When people find out I’m an atheist it often results in a lively discussion on God, reality, and the nature of belief. One of the questions that invariably comes up is how I can discount the claims of miracles witnessed by so many people. It’s easy, I usually say, because the human mind is pretty bad about interpreting reality accurately. All it takes is a visit to a good magic show to see how true that is. I’ve seen various magicians cut assistants and themselves in half, walk on water, fly, walk through walls, make whole mountains disappear and more, but I know they didn’t really do those things.
Which is why it’s entirely appropriate that a number of magicians would be making presentations at the annual Association for the Scientific Study of Consciousness in Las Vegas that recently took place:
It was Sunday night on the Las Vegas Strip, where earlier this summer the Association for the Scientific Study of Consciousness was holding its annual meeting at the Imperial Palace Hotel. The organization’s last gathering had been in the staid environs of Oxford, but Las Vegas — the city of illusions, where the Statue of Liberty stares past Camelot at the Sphinx — turned out to be the perfect locale. After two days of presentations by scientists and philosophers speculating on how the mind construes, and misconstrues, reality, we were hearing from the pros: James (The Amazing) Randi, Johnny Thompson (The Great Tomsoni), Mac King and Teller — magicians who had intuitively mastered some of the lessons being learned in the laboratory about the limits of cognition and attention.
“This wasn’t just a group of world-class performers,” said Susana Martinez-Conde, a scientist at the Barrow Neurological Institute in Phoenix who studies optical illusions and what they say about the brain. “They were hand-picked because of their specific interest in the cognitive principles underlying the magic.”
“In real life if you see something done again and again, you study it and you gradually pick up a pattern,” he said as he walked onstage holding a brass bucket in his left hand. “If you do that with a magician, it’s sometimes a big mistake.”
Pulling one coin after another from the air, he dropped them, thunk, thunk, thunk, into the bucket. Just as the audience was beginning to catch on — somehow he was concealing the coins between his fingers — he flashed his empty palm and, thunk, dropped another coin, and then grabbed another from a gentlemen’s white hair. For the climax of the act, Teller deftly removed a spectator’s glasses, tipped them over the bucket and, thunk, thunk, two more coins fell.
As he ran through the trick a second time, annotating each step, we saw how we had been led to mismatch cause and effect, to form one false hypothesis after another. Sometimes the coins were coming from his right hand, and sometimes from his left, hidden beneath the fingers holding the bucket.
He left us with his definition of magic: “The theatrical linking of a cause with an effect that has no basis in physical reality, but that — in our hearts — ought to.”
The article is three pages long and touches on some of the various experiments that have been done on human perception and the limits of consciousness. One of the best quotes comes at the end from James Randi himself:
“Allow people to make assumptions and they will come away absolutely convinced that assumption was correct and that it represents fact,” Mr. Randi said. “It’s not necessarily so.”
So getting back to those inevitable discussions, I usually point out that the reason I don’t put a lot of stock into eyewitness accounts of anything without something else to back them up is because all too often what we think we see and what we do see are two different things.