Conor Sweetman

Mystery in an Age of Science & Search Engines

Conor Sweetman
Mystery in an Age of Science & Search Engines

The atom can be split, genetics can be rewired, and I can find your card. Children don’t giggle with glee when an engine is started — but they sure do smile when Uncle Bob pulls a coin from behind their ear. Adults, teens, seniors, royalty, celebrities, scientists, pastors and paupers alike tune televisions and pack theatres to see a good magician. But why?

Even when they know it is only an illusion, why do full grown men scream like little girls? (Pardon my chauvinistic predisposition, that statement is probably offensive to progressive minority groups) We are enlightened, rational, secular and civilized — so why do we find magic tricks so interesting?

Well, my friends, before we dive into this cesspool of popular taste, let us first define our terms. The term “magician” has taken on a different meaning over the last few centuries. An individual with this title, historically, was synonymous with the likes of shamans, witch doctors, healers, sorcerers, spiritualists — not the type of people you would invite to perform at your child’s 8th birthday party.

More recently, however, a magician is seen as an illusionist; someone presenting compelling demonstrations of the impossible. Instead of killing goats to ward off curses, now we use wands to make rabbits and doves appear.

The practice of magic lies more so now in the camp of variety art, but unlike comedy or juggling, the impressiveness factor of magic seems to have an inverse relationship with technological innovation and scientific discovery. Levitation isn’t as impressive when you realize that trains in Japan float several inches off the rails. Telling me the name of my deceased grandmother is a drop in the bucket compared to the disturbing amount of personal information held by public and private institutions.

As the lines between what can and cannot be done are blurred more and more each day, it would appear that the magician’s list of potential miracles to draw upon is shrinking. For Pete’s sake (sorry for discriminating against and offending anyone named Pete), we have movies on demand, electric cars, Velcro shoes, and microwave bacon; what could a magician possibly do to amaze such an enlightened learned, and civilized group such as we? I could pull a coin from behind your ear. (Boom. Drop the mic and walk away).

In all seriousness, I think there is something here. Maybe magic does still have value in a different kind of way. It is in light of one’s education that makes being fooled hit even harder. A 4-year old really doesn’t care if they don’t know how a magic trick is done. They see the unexplainable every day. I put cold food into this box, press a button and it comes out warm; if I press a button in a different box, movies and television shows appear. But when someone a little older sees a coin disappear a few inches away from their own eyes, it hits them very hard. This can’t be happening and yet it does.

Everyone knows what they are seeing isn’t real and this drives them nuts even more. This too makes the illusion all the more appealing, knowing that this impossibility is not real and in fact has a naturalistic explanation — but it remains unknown (hopefully).

Maybe we’re getting closer to a solution. The job of the conjurer, then, is to take you to the limits of your understanding, lean you over the cliff, and give you a good shake. Interest does not lie in the deception; I don’t like being fooled as an end in itself. I want to see the inexplicable. Do whatever it takes to make that happen, Mr. Magician.

By Sawyer Bullock
Philosopher & Magician