[Repost of original posted January 4, 2015, destroyed by hosting failure.]

This one’s just for fun, mostly, but hopefully will provide a bit of perspective as well.

Arthur C. Clarke once offered his three predictions for the future, which came to be known as Clarke’s Three Laws, and the third is fairly frequently quoted in a variety of topics: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” The basic idea is, were we to meet an alien race far advanced over us, or time-travelers from the distant future, or if we ourselves went back far enough into the past to meet our ancestors, the technology involved wouldn’t be considered technology, but something mystical instead. Very often, this quote (or variations of it) is presented as an incisive argument by UFO proponents, in order to explain why the observed phenomena does not display any of the traits we might expect from a craft maneuvering in our atmosphere. But I feel it’s wildly misleading, and hardly an astute observation about intelligence.

Let’s first consider what we might mean by “magic.” Going with both the encyclopedic definitions and with common usage, we take it to denote something outside of the standard laws of physics; ‘supernatural’ is sometimes used as a description. So if we apply this idea to, for instance, our present state of knowledge, we would have to see something that a) appeared to violate known laws of physics without actually doing so, or b) did violate the laws of physics, meaning that they weren’t actually laws to begin with. We’ll do these in order.

First off we should note that, as a whole, our species cannot be assigned any particular traits regarding gullibility or awe; someone who believes in ghosts might, possibly, be convinced of magic, and the deeply religious may be inclined to accept godly intervention as an explanation, but even this is up for grabs. In my experience, most people who embrace paranormal explanations do not consider them manifestations of magic, but merely physical properties that we haven’t discovered yet. Most religious folk accept physics as true, but some feel that supernatural manifestations do occur at times, mostly in aspects of otherwise improbable (but still possible) events, such as being healed from serious disease or surviving a horrendous accident. On the other hand, those members of our population known by the catch-all term “scientists” are going to be extremely hard to convince of something outside of the laws of physics, largely because they are aware how pervasive these laws are (thus “laws” in the first place,) and are more inclined to find out how something happens before pronouncing it mystical in any way; it is unlikely that “magic” will ever be an answer. If we assume Clarke was referring to humanity as a whole, then we have a very tall order to fill, bordering on impossible.

Our knowledge of physics is actually pretty tight right now – we’ve not only discovered the subatomic particles that make up atoms, but have predicted where we will find more, mostly based on our understanding of energy and conservation. We have done enough math on gravity to know that galaxies aren’t behaving properly for the amount of ‘visible’ mass they possess, and have extrapolated the existence of non-visible mass (“dark matter,”) which we have then mapped by its affect on light passing nearby. Einstein’s famous equation, E=Mc2, tells us how much binding energy can be found in atoms, and thus how much energy can possibly be extracted from any given source, and we’ve demonstrated this with matter-antimatter collisions. While there yet remain mysteries within physics, no new discovery will overturn any of this knowledge; physics might be refined, like Newton’s Laws of Motion, or even attributed to different base causes, but the bare fact that we use these every day means they are not figments of our imagination, nor unsupported hypotheses.

So we are left to imagine what could appear to violate any of the known laws, and not by a small margin but enough to be really impressive, without actually violating the laws – that’s kind of problematic. Any given atom can release a hell of a lot of energy, so appearing to exceed this is not going to be a casual observation, but require some very careful measurements. In the proposed case of visiting aliens, the ships are occasionally considered to dismiss mass and inertia effects, but very selectively; they apparently do not do so in a way that would cause them to disintegrate, or lose their solid properties for the occupants – yet these are not different properties at all, so physics would have to be extremely specific in where it paid attention (and since mass is interactive with gravity and space-time, again, we’re talking minimized effect outside of the ship but normal effect inside to prevent the occupants from vanishing in a cloud of subatomic particles.) Just proving that this was actually happening – and not merely a wild claim because UFObees cannot fathom being wrong about observations – would take some pretty specific demonstrations, and even then I cannot imagine many crying, “Magick!” rather than, “That’s so cool! How does it work?” Even something as frequently imagined as invisibility isn’t going to be magical to at least half of the people with a firm knowledge of light, since all it would require is the ability to bend photons around an object, or reproduce them on the opposite side as if nothing intervened; we actually have rudimentary technology of this sort now.

