Seeing past the trick

We are used to this happening: we see a magic trick, it is convincing magic, but we know it is not actually magic even though we do not know how the trick is done. If we ask someone to explain what happened, we do not want an explanation of the apparent magic; we want an explanation of the trick. It is not an explanation to tell me about the powers of a wand to make an object disappear. What I want as an explanation is a non-magical one. I want to know how the magician lead me, and many more other people, to have our attention on one spot while he manipulated something at another spot.


When I was a child, I thought there were little people in the radio, singing and talking. I found this hard to believe but I saw no alternative. I was very relieved when I learned about radio waves. I did not resist the explanation but welcomed it, even though I hardly understood it at that age. Anything was going to be welcome compared to tiny people – I did not feel robbed when the radio was not filled with singers and announcers.


The situation with consciousness is similar but the reaction is different. We know from experience that things are not always as we perceive them. We can be fooled by magic, can hallucinate, can be hypnotized, or just simply can get things wrong. We can see thing differently because of what we hear and vice verse. There are optical illusions. There is synesthesia and other oddities and abnormalities of perception. Yet consciousness is not usually dealt with as a fragile thing prone to distortions or as an illusion. We also know that much of what seems to be the product of conscious thought is not. But conscious thought is not usually dealt with as a fraud. Here we have something that is very much like a magic trick but usually it is the magic that is believed and not the trick.


It is clear that you cannot solve a magic trick by believing what you are intended to see. To understand you have to look at the problem from a different angle, bypass the ingredients of the illusion and concentrate on the ingredients that could cause the happening. We have to refuse to accept the theory of the wand causing things to disappear. It is ruled out and we look at what is left.


But when someone does this with consciousness. When they rule the supernatural out, refuse to treat it as a mystery, and do not invoke new laws of physics – they are criticized for not actually explaining the mystery in the mystery’s terms. They are said to have sidestepped the real question.


It is possible to just think of consciousness as a monitor screen showing some of what is going on and consider that it is not ‘you’ but just a small part of you. Then there would be a chance of understanding things without the illusion.




3 thoughts on “Seeing past the trick

  1. Quentin

    There are several meanings of consciousness but a common meaning is something like: the fact that I see (or hear or think) something. Stated like this, consciousness *cannot* be an illusion, because being deluded means thinking/hearing something which is not the case, which (obviously) implies thinking/hearing something. A stone cannot be deluded into anything: that simply wouldn’t make sense to be deluded into being conscious, because being deluded implies being conscious.

    For this very straightforward reason I never understood how people could say “consciousness is an illusion” in all seriousness. It always seemed to me that such people must have overthought the question to the point they got confused and don’t really know what they are talking about anymore. Being charitable though I generally assume that they’re using a meaning of “being conscious” different from the one I expressed above.

    1. JKwasniak Post author

      I am not saying that consciousness does not exist or that it is not an awareness of at least some of our perceptions, feelings, thoughts etc. I think it is an illusion that consciousness is the source of those perceptions, feelings, thoughts etc. - like a monitor.

      1. Quentin

        I see, thank you for this clarification. I am not sure that it is less a mystery stated like that (or some sort of primitive, metaphysical fact) but maybe that’s another debate.


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