Harry Potter and the Concept of Magic

The upcoming end of the Harry Potter series demands piggyback attention, especially from a new blog like mine. Since I have been talking lately about concepts and definitions using toy examples from geometry, I thought I’d take on a more complex concept: magic. In this first of a series of posts aimed squarely at piggybacking the Potter phenomenon, I’ll attempt a definition of the concept of magic that explains why we delight in imagined realities that depend on it.

To understand why a conceptual analysis of ‘magic’ is interesting, consider books like The Science of Harry Potter and Harry Potter and Philosophy: If Aristotle Ran Hogwarts. These are among the more prominent books that have attempted to ride the Potter wave. There are also postmodern, moral, religious, literary and other takes on the series that I found among the 7427 results of a simple search for “Harry Potter” on Amazon.com.

At a pragmatic level, there is nothing wrong with trying to ride a popular trend to talk about the things you care about. I am doing it myself in this blog, after all. If high school kids are more receptive to Aristotle packaged in Potter-talk, so be it. Most of these dimensions of analysis cause no problems. The problem with reading science, technology or philosophy onto an imagined magical world though, is that these frameworks distract us from the core aspects of magic. These core aspects, which I’ll get to, are vastly more interesting than the peripheral aspects that are highlighted by talk of the science, technology or even (most sorts of) metaphysics of magic.

What Magic is Not

The first of the books above for instance, dives straight into examining whether broomstick flight is technologically possible. Cute (and I am an aerospace engineer after all), but besides the point. The same goes for attempts to read metaphysics or individual and social psychoanalytical lessons into a tale of magic. Possibly legitimate exercises with useful results, but besides the point if you are interested in magic qua magic. So, to clear the clutter here, before introducing my understanding of magic:

  • Yet-to-be-understood technology is not magic. Arthur C. Clarke is probably to blame here for starting off this dull line of thinking about imaginative reality with his quote, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Possibly true (though trite) as a statement about advanced technology. Irrelevant and distracting as a statement about magic. If you get a kick out of imagining how to technologically achieve the phenomenology of magic, the charm of Harry’s world has been lost to you. And I say this as an engineer who makes a living figuring out how to make technology do things.
  • Magic isn’t about moral philosophy, the nature of good and evil, or even about metaphysical thought experiments about possible worlds.
  • And this is hopefully trivial enough to not require stating, but magic is also not about stage magic, the performance art (though stage magic works because of the actual nature of our conceptualization of magic). If you’ve ever felt a serious sense of being let down once you’ve learned how a magic trick works, you know what I am talking about. It is not so much that you mind the magic being explained, or that you mind it being explained away, but that you mind it being explained that way.
  • Worth a note for the seriously conceptually challenged: magic isn’t about poetic or romantic hyperbole of the “the lovers spent a magical evening together” variety, though again, this sort of figurative speech gets at what we actually feel about magic.

The Nature of Magic

So what is magic?

Magic is an imaginative conception of the lawfulness of a universe where matter has the attributes of consciousness, and can be engaged purely through intention. It is the product of our (primarily emotional and existential rather than intellectual) yearning to connect with the physical world beyond living organisms.

Here is a thought experiment to demonstrate the point of the definition: imagine a real magical broomstick that responds to Accio! Broomstick because it is, at some level, a dimly conscious and intentional entity that likes you. Now think about a broomstick that is really a Magnalev flying machine with a high-gain directional microphone for an ear and programmed to respond to a set Latin vocabulary via speech recognition algorithms. Unless you are an impossibly dull person, the idea of the former should make you yearn while the latter should make you yawn. Note that I said consciousness, not intelligence. We are talking here about matter manifesting consciousness as a fundamental property, in the sense of, say, David Chalmers but that gets us into the AI-consciousness debates and away from magic, so we’ll leave that issue for another time. I’ll defend the “intention” bit in a second.

Rowling gets this: more than once she emphasizes that the visible phenomenology of magic is irrelevant. It shows up in her notions of Horcruxes and Mr. Weasley’s warnings not to trust any artifact that displays intelligence if you don’t know where it keeps its brain. It shows up, perhaps most brilliantly, in her idea that advanced practitioners do not need to vocalize spells, that spell-words have no significance of their own other than permitting the wizard to focus his intentions on a very specific aspect of the lawful behavior of the magical world.

This isn’t an argument against using narrative imaginings of magic as inspiration for technology. It is an argument to get at the distinction between magic and technology-that-behaves-like-magic.

