Dennett on magic and misdirection

While musing over yesterday’s post on the use of psychological language as a form of a magician’s misdirection, I remembered Dennett’s 2003 article [pdf] on consciousness where he uses exactly this as a metaphor for why consciousness doesn’t exist as some scientists think it does.

Dennett argues that the ‘hard problem‘ is a red herring – the whole question of how conscious first person experience arises from the biological function of the brain assumes that consciousness is a single thing that needs explaining.

He suggests that there isn’t a single thing that is consciousness, just a collection of mental components, but the fact we’ve named it as a single thing fools us.

In his article Explaining the “Magic” of Consciousness, he gives a great analogy of how the use of the word ‘the’ was used in a card trick to make it seem completely mysterious even to fellow professional magicians.

The tempting idea that there is a Hard Problem is simply a mistake. I cannot prove this. Or, better, even if I can prove this, my proof will surely fall on deaf ears, since CHALMERS, for instance, has already acknowledged that arguments against his convictions on this score are powerless to dislodge his intuition, which is beyond rational support. So I will not make the tactical error of trying to dislodge with rational argument a conviction that is beyond reason. That would be wasting everybody’s time, apparently. Instead, I will offer up what I hope is a disturbing parallel from the world of card magic: The Tuned Deck.

For many years, Mr. Ralph Hull, the famous card wizard from Crooksville, Ohio, has completely bewildered not only the general public, but also amateur conjurors, card connoisseurs and professional magicians with the series of card tricks which he is pleased to call “The Tuned Deck”…

Ralph Hull’s trick looks and sounds roughly like this:

Boys, I have a new trick to show you. It’s called ‘The Tuned Deck’. This deck of cards is magically tuned [Hull holds the deck to his ear and riffles the cards, listening carefully to the buzz of the cards]. By their finely tuned vibrations, I can hear and feel the location of any card. Pick a card, any card… [The deck is then fanned or otherwise offered for the audience, and a card is taken by a spectator, noted, and returned to the deck by one route or another.] Now I listen to the Tuned Deck, and what does it tell me? I hear the telltale vibrations, … [buzz, buzz, the cards are riffled by Hull’s ear and various manipulations and rituals are enacted, after which, with a flourish, the spectator’s card is presented].

Hull would perform the trick over and over for the benefit of his select audience of fellow magicians, challenging them to figure it out. Nobody ever did. Magicians offered to buy the trick from him but he would not sell it. Late in his life he gave his account to his friend, HILLIARD, who published the account in his privately printed book. Here is what Hull had to say about his trick:

For years I have performed this effect and have shown it to magicians and amateurs by the hundred and, to the very best of my knowledge, not one of them ever figured out the secret. …the boys have all looked for something too hard [my italics, DCD].

Like much great magic, the trick is over before you even realize the trick has begun. The trick, in its entirety, is in the name of the trick, “The Tuned Deck”, and more specifically, in one word “The”! As soon as Hull had announced his new trick and given its name to his eager audience, the trick was over. Having set up his audience in this simple way, and having passed the time with some obviously phony and misdirecting chatter about vibrations and buzz-buzz-buzz, Hull would do a relatively simple and familiar card presentation trick of type A (at this point I will draw the traditional curtain of secrecy; the further mechanical details of legerdemain, as you will see, do not matter).

His audience, savvy magicians, would see that he might possibly be performing a type A trick, a hypothesis they could test by being stubborn and uncooperative spectators in a way that would thwart any attempt at a type A trick. When they then adopted the appropriate recalcitrance to test the hypothesis, Hull would ‘repeat’ the trick, this time executing a type B card presentation trick. The spectators would then huddle and compare notes: might he be doing a type B trick? They test that hypothesis by adopting the recalcitrance appropriate to preventing a type B trick and still he does “the” trick – using method C, of course. When they test the hypothesis that he’s pulling a type C trick on them, he switches to method D – or perhaps he goes back to method A or B, since his audience has ‘refuted’ the hypothesis that he’s using method A or B.

