The Rules of Magic


In the Chicago Sun Times review of the recently released Hollywood fantasy Eragon, film critic Miriam Di Nunzio complains that she just doesn’t understand why the black magician Durza “cannot simply wave his hands and re­trieve” the missing blue stone sought by the evil king and his minions. And later she questions the logic of a story in which the villain is surprised to discover that there are forces hostile to the king who should have been exterminated. “Why Durza can’t magically divine this is beyond me,” is her exasperated comment. The answer to Di Nunzio’s com­plaint, though, may have been provided in the film itself when Brom, played by Jeremy Irons, says, “magic has rules” (“rules” being another word for laws).

We mention the argument over Eragon, not because we consider it a particularly noteworthy movie, or otherwise, but to illustrate a point. Di Nunzio seems to be among those who assign anything paranormal to a realm having no basis in reality. According to this way of thinking, any story of magic is, by definition, fiction, where the only rules are those created by the author. In other words, once you decide to tell a tall tale, what’s the point in letting something like logic slow you down.

Such is the simplistic way of thinking which dominates in today’s media mainstream and elsewhere. Ironically, it is from this quarter that the epithet “supernatural” seems most frequently deployed. The orthodox assumption is that we have the familiar natural world which is obedient to the basic laws of physics as we understand them; anything else must be ‘super’ natural—unbound by natural laws—and, of course, not real. By this way of thinking, anything we don’t understand becomes “supernatural”—read that: ‘strictly imaginary.’ The most obvious battleline here is be­tween those, such as religious fundamentalists, who believe the supernatural exists (their “God” who created natural law doesn’t have to obey it if he doesn’t want to), and those militant secularists who believe it does NOT and that our present “scientific” grasp of reality is not to be questioned. Only a few, it seems, are left to argue that ultimately rea­son itself depends upon the notion that order, whether understood or not, is supreme, and that the appearance of any unexplained phenomena eventually tells us more about the limits of our ‘understanding’ than about the limits of the natural order.

Strangely, though, many of those self-anointed custodians of our current collection of principles said to comprise natural law (a.k.a. ‘the paradigm keepers’—themselves fundamentalists from a different church), seem unwilling or incapable of perceiving possibilities in that law which might exist outside the box of our current understanding. These ‘high priests’ of consensus reductionist science are fond of classifying anyone who does not accept the limita­tions which they have imposed upon reality as believers in the “supernatural” or worse. To put it another way, as ig­norant and superstitious, if not dabblers in the black arts.

As Arthur C. Clarke famously obverved, “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” It is clear that many of our existing technologies can produce effects which even our immediate ancestors would have considered magic, so why does our hubris prevent us from seeing that things we cannot currently comprehend might not be so incomprehensible if we but knew a little more? Indeed, isn’t it reasonable to suggest that many of our most cherished assumptions—the rules which we now believe govern reality—may be in need of expansion and revision, and that even our distant ancestors may have understood things which we have now forgotten but someday, hopeful­ly, may understand again?

In times like these, it is worth remembering—if we may be permitted to mix two old refrains—“now we see as through a glass darkly,” but “further along we’ll understand more.”


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