The same goes for metaphysical readings. It is fine to ask if a world where Superman can fly is a metaphysically possible world. That is an entirely different exercise than understanding the role the notion of magic plays in our world.

The Lawfulness of Rowling’s Magic

Once you’ve understood the core nature of magic, you can ask, how should you imagine a magical world that is true to this concept? I have mentioned lawfulness a couple of times, and that is key. Imagined magical realities are always lawful rather than arbitrary, but what sort of lawfulness do they manifest?

Is it the sort of lawfulness that physics studies and physicists argue about? Is the law that broomsticks in Rowling’s world respond to Accio! (or a focused thought) similar to the law of gravity? I won’t argue this in detail here, but the answer is no. In no imagining of magic that I have encountered, does this interpretation hold.

Is it then, the lawfulness of collective agency? The sort of laws that emerge in interactions among conscious agents? An extension to conscious brooms of the lawfulness of the interactions among living things? This is closer to the real thing, and many imagined magical worlds do in fact fit this model. Indian mythology is full of human yogis undertaking severe penances with the intention of summoning up the gods. There is at work here a notion that the gods, though more powerful than humans, must nevertheless yield to some cosmic lawfulness that binds all conscious entities in a web of shifting power. This sort of magical reality is driven by the same type of lawfulness that many non-magical ethical universes are (say the one defined by laws like “there is no free lunch” and “what goes around comes around,” and and imperatives like “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”). But, I argue, it still falls short of magic proper.

No, I think we get closest to our natural conception of magic if we understand it as a lawfulness that governs the connectedness/disconnectedness of a universal consciousness. When I am able to summon up that broomstick, I become one with the broomstick in some way. Evil, in this sort of magical universe, is a perverse condition of resistance to such connection. That is why Voldemort’s ultimate sin is his sin against his own consciousness, in tearing it into seven pieces, damaging the larger consciousness of the Potter universe in an effort to selfishly preserve his own. That is why the notions of connections between minds and leglimency and occlumency are so central to Rowling’s universe. In fact, the very success of Harry Potter, arguably, is driven by Rowling’s unerring sense of our native conception of magic.

And that sort of lawfulness also explains the role intention plays in my definition. In our regular world, the only thing that yields to pure intention, without any manifest action, is our own thoughts. Think of a pink elephant. You intend it, it is done. Neither physical lawfulness, nor ‘agency’ lawfulness behaves this way (the latter is more like telepathic communication, not direct intention-manifestation).

We need to imagine magic because we want the entire universe to behave this way. To be intentionally one with us.

Next: Harry Potter and the Leaky Genre 

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About Venkatesh Rao

Venkat is the founder and editor-in-chief of ribbonfarm. Follow him on Twitter


  1. Interesting. Thoughts as I read through your post –

    1. I have nothing but contempt for the ‘pragmatists’ who piggyback on the Potter name to teach Archimedes to kids, just as I have nothing but contempt for my own (seemingly) hundreds of paid articles all over the smalltime internet about HP (which is why I do it all under a pseudonym). It’s not creative, it doesn’t add value and it’s a sell-out. Kids who’re too stupid to appreciate the value of Archimedes (or at least appreciate that learning about him may add value to their lives later) will be culled before they reach the marketplace, as they should be. Bully to them, I say. Archimides is too grand to slap onto a cereal box, which is what Potterisation is.

    2. I actually find the idea of magic as technology fascinating… but that’s just my dull old materialist heart speaking. I disagree with you that Rowling sees magic as being object consciousness. She doens’t get past the “ineffable mystery” stage; an attitude she passes on to Mr Weasley, only he applies it to science. I wanted to give Arthur Weasley (and Rowling) a good shake when he said his biggest ambition was to find out how airplanes stay up. Get a book from the library, moron. Object consciousness is a cool idea, though, rather bone-tingling. But I can’t make myself take it seriously (though that may not be the point). Perhaps I am simply too much of a hardened atheist for that?

    3. As to the lawfulness of Rowling’s magic, I’m afraid it’s wishful thinking on your part again. She simply doesn’t dig that deep into the workings of her own world, and I doubt she’s ever thought of it in these terms. But that is precisely the appeal of her world for fans – theories such as yours and a thousand others all over Livejournal, mostly, thrive on Rowling’s fuzziness. Yours rivals the best of them, because I doubt anyone has thought to merge the uniquely Hindu (Buddhist, too, but that’s got its roots in Hinduism) view of universal consciousness with the magic of HP.

    Can I recommend this essay on my blog? It’s cool and thought-provoking and obviously quite topical. Plus it’s fascinating as a study of our cultural perspective applied to this massive object of pop culture.

