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The ugly secrets behind magic tricks

September 4, 2014

A recent Radiolab episode described the magic act of the Australian couple Syd and Lesley Piddington. The two claimed to be mentalists and had a radio show on which they would communicate information “telepathically” even when separated by hundreds of miles.

The entire episode is great (as usual), and I recommend it. One thing that I found interesting is Penn Jillette’s comment about secrets behind great magic tricks: They are invariably ugly and boring. Jilette says that when you learn how the trick is done, there is no “A-ha!” moment – compared to the experiencing the trick, the revelations are mundane, uninteresting, and disappointing.

To our ancestors most of what was happening around them was magical. Imagine not knowing why it rains, what clouds are made of, or why you get sick. Science has often taken away the mystery. Sometimes what it reveled is awe inspiring – the fact that our Sun is one of countless others in an unimaginably large universe is more mind blowing than if we lived on a disk riding on the back of a turtle.

However, sometimes scientific revelations can turn the magical into the mundane. For instance, the moving rocks of Death Valley were somehow more interesting before we new they just skated around on ice. An explanation could have made us feel different if it involved something unexpected, or outside our daily experience, perhaps strong magnetic fields, or aliens with hockey sticks. However, partly it was the mystery itself, not knowing the secret, that gave the moving rocks their special aura. Once we know how the magic is done, something is lost.

The main goal of science is to understand how the world works. Some of the time what we find will be awe inspiring. At other times, the explanations will be mundane, unreducibly complicated and even ugly. We definitely crave the first kind. But if it is important to find out how the world works, should we put such a high value on esthetics.

Indeed, I fear that some of the great unanswered questions of science will have answers that we will find unsatisfying. I am reading the book Consciousness and the Social Brian by Michael Graziano (here is a shorter post about it) – roughly the idea is that awareness is the result of brain’s model of what it is paying attention to. We need to have a model of what we ourselves, as well as others, attend to. Awareness is just an abstract, communicable representation of the act of paying attention. I am not sure that this is right, but Graziano offers pretty good arguments that it is plausible.

Even if this theory is not right, it is quite possible that we will ultimately find the answer to the question of consciousness disappointing. It is arguably the greatest magic trick of all, the one that lets us experience all the rest of the magic around us. And like the magic tricks that Jillette describes, the revelation may ultimately be ugly and unsatisfying.


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  1. I think it is even more probable that someone will find the answer and no one else will believe it.

  2. josic permalink

    I agree – there are a number of plausible theories out there already. I wouldn’t be surprised if one of them has it mostly right.

  3. I actually think the answer to the book test is really cool and a huge “aha” moment. I think the skating rocks are really cool too. Much more interesting than aliens moving it around.

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