Following my previous post on post-scarcity fantasy, what would scientific inquiry look like in a world where economic and social relations are dominated by magic? As we saw in the previous post, even if only a small number of people have magical power, and only a small number of them have more than a little, we can solve significant social welfare problems without actually understanding anything about the way the world works. We can fly without understanding gravity or aerodynamics; we can cure disease without understanding biology or genetics, and we can prevent disease through the brute force of secondary prevention (treating a disease so fast that it doesn’t get time to spread); we can inquire into guilt or innocence without establishing a proper system of policing or law enforcement. Whole areas of scientific and social inquiry become a waste of time, because we already have the solution – and a lot of modern scientific and social knowledge developed from the quest for solutions in an uncertain world.

So what kind of scientific inquiry would happen in a world short-circuited in this way? I think that a lot of questions would still be explored, but in very different ways, and perhaps through a different epistemology (? I’m going to use this term from now on without being 100% sure I am using it right ?) of knowledge. Most magical systems give us a variety of detection spells, and also the ability to commune with higher beings or outsiders, often gaining only elusive answers and not necessarily getting the full picture. In fact, much of the knowledge one gains from magic is, contra its image of mystical depth, completely superficial. Spirits and demi-gods give vague, elusive answers; detection magic will tell us that a person is diseased, but won’t tell us anything about what a disease is, what it is caused by, or where it fits into the world as we know it. Let’s consider how inquiry might proceed under such a worldview. I will use examples I know from the world of public health, but you could easily consider others. I’ll give three examples – two medically interesting, one socially revolutionary – and then discuss the underlying epistemology.

The First AIDS Case

Consider the first identified AIDS case in the USA, about 1983. This was a symptomatic case, so the person had probably had HIV for about 10 years; there were undoubtedly others in the community who were still asymptomatic, and spreading the disease by an as-yet-undiscovered method. After a couple more cases had been identified the Centres for Disease Control did some investigating and found out all the cases were likely gay men. They didn’t know how it was transmitted, but assumed it was a disease and therefore transmission was probably preventable, though its possible relationship to gay lifestyle meant they wondered also if it might be the result of some other non-biological cause (prime candidate: amyl nitrate). After a short period of investigation they guessed it was probably sexually transmitted, and suggested some basic public health measures; there was debate about closing gay saunas. It took 4 years of intense work before someone in France (I think) identified the HIV virus, and I think about the same time they developed an antibody test. Roughly during this time they also developed a taxonomy of AIDS, so that they could identify symptomatic HIV and AIDS, understand the course of the disease, and make prognoses. All the identified symptoms were actually symptoms of other, opportunistic infections, so they introduced a system of checks to identify whether someone likely had AIDS – this kind of thing is essential for passive case-finding to play a role in monitoring the spread of HIV. It takes 3 months for the antibody test to work due to the seroconversion window period, and it’s not 100% accurate (though very close). After another 4 years the first anti-retrovirals were introduced, and treatment improved. Now, 30 years after the first cases were identified, people with HIV can expect to live a basically normal life, though there is not yet a cure.

Compare this with what would happen with a first case in Faustusville. The patient would present with unusual symptoms, so the cleric’s first question would be – is this a disease or a curse? This is answered in one round, using a spell. Then the cleric, noting that the symptoms are new, would cast Remove Disease and send the patient home. A few months later another patient would turn up with another set of symptoms that were iconic opportunistic infections, and the same process would be followed. The symptoms for the second patient might be different to the first; the cleric doesn’t care one whit. It’s a disease, with symptoms. Not only would the cleric not know that the diseases were caused by the same underlying process, but this information would be irrelevant. In the case of a disease like HIV, even the transmission method would be irrelevant.

The First Black Death Cases

By contrast, the black death would be scary. Multiple cases would present in a very short period, suffering extreme discomfort. The disease would probably spread before the cleric had treated all the initial cases (due to incubation periods, and the role of fleas). So it would be in the township’s interests to identify how it is spreading – even though no one understands disease, hygiene or biology at all. So investigation would be necessary. This could be done, quite simply, with a commune spell, which would potentially give the cleric all the (superficial) information they need to prevent it. Suppose the cleric notices that people in the same household tend to get the disease first. Then he or she invokes the commune spell – which gives only yes or no answers – and off we go:

Cleric: Is this new disease more likely to be spread within a household?

God: Yes

Cleric: Is it spread directly by contact between individuals within the household?

God: No

Cleric: Is there some other vector of transmission operating within the household?

God: Yes

So we’ve established that it’s an environmental problem, not a direct human-to-human transmission problem. Now we can make an exhaustive list of things in the victim’s homes, and just keep asking questions (with commune spells) until we get a reasonable list of culprits. We can also ask additional questions like “can we solve the problem by reducing overcrowding?” Note that this kind of question-and-answer system would be very effective in the prevention of malaria, dysentery – a whole range of basic infectious diseases – but without knowing anything about the disease itself. And as time goes on, clerics will start to produce a set of questions that are useful, such as the vector question. Consider:

Cleric: Does this disease have a transmission vector?

