Wednesday, September 03, 2008

The Hand Is Quicker Than The Lie

I'm a big fan of illusion. I grew up watching David Copperfield and really wanted to learn about levitation and the rubberband trick. I love Penn and Teller and how they infuse comedy with their magic. I'm even a little interested in how some people seem to illicit mind control over others and lead them down paths of thinking, only to amaze that person who fell for it.

Yes, there's also something unusually sinister about illusion. I refrain to call it magic because that has more of a supernatural connotation. And God also warns us to stay away from sorcerers, witches, mediums, diviners, 'observers of time', or enchanters, and the like. Interestingly enough, the word in the King James for 'observers of time' is 'anan', which figuratively means to act covertly. Something isn't right... It may thrill us, but some magic can creep us out. I remember sitting with my uncle watching David Copperfield have some unseen force pulling him into "The Bermuda Triangle", and my uncle stating, "THAT is demonic..." Haven't we all seen a magic trick that was just a tad creepy in its presentation that made us wonder if they didn't have some evil spiritual help?

Yet as someone who has studied illusion and "magic" (there, the quotes will mean so-called magic from here on out), it's nothing more than being one, or ten, steps ahead of the audience. The right hand moves in a certain way distracting what the left is doing. The pretty assistant keeps you from noticing the magician. Curtains hide trap doors and mirrors minimize or maximize the look of space. No, even the super-creepy Criss Angel, Derren Brown and David Blaine just have something up their sleeve, and you'll notice they don't exactly go up to the brightest folks in the world to perform their street act. And they have plenty of assistants and research that goes into each illusion.

However, after reading a report on neurological science and how our brains make assumptions about the world around us, and how that perception can be manipulated by illusion, I'm not so sure my uncle was completely wrong. A scientific society invited magicians to present their tricks of the trade, like the Amazing Randi, Teller (yes, he talks) and others. After reading their reports and watching some of the video demonstrations, I saw how feeble our minds can be when trying to comprehend all the information that is constantly buzzing around us.

For example, a video camera will record visual data in the same way our eyes do. But our brain may focus on only one part of what we're looking at. We can always go back and focus on other areas of a video recording, but our brain may not completely remember what we didn't focus on. Similarly, we can block out background noise in a large crowd and focus our attention on someone talking to us, or tune them out when our favorite song comes on over the speaker system. Time passes quickly or slowly, or we may not notice the pressure of our uncomfortable shoes over time.

We even make assumptions about what we are able to focus on. We assume we know what others are thinking or doing, or where the plot of the movie is going, etc. It is those assumptions that allow illusionists to deceive us. In fact, Teller even stated that the more a person feels like an expert on magic, the more he knows he'll be able to deceive him. Think about that for a moment. Something about over-confidence being a stumbling block...

Of course, we go to "magic" shows to be entertained. We want to be tricked as much as we want to know how the trick works. However, this seemingly-harmless exploitation reveals a much darker side of these loopholes in our perception. To me, it began to shine a light on a hidden, secret and destructive sin. The 9th Commandment states that we should not bear false witness, a statement that goes way beyond just lying. 'False witness' can also mean to present something less than the whole truth or to withhold something in order to deceive. Lying, in its traditional sense, is to directly speak an untruth. When we are a false witness to others, they often feel betrayal. I believe this is partly because, whether we know about our neurological shortcomings or not, we are shocked that our perception of reality is not as on steady of ground as we thought it was. God has given us all a sense of trust in others that is built in.

In studying civilization, one can find that a few things are absolutely required in order for us to live peacefully together. First, you must not expect your neighbor to murder people, otherwise you won't have neighbors and everyone will live in fear. Second, you must trust your neighbor not to lie most of the time, otherwise agreements, contracts and business could not be sustainable. Society cannot function at all without these two vital principles. Thus, even though we know that people lie from time to time, we still innately trust one another and expect people to tell the truth. Society breaks down little by little with each untruth.

To put it another way, if you study up on the psychology of eye-witnesses and their reliability, most are shocked to find that eye-witnesses are terrible at recalling minor details of a crime, individual or location, even major details. Personally, I don't have a problem with that, and I'll explain why in a little bit. To me, it's the amount of rock-solid trust we put in eye-witnesses that bothers me. I watched a video where a room full of law students have a fake burglar come into the classroom and steal an item right in plain sight and they're later told it's an experiment. But when each student is asked to give specific descriptions of the burglar and what he stole, the stories are widely varied. It's no surprise that God tells us that we need two or three witnesses to prosecute someone, because obviously if people shared the same story, that increases its likelihood of being true. But people conspiring together to witness falsely can easily foil this, and that breaks down society, too. Hence why it's nice that God sees all things.

So some of you might be asking now if I think "magic" or illusion is essentially being a false witness. Personally, I still love the mystique of it all as well as the psychology that comes with it. But logically-speaking, it appears to be false witness, with the exception being that most in the audience should know that it's just a trick... right? Much in the way that the aliens in Galaxy Quest didn't know that the Earth actors were, well, acting, it could be an honest misunderstanding that someone might mistake someone that calls themself an 'illusionist' is somehow practicing the black arts. Some magicians do try to put on an air of, "Wow, this is so Satanic...", and those magicians should probably be avoided by true Christians. After all, should we desire to deceive others and cause them to become more skeptical and cynical when in the end, we just say, "Oops, it's just a trick" (Prov. 26:19)? After all, wasn't that innate trustful nature and innocence that God gives us all what led my uncle to blurt out what he did to the "magician" on the screen? I will admit, it did look, well, less than natural. But in the rubberband trick? Nah... Just a good illusion.

Overall, though, there are holes in our ability to perceive. Being a false witness takes advantage of these holes. God allows us to make a choice between truth-telling and protection of the self through false witness. He made us able to deceive others, but only if we choose to do so. And if we choose to do so, others are greatly hurt by it, all while the effects ripple outward to all of society as trust breaks down and innocence is lost. We are designed, it seems, to have gaps in our ability to interpret what our senses take in and then make assumptions based on those interpretations, and exposing those gaps hurts greatly. Unfortunately, the short- and long-term effects of betrayal are not just an illusion... But then again, neither is God's law magic. It's the simple and plain and out-in-the-open truth.


{Amy} said...

Remember the David Copperfield show about the Great Wall of China? :)

Mikeesee said...

I was going to talk about that, but the Bermuda Triangle trick was weirder. Although, walking through the Great Wall could be considered weird, too.