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:
- 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.
- 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.