And so it would go, for dozens of repetitions, with Hull staying one step ahead of his hypothesis-testers, exploiting his realization that he could always do some trick or other from the pool of tricks they all knew, and concealing the fact that he was doing a grab bag of different tricks by the simple expedient of the definite article: The Tuned Deck.

pdf of article Explaining the “Magic” of Consciousness.

10 thoughts on “Dennett on magic and misdirection”

  1. Dennett’s theory about consciousness sounds Nietzcheian. He asserted that the unitary entity called consciousness evolved out of our social need to relate to the outer world.

  2. First, Dennett is taking a mechanistic or constructivist view of consciousness. Chalmers has a more nuanced (classically influenced) view, perhaps an emergent (epi-phenomenal) view…….
    But Dennett does not address the issue of whether emergent phenomena (statistically emergent or otherwise) are “real” phenomena, and whether such “second order” or higher order phenomena can physically influence the biological/physical structures that gave rise to them………..
    A Meta-comment regarding his card trick analogy: I speak here first as a former magician; I suspect that the “puzzlement” of the other magicians as to Hull’s method(s) was apocryphal. Every magician who has ever done card tricks knows that sometimes someone starts to catch on, and you then have to switch methods–sometimes several times in an impromptu, close-up magic session. So, I doubt that many of the magicians were mystified for too long (magicians love to hype their prowess)…………
    Regarding the magic trick analogy as it applies to consciousness:
    In this analogy (in terms of consciousness), what is the role being played by the magician? Is Dennett implying that consciousness willfully changes its method of (self) production every time scientists try to test one method or another (like the “meaning of life” in ‘Hitch-hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’)? The magician here is a (self) conscious, willing entity….is that his view of consciousness? I would guess not………..
    I suppose his point is that people look for an explanation for consciousness simply because the word exists, but that confuses folks into thinking that consciousness is real–like “the tuned deck”, which is a sham, or illusion. Is he therefore positing consciousness as an illusion? Or, is he merely obfuscating………………..
    “Science” — a term we use often — is a collective of disciplines as well as a methodology. Huge volumes of data, vast systems of nomenclature and concepts (derived from experiment and observation) and technologies (tools) combine to constitute what we simply refer to as “Science”………is this Science likewise a mistaken notion (the idea of a unified, higher- order, real entity), i.e., an illusion?……………
    It seems that our understanding of mind/consciousness has not really improved much over the last hundreds years; the same questions keep arising…………………
    It’s almost a Platonic Ideal situation: are abstract entities/ideas “real” in the scientific sense (i.e., measurable, causative)? Probably not measurable, but ambiguously causative, yes……….Is the illusion thus also “real” (for we all experience the sensation of self-consciousness, an “I” that wills and directs and coheres the many attributes of “self”……………..
    If the “self” and the “I” of consciousness arises from signals occurring across multiple levels of brain functioning, between multiple hierarchies of neuronal networks and through multiple feedback loops via multiple brain structures…….then, this still makes consciousness an emergent phenomenon–however complexly evolved………………………….
    More work needs to be done on the mechanics of second/third order systems, me thinks (“beyond networks”)……………………………….
    I wonder how Dennett feels about Hofstadter’s book “I Am a Strange Loop”…?

