Leonard Peikoff recently gave a fascinating interview with professional magician Steve Cohen.
Among the many topics they discussed were magic, knowledge, belief, deception, art, and entertainment.
Here’s an excerpt:
SC: We often hear the axiom “seeing is believing.” However on p. 319 of Atlas Shrugged, there is a quote from Dr. Ferris’ book “Why Do You Think You Think” that states: “Only the crassest ignoramus can still hold to the old-fashioned notion that seeing is believing. That which you can see is the first thing to disbelieve.”
My question is: what can we trust if not our eyes? What is the nature of belief, and how can someone like me (who is forever trying to convince people of something that is not necessarily true) create conviction in others?
LP: I say that, absolutely, seeing is believing. You can trust your eyes, and all your senses. In fact, they are necessarily valid because the only way to establish any truth is by reference to the sensory data. That’s the basis on which we form concepts and conclusions. If your senses aren’t valid, you can’t even have such a word as valid.
Now people get confused on this, because they don’t distinguish what the senses tell us from the interpretation that we place on that data. If I see a man in a red suit and a white beard and a big stomach, and I say, “I see Santa Claus,” my senses do not deceive me, but my interpretation does.
That’s true of all alleged cases where you perceive something, and then blame the senses.
So for any issue, you must distinguish: what do you see? And what do you make of it? Now a lot of people will see something that they can’t explain, and then come up with mystical interpretations. Whether that’s the occurrence of the seasons, or the tides, the attraction of magnets, or whatever it happens to be. They will resort to inner spirits, God, and so on. Their senses — what they see — is valid. However, their interpretation, their mysticism, is not relevant.
A proper attitude would be, if you can’t explain something that you do perceive, you just say the truth: “I do perceive it, and I can’t explain it.” Half of the things that were not explicable in the past, later became so. And many of the things that are not explicable yet, will be in due course. That would be a rational attitude…
…No rational person would ever think that what a magician performs is more than a trick. You have to go by facts and the conclusions of logic and science. Over the centuries, a tremendous number of incredulous, unthinking people who go by matters of desire rather than fact… Hundreds of thousands who quote seeing “miracles,” and it’s all nonsense. It’s all motivated by emotion. And I wouldn’t even say that these people have a conviction. They just have the mood of the moment.
You have to ask, is that the kind of audience you want?
Being a magician, you are a rare commodity as a mystery-monger. But if you’re claiming supernatural powers, you have to put yourself up against Buddha and Moses and all the rest of them. To me, that would be a desecration for you, with your talent.
SC: Then why would people search out a magic show?
LP: To me, it’s the same category as watching a great hockey player or baseball player, or a pianist, for that matter. When you see a skill that someone has mastered, and are able to experience complete enjoyment of that skill, it’s a pleasure to anyone who values human life and human achievement. I mean, how many people in any field acquire that kind of skill?
I don’t have any metaphysical need to come see a magic show. If I thought that you were going to take me into a supernatural world, I would not enjoy it at all. First of all, I would feel fear. If this guy can suspend the laws of nature, then they are not reliable. They’re not absolute. Who knows what’s coming next? I could fall through the floor, or disappear, maybe disintegrate. Plus, I would lose any admiration of you, the magician. Because if you are a vehicle of the supernatural, why should we give you any credit? Why would we admire you?
There is an absolute, legitimate state called the “suspension of disbelief.” This is not at all the same as wanting to be deceived. If you watch a movie, and you see one person stalk another, you won’t call the police. You know it’s not really happening. On the other hand, it has a reality to you. It’s not just shadows on the screen. You’re pulled into it. You feel fear, apprehension. It’s a state in which you know what you believe, but you are suspending that within limits. That’s exactly what you do when you watch a magician. You know that he is not turning a rabbit into a hippopotamus. But you suspend your disbelief by saying, I watched it happen, isn’t that fantastic. While not considering that somewhere there’s an explanation. As soon as you reach the end of the performance, the audience’s disbelief is no longer suspended. It’s a way of enjoying one aspect of a total. But there is no element of escaping from reality.
(Read the full interview.)
For a nice example of close-up magic with a jaw-dropping finale, take a look at this performance. (Although the dialogue is in Chinese, you don’t need to understand the language to follow the action.):