Complex Darwinian design: Teller not Geller

Discussions of new films, books, television shows, and media indirectly related to magic and magicians. For example, there may be a book on mnemonics or theatrical technique we should know or at least know about.

Postby Guest » 10/16/06 01:45 AM

In his latest book, The God Delusion, zoologist and religious skeptic Richard Dawkins includes a favourable reference to Penn and Teller:
"Imagine that you are watching a really great magic trick. The celebrated conjuring duo Penn and Teller have a routine in which they simultaneously appear to shoot each other with pistols, and each appears to catch the bullet in his teeth. Elaborate precautions are taken to scratch identifying marks on the bullets before they are put in the guns, the whole procedure is witnessed at close range by volunteers from the audience who have experience of firearms, and apparently all possibilities for trickery eliminated. Teller's marked bullet ends up in Penn's mouth and Penn's marked bullet ends up in Teller's. I (Richard Dawkins) am utterly unable to think of any way in which this could be a trick.The Argument from Personal Incredulity screams from the depths of my prescientific brain centres, and almost compels me to say, "It must be a miracle. There is no scientific explanation. It's got to be supernatural." But the still small voice of scientific education speaks a different message. Penn and Teller are world-class illusionists. There is a perfectly good explanation. It is just that I am too naive, or too unobservant, or too unimaginative, to think of it. That is the proper response to a conjuring trick. It is also the proper response to a biological phenomenon that appears to be irreducibly complex. Those people who leap from personal bafflement at a natural phenomenon straight to a hasty invocation of the supernatural are no better than the fools who see a conjuror bending a spoon and leap to the conclusion that it is 'paranormal'. "
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Postby Guest » 10/16/06 04:11 AM

Funny -- I was always under the illusion that Penn and Teller's act was a product of intelligent design... glad to have someone as knowledgable about magic as Dawkins set me straight.

(dons asbestos suit with a giggle)
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Postby Guest » 10/16/06 05:11 AM

Originally posted by Richard Stokes:
.... There is a perfectly good explanation. It is just that I am too naive, or too unobservant, or too unimaginative, to think of it. That is the proper response to a conjuring trick. It is also the proper response to a biological phenomenon that appears to be irreducibly complex. Those people who leap from personal bafflement at a natural phenomenon straight to a hasty invocation of the supernatural are no better than the fools who see a conjuror bending a spoon and leap to the conclusion that it is 'paranormal'. "
Gee there is a lot of leading (straw man) and presumptions present in that argument. Most folks see magic as light entertainment and the "proving" as a joke meant to confound the naively skeptical.

The question of whether or not Penn and Teller shot into each other's mouths is so irreducably complex, sufficiently baffling and 'paranormal' as to cue this reader to dismiss the author as distasteful.

And no, Teller does not get a new hand cloned every time he does the card stab bit either.

Written with tongue in cheek and after seeing Jesus Camp yesterday.
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Postby NCMarsh » 10/16/06 08:24 AM

Dawkins is deeply confused about what science is, and what questions it can effectively answer. He might benefit from quality time with Kant, particularly "The Critique of Pure Reason" and more particularly with K's response to Hume.

He needs to apply what is happening in perception -- and Hume's claim to be abstracting space and time from perception against Kant's correction that perception cannot exist without "space" and "time," whether or not they have objective validity, being imparted to the world by the perceiver before perception can occur -- to what is happening when Bacon creates what we call "science" by eliminating consideration of Aristotelian final cause and focusing on the specific modeling of efficient causes by observing carefully designed interactions of material things.

Science is able to "perceive" because it has disciplined itself to look only at those things that are most immediate to us and to ask only testable questions of these things. This means that it deals exclusively in the sphere of efficient causes.

After several hundred years of extraordinary success, folks like Dawkins forget that the reason science is so successful is that she has embraced her own very specific limits.

Newton and Darwin give us beautiful and extremely successful models of how the world works. These models cannot, by their nature, say anything about why the world is here. They can refute religious claims when those claims concern the workings of material things and efficient causes (e.g. "world revolves around the earth as its center," though, in fairness to "religion," when we look at how these views came about we find that they existed first as secular learning and that, because the secular and sacred learning appeared to dovetail perfectly, they seemed to intelligent religious people the mark of a coherent and complete truth, the unification of faith and reason, a "theory of everything" as it were), but Newton and friends are unable to speak -- in any way -- to the issue of intention or design underlying these mechanisms.