  3. It’s odd that Dennett thinks consciousness can’t be ‘one thing’, and yet he does think it can be an assembly of things or the dynamics of an ensemble of things. The difference is trivial, because wherever you look you cannot find a non-composite or partless object.
    It seems to me that a more fruitful track to this Hard Problem is to look at consciousness like an eye. An eye can see outside but it cannot see itself. Anything that we might find and designate and say “this is consciousness” or “this is its cause” or “this is its mechanism” — that very thing remains an object of consciousness, something seen by the eye and not the eye itself.
    So long as consciousness is sought as an object or an ensemble or pattern or any thing that can be discriminated from other things, this same problem remains where one has discriminated a phenomenon but has come no closer at all to finding that which knows and experiences the phenomenon. It is like seeing only images in a mirror but not seeing the mirror itself, or like an eye that can see all things but doesn’t see itself. Whoever tests this and looks into it for themselves will eventually find that consciousness cannot be found as an object discriminated relative to other objects on the basis of size, weight, color, smell, and so on. It has to go beyond that.
    There are some excellent treatments of this topic which go beyond the subject/object duality and consider consciousness to be like space, all-pervading and without any kind of center or edge. This understanding is not only logical but fits with one’s own experience. On this topic the views of Buddhism, in particular the explanations held by the four Tibetan traditions, the old three meditation linages like Karma Kagyu, Nyingma, and Sakya, and the recent more academic reformed school the Gelugpa are very instructive for anyone interested.

  4. This is actually a rather common ploy used by magicians and the idea expands into a more Gestalt notion of assumption.
    Magicians (myself being one of them) often rely on two key ideas to accomplish a desired outcome. The two most relied on being that of assumption, and presumption.
    By depending on the audiences assumption of what one is doing, when in reality another action is taking place leads many a spectator to our desired outcome.
    Magicians must also rely on the spectators presumption that everything they are saying is true. A truly expert magician will not lie in any shape form or fashion but instead will leave enough predetermined gaps for the audience to fill in and come to their own false conclusion.
    For example, let’s assume the magician shows you the top card of the deck. He turns the card over end for end back onto the deck and a card is dealt to the table, face down.
    This might be accompanied by appropriate patter, “I’d like you to remember this card, because in a moment it is going to vanish.”
    Your presumption is that the card is going to vanish. Which in fact it will, but you assume it will happen immediately and therefore are not waiting for that to occur. You likely assume that the vanish will be visual.
    A card is now dealt to the table, you assume this is the card to vanish. But in fact the magician has dealt, say, the second card of the deck. Thus the card has vanished in a sense. You assume the card on the table is the one just show to you, and the magician now gives the impression, and acts out the rituals, that make it appear as though the card on the table is slowly vanishing. In actuality the card has simply been switched by the conditioning, presumptions, and assumptions leading the spectator into tricking themselves and believing the earlier gap to be filled in, i.e. the card has vanished.
    A clever magician could as this point spread the deck thus showing that the original noted card is truly gone.

  5. As a magician in new york it often amazes me how quickly people make assumptions about how an effect is accomplished. Once they start down the wrong path to a solution, no amount of thinking will get them to the “solution”. Besides I became a magician not to fool people, but rather to give them a sense of joy and wonder.

  6. I also agree with Joseph. I’m too magician from New York and I also perform all over Massachusetts, Connecticut and even New Jersey.

    We should never forget what all magicians should be doing (not focusing on how cool are sleights are, etc) but our number one goal to entertainer your audience. I’m not saying not to focus on your art, as you always have to makes sure you have a great show. But don’t let your ego get in the way of entertaining your audiences (whether kids or adults). Happy New Year everyone!
    New York Magicians: – Domino The Great

  7. Ralph Waldo Emerson Hull was my Grandfather, me being the son of his youngest daughter Carol Hull Sopko (sill living – the only one) and many of my now deceased Uncles who were all raised with avid awareness of his concepts – would have had great interest in your writings. Whatever – “a day late and a dollar short” as they used to say.


  8. It’s a shame that the niceness of the story of the tuned deck makes Dennett’s bad argument about consciousness more appealing.

    Dennett’s argument that there is no hard problem of consciousness can be summarized thus:

    1. Take the hard problem of consciousness.

    2. Add in all the other things anybody has ever called “consciousness”.

    3. Solve all those other issues one by one.

    4. Conveniently forget about the hard problem of consciousness.

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