"Street Performers Levitating In Prague" from Godot13 licensed under CC 3.0

Philosophy, Science, and Magic

Being in the hands of a master magician can leave you feeling a bit uneasy. When the magician finishes a trick, you face a jarring disjunction: either your view of the world is deeply mistaken or you’ve failed to understand what happened during the trick. But you’ve no idea what you failed to understand about the trick, so it seems as though the world is not what you think it is.

In this post, I want to argue that something similar can happen when one studies philosophy or science. To explain what I mean, let me offer some context.

Preconceived Notions

Philosophers and scientists are trying to answer questions about the world. They use a certain set of methods to arrive at conclusions about these questions. Sometimes these conclusions seem familiar and uncontroversial. Other times, not so much. We might think a conclusion is correct because, say, it jibes with of our preconceived notions about the world. And when a conclusion seems correct right off the bat, we are unlikely to question it.

Intuitive Appeal

Consider an example. When I ask students, “Is science special? Is it fundamentally different from, say, philosophy, history, and literature?” My students confidently assert that it is.

“Science is special,” they report, “because it is unbiased…it is based only on evidence…it is not lead astray by cultural prejudice….” Notice that they might be right about one thing: science is special. But they’re probably not right about science being unbiased, based entirely on evidence, or being free from prejudice. Any student who pays attention in a history of science or philosophy of science course will eventually learn this much.

So if students aren’t able to offer good reasons for their belief that science is special, why are they so quick to say that it is? Because it fits their preconceived notions, of course! After all, the pro-science fad is definitely in full swing (e.g., memes like “I Fucking Love Science), so it is no wonder that my students would be quick to accept positive claims about science — even if they haven’t given it much thought.


But this also works the other way. That is, we sometimes reject claims not because we are aware of good reasons or arguments to reject the claims, but because the claims don’t jibe with our preconceived notions. In these cases, we are predisposed to be suspicious of the claim. And sometimes it is very difficult to overcome this predisposition.

For instance, sometimes I will mention an idea to a student and they will quickly reject it. I’ll ask them for their reason and they’ll be stumped. That or they’ll give a reason, which, upon saying it aloud, is obviously faulty. Weirdly, the student will remain convinced that the claim is wrong — even though they can’t support their position! There is evidence that many people do this. Some call it the “dumbfounding effect” (Haidt, Bjorkland, and Murphy 2000; see also the video below).

This dumbfounding experience can be similar to being puzzled about a magic trick…but what does this have to with philosophy or science?

Philosophy and Science

Philosophers and scientists systematically arrive at answers to various questions about the world. When you study philosophy or science, you will find that some of these answers seem kind of crazy. They do violence to our preconceived notions.

People commonly say this about quantum mechanics. And often feel this way about various views in philosophy. For instance, I have felt this way about Platonic forms, disembodied minds, supervenience, truth-maker theory, moral realism, occasionalism about causation, and even normativity. Consider this last idea: normativity.

A norm refers to a special kind of proposition or rule that is supposed to offer guidance or impose standards. It seems that we need this concept of norms to make sense of our proclivity to think that things are good or bad, right or wrong, better or worse, etc. In other words, “norms” are an answer to the question, “What makes this good/right/better?”

Some philosophers think that norms are just standards that we assent to because the norms are useful (Kitcher 2011). For example, it is useful for humans to believe that murder is bad, so we believe it. The norm, on this view, might be anything other than a psychological phenomena. Other philosophers, however, think that norms exist independently of our psychology. They’re real and distinct from our existence. They’re part of the furniture of the universe. 

If this doesn’t immediately sound bizarre, then start asking questions. Where could this norm be if not in someone’s mind? Are norms physical? Can you think of another idea (that isn’t totally weird) that is analogous to this “norm” thing? How can we distinguish between things that exist independently of our psychology and things that don’t?

Until sensible answers can be provided for questions like this, the idea of normativity (and many other ideas) can leave us feeling the way we feel after a magic trick. On the one hand, we feel that the idea is too counterintuitive to be true. On the other hand, it seems that there are compelling reasons to accept the idea and/or no obvious reasons to reject the idea, so we feel like we ought to override our preconceived notions in order to accept the idea.

What To Do?

We can either reject counterintuitive ideas —like we do with magic — or we can accept them — like we do with quantum mechanics. But how do we know what to do?

Notice that the answer depends on whether one can marshal principled reasons and arguments in favor of accepting or rejecting the idea. Sometimes we can do this. Other times we fail to do this, like when we are dumbfounded. And then there are times when we find principled reasons and arguments in favor of both accepting and rejecting of the idea. In other words, it’s a stalemate or tie. If we can determine that the quality of the reasons and arguments for one side are better than the other, then we might be able to break the tie. But determining the quality of reasons and arguments could depend, once again, on our preconceived notions (about reasons and arguments). And if our preconceived notions differ, then we might disagree about how to determine the quality of reasons and arguments in general. And this brings us to another stalemate.


The point is that studying philosophy and science can — just like a good magic trick — leave you feeling dumbfounded. You might find yourself second guessing what you thought was true or entertaining ideas that you thought were certainly false. 


(Image credit: “Street Performers Levitating In Prague” from Godot13 licensed under CC BY 3.0)

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Nick Byrd

Nick is a cognitive scientist at Florida State University studying reasoning, wellbeing, and willpower. Check out his blog at byrdnick.com/blog

3 thoughts on “Philosophy, Science, and Magic”

  1. I think that I know what you mean about that feeling. I felt that way when I first came into contact with the idea of being sceptical about meaning and reference (some might say that I never recovered from that). Getting through the chapter of The Conscious Mind where Chalmers starts talking about panpsychism was a lot like this too.

    If I understand the metaphor correctly, I would agree that it is (or should be) the provision of principled reasons that helps us decide if what we have seen is actually magic, in that reality is actually is strange as it seems, or just a magic trick where there is something going on that does not overturn as many of our assumptions.

    1. Indeed. Panpsychism baffled me at first.

      Also, I sometimes wonder if there is a difference between this feeling in philosophy as opposed to certain moments in science (e.g., the two slit experiment, quantum mechanics, etc.). I’ll have to think about this more to determine if there is really a difference between the two.

      Thanks for engaging Samuel!

      1. Sorry for my delay. In the end I think that differences in the dumbfounded feeling one has about philosophical vs. scientific conclusions come down to either the difference in the methods of science and philosophy or the difference in one’s preconceived notions about the target domain. When the sense of dumbfounding is different between a scientific conclusion and a philosophical conclusion, then it might just be that there are different intuitions in play. Or it might be that the methods which produced the conclusion have a differential affect on our judgments about the conclusion (e.g., I think many people give a higher credence to a scientist’s methods than any armchair method).

        Thanks again, Samuel.

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