If You Demand Magic, Magic Won't Help

by Eliezer Yudkowsky3 min read22nd Mar 2008125 comments

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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.

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

"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

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. ;-)

0[anonymous]9y"Any technology that's indistinguishable from magic will be impossible to fix when it breaks." could be useful for me to avoid the things such people develop.

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

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.

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

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 ... (read more)

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 sh... (read more)

6Blueberry10yWhat is that series? I'd like to read it.
9Eliezer Yudkowsky10yIt's by Rick Cook, first novel Wizard's Bane.
1Benquo7yThat was awesome. What else can I read in that subgenre? I mean, aside from everything by Lawrence Watt-Evans, sort of.
0[anonymous]10yIt looks like it was named in Universal Fire [http://lesswrong.com/lw/hq/universal_fire/]: The Incomplete Enchanter by L. Sprague de Camp.
5bigjeff510yYes, 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 [http://www.baen.com/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.
7Luke_A_Somers9yIt's heavy on the wish-fulfillment angle. I could have done with a lot less of that.
2Luke_A_Somers9y"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?
0thomblake9yYou might want to check out Noel Carroll's Philosophy of Horror [http://www.amazon.com/Philosophy-Horror-Paradoxes-Heart/dp/0415902169]. (Aside: I never noticed before - the cover looks like a Vampire: The Masquerade splatbook)
2JonStall8yEscapism | Noun " The tendency to seek distraction and relief from unpleasant realities, esp. by seeking entertainment or engaging in fantasy "
9ialdabaoth8yExactly. 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.
-1CAE_Jones8yFor 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 [http://mindflexgames.com], 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 be
0Luke_A_Somers8yI don't quite see the relevance of this to what I said.

Ok, but, can we read your stories anyway?

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

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

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.

1aperrien8yI think 3d printing and Kickstarter are beginning to make this concept match more to our reality.
4ikrase8yThat'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.

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. :)

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

[-][anonymous]13y 26

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 ... (read more)

6Nornagest9yThe 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.)
2MoreOn9ySo, 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?
3DanielLC9yTrue, 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.
1TheOtherDave9yIt follows that blind people are, as a class, less happy than sighted people. How confident are you of that?
1Luke_A_Somers9yI'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.
0TheOtherDave9yI 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.)
3CAE_Jones8yComing 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).
3Ghatanathoah8yThis 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.

Eliezer Yudkowsky wrote: 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.

No. You are describing the end of humanity.

Uploaded into virtual reality, everyone can be a hero.

Why go back to reality?

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

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 ... (read more)

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 ;)

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.

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 ... (read more)

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; ther... (read more)

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?

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 themselv... (read more)

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 bu... (read more)

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.

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.

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... (read more)

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.

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

... (read more)

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 sc... (read more)

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.

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 ... (read more)

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.

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 knig... (read more)

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 stan... (read more)

-1Kenny8y"Everything is amazing and nobody is happy" [http://www.dailymotion.com/video/x8m5d0_everything-is-amazing-and-nobody-i_fun#.USQ80VrSOG8]

"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 writt... (read more)

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. Th... (read more)

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

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.

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.

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

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 rat... (read more)

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.

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.

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) ... (read more)

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

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 ... (read more)

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

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

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. Eliezer or Nick: if you could choose between possible universes, would you choose one with a loving creator god/ Super Happy Agent? would you choose ... (read more)

"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 ar... (read more)

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.

@tom: 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.

hmmm. First off, I'd like to distinguish between a universe where a "caring" structure is built on top of an uncaring physical reality (e.g. this universe, where the caring structure might be modern society, or a future utopia powered by a FAI), and a universe where the caring-ness, magic or/and importance of human conscious minds is inbuilt at the lowest level of "ph... (read more)

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.

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

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.

"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."

  • aah. I was thinking of a "limitedly caring" universe, for example one where magic works. Perhaps I should think of a better word than caring... I'm want to say something like "a universe where the underlying laws take human desires into account in a direct way, but without the universe necessarily being smart enough to work out what is ultimately best f
... (read more)

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... (read more)

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. ;)

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?

2Pavitra10yLink broken, now here [http://robotandghost.com/wp-content/gallery/2008/2008-03-13-DexterityRoll.jpg].
3Ghatanathoah8yI think it makes the point Eliezer is making fairly well, but also reinforces Martin3's point [http://lesswrong.com/lw/ou/if_you_demand_magic_magic_wont_help/iwh]. 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 [http://www.screencuisine.net/livinginoblivion/the-rules/] who roleplayed as an ordinary person [http://www.pcgamer.com/2011/12/10/the-elder-strolls-part-1-fresh-off-the-boat/] , but that seemed more to prove he had the willpower to do so.)

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 l... (read more)

"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 Mississi... (read more)

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.

