Theatrical Magic and the Sciences

Perspectives on Magic: A book about scientific views of conjuring.

Perspectives on Magic: A book about scientific views of conjuring.

The past three years I have been studying the relationship between magic and science and studied hundreds of articles about the performance of magic tricks from many different fields of science. From this I found that the relationship between magic and the sciences is bidirectional.

Firstly, magicians use the principles of science to create the illusion of magic. They use the principles of psychology, physics, linguistics, engineering and so on to perform their tricks. The second relationship between magic and science is that Scientists study what magicians do. For example, psychologists try to find out how people can be deceived, occupational therapists try to help people improve people’s lives by teaching them magic tricks and scholars in the field of gender studies develop ideas on why so few women are involved in the performance of magic.

For my Perspectives on Magic project I have created an annotated bibliography of scientific research into theatrical magic. The table below provides an overview of the relationship between theatrical magic and the different fields of science. The middle column shows the fields of science used by magicians to create the illusion of magic. The last column shows the fields of science which have studied magic performances.

Theatrical magic and science

Sciences Magic Trick Methods Study magic and magicians
Physical Sciences Chemistry
Physics
Life Sciences Health sciences
Neuroscience
Ophthalmology
Physiology Physiology
Social Sciences Anthropology
Business studies
Education
Gender Studies
Film Studies
History
Law
Library Science
Linguistics Linguistics
Performance Studies Performance Studies
Psychology Psychology
Sociology
Applied Sciences Engineering Computer programming
Dentistry
Education
Nursing
Occupational Therapy
Formal Sciences Mathematics
Information Theory

You can read more about the relationship between magic and science in my book Perspectives on Magic.

Magic Library: Scientific Literature about Conjuring

Magic LibraryMany magicians are avid collectors of magic tricks, DVDs, books and anything else related to their passion. Some are quite fanatical and amass thousands of volumes on the art of deception, like the Conjuring Arts Research Centre in New York shown in this video. Several such libraries exist in the world, including some academic libraries have also created collections on conjuring.

The Magic Library

Beth Kattelman from the department of theatre at Ohio State University published an article on one of these collections in Theatre Survey, published by the American Society for Theatre Research.1. Some notable academic collections of magic books and paraphernalia in Australia are the Will Alma Conjuring Collection at the State Library of Victoria in Melbourne and the Robbins Stage Magic Collection, State Library of New South Wales.2 Some other academic institutions with a magic library:

Parallel to the literature about magic, written by magicians, a sub-genre of scientific writings from many fields of endeavour exists. These books and journal articles are mainly written for the colleagues of the professionals and scientists that created this work. Historians, social scientists, psychologists, occupational therapists, neuroscientists, film researchers and so on have deliberated on the role, workings and practical purpose of conjuring.

Most of this work is, however, locked behind pay walls and publishers charge exorbitant prices for a single ten-page journal article. Over the past three years, I have extensively researched this literature and created an online annotated bibliography on the science of conjuring to help unlock this vast resource.


  1. Kattelman, Beth A.  (2008) The American Museum of Magic/Lund Memorial Library and Other Resources on Magic and Conjuring. Theatre Survey (49) 2: 285-293. DOI: 10.1017/S0040557408000161 

  2. Awcock, F. (2004). Will Alma, mas­ter magi­cian. The La Trobe Journal, 74, 15–24; Gal­lacher, L. (2006). Cast­ing the spell: Magic in books. The La Trobe Journal, 78, 71–87. 

The limits of Dawkinism: Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent

I have been reading Richard Dawkins‘ book, The God Delusion. Although I largely agree with his atheist point of view, I think he stretches his argument a bit too far as he does not seem to acknowledge that there is a limit to what we can achieve with reason, a horizon across which rational thinking can not take us.

His view can be summarised by Wittgenstein’s famous proposition: Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent. Dawkins places the limits of knowledge at the limits of reason. His view of religion, which lies largely outside the limits of reason, is directly derived to this assumption. I would, however, like to argue that the limits of knowledge are not formed by the limits of reason.

