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If You Demand Magic, Magic Won't Help

55 Post author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 22 March 2008 06:10PM

Followup toExplaining vs. Explaining Away, Joy in the Merely Real

Most witches don't believe in gods.  They know that the gods exist, of course.  They even deal with them occasionally.  But they don't believe in them.  They know them too well.  It would be like believing in the postman.
        —Terry Pratchett, Witches Abroad

Once upon a time, I was pondering the philosophy of fantasy stories—

And before anyone chides me for my "failure to understand what fantasy is about", let me say this:  I was raised in an SF&F household.  I have been reading fantasy stories since I was five years old.  I occasionally try to write fantasy stories.  And I am not the sort of person who tries to write for a genre without pondering its philosophy.  Where do you think story ideas come from?

Anyway:

I was pondering the philosophy of fantasy stories, and it occurred to me that if there were actually dragons in our world—if you could go down to the zoo, or even to a distant mountain, and meet a fire-breathing dragon—while nobody had ever actually seen a zebra, then our fantasy stories would contain zebras aplenty, while dragons would be unexciting.

Now that's what I call painting yourself into a corner, wot?  The grass is always greener on the other side of unreality.

In one of the standard fantasy plots, a protagonist from our Earth, a sympathetic character with lousy grades or a crushing mortgage but still a good heart, suddenly finds themselves in a world where magic operates in place of science.  The protagonist often goes on to practice magic, and become in due course a (superpowerful) sorcerer.

Now here's the question—and yes, it is a little unkind, but I think it needs to be asked:  Presumably most readers of these novels see themselves in the protagonist's shoes, fantasizing about their own acquisition of sorcery.  Wishing for magic.  And, barring improbable demographics, most readers of these novels are not scientists.

Born into a world of science, they did not become scientists.  What makes them think that, in a world of magic, they would act any differently?

If they don't have the scientific attitude, that nothing is "mere"—the capacity to be interested in merely real things—how will magic help them?  If they actually had magic, it would be merely real, and lose the charm of unattainability.  They might be excited at first, but (like the lottery winners who, six months later, aren't nearly as happy as they expected to be), the excitement would soon wear off.  Probably as soon as they had to actually study spells.

Unless they can find the capacity to take joy in things that are merely real.  To be just as excited by hang-gliding, as riding a dragon; to be as excited by making a light with electricity, as by making a light with magic... even if it takes a little study...

Don't get me wrong.  I'm not dissing dragons.  Who knows, we might even create some, one of these days.

But if you don't have the capacity to enjoy hang-gliding even though it is merely real, then as soon as dragons turn real, you're not going to be any more excited by dragons than you are by hang-gliding.

Do you think you would prefer living in the Future, to living in the present?  That's a quite understandable preference.  Things do seem to be getting better over time.

But don't forget that this is the Future, relative to the Dark Ages of a thousand years earlier.  You have opportunities undreamt-of even by kings.

If the trend continues, the Future might be a very fine place indeed in which to live.  But if you do make it to the Future, what you find, when you get there, will be another Now.  If you don't have the basic capacity to enjoy being in a Now—if your emotional energy can only go into the Future, if you can only hope for a better tomorrow—then no amount of passing time can help you.

(Yes, in the Future there could be a pill that fixes the emotional problem of always looking to the Future.  I don't think this invalidates my basic point, which is about what sort of pills we should want to take.)

Matthew C., commenting here on LW, seems very excited about an informally specified "theory" by Rupert Sheldrake which "explains" such non-explanation-demanding phenomena as protein folding and snowflake symmetry.  But why isn't Matthew C. just as excited about, say, Special Relativity?  Special Relativity is actually known to be a law, so why isn't it even more exciting?  The advantage of becoming excited about a law already known to be true, is that you know your excitement will not be wasted.

If Sheldrake's theory were accepted truth taught in elementary schools, Matthew C. wouldn't care about it.  Or why else is Matthew C. fascinated by that one particular law which he believes to be a law of physics, more than all the other laws?

The worst catastrophe you could visit upon the New Age community would be for their rituals to start working reliably, and for UFOs to actually appear in the skies.  What would be the point of believing in aliens, if they were just there, and everyone else could see them too?  In a world where psychic powers were merely real, New Agers wouldn't believe in psychic powers, any more than anyone cares enough about gravity to believe in it.  (Except for scientists, of course.)

Why am I so negative about magic?  Would it be wrong for magic to exist?

I'm not actually negative on magic.  Remember, I occasionally try to write fantasy stories.  But I'm annoyed with this psychology that, if it were born into a world where spells and potions did work, would pine away for a world where household goods were abundantly produced by assembly lines.

Part of binding yourself to reality, on an emotional as well as intellectual level, is coming to terms with the fact that you do live here.  Only then can you see this, your world, and whatever opportunities it holds out for you, without wishing your sight away.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but I've found no lack of dragons to fight, or magics to master, in this world of my birth.  If I were transported into one of those fantasy novels, I wouldn't be surprised to find myself studying the forbidden ultimate sorcery—

—because why should being transported into a magical world change anything?  It's not where you are, it's who you are.

So remember the Litany Against Being Transported Into An Alternate Universe:

If I'm going to be happy anywhere,
Or achieve greatness anywhere,
Or learn true secrets anywhere,
Or save the world anywhere,
Or feel strongly anywhere,
Or help people anywhere,
I may as well do it in reality.

 

Part of the Joy in the Merely Real subsequence of Reductionism

Next post: "Mundane Magic"

Previous post: "Bind Yourself to Reality"

Comments (105)

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Comment author: Doug_S. 22 March 2008 07:01:01PM 5 points [-]

"Any sufficiently advanced magic is indistinguishable from technology." - Larry Niven

Comment author: Steven_Bukal 06 July 2011 05:51:08PM 16 points [-]

"Any sufficiently advanced magic is indistinguishable from technology." - Larry Niven

"Any sufficiently analyzed magic is indistinguishable from science!" - Agatha Heterodyne / Cinderella (explaining what Niven meant), Girl Genius

Comment author: pjeby 06 July 2011 06:03:42PM 10 points [-]

I always heard this one as "Any technology that's distinguishable from magic is insufficiently advanced." It's a bit more useful as a motivational formula for people developing things than the other formulations. ;-)

Comment author: DanielLC 04 March 2012 07:14:51PM *  15 points [-]

Any technology distinguishable from magic is insufficiently advanced.

-- Barry Gehm

Personally, I think this one is more accurate:

Any technology, no matter how primitive, is magic to those who don't understand it.

-- Florence Ambrose

Comment author: Nick_Tarleton 22 March 2008 07:07:28PM 8 points [-]

This is all very true, but maybe some realities actually are more conducive to wonder than others, and maybe a reality with (natural and ontologically basic, not human-created) magic would be more wonderful than ours is, just as ours with relativity and QM might be more wonderful than one with purely classical physics. Still, I don't see why we couldn't eventually tweak ourselves to see the real world as as wondrous as we want.

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 22 March 2008 07:15:12PM 1 point [-]

Nick, please explain why magic, which is a complex thing, must paradoxically also be fundamental, in order to be wonderful.

Comment author: fozmeadows 26 October 2009 10:08:40AM 16 points [-]

You argue that fantasy readers and writers prefer magic because it's more exotic, but contend that, were they ever to find themselves living in a world of sword and sorcery, it would automatically become mundane. However, you also contend that our actual reality is fascinating despite its familiarity: that living with digital technology and science has failed to put a dent in our curiosity about it. In order for these two statements not to be contradictory, your argument seems to be predicated on a notion that fantasy readers are all intrinsically uninterested in the world around them, and are therefore incapable of being fascinated by any reality in which they find themselves, regardless of whether it's scientific or fantastic in nature. Certainly, there are incurious people in the world, and some of them are fantasy readers, but when it comes to judging the whole of fantasy and the reasoning behind it as a whole, I'm fairly sure we can do better than that.

The common element across all stories, fantastic or otherwise, is character: being a reader therefore means being curious about other people. This is just as valid and worthwhile a curiosity as being interested in (say) science or mathematics, but the two states are far from mutually exclusive. Building a new world, as per a fantasy story, requries believability: we must know why a city or culture functions in accordance with this bias, that assumption, why it values these traditions and abhors those. Yes, there is an enormous amount of creative leeway in determining the above, but it will fail if the reader cannot be made to believe that people would really act that way. The idea is to build a society that supports magic, not to use magic as a substitute for society: in other words, the world still needs to function even without magic, because magic isn't the most important element.

In hard SF, the aim is often to detail the parameters of a particular technology and then describe how society works around it. Magic can fulfill a similar narrative function, but without the in-depth analysis that accompanies hypothetical technology: it's a shortcut, a way of using 'what if?' sans close scrutiny of whatever mechanism is making it possible. That's not analogous with a lack of curiosity: it's simply enabling the reader to be curious about something else - the result of the experiment, not underlying logic which created it. This is a primary difference between fantasy and SF, but both stories are still an exercise in imaginary worlds.