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 take... (read more)

"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 r... (read more)

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 ma... (read more)

"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.

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

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.

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.

6FAWS10yZebras vs Unicorns probably would be better.
3[anonymous]10yUnicorns 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?
[-][anonymous]10y 2

This is ringing false to me and I'm trying to put my finger on why.

Lewis and Tolkien, who founded modern fantasy, wrote a lot in defense of "escapist" literature. I'm writing from memory here, but I seem to remember that they thought that the "journalistic" style of fiction popular in the mid-20th century was seriously lacking. The focus on "hard reality," "no one is a hero," "social problems," and so on. That kind of "realism" isn't actually all that real -- it doesn't express the whole of th... (read more)

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 cr... (read more)

-1NancyLebovitz9yIIRC, here's a bit in The Female Man about the ideal for humans being the paleolithic world plus the occasional miracle.

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 impo... (read more)

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 character... (read more)

1no_login_found8yThis 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)
0ikrase8yYeah, 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.

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 sli... (read more)

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 ... (read more)

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.

2Eliezer Yudkowsky8yMy heart is warmed. Yay!

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 c... (read more)

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... (read more)

I realize the oldest comment on this thread is from 3 years ago, but I still have something to say. The reason people like the idea of magic I think is that it makes us feel like it a part of us in a way that a lightbulb doesn't. Even if you invented the light bulb, it doesn't feel like it is a part of you in the same way as if you could make light with magic or had a natural ability to emit light. Being able to generate explosions as a part of you feels better than making a bomb and pressing a switch.

It is the same reason why people prefer swords and othe... (read more)

I happen to manage an appreciation for science and a desire for magic together just fine. They’re not mutually exclusive.

Others in the comments have done a good job outlining the inaccessibility of science (a specific type of mathematical and spatial intelligence, 30 years gaining a PhD, truckloads of grant money and a team of researchers) vs. the infinite possibilities of magic (a wand wave or an applied concentration of will and you’ve just reversed death).

Wanting magic is just the simple desire for more power in the world around us. As amazing as this

... (read more)

Such readers may believe that they lack some skills needed in this world (scientific or otherwise) and actually dream of being more skillful - but imagining yourself with a wand sending around magic (which you don't have to understand to use) is easier than imagining yourself smarter or more socialized or, you know, anything that could help in the real world.

Or wait - not anything. Imagine a world of late Middle Ages where some guy desperately wants to become a great warrior but is too weak to wield a sword or a longbow... and then you give him a cros... (read more)

Nope. Sorry dude but if I had to choose between the real world and a fictional world with adventure and limitless possibilities then i would immediately go for the fictional world

3Raemon1yDunno. The real world has adventures and possibilities-that-are-actually-about-as-limitless-as-typical-fantasy-settings. Have you gone hang gliding? Have you gone tomb raiding? Have you hung out with komodo dragons or elephants or wild lions? Have you purchased ship on a whim and figured out how repair it on your own [https://www.lesswrong.com/posts/fwvr3fXdAFTdfszMB/the-steampunk-aesthetic]? Have you investigated the legend of the mole people in your local city and explored the tunnels beneath? (If you've done things sorta kinda like that, kudos!)

Honestly all of that sounds lame compared to the stuff in fiction but i see your point

-2Raemon1yI dunno man investigating the legend of the mole people was pretty fun. The main difference between it and fiction was that in fiction I'd be killing orcs, but if I wanted to kill people I'd just go war zones. (but, also, killing is actually bad and scary and I don't want it)
9Hi there1yKilling can be cool when its in fiction

Yeah, but that's only because it's fiction. If you lived in the fictional world it'd be exactly as bad as it is in our world.

3Raemon1yAlso, programming and the internet is just literally magic (down to the "if you learn someone's true name you gain power over them"), and if you're not inspired by it you probably wouldn't be inspired by "regular magic" if it were real.
6Hi there1yNo. Technology is nothing like Magic. Magic can do basically anything but Technology has limits no matter how advanced.
2Raemon1yHuh. I don't think that's been true of any fantasy series I've read – magic usually has lots of limitations in the stories I've read, and often is less or comparably powerful to modern technology AFAICT.
2Hi there1yIn most fictional worlds magic can do literally anything. But technology has limits even in sci fi. So if you seriously choose tech over magic than you're delusional.

I agree with the general idea, just adding on the question of why people would like to learn magic and not science.

 

I think the most basic difference in how people perceive becoming a wizard vs. becoming a scientist regards the scarcity and status hypothesis of this post.

Magic is usually limited, magic items are rare and magic can usually be done only by wizards. Most powers given than science can be bought at the store, no need to learn how gunpowder works to buy a gun. 

Also, when people think about power they think about personal power, like th... (read more)