I'm an ardent physicalist with a belief in the importance of the partial reduction of theories to physicalism. I have on occasion had discussions with philosophers here who challenge the existence of the natural/supernatural dichotomy, or in some way endorse supernaturalism. My question is directed at those who know something about theology and supernaturalism. Thus, despite ontologically rejecting supernaturalism and magic myself, I'm curious about the metaphysical presuppositions of others that entail belief.

(In response to comments: Naturalism for me is everything conveyed by an athiestic conception of a pluralism of sciences with partial reduction of theory with pragmatic criteria for the distinction of pseudoscience that takes a middle ground between realism and instrumentalism. Supernaturalism is therefore any ontological category outside of this.)

Simply put, for philosophical positions (even of non-Western schools) that accept supernaturalism, does acceptance metaphysically necessitate 'magic' as a category?

My sense is modern theologians accept 'miracles', but reject 'magic' based on my own discussions with those who profess the Book of Concord as a faithful characterization of Christian doctrine. But theology and supernaturalism is much broader than being a confessional Lutheran, so any relevant perspective, including historical philosophy such as the text of Mauro Allegranza's link is of interest.

  • It would be helpful to characterize what notions of (super)naturalism and magic that you are working with.
    – emesupap
    May 3, 2022 at 23:54
  • See also this post May 4, 2022 at 8:28
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    @Papuseme Added an edit.
    – J D
    May 4, 2022 at 14:39
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    Traditionally, the word "magic" was like the word "murder" carrying a moral condemnation with it. A priest who cast out demons was not doing magic, but a man who consorted with demons to get their aid was doing magic. So, "magic" meant something like "consorting with supernatural entities in illegitimate ways". The word no longer has that meaning, or any widely agreed meaning outside of fiction, so I don't know that this question is applicable today. May 4, 2022 at 15:25
  • @DavidGudeman That is an interesting dimension, that what constitutes magic can be normatively driven by theologians. Neo-pagan philosophy approaches magic broadly, but then perhaps the Catholic rite of exorcism would be excluded.
    – J D
    May 5, 2022 at 13:55

5 Answers 5


The range of supernaturalism is much broader and more general than the religious doctrines contained in the Book of Concord. Taking the definitions from wikipedia (emphasis J.W.):

  • The supernatural is phenomena or entities that are not subject to the laws of nature. […] The term is attributed to non-physical entities, such as angels, demons, gods, and spirits. It also includes claimed abilities embodied in or provided by such beings, including magic, telekinesis, levitation, precognition, and extrasensory perception.

  • The philosophy of naturalism contends that nothing exists beyond the natural world, and as such approaches supernatural claims with skepticism.

  • Magic or sorcery is the use of rituals, symbols, actions, gestures, or language with the aim of utilizing supernatural forces.

Hence Magic presupposes the existence of supernatural entities and forces. From a logical point of view the opposite relation does not hold. Because one may believe in the existence of supernatural entities but assume that we cannot influence them.

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    Good point; see Renaissance magic for an attempt to reconcile magic with Christian doctrine. May 4, 2022 at 8:27
  • @Mauro Thanks for the link. But I think it's better to keep Pandora's Box closed :-)
    – Jo Wehler
    May 4, 2022 at 13:12
  • @MauroALLEGRANZA I thank both of you as I seek to be less dismissive of the intellectualization of both 'supernatural' and 'magic'; the article on Renaissance magic invokes the 'philosophy' 14 times. But I can see how chaos might induced in discussion of the topic. :D
    – J D
    May 4, 2022 at 14:16

There are technical philosophical glosses of the concept of magic in modern fantasy writing. The problematique starts at the narrative level: "Is the guiding problem of the story a problem posed by magic? And how much magic is involved in the solution?" Then magic is formally read back into "the conditions of magical problems and solutions," so perhaps impredicatively, although then the two authors who have developed this theory the most (to my knowledge, and separately) do go on to structure the use of magic in their stories in a pretty "rigorous" manner.

So the stronger of the two embeds the ontology of magic, in his broadest work, into the matter/energy dichotomy, posing the counterfactual question, "If matter and energy are two species under an even more elementary genus, then what if there was a third term under the same genus?" Voila, presto, abracadabra, here you go: this third term, locally designated investiture, plays the narrative role of magic.

Aleister Crowley defined magic like so:

Magick is the Science and Art of causing Change to occur in conformity with Will. ... Every intentional act is a Magical act.... Magick is the Science of understanding oneself and one's conditions. It is the Art of applying that understanding in action.

