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After reading Harry Potter series, I can't really figure out what nature of magic did J.K. Rowling try to picture in their books. Sometimes the spells seem to be basically "mathematical" in their nature, performed very literally up to the point when it's unfavourable for the caster. In other cases, such as teleportation, the effects seem to be "whimsy" as if there was some external entity that decided whether they would work or not.

Are there any rules on this in the Harry Potter universe? Is magic an exact science here in any sense?

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  • Can you explain what you mean in the part about teleportation? The process and rules for Apparition seem pretty well laid out in the books, though there are also protective spells that can prevent it mentioned. Jun 2 '14 at 13:53
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    In the fanfic "Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality", Harry pursues that very question...
    – Beta
    Jun 2 '14 at 15:23
  • Dunno who downvoted but as I stated in my answer some things actually determine how powerful magic is and there are some laws of magic, like how you can't just create food like Gamp's Law of Transfiguration. Jun 2 '14 at 19:04
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    Fan fic is not canon. That said, Gamp's Law of Transfiguration indeed does not allow for the creation of food out of thin air, but it does allow for the conjuring of food that already exists. So when in CoS Prof. McGonagall conjures up a huge plate of sandwiches for Ron and Harry, that plate of sandwiches had already been made. She was just "transfiguring" it from point A to point B (I couldn't figure out a better term to use). I wonder if House-elves are bound by Gamp's Law ...? Jun 2 '14 at 20:28
  • I roll double 6s for "Complete lack of comprehending Maths by JKR" Aug 8 '14 at 0:29
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There really isn't much consistency specially when you are delving into the information deeply and trying to decipher any rules or structure it may have there are a number of examples for things that can happen which shouldn't.

There are however a set of rules for the magic in Harry Potter Adalbert Wafflings Fundamental Laws of magic. The first is mentioned in The Tales of Beedle the Bard and is

Adalbert Waffling's Fundamental Laws of Magic: Tamper with the deepest mysteries -- the source of life, the essence of self -- only if prepared for consequences of the most extreme and dangerous kind.

I don't think we learn any more of Adalbert's laws.

There are also the five exceptions to Gamp’s Law of Elemental Transfiguration but the only confirmed one is food.

‘Yeah, well, food’s one of the five exceptions to Gamp’s Law of Elemental Transfiguration,’ said Ron, to general astonishment.

Speculation on the others include Money, Old Life (Death well bringing someone back from death anyway, even one of the hallows cannot do that properly) and Love.

It should be noted that water can be conjured out of thin air which you may think is food but we have a quote from JKR on thin air conjuring:

“There is legislation about what you can conjure and what you can’t. Something that you conjure out of thin air will not last. This is a rule I set down for myself early on.”

sixth down -> http://www.accio-quote.org/articles/2000/0700-swns-alfie.htm

In conclusion there are laws behind Magic in Harry Potter and how it can and cannot be used but there have been exceptions to the rules and they have also been kept mainly vague. I would imagine JKR kept them vague as to not limit herself later on in the books as they were introduced quite early on.

When it comes to Making spells

On top of this when it comes to your exact Science quote we may think back to when harry had the Half Blood Prince's text book here we saw that when Snape was designing and inventing SectumSempra he swapped out and crossed out many different words. This shows an experimental approach to magic to try and find the best combination or a combination which most closely produces your desired affects. It has never been described how to create spells exactly though so we do not know what the specific process is. It has been assumed that there are general wand movements for certain types of spells and then the combo of words as above, I would imagine that you would improve wand movements in the same way as you would words through experimentation. Although I don't recall the wand movement for SectumSempra being describe in the books so this would lead me to believe general wand movements are something that is known in the potterverse.

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  • I don't think that "water out of thin air" is exactly correct. Water vapor is a large component of air, and you don't create it, you condense it. I would think the "thin air" comment would be more like the disappearing gold from the Quidditch World Cup.
    – JohnP
    Jun 2 '14 at 14:57
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    @JohnP Yeah, I'm not entirely sure how it works. I mean if you conjure it and then it disappears after a while that's fine as it obeys the laws. I would also say it uses the moisture around you, but the source of water for Aguamenti is debated. Jun 2 '14 at 15:02
  • water vs food was discussed before: scifi.stackexchange.com/a/24801/976 Jun 2 '14 at 15:51
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    @DVK I have seen the question and answer before but i was more referring to the JKR Quote so with Aguamenti I would assume you can conjure water but it will not last. That's just what i think though obviously you are entitled to interpret anyway you wish. I'm sure how drinking Aguamenti water would work (with my assumption) you would be able to drink it but it may disappear before you body takes advantage of it. I must say though water is definitely not food hmm JKR is confusing me with this one. Jun 3 '14 at 7:49
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It isn't.

If works as the author sees fit, without caring very much in having an internal consistency, or anything that can be reasoned on.

There is no "grand scheme", no "laws of magic", nothing that you would expect in, say, an RPG. It's just plain old "it's magic".


PS: this isn't intended as a rant, HP is incredibly enjoyable if you manage to suspend disbelief and reject logic. If you try to make sense out of something, however, you'll get none.

