The possibility of a science of magic

Frontiers in Psychology 6:1576 (2015)
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The past few years have seen a resurgence of interest in the scientific study of magic. Despite being only a few years old, this “new wave” has already resulted in a host of interesting studies, often using methods that are both powerful and original. These developments have largely borne out our earlier hopes (Kuhn et al., 2008) that new opportunities were available for scientific studies based on the use of magic. And it would seem that much more can still be done along these lines. But in addition to this, we also suggested that it might be time to consider developing an outright science of magic—a distinct area of study concerned with the experience of wonder that results from encountering an apparently impossible event1. To this end, we proposed a framework as to how this might be achieved (Rensink and Kuhn, 2015). A science can be viewed as a systematic method of investigation involving three sets of issues: (i) the entities considered relevant, (ii) the kinds of questions that can be asked about them, and (iii) the kinds of answers that are legitimate (Kuhn, 1970). In the case of magic, we suggested that this could be done at three different levels, each focusing on a distinct set of issues concerned with the nature of magic itself: (i) the nature of magical experience, (ii) how individual magic tricks create this experience, and (iii) organizing knowledge of the set of known tricks in a more comprehensive way (Rensink and Kuhn, 2015). Our framework also included a base level focused on how the methods of magic could be used as tools to investigate issues in existing fields of study. Lamont (2010) and Lamont et al. (2010) raised a number of concerns about the possibility of such a science, which we have addressed (Rensink and Kuhn, 2015). More recently, Lamont (2015) raised a new objection, arguing that although base-level work (i.e., applications of magic methods) might be useful, there is too little structure in magic tricks for them to be studied in a systematic way at the other levels, ruling out a science of magic. We argue here, however, that although this concern raises some interesting challenges for this science, it does not negate the possibility that it could exist, and could contribute to the study of the mind.

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Ronald A. Rensink
University of British Columbia


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