Magic professor: magicians tap into what it means to be human

Paul Daniels. PA/PA Wire

British magician Paul Daniels, who died this week aged 77, is most famously known for his extraordinary cup and ball routine, where a simple ball appears, disappears, and reappears inside a small cup.

The magical effect one experiences in watching this routine is not possible without a person having a fully developed sense of what Jean Piaget calls “object permanence”. During their first years of life children develop an understanding that objects exist and events occur in the world that are independent of their actions. Close a door on a cat and you probably know that it’s still in the next room. For Daniels’ trick to work, a person needs to know that the ball itself ought to be in the cup even though it cannot be seen. The magic occurs when the cup is lifted and the ball is no longer there.

I know this all too well, because I am also a magician. Fortunately, like Daniels, I perform for audiences that are a touch older than two, the age after which most children have developed the sense of object permanence. Magic depends on understanding an audience’s psychology. I tend to limit my shows to people over the age of eight, since the kind of magic I really like is mentalism, or the art of using the tools of the conjurer combined with many other fields of knowledge to create the illusion of mind reading, telepathy, clairvoyance, uncanny synchronicity and other inexplicable phenomena.

Famous mentalists have included Maurice Fogel, Chan Canasta, David Berglas, Kreskin, Banachek, and Derren Brown – all of whom in one way or another create a wonderful sense of ambiguity about whether they posses true psychic ability or not.

Over the years this type of magic has attracted a lot of interest, tending to be couched in psychological terms. But I like to explore its possibilities in philosophical terms. Magic taps into the most fundamental questions of what it is to be human: questions philosophers have been asking for millenia.

Cogito ergo decipio

After a period of solitary rumination and extreme doubt, the French philosopher René Descartes famously declared “cogito ergo sum”; or “I think therefore I am”. The mere act of thinking, Descartes argued, establishes proof of our existence. This small utterance led to a revolution in our thinking about the separation between the mind and the body (known as dualism), the power of empirical observation and the notion that we have control over the material world in ways that are separate from our minds.

As an academic magician, such considerations naturally inform my performance. I like to use magic to explore and break down this Cartesian proposition and other philosophical notions, thereby disrupting my audience’s sense of reality.

For me, Descartes’s cogito ergo sum, becomes cogito ergo decipio, or “I think therefore I deceive”. I dedicate a large amount of thinking to how I might deceive my audiences into thinking I have a set of powers that lie outside the realm of scientific rational explanation, while at the same time addressing some of our more fundamental philosophical questions about knowledge, language, mathematics, politics and even human rights.

Decipio. Todd Landman, Author provided

For example, Plato’s thought experiment The Ring of Gyges asks us to consider that if we were given the opportunity to wear a ring that makes us invisible, would we engage in “unjust acts”? With this premise in play, my participants join me on stage and are given a choice (unknown to me, as my back is turned) to either take a gold ring from a box, put it on their finger and hide it from view; or to leave the ring in the box. The taking of the ring is symbolic of Plato’s notion of an unjust act, where the moral choice of the participant is theirs and theirs alone. Turning to face the participant, I divine their choice and allow the experiment to be repeated. Regardless of their choice, it is always known to me (no, I’m not going to explain how).

This kind of effect demonstrates the essence of my approach to academic magic: there’s the demonstration of me inexplicably knowing their choice but it also raises a larger set of questions around our own temptations to commit “unjust acts”. Would you take the ring? It moves magic beyond a clever puzzle to a thought-provoking proposition that lasts beyond the moment of amazement.

And telepathy?

How people attempt to explain magical feats also provides philosophical insight. In one revealing experiment with a selection of drama students at the University of Huddersfield, I gave a series of magical performances and then compared their reactions to what they experienced. Their explanations were highly varied, ranging from ideas around trust, subliminal suggestion and religious identification – all of which were incorrect technically, but fascinating from a larger philosophical point of view.

Plausible explanations for magic and mind-reading feats raise larger epistemological questions about the world (“how we know what we know”) – questions that philosophers of science have been asking for centuries. Do we know what we know through observation? Through intuition? Through reason and rational deduction? How do we know if we are wrong in making statements about the world we perceive?

While the history and philosophy of science have debated these kinds of questions for centuries, magicians continue to disrupt our sense of reality, question the certainty of our knowledge, and in my own case, let us ponder the very rules by which we may live what Aristotle referred to as the good life; understood not as material wealth or superficial happiness, but the holistic and fulsome happiness that derives from doing the right thing under the right circumstances.