Tommy Wonder on Religion

Tommy Wonder (1953–2006).

Tommy Wonder (1953–2006).

Dutch Magician Tommy Wonder provides an interesting insight into the nature of religion in Volume I of his  The Books of Wonder (1996).

He gives advice to magicians on what to do when a spectator discovers—or beliefs to discover—the secret to a magic routine:

“I’ve frequently wondered why people sometimes come up with painfully silly solutions and don’t stop to realize it. If they would give the matter more thought they would quickly see that their solution couldn’t possibly work. I believe their reasoning runs something like this: The moment a spectator sees a magical effect that he [sic] doesn’t understand, he is confronted with a problem, a problem that stands square in front of him like a granite boulder … Now if the spectator contrives some solution, in a way he has enabled himself to move the problem. He can roll this boulder out of his way, so that he is no longer confronted by it. The problem seems to be solved … his mind throws a big party. He’s solved the problem!”

This observation from the every day practice of a professional magician shows an interesting psychological mechanism at work. Somebody is presented with a seemingly unsolvable problem, which creates a conflict in the mind. As soon as a solution is presented, no matter how improbable, the conflict seems to disappear. Wonder continues:

“Because his mind is dancing and celebrating its victory, it never stops to realize that it only moved the problem … it still exists in another place.”

The psychological mechanism at work is a process of cognitive dissonance. When a magician makes a ball disappear, there are two observations which seem to have no causal relationship—the ball is there and the ball is gone. It is the job of the magician to hide the actual cause—this causeless event is the magical effect. Humans are inclined to remove any tension between dissonant observations, even if this means inventing miraculous connections.

Cognitive dissonance is often used as an explanation for the emergence of religion in pre-scientific cultures. The idea being that ancient people experienced a cognitive dissonance in their experience of natural occurrences, such as the daily disappearance and re-appearance of the sun. The explanations created to relieve the tension is what we now know as religion. This is, however, only a partial explanation. Although much of religion is provides explanations for the way the world is, for those who follow it religion is also a vehicle to provide meaning to life, something that cannot be provided by science.

Does all cognitive dissonance need to be resolved? Why can we not live with the tension of not knowing—accepting that there are questions for which we do not have an answer, or for which there even might not be an answer? Tommy Wonder touches on this when he argues that magicians should aim to defuse the cognitive dissonance experienced by the spectator, creating suspension of disbelief and giving rise to a feeling that magic really exists—even if it is only for a fleeting moment, as our rational mind quickly takes over, trying to resolve the dissonance.