Spinoza imagines a tiny scientist living in the barrell of a gun. He can make specific measurements of when the explosions occur within the world. He can plot their times and look for a pattern. But nothing in his measurement of efficient causes in the barrell of the gun can ever lead him to knowing that the trigger is being pulled as an act of the will of an intelligent being.

We are in the same position. Neither side -- theism or atheism -- enjoys more solid support from the natural sciences.

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Postby Guest » 10/16/06 09:19 AM

Are you TRULY claiming or implying you know more about science than Richard Dawkins?

Unbelievable.
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Postby NCMarsh » 10/16/06 09:37 AM

Of course not. But I do have the convenience of not being in the midst of doing it and immersed in the cutting edge.

As the brother of a research biologist published in Science and Nature, and a friend of quite a few people educated in the sciences, education in the sciences is immersion in the current.

The focus of practicing scientists is on progress and not on reflection backward, and so few are reading and following the development of science and asking where it came from and what it can do (how many physics students have actually read the Principia?)

I have had the luxury of spending a decent amount of time with the fundamental texts in mathematics and science, and that's led me to the views poorly expressed above.

Far more importantly:

In the end, of course, it has nothing to do with whether I know more or less "about science" than Richard Dawkins. The issue is not about how cells work, how natural selection functions, or how a projectile moves.

At issue, rather, is the basic purpose and capacity of science. The argument is that the conclusions made by Dawkins about the world, and about the cause and function of faith, have nothing to do with science.

They are conclusions about final cause made from a tool that is effective only because it confines itself to answering questions about efficient cause.

The process is the inverse of the Aristotelian process, it shares the same basic flaw.

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Postby Guest » 10/16/06 10:49 AM

I think Dawkins was simply making the point that just because something baffles or amazes you, it doesn't mean the only explanation is a supernatural one. He was completely fooled by Penn and Teller, but he (correctly) assumes there's a non-supernatural explanation for their bullet catch that he wasn't able to discern. Likewise, many aspects of nature (such as eyeballs or birds' feathers) may seem so complex and useful that we can't imagine explaining their existence through random mutation and natural selection, but our amazement doesn't mean the only explanation is that God created nature. On a similar note, I remember reading that Barbara Walters was completely fooled by Uri Geller. She had two choices: she could believe that Geller, of all the human beings who ever lived, could break the laws of physics, or she could believe that she was fooled by a magician, just like millions of other people have been. What answer did her colossal ego lead her to? There's a humility in Dawkins pointing out that mysteries are partly the result of our own limitations.
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Postby Guest » 10/16/06 11:15 AM

I was with you right up until the point where you used the word "humility" to refer to Richard Dawkins. Credibility just plummeted.
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Postby Guest » 10/16/06 11:39 AM

I'm not commenting on the totality of his personality. I don't know him. I'm saying that he's willing to acknowledge that, with all his intelligence, he can be fooled by a magic trick because of his own limitations in observation, reasoning and imagination. How many times have you met a smart person who gets defensive and huffy when he's fooled by a trick? I suppose I mean Dawkins showed a kind of intellectual humility when he talked about Penn and Teller's great trick.
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Postby Lisa Cousins » 10/16/06 11:52 AM

I've been a long-time Penn and Teller fan, and I remember Penn's observation in one of the books that the ability to mutilate cutlery has to stand as the lamest super-power ever.

I also remember being touched to tears by a news story in the national press about two years ago, where a teenage girl in Washington State had attended a party and failed to return. A search was conducted without result, and was abandoned. After she had been missing for eight days, the mother of one of the girl's friends had a dream about the girl's whereabouts, and she got in her car and began to drive, calling out in her heart to the girl: "People are looking for you, and they love you!" She was guided to pull over at a certain section of the road next to a wooded area, entered the woods, and discovered the girl in her car - alive.

Teenagers have been a huge part of my life for many years, and I can hardly describe the waves and waves of gratitude I felt when I read this story. That woman's faith, and her trust in her guidance, saved the girl's life. That ain't "bending spoons."
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Postby Guest » 10/16/06 11:52 AM

Originally posted by Nathan Coe Marsh:
Newton and Darwin give us beautiful and extremely successful models of how the world works. These models cannot, by their nature, say anything about why the world is here.
Not being much of a scientist of philosopher, I still have to ask the question:
As to the fact that the world exists, what if there is no why?

