Attempted Philosophy

The BBC on Why We Like Magic

The BBC takes a look at why we like magic.

The article is inspired by a recently released book by Dr. Gustav Kuhn from the University of London: Experiencing the Impossible: The Science of Magic. Using science to investigate magicians and how magic works has become rather popular lately. Magicians are, at their core, empiricists. A trick either fools people or it doesn’t. It generates astonishment and applause or it doesn’t. And psychologists are now excited to explore the why behind the how.

But why is magic exciting for us, even when the unexplainable can be deeply discomfiting? As Dr. Kuhn puts it:

Dr Kuhn likens the appeal of a magic trick to that of a horror film.

If such bloodshed was seen in real life, he says, it would be traumatic and awful, but when it’s shown in the safety of a movie, the fear becomes something that people can enjoy.

Likewise, if we were confronted with something which disorientated and distorted our senses, it would be deeply disturbing, but when it’s put into the context of a magic trick, it becomes entertaining and amusing.

The fact that we know it’s not real is an essential part of making it an enjoyable sensation.

Vice: Truth and Lies

Vice has a wonderful longform article about the ethics of deception in magic. It’s part of an issue they’ve put together about truth and lies.

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Magic is undeniably flourishing in a sea of new media outlets like YouTube and Instagram. Now Netflix is firmly on board producing a variety of series and specials with magicians you may never have heard of. (And of course the doom and gloom naysayers are hot on their heels screaming about how they are ruining the great art of magic… yawn.)

But since the earliest days of magic on film there has been a problem: Camera Tricks.

A disclaimer precedes the first episode of Magic for Humans, clarifying that there are no camera tricks.
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Why is this insistence on magical authenticity such a big deal? You might think that editing and camera placement are merely additional tools to create a final effect—not better or worse than smoke, mirrors, and wires, just different. The reality is a bit more complicated: While editing magic is in some respects its own art form, the often-unspoken code around what magicians are and are not allowed to do on camera—and who gets to make the rules in the first place—can be quite strict.

We experience this kind of ethical confusion in other areas: sports. We understand that it’s important that baseball has rules even though we’re never able to convincingly explain why this particular set of rules is better than any other. We understand the goal of boxing is to knock your opponent out, yet understand that bringing a baseball bat into the ring is not allowed. We simultaneously understand that both the goal and the constraints are part of the game.

While a magic show might be in a theatre, it is less a theatrical pursuit than an intellectual endeavour. The magician wants to convince that the impossible is happening. While CGI and camera tricks are tools that filmmakers use to tell a fictional story, magic is more about the impossibility for its own sake. So camera cuts and CGI move us away from the impossible and towards something we understand. So even though magic is all cheating, some forms of cheating clearly weaken the result.

Lots of prop-based magic tricks have an obvious flaw. When a (reasonably alert) person sees it they immediately think to themselves “If only I could handle that box, I would not be fooled.” Without understanding how the prop works, they are able to localize the mystery — it’s somewhere in that prop. And a contained mystery does hint at a grander magical world; does not inspire a sense of wonder.

Great magic gets past that by moving the audience from a place of “I don’t know how that was done” to “I’m positive that can’t be done.” (That wonderful pithy phrasing comes from Chicago magician Simon Aronson.) So maybe instead of a box, which could conceal a trapdoor, the magician borrows your coffee mug. Now instead of having a box to contain the mystery, the magician could have used anything and the mystery deepens.

Magic on a screen offers up a similar problem. “If only I could have been there and been standing a little bit to the left…” or “If only I could have seen the director call cut and watched them sneak that tiger into that box.”

Since magic was first brought onto network television decades ago, we have only had one solution that kind of sort of worked: Filming tricks head on in a single take, often in front of a live studio audience with no do-overs. Now the norms of filmmaking have changed, the screens have gotten smaller and an audience simply will not tolerate an unedited recording. We need the camera cuts to guide our attention and help us assimilate the narrative.

So a new breed of magic is coming where you will watch it and say, “Even a camera trick couldn’t make that work.” But tricks like that are few and far between… for now.

So the issue that the authors of the article are dancing around but can’t seem to figure out is that magic is a (for lack of a less gender specific term) gentlemanly pursuit. The magician is a liar but an honest liar. We are deceiving, but always playing by “the rules” even though

Magic to understand the brain

There’s an interesting (but very long) article at Wired about psychologists’ efforts to use magic to better understand the brain.

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It’s an awkward fact of human existence that much of the time we don’t see something that is literally happening in front of our eyes. But, says Kuhn, that isn’t because we are stupid, it’s because the brain is a brilliant economiser of resources. “It’s purely about efficiency,” he says. “We have to filter out information to save energy, otherwise we would get overwhelmed. Rather than just processing all the information, the brain selects the stuff that’s really important. So we can be looking at something right in front of our eyes, but the information doesn’t go any further and reach our conscious experience.”

You can try this by looking at the wall opposite you. Unless you have been thinking about redecorating, you will notice marks that, until now, you were unaware of. It’s not that photons from those marks never landed on your retina. They almost certainly did. It’s just that the brain discarded that data as unimportant.

As a practicing magician, I’m excited to see the world in general, and academia in particular, take a more serious interest in what we do. There’s a lot to read in the full article.

Why aren't there (again) more women in magic?

Sometimes ideas are just in the air and they keep bubbling up to the surface all a once. Following up on the spoken word piece I shared yesterday, Penn Jillette (of Penn & Teller) was recently interviewed in Vulture and part of their conversation was about women in magic and he shared the following:

Everybody that I know in magic got in before they were 10 and they have a huge affection for that scene of older men — it was always men — with cigars talking in the basement of a library about magic. I hated that. I didn’t get into magic in any real way until I was 19 and met TellerRaymond Joseph Teller met Jillette in 1974, and they began their trademark show in 1981. Teller normally does not speak in shows or in public, citing early magic shows at frat parties where bros paid closer attention when he was silent. . My whole life up that point was about dirty rock bands. And most of my friends in high school were girls. So the idea of a boys’ club that excluded them — which is what magic was — made me furious. Even now it fills me with rage that people ask if my son is into magic and don’t ask if my daughter is.

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So the biggest trend I’m seeing in magic is what we saw in comedy 15 years ago, which is that the boys’ club is crumbling. Three years ago, it was maybe one girl every two years who would come up after a show and say she was interested in magic. Now it’s about three girls a week — 12-year-old girls with a deck of cards in their hands saying, “I’m going to be on
— Penn Jillette

You can read the full article at Vulture.

Asking Deep Questions

Most people think simple questions ought to have simple answers. But one of the things I learned studying math at the University of Toronto was that the longer the question, the easier it was to answer. But when the questions are short an simple, the answer is anything but. 

The late Richard Feynman, physics professor at Cal Tech and Nobel Laureate, exemplifies this perfectly when a journalist tries to ask him why magnets repel: