Does Magic Retard Science? (Only in Real Life)

Summary: Ahmbren’s treatment of the interplay between magic and science: they advance each other. Magic stimulates scientific discovery, and continues to flourish in a scientifically advancing (steam-age) world.

When Dragons Die has been out for some time now, and its prequel, Myth and Incarnation will be out this October. WDD set the stage for Ahmbren’s transition into a full steampunk era, and M&I went back to classical high-fantasy. Now that I’m looking ahead to WDD’s sequels, I’m looking to amplify the steam-age technology and culture, and I’m forced to reflect upon how Ahmbren deals with the mixture of technology and magic.

In the fantasy community, there’s a discussion that surfaces from time to time as to why fantasy worlds, with tens of thousands of years of history, never develop guns, cars, or other technology. This usually crystalizes to a discussion as to how magic affects the development of technology, and its corollary, technology affects the practice of magic.

One common explanation—usually by gamemasters telling their players why they can’t have their hobbit go out and mix the ingredients for gunpowder—is that with magic around, no one has the incentive for scientific discovery. Or, if the world building allows for this, the elite ruling wizard class  suppresses any inventiveness to preserve their power. Or (I guess if you’re Tolkien), as soon as you start to invent things like machinery and industry, you’re enslaved by the Lord of the Rings. (I’m looking at you Saruman). I’ve never been satisfied with any of these, so I designed Ahmbren with a different twist on things… more on that in a second.

The flip side: I’ve heard arguments that once technology is developed, magic takes a back seat and fades into oblivion… usually because learning to throw a fireball down the street is both more difficult than learning to fire a six-shooter, and tactically less feasible. While both of these reasons are sound, I don’t buy the notion that these factors would cause magic to fade away.

However, The Ahmbren Chronicles explores real-world themes in its stories, albeit in a fantasy setting. In the real world, belief in false-ideas (such as magic, or the supernatural, or…) retards scientific discovery and advancement. Clinging to beliefs in the absence of evidence hampers skeptical inquiry and a rigorous method of testing and exploring the natural world around us. But this is because, in the real world, magic isn’t real. One of the axioms that I baked into Ahmbren’s world design:

Placing ideas and ideologies over truth retards discovery and advancement.

In Ahmbren, however, magic is real (as are the gods). So, I had the challenge of still accounting for long periods of time where technology didn’t advance. I fixated on the idea that false belief stifles advancement, but in Ahmbren’s case it’s the belief in either false gods, or following the false-teachings of real gods. Placing ideology and imposed rules ahead of freedom to explore and discover.

So, then, what about magic? When people in Ahmbren escape the influence of religion, science takes off. This is illustrated explicitly in the case of gnomes, a wizard race of tinkerers. They have a keen interest in scientific discovery, and they use their magical means to enhance their process of discovery and crafting. They don’t have the benefit of industry to create wondrous non-magical materials (nanotech-like, or other weird but natural, non-magic substances), but they do have alchemy. They do have spells that help them reveal the underlying math of the universe, which, once known, they can apply in non magical ways. They’ll use magic to build it, but their greatest achievements (which tickles them pink) are to create items that people would swear have magical properties, but are completely mundane in the end. Such as soft armor that stiffens on impact, or swords that cannot break.

But what happens to magic when guns are prevalent in the world, and steamships soar the skies?

So… there are people in the world today that still believe in, and attempt to practice magic, even in the face of our own technology. With belief in magic and the paranormal as prevalent as it is, it would remain even more so in a world like Ahmbren, where magic is demonstrably real. There would always be artisans who explore magic or its own sake. There would always be hobbyists, artists, hackers, and those who continue to supplement scientific discovery. Just because summoning a fireball spell isn’t as efficient as a revolver doesn’t mean a spell to deflect bullets wouldn’t be useful. Or a spell to enchant the gun for better aim. Or spells to simply create bullets which explode on impact… etc, etc. Technology might change the nuance of how magic is used, but wizards aren’t going away in Ahmbren anytime soon.

So, Ahmbren’s world-building axioms of magic and tech:

Magic unrestricted by religion allows the explosion of non-magic science and technology.

and

In a technological world, magic will flourish as a specialized discipline, and as an artistic pursuit.

Oh, and one more world building axiom when it comes to tech, just to keep Ahmbren’s flavor focused (and perhaps, this is a bit of an artificiality):

Ahmbren’s technology won’t feature any petrol tech. Electrical gadgets are allowed; electronics are not.

Until next time!
Kyle

2 thoughts on “Does Magic Retard Science? (Only in Real Life)

  1. You and I have come to similar conclusions about science vs. magic — that the two are not mutually exclusive, and that certain forms of organized religion can act to repress both. I think a lot of fantasy writers forget that every human invention represents some level of technology. A suit of armor or a finely crafted sword is high technology. Sailing ships were the most complex and powerful devices made by human hands for a couple of centuries — and even then the technology wasn’t stagnant, but perfected and perfected all the while.

    Moreover, to my mind, spell-casters are thinkers. They spend many hours in study, they rely on their intellect, we frequently imagine them observing the stars or stirring up potions. They must observe the inner workings of their own bodies, peel back the mysteries of the universe, and then…never invent gunpowder? Never realize that clean hands make for a lower mother/infant mortality rate?

    Luckily, if one doesn’t want guns mucking up one’s nice sword-and-sorcery style world, one can impose cultural or resource-availability limiters. 🙂

    • LOL, right on, Rita! Peel back the mysteries of the universe, and then tell people about the wonders of washing our hands! 🙂

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