Multiple Realities

In my spare moments over the holiday, I've been reading Max Tegmark's Our Mathematical Universe. There, in one of the chapters, he makes the distinction between the external reality and our internal reality. That is, there is a distinction between the world we live in and the information that makes it past our sense perceptions into our brains.

He's quick to stamp out those motivational-quantum-woo-guru impulses which make you want to think that your internal mindset determines your external surroundings. It's a common plot device in children's stories where, "if you only believe with all of your heart" you can manifest changes in the outside world. But it's an important point that what we see is not all there is. [1]

What made me linger on the chapter is the terms he used — internal reality and external reality — precisely mirror the terms used by Arturo de Ascanio[2] when describing the performance of magic tricks. The two terms refer to the different states of knowledge possessed by the audience and the magician.

So, if you were to imagine that you were Mr. Burns, then the external reality might be that you are reaching inside of your pocket to find your pen. The internal reality might be that you are in your pocket to press the button on the remote to release the hounds.


At the centre of most magic is the act of appearing to do one thing while actually doing another. (There is a more difficult way of doing magic which that of doing something while appearing to do nothing at all, which he calls techniques with no external reality.) So magic is excellent practice in multi tasking, since a magician has to simultaneously juggle two different versions of reality; the version the audience sees and what they are actually up to. Those who fail to parse the distinction wind up as lousy magicians.

That's one reason that magic is so difficult to teach to children. They find it difficult to accommodate the second reality. Often when "performing" what they do is explain the secret working of the trick as they go because to them that's just what's happening.

For me, that's one of the reasons magic (not that Harry Potter stuff) is so useful to have around. We need reminding constantly that the world is not guaranteed to be as we reflexively perceive it; that there's more going on than meets the eye.[3]


The book itself is well worth reading. It begins with a very thorough primer that will bring just about anyone up to speed on the developments in physics of the twentieth century, through relativity and quantum mechanics, as well as the discovery of the Big Bang and Inflation. It then goes on to ideas which are not the mainstream consensus of scientists (but he never claims that they are.)

[1] "What you see is all there is" is actually the name of a cognitive bias explored in Thinking Fast and Slow.

[2] Arturo deAscanio, The Structural Conception of Magic, Paginas, 2005

[3] Someone clearly wanted a Transformer for Christmas and didn't get one :(