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Posted by on Feb 5, 2013 in Uncategorized | 2 comments

Dennett on consciousness as stage magic

In a recent, marvelous paper, Dan Dennett quotes Lee Siegel:

““I’m writing a book on magic”, I explain, and I’m asked, “Real magic?” By real magic people mean miracles, thaumaturgical acts, and supernatural powers. “No”, I answer: “Conjuring tricks, not real magic”.  Real magic, in other words, refers to the magic that is not real, while the magic that is real, that can actually be done, is not real magic.”

Dennett continues:

“It seems to many people that consciousness is a mystery, the most wonderful magic show imaginable, an unending series of special effects that defy explanation. I think that they are mistaken, that consciousness is a physical, biological phenomenon –like metabolism or reproduction or self-repair – that is exquisitely ingenious in its operation, but not miraculous or even, in the end, mysterious. Part of the problem of explaining consciousness is that there are powerful forces acting to make us think it is more marvelous than it actually is. In this it is like stage magic, a set of phenomena that exploit our gullibility, and even our desire to be fooled, bamboozled, awe-struck. The task of explaining stage magic is in some regards a thankless task; the person who tells people how an effect is achieved is often resented, considered a spoilsport, a party-pooper. I often get the impression that my attempts to explain consciousness provoke similar resistance. Is it not nicer if we all are allowed to wallow in the magical mysteriousness of it all? Or even this: If you actually manage to explain consciousness, they say, you will diminish us all, turn us into mere protein robots, mere things.”

I get the same resistance from religious believers.  Part of their objection to naturalism is that it demotes them or something they revere, like free will or consciousness, or it leaves something out, like eternal life.  Or it just generally causes the pixie dust to fall to the floor.

And I’m ready.  When I hear this, I earnestly reassure them that Humanism has wonderful all-natural replacements for all these things.  But these gluten-free items have no appeal.  They’re like those biodegradable sandwich bags you can buy at the health food store.  (They’re so crinkly.)  People look at me like I’m a vegetarian at a barbecue.  Sure there are substitutes.  They don’t want natural.  They want the real thing, the manufactured artificial thing.  The thing that doesn’t really exist.  Why settle for real when you can have what you really want?