My interest in magic started as early as I can remember but It was around the age of twelve that I really started to study the craft. Whilst I would continue to play with almost any object that found itself at my fingertips, over the course of a few years I would gravitate towards card and coin work and eventually just cards. After a few years of table-hopping in my late teens, my interest in magic has been largely intellectual and my practicing and performing largely restricted to the pursuit of perfecting a small number of effects with cards.
A few years ago, the desire to perform returned with a rough idea for an original act. Unlike previously, where magic was a subject of private study, informed by just a handful of good books and my own creativity, I’ve reached out and started attending lectures and interacting with other magicians. It is wonderful to discover how open and generous the community of professional magicians is and it has been humbling to get to meet the people who have inspired me, like Michael. My recent increased passion for playing cards has also led me to create a brand of playing card accessories, Deck Finesse, that in no small way reflects my chosen value of the aspiration for quality and beauty within card magic.
It should be noted then that unlike other writers on this blog my opinions of magic are not informed by so much performing experience nor thorough or unique experience of the craft in its wider scope as a performing art. I only claim that putting a great deal of work into a particularly narrow field of study has revealed many things of interest, to me at least, and that pursuing beauty and perfection within this narrow scope, a task that has no end, is a highly rewarding project.
What are your favourite effects?
Ambitious Card (best recorded examples I know of – Tommy Wonder’s performance on ‘Visions of Wonder’? and David Blaine on his first TV special.)
Oil and Water (no favourite published examples)
Triumph (Dai Vernon’s with a Zarrow shuffle)
No big surprises and I don’t suppose I need to try to convince any magician that these well-known plots can be very strong. I can explain why they are of particular interest to me and why I think they are also beautiful card tricks in a particular sense that I define.
I will go into some detail but hopefully some readers will stick with me and find some of the ideas interesting! First I will share a brief philosophy of how we obtain knowledge that will greatly inform the arguments I’d like to make. I then compare magic tricks to scientific experiments and argue that the values of good scientific procedure translate into many of the values of good magic trick construction. I then go further and claim that this philosophy may also inform us about creating beautiful magic in a particular sense. Finally I make one more comment about what this way of thinking says about the experience of magic.
It is commonly thought that we somehow derive our explanatory theories from our experiences. In fact all of our explanations are pure conjecture, some of which may be falsified by evidence via experience. Until all but one explanation has been falsified we may have competing explanations that can be compared only by ‘how good an explanation’ they seem by whatever rational criteria we possess. This is, roughly speaking, Popperian epistemology; the best philosophy of how we obtain knowledge that I know of.
This explains how science achieves progress from its current misconceptions towards objective truth by the evolutionary process of eliminating competing ideas through falsification. But it also describes an important aspect of how we experience things. Our experiences are not completely derived by interpreting our sensory information. Instead we predict via ‘theories’, ‘explanations’ or ‘beliefs’ what is likely to be happening and will happen next. These ‘explanations’ or ‘beliefs’ are then confirmed or contradicted (or neither confirmed nor contradicted) by the sensory evidence available.
(The idea that the functioning of the brain is more predictive than interpretive is uncontroversial in neuroscience and explains why you automatically say the word that comes at the end of this ________).
Magicians should be aware of this epistemology as they regularly use creativity (the process of creating new ideas by conjecture) in order to both create and explain magic tricks. No new tricks nor solutions to tricks can be simply derived from observation; these solutions, or explanations, must be conjectured.
As I see it, in performing magic we attempt to force the audience to experience that some deeply held belief of theirs must be incorrect, whether that be a belief about the way in which we interpret our experiences or the how the laws of nature operate (including the possibility of an individual uniquely being able to operate outside of them somehow), even if the spectator does not make any particular beliefs explicit in their minds. We do this by making the remaining, correct, explanation of having made some incorrect assumption about what has really happened seemingly impossible or incredibly unlikely.
This is to say that all good magic tricks are demonstrations of experiments which appear to falsify one or more assumed truths. Good experiments adhere to strict practices. They consist of extremely constrained situations where the causal behaviour of all the apparatus must be well understood. To be of most value we must also already have a theory (or theories) consisting of ‘hard to vary’ explanations which we want to test, and this theory, or explanation, must make a prediction which may be falsified by our measurement.
These standards as applied to magic tricks translate into the well appreciated values of ‘simplicity’, ‘clarity’ and ‘directness’ in their construction and procedure. With simple apparatus and few procedures, it is easy for the audience to form hard to vary (although incorrect) explanations of what can and cannot happen. A more complicated apparatus and set-up and a longer procedure necessarily requires a more complicated and therefore easier to vary explanation with more places for error (or trickery).
