A Sufficiently Advanced Religion: Magic, the Ringworld and Clarke’s Law

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. — Arthur C. Clarke’s 3rd Law

Do you agree with this statement?

I think that it’s true, in a certain limited sense, if you take “magic” to mean “something without rules, that can make anything happen.” I suppose it’s conceivable that technology could someday reach something like that point. I think that’s the meaning Clarke intended.

comingbackI also think it’s true in a very deep sense: technology, sufficiently advanced, really is magic. Magic — real magic — is a very powerful engagement with the world, spiritually and physically. It’s a way of finding that sweet spot where your personal goals and the patterns of the universe merge and align. Technology is really the same thing.

But Clarke’s Law is profoundly false if you think of technology as most people do: a non-spiritual exercise, in which the world is played with, manipulated as if it were nothing but raw material, rigidly bound by scientific law — and our own will. That has nothing to do with magic.

I’ve been reading Larry Niven’s Ringworld again, for the first time in years, and thinking about Clarke’s quote. I first read it when I was in high school, and I enjoyed it so much then… It’s a bit of a shocker, now, how much I find disagreeable in it. Don’t get me wrong: it’s an awesome read, a very well-told story, funny and mind-bending. About a thousand years in the future, Louis Wu, a human from Earth, joins with two aliens (a kzin, of a warlike carnivorous feline race, and a puppeteer, a cowardly herbivorous species, rather like a superintelligent gazelle with two heads and three legs) and another human (Teela Brown, who has been bred for genetic luck) to explore a huge artifact called the ringworld. (Imagine a strip of paper made into a circle, with mountains, continents, oceans, etc., drawn on the inner surface. Now imagine it’s 200 million miles across, spun for gravity, with a sun at the center).

When Louis and the other explorers reach the ringworld, they find that the once-mighty civilization that built it has collapsed into savagery, and most of the inhabitants (who are, oddly enough, human — a fact that isn’t adequately explained until the sequel) believe themselves to be living on a flat world. Wherever they go, with their flying machines and flashlights, Louis and his companions are thought to be gods.

Niven (and Clarke — they’re two hard science fiction writers cut from the same cloth) is meticulous about getting his physics, chemistry, and biology right. Everything in the book is consistent with known physical science (or, if it’s not, is clearly marked with statements like “this was believed to be impossible a thousand years ago”), and things like neutrinos and the Laws of Motion are prominent parts of the plot. So it’s disappointing that he didn’t go to the same effort to get his anthropology right.

It’s simply not true that ‘primitive’ societies would believe anyone with shiny technology to be a god. Not everything ‘supernatural’ is religious — except, perhaps, in modern Western society, where everything seems to be divided into (a) natural / scientific, or (b) God. All non-Western societies recognize the distinction between magic and religion, between magicians and priests.

Niven goes further, though: he implicitly equates religion with superstition several times, and implies that religion is nothing more than fuzzy-headed or wrong science. Wave a shiny technological wonder at a primitive, he says, and you’ve got a religion. But religion doesn’t come out of the barrel of a zap gun. It’s about our place in the universe, about our relationship to the mysteries and the powers of the world, about living and dying and destiny. It’s a dialogue between humanity and eternity.

That said, there is a relationship between magic and religion (though Niven misses it entirely, through a fundamental ignorance of both). Different religions and societies say different things about that relationship. Most systems of magic do invoke powers and spirits of the world — animal spirits, land spirits, healing spirits, etc. Usually what’s invoked are minor guides and beings, not gods (although Indo-European magic tends to be an exception to this). If you invoke a god in a spell, is that magic or religion? The line is blurry here; but that doesn’t mean magic and religion are the same thing. Confusing the two, as Niven does, is like confusing Earth’s atmosphere with outer space. The border between them is fuzzy, but there are important differences that are useful to keep in mind…

But really, how much should Niven and Clarke be blamed, here? Their attitude is part of the larger ignorance in Western society, which pretty much takes the view that science and technology are what work in the world, and God just sort of wants you to be a good, happy person. He’s like Santa, except he doesn’t bring presents, and people use his name in vain a lot. Of course there are people on the extremes — those who think science and technology are the only hope of humanity, and religion is delusional at best; and those who think God is the only hope of humanity, and science and technology are the great sins of our hubris.

Really, though, science and religion are two points on a continuum of human knowing. Science is knowledge through systematic physical and social engagement with the world; religion is knowledge through personal spiritual and social engagement with the world. And magic and technology are two points on a similar continuum of human action. The distinctions drawn here are artificial and arbitrary. I guess it’s hardly surprising, given the fuzzy boundaries and small playing field, that the champions of religion and science are so bitterly opposed.


Links, quotes, and ideas of interest from the past few days:

  • Human Rights vs Religion Deathmatch: at Pagan+Politics, I wondered which religions are compatible with democracy and human rights.
  • The Strongest Girls in the World: a fascinating article at the Economist on cultural differences between Britain, Germany, and the Nordic countries, and how realistic it is to expect one type of government to work for all nations. I thought it was particularly interesting to compare the modern Nordic model of socialism with the opinions of modern Heathens today in the United States.
  • Songs that Ali and I like: Ali and I do not have the same taste in music, but there is a small, strange place where our tastes overlap.
  • “There is no religion without dangerous manifestations.”Bron Taylor. A good warning, I think, against dogmatic adherence to religious tenets.
  • More anti-dogma: “There has never been a single doctrine by which one could enter the true essence of things.” — Nagarjuna (one of the founders of Mahayana Buddhism). Dogma, I think, is the chief enemy of religion.


2 responses to “A Sufficiently Advanced Religion: Magic, the Ringworld and Clarke’s Law”

  1. Hi

    Loved the Arthur C Clarke quote, found the rest a bit hard to follow. But that’s OK 🙂

    On the advice of Everett Bogue ( evbogue.com) I’m trying to learn to use Twitter effectively and I’m finding there does indeed seem to be this magical element where people tweet just what you need when you need it. Very interesting.


    1. Deb, thanks for your comment. 🙂 I’m sorry you found the post hard to follow. It’s a philosophical musing, and assumes you know a fair bit about magic from a pagan / druid perspective. There’s a lot of information on my site about that; you might try starting at Trust Your Feelings.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: