I watched the last episode of “Breaking The Magician’s Code” yesterday – not my usual fare, but I’m glad I did. With myself as the believing guinea-pig, I saw how easy it is to dupe anyone into believing in something that isn’t there, or at the very least leaving someone believing that there’s a mysterious mechanism at play.
So first our brave magician-cum-whistleblower did the knife-throwing act. As it happens, I do know how this one is done. The thrower uses a flat steel spike as a missile – it’s small enough to palm so that no-one can see it in his hand. He shows it to the audience, and then throws it at the woman tied to the target. Of course the spike never leaves his hand. Behind the target is a technician who uses spring-loaded bolts in the right positions that suddenly protrude from the front of the target in time to look like the thrown bolt. It all happens so quickly that the eye can’t see the bolt sliding backwards out of the target. Easy. I thought I had this one sussed.
Except he pulls a knife out, not a short bolt, and uses a new one every time. Ok, this must be a new variation I haven’t seen. But also, these don’t look like flat bolts, so there must be a hole in the target beforehand that we can see – but no. Now I’m stumped. Either he’s doing the illusion a different way, or – no, surely not… actually throwing? So he had me.
How was it done? Firstly, the “knives” actually are flat – they’re just designed with rounded edges to look like they’re more three-dimensional, and from an audience distance away you can’t tell the difference. So he can still have only a very thin slit in the target for the “thrown” knives to protrude through.
Secondly, he didn’t just palm the knives (he couldn’t, because he was using a new one every time). During the follow-through of each throw, he had his back to the audience, and enough time to place each knife in a large inner pocket in his quite baggy black jacket.
Our intrepid code-breaker did the same with the catching-a-bullet-between-his-teeth act, after it had been “shot” at him through a pane of glass (the glass was actually shattered by a small explosive charge detonated remotely when the fake rifle trigger was pulled) – meanwhile he had palmed the original bullet and popped it into his mouth, spitting it out after he’d stumbled back in response to the fake shot. He did it with making the armoured tank disappear and with sawing the lady in half and moving the pieces of her body around (magician’s assistants sure are supple!).
So what’s the point here? What struck me was my own thinking process during the show. As a member of the audience, I didn’t have access to information that was hidden from me, so I had little to go on for figuring it all out. There was also plenty of distraction involved, to occupy my mind while the real illusion was being deployed. Everyone “knows” these stunts are tricks, but I wanted to look deeper into it.
Not being in the magician game, I couldn’t imagine quickly enough to the required level of detail how the act was performed – and hence it seemed mysterious, and even left me wondering a little about the level of trickery being employed (even though I do know how the basic stunt is done).
I also made an assumption about the “honesty” of the magician – in other words I was duped into giving him far more credit than he was due. Once I saw the mechanism behind each trick (like an assistant curled up in the roof of the doll’s house), I realized that I hadn’t actually wanted to know the truth of the matter, I actually preferred the idea of the illusion because, in this case, it was more entertaining. I had a vested interest in not knowing the truth.
In the end it was quite clear that the magician’s act is actually a wilful, intended, orchestrated deception, presented by an agent that we have no moral or ethical information on. But it is our own good nature and propensity to accord people with higher ethics than they might have, coupled with our own limits of perceptual ability, that allows the act to succeed. In short it’s about an information differential – the magician has more information than we do, and actively throws more information at us than we know what to do with.
So the analogy to religion should be clear. The body of information presented to believers is complex and detailed, with much of it requiring deep thought to reconcile – hence presenting a distraction. This is known as “growing in the faith”. In the old days it was presented as “Ah, yes, it’s a mystery, my child,” whereas nowadays it takes the form that one has to be filled with the spirit to understand, or must learn how to read the bible “prayerfully”. One doesn’t make the grade until this is achieved – notwithstanding the fact that so many believers that claim to have these attributes still cannot agree on many deep and basic aspects of their beliefs. These “entry criteria” to faith are rather like the Magic Circle of magicians that does not allow access to those not somehow initiated into the system.
Most believers are new to the “spiritual” domain, the marketplace of belief, and so are not versed in how the stage set of religion is actually constructed. Where an ambiguity or contradiction might lurk, the believer is all too accepting of rhetorical, rather than realistic, explanations of events and concepts.
Religious beliefs and teachings are usually presented by an authority figure, and so we fall into the magician’s trap of according far greater credibility and intellectual honesty than is their due. This is the greatest trick that a pastor can pull – using church money to fund a lifestyle, and then having his or her congregation actually defend the behaviour (because they’ve bought into the illusion).
Where religion has its great strength is that in practical terms, there is little difference between an authority figure genuinely believing the material he teaches and the same authority figure being an outright liar – the result is the same. I’m sure the majority of teachers, priests and pastors are earnest in their beliefs, but this is enough for the memeplex of religion to be perpetuated ad infinitum. Add to this the fact that we humans have a destructive preference for illusion over truth, and a vested interest in being part of an eternal mystery, however illusory it might be.
As we’ve seen on this forum, many believers take the view that the end justifies the means, and so there’s an added mechanism for religion to survive; many believers are so sure that their worldview is true that they will forego ethical behaviour in propagating their faiths. This is why they’re so often accused of being “liars for Jesus”. They’ll skip a contradiction here, fill in a rhetorical gap there and before you know it, you’ve accepted the illusion. That is the extent to which they’ve been duped by the magic act of religion.