Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Clarke's Law

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

It was actually Clarke’s Third Law, but it’s the one that caught hold. Clarke’s first two laws have more or less fallen into obscurity:

  1. When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.
  2. The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible.

It’s pretty easy to see why the first two laws aren’t cited very often: they distill down to “nothing is impossible,” which puts them into opposition to, oh, I don’t know, practically every other scientific law in existence. If everything is possible, then there are no rules, and science is about rules.

In any case, Law #3 is usually just called “Clarke’s Law” and it has annoyed me for years. It has a sort of faux profundity that evaporates as you try to figure out what it actually is supposed to mean. You’re supposed to have a good idea about what magic is, and it feeds a mental image of primitives baffled and awed by the technology of the Great White Hunter, the savages thinking that there must be some strong juju in the guns and flashlights.

That’s a stereotype, of course, and almost completely wrong to boot. My own take on magic can be found in my essay Killing the Goat.

In any case, even the stereotype is silly. If a stone age hunter gatherer thinks that something he doesn’t understand is magic, it would be because he thinks that everything he doesn’t understand is magic. But that just maps Clarke’s Law to the proposition that any technology that is sufficiently advanced that you don’t understand it is the same as something else that you don’t understand.

Well, as they say, duh.

But, in fact, to a product of western civilization secular humanism, things not understood are nevertheless assumed to be undiscovered science. The history of esp and psi research suggests that the opposite of Clarke’s Law is applicable to us westerners:

Any sufficiently advanced magic is indistinguishable from technology.

I’ve got a list of SF stories to back it up, but many of us, including me, aren't that fond of magic-as-science stories. The genre had its heyday, back in the 40s and 50s, and Larry Niven almost single handedly extended the thing past its sell by date with his "Magic Goes Away" stories. But I don't think I've seen a good one in years.

Anyway, I've long had my own variant of The Law:

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from something that has no damn business working in the first place.

And I think I'll leave it at that.


Porlock Junior said...

Been waiting for someone to say that coherently. Magic is what's perceived by a particular kind of mind (if one that was pretty much universal for most of the time that sentient beings have existed), not simply of a state of technology.

Odd, though, how close you could come to a reasonable statement of #1 if you just replaced that really stupid "very probably" with something realistic, like "possibly".

James Killus said...

Odd, though, how close you could come to a reasonable statement of #1 if you just replaced that really stupid "very probably" with something realistic, like "possibly".

In my experience, the vast literature of "scientists sure are stupid," quotes has resulted in scientists rarely saying "impossible" without qualifiers like, "under current theory" or "as far as we know."

I've also tracked down a few of the original quotes in the "scientists sure are stupid" literature, and usually the scientist in question never actually said what was attributed to him, so there we go. For example, most of the "powered flight is impossible" statements were actually from scientists who were being asked about human-powered ornithopters (flapping wing craft), which, sure enough, to the best of our current understanding, remain impossible. I wouldn't bet too much on steam-powered aircraft, either.

psikeyhackr said...

I think your interpretation of the second law is nonsense.

Venturing into the impossible doesn't mean someone can do the impossible it means that reality is going to impose some kind of limit and show them it was impossible. It may get them killed. But at least they learned where the boundary was for a little while.


Anonymous said...

The link to your essay "Killing the Goat" is broken.

Josh said...

I get your point, but I think it's important to point out that he doesn't say you would necessarily think it really truly is actual magic, but that it would be indistinguishable from magic. Important distinction.

Anonymous said...

you may try to think about why the notion of magic is used.

for example one could just carefully compare your reaction to a humble investigation.

just for the record, I think this interpretation is very full of assumptions and is jumping to conclusions too fast.

formally replacing the words in the third law to something out of your interpretations and than jump to conclusion is a something that may dangerously remind one to blonde math: http://c.cslacker.com/i/m/i2.jpg