What if there were just a random collection of the right particles in the right place at the right time and they just happened to go boom and there was the universe?

It's a question I've grappled with all my life, and I believe one that we should all consider at some time in our life.

Gord

BTW: To add to the argument, the good folks at SETI (The Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence) are making a "Major Announcement" at a press conference tomorrow. In regards to this discussion it could be interesting.
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Postby Guest » 10/16/06 12:22 PM

Originally posted by Eric Fry:
I suppose I mean Dawkins showed a kind of intellectual humility when he talked about Penn and Teller's great trick.
If you are correct, then the irony is rich indeed. The man shows humility when faced with a magic trick, but virulent dogmatism when faced with life? With language? With art? With love? With meaning? And he sure has choice words for anyone who disagrees with him.
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Postby Guest » 10/16/06 12:24 PM

Originally posted by Gord Gardiner:
what if there is no why?
An excellent question indeed -- what made you ask it?
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Postby Guest » 10/16/06 12:34 PM

One might wonder if part of the human condition is a tendency to reject parsimony in favor of a more elaborate model based upon belief when circumstances and sentiment permit.
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Postby Guest » 10/16/06 01:12 PM

Originally posted by Doug Peters:
Originally posted by Gord Gardiner:
[b] what if there is no why?
An excellent question indeed -- what made you ask it? [/b]
I've asked the question on and off ever since I had a fall out with religion in my teens. It was difficult for me to believe that there was a purposeful direction meant for my life when I felt so lost and directionless. (Like many other teens.)
Over the years I have studied religions, philosophy and science and have come to the firm conclusion that I just don't know, and probably won't until my passing and I am either standing at the Pearly Gates or just filling space where dirt once was.

Gord
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Postby Guest » 10/16/06 01:22 PM

From Doug Peters: "If you are correct, then the irony is rich indeed. The man shows humility when faced with a magic trick, but virulent dogmatism when faced with life? With language? With art? With love? With meaning? And he sure has choice words for anyone who disagrees with him."

Good point. I needed a better phrase than "intellectual humility" to say precisely what I meant.
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Postby Guest » 10/16/06 02:44 PM

Dawkins makes a good, but pretty obvious point. Just because we don't understand something fully (as in how complex organisms evolved or how a certain magic trick was done) doesn't mean that there's no scientific or logical explanation and that we must accept a supernatural explanation. What's objectionable in that?
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Postby NCMarsh » 10/16/06 03:28 PM

Originally posted by Eric Fry:
I think Dawkins was simply making the point that just because something baffles or amazes you, it doesn't mean the only explanation is a supernatural one. He was completely fooled by Penn and Teller, but he (correctly) assumes there's a non-supernatural explanation for their bullet catch that he wasn't able to discern. Likewise, many aspects of nature (such as eyeballs or birds' feathers) may seem so complex and useful that we can't imagine explaining their existence through random mutation and natural selection, but our amazement doesn't mean the only explanation is that God created nature. On a similar note, I remember reading that Barbara Walters was completely fooled by Uri Geller. She had two choices: she could believe that Geller, of all the human beings who ever lived, could break the laws of physics, or she could believe that she was fooled by a magician, just like millions of other people have been. What answer did her colossal ego lead her to? There's a humility in Dawkins pointing out that mysteries are partly the result of our own limitations.
Eric,

I agree, completely, with your assesment of this quote. I was responding more to the larger context of Dawkins work.

Best,

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Postby Dustin Stinett » 10/16/06 03:34 PM

So in other words, there really was no reason to get into anything beyond the scope of the quote.

Why indeed.
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Postby Guest » 10/16/06 03:35 PM

Yes, Nathan, you were responding the "larger context of his work" and his great confusion about what science is. You should call him up right now and clear that up for him. He (and the readers of his subsequent books) will be very grateful when you explain to him that he doesn't understand what science is.

If you agree with Eric's assessment of the original post, then you agree with the original post. What, then, was the point of your postings?
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Postby Guest » 10/16/06 03:47 PM

Perhaps he was just trying to make a possibly dry subject a little more interesting?

