By Rongqing Dai, Ph.D.
The essence of the notion ‘illusion’ is something that feels real but indeed unreal. The key point here is the antithesis between real and unreal. Obviously, in order to make something more illusory, we could either make its fake appearance look more real, or make its substance more unreal, or push it in both directions so that it would feel more real while it is indeed more unreal. Based on this understanding about how to make things more illusory, we can conclude that the most successful illusions would be those that could have billions of people feel it real for generations.
Still, if someone can make billions of people to believe something that is in fact real to be unreal for generations, then it would be even more successful than just making people feel something unreal as real, because it is more difficult to have people collectively disbelieve what they clearly see with their eyes. Furthermore, if someone can make billions of people believe something real not just unreal but actually illusions for generations, then I would feel compelled to credit them collectively as one of the biggest illusions.
It might sound a bit brain teasing, but we have all seen a familiar example of the above described biggest illusions in real life, for generations. It is one type of entertainment shows which is among the most familiar (or even the most favorable) ones to the general public: the magic shows!
Of course, in order for a show to be qualified as part of the biggest illusion, neither can it be an ordinary play that could be accomplished only with the help of complicated props, or (at least) long sleeves of an oversized coat, nor can it be one of those simple tricks that are normally used as demonstrations of how incredibly simple all magic tricks could be. Simply put, in order to be qualified as part of the biggest illusions, a magic show cannot be completely an illusion (although it might involve some minor illusions during the show)!
Yes, it has to belong to the kind of nowadays high-end magic shows, which are truly supernatural, but still explained and believed by many as natural illusions, simply because all magic shows have been portrayed so for a very long time in human history.
Are Magic Shows Purely Illusionary?
In the past few decades, more and more high-end magic shows have demonstrated the following three types of characteristics: 1) the outputs of a show are physically terminal, in the sense that some of them are eatable, some of them are drinkable, and some of them can be kept permanently after the shows; 2) it is physically impossible for those terminal outputs to be created through any natural ways under the given conditions; 3) the process of presenting (or creating) the outputs is unambiguously free of the possibility to involve any hidden mechanism that might evade the chance of being spotted by the viewers or being captured by high-speed cameras.
Obviously, any magic show with the above mentioned characteristics is not illusionary since both its outputs and its process of producing the outputs certainly defy any definition of the notion ‘illusion’; besides, it must be supernatural since it violates natural physical laws.
Owing to the miraculous development of the modern science and technology, during the past few decades, countless high-end supernaturally bent magic performances have not only been recorded by high-speed digital cameras, but also irreversibly broadcast in real time to thousands or even billions of people around the world instantly. In the mean time, researchers in the labs of some elite universities are now claiming that they could capture near-the-speed-of-light motions with their avant-garde recording technologies since they could record a trillion frames per second. Obviously, no matter how swift a magician could act, he would be undoubtedly far slower than the speed of light. Thus, we could be assured that we do have the necessary means to capture whatever maneuvers of the magicians if necessary. In fact, in most cases, there would be no need to have any fancy video recording equipment at all for the audience to distinguish a high-end magic show, which obviously violates the so-called natural laws in a clear and definitive way, from those illusions that could be created only with the aid of specially designed mechanisms through swift operations.
In general, it could be ridiculously simple to recognize a supernaturally bent high-end magic show in real life. For example, if during a show, an audience is given a container by the magician and then she can get whatever drinks she wants from that container without telling the magician what she wants in advance, then it is not illusory but a real supernatural show since it is naturally impossible for the magician to trigger any hidden mechanism after the container is in the hands of the audience; if the magician physically penetrate a solid barrier in a visible and definitive manner without breaking or climbing over the barrier, then it is not illusory but a real supernatural show since it is naturally impossible for anyone to do so.
If someone senses the feeling of being startled to wake up from a dream now, it is nothing strange because many others in the world might share the same feeling since we have been told that magic is nothing but illusions for a very long time.
Then one might ask: ‘Does this mean we have been lied to by those who have told us that magic is nothing but illusions?’ Well, it depends on how you would look at it, because magic normally does involve illusions all the time.
With an ancient brand name, magic shows encompass extremely complicated varieties, from very rudimentary tricks to very advanced supernaturally bent performances. As for magicians, even ordinary people outside the magic circle can observe two common facts about them: 1) they all need to learn and practice various magic skills industriously to reach the advanced level of what they do, no matter through natural illusions or by supernaturally spiritual powers as openly claimed by some magicians; 2) the capabilities of magicians are quite diverse, with some are more capable and some are less capable.