  2. Can I recommend this essay on my blog? It’s cool and thought-provoking and obviously quite topical. Plus it’s fascinating as a study of our cultural perspective applied to this massive object of pop culture.

    :) Do you really have to ask? Grazie!

    I’ll not argue too strongly that Rowling “gets” this viewpoint or intends it, but I’ll certainly defend the thought that she must at least subconsciously thinking this way. There is a coherence to her universe that is perhaps invisible to her. More on that sort of thing later in my HP series.

    And this isn’t necessarily a theistic conception or isomorphic to Hindu/Buddhist notions (and there are similar independent metaphysics in the West too). I am making a rather more trivial point. The religious versions you cite argue very seriously that such a metaphysical account is true of our world. Magic is just fun — we just like to imagine a consistent universe where this might hold.

    I might reconsider though, whether a technological premise is necessarily boring. After all Superman and Spider-man do capture one’s imagination, and the imagined reality there definitely has a faux-physics rather than a universal consciousness background implied. Lemme think about that for a bit. Maybe I let a personal weakness for the ‘conscious’ explanation color my judgment here.


  3. > In our regular world, the only thing that yields to pure intention,
    > without any manifest action, is our own thoughts. Think of a pink
    > elephant. You intend it, it is done.

    Hi Venkat,

    Nice website. Good articles.

    Here’s a foundational question that was triggered by the above lines. :-) Is “pure intention” a thought? Or are you perhaps implying it’s not?

    — Viraje

  4. Viraje — I am going to take you seriously despite the smiley. Your point is actually an important one. The only substantive response I have at the moment is that yes, per some theories, thoughts can be massaged into a taxonomy, with intention among the classes. The most influential one to date has been Stanford philosopher Michael Bratman’s “belied-desire-intention” (BDI) model of rational agency. This has been operationalized by AI folks into systems which represent knowledge in terms of these primitives.

    So yes, pure intention is a thought, understood in these terms. There is some self-reference or circularity going on there, but then what about the mind doesn’t exhibit that. Hmm… that gives me an idea for a blog post on BDI.

  5. Oh, I was serious all right. The good thing about some of your blogs is that questions arise at multiple levels. Here are a couple. I state these more in the way of discussion points than a direct Q & A about your article, of course. I hope you did intend (!) the comments section to wander off into such related or random discussions.

    The interesting thing is the thought itself, isn’t it? What do we know about where a thought comes from? What explains the fact you pointed out, that intentions (some thoughts?) seem to cause other thoughts and even certain actions?

    If what you say in this blog is true, and thinking about magic fulfils some inner need about being one with the universe, why do we have such a strange need? Do you intend to have any thoughts on this? :-)

    — Viraje

  6. There’s this book called “naked conversations” which is trying to teach corporations the art of wandering off from a starter thought in a blog post and of course, the managed-messaging PR people who want to use blogs to manage corporate branding hate the untidiness of it all :)

    I think your first question can be answered at least 3 levels, of increasing soundness. The first is what David Foster Wallace calls a “deeply trivial” answer of the “why is murder wrong”-“because it is illegal” variety. An answer along those lines would simply construct a formal theory with axioms of what thoughts are allowed to create other thoughts. Many naive AI types do this (not the good ones though) and unfortunately delude themselves into thinking they are doing philosophy of mind.

    The second, slightly less trivial answer, would rely on a Chmoskyean treatment of language along with a Daniel Dennet style “pandemonium” model of a chaotic associative mess of memory that feeds into a context-sensitive grammar neurological engine somehow (“Consciousness explained”). This is slightly more satisfying, since it doesn’t look entirely constructed. The short form of that answer would be “in Chomskyian language, questions provoke internal answers, verbs attract nouns to follow…”

    The last kind of answer would probably draw on theories of metaphor (George Lakoff) and the metaphysics of naming, possible worlds reasoning and dynamic semantics from the philosophy of language (Kripke, Lewis, Stalnakar…). This is a favorite theme of mine and I am going to develop an answer at this level in this blog, since I find Chomsky somewhat unsatisfying as a foundation for thinking about thinking. I have a philosopher friend in this line of business who has promised to guest post some pieces along this line.

    Your second question, of course, is not something I’d even try to respond to in a comment, other than to say that my starting point for that would be David Chalmers, Ned Block and a few other Western analytical philosophers of mind. You’d have to graft on the appropriate eastern metaphysics — advaita and zen say — to get at directions of development that analytical philosophers seem strangely reluctant to go down (there is genuine conceptual dissonance, it isn’t just some cultural silo thing).

