Tag Archives: Magic

Tricking Our Religious Minds

At 19 years-old I hitchhiked from Europe to India with no money in my pockets.  I still have fond memories of those who shared food with me on the trip and of those who taught me magic tricks which I used to earn money via gambling or entertainment.

To this day, I have several regular tricks that I still use that get even adults to actually believing I can move things with mental energy, make objects pass through solid bone or shatter pencils with Qi-strengthened paper. I am amazed at people’s gullibility.

Watching how magic worked on people was one of the many influences that moved me out of my Christianity as I began to see through my own gullibility and self-deception. A major human quality that supports deceptive magic is that people often want to believe and if you can make them happy with the magic, they are willing to suspend doubt.  During my Christian days, many of us tricked ourselves and we all agreed not to talk about it because we didn’t want to ruin the magic show.

Teller, of Penn & Teller, is an accomplished magician and in this recent excellent Smithsonian article he shares with us some of the many cognitive tricks that he exploits to make his magic work.

  • Exploit pattern recognition
  • Make the secret a lot more trouble than the trick seems worth
  • It’s hard to think critically if you’re laughing
  • Keep the trickery outside the frame
  • To fool the mind, combine at least two tricks
  • Nothing fools you better than the lie you tell yourself
  • If you are given a choice, you believe you have acted freely

Read the article for details if they are not intuitively obvious.  Then take a stab at my questions:

Questions for Readers:

  • How do you see this sort of deceptive magic working in Christianity, Buddhism or your worldview? Give an example from this list.
  • Have you done entertainment magic? Do you have other examples of cognitive tricks?

PS:  In a coming post, I will discuss Acupuncture and Magic.  HT to Cris, an anthropologist and brilliant writer, who did  a fine post on Magic and pointed me to Teller’s article.

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Mandala: Buddhist Romanticism

To the right is a beautiful sand mandala being constructed by Tibetan Vajrayāna Buddhist monks.  After long, careful construction lasting days, the gorgeous art is then swept away as a symbol of impermanence – the inherent transient nature of reality which is a central principal in Buddhism.

Many Western Buddhists idealize art as coming from the non-discursive mind–art which is free, immediate and creative.  “True Art”, they feel, comes from the original mind, the true self, the inner unhindered creativity in all of us.  Yet this Mandala is far from that.  The monks spend years memorizing meticulous patterns and color rules, practicing precise, defined layouts and intricate symbols.  Their “art” is more a highly practiced science.  The mandala is not spontaneous in any way.

To most by-passers on an American or European street the mandala most likely appears as merely a quaint Asian art but to the Tibetans and Western Buddhist enthusiasts, it is much more.  The mandala is used for magic and is not just an abstract mystical symbol.  After destroying the Mandala, the sands are swept up and half is distributed to the on-lookers (as if containing some essentialist magic) and the rest is poured in a nearby body of water where it is envisioned as “spreading throughout the world for planetary healing” (see here).

The romanticizing of “the East” is common in Buddhist and New Age circles. This idealized view of the Orient is a vessel to hold the Utopian hopes, blistering critiques and many strivings of those who embrace it.  It can also serve as an identity security blanket.  This Eastern-mystical-mind romanticism has permeated modern culture, partly as a joke (in movies and TV shows) and partly seriously.  But for anyone who has lived in Asia for any length of time, the naive simplicity of a romanticized Eastern-mind is blatantly clear.

Post’s Take-Home Message:

What I am NOT saying:

  • I am not criticizing this art form — I love it.
  • I am not criticizing the emotions of hope and healing.
  • I do not believe “True Art” comes from some original mind or true self.

What I AM saying:

  • I am criticizing the idealization of the ‘intuitive’ or ‘mystical’ or ‘spiritual’ human mind while disparaging of the rational, careful, practiced mind.
  • I am pointing at a rightful use of all sides of mind.
  • I am also criticizing the simple view that idealizes and generalizes about an entire continent.

This post was inspired while reading McMahan’s excellent book, “The Making of Buddhist Modernism” — but the opinions are my own.

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God and I are Ignored Magicians

Sabio's Hitch across Eurasia

In my youth, I hitchhiked from Europe to India over a 1-year period with no money and went without food for days on end.  One of the things I learned in order to obtain food was to do magic tricks.  After two or three days of not eating, it became easy for me to beg for food after humoring people with my simple childhood slight of hand tricks.  Fortunately, some people, along with a piece of fruit or bread, also taught me one of their favorite tricks and thus both my show and my nutrition slowly improved.

When I do a slight-of-hand disappearing tricks, nobody actually believes they happen.  They all ask to see again so they can see what I really did.  But some of my tricks, if I set them up right for the right audience, get people so amazed that they think I am indeed special and have amazing yogic skills.  These tricks include mind-reading, moving objects from a distance and breaking objects with the slightest of touch.

But what really amazes me over the years, is that even though many people really believe I have these magical powers, they often question no further.  They ask for no teaching to bring them to such a high level of control over nature, they take it all in stride even though they are convinced I have super powers.  It is as if the supernatural bores them.

Likewise, it seems a similar thing that even though people say they really believe the Bible is God’s only true guidance in their lives — his special message to them, they still don’t study it or really read it.  They may read a little, but not as often or as diligently as one would imagine if you believed the Bible was a personal message to you from the creator of the world!

My explanation is that large parts of most believers really don’t believe the whole thing — not my tricks, nor God writing a book.  What do you think?

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Addendum
:
After discussion in the comments, I thought I’d add this short summary of what I believe in order to explain my above statement:

(1) We have many inconsistent beliefs (for example: Belief in God, doubt in God, no belief in God)
(2) The inconsistent beliefs present at different times depending on our social setting and events
(3) These amount to “Many Selves
(4) Lack of true wonder with Magic and God reveal these co-existing inconsistent beliefs
(5) They do not reveal “laziness”, “stupidity” …
(6) They reveal that we do not have ONE set of beliefs and that we are not who we think we are (and certainly not who we say we are).

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Telekinesis: My magic power !

Automatic_door

60% of my readers have this power
— take the poll !  —

I am an adult and I still feel magic power in me. I put my hand out and open the automatic doors at grocery stores and hospitals. Sure, most of me knows that the doors are automatic and it is not me opening them. But parts of me still likes to pretend that I open them magically with my force of mind. My hand gestures in front of me to open the door. Sure I tell myself that I put my hand out to trigger the motion sensor but another fun part of myself feels the force open the doors and smiles.

Does anyone else feel part of themselves still do that? Heck I have done that since I was a little kid. Or have the rest of you grown up? Or are the rest of you not as schizophrenic as me?

telekinesisNow here is my point — I think it is natural for children and some of us slow learning adults to perceive things like this, but as an adult, the question is, when do we stop believing it.

I do several party tricks and telekinesis parlor tricks are some of my favorite to dazzle people with. What kills me, is that some people actually believe that I can move paper and break pencils with the energy coming from my hand. But heck, walking through automatic doors, it seems like part of me still believes it too. Heck, maybe that is why I can pull off the trick so well at times.


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Related Posts:
1) My Supernatural Experiences: explains my emphasis on perception vs belief.
2) Many Selves, No-Self : explains my phrases like: “most of me knows”, and “parts of me”, “part of themselves”, “schizophrenic” .

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Filed under Cognitive Science

Superstition: An Atheist Touchstone

Lady_in_the_waterI love taxonomy — classifying objects, people, ideas and such into categories.  It is the shameless habit of the empiricist brain.  I realize its limitations, of course, but with those limitations in mind, taxonomies can offer much insight and progress in knowledge.

I recently enjoyed a movie, recommended on another Atheist site, called “Lady in the Water” (2006) by director/writer M. Night Shyamalan who has also done other films I have enjoyed: “The Village” (2004), “Unbreakable” (2000), “The Sixth Sense” (1999).

These are all films with lots of religious and superstitious themes.  Wait, Atheists should deplore this stuff, shouldn’t they?  Well, to hell with such Atheist purity and sanctity.  Superstitious thinking is a huge part of the human mind and either you can deny it, supress it, ignore it or play with it.  Some Atheists may argue that the presence of such films just encourage superstitious thinking to persist in culture.  They may be partly correct here.  But they argue further that any participation in superstitions or religion is a bad thing.  What these atheists miss is that superstitious thinking will persist whether a hyper-rational atheist wants it to or not.  So while we’ve got it, we might as well enjoy it.  Heck, this is probably why my kids love my bed time stories so much — sure, our family is Atheist, but we know how to have fun with magic, dragons, ghosts and the whole cast make-believe land.  Superstition is not our master, but our servant.

For me, superstition has proven a great touchstone to use in my taxonomy of Atheists. “Touchstone” is a fun word meaning a small dark stone (such as slate) used to assay precious metals because they have a finely grained surface on which soft metals leave a visible trace.  Likewise, this film exposes atheist who are suckers for the supernatural.  Oops, did I just call myself a “sucker”.  Darn !

SupersenseSupernatural thinking is with us from birth and persists into childhood.  Bruce Hood’s new book “SuperSense” (which I do recommend), is all about this issue.  My blog stats spiked this weekend after John Loftus mentioned me on his well-trafficked Atheist site, “Debunking Christianity“.  Well, John actually criticized my post on Sympathetic Atheists saying he was NOT a sympathetic atheist — and I think he is right, he is non-sympathetic.  But negative attentions, when it comes to blogs, is better than no attention.  Smile !  Anyway, I then replied on John’s post and told him about Bruce Hood’s book, “SuperSense” to which John surprisingly replied, “No I haven’t read that book Sabino[sic], but I haven’t read most things although I’m sure it would not change my mind in the slightest.” (emphasis mine).   I think John may have been having a bad day, for he later agreed to read Hood’s book after one of his readers apparently sent him a Kindle copy.  Mind you, John may not change his mind.  He may not admit that superstitious thinking is here to stay.  He may not admit that he himself has persistent superstitious thinking.   He writes fantastic book reviews, so we will have to wait and see if his thinking changes in the slightest if he reviews the book.

By the way, “The Lady in the Water” was panned by all sorts of critics as self-indulgent, vapid, arrogant and muddled mythmaking.  So, I am not recommending it.  I am just using the movie as an excuse to write this post.  Indeed, such a film is probably also a great touchstone to test adolescent atheists — those who just like to like things that others don’t.  Ooops, did I just criticize myself again?

Actually, this film may also be a touchstone for those who are indiscriminate idealists.  Guilty !  I am intellectually an empiricist but my heart (which my mind must constantly tame) is very indiscriminate.  But it is that heart which constantly leads me to wonderful pleasures and thus she also tames my overly cautious mind.

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