Posts Tagged ‘Philosophy’

Magic Professor: magicians tap into what it means to be human

Todd Landman, University of Nottingham

British magician Paul Daniels, who died this week aged 77, is most famously known for his extraordinary cup and ball routine, where a simple ball appears, disappears, and reappears inside a small cup.

The magical effect one experiences in watching this routine is not possible without a person having a fully developed sense of what Jean Piaget calls “object permanence”. During their first years of life children develop an understanding that objects exist and events occur in the world that are independent of their actions. Close a door on a cat and you probably know that it’s still in the next room. For Daniels’ trick to work, a person needs to know that the ball itself ought to be in the cup even though it cannot be seen. The magic occurs when the cup is lifted and the ball is no longer there.

I know this all too well, because I am also a magician. Fortunately, like Daniels, I perform for audiences that are a touch older than two, the age after which most children have developed the sense of object permanence. Magic depends on understanding an audience’s psychology. I tend to limit my shows to people over the age of eight, since the kind of magic I really like is mentalism, or the art of using the tools of the conjurer combined with many other fields of knowledge to create the illusion of mind reading, telepathy, clairvoyance, uncanny synchronicity and other inexplicable phenomena.

Famous mentalists have included Maurice Fogel, Chan Canasta, David Berglas, Kreskin, Banachek, and Derren Brown – all of whom in one way or another create a wonderful sense of ambiguity about whether they posses true psychic ability or not.

Over the years this type of magic has attracted a lot of interest, tending to be couched in psychological terms. But I like to explore its possibilities in philosophical terms. Magic taps into the most fundamental questions of what it is to be human: questions philosophers have been asking for millenia.

Cogito ergo decipio

After a period of solitary rumination and extreme doubt, the French philosopher René Descartes famously declared “cogito ergo sum”; or “I think therefore I am”. The mere act of thinking, Descartes argued, establishes proof of our existence. This small utterance led to a revolution in our thinking about the separation between the mind and the body (known as dualism), the power of empirical observation and the notion that we have control over the material world in ways that are separate from our minds.

As an academic magician, such considerations naturally inform my performance. I like to use magic to explore and break down this Cartesian proposition and other philosophical notions, thereby disrupting my audience’s sense of reality.

For me, Descartes’s cogito ergo sum, becomes cogito ergo decipio, or “I think therefore I deceive”. I dedicate a large amount of thinking to how I might deceive my audiences into thinking I have a set of powers that lie outside the realm of scientific rational explanation, while at the same time addressing some of our more fundamental philosophical questions about knowledge, language, mathematics, politics and even human rights.

Todd Landman, Author provided

For example, Plato’s thought experiment The Ring of Gyges asks us to consider that if we were given the opportunity to wear a ring that makes us invisible, would we engage in “unjust acts”? With this premise in play, my participants join me on stage and are given a choice (unknown to me, as my back is turned) to either take a gold ring from a box, put it on their finger and hide it from view; or to leave the ring in the box. The taking of the ring is symbolic of Plato’s notion of an unjust act, where the moral choice of the participant is theirs and theirs alone. Turning to face the participant, I divine their choice and allow the experiment to be repeated. Regardless of their choice, it is always known to me (no, I’m not going to explain how).

This kind of effect demonstrates the essence of my approach to academic magic: there’s the demonstration of me inexplicably knowing their choice but it also raises a larger set of questions around our own temptations to commit “unjust acts”. Would you take the ring? It moves magic beyond a clever puzzle to a thought-provoking proposition that lasts beyond the moment of amazement.

And telepathy?

How people attempt to explain magical feats also provides philosophical insight. In one revealing experiment with a selection of drama students at the University of Huddersfield, I gave a series of magical performances and then compared their reactions to what they experienced. Their explanations were highly varied, ranging from ideas around trust, subliminal suggestion and religious identification – all of which were incorrect technically, but fascinating from a larger philosophical point of view.

Plausible explanations for magic and mind-reading feats raise larger epistemological questions about the world (“how we know what we know”) – questions that philosophers of science have been asking for centuries. Do we know what we know through observation? Through intuition? Through reason and rational deduction? How do we know if we are wrong in making statements about the world we perceive?

While the history and philosophy of science have debated these kinds of questions for centuries, magicians continue to disrupt our sense of reality, question the certainty of our knowledge, and in my own case, let us ponder the very rules by which we may live what Aristotle referred to as the good life; understood not as material wealth or superficial happiness, but the holistic and fulsome happiness that derives from doing the right thing under the right circumstances.

The Conversation

Todd Landman, Professor of Political Science, Pro Vice Chancellor of the Social Sciences, University of Nottingham

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the

An Evening of Mindful Magic


I am absolutely delighted to have crafted a new show entitled An Evening of Mindful Magic.

As an Academic Magician, I see magic as useful medium and means of communication for us to contemplate life’s bigger questions.

I have spent my entire life studying people and books, and have had the opportunity to travel around the world to discover new insights, lesser-known subjects, and in some cases, arcane secrets about the world.