One of his arguments is that there is a negative correlation between religiosity and intelligence, e.g. the higher the IQ, the less likely somebody is religious. This seems to give the impression that religious people are generally less smart than atheists, thereby labelling most of the world population as dumb.

The reason for this correlation is, however, that measurement of IQ is totally biased towards rational thinking. Tendencies towards religion or spirituality in general are not part of an IQ test. This does not explain the correlation, but shows the limitations of comparing religiosity and intelligence.

Religion should be considered as a Vehicle for Meaning. Rational thinking can not provide us with meaning to life and religion is for a lot of people a way to deal with the vacuum.

Religion is not my preferred way if providing meaning to life; I choose an existentialist point of view—flying in a metaphysical hot air balloon. This attitude is, however, only possible after deep and complex rational thinking. Most people do, however, not have the energy or capability to live this way and religion is an ‘easy’ way out.

Dawkins does not seem to consider the provision of an answer to meaning to life questions. He places a very high burden on the rational abilities of people. The creation versus evolution question is an example of this.

Dawkins might reply that this is all very well, but the provision of truth has primacy over providing meaning. This is philosophically very slippery ground. Science is based on presuppositions, as much as religion is. Science is only confirmed by its own rules, it is a self fulfilling prophecy—the same can be said for religion.

I think truth is not important, if absolute truth does exists, we will not be able to find it. Knowledge is more important than truth and knowledge is nothing more than that which is able to provide the outcomes we desire. Both religion and science are very capable of doing this.

Postmodernism and Language Games: The limits of abslute truth

Language gamesWhen I studied philosophy in the Netherlands, postmodernist thought was an important part of the curriculum. Now that I am studying in Australia, I am more exposed to the analytical philosophy tradition. (See also my previous article Schools of Thought). I have been reading some analytical criticisms of postmodern thought and think some are missing the point.

Thinkers of the analytical tradition have a big issue with the postmodern idea that truth is not absolute. A very common counter argument is that this is by itself presented as an absolute truth and therefore a logical contradiction. Most criticisms are, however, missing the point.

The answer to the problem lies in the work by Richard Rorty whose interpretation of Wittgensteinian Language Games provides a very powerful way of dealing with relativism.

Within a Language Game (closely related to Khun’s ‘paradigm’ and Foucault’s ‘episteme’) there is absolute truth. Rorty argues, however, that there is no almighty Language Game that can provide a universal truth. Human culture has produced many different language games across time and cultures and none of these provide a final answer to any problem, nor will any future products of the human mind be able to do so.

This thought is quite disturbing as we are psychologically wired to favour certainty. Our oversized brains give us the possibility to contemplate the future. This amazing feature enables us to develop science and philosophy because we can think about an answer to the question “What if?”. This causes a great deal of grief because with an uncertain future comes fundamental existential uncertainty. Science, philosophy and the arts are merely psychological band-aids to help us deal with this uncertainty and prevent anxiety.

Postmodern philosophy is, in a way, an attempt to create a universal language game. The quest for universality comes at a great price, because the only universal claim we have been able to find is that all knowledge is relative and only valid within a certain Language Game. The issue that many analytical commentators, and also many postmodern thinkers, do not seem to understand is that postmodernism—as a universal language game—can not be used for any practical purposes. It is a Language Game about Language Games—not a Language Game by itself.

Postmodernism is therefore only useful to be able to talk about language games in general. The problem is that postmodern mankind is by definition detached from the possibility of finding truth with the inherent risk of falling into nihilistic despair. Postmodernism is a Venom Crystal, a beautiful wisdom which is poisonous to the mind. From an existential point of view, postmodernism is a view that can only be maintained by those who are able to float in a metaphysical hot air balloon above the landscape of Language Games.

Is academic philosophy Exsanguinated?