Gord
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Postby NCMarsh » 10/16/06 04:25 PM

Originally posted by Bob Coyne:
Dawkins makes a good, but pretty obvious point. Just because we don't understand something fully (as in how complex organisms evolved or how a certain magic trick was done) doesn't mean that there's no scientific or logical explanation and that we must accept a supernatural explanation. What's objectionable in that?
The first thing I would notice is that it is deeply patronizing to human faith to presume that faith is something resorted to in the absence of a rational explanation for the external world. Most of the serious religious people that I know have come to faith not through the mysteries of the external world, but through the knowledge that there are human things -- love, dignity, the need for beauty -- that, while they may make survival easier, are ends in themselves and are not simply tools to reproduce and survive efficiently.

That said, Dawkins is -- of course -- right that mystery does not mean that we must accept a "supernatural" explanation. He does not, however, stop there. To the best of my knowledge, he does not acknowledge that the argument cuts both ways.

We need not cling to "supernatural" explanations because scientific ones are not yet satisfactory; likewise, the existence of a complete scientific account of any phenomenon does not mean that there is not a "supernatural" explanation underlying it.

Spinoza's gun-barrell scientist (see above) may have a complete model of the efficient causes behind the explosions inside his world. That model, however, because it is confined to efficient cause will never lead him to the act of will that pulls the gun's trigger. The chemical processes within the barrell are the tools which achieve the aim of the marksman.

Evolution is the mechanism by which life changes, becomes more organized and more able to survive.

The scientific account ends there. There is nothing that we can measure, nothing we can calculate, nothing we can model that tells us whether this process is something that simply began, or whether it was something willed and designed.

Dawkins, Dennett, et alia, however, want to argue that any non-material account is less-rational than an account that involves only material bodies and efficient causes. Surrounded by the extraordinary success of science, they seem to believe deeply that non-material things are "less real" than material things. In doing so, they forget that science draws its power from its disciplined focus on the material and on efficient cause. They are getting back loads of information about the material world because material is the only part of the world they can successfully ask about -- that does not, of course, mean it is the only part of the world (just as being able to only see green would not mean that the world is only green).

I'll try to edit this if I have the time and whip it into something tighter and more coherent. The ideas are tough to express.

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Postby NCMarsh » 10/16/06 04:49 PM

John,

The argument made in the passage cited is not made simply to suggest that we need not cling to the "supernatural" when faced with mystery, there is a second part to the argument to get us to the point that God is a "delusion" (to use the language of the title of the work being quoted, which is part of the original posting).

The completion of the argument, rarely articulated, is the claim that a non-material account is inherently less credible than a material account because material things are "more real" than non-material things. This has become such a fundamental postulate of those in the Dennett/Dawkins camp that the cited excerpt would be taken by many as an argument against any non-material account.

As for speaking with Mr. Dawkins, I have given some serious thought to writing an essay in response to his work. It is a huge subject, and its tough to find a foothold on the best place to begin. Also, because the heart of my argument lies in reference to a tough and technical text (the Critique), I don't know what kind of market there would be in terms of getting something actually published. Maybe this will be the spark to actually begin it (and I appreciate Dustin's forbearance towards a topic that is not magic, I think it is something worthwhile to discuss -- particularly in a community of people who create illusions -- and hope that we can continue within the lines that would make for productive conversation).

The tremendous influence of fundamentalist sects has been fostered by the academy's snide disdain for religion and a rigid materialistic ideology unsupported by reason or science. This is one of the major reason that it is extremely important that thinking people be clear about what science is, how it functions, and what questions it can and cannot answer.

That clarity is necessary for an honest and humble conversation about the roles of faith and reason. As long as the Dawkins and Falwells of this country have their way, we are headed to increasing cultural and political polarization.

Acknowledging that faith and reason are commensurable and worthwhile parts of the human experience -- and convincing religious parents that our learning institutions are not trying to indoctrinate their children against them -- is a critical first step to getting ourselves out of the logjam of perpetual partisan all-or-nothing battles.