Let's be honest: all fiction is a form of escapism. Magic has no monopoly on people wanting to live different lives, do exotic things and visit exotic places. If I am not a doctor in everyday life, but still like to read medical dramas, that is not the same as saying that I am uninterested in my own job, or that I lack curiosity about what it is I do. It doesn't even mean I want to be a doctor, or that I somehow think I'd be happier if I were. Yes, that's always going to be the case for some people, but prejudging all of fiction on those grounds seems like a pretty poor analysis. The very heart of escapism is that it is temporary - a break from the norm, a curiosity to learn new things, not an out-and-out desire to become the subject of whatever book I happen to pick up. Being a reader in any genre is not synonymous with being dissatisfied with reality, so why should fantasy be singled out as the exception to the rule?

It's one thing not to want to read about imaginary creatures and false worlds. Different stories contain different degrees of fiction, and I completely understand and appreciate that my preferences are not the same as the preferences of someone else; nor should they be. But I am heartily sick and tired of people going the extra step further, to argue that the books they read aren't really about escapism, because there are no dragons. Escapism is an attitude the reader takes to the book, not a genre in and of itself. Take your preference of reality and have welcome to it - but don't pretend it's a morally superior choice.

Comment author: bigjeff5 02 February 2011 07:29:31PM *  18 points [-]

However, you also contend that our actual reality is fascinating despite its familiarity: that living with digital technology and science has failed to put a dent in our curiosity about it.

To certain people, I think that's the point you missed. For most people, that statement isn't true - namely, people who aren't fascinated by reality. People who are fascinated by the merely real wouldn't find magic mundane either, even if they grew up in a magical world, because they don't find the familiar mundane. These people are not the normal SF&F reader, though there are certainly a few SF&F fans who fit the description.

The point is that just because it's familiar doesn't mean it must be mundane. However, most people do find the familiar to be mundane, and these same people would find magic mundane as well just as soon as it became familiar.

This is the second time an Eliezer post has reminded me of a certain series of books, where the protagonist is a computer programmer who gets sucked into a world where technology flatly does not work, and in its place is "magic".

In one of the books, the protagonist's sorcerer girlfriend gets transported back to this world, and she is absolutely amazed by such things as microwaves and cell phones and cars and television. This is someone who is used magical teleportation and parchment maps that magically update terrain and scrying pools and such. Yet things we find mundane were incredible to her. Cars in particular scared the bejeezus out of her, and she was used to riding dragons and whatnot.

It's all perspective. If you aren't amazed by science and technology here, then it won't take long before you aren't amazed by magic in a magical world either.

That's the point.

Comment author: Blueberry 02 February 2011 11:03:25PM 6 points [-]

What is that series? I'd like to read it.

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 02 February 2011 11:06:32PM 9 points [-]

It's by Rick Cook, first novel Wizard's Bane.

Comment author: Benquo 26 November 2013 02:48:18PM 1 point [-]

That was awesome. What else can I read in that subgenre? I mean, aside from everything by Lawrence Watt-Evans, sort of.

Comment author: bigjeff5 03 February 2011 12:47:58AM 6 points [-]

Yes, what Eliezer said.

I enjoyed the snot out of them - he actually wrote a magic compiler!

You can find the first two books at the Baen Free Library. There are four total.

I'm going to have to read the books others have mentioned as well, because I really like the genre.

Comment author: Luke_A_Somers 07 March 2012 03:15:55PM 7 points [-]

It's heavy on the wish-fulfillment angle. I could have done with a lot less of that.

Comment author: Luke_A_Somers 07 March 2012 03:13:30PM *  1 point [-]

"Let's be honest: all fiction is a form of escapism."

Hell no. Try reading "Voices From the Street". Why would I ever want to escape from my wonderful life to go THERE?

Comment author: thomblake 07 March 2012 04:17:17PM 0 points [-]

You might want to check out Noel Carroll's Philosophy of Horror.

(Aside: I never noticed before - the cover looks like a Vampire: The Masquerade splatbook)

Comment author: JonStall 28 March 2013 12:27:51AM 0 points [-]

Escapism | Noun

" The tendency to seek distraction and relief from unpleasant realities, esp. by seeking entertainment or engaging in fantasy "

Comment author: ialdabaoth 28 March 2013 12:38:20AM *  8 points [-]

The tendency to seek distraction and relief from unpleasant realities, esp. by seeking entertainment or engaging in fantasy

Exactly.

Unless they can find the capacity to take joy in things that are merely real. To be just as excited by hang-gliding, as riding a dragon; to be as excited by making a light with electricity, as by making a light with magic... even if it takes a little study...

I can absolutely take joy in things that are merely real. I would be just as excited by hang-gliding as I would by riding a dragon, at least in part because they often feel equally out of my reach.

Here's why fantasy escapism is compelling: for many people, the problem isn't physics; it's psychosocial reality. We've been conditioned with such horrific levels of defeatism, akrasia and learned helplessness that we literally cannot conceive of succeeding in any world that looks remotely like this one; the conceptual distance between this world and one with dragons and sorcery is it is probably somewhere near the minimal conceptual distance necessary for our subconscious to say "this is a different enough world that the mysterious forces which keep you depressed and miserable and resourceless and powerless and statusless in your world might not do so in ours." So your brain gives you permission to fantasize about actually succeeding without berating yourself and feeling stupid for doing so, which is what you're looking for from these novels.

Comment author: CAE_Jones 28 March 2013 02:19:03AM 0 points [-]

For example, the vast majority of the time I imagine myself accomplishing anything, it involves timetravel, or something similar. It feels like anything I didn't do in prepubescent form doesn't really count. Kinda like "Yes, you opened the safe, but only after the bomb inside went off and damaged the lock, and destroyed most of the valuables within."

A recent such imagining involved me talking to a psychologist about foreknowledge, and it turned out that most of the predictions I made were about negative things (shootings, 9/11, etc). I answered this observation with "I had a very idealistic upbringing; any world that does not turn out like an action movie with me as a hero is a disappointment."

Well, that, and there are things that I want that technology can't give me at the moment, and would be... difficult to get funded. (And the ones that are actually feasible are trappd in Akrasiaban.)

However, most of the things I want that would require technology to advance considerably are rather mundane. Slightly weird, attainable if I'd known in advance and been a rationality ninja at the time, but not magic.

... No, I never did manage to get any of my psychologists to talk about this subject. :P. It was mostly all about akrasia and depression. (Though one of them did let me play with Mindflex, which is a far cry from an FMRI, but provided me with experimental evidence as to where I have Ugh Fields strong enough to turn off a motor... ah, and the thoughts I used that got the machine to full power were made of imaginary friends and kamehamehas.)

Occasionally, the simply real works, though. I recently decided that if none of these tactile display projects are actually going to hit the market (Senseg sounded close a year ago, then went silent, and this is the same pattern set by several others in the field), I'll just build my own. Unfortunately, this will require people with more comp sci / electrical engineering skill / parts than me, and better-functioning eyeballs would doubtless be useful. So I'm write back to an akrasia-vulnerable task: convincing the nearest comp sci department that I know has the parts/people to help. (Though if anyone wants to beat me to it, the tesla touch strikes me as a good starting point.)

Comment author: Luke_A_Somers 28 March 2013 01:50:27PM 0 points [-]

I don't quite see the relevance of this to what I said.

Comment author: Jeremy 22 March 2008 07:23:54PM 1 point [-]

Ok, but, can we read your stories anyway?

Comment author: Savage 22 March 2008 07:27:47PM 0 points [-]

So weird... This theme has been in my thoughts today and recently...

Comment author: Ted 22 March 2008 08:29:17PM 5 points [-]

Tell that to my level 82 orc wizard with tier 11 gear!

Comment author: Jed_Harris 22 March 2008 08:32:50PM 12 points [-]

There are a number of fantasy stories where the protagonist is very good at something, largely because they work hard at it, and then they enter a magical world and discover that their skills and work have a lot more impact. Often they have to work hard after they get there to apply their skills. Often the protagonist is a computer hacker and their skills, which in our world only work inside of computers, in a magical context can alter physical / consensual reality. (Examples: Broken Crescent, Web Mage. There are many others. Arguably this pattern goes back at least to The Incomplete Enchanter though success came way too easily for Harold Shea.)

So I think the appeal of this type of fantasy is partly that big effects in our world usually require big causes -- capital investment, megatons of steel, etc. -- even after you know the right "magic spell". In these fantasy worlds -- and in some cases in computer networks -- big, widely distributed effects can be produced just by uttering the magic spell in the right place, or by building a local, inexpensive magical workshop using the right blueprint -- e.g. YouTube.

Comment author: aperrien 05 February 2013 11:38:59PM 1 point [-]

I think 3d printing and Kickstarter are beginning to make this concept match more to our reality.

Comment author: ikrase 20 March 2013 03:55:58PM 3 points [-]

That's probably accurate. See also Girl Genius, where people cursed with the gift of mad science are able to build entirely technological stuff really, really quickly w/ minimum tools. Our heroine does things like design and build an intelligent self-replicating robot over a period of a few days and builds several incredibly powerful man-portable energy weapons in a few hours each.