Is academic philosophy Exsanguinated?In one of the university texts I have been reading recently, the author often writes that a certain philosopher is being ‘over-sanguine’ in his approach. I thought this was a strange word to use as I found out it means ‘passionate’.

Can a philosopher be accused of being too  passionate? I don’t think this can be the case. Philosophy often deals with very important questions—the meaning of life, what ought we to do and other such life changing questions. How can one not be passionate?

Academic philosophy seems a bit exsanguinated at times. The main reason for this, I believe, is that too many academic pursuits are judged by the same standards as exact science—philosophy is an art form, not a science. Most academic philosophy could do with a blood transfusion!

The distinction between passion and reason is a very old one. In moral philosophy it has often been contended that passion conflicts with reason and that the latter should always have preference. Plato’s myth of the charioteer in the Phaedrus illustrates this idea. The charioteer is the soul of man, while the two horses represent reason and passion. Plato’s preference for reason has dominated Western culture for a long, long time.

If philosophy is an art form, we should listen to Nietzche, who teaches in Die Geburt der Tragödie aus dem Geiste der Musik that there is no Apollo (reason), without a Dionysus (passion).

Pyramidology or pyramidiot?

pyramidologyOne of my favourite past times is reading different theories about the Egyptian pyramids. I am collecting books on this topic from every available perspective—from the factual archaeological approach, to the, sometimes outlandish, alternative approaches.

An interesting spin-off of this phenomenon is the debate between the rational scientists and the proponents of alternative theories, between the Egyptologists and pyramidologists.

Some scientists refer to alternative theories as Pyramidiocy. I agree that the majority of pyramidological theories is based on speculation and unwarranted arguments. The scientists are, however, missing an important point. There is more to pyramidology than meets the eye. The ongoing disenchantment of the world and the decrease of organised religion causes people to search for meaning outside the normal parameters. The Egyptian pyramids, and many other ancient archaeological sites, are a great vehicle for meaning.

They are enigmatic for many reasons: they are enormous structures, built with perplexing accuracy, built by a civilisation that did not have access to modern technology and that left no writing behind regarding their construction and function.

Because historiographical methodology is not able to provide any certain truth about events from the past, there is a lot of room for alternative explanations. While the Egyptologists, for example, are convinced that the pyramids were tombs, pyramidologists point out that there is no evidence to prove this fact. From a methodological point of view, pyramidologists are justified in denying this. Just because there is an artifact inside the pyramid of Khufu that looks like a sarcophagus does not mean that it is a necessary truth that it is a tomb. History can only deal in likelihoods, not in absolute truth.

It is essential for the pyramid to be a vehicle for meaning that the Egyptologists are proven ‘wrong’. Egyptological explanations can not provide meaning because it deals in historiographical, not philosophical truth. Egyptology as a science is necessary rational and dry and stays away from speculation. Pyramidology uses the vacuum created through this exsanguated approach by developing theories that go beyond science. The pyramids thus become a vehicle for meaning, rather than just a huge ancient tomb.

Pyramidology has been around for a while, but has been no more prolific than the second half of the last century. It is an interesting cultural phenomena and scientists should not waste their time on deciding truth or falsity of these theories, but investigate the broader philosophical perspective.

The Universe According to Frank Zappa

The universe works perfectly, whether you understand it or not.1

The Universe According to Frank ZappaThis is a profoundly mystical statement by the great Frank Zappa, which can be interpreted in two ways.

Is the creative genius inferring that the attempts to explain the universe by rational thinking philosophers and scientists have thus far have feeble? Or is Zappa negating the importance of science as a means of providing purpose in life, although acknowledging its strength in providing a description of the physical world.

I don’t think he could have intended to say that science is useless and all work by engineers and scientists, as he himself was one of the pioneers of composing electronic music using the Synclavier. Zappa can thus by no means be called a sceptic regarding science and its attempt to provide a model of the world.

