The Grand Illusion: Confessions of a Believing Skeptic I

[Note: The following is the first installment of what I hope will be many that might, at some point, lead to a book. I feel as I approach my half-century mark in a couple of weeks that it’s time for me to start recording some of the ideas (heresies?) I have been mulling for the past, well, almost 50 years. My work makes it difficult for me to do this regularly, but I hope to make short-form contributions on an almost weekly basis to keep things moving. Feedback and dialectic are always welcome of course. While none of these ideas are new, they have the virtue and/or misfortune of having gone through the gristmill of my life rather than someone else’s.]

Everything is Magic

I am writing this in a state of turbulence—turbulence at about 37,000 feet over Gila Bend in Arizona. That by itself is an astonishing fact—not that I am actually writing, but that I can do it sitting comfortably, albeit a little cramped in economy seating, on a very large piece of aerodynamically shaped metal and fiberglass. Were I to try to explain this amazing feat in a phone conversation to Galileo Galilei, were such a thing even possible, the conversation would go something like this:

Me: Please speak to the metal rectangle with the small images flashing on its surface.

Gal: Speak to the rectangle…

Me: Yes, you’re doing fine. You can hear my voice coming from the rectangle.

Galileo with a smart phone (from an Icelandic ad)

Gal: How is this possible? Are you a spirit trapped within this glass and metal device?

Me: No. I’m a man like you. This device is a mechanized ear that catches the sounds I make, just as your ear does, and then produces them faithfully again with sounds that closely mirror my voice. All from a great distance.

Gal: But that is not possible. That would be magic!

Me: No, not at all. It’s science, dude.

Gal: But where are you? I can’t see you. Are you close by?

Me: No, sir. I’m on a flying contraption.

Gal: A flying contraption. Like Aladdin?

Me: Not exactly. This contraption has a very powerful means of propulsion using combustible chemicals in a controlled burn. It makes it possible for an object borne up on air to move forward at rapid speeds.

Gal: A burning carpet?

Me: We call it an airplane. It’s made mostly of lightweight metals, but actually weighs quite a few tons.

Gal: And it flies? I am doing calculations right now. One can drop a cannon ball from the Tower of Pisa, but surely one cannot make a cannon fly, even if it has wings!

Me: Trust me, Mister G. With the right amount of thrust and velocity and the proper ratio of deftly shaped wing surface and span to mass, we could launch St. Peters into the air. It’s all science, I tell you.

Gal: Like Archimedes and the Earth, big lever and all that, si, si. So…you are flying. How high did you say you were flying? Above the treetops like the sparrows? (Snickers)

Me: A little higher. I’m currently traveling 250 times faster than the fastest horse at an altitude two times higher than the highest cloud.

Gal: [Silence]

Me: Uh, Galileo, old friend. You there?

Gal: I’m here.

Me: It’s all science. Really.

Gal: I believe you.

Me: Really?

Gal: I believe you are a either a lunatic or a spy sent by the Vatican to entrap me. I am putting down the rectangle now and I’m going to the chapel to say some prayers. Now please leave me alone.

Me: Just press the red button on the glass….

Gal: When you fall from the sky, as you surely must, please steer clear of Pisa. That tower is very fragile.

Surely we would conclude that if it were only possible to give the Florentine scientist adequate information, he would come along nicely and admit that he over-reacted just a bit. In time, he would not only be boarding the next available airplane, he would probably sign up for skydiving lessons. But that doesn’t change the fact that the feat I have achieved of sitting inside a fire-breathing piece of hollow aluminum six miles off the ground hurtling along at a speed that will take me 2000 miles in a mere four hours is, well, nothing short of miraculous.

But is it really a miracle?

Image from http://www.freakingnews.com/Nostradamus-Prophecies-Pictures–2707.asp

Of course not, the physicists say. It’s just science–totally plausible and explainable science. We know and understand all the rules that make such things possible. They aren’t even secret. We aren’t druids who keep their knowledge hidden from the masses, sharing it only with the sacred few. We aren’t alchemists hiding behind alembics and clouds of thick green smoke. We are honest practitioners who know how things work and we follow the rules to make them do what we know they can do. It’s that simple.

But is it that simple? Is it ever that simple?

Logical leaps are simple. Nearly blind acceptance is simple. Sitting down on this unholy flying contraption and engaging in the ludicrous act of fastening my seatbelt is simple. But guess what? Never make the mistake of thinking that the ability to do so is not magic. Because it is.

It’s all magic. And believing in it enough to place our fates at the mercy of this magic is nothing more or less than faith. And we are all brimming with faith, overflowing with it, saturated with it—every last one of us, from the most sparkly-eyed, trusting, drooling infant to the most skeptical, atheistic university professor —we are all of us exercising faith in the magic of the world around us.

In the time it took me to write this brief introduction, pausing, mind you, to eat a turkey sandwich with some airline pretzels and wash it all down three plastic cups of water, I flew on my magic tube from Palm Springs, California, to Tucumcari, Arizona. I am that amazing.

(Check here for the Icelandic ad featuring Galileo on the phone).

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3 thoughts on “The Grand Illusion: Confessions of a Believing Skeptic I

  1. Tyler Franklin

    “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” — Arthur C. Clarke, Profiles of the Future, 1973.

    To the ancients, we are all sorcerers. Likewise, perhaps, to the wizards of today — and assuming we don’t use our alchemy upon ourselves — tomorrow’s hominids may as well be intergalactic aliens. Are the magic and the alien cut from the same cloth?

    Loved the article!

  2. meldenius

    Maybe they are cut from the same cloth. But even that which can be explained in detail is still magic. Both Scientism and Fundamentalism often assume the air that explanation demystifies or somehow empowers. The thing is explained, so there. It’s like someone whose parachute fails to open thinking that his amazing discovery of the reason for the malfunction will somehow keep the ground from doing what it is about to do to him.

    1. Tyler Franklin

      Love the analogy! What has understanding cause to do with affecting consequence? Less than we know, perhaps.

      The Galileo dialogue is brilliant — “I believe you are a either a lunatic or a spy sent by the Vatican to entrap me.” Hahaha, so perfect.

      Looking forward to reading/discussing more.

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