It’s a bit cheeky to be quoting the same vlog twice in a week, but over on Infinite Series, they are dealing with the question of whether prime numbers really exist, or if they are just something that happens because people are playing a game of symbols, and the pieces just happen to fall that way. Goldfarb’s Hypothesis (that every even number larger than two is the sum of two primes) gets an airing, to note that either way, defining primes leads to unexpected and interesting patterns. The presenter then mentions our old friend Plato, the Realm of Forms, and if the circles that mathematicians talk about are material circles, or the ideal circle? Do, in short, circles exist when people are not talking about circles?
There are several schools of thought on this. Plato thought that Forms predated humans, therefore circles exist regardless of if people see them or not. Some more modern mathematicians go the other way: circles exist because we have a game we call Euclidian geometry, and within that framework of the game, we have a thing we call a circle. We label real objects that match the definition of the signifier as circles. Circles are, therefore, syntactic constructions, not independently real things.
In Ars Magica, the Arts are semantic constructions. We see this because every magical tradition gets to just make up its own methods and powers. Cam Banks, in a recent column in Peripheral Code, talked about Hermetic magic as an object-oriented programming language directed at reality. Different people can use different languages to craft magic, and Bonisagus’s insight was just better syntax. The Cult of Mercury ran on Simula, and the Order of Hermes runs on Java, because Bonisagus assembled the modules of code he took from the other Founders in a novel way.
I’d make the counter-argument: there’s a thing there. Magic isn’t undifferentiated power. It has an inherent shape and structure and Bonisagus’s magic system works better because it reflects a better understanding of the nature of magic. Magic isn’t just syntax: magic is semantics. Hermetic magic works better for the same reason scientifically-researched medical treatments work better than random placebo: that reality is actually real.