Accordingly, not only some simple magic shows could be the play of natural illusive tricks without any supernatural actions, but also the high-end supernatural feats performed by very advanced magicians would still most probably involve very basic natural skills of swift maneuvers, which would create simple illusions. Therefore, if someone says ‘all magic shows are illusions’, at least, he is not completely wrong, not to mention that we might not exclude the possibility that some self-taught amateur magicians actually do believe that magic is nothing but illusions. Besides, based on our previous understanding of what illusion is about, making people believe what is real to be an illusion itself is not only an illusion, but one of the biggest illusions. In this sense, if a magician tells the audience that whatever he is doing through the show is nothing but an illusion, that announcement itself could be assumed to be part of his illusion making if he does involve non-illusive supernatural effect in the show.
The Supernatural Certainty in the Show
In recent decades, as many high-end supernatural magic shows have been openly performed and more and more magicians openly claim that their shows are indeed supernatural, magicians in general seem to have gradually lost the interest of making the audience believe that they are creating illusions through natural ways. In the meantime, magicians tend more often to invite some helpers from the audience to participate in the shows, not just to make the shows more dramatically interesting, but more importantly, to help rid the audience of any doubt that the magicians might be using some hidden mechanisms. This is because the participation of an audience could often make it physically impossible for the magician to trigger any hidden mechanism.
However, there is still a catch: this type of activity could become meaningless if the helpers picked by the magician from the audience are actually paid collaborators of the show. Accordingly, there have been various conspiracy theories around the world concerning the supernatural performances by magicians. A couple typical ones go like this: those apparently random helpers from the audience are actually accomplices of the magicians; or the videos of those supernatural performances are not authentic at all, but technically edited.
But very interestingly, this kind of challenges from the hard line believers of the illusion theory have been utterly but unintentionally offset by several famous talent shows that are related to a public figure, an English businessman of entertainment Simon Cowell. Those talent shows provide a very special platform for contestants of all kinds of talent backgrounds, and magicians are one category of the contestants from time to time.
The following three facts about those talent shows are worth special attention for the sake of the current discussion: 1) the shows are broadcast globally either in real time or through recorded videos on the internet, and have attracted billions of audience worldwide; 2) it is expensive for the onsite audience to get the tickets of those shows; 3) the lives of the top winners of every season of the contests could be completely changed for good, and accordingly the contestants are all coming with big dreams for the future of their lives, and they do make great efforts to be there to give their best in the shows, under incredible pressures.
Consequently, if any judge of the contests is caught of any cheating behavior to favor one contestant over others, it would be a huge scandal that would arouse the anger of the global audience, and the suspect would most probably be sued somewhere in the world.
When a magician contestant gets on the stage of a talent show, those judges would naturally become the best candidates for the magician to invite as the helpers to demonstrate the unquestionable supernatural actuality of the performance. On the side of judges, what they would expect and enjoy are nothing but truly high quality authentic performances without any unethical behavior, since they don’t have any reason to favor the category of magicians over all other categories of contestants at all.
As a result, for the practices of inviting helpers from the audience during magic shows, the judges of the Simon Cowell related shows (or other similar ones) have become the most trustable candidates in the whole world to carry out the mission of witnessing the authenticity of any kind of supernatural performances, because the above mentioned factors rule out any logical foundation for them to do any foul play to help the magicians. Thus, the Simon Cowell related talent shows (or other similar ones) have become the most important places of the kind for magicians to showcase their supernatural potentials during the past few decades.
Here we encounter the logic of ‘either nothing or all’, in the sense that if one case is proved to be true then all things of the same type are fundamentally possible. Thus, the credibility of the supernatural performances in the Simon Cowell related talent shows could be extended to the supernaturally bent magic shows anywhere else in the world. In this way, the Simon Cowell related talent shows involuntarily played a critical role in the process of ending one of the biggest illusions in human history, which is the perception that none of the magic shows could be truly supernatural because magic is nothing but illusions.
The Potential Social Impact
The historical ending of that illusion of centuries would also indeed mark the beginning of an unexpected new era of human civilization — the beginning of the public recognition that the natural reality can be changed by supernatural power through human maneuvers in a controllable, predictable, and repeatable manner as many magicians have been doing. This would undoubtedly create an immeasurable shock wave sweeping all sectors of human civilization in the coming years.