And so, we come to the next aspect, which is actually violating the laws of physics. As said previously, this would make them no longer laws, but it’s more complicated than that, since we obviously have something that’s producing these effects. So what would have to be the case is something that had a certain effect in ‘normal’ circumstances, but under the application of the right amount of energy or some special conditions, would produce a different effect. In other words, the laws still exist, but different from how we understood them. Again, this is unlikely to make anyone play the Magic card since we’ve already found wave-particle duality, and quantum entanglement – we don’t know how these occur or what properties of the universe allow them, since they go counter to everything at the atomic level on up, but they’re unmistakeably present, and not causing anyone to ward off evil spirits or start believing in pixies. We must consider that the physics we know now works quite fine from atoms all the way up to super-massive stars, both explaining and predicting with amazing accuracy, which makes the likelihood that we’re missing something fairly small. We still see no evidence of where the basic laws vanish, or produce peculiar effects, so it’s a bit of a stretch to think that there is a key to changing them someplace in there that hasn’t already been displayed.

What Clarke might have been thinking of were the curious traits best illustrated by cargo cults, and in fact, his Third Law is occasionally referenced in relation to these. While there are variations from multiple locations and time frames, the best known are a few Pacific island tribes soon after WWII, ones that had been almost entirely isolated from modern cultures and suddenly saw stunning examples of technology from their contact with military forces during the war. After the forces withdrew from the islands, the tribes thereon developed elaborate replicas of military airfields and practices, a ritualistic attempt to re-stimulate the influx of technology and trade goods that had come along with the military occupation – in essence, a religious practice aimed at the new gods of canned ham and chewing gum. [I just want to point out that these aren’t exactly cults by nearly all definitions, in that there seemed to have been no efforts to control thinking nor isolate believers from nonbelievers – these were merely new religions, just as dependent on superstitious thought and oblivious to negative results as any other religion. I imagine using the word “cult” helps a lot of people distance themselves from it though.] While Clarke’s law fits with this observed behavior to all appearances, it must be admitted that this is an extremely narrow set of circumstances, applying to a tiny percentage of the population, and a culture quite likely supportive of “magic” as an answer in the first place. A hypothesis may fit the observations, but to be strong, it should predict further observations as well; to assume that humans overall would react exactly the same way, given advanced enough technology, seems a ridiculous stretch, one hardly supported by any other evidence.

Because of all this, I can’t help but feel that Clarke’s Third Law isn’t really very apt or useful, though it remains better than the other two; the First Law implies that little or nothing is impossible, while the Second Law demonstrates a gross misunderstanding of logic. There are, almost certainly, things that are impossible – we just cannot prove such without omniscience, and assuming such might mean missing something really useful. But the physical laws we have right now exist because it has not heretofore been possible to violate them – that’s how we define laws in this usage. It may be telling that Clarke was, after all, a writer, which may mean that seeing situations in a realistic light wasn’t his first priority, or that it sometimes takes fantastic plot points to drive a story, which has been used a few times before.

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I have a little something to add along the physics line – once again, this comes courtesy of spending time in UFO forums, an occasional and inexplicable habit of mine. But rampant therein is the belief that, given an advanced enough civilization, most laws of physics could be overcome, and there could be inertia-free craft and anti-gravity ‘fields’ and nearly unlimited sources of energy – it’s just a matter of time. While it’s a very positive outlook on technology and ingenuity, it’s not exactly realistic.

There must be properties of the universe, basic functions and traits, or there could be nothing within – we need physical laws to bind atoms together, exchange energy, keep the planet spinning, and so on. None of these could be circumvented without something else underlying to shore them up, and/or use as leverage; if we were to exceed the speed of light, there would have to be some other property that permitted the passage of time for matter, as well as something that capped the energy needed (right now it is considered infinite.) To believe that any physical laws, much less several, are able to be circumvented or changed at will is… well, not necessarily arrogant, but certainly lacking in perspective. At no time have we ever dismissed any laws; the switch from Newton’s Laws to General Relativity was simply a refinement for large scales, and Newton’s Laws work fine for 95% of the purposes we have. But we remain just a fragile collection of atoms, unable to exist outside of a narrow range of conditions, evolved to our environment and trapped within a framework of our senses – it seems bizarre to believe that we (or anything else even remotely like us) will shape the universe to our will.