…indistinguishable from magic

This is merely anecdotal, of course, but I’ve in some discussions seen attempts by fringe-claimants to co-opt Clarke’s 3rd law — “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” — as support for their pet belief.

After all, everyone wants a special case to be made for whatever faith-based claim they need to be true, an exception to the usual standards of evidence and adequacy appropriate to a given claim that all useful and truly interesting science must abide by.

The implication they seem to be making is that if something seems like magic, then it must be magic, but this is placing epistemology over ontology, and moreover, confusing the two.

It’s the old argument, “If it looks like X, walks like X, and quacks like X, then it must be X.” But this is a logical fallacy known as the hasty conclusion, and a simple argument from ignorance, and the use of these fallacies to support claims of fact is both specious and spurious.

While it is true that a medieval serf seeing a modern flat-screen television in use would likely think it blackest sorcery, much less a Saturn-V rocket or bleeding-edge medical techniques and technologies, merely being outwardly indistinguishable from magic in the subjective view of any given hypothetical observer, it just doesn’t logically follow that it really is magic, and that therefore it actually is in violation of any physical laws and therefore supports the claims of woo-meisters.

It’s important to consider that Clarke’s 3rd law isn’t a law of the universe, just an observation that tends to hold for those encountering the technologies of more scientifically adept cultures.

It’s important to note that even now the laws of the universe are incompletely understood, but science doesn’t claim to know it all, that it explains absolutely everything, and it doesn’t have to.

That’s the job of pseudoscience…

Crank theories of everything are a centavo a score, and are worth as much in scientific import.

But most tech-savvy modern science enthusiasts would think it silly to believe a television to be magic, and could very well charitably chalk up the medieval serf’s assessment of “magic” to modern technology to a simple case of a lack of familiarity with modern scientific literacy.

Now, the more any given scientific hypothetical prediction is tested against observation, whether in a lab, on an archaeological dig, on a crime scene, or from the environs of an astronomical observatory — manned or automated — and the more this repeated testing consistently validates it, the more provisional confidence we can have that it is true.

The most consistently tested and validated ideas in science we can rightly call laws.

Some laws of science are so well established by consistent successes in testing them over a range of regimes that it would be very unlikely that they would need to be seriously revised, much less rejected outright, such as the laws of thermodynamics, which are possibly among the most fundamental of all laws of physics.

It would require a great deal of observational data, both more precise and correct than the older, less accurate and spurious data, to require that a well-established idea be overturned or amended. This does happen on occasion.

What I’m getting at is that while a medieval might think modern technology to be magic, and almost certainly a modern, even maybe a science enthusiast and science fiction fan like myself, would perhaps see technology a million years more advanced than ours to look like magic to one’s limited monkey brain, due to a lack of understanding of the relevant physical principles, it would not actually be in de facto violation of any physical laws, and therefore would be magical in nothing but seeming.

The upshot is this:

Clarke’s 3rd law neither states nor implies that even a sufficiently advanced technology can do more than just seem to break any laws of the universe, that it literally is magic, though whether we personally understand those laws is a different story.

But just because one does not personally know something doesn’t mean that nobody does. There’s always someone who knows or can imagine things you don’t or can’t.

Advocates of woo prone to use it in their arguments (You know who you are.) really should stop using it to defend their claims from proper examination and rebuttal by those with a genuine professional understanding of the relevant science.


Because it’s just been done ad nauseam in the non-debate between fringe-claimants and skeptics, and there comes a time when skeletonized horses should no longer be beaten.

Please, guys, it’s getting old. Give it up. Let it die.


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