The Magician: A Reductionist's Allegory

I like to do a lot of hobbies.  One of those is doing magic tricks with a deck of cards.  It, along with debate, are the only performance arts I enjoy personally preforming.

You know you have a great magic trick when you can do it without failing.  But it also helps to impress the audience greatly. Truly amazing tricks do something that appears quite literally impossible, or at least downright inexplicable.  In the course of doing my tricks, I make a large variety of supernatural claims, such as being able to read your mind by a sheer act of will, or being able to suspend the laws of physics in order to make a Ten of Hearts turn into a Nine of Spades.


Now we know that these tricks are just that: tricks.  I am not actually inducing all the atoms in a Ten of Hearts to transmogrify into all the atoms of a Nine of Spades, using supernatural powers to suspend the massive explosions that would take place if done through know... physics.  I only make it look like I am.

In reality, I use techniques like double lifts and card forces that all work well within the known boundaries of physics, no supernatural powers necessary.  Every magic trick ever done is actually reducible to these slights of hand, along with a story to keep the trick moving (called "patter") and some other types of creativity.

But this kind of reductionism in magic -- explaining what looks to be supernatural, paranormal, or just downright impossible in terms of slights of hand and misdirection -- is a great analogy to the claims of magic in real life: the claims that certain parts of the world we know of; most notably the soul, gods, and miracles; are all best explained as the supernatural is very similar to the claim that certain magic tricks are just that... actual magic.


In the South Park episode "Super Best Friends", magician David Blaine visits South Park, impressing the town's residents with street magic, creating a cult that worshiped him as capable of preforming true magic.

Now imagine that Blainetology was not a cult, but an honest religion that thought they saw genuine miracles.  The Blainetologists hold that some of David Blaine's tricks are examples of real, supernatural magic, and have start building churches to worship Blaine, asserting that his final magic trick will be to grant all of his believers everlasting life in a paradise he creates.  Some of them have even started suggesting that you need belief in Blaine to be a good person and live a meaningful, purposeful life.

In response, many people skeptical of the Blainetologist claims have started calling themselves reductionists, saying that not only do they lack a belief in Blaine's powers, but make the additional positive claim that all of Blaine's magic is fully reducible to to slight of hand and misdirection.

Imagine the kind of arguments it would take for a metaphysical naturalist to persuade a Blainetologist that Blaine did not really have supernatural powers, and the kind of arguments the Blainetologist would offer in return to defend Blainetology as a true religion:


Reductionist: Our best scientists are thoroughly analyzing more and more of Blaine's tricks and finding them not to be supernatural at all.  Look at this Magic Trick done by a prophet who seems to have the power of David Blaine.

You claim that there's a lot of magic done in this trick -- he magically is able to channel card spirits to determine three cards at random, and then is able to make them teleport to his hand, and then is able to make them switch with completely different cards.  There is so much teleportation and prediction here that it would ordinarily boggle a mind.  However, we had our scientist mismag822 thoroughly analyze Blaine's performance, and he found out that the trick is not supernatural at all, but instead fully reducible to trickery: a pre-arranged deck, bent cards, thumb breaks, pinky breaks, riffle forces, fake flips, fake counts, and double lifts.

More and more of his tricks like this are being analyzed and found to not be magical, but instead be trickery.  Claims of David Blaine having supernatural powers have a track record of failure.  If you have one horse that represents reductionism, and one horse that represents Blainetology, and naturalism's horse has won in thousands of races and never lost, whereas Blainetology's horse has lost in thousands of races and never won, who are you going to bet on?


Blainetologist: That's hardly fair; you're attacking a straw man.  Sure we once thought this trick was magic, but modern Blainetology no longer holds this.  You forget many of the recent Blainetologist writers have acknowledged that only the select few of Blaine's most magnificent tricks are truly magic.  Consider this trick by David Blaine himself.

This level of outright levitation is not explicable by any "card forces" or "misdirection" -- Blaine gets them to select a card at random and then makes it rise out of the deck, without even touching it himself!  It all happens in the hands of an amazed audience!  You can't explain that with science!


