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When the magic works

I'm still finding myself in discussions about what the supernatural is.

To help show again why I consider that the supernatural is beyond the reach of evidence, I'll try and show what the supernatural isn't; what happens when magic is taken into the laboratory, with two examples:

The Magic Rocks

A lodestone is a strange rock, with mysterious origin. Some think it might be formed when lightning strikes. For the behaviour of lodestones has been known of for thousands of years. They attract some metals, and if they are suspended so that they can swing free, they all line up to that one side points North and the other South. Label the side that points North on two stones and try and bring those stones together with those sides facing and there is a force which resists. An invisible force that will go through glass, fabric, paper, but not metals. Opposite-labelled ends of stones will attract with an equal force. How much more magic could we get? Invisible forces, a rock sensing the distant lands of the North and the South. This magic has become part of our world. It's magnetism. So why isn't it magic any more? The magic has been tamed through familiarity of a kind. Scientists can predict what it will do, and can quantify its effects. When the magnetic magic works second after second, hour after hour, year after year, it loses its ability to awe. It shouldn't. Magnetism is a tiny remnant of the electrostatic force, unshielded by the effects of relativity. Moving electrons are no longer quite balanced by the charges on protons because of the way relativity distorts length, and the residual charge because of this imbalance gives us the magnetic force. So, the behaviour of a lodestone results from the existence of an ultimate speed limit stretching time and space. But even so, the daily use of countless magnets has made them no longer miraculous. They aren't even magical to the layman who does not know of their workings. Everyday magic isn't magic any more.

The Magic Force

There is a force in physics that is my favourite. I think it's amazing because it isn't a force at all. It's actually a rule, and without this rule our world would not exist. It's the Exclusion Principle. What it says is that two particles which have a multiple of half-integer spin can't occupy the same quantum state. That probably means nothing to non-physicists, so more simply it means that some particles can't get too near each other. This is true for electrons, which make up most of the volume of atoms. Electrons have to be spaced out because of this rule. You might think that this is something to do with their electric charge, as like charges attract, but it isn't. This is another factor.

As a result of this requirement that electrons can't just pile up together close to the nucleii of atoms, matter in our universe has much more volume that it would otherwise have. This spacing requirement also allows for the interactions between atoms that we call chemistry. This Exclusion Principle is clearly one of the most important aspects of our universe, and yet we have virtually no idea of what is actually going on. What has happened is that we have seen the behaviour of certain types of particles and found an elegant mathematical description of that behaviour: the Exclusion Principle. This has been the situation for so long that the mathematical description has gained the status of a force of nature. If someone asks why two spin-1/2 particles can't be in the same quantum state, they will be told “because of the Exclusion Principle”. Which isn't really an answer. It's as if a child asked an ornithologist how birds fly and was told “it's their bird-nature that keeps them in the air”. The “magic” that keeps particles from flocking together is not known, but the situation has become so familiar that it's rarely even considered to be a question worth answering. Yet again, what might seem justifiably “magic” becomes established as natural through familiarity.

These examples show why the supernatural is so elusive. Because that's what it has to be to be considered supernatural. As soon as there is the possibility of hard evidence for a supposedly supernatural phenomenon, the magic starts to fade. Familiarity makes what would have otherwise been considered magic mundane.

In other words, miracles stop being miracles when they are no longer news-worthy.

TAGGED: CRITICAL THINKING, SCIENCE


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