And the narrative role of magic, in general, seems to be to give characters a way to cause highly distinct physical effects using pure free will (emotionally and/or intellectually interpreted). In a related historical vein, then, Hume portrayed the naive theory of promises as magical thinking "at its finest":

... promissory obligations aren't just contingent upon acts of the will, like the obligations we might incur by deliberately damaging someone's property, but (at least it seems on first reflection) they are immediately created by acts of the will. When I promise to do something, it seems that by so doing I have created the obligation to do it. This feature makes promissory obligations a special puzzle for naturalistic ethical theories that hope to explain moral obligations without recourse to super-natural entities. The idea that we simply manufacture promissory obligations by speaking them, like an incantation, is decidedly mysterious. As Hume acidly remarked in the Treatise:

I shall further observe, that, since every new promise imposes a new obligation of morality on the person who promises, and since this new obligation arises from his will; it is one of the most mysterious and incomprehensible operations that can possibly be imagined, and may even be compared to transubstantiation or holy orders, where a certain form of words, along with a certain intention, changes entirely the nature of an external object, and even of a human creature. (Treatise, 3.2.5–14/15–524; emphasis in the original)

If, as with Kant, we try to locate free will "proper" in an eternal realm where God possibly exists, we will be hard-pressed to avoid the appearance of talking about magic, then; and what Hume mocked respecting obligations from promises becomes the manifold of all our responsibilities whatsoever instead, i.e. again the pure will.

So for all that, narrative will-theoretic magic tropes might represent their content as embedded in what is otherwise a physical/natural world. What do we say to Clarke's "lemma," that sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic? If God's nature is Its will (in some way that our mortal nature is not completely simultaneous with our will), then if God does something by magic, this is actually to do it by nature too, as well as supernaturally all at once. A feat worthy of an omnipotent paradox, perhaps.

  • As always, your vocabulary lessons are enjoyed. It appears to me from a naturalized epistemology that the ontological acceptance of magic is rooted in the attempt to extend performativity to a non-anthropic object. It's fascinating how storytellers are sensitive to philosophical truths.
    – J D
    May 4, 2022 at 14:34

It seems to me that magic is referring to the intervention of someone in the (accepted) laws of a system in order to attain something that otherwise cound not be attained, metaphorically speaking "bending" the laws. On the other hand supernatural refers to something that is happening that is considered outside of the (accepted) laws, either because of ignorance of the (real) laws or because of someone's magic. So magic is from the point of doing something and supernatural from the point of viewing. (It's like energy and information!).

  • Welcome! Thanks.
    – J D
    May 13, 2022 at 14:06

As a preamble, I consider it to be poor practice to use the term "supernatural" for the non-physical. "Natural" has a very clear meaning in epistemology -- it describes the items/events/forces which are subject to the tools of methodological naturalism -- IE empiricism and reasoning. Super-naturalism, from an epistemological perspective, are those things which one cannot apply reasoning and empiricism to. Use of "supernatural" for the ontologic category "spiritual" or for any non-physical thing, which are different but common uses, leads almost immediately into equivocation errors relative to epistemological meanings of natural and supernatural.

Note, there are many ontologically supernatural categories which are not epistemologically supernatural. All of Thomist philosophy and metaphysics, for instance, is purely rationalistic -- IE methodologically natural. And vitalism was a specialty within the science of biology at the start of the 20th century. And mathematics, logic, and ethics, do not appear to be physical fields, yet they are very much subject to methodological naturalism.

With that preamble, I will try to answer your question. There are two questions at issue. The first has to do with the ontology of our universe. Are there multiple fundamentally different types of things in it, or only one? And further, you are assuming that the existence of matter is beyond question, so the one is assumed to be material. What you are describing as "supernaturalism" would encompass a diverse set of ontologies, ranging from Platonic Idealism, Tegmark/Pythagorean math as source of everything, thru the Mind-centric idealist-leaning Perennial Philosophy, any concept of interactive spiritual dualism, Popper's strongly emergent consciousness, and probably Russellian Monism as well. Your "supernatural" just appears to be the postulate that there are non physical things or planes in our universe.

All of the above ontologic views assume that non-material things can be causal on the material -- IE that physics is not causally closed. This interaction, from outside physics, is generally described as "magic" by physicalists. "Magic" is the method by which the ontic supernatural interacts with the physical.

Physicalism is committed to the presumption that physics is causally closed, hence magic is impossible. Physics is not causally closed, and cannot be for multiple reasons.