Comment author: RobinHanson 22 March 2008 08:42:38PM 20 points [-]

I participated a role playing game for the second time recently, set up by my colleague Bryan Caplan. We played investigative journalists trying to uncover a grand conspiracy. Afterward, Bryan asked me what I thought, and I said it would be more exciting to pretend to be doing very important things if I didn't already think I was doing very important things in my ordinary life. :)

Comment author: Benquo 26 November 2013 02:50:20PM 2 points [-]

The rapidity of exposition didn't make it more exciting? IRL adventures are slow.

Comment author: [deleted] 22 March 2008 08:45:51PM 20 points [-]

I largely agree, but I do think fantasy-story magic differs from our world's physics in one significant way: the laws of magic tend to resemble human psychology much, much more than our physics does. The opening quote of this post is itself an example: to practice their craft, Pratchett's witches have to negotiate with gods, which--real and mundane as they may be--presumably have beliefs and desires that bear at least some similarity to human ones. And while it's occasionally a nice shorthand to refer to physical entities as having beliefs and desires (look, the charge *wants* to go that way/this amplifier *knows* where ground is), the mappings are very rudimentary, and they aren't even a very accurate way to look at the picture.

Even when magic doesn't involve actual gods or godlike beings, it usually interfaces much more "nicely" with human psychology than real technology does; the process of casting a spell often depends in some way on the caster's emotional state, and spell effects can be structured around intuitive concepts with apparent ease (say, a curse that affects subsequent generations of a family--a group of entities that is very difficult to specify in physical terms). Granted, our real-world technology could conceivably advance to the point where it works something like this, but it's still an important fact that it doesn't, and can't, work that way _now_. Until we make some giant technological leaps, being an engineer or physicist is not going to be much like the typical wizard's experience, where psychology really matters and one's emotions have intricate effects on one's results.

Comment author: Nornagest 06 July 2011 08:10:16PM 4 points [-]

The Lovecraftian branch of fantasy's evolutionary tree seems to be an exception to this rule -- it actually makes much of how unintuitive its magical rules are to human minds, often to the point of creating madness or other nastiness in most sorcerers. Of course, a corollary of this is that it's much less effective as wish-fulfillment, even if some partial exceptions exist -- the appeal lies in the worldbuilding and sense of awe and horror.

(Charles Stross's Lovecraftian technomage Bob Howard does some cool things in a magical system that's essentially an extension of higher math, for example -- but they'd probably be much less cool to readers without a well-developed compatibility mode.)

Comment author: MoreOn 20 August 2011 07:47:14AM *  2 points [-]

So, magic is easy. Then, everyone else is doing it, too. (And you're spending a good portion of your learning curve struggling with the magical equivalent of flipping a light switch). It's even more mundane than difficult magic.

By comparison, how many times today have you thought, "Wow! I'm really glad I have eyesight!" Well, now you have. But it's not something you go around thinking all the time. Why do you expect that you'd think "Wow! I'm really glad I have easy magic!" any more frequently?

Comment author: DanielLC 04 March 2012 07:26:02PM 2 points [-]

True, but eyesight is awesome whether or not I explicitly think about it. I'm happy because I have eyesight. It's just that there's a somewhat longer chain of causality than if I'm happy that I have eyesight. I have eyesight, therefore I can use a monitor, therefore I can use the internet, therefore I can do fun stuff on the internet, therefore I am happy.

Comment author: TheOtherDave 04 March 2012 09:15:00PM 2 points [-]

It follows that blind people are, as a class, less happy than sighted people.
How confident are you of that?

Comment author: Luke_A_Somers 07 March 2012 03:22:29PM 0 points [-]

I'm not sure that's true. They'l just have to support their happiness in other ways. And how many blind people would really be unhappy to gain the ability to see? I don't know that there's a 'blind culture' in the same way there is a 'deaf culture' which advocates deafness.

Comment author: TheOtherDave 07 March 2012 04:47:46PM 0 points [-]

I don't assert that there are many blind people who would be unhappy if they gained the ability to see. Possibly there are none at all.

If blind people and sighted people are equally happy (albeit for different reasons), I suppose DanielLC's comment can still be true, so fair enough: you're right. My conclusion doesn't strictly follow, I was making inferences about their model. (I suspect they were true inferences, but I was still overconfident.)

Comment author: CAE_Jones 28 March 2013 01:26:35AM 1 point [-]

Coming in late, but... This is a matter of debate among the blind people I've encountered.

There are generally three groups: those who had sight but lost it, who would be eager to get their sight back, and come across as less happy in some ways, though there are some who adjust well enough that it isn't soul-crushing outside of certain situations.

There are people blind from near birth who think gaining sight would solve lots of problems, like finding employment or being taken seriously by others. These people seem to be imagining magic, and not how sight restoration and adapting to a new sense work in the real world.

And there are people who are blind from near birth, and are relatively happy like they are, and wouldn't want to deal with inserting a completely new sense into their brain when they function well enough already.

It isn't clear how these map to happiness, but it generally seems that people blind from near birth are on average happier than people who lost their sight after developing substantial visual memory. (I haven't actually sought after statistics; this is just based on my observations).

Comment author: Ghatanathoah 01 November 2012 06:27:39AM *  2 points [-]

This is a good point. I was discussing this with article with my brother, and he argued that the reason magic is more appealing than science is that magic is more like an art than a science. Since more people are good at art than good at science, it's easier to identify with a supermage than with a superscientist.

Comment author: Michael_G.R. 22 March 2008 08:53:22PM 10 points [-]

I wish this kind of stuff was taught to more children. Too few people fall in love with reality.

Comment author: Martin3 22 March 2008 09:15:33PM 5 points [-]

Savage - Same here... Weird indeed!

Eliezer - Just a thought... You wrote: "They might be excited at first, but (like the lottery winners who, six months later, aren't nearly as happy as they expected to be), the excitement would soon wear off."

I've just begun delving into the science of happiness and there found among many things, exactly what you hint at here. That most people have an inborn level of happiness, which they eventually revert to no matter what happens to them in their lives. In my research I stumbled upon a survey that stated that however frightening the prospect of being paralyzed may seem, before being paralyzed, a surprising (I don't know how they really determined the surprising-level here though) number of people actually ended up being as overall happy as they were befor being paralyzed. So no matter if youre winning milions or being paralyzed, you will usually revert to your inborn level of happiness.

I have no idea if this is true, but I find it interessting, and what you wrote struck a cord in me. Among other things because Iv'e been a fantasyfan and roleplayer for more than 15 years now.

What I really wanted to comment on is that the same people that Im reading about happiness also states that human happiness is relative. What that means is that if everybody is totting wands shooting fireballs, summoning demons and generally being fantasywizards, then it will be no thrill at all. Which I guess is part of your point, but what I think you're missing in the equation is that in most fantasystories whether they are played out in a novel or in roleplayinggames, the heroes are unique or in some way stands out from the crowd.

If I would want magical powers I would only want them under the same premise that I usually find them in fantasynovels and roleplayinggames; me being the only one or at least one of a select few having magical powers. All my wet fantasy fantasies evolve around the idea that my character is unique and wield powers vastly greater than everyone else. Maybe my powers are latent, but they are there and they are better then everyone else's. To sum it up, I would only want magical powers if it would set me out from the crowd, only if it would make me relativly better than everyone else that I would come in contact with. In this understanding I would be able to become more happy, just by being able to do magic, because it would make me better than someone else.

Seen from my perspective I don't think that my inability to be contend with my current life would keep me from being contend with a fantasy or future life with magic or psionics, where some or all of my dreams with regards to power would be within my grasp. The incentive to work harder to hone my powers and achieve godhood (or whatever) would be so much bigger in a world where people really DID walk on water, parts the sea and blows up New York with a mere thought. In our own world all I can really dream of of achieving is being better at math or seducing women etc.

So although I do think you have a very valid point that we should be able to appreciate the NOW here, before we can appreciate the NOW anywhere, I do think that when talking and thinking about fantasyuniverses where everything imaginable is within reach, or at least could be possible (all up to the author), the point is a bit moot.

Does that make sense to you guys?

And sorry if my english is not that good, it's my second language... Thanx for a great and inspiring blog everybody! It's my first comment here and I really feel dwarfed by your appearant intellects, so it is with great humility and expectation that I so openly utter my difference of opinion with a guy (Eliezer) that I for more than a year now has admired for his great insights... Enuff wit da flattery, bring it on ;)

Comment author: Martin3 22 March 2008 09:19:42PM 1 point [-]

Dammit... While I was typing my words of wisdom, trying to spell my way through my second language, at least two people beat me to it and described my point in fewer words and in more eloquent language, than I ever could.

Dammit... Not being unique! 'scuse me for wishing for magical abilities ;)

Comment author: Ben_Wraith 22 March 2008 09:34:44PM 9 points [-]

Martin, like most people who apologize for having English as a second language, your posts are clearer than those of many people who have English as a first language.

Comment author: Will_Pearson 22 March 2008 09:37:05PM 4 points [-]

I read fantasy, though less so now, mainly because it is groups of people banding together to achieve a goal they knew was just or worthwhile (generally saving the world, defeating the evil forces). The actual magic was just a spice that leant an air of mystery, and unpredictability (so I am more a fan of George Martin, David Gemmell and Guy Gavriel Kay rather than Raymond E. Feist and David Eddings. Robert Jordan lost me when the good guys split up into bickering factions).