His statement has to be interpreted as a existential claim about the value of our rational attempts to explain how and why the universe works the way it does. The fact that we now have some clue on the mechanics of the universe does not imply that we have a better culture than, for example, traditional cultures around the globe, who base their explanations on mythology and religion.

The way I see this statement is as an implicit acknowledgement that science and technology should not have primacy over more intuitive modes of explanation. Religion and mythology are not archaic forms of science, they are simply complementary systems.


  1. (Source: Frank Zappa: American Composer). 

Schools of Thought: Anglosaxon versus Continental Philosophy

I have now completed 75% of my undergraduate and can almost see light at the end of the tunnel. I started studying in 1996 at the Open Universiteit of the Netherlands, where I completed my first year.

I recently re-read some of the course material, as I was working on some Wikipedia articles. Reading the Dutch philosophy course notes, I realised the great difference between continental and analytical (Anglosaxon) philosophy.

The Dutch material is all about hermeneutics and refers to philosophers such as Friedrich Schleieremacher and Heidegger.

The Australian course is much more analytical and I am supposed to ‘untangle’ arguments in order to bit by bit analyse the text. There is no reference to the ‘melting of horizons’ of Gadamer or anything about the historicity of philosophy. Ancient philosophers are treated in exactly the same manner as contemporary texts.

The rational approach is I think sometimes too simplistic. By following strict logical rules you can only describe certain truths, those that form part of the logical tree that grows from the axioms one has chosen.

But, it can be argued that there are truths which do not form part of that tree, ones that can not be described by logic. The analytical philosopher would probably try to resolve this problem by introducing another axiom, so the tree covers more aspects. Kurt Gödel has shown that in number theory, it is impossible to find an axiomatic system that can derive all known truths.

Although his evidence is only applicable to number theory, many have argued that it should also be applied to all other forms of axiomatic system.

Philosophy is not a science, it is not a rational program aiming to unearth eternal truth by thinking very very hard. Philosophy is an art-form, a language game to describe the world. The more I study philosophy in the analytical tradition the more I realise that I am a continental thinker. I am the wolf in the sheep’s-pen.

Only if one thinks more crazy than the philosophers can you solve their problems (Ludwig Wittgenstein, 1949).

Academic philosophy: Does it play a role in society?

Academic philosphy

Philosophers on strike.

I have been studying philosophy at university level for eight years now. See my previous Blog, The Philosophy Race, on why I have been so slow. On the odd occasion, however, I doubt whether I should actually continue studying. Studying a university degree and having a full time job is quite a task, which does not leave much time for philosophical reflection outside the curriculum. The ‘train’ relentlessly keeps on going and there is simply no time to stop along the way and explore some side avenues.

Sometimes I am also disenchanted with academic philosophy as it tends to be extremely technical and tedious. Although I understand that issues can become complicated and convoluted—specially with 2500 years of history behind them—a philosopher should be able to break free from these bounds and create new philosophy.

There are thus two kinds of philosophy. Passive philosophy: the reflection upon what has been written and the subsequent academic analysis of this; and active philosophy: the creative process of producing new philosophy.

One of the problems of contemporary philosophy is that it is part of academia and therefore dependent upon government funding. To be be able to continually justify this funding, academic philosophy has become almost like a science, rather than a creative art.

Looking around the media landscape we see pop stars and movie actors proclaiming their philosophy on many subjects. It is interesting to note that one of the first major philosophers also was an artist—Socrates was a stone mason—proclaiming his philosophy to his fellow Athenians. Academic philosophers of today still use his thoughts as a source but are a long way from his influence upon society.

But Socrates was not loved by most of the Athenians, as he was sentenced to death because he supposedly had a negative influence on the youth of Athens. Are academic philosophers afraid to come out of their ivory tower and join the social debate? Why should we rely on pop stars, actors and politicians as our beacons in life? Philosophy should go back to the market place!

Thus spoke Zarathustra and left his cave, glowing and strong like a morning sun (Friedrich Nietzsche).