Clarke’s Third Law is Insufficiently Advanced

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

Disproof of Clarke’s Third Law:
Suppose that it is true.
Then there exists a level of advancement such that any technology beyond there is indistinguishable from magic. Call that level “Sufficient.”
Let X be an instance either of magic or of technology Sufficiently advanced or higher.
There is a law of the universe saying that it cannot be determined which X is.
Magic may still be able to distinguish whether X is magic.
By Clarke’s Third Law, anything that can be done by magic can be done by sufficiently advanced technology.
So there must be some technology capable of telling whether X is magic. This contradicts the assumption that X is indistinguishable, and Clarke’s Third Law is therefore false.

The obvious nitpick to make is that “advanced” isn’t linear. But if Arthur Clarke  thought it was OK to ignore that, I don’t feel guilty about making the same mistake. It doesn’t affect the Law much anyway.

The correct nitpick to make is about the line saying that magic could distinguish whether X is magic. After all, that violated one of the assumptions. But then you, O fictitious Internet interlocutor, are in the position of saying what magic can and can’t do. It can ignore laws of the universe; that’s sort of the definition.

I can easily imagine a Magical Black Box that distinguishes between magic and not magic, just as easily as I can imagine a Magical Black Box that does anything else. And the point of Clarke’s Third Law is that if magic can do something, there must be some technology capable of doing that, too, just without being a black box.

For a less self-referential argument, consider the speed of light. Maybe some advanced future civilization could use wormholes, warp drives, or whatever to go faster than it. But maybe they can’t. Maybe there isn’t a way around it, and it’s an actual feature of the universe that relativity can’t be beaten, not ever. Then it’s completely independent of how advanced your technology is: no matter how smart you are or what your Kardashev ranking is, you’re still limited by The Rules. (That’d suck.)

And if we live in a universe like that, then there’s totally a way to prove that something is magic: Can it teleport? If relativity always applies, and I can get from Earth to Mars in six seconds (Note: I cannot currently do this), then I’m suspending the laws of the universe.

What might be true is the converse of the Law: any sufficiently analyzed magic is indistinguishable from SCIENCE! In the example up there, being able to prove that teleportation is magic depends on already knowing that you’re in a universe where relativity is inviolate. When you see someone go from Earth to Mars in seconds, you don’t know if you’re living in that kind of universe or not. You don’t know if they’re suspending the laws of the universe or if the laws included an exception that you didn’t know about. So any time you see magic in action, you don’t know if it’s something supernatural or something natural but super.

Technically all this proves is that insufficiently analyzed magic is indistinguishable from technology. But if it’s actually on that side, if it’s actually working by ignoring laws of the universe, then no amount of analysis will let you distinguish it. (Short of magic, of course, or knowing everything about the universe and being able to prove that you do. That’s probably provably impossible to do without magic, but I don’t have a proof handy.) This is pretty much what happens every time you or I use our superpowers. Some philosophers insist that there must be a natural explanation, but whatever. I’ll just keep violating the laws of the universe; let me know if you manage to distinguish it.

Despite being false, Clarke’s Third Law is also extremely awesome. After all, most “magic” you see in fiction is just following some unusually complicated laws of physics. Producing light by saying “Lumos” may be called “magic,” and maybe nobody knows how it works, but magic works by its own set of laws and I bet you don’t know how your television works, either. In your average fantasy book, there is some way that magic works, and if it were some advanced technology, the reader usually wouldn’t notice a difference.

Case in point: Star Wars. I know everyone hates the midichlorians for pretty much precisely this reason, but the prequels did demonstrate that the Force could be unexplained mysticism or bad technobabble and it’s pretty much identical either way. Most fantasy doesn’t actually come out and say the bad technobabble, but they almost always could. (The Lord of the Rings is an explicit exception; I can’t think of many others.)

The other reason Clarke’s Third Law is awesome is its contrapositive. Any technology distinguishable from magic is INSUFFICIENTLY ADVANCED.  Think of something advanced enough that you can’t distinguish between it and magic, and how cool it would be if all our technology were as advanced as, say, a human brain.

So keep using Clarke’s Third Law, just as an approximation that’s usually true instead of an enduring and unchangeable law of the universe. It’s still possible to break that law if you want to. You know, like with physics.