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Specifically when it comes to deep, advanced magic, JKR expressely stated it is NOT scientific:

It is important to state that I always saw these kinds of magic (the very deepest life and death issues) as essentially un-scientific; in other words, there is no “Elder Wand + Lily’s Blood = Assured Survival” formula.
(source: JKR FAQs, "What exactly happened when Voldemort used the Avada Kedavra curse on Harry in the forest?")

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There are a few "laws" or "rules" that govern how spells work in Harry Potter, but there are a few things things that have connections with stuff that determines how effective a spell is.

Emotion is one of them for certain spells.

http://harrypotter.wikia.com/wiki/Magic

For instance Nymphadora Tonks losing her powers.

A witch or wizard's emotional state can affect their inherent abilities. For example, Nymphadora Tonks temporarily lost her power as a Metamorphmagus after suffering severe emotional turmoil and sadness over her grief for the death of Sirius Black, and when Remus Lupin would not return her affections. In effect, the form of her Patronus changed to reflect her love for him.

Another being Dumbledore's sister's magic being volatile from being emotionally scarred.

As related to Harry by Dumbledore during their private lessons, Merope Gaunt only demonstrated any magical ability when removed from her father's oppression, but then seemed to lose it again when her husband abandoned her. Many other examples of emotion-influenced magic include Ariana Dumbledore (Dumbledore's sister) being emotionally scarred at a young age and then her magic turned volatile and uncontrolled.

And the best example is emotion based magic :

Several magical spells involve the use of emotion when casting them. The Patronus Charm, for example, requires the caster to concentrate on a happy memory. Force of will under extenuating circumstances also helps in casting spells, and affects the force with which they are cast. An example of this is when Harry is able to conjure a corporeal Patronus when Sirius Black is in danger of being administered the Dementor's Kiss.

Another example of magic and emotions is when Ron Weasley caused it to snow above him with his wand when he felt guilt over breaking up with Lavender Brown without using any worded spells.

Magic is sometimes an exact science because there are some rules for it in general.

Such rules include :

  • Rule of Conjuration : While it is possible to conjure things out of thin air, it is far more tricky to create something that fits an
    exact specification rather than a general one; moreover, any objects
    so conjured tend not to last.
  • Rule Against Ressurection : It is also impossible to resurrect the dead. While corpses can be transformed into obedient Inferi on a
    living wizard's command, they are little more than zombies with no
    soul or will of their own. It is also possible via the rare Priori
    Incantatem effect to converse with ghost-like "shadows" of magically
    murdered people. The Resurrection Stone also allows one to talk to
    the dead, but those brought back by the Stone are not corporeal, nor
    do they wish to be disturbed from their peaceful rest. The result of
    such a summoning is usually detrimental to the summoner.
  • Rule Against Immortality : Likewise, it is impossible to make oneself immortal unless one makes use of a mystical object of great
    power to sustain life (such as the Philosopher's Stone created by
    Nicolas Flamel or a Horcrux, the latter having been used by Lord
    Voldemort and Herpo the Foul). Becoming a ghost is also an option for wizards and witches; however, it is said that this is "a pale
    imitation of life". Whether or not ghosts are truly sentient beings
    possessed of an independent existence is unclear; Snape states that a ghost is merely "the imprint of a departed soul left upon the earth".
  • Laws of Elemental Transfiguration : Food is one of these: witches or wizards can cook and prepare food using magic, but not create it from nothing. Out of the five exceptions, only food is mentioned
    explicitly, although speculation has proposed many other
    possibilities. There is a strong possibility that money is another
    exception, since if wizards could simply materialise money out of
    thin air the economic system of the wizarding world would be
    seriously disrupted.

As mentioned in another answer there is the "Fundemental Laws of Magic" as well. The most notable was the first law, as not many others were shown in the series. As stated in the wikia :

http://harrypotter.wikia.com/wiki/Fundamental_Laws_of_Magic

The Fundamental Laws of Magic are, presumably, a number of statements about the general nature of magic. They were formulated by the magical theoretician Adalbert Waffling, the first of which is quoted above. It's unknown how many Laws Waffling created.

The exact consequences mentioned in the first law are not known, only vaguely stated to be "of the most extreme and dangerous kind". However, during Albus Dumbledore's discussion of the first law in his notes on the well known fairytale "The Warlock's Hairy Heart" (in The Tales of Beedle the Bard), he mentions that "in seeking to become super-human this foolhardy young man renders himself inhuman".

The wikia states that the first law somewhat mimics Newton's third law because violators of the first law always end up with some sort of karmic payback.

Likewise, Dumbledore also notes that the creation of a Horcrux evokes the first law, tampering with the essence of self or rather "dividing what was clearly not meant to be divided...body and soul". Voldemort created the number of Horcruxes he did solely in order to fulfil his perennial goal of evading death. Therefore, when he was finally killed the result is almost as karmic as the aforementioned warlock's: in seeking to fix himself immutably to one plane forever he renders himself eternally removed from all of them, save "the between-space".

Therefore, it may be that the consequences of the first Fundamental Law of Magic (when evoked) mimic Newton's Third Law of Motion: For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.

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    Why is this answer downvoted?
    – d33tah
    Jun 2 '14 at 21:49
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    Possibly because of the extensive quotes from the HP wikia, not the most reliable of sources.
    – SQB
    Jun 3 '14 at 9:28
  • Most wikia use canon information and sources though... Jun 4 '14 at 1:43

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