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Postby Guest » 10/16/06 06:39 PM

Originally posted by Bob Coyne:
Just because we don't understand something fully (as in how complex organisms evolved or how a certain magic trick was done) doesn't mean that there's no scientific or logical explanation and that we must accept a supernatural explanation. What's objectionable in that?
No objection to the conclusion, Bob. Any objection is to the none-too-bright analogy. Sure, the magic trick did not require a "supernatural" explanation, but it did require study, intelligence, design, cleverness, practice, craft, and artifice. Then Dawkins turns around, looks at DNA, language, and philosophy, and loudly pontificates that those things absolutely, positively, could not in the least have derived from anything remotely like cleverness or intelligence.

Frankly, if an undergraduate were to hand in such a poorly thought out argument on a philosophy paper, they would be lucky to achieve a second class mark... wait a minute...
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Postby Guest » 10/16/06 07:50 PM

There's some pretty good evidence that supports the case that the inner reality we live in is very much affected by the things we choose to believe.

As to what happens when one's inner models include the notion of "outside will"... my guess is that all bets are off.
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Postby Guest » 10/16/06 08:19 PM

Woah, woah woah, what is going on.

So I'm sitting here in the library at Bard college. I've got a couple of hundred pages of reading to do about Locke, Hume, Berkeley. Pretty hard stuff. So I decide about halfway through to kill some time, you know relax, think about something besides the wacky wonderful world of epistemology. I know, I'll cruise around on the genii forum and see what the latest gossip is;who's hooking up with who, what's in this fall, ten smoking hot tips for the memorized deck. But NOOOO, you guys have to get all philomosophical or whatever the word is.

Cut a guy some slack.

Noah
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Postby Guest » 10/17/06 06:45 AM

At Georgia's homecoming, they were beaten by Vandy.
Auburn beat Florida.
Ole Miss lost.
And lowly Mississippi State actually won a game.

Clearly, there is a God. :) Somebody give me an AMEN!

JMT
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Postby Guest » 10/17/06 07:07 AM

Originally posted by Joe M. Turner:
At Georgia's homecoming, they were beaten by Vandy.
Auburn beat Florida.
Ole Miss lost.
And lowly Mississippi State actually won a game.

Clearly, there is a God. :) Somebody give me an AMEN!

JMT
That must be the sound I heard coming from Chicago last night.
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Postby Guest » 10/17/06 09:26 AM

Originally posted by Noah Levine:
Woah, woah woah, what is going on.

...

Cut a guy some slack.
The question as it pertains to performing magic is how we account for the magic.

Do we treat it as our personal will. Is the result "as intended" by that "greater influence"? Is the result simply one of the properties of "the props which are more than they seem"?

I see no issue with "choosing the right universe" or "revisionist reality" as world views to offer in theatrical context.
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Postby Lisa Cousins » 10/17/06 10:48 AM

Doug Peters, I want you to know that I got and appreciated your original joke up at the top there, but I'm glad you spelled it out in fuller detail. Penn and Teller's bullet-catch trick is a terrible choice to illustrate the point the author wishes to make, because the only two possible explanations for it are "supernatural powers" or "intelligent design." By no means could "a random whole-lotta-nothing" be considered the true explanation for the performance. So the guy selected an analogy that shoots his own position in the ... teeth.
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Postby Ian Kendall » 10/17/06 11:00 AM

Lisa,

I'm not sure that's what RD is on about. As I understand it, he was talking about automatically assuming the cause of an unknown phenomena to be supernatural. The bullet catch trick is merely the example he uses; the same could be said of a well executed double lift.

While Dawkins was 'fooled' by P&T, he chose not to ascribe it to 'magic' but realised that there had to be another reason. The link to ID/Evolution is that when the subject of Irreducable Complexity comes up, one side seems to say 'we don't know how this happened, therefore it must be the work of a god'.

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Postby Lisa Cousins » 10/17/06 11:06 AM

Originally posted by Ian Kendall:

The link to ID/Evolution is that when the subject of Irreducable Complexity comes up, one side seems to say 'we don't know how this happened, therefore it must be the work of a god'.
Or perhaps, "My own complex intelligence recognizes this as a work of complex intelligence."
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Postby Guest » 10/17/06 11:14 AM

The anology is fine. The secret to the bullet catching trick corresponds to scientific explanations (i.e. a materialist cause). Resorting to a supernatural explanation for the trick corresponds to Intelligent Design (i.e. no physical explanation). How the secret to the trick itself came into being is a red herring and is no more the subject of the analogy than how the laws of physics came into being.