We can also deduce that we shouldn’t have any extraneous or unmotivated actions or procedures as these are also akin to having unnecessary apparatus or processes which introduces a place for possible error (trickery). Also, the apparatus and set-up should be allowed to be examined and (apparently) well understood by the audience and wherever possible the magic should be repeated in order to confirm no important information was missed. As in all experiments, the apparatus needs to be completely understood and experiments should be repeated to aid in error correction.
Hopefully the reader can now infer why I have chosen the effects listed. They embody these principles as closely as possible. The audience is invited to pay close attention to a (seemingly) highly constrained set-up and a simple set of proceedings which consist of deliberate, clearly motivated and natural actions. The audience has very clear expectations founded on deeply held beliefs (explanations) of what can and cannot possibly happen (of course as the audience is knowingly attending a magic show, one of their competing, consciously made expectations is that magic will happen). In my first two choices the effect is even repeated.
Tommy Wonder Ambitious Card
Note, by no means do I think that this strict comparison to scientific experimental proceedings is necessarily the best approach to creating entertaining magic. There are also a great number of effects that are arguably equally strong, in some sense, that fail these principles by being chaotic or at least complicated in their (apparent) procedure. Or where the motivation for the choice of apparatus, set-up and procedure is not clearly defined until after the moment of magic or indeed ever.
I do think that the highly constraining principles of ‘strict experimental conditions’ and ‘repetition’ provide a comprehensible route to creating both strong but more surprisingly, also beautiful magic as I shall now explain.
2) ”Confusion is not magic” – Dai Vernon
I believe that there are two sources of beauty in magic: in the aesthetics of the performance and also in what is often described as a feeling of ‘wonder’. This sense of wonder comes in many different flavours, but I think these are largely different combinations of two distinct experiences, which are in turn far more likely to arise from one of two modes of operation that a magic trick can take.
One experience, I claim, is a more profound and more beautiful sense of wonder, that I would ascribe to the liberating experience of truly questioning some deeply-held explanation or belief, even if this is not done consciously; the other being a feeling that I would describe as closer to mere confusion, which can lead to frustration, and I ascribe this to simply failing to arrive at any clear explanation.
If this is correct then I’d argue that the ‘strict experimental conditions’ principle also helps us to create beautiful magic by increasing the chance that the audience experiences the more desirable, profound and beautiful sense of wonder by the following mechanism.
The first mode of operation is to make explicit or at least heavily imply what the magic effect may be by drawing close attention to the details of (apparently) all the relevant information about the apparatus and its set-up before the moment of magic happens. I’ll call this, somewhat lazily, an ‘explicit effect’.
The second is when the audience is denied enough information to form any clear expectations of what the effect will be, then is shown something novel, which is deemed impossible only in retrospect. I’ll call this a ‘surprise effect’.
The fact that one may have missed or be wrong about some crucial piece of information (the explanation we wish to eliminate) is far more evident in a surprise effect than in an explicit effect. It is not only that we can consciously rationally suppose this, having knowledge of the accuracy of memory but more importantly I claim that we instinctively feel an important difference when we ‘didn’t know exactly what to look out for’.
When we construct a surprise effect of course we limit the ‘possibility of missing some important piece of information’ by keeping proceedings as simple and direct as possible just as we do for explicit effects. We may do so to such an extent that the explanation of having missed crucial information becomes seemingly unlikely enough in order to create a strong effect. However here I’m not concerned with how strong an effect is but specifically what ‘sense of wonder’ is likely to be invoked.
With explicit effects the audience (supposedly) has time and information to appreciate the relevant details of the ‘experiment’ to, at least subconsciously, draw some clear expectations (theories) of what could happen next and what would constitute magic. Already having some specific lines of thought about what can and cannot happen means that when the evidence for the magic is then presented the audience is immediately experiencing evidence that contradicts some specific rational line of thought, that is to say that there must be a contradiction in some deeply held belief. I believe that this leads to the ‘deep contemplation’, the beautiful, type of experience of wonder. Even if the process described happens largely subconsciously.
With surprise effects I believe that we may be more likely to find ourselves in a state of ‘mere confusion’ immediately after the reveal, precisely because we have no specific expectations that have been contradicted. We then ponder what must have happened and we may merely fail to arrive at a good (hard to vary) explanation rather than having some deeply held belief contradicted.
Not having an explanation is not the same experience as questioning a deeply held belief. At its worst (if poorly constrained) the experience of tricks working in the second mode of operation (not having any clear expectations) can be like suddenly finding yourself inside a barrel rolling down a hill, coming to a stop and discovering you are in fact on the roof of your home; Quite amazing and inexplicable but also confusing, potentially disorientating and even unpleasant.
The principle of following good experimental procedures encourages us to work in the first mode of operation, that is, with explicit effects rather than surprise effects and therefore, if the above is correct, is more likely to invoke the desired beautiful sense of wonder.
So I think the principle of following good experimental procedures can be a guide (but not a hard rule) to creating not just strong but also beautiful magic, in the sense described, precisely because it tells us that we should clearly imply or be explicit about what the magic effect will be.
