What is magic?


Don’t know about you, but I’ve always wanted to discover real magic in this world. Recently, I was trying to formulate this desire more concretely: what exactly is magic, of the type that has fascinated me since I was a kid? “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic” does seem to get at something real, but does not exactly define what it is we are looking for. And, of course, while computers are cool, shooting fireballs from my hands still seems somehow different. Perhaps this has to do with rarity and skill. In this sense, we could view computer as a magical artifact, which is quite commonplace these days, and that most people know how to use, so I don’t feel so unique about it. In contrast, being a wizard seems more about doing something that very few people can do, and which would thus likely require substantial talent and training. You get bonus points if you can then do your magic without any rare or special artifacts —i.e., without wands or flamethrowers. Computers, ubiquitous as they are, are allowed though — if you can do something especially unique with them. Another important ingredient to count something as magic, to my mind, is power. And here I basically mean the physics definition of power: amount of work done per unit time. If I can build a house with the power of my mind and hands in a few months, that’s nice, and requires lots of skill — but not quite magic. Another story if I can do the same in a few minutes — remember ice-castle building in “Frozen” ;P While manipulations of the physical world like castle-building seem quite stubborn against letting us do them too quickly, at least so far, other realms seem more amenable to it. The realm of human emotions and beliefs, for example, although can sometimes be more resistant to change than even our immediate physical reality, with the right skill may be transformed in a matter of minutes. Art is one specific industry of human endeavor that works with precisely such psychological transformations. Its power is reflected both, in the market prices of some artworks, which can be much in excess of a physical house, and in their transformational power, which can have more long-term consequences on our lives and society than concrete material goods. Some artists may work for years on a piece, planning out all the details, carefully creating and then polishing and perfecting it. Others, on the other hand, may spend years honing their mastery and cultivating a rich emotional world, so that they may then create life-changing works right there on the spot, in a matter of minutes. To me, especially this latter kind of art — improvisation — seems to match precisely what I’ve always considered to be magic: immense transformational power seemingly pulled out of thin air, coming from a rare and unique skill perfected over a lifetime. Moreover, it is nearly impossible to explain what exactly makes it work, or what distinguishes “true” from “fake” art / magic. But art is far from the only area where one can exercise such “magical powers” of world-transformation. A brilliant diplomat can (hypothetically) prevent a war and create international alliances, seemingly within hours. A talented psychiatrist may transform a patient’s life, apparently “just” by talking with them. A genius theorist can one day come up with an idea that will change the course of human history. Of course, each of these require years of preparation, practice, talent, sometimes planning and waiting for the right moment. But in that moment, these people truly are mages far more powerful than those portrayed in most fantasies.


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