Reductionist: Sure, it's inexplicable right now, but our science will eventually catch up and fully explain how David Blaine was able to read her mind.  We already can explain how he managed to switch the card in her hand -- even you agree that's not magic.  What makes you think we won't be able to eventually explain the mind reading with science?  It sounds like you're trying to advance a "Magic of the Gaps", where anything about Blaine science can't explain is said to be the realm of Blaine's magic.


Blainetologist: Again, you're just creating straw men.  We have worked hard to create an Inference to the Best Explanation argument here: if Blaine is magical, the existence of his ability to levitate cards is to be expected.  However, if Blaine is not magical, then his ability to levitate cards is very surprising and very unlikely.  This means it's very likely that Blaine is magical.  What you're doing could be the same thing: a Reductionism of the Gaps -- you think whatever we can't explain still must be reducible.  What kind of trick needs to be preformed to get you to give it up and admit the existence of magic?


Reductionist: Hardly.  I have no reason to think Blaine is magical because naturalist explanations are doing a great job of explaining Blaine so far, and I see no reason why they won't continue to do so.  Also your Inference to the Best Explanation is kind of bogus: you can't properly evaluate how much more likely certain evidence makes a hypothesis without knowing the initial likelihood of that hypothesis.  Saying Blaine is magic is a guess at best, and we don't know how likely "magic" is, and until we do we can't really make hypotheses about it.


Blainetologist: The hypothesis that Blaine is magical is simply just the best possible explanation of his card levitation trick.  It explains his whole trick in a complete and satisfying manner, therefore having far more explanatory power than your the current naturalist guesses involving "she might be in on it" or "he flipped the cards in a certain way to make her see a card" -- that's just desperation!  It's also a stunningly simple hypothesis -- no complex reductions to many different complex slights of hand are necessary, we just need to suggest the existence of magic.  Occam would be proud, no?


Naturalist: No, I don't think you understand the complexity of what you are suggesting.  When you utter that word "magic", what do you mean?  What experiences do you anticipate having in a world where magic is real, versus one where magic is not?  How does magic even work?  Does "it just works, no further explanation needed"?

How can Blaine do things just by act of will?  Is this not suggesting you can interact with something without having any method of interacting with it?  Surely such would be a logical impossibility, the kind of impossibility that not even supernatural powers can fix, because supernatural powers just suspend physics, not logic.


Blainetologist: Wow, you sure like advancing an army of arguments at once, in an attempt to overwhelm my forces.  Why don't we start doing one argument at a time?  Magic is what allows David Blaine to levitate cards, if magic didn't exist, I would anticipate David Blaine not being able to preform that levitation trick I talked about.

And asking how magic works is just silly, because explanations deal with mechanisms and laws of physics, and magic has no mechanisms and operates outside the laws of physics.  It's not a logical impossibility, it's just operating outside the laws of causality you are so used to.  Besides, what would you accept as proof of magic?  You're big on that whole "anticipate experiences" thing -- what experiences would you need to see in order to start believing magic is real?  Remember that if you don't know of any such experiences, even in principle, that your naturalism is meaningless by your own definitions.


Reductionist: Fair enough.  An experience I could have that would rather conclusively prove that Blaine is magical is for him to do something so out of the ordinary that it would be unthinkable to try to reduce it to slight of hand.  Why doesn't Blaine teleport a copy of "The Holy Book of Blaine" into every home?  Why doesn't Blaine collect a million dollars from James Randi by doing some more direct and controlled types of mind reading, like just simply saying all of Randi's thoughts as Randi thinks them?

Such events would not only do much to convince me of Blainetology, but the fact that Blaine has not done this also constitutes a strong argument against Blainetology.  Surely Blaine can do much more than just a simple magic trick to a lady on the street.  James Randi is one of the most notable ablaineists, so surely he could sort this out.


Blainetologist: Well why would Blaine want to?  That hardly disproves Blaine's magical powers.


Naturalist: Well, it would end our debate rather soundly.  Surely that's in Blaine's interest?  Does he not want everyone to accept him as the one true magician and enter into a loving relationship with him by attending his shows?  And such an unambiguous miracle would accomplish that, right?


