We are all tempted at times to be open-minded about supernatural claims. Indeed, it can seem narrow-minded to dismiss the seemingly inexplicable stories related by sensible, credible people we trust. Sometimes we ourselves experience things that seem to defy any rational scientific explanation. These experiences seem to prove that there must indeed be more to the universe than reason can explain. It can be hard to push back on the logic that if one cannot offer proof of a scientific explanation then one must accept a supernatural one.
Whenever you are tempted to entertain belief in something supernatural or paranormal, just remember one invariably true thing as a given: there is always a trick.
I’m reminded of a formative event back in the 1970’s when I went to a performance by the late magician Doug Henning. Between making live tigers disappear, he would walk out to the edge of the stage and do slight-of-hand magic. In one such interlude, he held up a newspaper and showed it to us, turning each page so we would remember the layout. He then proceeded to methodically tear it into smaller and smaller pieces. As he did so he kept a great dialog going:
You think you see it tearing, you think you hear the sound of paper ripping apart, you think you see me holding two separate pieces. All your senses are convinced that I’m tearing up this paper, but I am not.
He continued to rip the paper into shreds and stack up the pieces, in full view, into a little folded-up pile. Then he began to unfold it and show us the full newspaper perfectly in-tact once more. As he paged through the “reassembled” newspaper, he continued his narration:
There is no magic, this is a simple trick. Obviously I could not actually have torn up the paper. But the trick is the magic and the magic is the trick.
Doug Henning was brilliantly messing with the audiences minds there, but what I learned from him is that there is always a trick. No matter how inexplicable something might seem, you only need to know the trick. But moreover, you can be still amazed by the trick and, even knowing it is only a trick, it can still amaze and astound you every bit as much as true magic. In fact, knowing there is no magic, nothing supernatural, no god, does not need to make the world one bit less exciting and inspiring. Quite the opposite. You can feel even more amazed knowing that the real explanation must actually be so clever, so masterfully executed, that one imagines that only some supernatural story could possibly explain it. The trick is SO amazing that it is easier for us to consider some magical explanation rather then the real mundane one.
Years later I watched one of those shows on television that exposes magical tricks. In this episode, they showed the magician and his gorgeous assistants make a mini-sub disappear right on stage. It was astoundingly, compellingly real. Surely there could be no conceivable way that such a feat could be accomplished without true supernatural intervention.
But after the commercial break they simply showed the exact same performance shot from a rear angle. It suddenly seemed stupidly crude and simple, so pathetically obvious that one could not imagine anyone actually trying to fool anyone with it, let alone anyone actually being fooled by it.
It was incredibly disappointing to see that trick exposed. It was ruined forever. I vowed never again to watch any explanation of magic. I want to be amazed. I want to experience that awe and wonder over and over. But I know there is always a trick. All it takes is to move the camera ever so slightly and it becomes ridiculously obvious.
But the “good” magic that magicians or fantasy novelists or artists offer us does not extend similar benign merit and value to the “bad” magic of hucksters, con-artists, priests, rabbis, imams, televangelists, psychics, and other charlatans. These promoters of the supernatural do not simply entertain and inspire. They tangibly damage our capacity to reason and lead us to unreasonably dangerous or exploitive attitudes and behaviors. And, before you ask, the answer is no. There is no equivalence between our choice to suspend our disbelief in an entertaining magic trick or ghost movie and our choice to suspend disbelief about the idea that a psychic can predict the future or that some god influences the present. We simply choose not to ruin the illusion by pulling back the curtain to expose the trick. We do not believe or tell others that stage magic is true and we certainly do not base life decisions upon a conviction that you really can saw a woman in half.
And it is often the smartest of us who are most susceptible and gullible with regard to magical thinking, and most likely to influence others. I recall when at the height of the “crop circle” craze, one network interviewed a “scientist” who had investigated the circles. He proclaimed that he had studied the markings extensively and could see no earthly method by which they could have been produced. Therefore, he concluded in stentorian tones, they could only have been created by an extraterrestrial (supernatural) force.
Of course the actual method that those guys who later came forward used was as silly as making the mini-sub disappear. But the arrogance and ego of that scientist led him to conclude that if HE could not see the trick, the only explanation must be a supernatural one. Even Sir Isaac Newton, one of humanity’s most brilliant thinkers, was compromised by similar hubris when he assumed that if HE, Sir Isaac Newton, could not explain the stability of planetary orbits, it can only mean that God must intervene.
So remember, there is always a trick, and let that certain knowledge make you more confidently skeptical regarding religious and supernatural claims, confident enough even to simply reject them out-of-hand. But yet be no less awed and inspired by the perfectly explainable but nevertheless amazing magic in the world.
For elaboration of this and further discussions about facts and belief, I refer you to my book “Belief in Science and the Science of Belief” (found here).