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Thought for the Day: Seeing Through Philosophical Sleight of Hand

I happen to like magic tricks.  Apparently all magic tricks have three parts (I know that is true, because I heard it in a movie):

Every great magic trick consists of three parts or acts. The first part is called "The Pledge". The magician shows you something ordinary: a deck of cards, a bird or a man. He shows you this object. Perhaps he asks you to inspect it to see if it is indeed real, unaltered, normal. But of course... it probably isn't. The second act is called "The Turn". The magician takes the ordinary something and makes it do something extraordinary. Now you're looking for the secret... but you won't find it, because of course you're not really looking. You don't really want to know. You want to be fooled. But you wouldn't clap yet. Because making something disappear isn't enough; you have to bring it back. That's why every magic trick has a third act, the hardest part, the part we call "The Prestige"  ― Christopher Priest, The Prestige

I saw one of the most clever bits of sleight of hand the other day.  What made it so clever is that the prestidigitator didn't actually bring it back; instead, he convinced you that it had never been there in the first place!  He then created an illusion and further convinced you that it was the real original (that he has just convinced you never really existed).  The cleverness and skill of the practitioner was great, in fact, that he himself was convinced by his own trick.  The beauty brought tears to my eyes.

The Pledge
A self-proclaimed scientist who has some very cool explanations of deep topics in physics for the layman.  I've seen a few of his 5-or-so minute presentations on YouTube and they are interesting, informative, and accurate.  I was therefore interested to see one entitled "But why is there anything?"  "Awesome!  He is tackling the question that ultimately lead me to become and Orthodox Jew!"  He started by showing that every question about how and why things work eventually comes to the same, basic question, "But why is there anything?"  After all, he continued, we see stuff and there are only two possibilities: either its always been here, or it was created.  We know the stuff has not always been here, so just how did all this stuff get here?

The Turn
"Here is not the answer: G-d did it.  That's not an answer because it just pushes the question back, without answering anything.  That is, you have simply replaced the phrase 'all this stuff' with 'G-d'.  So that's not even a candidate for an answer."
   (My comment: Wow... just like that... G-d is (G-d Forbid) gone; proof by blatant assertion.)

The (Faux-)Prestige
"The answer," continued the narrator, "is something we physicists call vacuum fluctuation.  Totally at random, stuff will appear.  And that is why there is everything."

Are you applauding?  Let's take a closer look.  First, he dismissed G-d because "that just pushes the question back."  Does it?  He started by saying that something that is here was either always here or was created.  Right.  G-d has always existed.  In fact, G-d is the only real and necessary existence.  That's not a new question, that's the answer.  Even better, his answer "vacuum fluctuations" is the actual "just pushing the question back".  The vacuum isn't nothing, it's just the absence of stuff.  It's like when you try to hit a web site that isn't there.  The fact that you get no response doesn't mean that the internet has disappeared, it just means there is nothing there right now.  So we are left with... "So how did the vacuum get here??"

So he dismissed the real answer and put up an illusion as his reply.  Why didn't he notice?  Look again at the quote: "You don't really want to know. You want to be fooled."  He wants to be fooled so he can still live his fantasy that the universe exists for no reason, and his only job is to get the most pleasure and satisfaction for himself.  No strings attached.

That's the problem with magic... you see enough of it and it just loses is mystery.


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