Blainetologist: Blaine works in mysterious ways.


Reductionist: Well that's a cop-out, isn't it?  We just can't understand Blaine's plan?  You are trying my patience.


Blainetologist: It's not a cop-out, it's a valid unknown purposes defense.  Your assuming that if Blaine had a sufficient reason for not proving his supernatural nature, we would see it.



In this allegory, Blainetology is presented as intentionally frustrating because it seems so reasonable and logical despite being so silly.  What of the inference that a magic trick is most likely to be explicable by slight of hand instead of actual magical powers?  It's an entirely unproven inference, yet we use it every time we see a magician preform.  If there's one thing I would want those who invoke supernatural powers to explain, it would be to answer why it is reasonable to inference to a trick with magicians, but not with things like consciousness or the origin on the universe?

In many ways, major events like the origin of the universe (if there is an origin at all) are the ultimate magic trick.  A lot of of events, like lightning and the origin of species, were once mysterious magic tricks, but now have been fully explained by naturalism.  Yet the remaining tricks are looked as not puzzles to be figured out, but rather stuff to just call magic.

Surely this discussion and frustration captures a lot of what we talk about on LessWrong without actually having to say the word "Bayes".

11 comments, sorted by
magical algorithm
Highlighting new comments since Today at 4:17 AM
Select new highlight date

You do realize that South Park episode was the one where David Blaine had actual magical powers and was only defeated by a literal dei ex machina on the part of the Super Best Friends, a pan-religious tag team of Jesus, Joseph Smith, the Buddha, Krishna, Laozi, Moses and Muhammad, who all also had an array of supernatural abilities?

It kind of completely derailed the metaphor for me.

a pan-religious tag team of Jesus, Joseph Smith, the Buddha, Krishna, Laozi, Moses and Muhammad

Hey! You forgot Sea-Man!

Yeah, I was thinking the same thing ... being able to eat your own head, I figured, counts as true magic.

I used to be into magic. I was never very technically accomplished, but it's been a surprisingly useful model and source of allegory for a lot of other experiences. When people recount a technical issue they're having, for example, they recount it the way they would a magic trick, confusing the sequence of events and omitting/forgetting salient explanatory information that may make them appear stupid.

A concept that springs to mind reading this post is the "Invisible Compromise" in Derren Brown's earlier writings. Since the magician is performing an apparently impossible feat, there has to be a compromise somewhere.

In a Book Test, the performer hands the participant a book, requests they silently read something from it, then deduces the text they just read. The compromise is the book. If the performer is genuinely capable of reading minds, why the book (or the deck of cards, or the sealed envelope, or whatever conceit removes the information from the participant's head)? The idea of the Invisible Compromise is to make the necessary mechanic as transparent and unquestionable to the spectators and participant as possible.

A lot of of events, like lightning and the origin of species, were once mysterious magic tricks, but now have been fully explained by naturalism.

Minor nitpick, but neither of those phenomena is fully explainable by naturalism yet. Last I checked there was still a good deal of debate about the rate at which evolution occurs and how gradual it is, and no physicist I've talked to is sure why lightning generates antimatter

Perhaps a better example would be something better-understood, like rain or magnetism.

EDIT: I found an unrelated, but nonetheless cool article about stimulating lightning

Saying Blaine is magic is a guess at best, and we don't know how likely "magic" is, and until we do we can't really make hypotheses about it.

Surely we can.

Everything done by David Blaine is totally explained on youtube already. Blaine and Criss Angel both perform "stunts" that are truly dangerous, even if trickery is employed.

In many ways, major events like the origin of the universe (if there is an origin at all) are the ultimate magic trick.

Downvoted for providing a trivial link and no reason why it should be relevant to the statement quoted.

I thought "if there is an origin at all" was bizarre.

I think it mostly depends on what you mean by "origin", but it's definitely not bizarre. There probably is no sense in which we can talk about time before the Big Bang, but certain multiverse theories do suggest universes prior to ours.