Magic in the modern day is basically an extension of the idea that you can do anything if you want it enough. It’s literally an extension of desire. Lily Potter saves Harry with her Love Shield because she just wants him to live so much. In virtually all fiction settings magic is fueled by the caster’s inner state, and the greater their dedication, commitment, and passion, the stronger the effect that can achieve. (I can’t speak for pre-modern conceptions of magic.) I even saw this in real life when I was married to an evangelical Christian, though their term was “believing.” I often heard “I’m believe in a miracle” or “If you believe hard enough, Jesus will heal you,” or similar. But it was just wanting dressed up in faithy words.
It’s not a matter of a desire driving someone to train hard, research intently, and do the strenous work over months or years or decades to achieve their goal. The desiring in itself did the work. And while I saw why this is an attractive fantasy, it just seemed so mindbogglingly dumb that I scoffed at it in fiction, and threw mad shade IRL.
But Scott Alexander’s recent review of “Surfing Uncertainty” put some new light on this old trope. He presents the idea that the way our physical movement works is literally by us wanting to move hard enough it becomes reality.
the brain really hates prediction error and does its best to minimize it. With failed predictions about eg vision, there’s not much you can do except change your models and try to predict better next time. But with predictions about proprioceptive sense data (ie your sense of where your joints are), there’s an easy way to resolve prediction error: just move your joints so they match the prediction. So (and I’m asserting this, but see Chapters 4 and 5 of the book to hear the scientific case for this position) if you want to lift your arm, your brain just predicts really really strongly that your arm has been lifted, and then lets the lower levels’ drive to minimize prediction error do the rest.
Under this model, the “prediction” of a movement isn’t just the idle thought that a movement might occur, it’s the actual motor program.
In a sense, the idea that “wanting something really hard can affect the natural world” is literally true. And on some intuitive level, it seems natural to at least ask “why does this stop with my body?” Magical thinking may just be an extension of our ingrained movement models. If predicting hard enough that our arm will raise causes our arm to raise, why wouldn’t predicting super-hard that the lightsaber will fly into my hand cause it to fly into my hand? It almost seems unfairly arbitrary for the world to draw the line at the body! Maybe I’m the freak for scoffing at the idea, and the natural state is to accept that it should be possible.
I suppose it does make me feel less guilty about dumb thoughts like “Oh god, please don’t break!” when I see a glass tipping from my counter and I can’t get to it in time. Yeah, the thought won’t change anything in the real world, but it’s understandable why my instincts would lead me to send that desire out.