I'm just disappointed that AI is at the herding cats stage (myself included), when trying achieve consensus on how to actually proceed. No party of merry adventurers are we.

With regards to the allure of magic compared to science, magic tends to need a lot less in terms of support mechanisms. The inability to get precisely machined parts would hamper your attempts to build a transportation device, where magic, depending upon the sub-genre, can do just about anything with anything, so is much more empowering and self-sufficient.

Comment author: FrF 22 March 2008 09:47:18PM 4 points [-]

I like quoting this passage from Joyce Carol Oates' profile of H.P. Lovecraft (King of the Weird):

Readers of genre fiction, unlike readers of what we presume to call "literary fiction," assume a tacit contract between themselves and the writer: they understand that they will be manipulated, but the question is how? and when? and with what skill? and to what purpose? However plot-ridden, fantastical, or absurd, populated by whatever pseudo-characters, genre fiction is always resolved, while "literary fiction" makes no such promises; there is no contract between reader and writer for, in theory at least, each work of literary fiction is original, and, in essence, "about" its own language; anything can happen, or, upon occasion, nothing. Genre fiction is addictive, literary fiction, unfortunately, is not.

By the way, that was a wonderful post. It's nice that Overcoming Bias is trying to bring abatement to the temperamentally challenged. It could be argued, though, that falling in love with reality is preciously hard when the economic grindstone tries its best to make the life of a lot of, if not most, people depressing. Maybe for them the allure of having not to think about a "crushing mortgage" would be quite enough to easily befriend a World of Magic.

Comment author: Bob_V 22 March 2008 09:48:28PM 0 points [-]

But I'm annoyed with this psychology that, if it were born into a world where spells and potions did work, would pine away for a world where household goods were abundantly produced by assembly lines.

Why do you desire to have cross-world consistency? You are only going to have to live in one of them. No Dutch book can be made against us by selling us tickets to that world here and then selling us tickets back to this one from there. If such transport were possible, than I agree that we need to reexamine our psychology to avoid constantly being on the bus between worlds. Until then, what's wrong with having world-dependent preferences?

Comment author: Matthew_C.2 22 March 2008 09:54:20PM -2 points [-]

Matthew C., commenting here on OB, seems very excited about an informally specified "theory" by Rupert Sheldrake which "explains" such non-explanation-demanding phenomena as protein folding and snowflake symmetry.

Actually Eliezer I'm much more excited to be in nature doing landscape photography, spending time with my family, seeing if I can make money trading stocks, and chatting about the nondual nature of reality, among other things.

I'm become totally and completely uninterested in arguing with people who refuse to acquaint themselves with the evidence for things and then rail against them ex cathedra from the dogmas of "official science". The only reason I responded to your previous post on reductionism was TGGP kindly informed me of it and your mention of my query from last year, and I thought it only fair to point your readers to some relevant material.

Best,

Matthew C.

Comment author: Latanius2 22 March 2008 09:55:33PM 4 points [-]

Eliezer, isn't reading a good fantasy story like being transported into another world?

Jed Harris: I agree... Our world seems to have the rule: "you are not significant". You can't design and build an airplane in your backyard, no one can. Even if you've got enough money, you haven't got enough time for that. In magical worlds (including Star Trek, Asimov, etc) that is what seems to be normal. (And I've never read about a committee which coordinates the work of hundreds of sorcerers, who create new spells 8 hours a day...)

rfriel: Yes, we could build the technology to do the things magic can do, but even with our current technology we also can do things which magic can't. And these limitations are which make magic so "nice", not only the features.

Martin: to be the best, you only have to make your world small. (I was one of the best in math in our secondary school, and it didn't bother me that I wasn't the best in the whole country, or that I was quite bad in history...) But it would have been soo good to be the one who makes the best operating systems in the whole school...

Comment author: Dojan 03 December 2011 04:50:47PM *  12 points [-]

You can't design and build an airplane in your backyard, no one can.

But thats exactly how it did happen! If magic was possible in 1903, then surely it is possible now.

I refuse to exept your premise that it is impossible to have enough time and/or money to persue ones dreams; indeed, I challenge it. I personaly have a low income job, and also a small, old and used sailboat, that I'm trying to renovate and make seaworty again, with the hope of one day sailing far and explore the world. I know this is possible, for my parents did it, and brought me and my brother along 10 years ago, when I was 12.

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 22 March 2008 10:10:50PM 11 points [-]

Martin wants to be uniquely powerful and higher-status, but this request can only be granted to a few people, barring delusive holodecks, so it's not a good project for utilitarians;

Tarleton suggests that a reality with fundamental magic is more wonderful, but this is probably impossible even in principle, because magic is too complex to be atomic;

But rfriel's, Harris's, and Pearson's versions of magic's appeal - "I want to be individually empowered by producing neato effects myself, without large capital investments and many specialists helping" and "I want the neato things I do to have a more natural user interface" are in principle doable - you can get this with, say, the right kind of nanotechnology, or (ahem) other sufficiently advanced tech, and bring it to a large user base, as long as they have the basic psychological ability to take joy in anything that is merely real.

Comment author: Martin3 22 March 2008 10:11:56PM 2 points [-]

Latanius I do agree with your small world idea, although not explicitly stated in my first comment, I have thought about it. Actually the people I mentioned earlier who studied the "science of happiness" pointed out that the relative happiness have many different boundaries. We measure ourselves up against our immediate vicinity, the small world that we inhabit. We can't really imagine how an african with AIDS and lifethreatening hunger might feel and thus can't really use it to make ourselves any happier. In comparison I can feel much happier if im more well off than my brother or sister (Not that I would enjoy that without sharing, but it would definately make me feel good both to have money and be able to share them with those whom I love).

Comment author: Caledonian2 22 March 2008 10:20:10PM -3 points [-]

So - and let me be sure I have this straight - you think people are silly for finding attractive fictitious worlds in which reality can be altered through the grasp of principles ingrained deeply within the human mind and the application of pure will and desire, rather than wanting to gain expertise in real-world laws that are deeply unintuitive and that provide us with relatively little scope for doing as we please?

[facepalm]

Your fantasies are rather... dry.

Comment author: Michael_Fridman 22 March 2008 10:28:34PM 3 points [-]

In my flawed self-analysis, I've noticed myself have 2 kinds of wonder, and I think this might be a common theme to other people.

1. Wonder of novelty -- when something hasn't been experienced before and it is there is a great freshness from seeing it for the first time if it's interesting, colourful etc. This is where things like the travel bug comes from, and better fulfilled by Westerners through going to Rajasthan than Salisbury

2. Wonder of understanding -- this is the wonder of knowing something for an extended period of time and still being amazed by it. For instance, I have a great wonder for Special Relativity despite knowing the details for many years.

I would say that your post laments that in most people 1 >> 2. And while I think this might be true, there are still a great deal of instances of 2 in most people: from getting lost in a conversation with an old friend or partner to taking walks through nature (which never ceases to amaze people even though they may have been on the same beach at sunset hundreds of times).

Comment author: Jed_Harris 22 March 2008 10:46:13PM 4 points [-]

Eliezer sayeth: "I want to be individually empowered by producing neato effects myself, without large capital investments and many specialists helping" ... [is] in principle doable - you can get this with, say, the right kind of nanotechnology, or (ahem) other sufficiently advanced tech, and bring it to a large user base..."

Agreed. But as you hint, Eliezer, this case is indistinguishable from magic. So arguably the class of fantasies I mention are equivalent to living in some interesting future. In any case they don't seem to match the schema you present in the post.

Eliezer continues: "...as long as they have the basic psychological ability to take joy in anything that is merely real." I think that even in a wonderful future, most people will take joy from unusually large bangs, crazy risks, etc. as they do today; fancy technology will make these easier to produce and survive. Most people still won't get much joy or wonder from the underlying phenomena unless we re-engineer human nature. Ian Banks' Culture novels and short stories have some pretty good ironic accounts of amazing Culture technology being used for thrills by idiots.

I don't disagree with the importance of "joy in things that are merely real." But there are multiple sources of joy, some higher quality than others.

And speaking of wishing for magical power, I wish I could copy a quote from this blog and paste it into the comment box with the text styles preserved. Shows how hard it is to come by magic.

Comment author: Nominull3 22 March 2008 10:49:27PM 5 points [-]

The idea that you're not significant is invalid in the internet age. You can write an operating system in your mom's basement and distribute it around the world.

Comment author: Devin_Haynes 22 March 2008 10:57:08PM 0 points [-]

I was listening to a public radio philosophy podcast on itunes, and it was a short essay by Arthur Shopenhauer. This post reminded me of him. One of the big ideas of his essay was that a human beings biggest problem, besides having to be nullified by eternity, is that we are perpetually becoming without ever being. Time never consumes a single point without having already moved on, forever. Our cells are constantly growing and dying and changing. Our bodies are never the same from one slice of time to the next. He eventually, i think, would argue wiht you that it's impossible for humans to function anyway other than looking into the future, because that's more of a reality than the present is even, because that has already become the past.