Of my choices, then, Triumph then perhaps seems a little out of place in my list in that the exact result of the magic is more of a surprise. It’s strength is ensured by it’s ‘simplicity’ and ‘directness’ and probably enhanced by its unexpectedness but this theory suggests that the surprise in the experience of the magic risks leading to confusion over the sense of wonder that ‘Ambitious card’ and ‘oil and water’ readily achieve, greatly aided by their repetition.
Triumph usually escapes the mere sense of confusion simply by drawing close attention to the ‘fact’ that the cards are mixed. Proceedings are so simple the audience is likely to have a very clear expectation at the moment of magic that ‘if spread now they would still be mixed’. In fact this is likely to be the only clear expectation that they have, having lost track of the position of their card during shuffling. So whilst the initial reaction may be one of surprise induced confusion, the magic effect does still readily lead to the desired sense of wonder by having caused a contradiction in a specific deeply held belief.
I believe that these three plot choices are also all aesthetically pleasing if presented well but it is much harder to generalise what it is that guides my aesthetic values.
3) Believing in magic
I sometimes hear from magicians that experiencing magic requires the ‘suspension of disbelief’, the thinking being that one must disclude some normally employed rationality or cynicism in order to conclude that magic has occurred. But this is a mistake. The idea comes from Aristotle’s ‘willing suspension of disbelief’, a comment on how we experience fiction and I think it is quite wrong to assign this phenomenon as a source of experiencing magic.
Consider an ammeter play in which a young boy discovers that he has the power to levitate objects. In one scene the boy holds out his arm towards the ball and a red ball is seen to be lifted into the air by a perfectly visible wire and is then held stationary. The audience understands that within the fiction of the story the ball is being levitated by the boy. The audience then willingly excludes the explanation that the ball is held on a wire from the fiction in order to make the fiction comprehensible and experience magic within the fiction. This is the process of ‘willing suspension of disbelief’ by an audience.
However, as conjurors attempting to convincingly seemingly levitate a red ball we would not suspend it on a visible wire and use the theatrics of ‘holding ones arm out and towards the ball’ to encourage our audience to ‘suspend their disbelief’. We do quite the opposite. We make the wire invisible and seem to pass solid objects through where the wire would be if there was one. We want the audience to have full use of the reasoning faculties and provide favourable conditions for the explanation that there cannot be a wire there at all.
In this way we create a problem or contradiction in the audience’s explanations; we do not ask them to willingly exclude some known and true explanation nor some normal reasoning tool.
Other than willingly excluding an explanation the phrase ‘suspension of disbelief’, as I believe many magicians use it, can only really mean ‘temporary actual belief in magic’. It cannot be that the experience of strong and beautiful magic requires people to seriously if only temporarily believe that the impossible is possible as that would, ironically, make magic rather unastonishing!
Again the solution, I think, is that the beautiful experience of good magic, other than the aesthetic, is actually the experience of seriously questioning a belief. This invokes the deep and meaningful sense of wonder associated with experiencing magic without one having to temporarily actually believe in magic in any sense.
What are your intentions as a magician, performer and creator?
I am very interested in maths, science, the philosophy of science, free will and consciousness. In good practice I have always tried to bring my passion for these subjects into my magic. I have found that intelligent audiences enjoy such subjects. I certainly enjoy talking about them and I feel it is a shame that what I have to say should be constrained to fit a magic trick.
So rather than just drawing on such subjects for patter, I’m now working on also using magic, and card handling more generally, as a genuine tool for explanation, thus novelly attempting to use magic to reveal truth rather than subverting it. This works in a few different ways.
First, as a straightforward explanatory prop (featuring no magic but aesthetically pleasing cardsmanship), e.g. using the shuffling of a deck to explore probability, entropy and determinism/indeterminism. A trick may then be done which clearly contradicts the particular theory being discussed. Spectators experience the magic as usual but, if I’m doing my job right, by having e.g. a specific law of physics in mind, one gets to appreciate the experience also as a demonstration of breaking that specific law, which turns out to be a pleasing way of demonstrating the relationship between the intellectually-held idea and one’s experiential instinct for that law of nature.
Secondly, as a metaphoric visual tool for ‘demonstrating’ scientific theories that cannot normally be experienced directly (here we have magical effects), e.g. to show what quantum indeterminacy or entanglement ‘would look like’ at the macroscopic level.
Thirdly, and most interestingly, to openly discuss our experience of magic, with demonstrations, as a window into epistemology (the opposite to what is normally done and what I did earlier which was to use epistemology as a window on the experience of magic). This idea was inspired by Physicist David Deutsch, who was also my introduction to Popper, who uses the example of our experience of magic tricks, quite wonderfully, to explore the history of the philosophy of science and epistemology in one of his books.
