Attempted Philosophy

The Science of Magic - Talk at Google

Recently, Gustav Kuhn gave a talk at Google about his book Experiencing the Impossible: The Science of Magic. The talk begins with a demonstration of one of my all-time favourite tricks, “The Cups & Balls” and goes into a discussion of perception, blindspots, memory and how the mind puts it all together.

There is one great comment he lets slip casually that pretty much sums it all up:

Intuitively we believe that if we’re looking at something, we should be able to see it.

The questions period at the end is remarkable with the audience offering some wonderfully insightful questions with great answers as well.

Gustav Kuhn is the director of the MAGIC lab at the Department of Psychology at the Goldsmith University of London, where he uses magic to study a wide range of psychological questions, around consciousness, attention, perception, magical beliefs, deception and free will.

Experiencing the Impossible is available from fine booksellers everywhere.

The magician and the CIA

An adorably animated extended interview with paranormal investigator Ray Hyman:

Dr. Ray Hyman, with the Department of Defense, investigated psychic claims during the Cold War working at the Stanford Research Institute (SRI) studying Uri Geller, an alleged psychic. He was later hired by the CIA to investigate psychic claims under the now declassified Project Stargate. In this interview, Dr. Hyman talks about his time with Geller and why he had reasons to be skeptical of Uri Geller's paranormal claims.

On Parapsychology

Is there something to claims of telepathy, mindreading, precognition, ESP? Is it real? There is an entire industry — actually probably multiple industries — that apparently exist to answer that question. In fact, they really care more about asking the question than answering it. If we can keep asking the question enough times, maybe the answer will turn out one day to be yes.

But science isn’t like buying scratch lottery tickets where eventually one will win. To anyone who has actually looked at the science, the writing has been on the wall for decades, and it spells no.

As a magician, I can have endless amounts of fun doing tricks that make it look like mindreading is happening. Although despite the fact that I enjoy tricking people for the sake of entertainment, I’m also deeply committed to what is real. “Real” is a problematic word. In my case, something is “really” happening. Except the thing which is really happening is that I’m lying. So it’s not enough for something eerie to be happening, there has to be an underpinning cause that we can understand and might call true.

Or as Arthur Reber and James Alcock point out in a recent Skeptical Inquirer article:

It is not a matter of rummaging around in arcane domains of theoretical physics for plausible models. It is more basic than that: parapsychology’s claims cannot be true. The entire field is bankrupt—and has been from the beginning. Each and every claim made by psi researchers violates fundamental principles of science and, hence, can have no ontological status.

The whole thing is really worth reading. It goes in depth to the problems with methodology and the field’s constant attempts at do-overs. Inventing new hypotheses and discarding them, hoping no one notices their failure to come up with anything coherent, so that they can come back again to ask the question although asking it for the first time.

Although it all boils down to this one delightful line:

In short, parapsychology cannot be true unless the rest of science isn’t.

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.


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.
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.

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.