Anyways, basic idea... always becoming without ever "BEING".

Comment author: TGGP4 23 March 2008 12:15:47AM 1 point [-]

Eliezer, I'm pretty much the opposite of Matthew C on issues of reductionism and whatnot, but you were really stretching it with your armchair psychologizing/mind-reading. Also, couldn't your rebuke apply equally as well to someone excited about this newfangled "special relativity" rather than tried-and-true Maxwell's Equations or "general relativity" rather than the older special relativity? What is interesting is tends to be novel.

Comment author: Tom_McCabe2 23 March 2008 12:57:07AM 2 points [-]

Beautifully written. Someone should submit this to Digg, Reddit, Slashdot, etc.

I think that the human desire for magic is closely tied to the desire for something *new*. The things that we do with science would be just as impressive to medieval-tech magicians as their magic would be to us. But we already understand most of our technology- we know what it's used for, what it can do and what it can't, how much it costs on eBay, and so on. To steal a metaphor, human excitement is like a gas that expands to fill the available space. If you dumped a medieval knight into 21st-century America, they'd be in awe of our amazing 'powers'. They'd want to explore the world, study our technology, understand the marvelous secrets behind modern civilization (at least if they're anything like OB readers). But soon enough, they'd bump up against the limits of what we can already do with aluminium and silicon. And beyond that, you can only make further progress through tremendous effort, tremendous intelligence or tremendous luck. So magic, no matter how trivial, would be of tremendous interest to the world because it hasn't been done before. It lies outside of the predefined boundaries most people live their lives in.

Comment author: Caledonian2 23 March 2008 01:32:22AM 4 points [-]

Technology is never as interesting as magic, because technology doesn't imply that human beings are fundamentally a part of the most basic aspects of the world and are thus important. When you can sing things into existence, you're deeply connected to the nature of existence. Feeding material into a universal replicator and getting whatever you want manufactured may require astoundingly complex science and engineering, but no one's going to be particularly impressed once the novelty has worn off.

There's a reason the fictional folk on Star Trek don't stand about gawking at the transporter, and it's the same reason you people aren't constantly amazed by light bulbs and hot running water.

You think people would be wowed by futuretech? Why aren't they wowed by present technology, then?

Comment author: Kenny 20 February 2013 03:08:09AM *  1 point [-]
Comment author: Tom_McCabe2 23 March 2008 01:49:18AM 4 points [-]

"When you can sing things into existence, you're deeply connected to the nature of existence."

I think you're reading too much into it. A medieval peasant *would* gawk at an electric light.

To clarify my earlier comment: The major disconnect is between things we've already studied and things we haven't, not between reality and unreality. If, tomorrow, we discovered a new combination of EM fields that could remotely levitate random objects, it would qualify as amazing new magic- even though it's based off of well-understood theories and nobody's written a book about it. Telling people that reality is just as amazing as magic won't work in the long-term, even if they are identical on some calibrated amazingness metric, because people quickly get bored with things they have too much experience with. The trick is to find things *within* reality that we haven't heard about before, and there are certainly plenty of those.

Comment author: Nick_Tarleton 23 March 2008 02:21:49AM 2 points [-]

A medieval peasant would gawk at an electric light, but that doesn't mean magic doesn't appeal more to the human psyche than technology in a way that would cause a person in a world with magic to be more easily able to find wonder in the real than someone in our world - magic and reality are not "identical on some calibrated amazingness metric". This was the point of my previous post; I disagreed with Eliezer's implicit message in the original post that a world with magic would be no more wonderful, once you're used to it, than the real world. The fundamental/natural part was secondary, although I do think that fundamental magic (which I realize is paradoxical) would be more wonderful to the average human than reducible magic (because it would imply that "human beings are fundamentally a part of the most basic aspects of the world and are thus important"), and natural magic would be more wonderful to the average human than manmade magic (same thing, plus people seem to prefer natural to artificial, all else being equal).

I'm surprised nobody's said the words "hedonic treadmill" yet.

Eliezer has three of his stories on his webpage, for those interested.

Comment author: Nick_Tarleton 23 March 2008 02:32:17AM 4 points [-]

Or more simply: magic is appealing for the same reason a Super Happy Agent is appealing - it means the universe cares about us.

Comment author: Wendy_Collings 23 March 2008 02:39:41AM 0 points [-]

Eliezer, you seem to be deeply offended by the fact that many people enjoy fantasy over reality, or don't get a kick out of science. As you put it, they don't have the scientific attitude that "nothing is mere".

Yet why should you expect people to be different from the way they are?

You said it yourself: "Part of binding yourself to reality, on an emotional as well as intellectual level, is coming to terms with the fact that you do live here."

That means accepting the reality that people like the things they like, not wishing for a fantasy world where people magically like the things you think they ought to.

Comment author: Wendy_Collings 23 March 2008 03:14:38AM 1 point [-]

Further on reality:

A poem or story about ghosts or dragons is a product of a human mind, made possible by the evolution of imagination in humans, and influenced by that human's experiences and cultural heritage.

In other words, it's just as much a part of the natural world as the song of a bird.

People who enjoy the products of others' imaginations are enjoying an aspect of reality, just as much as those who like watching the play of light on water, or admire how a tree grows according to natural law.

Comment author: JimVAT 23 March 2008 03:22:56AM 1 point [-]

Thank you Eliezer. That is all I have to say.

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 23 March 2008 03:23:12AM 10 points [-]

Wendy: That means accepting the reality that people like the things they like, not wishing for a fantasy world where people magically like the things you think they ought to.

Okay, now that is exactly what I do not mean by saying, "Bind your heart into reality, rather than somewhere else."

What you've just described is an opportunity to help people think differently. Down the line, it's a moral choice about whether human beings should modify themselves in certain ways.

It does not require magic, an unlawful universe, to speak of a future in which people are not always yearning for unlawfulness, or, perhaps, yearning less forcefully.

Caledonian: . When you can sing things into existence, you're deeply connected to the nature of existence.

When you can PLAN things into existence, you're deeply connected to the nature of existence.

There is no possible spell as wonderful as the ability to think. There is one ultimate superpower and it is what we are.

Feeding material into a universal replicator and getting whatever you want manufactured may require astoundingly complex science and engineering, but no one's going to be particularly impressed once the novelty has worn off.

The rationalist argument for the fun-theoretical superiority of a magic (non-fundamentally magic) world is that, if the laws of magic are such that people individually study the math necessary to cast their spells, they can accomplish things through their own efforts, rather than by pressing a button that makes use of someone else's strength. If you personally did the astoundingly complex science and engineering to build the replicator, drinking that Earl Grey tea would be a lot more satisfying.

Tarleton: Or more simply: magic is appealing for the same reason a Super Happy Agent is appealing - it means the universe cares about us.

We care about each other. This suffices. It is not necessary that the universe be like a human, because humans are like humans.

Comment author: Nick_Tarleton 23 March 2008 03:44:46AM 4 points [-]

We care about each other. This suffices. It is not necessary that the universe be like a human, because humans are like humans.

Suffices for you. Your aesthetics are not most people's aesthetics, although they probably are better in this respect.

Comment author: Wendy_Collings 23 March 2008 03:51:25AM 0 points [-]

Eliezer - "an opportunity to help people think differently"?

But what for?

And: "a moral choice about whether human beings should modify themselves in certain ways"?

Again; what for? Enjoyment of life increases physical and emotional health. Each person's enjoyment is a matter of individual taste. Why mess with it?

Aren't you just biased against people who have different tastes from yours? Please note my comments above on imagination as part of the natural world.

Comment author: Caledonian2 23 March 2008 04:06:11AM 1 point [-]

It is simply a fact that human psychology does not operate in the way Eliezer says it should, does not evaluate itself in the way Eliezer says it should, and does not value the things Eliezer says it should.

More to the point, Eliezer has not produced justification for his claims about what people should do - he has merely made the assertions.

When you can PLAN things into existence, you're deeply connected to the nature of existence.

1) The only thing we can plan into existence is plans. Anything else requires additional, actual effort and resources.

2) If humans could change the world through an act of will, that would mean that humans were 'more real' than the world. One of our oldest desires/delusions is that the world should/does respond directly to our mental states. Accomplishing something through 'magic' in which our will alters reality is far more appealing to the human psyche than accomplishing something by submitting to and manipulating impersonal physical principles.

Comment author: Doug_S. 23 March 2008 06:04:29AM 3 points [-]

For some reason, this song feels relevant to the discussion.

Audio available from: http://www.pcplanets.com/mp3s-1353833-Rich-Fantasy-Lives.shtml Lyrics at: http://www.tomsmithonline.com/lyrics/rich_fantasy_lives.htm

Comment author: Latanius2 23 March 2008 10:06:52AM 0 points [-]

>>If you personally did the astoundingly complex science and engineering to build the replicator, drinking that Earl Grey tea would be a lot more satisfying.

One of the fundamental differences between technology and magic is that two engineers do twice as much work as one would do, while a more powerful sorcerer gets farther than 10 not so powerful ones. It matters more how good you are than how many of you exist.

What NBA players do looks similar in quality to the thing you did with your friends at home, because even if you play well, you five can't put your powers together to be equivalent to one NBA star. Engineers can, so the things you create with technology aren't comparable to the products of big companies, even if you're good at engineering, and even if you're better than anyone in that company. (Yet another reason, I think, why people often like sports better than math.)

Yes, if I could design a replicator myself, I would be statisfied. I can't.

Comment author: Tom_McCabe2 23 March 2008 03:24:01PM 7 points [-]

"One of the fundamental differences between technology and magic is that two engineers do twice as much work as one would do"

This is demonstrably untrue; see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Mythical_Man-Month.

"Engineers can, so the things you create with technology aren't comparable to the products of big companies,"

If this were true, startups wouldn't exist.

"I wonder if anyone can come up with a good argument as to why it is actually better to live in a non-personal, non-caring universe than in a caring one."

I think Eli's argument is that a caring universe isn't *necessary* for happiness. If he thought that the universe should *stay* uncaring, he wouldn't be trying to develop FAI.

Comment author: Aaron5 23 March 2008 04:32:39PM 6 points [-]

I disagree with your premise that if dragons did exit that they wouldn't interest people. I haven't read through the comments, so I don't know if anyone's addressed this yet, but there are real world analogies that disprove your point. Sharks for instance. Sharks are very real, and you can take a trip out into open water to spend time with the more dangerous varieties if you wish. The Great White that was at the SF aquarium generated a great deal of attention. People still like zebras but aren't usually as fascinated by them. The reason is that sharks are dangerous. Dragons, one would imagine, would be even more dangerous. They would probably attract even more attention.

Comment author: Alexandre_Passos 23 March 2008 05:07:12PM 0 points [-]

Eliezer, do you think that this search for magic and mystery always outside the known world is some side-effect of human reinforcement learning?

As far as I know it could be a loose knob on the tuning device for the exploit/explore tradeoff.

Comment author: Doug_S. 23 March 2008 07:45:49PM 0 points [-]

Also, for some reason, I feel like posting this song. "The Future Soon" by Jonathan Coulton: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LDiDK_yBCw0&NR=1

Comment author: Unknown 24 March 2008 03:53:10AM 2 points [-]

Roko, you should be careful about saying that a materialist universe is better than a caring universe. If this is true, then a caring universe would make itself look like a materialist universe, just in order to be better, since a caring universe would want to do the better thing. So a claim like this would remove all your reasons for believing in a materialist universe, since a caring universe would become indistinguishable from a materialist one.

For similar reasons, it is obvious that Eliezer thinks a caring universe would be better: this is illustrated, for example, in his disagreement with the universe about whether stupidity should be punished with the death penalty.

Comment author: coco 24 March 2008 11:57:05PM 0 points [-]

I see an parallel(possibly tenuous) in the subculture of martial arts. The "mundane" stuff like boxing, High School and Collegiate wrestling, judo, Thai kickboxing etc. actually works but lacks any pretensions toward 'mystical' aspects or secret/underground/killer whatever. Effectively, the more an art is associated with streetfighting/ninjas/commandos the crappier it typically is, ceteris parabus.

To me, this seems to be a domain specific example of the overarching phenomena discussed here. Science is too 'common' to possibly be worth studying as sports are too conventional/normal/western to be effective; so many people seem to think at least.

This example breaks down somewhat in one respect I can think of: science offers the possibility of power for the individual similar to fictional magic assuming we create nanotechnology, human genetic manipulation, human level AI etc. whereas all martial arts offer is a significant advantage in an unarmed fight against one other human. However, I think combat sports are fun and interesting just as I think science and empirical thinking is fun, engrossing and fruitful.

Great post E.Y.

Comment author: Doug_S. 25 March 2008 01:24:00AM 0 points [-]

I'm not satisfied with the real world, but, as Eliezer says, this has more to do with me than with the rest of the world. Unlike the hypothetical person described in this post, however, I don't expect that any of the fantasy worlds that I read about in novels actually would be any more satisfying. I really don't know what would make me satisfied over the long run, short of hacking my own brain, or, perhaps, getting a cat. ;)

Comment author: Unknown3 26 March 2008 07:23:00AM 1 point [-]

Roko, I strongly suspect that a limitedly caring universe just reduces to a materialist universe with very complex laws. For example, isn't it kind of like magic that when I want to lift my hand, it actually moves? What would be the difference if I could levitate or change lead into gold? If the universe obeys my will about lifting my hand, why shouldn't it obey in other things, and if it did, why would this be an essential difference?

Comment author: Roland2 26 March 2008 11:34:00PM 2 points [-]
Comment author: Pavitra 20 November 2010 01:20:46AM 2 points [-]

Link broken, now here.

Comment author: Ghatanathoah 01 November 2012 07:00:53AM 2 points [-]

I think it makes the point Eliezer is making fairly well, but also reinforces Martin3's point. I don't think that if people in a fantasy world were capable of conceiving of our world, they'd do what they did in that comic. They'd roleplay as spies, soldiers, captains of industry, homicide detectives, etc.

When I read a fantasy novel, it is rarely about the farmers or artisans of that world. It is about magicians and warriors. I'm not currently role-playing as a low-level guild-member, I'm roleplaying as a druid trying to save the world from a necromancer trying to resurrect an evil god. Fantasy isn't just about magic, it's one variant of wanting to do something important and make a visible difference in the world.

(I did find one instance of a guy who roleplayed as an ordinary person, but that seemed more to prove he had the willpower to do so.)

Comment author: Lynn_Grav 27 March 2008 06:41:00AM 1 point [-]

While a zebra is a zebra, and a wonderful creature it is, a dragon is what the writer wants it to be. A dragon is metaphoric and might symbolize anything from luck to Lucifer.

Were there no magic in our literary world, there'd be less imagery and fewer ways to convey the dynamic and profound, eh?

Double, double toil and trouble
Fire burn, and caldron bubble.
Fillet of a fenny snake,
In the caldron boil and bake;
Eye of newt, and toe of frog,
Wool of bat, and tongue of dog,
Adder's fork, and blind-worm's sting,
Lizard's leg, and owlet's wing,—
For a charm of powerful trouble,
Like a hell-broth boil and bubble.
Double, double toil and trouble;
Fire burn, and caldron bubble.
Double, double toil and trouble

I dare anyone to match it with a purely analytical recounting of events. This speaks to our imagination and our lust for the poetic as well as the scientific. One cannot replace the other, for me, anyway. I require both.

Comment author: james5 27 March 2008 06:56:00AM 0 points [-]

"Any sufficiently advanced magic is indistinguishable from technology." - Larry Niven

I thought that was Arthur C. Clarke (RIP).

I agree with the basic argument of the post: magic is exciting because it's unattainable. The moment it became real and in mass-use, the novelty would wear off. I'm happily smitten with current and upcoming technology. One example: I still get sufficiently blown away when I think about the ramifications of a camera that captures *millions* of frames per second. I read about it 4-5 years ago. Forget 1 Mississippi, 2 Mississippi, think about counting the moments passing in 25 million, 50 million, 75 million...
http://scitation.aip.org/getabs/servlet/GetabsServlet?prog=normal&id=RSINAK000074000012005026000001&idtype=cvips&gifs=yes

Comment author: thegreatsze 27 March 2008 04:42:00PM 0 points [-]

Great post. Just to add: the primary caveat for most of us, while carving out our fantasy worlds, is that not *everyone* can perform magic - only me, a few friends and maybe my dog. It wouldn't be that normal or mundane, taken in that light. In the same vein, if I was a kickass gadget maker in *this* reality, I'd still be pretty appreciative.

Comment author: biltwick 28 March 2008 02:11:00AM 0 points [-]

I'd agree with Eliezer on the idea that happiness depends on being able to appreciate the world that you live in, regardless of its laws.

In a world where you can quickly manipulate underlying structure for quick satisfaction, the desire to understand more or improve (for humans at least) is quickly ignored because you can quickly achieve what you want. In Terry Pratchett's 'The Last Hero', the equivalent of Leonardo da Vinci is considered strange by wizards, as they deliberately begin by deciding what they want and then phrasing the spell, whereas he takes time to understand the structure of the universe first, and in doing so creates more complex and longer-lived effects than those wizards, who care only about the results and not the means (much like politicians I think!).

And the danger of having the ability to change physical reality en masse is dangerous in large numbers. As for the 'caring universe', the fact that reality has multiple organizers, each believing themselves worthwhile, the idea of favoring just one is grossly unfair, in those settings which have deities, many are often species-specific (racism and ethnocentrism on a cosmological level).

Even with elemental-level abilities that depend on consciousness, consciousness itself is the greatest ability of all, to understand and influence reality by proxy or directly. The key to your future is whether you can continuously improve as individuals or as groups without destroying the fabric of reality.

Comment author: Doug_S. 28 March 2008 05:17:00AM 0 points [-]

"Any sufficiently advanced magic is indistinguishable from technology." - Larry Niven

I thought that was Arthur C. Clarke (RIP).

