How does a Rabbit Come out of a Top Hat? : Philosophy in a Magic Show

RabbitHatMagic (not the fictional kind) is something almost everyone enjoys which challenges the viewers with acts that seems impossible. Although it is a challenging and enjoyable task to guess how the magician do his or her tricks, some people seem to disregard them as just a bunch of acts that is used to trick people. The reason that made me choose the above title to this article is because it makes me remember one of the most interesting answers I’ve heard, to the question what is the task of a philosopher? It is from the book ‘Sophie’s World’ by ‘Jostein Gaarder’ It is,

“A white rabbit is pulled out of a top hat. Because it is an extremely large rabbit, the trick takes many billions of years. All mortals are born at the very tip of the rabbit’s fine hairs, where they are in a position to wonder at the impossibility of the trick. But as they grow older they work themselves ever deeper into the fur. And there they stay. They become so comfortable they never risk crawling back up the fragile hairs again. Only philosophers embark on this perilous expedition to the outermost reaches of language and existence. Some of them fall off, but others cling on desperately and yell at the people nestling deep in the snug softness, stuffing themselves with delicious food and drink.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” they yell, “we are floating in space!” But none of the people down there care.

So what makes a magic show challenging and interesting? Is it just the mysterious way that the magician plays out the act (with wired cloths and instruments)? Or is it the challenge or the puzzle that the magic tricks are presented to you? It doesn’t seem like that the people who watch a magic shown are really believing that there is something else other than a bunch trick. But they still enjoy it. Maybe magic show is a place where people genuinely feel that they do not know. It is true that there are many things that people don’t know. But most doesn’t care about them. But in magic, a situation is created where a set of observers is presented with a set of events that seemingly violates their reality. This makes the observers wonder how these events occur and make the create explanations. Most of all it makes them enjoy this process.

Reality for this article is defined as the world that one experiences, which depends on that particular person (his or her view of the world). Every one’s reality is maintained by a set of rules (or reoccurring patterns) which were constructed through direct observations or other type of learning (through various types of media, people, books, etc.) or maybe through reasoning and logic. For an example a person doesn’t need to study physics to see gravity (here, gravity means not the explanation in physics, but the simple phenomena that is “things fall down”). One can observe this phenomenon repeatedly and make him or herself a rule to explain similar observations in similar situations inductively (like the above mentioned simple rule “things fall down”). On the other hand, one can learn a scientific explanation of that phenomena and explain the world through that (this may not apply to gravity since one sees gravity repeatedly and get used to it before he or she learn the scientific explanation for it. But this may be applicable for some rarely seen phenomena). It is addressed as each one’s reality is because the way one sees the world and how one explains it (the rules) can be different from person to person. For an example, a child may marvel at something like a rainbow and won’t be able to explain it. But an adult can a have a set of rules to explain the phenomenon, may be a scientific explanation or at least just a rule that states “rainbows can happen”.

By taking this into account the knowledge that a person hasn’t achieved yet can be divided into three types (this categorization may not be the most accurate. But anyway, here it goes..). The first type of knowledge is the type that one doesn’t have and doesn’t feel uneasy or curious about not knowing. For an example, if someone is not a doctor then that person may not know how some of the medicines work inside the body (They still know that medicine will cure illnesses they don’t know how). But he or she will most probably not feel uneasy or about not knowing it or won’t curious to find out about it. One may know that medicine works by experiences and that is enough to maintain the rules of reality.

The second type is the knowledge that one doesn’t have, but want to know. Although one wants to know it, not knowing doesn’t make him or her uneasy. This may be the case for some students. They may want to learn something, because of the curiosity or other reason (ex: finding a job), but still they don’t feel a rush to learn it ether. Most probability it is because this also doesn’t affect the reality very much. But this knowledge may help to create and modify rules of your reality to explain your observations better.

The third type which includes situation of a magic show is the one that makes someone uneasy. The uneasiness may come with the sudden excitement and curiosity in a form of a mystery. For an example the topic of this article, how does a rabbit come out of a top hat? This kind of situations certainly violates the observer’s reality (in front of his or her own eyes) and forces him or her to create a new explanation. In this example, it may violate the rule that someone has which states that an object cannot appear from nowhere.

The magic show is a much bit different in the terms of possible explanations to the violation of the reality when compared to other situations where reality is seemed to be violated. For an example a movie. A movie can violate the rules of an observer’s reality may be even more extensively compared to a magic show (I’m not talking about the fictional world of the movie. It is only about how the special effects of a movie are produced. The fictional world may include a its own reality with its own rules). But it is also easier to explain because it normally we know that there is lots of work going on backstage. Only a child will be amazed about special effects in a movie.

But in a magic show the possibilities are limited because it is on a stage in front of your eyes. It is a bit like seeing a miracle. But it is different because in a miracle there won’t be an explanation that you can give without changing your rules of reality (this doesn’t mean that I believe in miracles. I only used as a hypothetical situation). But in a magic show, you know that there is an explanation that doesn’t need a change in the rules of the reality, but it is hard to guess. You just need to find out or guess the unobserved part of that event in order to make that situation an explainable from the rules of your reality (for an example you want to know the mechanism of that trick). And when it becomes harder to explain it becomes more interesting.

But the continuous exposure to these observations may reduce the interest. This may make the knowledge of the events of a magic show goes from the type three to type one. An observer may create him or herself a rule like “there is a hidden trick so magic show is acceptable” in order to make observations of a magic show a consistent part of his or her reality. This makes the person lose the sense of wonder. This is not just happens in magic shows. Everything starts from the type three, but sooner or later goes to the type one. But loosing this sense of wonder is not a good thing, at least for someone who’s doing philosophy. As it mentioned in Sophie’s World,

The only thing required to be a good philosopher is the faculty of wonder.


One thought on “How does a Rabbit Come out of a Top Hat? : Philosophy in a Magic Show

  1. Pingback: Philosophers’ Carnival 173 | Fast Thoughts – Slow Oughts

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