First, you must know I am a very enthusiastic fan of Harry Potter and his universe. I am not embarrassed by this in any way, but I have not reached true fangirl status (dressing up, fan mail, fapping to movie posters and the like). Still, if the HP universe existed, I would be leaking happiness! You would hear me squeal out various spells as I breezed past you on my broom.

I’ve been cruising AverageWizard (which is filled with many more intense fans than myself) and imagining what it would be like if my life truly was magical. Would being a skeptic mean something different than it does today? If magic existed, would we believe in a supernatural realm? What would be the cause of this magic? Since many spells fight the natural laws of our current universe, would these laws endure in the Harry Potter universe? Would there perhaps be new ways to explain magical events like transfiguration, immortal life, and flying broomsticks?

And as usual, I find that I am not the first to think of such things. Take Roger Highfield’s book The Science of Harry Potter for example.

[Highfield uses] the Potter corpus as the launching pad for a wonderful foray into genetics, biology, quantum theory, behaviorism, mythology, folklore, and more, bolstered by drawing on and extrapolating from the work of a great variety of scientists and scholars. Magic, like science, he states, affords many insights into the workings of the human brain, which he designates as the greatest wizard of all. Whether dealing with flying broomsticks, Quidditch, or Bertie Bott’s Every Flavor Beans, Highfield demonstrates how Muggle science has a leg up on many of the phenomena in Harry’s world. The book’s second half focuses more on the origins of magical thinking.

George Plitnik, a physics professor at Frostburg State University, even offered a seminar using the book. Talk about making science fun to learn!

So, would life be different for you if magic existed? Do you think supernatural beliefs would be more or less rampant in society? Would Jesus Christ have been a magician instead of a rabbi? Would we be suffering from the same crises of war, hunger, environmental pollution, and poverty? Would Harry Potter be the messiah in our next religion? Could a Satan myth exist in this world as the ruler of all dark magic?

P.S. Just in case you didn’t know, Daniel Radcliffe, the actor behind Harry Potter, is an atheist!

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13 thoughts on “Skeptics in the Harry Potter Universe”

mcbender · December 30, 2009 at 2:45 pm

I think I'll go with the paradox: if magic existed, it wouldn't be magic.

What I mean is this. If there were such a thing as "magic", there would be a mechanism by which it worked and we'd in principle be able to figure out what that mechanism is, and how it works. Therefore, it would be subject to scientific inquiry, and would merely be another natural force for us to contend with.

I bet plenty of people thought that magnetism was "magic" before the mechanism behind it was understood. The same is probably true of electricity, which allows us to do things that people in past ages would have only been able to pass off as miracles.

It's just a form of Clarke's Third Law: "any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic". I prefer the alternative formulation: "any sufficiently advanced magic is indistinguishable from technology".

    godlessgirl · December 30, 2009 at 3:47 pm

    That's a helpful way to put it, thanks.
    I am imagining that in a world of this Harry Potter-style magic, the mystery of it would have given early witches and wizards a special kind of power–perhaps even a demigod status. Put a wand into Jesus' hands, and the Bible stories would have been much similar, only the "magic of the holy spirit" would have been credited for the healings and water turning into wine, etc.

    Joshua Zelinsky · December 31, 2009 at 7:13 pm

    Strongly agree. If we had evidence of "magical" entities like ghosts or angels we'd just subject them to rigorous scientific examination. A lot of books and movies try to make a dichotomy between "science" and "magic" that shows a really poor understanding of what science is about. Most commonly electricity is labeled as scientific and it somehow either hurts magic or doesn't work around magical devices. In fact, Harry Potter is an example of this bad thinking in that electronics don't work around Hogwarts.

Nameless Cynic · December 30, 2009 at 9:05 pm

Well, if magic DID work, the Salem witch trials would have turned out differently, wouldn't they?

Personally, I've always kind of liked the Lord D'Arcy universe for that kind of thing. I'll admit, though, that I read and enjoyed the first three or so HP books – they're extremely well-written for "children's" books (to be honest, I read the first book prior to taking my kids to the movie, and thought that the movie managed to suck some of the life out of it). Just never finished the series.

    godlessgirl · December 31, 2009 at 8:02 pm

    It's worth it to finish. They get more dark, complex, and interesting!

      Joshua Zelinsky · January 1, 2010 at 7:34 pm

      The third book was definitely the best. There are however much better series in the "children doing magic" genre (is that a subset of urban fantasy?). Diane Duane's Young Wizards series is much better. The first three books, So You Want to Be a Wizard, Deep Wizardry, and High Wizardry are amazing. I serious have to wonder why Rowling does so well and Duane hasn't done nearly as well. It does indicate that popularity isn't very closely connected to quality.

strangelove222 · January 2, 2010 at 6:34 am

Looks like your website is under attack from supernatural forces…,4

you really need to add comment moderation to your blasphemy…


have you for but a moment considered that you have adopted a position against 98% of the human race, both past and present?

do you think you are RIGHT and they are all WRONG?


now listen to this arrogant puffed up son of a bitch….

little scientist geek who would try to usurp God Himself!!!

    mcbender · January 2, 2010 at 7:33 pm

    Why don't you stop posting this copy-pasted garbage on every atheistic site you can find, and actually do some thinking for yourself for once?

    Incidentally… yes, I do realise I am taking a position against the vast majority of the human race, and YES, I am right and they are wrong. Bugger off with your false dichotomies and fallacious reasoning. I don't think you're going to convince anybody by being a parrot…

    (I hope I'm not being too presumptuous in responding to this in lieu of more frequent commenters here).

DrMatt · January 4, 2010 at 3:34 am

I am amazed and possibly frightened that so many condemned Daniel for his religious views. (after the article on him) Rather strange considering the Calvinist view that "being a Christian" is not a choice but a pre-destination, so he is condemned for his "choice."

TheSecretAtheist · January 12, 2011 at 9:33 am

It is interesting to note that there IS some skepticism in the Harry Potter ‘verse. Many consider divination to be a fraud, and look at how many people ridicule Luna and her father for the things they publish in the Quibbler.

Yeah, I’m an HP nerd.

    Godless Girl · January 12, 2011 at 12:45 pm

    Good points! I hadn’t thought of that before. And hello to a fellow nerd!

Iason Ouabache · January 25, 2011 at 3:49 am

Have you heard about Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality yet? It’s a very long read but definitely worth it.

someguy · March 22, 2011 at 6:51 am

The Age of Unreason series by J. Gregory Keyes actually answers that. Essentially, it’s set in an alternate version of history where Isaac Newton creates the philosopher’s stone, making it manifest in the physical world which essentially makes magic really work. Naturally, the kings of Europe want to control magic for their own ends, even though they barely understand it themselves, and the churches are in a rush to define the supernatural realm according to their dogma – and burn anyone who disagrees as a heretic. We’ve got Peter the Great leading an invasion of flying ships, and Louis XIV calling down comets on his enemies and plunging the whole world into an ice age as the dust from the fallout blots out the sun.

The story follows the life and adventures of a young magician named Ben Franklin as he discovers the true nature of magic, grows up, helps found a new country that celebrates individual freedom and liberty, and fights off the forces of ignorance, superstition and tyranny.

As a boy, magical Ben Franklin could kick Harry Potter’s butt, and when he grows up he’s a match for Dumbledore, Gandalf and Ged.

And yeah, I know Gandalf is actually an angelic being, but Franklin takes on entities like that too.

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