  1. Physics is underdetermined, hence an outside influence can influence an outcome within that suite of options, entirely consistently with physics
  2. Physics, so long as it is an actual science, is by definition incomplete, as well as uncertain, so cannot exclude any phenomenon or outcomes (both ontic "supernatural" and "magic" are consistent with physics, so long as physics is not complete).
  3. No space within our universe, nor the universe itself, can ever be isolated from outside influence. Both entanglement and cosmology assume that no physical system can ever be completely isolated from outside influences.
  4. There are no absolute "laws" in science, only occasionally violated regularities, so causal closure, applied as a "law" is contrary to science.

Some principles of "magic", by which Platonic Forms influence their shadows in this world, or by which the Will to Power creates life events, or how Consciousness and Neurons both are reflections of the Russelian monod, are postulated or assumed in each of these differing ontologies. But most of the details are currently not filled it. Provided these "supernatural" ontologies are not epistemologically supernatural, than the application of methodological naturalism should allow the details to gradually get filled in as to how magic works in that ontology. Or else identify sufficient problems and/or contradictions that could lead to the abandonment of that ontology by most of its holders.

Note philosophy over the millenia has been subject to methodological naturalism, and subject areas and sciences have emerged from it to become their own science or academic specialty, as progress is made in characterizing how to evaluate that subject. "Magic" based "supernatural" ontologies are generally committed to this as a future path for their assumed ontology.

For an example of training a skill of "magic", IE applying methodological naturalism to refine a magic methodology, look a the methods developed by the CIA to perform remote viewing. Here is an example site that offers this training today: https://remoteviewingtraining.com/

For an example of a work that presumes the Perennial Philosophy as a starting point for doing science, and intrinsically accepts magic see Beyond Physicalism: Toward Reconciliation of Science and Spirituality https://www.amazon.com/gp/customer-reviews/RZY1A4EL2JOZ4?ref=pf_vv_at_pdctrvw_srp. This work treats "magic" as able to potentially operate through all 4 of the exceptions to causal closure of the physical I noted.

For one that takes a far more restrictive view of magic, and assumes that it will only act within the indeterminism of physics of the first exception, see Swinburne: Mind, Brain, and Free Will https://www.amazon.com/gp/customer-reviews/R18J8OJA7QPLKX?ref=pf_vv_at_pdctrvw_srp. Eccles also limits his magic to the indeterminate parts of physics: How the SELF Controls Its BRAIN https://www.amazon.com/How-SELF-Controls-Its-BRAIN/dp/3642492266/ref=sr_1_1?crid=XBJGKN0G1Q5X&keywords=eccles+how+the+brain&qid=1651905829&sprefix=eccles+how+the+brain%2Caps%2C214&sr=8-1

For an effort to understand how energy conservation could or could not apply to "magic" see this question and answer: 'The Zero Energy Hypothesis and its consequences for particle creation and dualist interactionism' https://physics.stackexchange.com/q/494408/181964

As to whether one must accept magic if one accepts "supernatural" ontology -- that one need not do so is the position of epiphenomenalism. Epiphenomenalism has a challenge to explain its own coherence, as asserting the truth of epiphenomenalism appears to be intrinsically a refutation of its own premise (assertions are physical, and presumably asserting the reality of consciousness as a non-physical item is a consequence of the reality of consciousness, hence is an examples of consciousness being causal on the physical). Despite the coherence difficulties, there are epiphenomenalists among current active philosophers. Both Chalmers and Jackson are "supernaturalists" relative to consciousness, and anti-magic epiphenomenalists relative to the effect of consciousness on the physical.


There is no such thing as supernatural. Everything that exists is natural.

Magic comes in two flavours:

  • Entertainment magic creates an illusion of something impossible.
  • "Real" magic is nothing but advanced technology that only looks impossible to an uneducated observer.
  • I didn't downvote. Your claims are the essence of my own position, and yet there's a highly established literature of theology and adjacent philosophical doctrines on magic; so, whether or not I agree with the conclusion, I'm curious as to what the arguments are. This is the essence of philosophy, not just to draw conclusions, but understand how others draw theirs. Thus, while our metaphysical presuppositions agree, I'm curious about the metaphysical presuppositions of others.
    – J D
    May 4, 2022 at 14:26
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    Unsupported assertions, which appear merely to be expressions of your own wishes about the universe, are not "good answers" on this site.
    – Dcleve
    May 7, 2022 at 5:20
  • Please, explain what assertions and wishes you are referring to. My answer consists only of logical definitions. Supernatural is a religious wish for something outside of observable reality. I do not have such wishes. May 8, 2022 at 17:56

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