical laws. It is different in the following way: a helper, who is conscious and with agency, who does things according to my bidding, is not typically understood to be exemplifying natural laws. The whole idea of agency is built on the concept of will and conscious intention--that is, the agent is not a powerless drone who is compelled to obey the laws of physicals like a machine. An agent exercises its will and its intentions, following no laws, defying determinism. This would apply to familiars and other spirits (assuming they are like humans--having a will that is free). Yet at the same time, we don't get the random chaos that would be expected from a violation of physical laws. Agency and free will usually follow a pattern--a conformity to intentions, desires, goals, and other psychological motivators--and although this is not completely predictable, like a law of nature, one cannot say it is completely random and chaotic either. It is not even somewhere in between. It is a whole other category unto itself--not determined like a law, but not chaotic and random either.

But by that token, is it enough to calling this magic? I mean, what's the difference between a familiar doing your bidding and just a regular person helping you out? If you ask a buddy to get the mail for you and he does so, would you call that magic? If he was invisible, would that make a difference? Even if you considered being invisible a form of magic, it would be the invisibility that's truly magical, not the fact that he got your mail and made it look to others as though you magically caused the mail to fly through the air and into your hands. <-- That part would just be a trick. Yes, your friend would be doing it out of free will, which we just argued is not necessarily all determined by the laws of physics, but again, this may not be enough to call it magic, for we all exercise our will almost every minute of the day, yet we don't say we are performing acts of magic.

So what is magic exactly? How does it different from a scientific law? Is it an unconscious force, like wind or gravity, or does it involve familiars and other agentic spirits that carrying out your bidding? If it's a force, does it operate under its own laws which only sometimes, under very special circumstances, preempt the laws of physics, or are they part of one unified set of laws that only manifest as magic under very rare conditions?

I hope people are feeling philosophical.
"The world isn't split into good people and Death Eaters. We have all got both light and dark inside us. What matters is the power we choose to act on. That's who we really are."
- Sirius Black

"What is life without a risk?"
- Sirius Black

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