Naftali Harris

Popping the Hood

October 28, 2012

Lots of things appear to be magic: Computers, the Banach-Tarski Paradox, cars, the phenomenal success of companies like Facebook, airplanes, the Internet, the Central Limit Theorem, and the fact that bicycles and spinning tops don't fall over are just a few examples.

The reason that these facts, objects, or machines appear to be magic is that they aggressively defy our intuitions about how the world works. It's intuitively ridiculous that you can talk into an object you can hold in your hand and yet be heard by your family or friends thousands of miles away. It doesn't make any sense at all that you can take a three-dimensional sphere, split it into finitely many pieces, and reassemble those pieces to get two copies of the original sphere. And a 747 weighing almost one million pounds should definitely not be able to fly. Because these phenomena don't fit into our naive understanding of the world, they appear to be magic.

There's no such thing as magic, however. The only reason things appear to be magic is that we are ignorant of how they work. Implicitly thinking of things as "magic" is a hacky attempt to patch the holes in our incorrect understanding of the world. Rather than accepting that cars go forward for some "magic" reason when we push the gas pedal, we should take the time to pop the hood one day and actually find out why that is.

When we understand why complex things work, they cease to be magical. Looked at a certain way, this is depressing--the world loses its magic the more we learn. But I think this is actually as it should be. It's no more magical that there are different sizes of infinity than that 1 + 1 = 2, since both facts are fact, not magic.

You might also enjoy...