The point of the analogy is that we're better off looking to physical explanations rather than supernatural ones when we don't understand a physical phenomenon (like a magic trick or a complex biological organism). The analogy makes that point very well. I'd give it an A+.
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Postby Guest » 10/17/06 11:28 AM

Another possibility is that God is a wacky comic magician who created a phony fossil record to fool people into thinking up evolution. As a clever act of misdirecting people, God put feathers on penguins but wouldn't let the birds fly, causing us to wonder whether feathers really were created for flight by an intelligent being. The correct question isn't whether Penn and Teller are like God. It's whether God is like Penn and Teller. Yikes!
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Postby Guest » 10/17/06 12:15 PM

I have to disagree with Bob above about the validity of the comparison.

One of the core ideas behind science is reducing the factors in play down to the testable hypothesis. Merely observing a phenomenon is usually not sufficient to formulate a "good" hypothesis, ie one that will survive all the challenges it will get when published and tested by clever folks who are good at experimental design.

Now since there were two magicians onstage we have not one but two intelligent agents acting and the additional question about whether the incident was due to one (which?) or both agents acting. While the two magician problem has robust solutions, the three magician problem remains a computational challenge. The many magician problem is a well known problem in computational magic.

I feel some irony present in calling a non-testable hypothesis "intelligent design" as it may be true linguistically though by almost definition can never be tested and hence can never be part of science.
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Postby Lisa Cousins » 10/17/06 12:24 PM

I'm sure that the author only intended the analogy to go "so far," as Bob Coyne has indicated, but the human mind doesn't work that way. It runs all over the place. It peers behind doors. It will carry a thought forward, and continue it. This fact is one of the greatest challenges to magicians - the need to anticipate these aspects of human nature, and cover every contingency. This guy did not succeed in making his argument ... bulletproof.
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Postby Guest » 10/17/06 01:50 PM

Originally posted by Bob Coyne:
The secret to the bullet catching trick corresponds to scientific explanations (i.e. a materialist cause).
Not so fast.
;)
The materialistic phenomenon was simply a rearrangement of molecules.

The "trick" is NOT independent of the performer (a great philosopher once said, "The magic is you") or the spectator (another said, "The magic is in the minds of your spectators"). As a result, we can even go so far as to say that all magic depends on at least two things that appear to be beyond the reach of science, namely:
  • Life (if you think that life is easy to explain scientifically, there may be $1,000,000 waiting for you at The Origin of Life Prize )
  • Language/Meaning (cf. Steven Pinker: "Problems such as how a child learns language...are horrendous in practice and may never be solved")
To say that the essence of the trick is materialistic is to demonstrate a severe reductionist bias. Either that, or one desperately needs the point to hold in order to buttress a very weak analogy.
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Postby Guest » 10/17/06 02:21 PM

Doug, a couple points.

First no one says that life (or any physical phenomenon) is easy to explain scientifically. If it was easy we wouldn't need science or scientists in the first place! Likewise, you mention language learning as somehow problematic. Brain science isn't far enough evolved to understand it currently. But are you doubting that there is a scientific explanation for how the brain learns? We're back to Dawkins point again. Just because something is unknown currently doesn't mean you should jump to the conclusion that it's unknowable (outside science).

Secondly, making sense of the physical world with science does involve the same sort of subjective difficulties that go with making sense of a magic trick. In both cases, subjective bias and confusion must be overcome. It took centuries for Newton's laws to be discovered, and yet high school students can understand them and use them today. That shows the powerful subjective forces at play.
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Postby Guest » 10/17/06 03:09 PM

Originally posted by Bob Coyne:
... It took centuries for Newton's laws to be discovered...
It seems to have taken about four billion years and they are truly the result of intelligent design.
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Postby Guest » 10/17/06 03:55 PM

Originally posted by Bob Coyne:
Just because something is unknown currently doesn't mean you should jump to the conclusion that it's unknowable (outside science).
Granted. But the possibility that there are natural phenomena "outside" science is becoming ever more compelling as we investigate what it is that makes us human. There is a very interesting recursion required in order to study language. Consider the meaning of "meaning", for example. Humans simply don't do "meta-meaning" very well (even though we can imagine that such a thing might be required to explain understanding, we cannot understand it!). The bottom line here is that the line between the natural and the supernatural blurs.
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