    Enough meat for a thread of at least 10-15 posts. Let’s see if I have the endurance for such a marathon :D

  7. tubelite says

    Ignoring abstract philosophy and complicated words for a while… The brain is a bubbling cauldron of activity. Some are structured, “language” signals. Some are non-verbal. Because the bits which generate verbal signals can also vibrate some bits of muscle and make rude noises, they can communicate with similar bits in other brains and consequently, think rather highly of themselves. They tend to arrogate ownership of the whole brain to themselves – notice the shifting meaning of pronouns in this post itself.

    Even a casual study of unusual brain conditions: split brain, degenerative brain diseases, destroys the illusion of a single coherent “self”, with an integrated reasoning engine, structured memory, “intentions” etc. No soul or any of that kind of rot. Far too many aspects of personality which we’re used to thinking of as atomic are actually made up of several, independently fallible components. The failure of such single components leads to bizarre effects, giving fascinating glimpses into how we work.

    The brain, thus, has more than a couple of minds of its own. The verbal bits are often at a loss when asked to explain certain things done under the influence of the non-verbal bits. They might say “Oh, I had an intuition. I felt like it.”. Or, as in well-demonstrated cases of post-hypnotic suggestion, they quickly invent an elaborate and ridiculous chain of reasoning to explain away whatever they did under the influence of the suggestion.

    So, everything is a “thought”. Some “thoughts” (maybe “intentions”) could be signals from non-verbal bits which trigger verbal thoughts.

    What does this have to do with magic?

    “Don’t ask me . Like you said, I’m just a flap of meat which can make rude noises with another flap of meat.”

    Ah. OK.

  8. tubelite says

    Now getting back on topic:

    Where do you draw the line between “matter possessing the attributes of consciousness” and my dog? His own mother wouldn’t call him intelligent, but he is composed of matter, he is conscious (sometimes), he likes me, and even responds to the Latin commands like “Fetchio stickus!”

    This is boring because he’s a “living thing”. But now in your magical universe, everything is, to some degree, conscious. I bet you’d be bored of that pretty quick, like Ron’s father, and would be fascinated with things like clocks, because you don’t know what makes them tick.

    Another angle: it’s not just a question of being Buddhist pizza (one with everything); you want control, too. How would you like it if your conscious broom decides to take off the night of the big Quidditch match and chase a pink beribboned broom, so it can make lots of little brooms? I bet you’d cut off a couple of bristles. Or engineer the matter just as we’ve engineered dogs and horses and battery chickens and (in future) Douglas Adamsian cows which will humanely kill themselves while urging you to eat them.

    Personally, I’m a strong believer in resisting connectedness with the universal consciousness ever since my Windows machine got 0wned, recruited to a botnet, and began responding to someone’s “Sendus spamiosa” and “Synpacketo disruptus” intentions.

  9. Venkat, I haven’t read most of the people you mention in your comment, so I have to wait till you enlighten us sometime in a future blog. But let me make some points in response to your comment, and tubelite’s.

    Sure, the brain does appear to be very busy. As far as I have been able to gather, current science has it that some neurons fire and consequently, sometime down the line, we have a thought. But what is the actual evidence for suggesting there is a causal connection between the neuron firing and the thought? To some extent, I can see that there is a case for explaining purely physical body-related observations in this way: neurons fire, chemicals move around, e-m signals flash across nerve cells, parts of the body receive the signals and pre-programmed activities take place. And because one follows another predictably in time, they are assumed to be causally related. Kicking a stone “causes” it to move in more or less the same way. I’m not going to question such forms of causality for the moment, though I know of no proof for those either. However, the awareness of a thought necessarily appears to involve subjective perception, the I-notion, because “I” think the thought, but “I” don’t necessarily digest food (an example of a pre-programmed activity). No one has yet localized the I-notion to any entity in the brain or other part of the body. Therefore, it seems a big jump to me, to take as fact the hypothesis that brain activity causes the awareness of thought, when there is no scientific evidence as to where in the body the awareness sits.

    So, any theory of how a thought is perceived, must take into account the I-notion. Now, is that a cyclic argument? Probably not, for the I-notion does not seem to be so much a thought, as knowledge of some kind. Credit is due to people like Roger Penrose and David Chalmers for making it clear that there is a problem here, that of explaining subjective perception or experience, that can’t be overlooked just because science tends not to entertain personal experience as a method of enquiry. But they, or others, do not appear to have anything that resembles what a solution should look like. Some people look into the brain to find quantum effects where there may be something interesting going on that can potentially produce subjective experience. But I doubt if anyone seriously knows what they are looking for there. How will they recognise the I-notion in the brain, if they encounter it? What should it look like?