First of all, even though the theoretical system of natural sciences would not be significantly changed right away due to their stability in the natural domain, after it is openly accepted by the mainstream that nature can be affected by supernatural power because of human actions, not through prayers but through mentally guided special physical maneuvers, the centuries long public faith that the scientific system could be counted on as the solid foundation of human civilization would be shaken;
Many people might still be impressed by some historical stories happened not very long ago, when some persons and those related to them were confused by some of their so-called special abilities which could not be explained by natural sciences, the professionals from the scientific sectors would very eagerly get involved, not for new scientific discoveries, but mainly for exposing any possibility of lying or psychological defects of those reported subjects; when they failed to find any wrong doing or pathological mental problem with those subjects, they might still tag them with some labels like ‘psychologically abnormal, good at one thing but severely defective in many ordinary aspects’, as the term savant is often used to imply.
The difference between the attitude of scientists towards magicians and their attitude towards those subjects of purported special abilities is evident for three main reasons: 1) Magicians never claim that they have any special natural ability which would be scientifically verifiable; on the contrary, magicians often openly claim that all their shows are scientifically explainable natural tricks, even though that might not be true. 2) Unlike those individual subjects with special abilities, magicians never need any special social recognition besides their performances, and thus no one would find any excuse to come examining the physical conditions of magicians as what scientists did to those subjects of special abilities in history. 3) As a cultural element with long history, magic shows are protected by a famous brand name so that any involuntary scientific interference to the business might be politically very dangerous.
Nonetheless, the open admission of the non-illusive nature of those supernatural performances during some magic shows would not only make the uncontrollable special abilities of those unconfident subjects look not as significant as people might have thought about in the past, but also make the practice of so-called scientific examination to unveil the natural causes behind the scientifically unexplainable phenomena sound much less meaningful or even very primitive.
Secondly, the mainstream academic circle of philosophy would undoubtedly go through a long period of confusion, which would be inevitably reflected in the general public life, and might even spawn some minor panic among the people. But the panic would not last long because of two reasons: 1) People would very soon realize that magicians are not really able to do whatever they want as they might sometimes appear to be, and not every magician can do all things that other magicians can do, even with their supernatural connections. It means that each magician can only do what is doable with his or her capacity that is acquired after industrious learning and practicing; 2) People would also very soon find the religious shelters for their own supernatural protections, and thus they would be no more panic because of the scary notion that they don’t have the capacity to do what magicians can do.
Thirdly, the academic subjects that are related to psychological theories would definitely be the most impacted cultural territory. Many fundamental conclusions in psychology have to be modified since the acceptance of the supernatural influence on human mind would inexorably nullify some basic assumptions for psychological studies, and thus the current logical foundation of psychology would have to be reconstructed.
Fourthly, the religious sector would also be impacted, but not as much as many people would assume to be. This is because the admission of supernatural reality has always been supposed to be the foundation of any serious religion.
In some part of the world, due to various cultural, ideological, and religious complexities, there might be some religiously oriented political conflicts caused by the acknowledgement of the supernatural manifestation of magic shows; but it is unlikely for the conflicts to get really severe and lasting, even if it becomes clear that magicians might be spiritually oriented, not just naturally skillful. One important reason is that once the scientific community recognizes the authenticity of the supernatural characteristics of magic, it will change the fundamental perspective about many aspects of human civilization, which is impossible to be completely blocked by any country through simple administrative measures. Thus, instead of waging wars against the change, the governments around the world would most probably find their own ways to adapt their countries to the global new change.
For the rest of the world, i.e. the majority part of the world, there won’t be any serious religiously oriented political conflicts caused by the acknowledgement of the supernatural manifestation of magic shows. Especially in all the traditionally Christian countries, the political development for the past decades has made it impossible for the Church to take any serious political measure in secular affairs.
Furthermore, the open acknowledgement that magicians could do supernatural things in a controllable, predictable, and repeatable manner (even without praying) could actually bring forth favorable outcome to the religious sector. In the west, many previously unbelievers might start to go to church to seek supernatural protections for their own.
Fifthly, this coming new era would unquestionably be warmly welcomed by the artistic sector around the world, especially the entertainment industry. However, before the mainstream academic philosophy could walk out their confusion phase, we should expect to see the same confusion among the entertainers as well as all other artists.
Sixthly, because of the abovementioned impacts, the world would definitely see a radical political and economic impact in the coming years, which might be hard to evaluate at this moment before it happens. The lifestyles of many people might be altered because of the changes in the global political and economic environment due to this impact.
As the conclusion, the end of the biggest illusion of the claim that all magic shows are naturally created illusions would mark the beginning of a new era that has never been witnessed in human history. Although many people are still very reluctant to face this reality but choose to ignore it, it has already been here, and an irrevocable global cultural quake as the welcome party for this new era will begin soon ……