Magical Thinking


The arguments about the alleged war between science and religion have missed something important: the difference between science and technology. While some of the apparent differences involve science (does the theory of evolution conflict with the Christian idea of creation?), others, frequently the most contentious, involve technology (is the destruction of a human embryo appropriate if an apparently desirable end can be achieved?).

The late science-fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke said that a truly advanced technology would be indistinguishable from magic. It’s an interesting thought, and says something about what is wrong, potentially, with both magic and technology. It is also interesting that the sentence would make no sense if the word “science” were substituted for technology. We often equate the two words, and we shouldn’t.

Science is always tentative, exploratory, and capable of being corrected. It is limited to what can be weighed, measured, and replicated, and that is its great strength. Technology has to do with the manipulation of what science discovers, or is thought to have discovered. Science asks, “What is this?” Technology asks, “What can I do with this?” In this sense science has more in common with philosophy and theology, and technology with magic.

Magic has always been manipulative. Leave aside the question of whether it works, whether you...

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About the Author

John Garvey is an Orthodox priest and columnist for Commonweal. His most recent book is Seeds of the Word: Orthodox Thinking on Other Religions.