Magic and Science: Same Difference?

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Recently, the family attended a little setsubun ceremony at a local Buddhist temple of the Japanese Shingon sect. Shingon Buddhism is one of several “esoteric” (mikkyō 密教) sects in Buddhism including Japanese Tendai and Tibetan Buddhism, and rely more on practices through a complex array of rituals, chants and gestures called “mudra”. This particular ceremony called hoshimatsuri (星祭り, “Star Festival”) in Japanese is a continuation of the New Year traditions and provides extra blessings through the year by beseeching various deities associated with the stars.

Astrology is something I have little interest or belief in, and it kind of feels almost absurd that a seemingly “rational” person like me would take part in a ceremony beseeching deities of the stars so that I might have some extra good luck for the year.  And yet, there I was.  Side by side were my science-based world-view alongside an irrational need to control destiny somehow in the face of uncertainty.

It reminded me of something from an obscure 1971 novel by Roger Zelazny called Jack of Shadows. In the novel, the rotation of the Earth has been artificially stopped, and the world is divided into a “dayside” complete with science, futuristic technology, and modern civilization, while the “darkside”¹ is a world of magic, feudalism, and monsters.  Jack of Shadows is the titular thief of the novel, who dwells in twilight (between day and night), with his only friend being a demon cursed to watch for a sunrise that will never come while being half-frozen into a mountainside.

In one scene, Jack and this demon, Morningstar, are talking:

Jack: “I have heard daysiders say that the core of the world is a molten demon, that the temperature increase as one descends toward it, that if the crust of the world be pierced then fires leap forth and melted minerals build volcanoes.  Yet I know that volcanoes are the doings of fire elementals who, if disturbed, melt the ground about them and hurl it upward.  They exist in small pockets.  One may descend far past them without the temperature increasing.  Traveling far enough, one comes to the center of the world, which is not molten—which contains the Machine, with great sprints as in a clock, and gears and pulleys and counterbalances.  I know this to be true, for I have journeyed that way and been near to the Machine.  Still, the daysiders have ways of demonstrating that their view is the correct one.  I was almost convinced by the way one man explained it to me, though I knew better.  How can this be?”

Morningstar replies:

“You were both correct….It is the same thing that you both describe, although neither of you sees it as it really is.  Each of you colors reality in keeping with your means of controlling it.”

Jack then says:

“The stars I know to be these houses of spirits and deities—some friendly, some unfriendly and many not caring. All are near at hand and can be reached.  They will respond when properly invoked.  Yet the daysiders say that they are vast distances away and that there is no intelligence.  Again…?”

Morningstar: “It is again but two ways of regarding reality, both of them correct.”

Jack presses him further:

“If there can be two ways, may there not be a third?  Or a fourth? Or as many as there are people, for that matter?”

“Yes,” said Morningstar.

“Then which is correct?”

“They all are.”

“But to see it as it is, beneath it all!  Is this possible?”

Morningstar did not reply.

“You,” said Jack, “Have you looked upon reality?”

“I see clouds and failing stones.  I feel the wind.”

“But by them, somehow, you know other things.”

“I do not know everything.”

“But have you looked upon reality?”

“I—Once … I await the sunrise.  That is all.”

I highly recommend the novel if you can find it.  It’s a great story, but also has some deeper messages in there too.  One of Zelazny’s finest, in my opinion.

P.S.  The subject of magic vs. science also comes up in the first novel of the Madwand series titled Changeling, though not is as great a depth, and alluded to a number of times in the Amber series where some “Shadow” Earths (such as ours) are ruled more by technology than magic.

¹ If you’re wondering how the dark size of the Earth doesn’t freeze over, yes that is covered in the book.

Published by Doug

🎵Toss a coin to your Buddhist-Philhellenic-D&D-playing-Japanese-studying-dad-joke-telling-Trekker, O Valley of Plentyyy!🎵He/him

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