    I think the best that present-day science has been able to do with this problem is try and do away with the I-notion, by explaining it away, as Daniel Dennett does, by saying that repeated questions/answers to/from various parts of the brain result in the illusion of an I-notion, where no “I” really exists. But don’t miss the wonderful irony here. Dennett seems to be saying, if I were to extend his point, that “I” am a fictitious being created by brain activity, but everything that “I” think about and see, does, in fact, exist. The question then arises: if “I” am an emergent property of the chaos that is my brain, then why should anything that is perceived by “I” have any basis in truth?

    Now about magic, for that is what the blog is about. :-) I have a feeling that Venkat may not be far from the truth in his speculation that it is a need that humans have to think about magic, feel connected to the universe and so on. If this need is generally true (and I don’t know if it is), and current science were to take it as a theory and try to explain it, it has only one explanatory avenue that I can think of. It will eventually end up saying that this need must have evolved as an attribute that must have helped humans in some form, probably for sociological or psychological reasons, if not for direct survival. I have been getting the feeling lately (and I am not in a position to really substantiate it with examples) that just about anything can be explained through an evolutionary approach. In that regard, I think it may well be like string theory attempts to explain our physical universe. You have a result, in this case, the fact that an unusually high percentage of adult humans are hooked on to Harry Potter. And you have a theoretical framework — evolution. And you connect the dots. With sufficient imagination, I have no doubt they will connect. But I’m not so sure that line of reasoning will be correct all the time. Reality may run deeper than that.

    — Viraje

  10. Whoa! That’s a LOT to respond to. At least 2 threads that should be forked off into new posts (philosophy of mind, and metaphysics/ontology of terms like “thought”). Magic itself might serve as a nice possible-worlds probe, but if I try to do that seriously independently of Harry Potter, I’ll have to put in some work.

    So some posts coming up about all this. But a couple of quick notes in the meantime, since these are complex topics that could take me a while to frame properly.

    1. Viraje: many of your concerns along the “a causal connection between the neuron firing and the thought” are actually worse problems than you think, since thoughts (in the subjective sense, known as qualia) aren’t even sound objects to put into causality assertions. And yes, I agree that evolutionary psychology is starting to look far too unfalsifiable and in need of deeper probing. Stuart Kauffman did that to an extent (“At Home in the Universe”).
    2. And the preliminary conclusion from my favorite philosopher of mind, Chalmers, is that quantum mechanics is not the way, though Penrose thinks it is. I am inclined to think the quantum-consciousness debate doesn’t have all evidence in yet.
    3. tubelite: your main concern of the “boundary of consciousness” is actually not too critical, and Chalmers argues very well that it is not the key problem. The key problem is metaphysical, not fuzzy-set-theoretic. Will elaborate in a future post on consciousness
    4. Your other key concern of the fragmentation/multitudinous nature of the brain/mind is not a contentious issue anymore. Since Minsky’s “Society of Mind” and more modern treatments like Dennett’s, that sort of observation basically has full consensus, and the ‘coherence’ illusion of self has been reduced to a matter of detail. Whether awareness (which is distinct from subjective consciousness) is coherent or not is now just a technical problem in neuroscience and AI
    5. Your final point about the connectedness thing in my concept of magic. I didn’t do a complete dissection there, but certainly an idealist-existentialist comparison at a metaphysical level would be interesting to attempt with this as the central thought experiment. I don’t know if I would be bored if everything were magical, but I agree with Viraje that an evolutionary “explanation” for the hypothesized universal yearning would reveal little (though it might actually be quite hard to construct). I agree that the case for radical disconnectedness is not to be equated with evil in our world, even if it is in Rowling’s, and you could make a very credible case for resisting universalisms.

    Whew, the hopper is filling up.

  11. Let me clarify my statement on the evolutionary approach to solving problems in say, psychology. I’m not so concerned in general that a theory may be unfalsifiable. I’m not sure if a theory has to be falsifiable to be correct. Yes, it may not be what is considered acceptable science today. But I’m willing to believe there may be more to truth than what is considered acceptable science today.

    My concern was more operational. I fear some of the arguments that invoke evolution may be simply wrong, because their intermediate steps may be wrong. However, the arguments and theories may survive just because they invoke the rather fashionable evolutionary umbrella, and no one looks up to see if it is, in fact, raining. :-)

    — Viraje