The Arthur C. Clarke quote is "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic."

The Niven quote interchanges "magic" and "technology" to make a different point. "Sufficiently advanced magic," meaning magic that is well described by an author and has well-defined rules, would act in the same manner as technology in a science fiction novel. The more defined the rules are, the more resemblance "magic" would have to a technology, and it would be used in a fictional world in basically the same manner that technology is used in the actual world.

An example that comes pretty close to "sufficiently advanced magic" exists in L. E. Modesitt's Recluce saga. It appears to obey conservation laws, for one thing; order and chaos act much like positive and negative charges. The people in that world can get lots of energy out of an order-chaos imbalance, but imbalances tend to be unstable and screw you in various ways. It also seems to be overlaid on top of normal physics in a way that makes sense; people in Recluce know how to make (primitive) guns, but they're never used in battle because chaos mages can ignite gunpowder from a distance, killing the would-be gun user.

Comment author: ram 28 March 2008 05:38:00PM 1 point [-]

Although the discussion on magic is really secondary here (a catalyst, methinks), let me try to add something. And although I think it won't be as valuable as the insight that magic seems to mimic psychology and so is more (obviously) romantic than science (not un-romantic, just less obviously so), that insight itself fits here. As well as graduate school which, I think, has all to do with our views on magic. And then I will finish with my one tidbit on why I think those of nerdy-bent would prefer a world with magic to a world of science.

While there are many "schools" of magic, they seem to exist as convex combos of the two main theories of formal education in economics: signaling vs human capital formation. For signaling, its all about (natural) type; for human capital, it's all about learning (factual and procedural). Of course, stepping outside the formal models, we intuitively know it's both; the question is how to assign the weights.

So is with magic. There are those "systems" in which having been born with the special gift explains most of the success; there are others in which years of training and hard work do the trick (talent helps, it's just not sufficient).

Among kids, fans of the "escapist" lit, and people who turn their back on higher education, systems that lean towards the first are more likely to be popular: our here is discovered as the Chosen One; from then on, though his/her struggle is epic and his/her self-sacrifice daunting, our hero can worry about things like a love life and socializing with friends because you really don't have that much training to do. There is a lot of this aimed at kids, since obviously a kid wants to identify with the character and telling them to wait until the character is 30+ because he was busy studying won't help. Something similar applies to grown-up kids.

Those with a bent for higher formal education (graduate students), are more likely to identify with a grueling struggle necessary to acquire the knowledge, a prerequisite to being able to start doing some cool, epic stuff. (Escapism here kicks in after that: no need for funding or dealing with committees... Hypothesis: empathy with fantasy warlocks diminishes after tenure.)

This, of course, has all to do with feeling more empathy for characters who are more like us (or at least, for systems that coincide more with our world view).

Having said all this, there is one aspect of fantasy lit in which magic will always be WAY COOLER than science. No matter if the "system" is gift-based or education-based, fans of magic tend to come from the pool of kids picked-upon in school. Magic gives agency of a kind that science cannot: it gives the mind DIRECT powers over the physical world and so, direct power over the life and death of individual enemies and loved ones. Science can only achieve that in the most indirect fashion (and that at its most optimistic... sprinkle dissertation, tenure, or funding committees and you'll reach for your spell book any day!).

Of course, scientists came up with all the mass-murder machines we have, but c'mon, knowing that you designed it or came up with the theory that was crucial in building the doomsday machine will not give you the same satisfaction as looking into the eye of the arch-enemy (lit incarnation of the playground bully or the popular guy who "got" the girl) and blasting him with a spell or two.

I am totally agreeing with Eliezer: such a need for empowerment is rooted in an emotional obstacles to happiness in the real world. Of course we mature an overcome those. But if some of it remains deep inside our emotional playground, I think it can help explain why so many of use nerds would prefer a magical world to the real one: agency of the mind in the now over the physical world.

Comment author: GVDub 03 April 2008 05:50:00PM -1 points [-]

"Any sufficiently advanced magic is indistinguishable from technology." - Larry Niven

Perhaps in some alternate reality, but in this one, Arthur C. Clarke was the one who coined that particular truism.

Comment author: Nick_Tarleton 03 April 2008 07:32:00PM 2 points [-]

No, Clarke said "any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic".

Comment author: Jacob 17 September 2008 05:53:00AM 0 points [-]

I've studied contemporary magic (or magick), call it what you will, and it seems to me that for most people the thrill of it is in creativity of it and learning to understand it. Also, uncharted territory is part of the appeal. In a sense this is the same about learning new subjects. In the case of magick, what you are learning is exciting because it's not generally something people pay attention to. But it can also be a really good feeling to have ideas that know one else has regarding other subjects, like in philosophy or art.

Comment author: AndyCossyleon 16 August 2010 07:20:13PM *  3 points [-]

I was pondering the philosophy of fantasy stories, and it occurred to me that if there were actually dragons in our world - if you could go down to the zoo, or even to a distant mountain, and meet a fire-breathing dragon - while nobody had ever actually seen a zebra, then our fantasy stories would contain zebras aplenty, while dragons would be unexciting.

You don't seriously think that, do you???

Dragons: fly, breathe fire, ginormous | Zebras: gallop, have stripes

Dragons >> zebras. In no world would zebras feature more prominently in fiction than dragons, regardless of which was real. I get the general point, that nonexistence breeds excitement, but this was a horrible example.

Comment author: FAWS 16 August 2010 07:29:32PM 4 points [-]

Zebras vs Unicorns probably would be better.

Comment author: [deleted] 13 November 2010 08:45:56AM 3 points [-]

Unicorns are often depicted with their own share of powers that would make them more appealing than zebras even if both were real. To make the comparison fair, we would need something from our world which is as awesome as the fictional counterpart, but often overlooked...

How about dragons vs airplanes?

Comment author: SquashMonster 05 November 2011 11:43:22PM 5 points [-]

I think a lot of fantasy tropes have a great deal of merit from a fun-theory standpoint. You are right that being magically transported to a world of magic and dragons would lose its novelty after six months for most people, but the novelty is not the only improvement. Dragons provide a greater challenge to kill than lions (not that fights to the death with lions are currently all that available) so if someone's idea of fun is hunting lions with a spear, dragons ensure they have something to do after they get too skillful. Floating rocks and twisting crystal spires can be harder to climb than any earthly mountain, so someone who has gotten too good at climbing will continue to have challenges. Fantasy ideas are a great place to find things to do after earthly challenges lose interest.

Magic is typically portrayed as something like science, but with rules that are more complex and less difficult to grasp. The rules of magic also tend to follow more anthropic patterns than the rules of science. A scientist, no matter how guileful, will never trick an electron: electrons have no brains to trick. Nothing stops the rules of magic from allowing a wizard to pull a fast one on a thaum. Humans like solving patterns and learning about the world: a more complex set of rules gives more patterns to solve, less difficult rules give more immediate gratification. Rules that behave somewhat like humans instead of like simple mathematical constructs are rewarding because we enjoy using the parts of our brain designed to reason about other humans. And the end result - a spell where you wave your hands around and say some funny words and get light, is far more immediately gratifying than the effort it would take to build a light bulb circuit from scratch (presuming the effort to figure out how to do it for the first time is equal for both science and magic). The whole concept of magic reads like a fairly well-conceived expression of how science would work if it was designed to provide maximum enjoyment to humans.

My baseline virtual-reality utopia is everyone living in small tribes in a fantasy world, where you have to hunt for your food but it's not that hard unless you want something really tasty, where everyone occasionally has to band together to fend off lions or dragons, scientists test the laws of the universe by building supercoliders using magic, and where dying is painful but temporary. I would hope we can come up with better, but it's better than a volcano fortress full of cat girls.

Comment author: NancyLebovitz 04 March 2012 10:11:01PM 1 point [-]

IIRC, here's a bit in The Female Man about the ideal for humans being the paleolithic world plus the occasional miracle.

Comment author: AspiringKnitter 03 March 2012 07:47:14AM 5 points [-]

I know this is an old post, but I think you're missing something. If a person from this world were sucked into a world with dragons, xe would have spent xyr whole life thinking "dragons are awesome" and would therefore think they were really, really cool the first time xe saw one, and possibly for quite a while after. Possibly long enough to last until the Generic Evil Dark Lord Guy is defeated.

And second, often, these people don't just live a mundane existence with magic. They're often the Chosen Hero Of Whatever, which makes them much more important in that world than in this one. That alone is better, just like it might be better to turn out to be the secret heir of a country in the real world. (Well, that might have its own problems, but so would needing to fight a Generic Evil Dark Lord Guy.)

Further, if magic is real, not everyone necessarily knows how to do it (or has the right innate talent), but if the protagonist ends up learning to use it in such a situation, that makes them special even to people who have lived in that world their entire lives.

Another thing about the wish fulfillment is that they become heroes and gain a lot of friends, rather than being normal and possibly not well-liked at home. The broader social circle and greater respect is nothing to shake a stick at either. Also, the world might be set up to facilitate one particular dream they happen to have that's impractical in the real world, allowing them to find easier fulfillment.