7 thoughts on “Clarke’s Third Law is Insufficiently Advanced

  1. drouse

    Another author(Rick Cook I believe) postulated a further extension wherein any sufficiently advanced magic is indistinguishable from a rigged demonstration.

  2. Montague

    The reason (or at least part of it) that magic is magic in LOTR is that it is based on linguistic theories that border more on (perhaps) Platonism; at any rate, the basis of magic is the mind imitating God. So in the sense that science may be categorically unable to explain the mind, much less God, this necessitates that LOTR magic be non-technobabble.

    I’m not sure if this was in Tolkien but someone in relation to this said that the origin of language is the origin of humanity/the human mind, so if as you say the human mind is essentially “magic,” then of course an epic based on language is beyond science.

    1. Nate Gabriel Post author

      I’m not sure if that follows, mainly because I’m not sure what it would mean to be beyond science. Scientists can study language, like they can study pretty much anything observable. Actually, if it does follow that any effect of a “magic” thing is beyond science, then anyone who believes in a Creator must think everything is.
      The Lord of the Rings is an exception in that the magic there (when it’s actual magic not just Elves knowing how to do cool things) is based on Iluvatar delegating authority over how the world works and allowing the rules to be suspended.

  3. Eli Dupree

    Here’s a few possible counterarguments:

    1) Some would say that to be indistinguishable is to be identical. Then sufficiently advanced technology (hereafter SA-tech) IS magic, so it’s unreasonable to imagine a technique (even a magical one) to distinguish the two. It would be like asking “Is this one foot or is it 0.3048 meters?”

    2) The existence of magic that distinguishes technology from magic isn’t sufficient for SA-tech and magic to be distinguishable… to a human observer. Imagine that you have a piece of magic (let’s call it Alice) that takes an objects and reports that it’s magic if it is magic, and reports that it is SA-tech if it is SA-tech (and assume that being magic and being SA-tech are exclusive). Then you can also have a piece of SA-tech (let’s call it Bob) that takes and object and does a different process with it. Bob has a secret cryptographic key known to no one but Bob, and takes all available data about the input object and hashes it into a single bit with the secret key, then reports “magic” if the hash is zero and “SA-tech” if the hash is one. Since Bob, like any piece of SA-tech, is a black box, the user can’t look inside to determine that Bob is using cryptography, and if the hash function is secure, they can’t tell from the outside either, regardless of how much information they have about the objects in question. Hence, no human has the ability to tell that Alice is being honest and Bob is lying – they might just as well believe that Bob is honest and Alice is lying. (If you don’t want to rely on cryptography, but don’t mind causing existential issues, just say “Bob has been programmed with an arbitrarily preselected choice for every object”.) So it’s a question of what “indistinguishable” means: Who, specifically, cannot distinguish them?

    You could defend with “if ANYTHING can distinguish them, it counts”, which would work, but be disappointingly trivial: with that definition, it’s impossible for any two categories of objects to be indistinguishable. Somebody could write down every possible partitioning of the objects into two groups, and one of those would correctly distinguish the categories.

    1. Nate Gabriel Post author

      Well, if they’re indistinguishable because they’re the same thing then it’s equivalent to saying there is no such thing as magic or nothing can violate the laws of the universe. I don’t know if Clarke believed that, but I don’t think it’s what this quote is about.

      I was interpreting it as meaning that nothing at all can distinguish them, impossible in the sense of going faster than c not impossible as in sending astronauts to Alpha Centauri. But I guess it makes more sense if it’s that for any given observer there exists some such SA tech that the observer can’t distinguish… but even then if the “observer” is the list of every possible partitioning then it’s still being distinguished. That trick is awesome and I wish I had thought of it.

  4. 27cha

    “By Clarke’s Third Law, anything that can be done by magic can be done by sufficiently advanced technology.”

    Sadly, you have this backwards, so your disproof is invalid. According to the original statement, anything that can be done by sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic, but not necessarily the other way around.

    1. Nate Gabriel Post author

      I think indistinguishability has to work both ways. If there’s a thing that magic can do that no amount of technology can, then there’s a way to distinguish them.
      (Barring extremely weird things like “Magic can do a thing tech can’t, but that thing is innately unknowable so it can’t let people distinguish them.”)

      In fact, this is the direction Clarke meant it. Insisting that magic is at least as good as technology would be a strange point for a science fiction writer to make.


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