“It’s still magic even if you know how it’s done, Tiffany thought.”
Terry Pratchett, The Wee Free Men
That line, towards the end of the first book of the Tiffany Aching series, is about the best summation of illusion I’ve read. The magic in our world lies in the perception of the audience. What is simple, mechanical sleight of hand for an illusionist becomes otherworldly to the observer. A pre-selected break in a deck of cards and some basic misdirection becomes an act of “mind reading” for the audience. A loosely held coin, dropped in the palm of a hand, “disappears.” Depending on the quality of the magician, the impact of these illusions varies. A good magician will show you things that are impossible. A great one will make you believe in them. Sometimes even as they tell you not to believe anything you see.
For a simple visual example, consider this variant on the cups and balls trick by Penn & Teller. This is a relatively simple trick, one that has been around for a long time. The most prominent version of it was created by a magician named Dai Vernon, and that is the framework for Penn & Teller’s version. I use a simpler version in Beyond Disbelief to illustrate how an audience that really believes the illusion will overlook flaws in mechanics. But here Penn Gillette is telling you not to believe what he says or what Teller does. They use clear plastic cups at one point to supposedly clarify how the trick is done. Even so, at normal speeds the passes are almost impossible to follow, and in the final pass a baseball (which is their little addition, along with the clear cup bit) seems to come out of nowhere. It really makes the audience want to believe in magic. That belief effectively makes the magic real for the audience, despite the repeated disclaimers of the performers.
Once you’ve learned and performed a few magic tricks, you never quite look at the world the same way again. You know how easy it is to dupe others into believing you. You have a sense of power, but also some skepticism for what you see around you. You always wonder what sort of trick is behind the presentation of all sorts of information. In that sense, learning magic is a great way to improve critical thinking.
If that sounds like a recipe for cynicism, at one level it is. A group of magicians – of any age – is a tough crowd. They are always analyzing what is going on around them, and skeptical of claims of wonder or fantastical occurrences. They know the world is full of illusions, so they look for them. Despite the supposed Magician’s Code, most of the ones I know are just dying to reveal secrets, too, which is one reason you see so many explanatory videos on the Internet.
Most magicians are also, at some level, very open to believing in new ideas, maybe more than other people. They know that illusions are tricks, but most of them started off wanting to believe in something greater. They want to believe the magic is real, and it is just a matter of time before they figure it out. To be really effective, they also have to believe in the illusion they are creating, if only in the moment of the show. So they have to at least be open to the possibility of something more.
Harry Houdini illustrates this dual nature beautifully. He was a superb stage magician before he trained himself to be an escape artist. He never claimed to be supernatural. At the same time, he certainly led people to believe that what he was doing was exceptional and near impossible, rather than the result of careful planning, craftsmanship and safety measures. He was acutely aware of how much people wanted to believe in the supernatural, such as mediums and psychics. It so enraged him that people were being duped by charlatans and cheats he actually spent much of his later life exposing frauds who were claiming to speak with the dead. So you would have to think that he would be the ultimate cynic, right?
The reality is more complex than that. When he died from a burst appendix, he left behind a series of instructions that would seem odd for a firm nonbeliever. He wanted his wife to try and contact him beyond the grave. He left her code words that would prove it was him and not a fake. Some claim this was just an effort to disprove the possibility of psychic communication. But why bother with such elaborate measures if you are convinced beyond all doubt? Doesn’t it suggest just a tiny question, a little hope that maybe the supernatural really does exist?
It is that hope that I wanted to explore in what wound up being Beyond Disbelief. The power of belief is simply amazing to me. When you think of someone like a Mother Theresa or the Buddha, fundamentally changing their lives solely on belief, it is powerful. I’ve been fortunate enough to know someone whose life has been an extended exercise in walking in faith, with his belief in God’s plan for him driving everything from the job he has to where he lives. I can tell you that this man is a decent human being driven by the best of impulses, and his conduct has significantly bettered the lives of people around the world. I don’t share his faith, but I respect his actions tremendously. Still, it is a little unnerving when you realize that his belief is so strong that he will go places most of us would stay far away from given the chance (Bosnia and Kosovo in the late 90s, Iraq in 2004, Banda Aceh, Indonesia both before and after the tsunami of 2004, and Ghana and Rwanda on a regular basis) to help people he has little personal connection to.
That is the positive side of the power of belief. The negative side is just as strong. At its most horrific, it can include people killing because they think it is part of a divine or supernatural plan, like the Crusades, Holocaust or modern extremist jihad. But it can take much more pervasive forms. Studies show that our personal desires and beliefs color everything from what we accept as true to how we remember incidents in our own lives. As a class, psychologists call these cognitive biases, with confirmation bias being perhaps the best known. Confirmation bias refers to how we all tend to accept information that reinforces existing beliefs and reject information that challenges them.
That combination, where belief influences and bends reality, is just as much an illusion as any magic trick. We walk around with illusions like that about ourselves and our lives. Oftentimes they are simple, relatively harmless rationalizations, like whether there was really enough coffee in the pot for another cup for the next person, or whether the light was still green when you entered the otherwise deserted intersection. Who hasn’t “remembered” events in a way that favored their position?
But these illusions can and do extend much deeper, in truly terrifying ways if you think too long about it. Because of confirmation bias, it becomes almost impossible to change people’s minds on topics once they are ingrained. Especially since in the modern media we routinely see most stories covered as if all arguments are equivalent, rather than weighing their merits objectively. That makes propaganda much easier to disseminate and rational discussion much more difficult. It helps explain how genocide and race hatred can still exist in the world despite its core irrationality.
The fact that so much of what we take for granted as reality is a function of belief also points to the fragility of our modern society. For example, what is money except for a grand illusion we all accept? Paper doesn’t have intrinsic value, and the bits and bytes most money is represented by today has even less. People may think gold is “real,” but that’s only because we have reached a common acceptance of its rarity and value. It really is a lot less useful (outside of electrical and jewelry applications) than aluminum, and scarcity alone doesn’t establish a set value. At one point, economies ran on everything from tulip bulbs to cowrie shells to handmade beads based on similar assumptions and illusions, only to be destroyed by new realities. If I need clean water and air and food to live, and no one will take gold for them, then gold becomes irrelevant.
Taking it to the next level, what are laws and civil society except illusions that we collectively make real through our beliefs? Regardless of how you feel about the particulars of the death of Trayvon Martin, the fact that one private citizen can kill another in public should tell you just how illusory civil society really is. It only exists as long as enough of us believe in it. If we stop, for whatever reason, we can readily regress to a state of nature, with force being paramount and civil authority irrelevant. You can look to Somalia to see what that looks like once most of the population gives up this illusion, or re-read Lord of the Flies.
So if reality is really an illusion created from our beliefs, and our beliefs can be readily manipulated, who is doing the manipulation in our world? That’s a question I set out to illustrate, if not answer, in Beyond Disbelief. I could have written a non-fiction book about how media, politicians and every one of us do that to each other all the time, but I wanted something a little more comprehensible (and a lot less scary). So in Beyond Disbelief, I introduced characters who can manipulate belief, their own and others, to any ends they choose. Some of them have joined together to form a Society of Illusionists, to try and limit the damage done by such manipulations. Others act independently for their selfish aims. The main character, Brett, is an adolescent on the verge of manhood, who is about to discover he has this manipulative ability and will have to decide how or if to use it. What I hope he also reveals for the audience, in some small way, is how much of “reality” is tied up in what we believe, and how important it is to try and not be deceived by the illusions all around us. Especially the ones in our own minds.