These things, plus the chance to start all over and make the best first impressions you can, are what make the wish fulfillment fulfilling of wishes, not just the magic. The magic just makes it kind of cooler.

Comment author: ikrase 04 May 2012 12:02:53PM 1 point [-]

People keep touching on the whole Dark Lord/ Hero thing but nobody is looking at it really directly.

Everything that Eliezir says here is very good and correct but in imaginary worlds with magic, there is a lot more personal power: not just for the Chosen One but for anybody able to rise to the challenge.

Note that the teachers of Hogwarts are not ONLY very knowledgeable, advanced professors who appear to do some original research; they also include a romantic hero, a mighty and very morally ambiguous antihero, and several other VERY HIGH POWERED characters that do not have to depend on others.

One might want to consider Girl Genius, as while very much not mundane it includes people who achieve this sort of personal power through technologcal means. It's set in a war-torn Europe with a LOT of techlevel variation, and 'sparks'; mad scientists (engineers, really) who can enter a state of hyper-focus in which they can design and build combat robots and ludicrously powerful laser guns in a matter of hours, but tend to do so in a bizzare, completely irrational fashion. In this world, most people of any power (which means lots of European nobles) are mad scientists.

In our world, the diligent can become an engineer and even as an individual can build devices that amaze and awe the common folk; I have done this myself. The gifted can be much better at this; and the gifted and lucky can rise to the top of the field. One sees people such as university professors; nobel prize winners

In romantic magical worlds, the professor who invents the next generation of robots and teaches me to be the next generation of roboticists would be deciding whether to burn the world to the ground or save it from those who would, and all by his own power.

Comment author: no_login_found 25 July 2012 02:42:00PM 1 point [-]

This sounds reasonable.

I want to add that magic is something that belongs to person and cannot be taken away. If a magician casts a light spell, it is HIS ability to make light. And he can do this in any situation at any place and time. It influences self-esteem. He can be proud of such ability. In reality, any stupid idiot can switch light on and off, but only in special places. Nothing depends on person, everything is defined by environment.

Also, in 'magic' world hero is not mortal; even if he dies, it means that he just looses body for some period of time. So you can do amazing experiments that are too risky in reality.

That's why non-fantasy books, but in which hero has some personal abilities that cannot be taken away(and which can be trained or improved by other means), and in which reality forces hero to behave in risky manner, have same entertaining value as fantasy books do. And vice versa - fantasy books that have dragons and spells and so on, but in which hero is general and behaves as general commoner, and nothing depends on his abilities(quite general ones), are not worth reading.

I'm not sure that those words can be applied to everybody, may be they are valid only for persons who experienced lack of ability to influence something in childhood and have chosen avoidant pattern to deal with unpleasance of such experience. (I hope my english is not bad enough to irritate you to death)

Comment author: ikrase 12 December 2012 10:41:20PM 0 points [-]

Yeah, that also applies.

Usually, somebody who does become formiddable and focused still can only gain power by convincing people to take their side or to advance their goal. With magic (or Girl Genius style super-science) the ten thousand hours let you actually be crazy awesome.

Comment author: Ghatanathoah 01 November 2012 07:24:11AM *  0 points [-]

I felt mildly guilty for enjoying fantasy stories when I read this (probably not the author's intent) but then, thinking on it further, I realized this was unjustified. The reason why I enjoyed them wasn't because I had some sort of yearning to live in a world of magic. If Omega offered to transport me to Krynn or Middle Earth I'd refuse, even if it offered to send everyone I knew and loved with me. I know that modern technology is far better at satisfying our basic needs than magic, and find the idea of living in a medieval fantasy world to be only slightly less terrifying than the prospect of living in a real medieval world. Fantasy worlds are optimized for stories, not for living. And this isn't some recent revelation that has occurred to me. I can't remember a time when this wasn't the way I felt.

Basically, fantasy stories work for me because they combine two things I like, reading about high stakes conflicts, and reading about unique and novel places. They also have the bonus of, as several other commenters have pointed out, being a little more in tune with raw human intuitions about the way reality ought to work, and allow the individual characters to feel a little more significant.

I suppose I do feel a vague positive feeling of achievement when I see someone cast an awesome spell, but it doesn't feel that different from the feeling I get when I see John Rambo ambush people. I think it's just "awesomeness+novel setting" that makes me enjoy it.

That being said, your essay probably does describe some people, so it's still definitely worth reading and writing.

Comment author: CAE_Jones 01 November 2012 02:28:46PM 0 points [-]

I remember having a response to either this article or one of its comments, but then a few hours happened before I was actually able to register (I physically can't solve capchas and managed to overlook a couple important details in how to use the add-on that I finally decided to install so I could register here. And I ramble without paying enough attention to the readability of my sentences, apparently.)

Anyway, I've gotten myself into a mindset in which I can only think of approaches to my current problems that work if something highly improbable were to happen. (This usually involves either a bennevalent genie or a rather specific form of timetravel...). So if I find myself in the 1990s, I'll have something vaguely resembling a plan, but that doesn't help me if things continue as they have been. Seeing as rationality should win, I think it's pretty safe to say this behavior is irrational. But I keep wanting to dive into tangents that consist of me whining about my situation as though doing so would somehow absorb everyone else's problem solving skills for my own benefit, so I'll stop now and reread more from the sequences.

Comment author: k0r3l1k 31 March 2013 10:18:55PM 14 points [-]

A little backstory. I have always had some issues, during my early teen years I was obsessed with fantasies- certain specific fantasies. This came to the point that my family started investigating mentall illness as a way to understand some of the things I was doing/saying/thinking. Ive never actually been commited, or recieved proffesional psychiatric treatment, but that doesnt mean i shouldnt have.

I would just like to point out that the cause for these issues was the intense and unshakable desire to exsist in a world "above ours", that this ordinary, "merely real" world was a sad and pathetic place to live.

In my adult life i have resolved some of my issues, but that deep burning desire to live in a more spectacular reality would occasionally nag. However these words-

"If I'm going to be happy anywhere, Or achieve greatness anywhere, Or learn true secrets anywhere, Or save the world anywhere, Or feel strongly anywhere, Or help people anywhere, I may as well do it in reality."

Have seriously altered the way I think about the world over the past 24 hours of pondering. Its sort of like having these pressing, burning desires which were aimed at a situation of near infinite impossibility has suddenly been aimed at the real world.

Like things i do could actually matter at some point in my life, instead of just being drown out by the despair of normallity.

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 01 April 2013 03:22:12PM 3 points [-]

My heart is warmed. Yay!

Comment author: TitaniumDragon 28 May 2013 12:35:25AM 0 points [-]

I think you're wrong about an important point here, actually, which is that not all things are as exciting as other things. Not all things are equally exciting.

Riding a dragon is actually way cooler than hang gliding for any number of reasons. Riding animals is cool in and of itself, but riding a dragon is actually flying, rather than hang gliding, which is "falling with style". You get the benefits of hang-gliding - you can see the landscape, for instance - but you have something which natively can fly beneath you. You need to worry less about crashing on a dragon than you do on a hang glider. You can ascend and descend at will. You can take off from a lot more locations - hang gliding usually requires you to go somewhere inconvenient to get to, and if you want to do it again, then you have to get your glider all the way back up to where you took off from. And of course if dragons are sentient, sapient beings, that adds a whole additional level of coolness.

Magic not readily replicable by science - the ability to personally fly, shapeshift, clairvoyance (though we have replicated that to some extent with cameras and drones, they are much less convenient), teleportation, and the like are very cool. The ability to throw fireballs or lightning bolts is much less cool, because we CAN replicate those abilities with science (or at least reasonable approximations thereof).

Really though, is any magic cooler than, say, computers?

Understanding protein folding is cooler than special relativity, because there is a lot more you can do with protein folding than special relativity. Special relativity really only comes into play when you're dealing with outer space, which is very expensive and outside of the realm of day-to-day life; GPS is pretty much the only thing which really cares about it as far as normal life goes. Conversely, protein folding allows for all sorts of biological shenanigans, is vital to engineering lifeforms, and allows for all sorts of novel medications, not to mention potential for creating new materials en masse.

It is true that magic is often used as an escapist fantasy. And it is true that it is a logical flaw in such stories (to some extent; it depends on how magic works, after all. And it might also give a lazy person motivation).

Comment author: Articulator 12 November 2013 08:09:18AM 0 points [-]

If nothing else, a lot of magic systems exist in extropic worlds, or at the very least, break conservation of energy. Plus, magic is often easier to use. Yeah, early D&D or Discworld is tough, but most systems these days are psychically channeled, in nature if not in name.

The technology and science in this world is awesome (and reality is too), but it's inaccessible. Most magic systems are not. Maybe its just laziness, but that's part of the appeal. Not having to spend thousands of years working out how to heal diseases, for instance.

The shift in focus from intelligence/memory to willpower doesn't hurt either.

What is really comes down to is The Taste of Grass. (And yes, there probably is a more official version, but it's a damn good story and it's after midnight.) As long as we can appreciate the difference, and not take it for granted, the grass can genuinely be greener on the other side.