God: Yes

Cleric: Is it human?

God: No

Cleric: An insect?

God: Yes

There you go, you’ve just found the first step in preventing malaria.

Changing Society with Three Questions

Consider now this exchange between the cleric and a god.

Cleric: I have noticed that women sometimes get a minor disease after sex, that can be very painful. Is this a punishment for their immorality?

God: No

Cleric: Is it caused by any malignant spirit of any kind?

God: No

Cleric: So, it is simply a disease that is transmitted through sexual activity?

God: Yes

With this set of questions the cleric has established that there is no link between the suffering we experience as mortals and our morality. Pursuing this with a few other issues (such as cancer, stillbirths, etc.) will soon serve to establish that there is no moral dimension to illness. The last 200 years of the development of medicine have been heavily coloured by this debate – particularly about sexually transmitted infection and sex work – but in our medieval world, without knowing anything about the disease itself, its process of transmission or the biology of sex, our superstitious cleric has answered this question – direct from God.

How this Affects Knowledge

This kind of question-answer process of inquiry will obviously affect both our understanding of the universe around us, and the way that we construct scientific inquiry. Faith is a very different phenomenon when you not only know that your god exists, but you speak to that God and ask direct questions about the morality of your universe. God may have set you some strictures about sex; but then you ask god and it tells you that sexually transmitted infections have no relationship to breaches of moral codes. Bye bye stigma and shame! Furthermore, other key moral questions can be answered definitively: “Are women inferior to men?” “Are black people smarter than white people?” These inquiries shine a light into our morality in a way that modern science just cannot.

Yet at the same time, we don’t know anything about what’s really going on. Our inquiries are superficial, and only as good as our hunches. Our investigative process does not consist of positing hypotheses based on theory, then testing them through experiment. Rather, we build hunches based on observation and test by asking God. We build knowledge through sentence cascades: by considering what we will ask God if he says no to our first question, and what we will ask if she says yes. Then we go away and compare the knowledge with what we see happening, and build some more question-chains, and come back and ask more.

With this kind of system of inquiry, we can learn that birds don’t fly by magic and that it’s impossible for humans to build a non-magical wing that enables them to copy the process. But we can’t understand the actual process of flight. To do such a thing we would have to release a flock of pigeons and cast Time Stop, then walk amongst them, observing their wings. Or perhaps with an ingenious process of illusions we could film them and replay the illusions slowly. We could posit the existence of an aether, and God could tell us we are wrong. But we could never find out the speed of light, because to do so would require that we develop a process of experimentation that is alien to the way we gather knowledge.Over time – and especially if clerical power became more widespread, and more influential – it would become increasingly difficult to think of other ways of inquiring into a problem, just as most westerners now find it hard to believe knowledge that isn’t obtained through scientific inquiry.

Also, the knowledge we did gather would be highly concentrated amongst those in the immediate orbit of the clerics. Class and caste differences might disappear from our society, but power structures based on knowledge and magical possession would become very strong. And of course, the clerics could lie, and we would need to obey what they told us, because it comes directly from God, mediated by no book or historical debate. If the clerics commune with God and tell the Lord of Faustusville that a strict caste system is essential for the good of society, then a strict caste system we must have – who goes against God? This knowledge is not only absolute but almost completely unobtainable for those not in the proper caste. But would the clerics feel comfortable lying about what God told them, knowing God was real? And what if Lord Faustus insisted that all commune spells be cast from within multiple Zone of Truth spells? In fact, it seems likely to me that social development based on this type of inquiry would bifurcate early on into two very different paths: one based on complete truth and adherence to moral codes based on understanding the world as it is really known through direct inquiry; or a social path in which a clique of evil, treacherous clerics use their knowledge of the universe to further their own power while lying ruthlessly about God’s teachings to the masses, in order to hold them in a society that the clerics desire. In the former society there would be no discrimination based on imperfect knowledge, no social structures based on false assumptions, and no moral codes that were unnecessary. It would be a strange place indeed. The latter society would become increasingly authoritarian as the clerics controlled access to the truth ever more tightly, and would have a fatalistic view of the future and of social order that would be truly terrifying. You can’t rise above your station because God says so; you can’t commit crime because they will catch you; you can’t leave because they won’t let you; you can’t rebel because everyone genuinely believes that it is the correct natural order of things; you can’t prove otherwise because no one will ever believe you. It’s the worst excesses of the dark history of our own churches, held together by the worst abuse of supernatural power – and everyone believes it is right.

So, even as we were solving social and welfare problems, we would be creating a society with no potential to learn or develop new ideas, filled only with superficial and disconnected knowledge. Like the world we would inhabit tomorrow if all scientists died and all books burnt so only the internet remained, and we had to relearn how the world works from wikipedia, accessed through a single computer terminal by a clique of 5 people.

What a terrifying thought!