Note, none of this means revealing how the magic is done.
This is a huge project for me and is likely to consume all my work on conjuring. At this stage I’m not sure if the result will be more science and philosophy themed magic or philosophy lectures featuring magic, whether this matters, whether I’ll ever achieve my complete vision, or if there is much of an audience for it.
What I am sure of is that the standard deck of cards in its vast number of possible motions allows for all this to be possible, and beautiful. And that whatever the result, working on this will be an interesting and rewarding project.
How do you wish to leave magic as a result of your contributions?
Considering the well-established approach that I take to creating magic and the narrow well-established field I work in, it is hard to imagine making any great contribution to the craft beyond a few pleasing subtleties to sleights and a few pleasing solutions to existing plots. I’m excited to think that drawing on the novel behaviour of quantum mechanics, or as yet undiscovered phenomena, may lead to genuinely new plots. I’m not confident that it will but I don’t rule it out either.
As magic is one of several projects, I would be extremely happy if my life’s work resulted in just one good show, or series of shows, that inspires people to become magicians or better magicians. That is not to say that I think my particular approach to magic is the best one, particularly if your primary goal is to entertain. I’d only want to inspire people to be creative and thorough, not necessarily like me in any way.
It would also be wonderful if I do create enough original material to warrant it being put in print, ideally at some point towards the end of my career.
In a sense I don’t want to encourage any particular approach to magic with the exception of promoting creativity and the value of beauty.
Strong magic can be remarkably convincing. If one is not careful one may encourage irrational thinking. I have a strong sense of moral duty to spread only rational memes and discourage the irrational. This is a difficult task for magicians, perhaps sometimes near impossible in, for example, a strong mentalism act.
I have little advice on how best to tackle this moral dilemma but perhaps I will at least set an example by firmly standing by these principles in my attempt to use magic quite explicitly to promote good philosophy. In this sense then perhaps the only other small contribution I can hope to make is to (quite passively) encourage other magicians to try to be moral in the sense of not endorsing irrational memes.
Mike’s Guest Blog Commentary
I had to read his post several times to full appreciate his train of thought as written. All I have to say is WOW, his thinking on magic and how lay people experience a given effect / performance is wonderfully insightful.
His writing and thought process reveals an academic analysis which attempts to get to the source of why a great effect works and why it can move an audience to the point where they declare they have experienced something extra-ordinary.
His choice of effects are subjective and yet this is not to diminish the power of them. Triumph for example is an effect which has been presented by most magicians and yet, how would YOU describe the effect? What is the exact effect and experience on a lay audience? This is something that has intrigued me for quite some time – WHAT IS THE EXACT EFFECT?
As magicians, we know what happens and yet, the actual effect and experience the audience is left with can be somewhat different. If we magicians can interpret what the audience is left with after our performance, this just might provide a new pathway for creativity and expansion of the magical experience.
In reading Robert’s post, I am impressed by his stand to use magic to communicate things he is passionate about. Science and Philosophy are powerful themes in their own right and certainly don’t need a magic trick to amplify their validity and significance in our lives and world we live in. By the same token, Magic in and of itself is a very powerful theme deeply embedded in the psyche of every living person. The theme of Magic can array its own message, astonishment and wonder are part of the human experience. how experience these profound emotions can vary from person to the next. Make no mistake, experiencing a beautiful and magical effect can induce this emotional “state”. Robert’s Blog will voce magicians to re-evaluate why they are doing magic, what experience do they wish to provide their audience, over and above generic “entertainment”.
Their is a point in this blog where resonated with me simply because I have been doing my own work not his concept. The notion that a powerful effect will be in direct proportion to the audience being fully ware of all of the information dying the experience – information has been with held. In fact, in their re-telling of the experience, they can describe everything that happened and yet know that what they experienced, just cannot happen. This is a powerful concept.
Robert’s choice of effects illustrates how repetition of effect by different methods can be the access for powerful magic. Triumph, a personal favourite of mine has now repetition and yet, some mysterious “force” has impacted the condition of the deck. I believe the power of “Triumph” is much more than just the revelation of a chosen card. I have my own theories about his which I will save for another time. All I will say is read this blog post very carefully, digest Robert’s train of thought, allow his opinion to sit with you and then be still for any insights that my come. You might be surprised…..I was.
The take away point for me from Robert’s post is simply this – What is my point of view in this life? How can I use magic that will entertain, educate and inspire my audience with fresh perspective on life?
I hope in reading this post, you may feel the desire to share you thoughts, please do. Robert has carefully written his thoughts down and shared them great generosity. There are some hidden gems between the lines.
He is a very talented man – His Deck Finesse is a thing of beauty. He very kindly sent one to me and I was astounded by the sheer craftsmanship and quality of this product. Check out The Images in the slide show, this is really beautiful.
Thank Robert for your contribution.