My youngest son is very keen on magic, which he insists is real. The boy certainly knows what he means by it, but do we?

He believes, for example, that wishes wash dishes, that one who desires hard enough will fly, that a mind that believes in its own power can create thing or situation that he desires. This statement of means and ends takes us a little way towards understanding his view, but we need a more precise and yet abstract account if we are to grasp the misapprehension at its root.

Let us turn over in our minds all the instances of magic in fiction and folk tale and stage magic that we can recall, and from that material construct a naturalistic and composite definition. I cannot reach your reports, but my own experience of these sources suggests that without exception all instances of supposed magic contain an element of surprise, indicating that what has gone before provides no clue of what is to come. In other words, there is a discontinuity; the statistical regularities of the past break off and something quite unexpected enters from behind the curtain.

Magical thinking is the belief that these discontinuities can occur frequently and in relation to fulfilled desires:

Magic is the discontinuation of the world’s statistical regularities in accordance with a human wish.

We can add by way of further explanation that White magic is a discontinuity coincident with my (or our) wishes; black magic is a discontinuity coincident with your (or their) wishes when these contradict my own wishes and those of any other person I nominate.

The element of surprise and discontinuity means that to an ignorant person, largely unaware of the world’s regularities (there does seem to be a naive physics built in at birth), much is indeed to all appearance magical, in either its black or white varieties. But that person will lose this sense of the magical as their observations broaden and they come to perceive the world’s statistical order and to recognise that what they had thought were discontinuous novelties are statistically predicted by what has gone before.

We can now see that science, which is at its heart nothing more (or less) than the observation of statistical regularities, is intrinsically hostile to magic. One must note, however, that these anti-magical qualities of science are derived from observation only, not from any assertion of causal relationships between observations, which are notoriously uncertain (see Hume) and constitute the sceptical core of human science. But this lack of a firm causal relationship is irrelevant. Magic is banished by the observation of regularity however that is caused, and about which causation we need make no presumption.

Thus, the adult view is scientific insofar as more observations have been made, more regularities detected. – What seems magical to my son at present will, before long and as he ages, seem entirely continuous with all that has gone before. That which is in accordance with his wishes he will see as fortunate, not White Magical, and that which runs counter to his desires he will accept simply and logically as undesirable, rather than maliciously Black Magical.

There are already signs of this development, and it seems to be accelerating alongside his ability to read. That may seem bizarre since what he reads is largely fantastical narrative fiction. However, magic is undermined by literacy itself, since without literacy, and in the absence of the records made possible by written notation, we struggle to retain awareness of sufficient information to observe detailed regularities, and so the world appears to a much greater degree irregular and so potentially magical. Even as he reads contrived stories about dragons and spirits my son will be exposed to the intersubjective records of real-world regularities that authors must, whether they wish to or not, employ as a contrasting background to magic in fiction, and so he will be introduced, gradus ad Parnassum, to the records that we call human science, stretching from history on the one hand to mathematics on the other.

While at its most absurd, literary fantasy undermines the tendency to think magically precisely because of its written character. I would prefer him to be reading Richard Feynman, but his interest in Harry Potter and Beast Quest does not throw me into despair, at least not yet.