I think of mindfulness in three ways.

First, I am keen that we all remain mindful of what we say and how that might affect those with whom we interact. It is often quite extraordinary how we remain unaware of the impact of what we say to people. Remaining mindful and developing empathy for those with whom we interact is a great first step to wisdom. I hope through the show that this notion is evident.

Second, my own demonstrations on display during the show are ‘of the mind’, which is to say that which you will perceive I am doing is a function of all five of your senses, but some of what you experience may actually feel like a sixth sense. Everything we experience is processed in our minds, and if we imagine we are all part of the ‘shared community of human minds’ as renowned neuroscientist Raymond Tallis believes we are, then perhaps we can enter that community together at least for the passing moments of the show.

Third, there is much in the press and public domain these days about ‘mindfulness’ or that state of the mind that allows us to live in the ‘present moment’; to not stand in the middle of the ‘rush hour’ of life, but rather to take a position on the pavement, detach ourselves from the distraction of the traffic in our lives, and find that inner calm. Being ‘ever present’ is something that holds great surprise across many moments in the show.

We will explore many themes together that touch on many topics currently at the forefront of the public’s mind. I rather like to see these topics as questions rather than anything approaching solid answers.

  • How much do we know, and how confident are we in knowing it?
  • What is hidden in plain sight?
  • Why do we use the words we use and how do we know what they mean?
  • Is there a mathematical world ‘out there’ waiting o be discovered?
  • How do we make deductions and why does that process matter?
  • How do we know what is right and what is wrong?
  • What memories from your life are important and do your remember them accurately?

These and other questions are explored in a highly interactive, dynamic and energetic show with many surprises and many inexplicable demonstrations that will certainly leave you agog!

The show has its debut at the Djanogly Theatre, Lakeside Arts at the University of Nottingham on 20 and 21 January 2016. For this show, all the proceeds will be donated to alzheimer’s research; an issue area that is very close to my heart.

So, prepare to be mesmerised, mindfully, of course!

Full details can be found here:


An Evening of Mindful Magic

Then and Now: A Magical Celebration of Essex University at 50!



Then and NowThe University of Essex is celebrating its 50th Anniversary this year. The year launches on our Alumni Weekend 12-14 September 2014.

As part of the celebrations I have been honoured to develop a magical celebration of our history in a dedicated stage show with music, visual images, and a wide range of uncanny demonstrations of coincidence, synchronicity, precognition, predictions, and direct mind reading.

The show explores topics such as politics, math, history, and philosophy which are wrapped in a magic carpet ride of highly interactive fun. The show runs from 4pm to 5pm (public show) and again from 6pm to 7pm (for alumni). It will also be staged again in December.

The University’s Lakeside Theatre is the perfect venue for the show as it allows raked seating, a huge performance area, and state of the art audio visual equipment.

This potted history of such a special University is serious fun with an academic twist and enjoyable for all. Tickets are FREE and can be booked by clicking HERE.

In the Comfort of Books


I am the first to adopt all sorts of new technology and have benefited greatly from working on-line, with large and complex data sets, on the iPad, the iPhone, and any other piece of time saving technology available; however, I have a lifelong love and commitment to books. Their sheer physicality can never be replaced with technology. They have history, a special smell, a feel, and each one is associated with a different moment in my life.

I particularly like old books. There is something about the way books were produced 100 years ago that makes them more attractive than anything that is on the market today. I grew up with Arthur Conan Doyle, Edgar Alan Poe, Alfred Hitchcock and the Three Investigators, Roald Dahl (especially James and the Giant Peach), and the Hardy Boys. Now, I am more prone to dip in an out of Plato, Aristotle and Descartes (the nice, small and natty Everyman editions), as well as some intriguing fiction.

My office is jam packed with books (even after a very painful purging) and my little monastic cell at home has a few hundred more tomes about everything from politics and philosophy to mathematics and magic.

This holiday season, I shall be delving into books on oligarchy, authoritarianism and human rights, along with some escapism through some fiction that is still sitting on the shelf, and even Dalrymple’s monumental Return of the King (funny how history repeats itself).

Nothing beats the satisfaction of holding an old book and appreciating the wafer thin pages, font, look, feel, and size as you curl up with your favourite hot beverage (mine’s a large cup of strong Lavazza) and lose yourself in the words.

I will also be writing and editing a new book called The Magiculum, which is an new exciting project that brings together lifelong magicians from all over the world, who are reflecting on what magic means to them. The essays are all fascinating and all different. Thanks to Enrique Enriquez and Camelia Elias, this book will come to fruition in 2014 from EyeCorner Press!

I also gravitate toward bookshops, especially second hand shops or those that value the magic of books. Wooden floors, shelves bursting with unusual titles, and the sumptuous smell of coffee wafting in the air. These are increasingly rare venues these days, but I hang on to the ones left and approach each new one I find with anticipation and excitement, like Shakespeare and Company in Paris, WatkinsDavid Drummond, Foyles and Skoob in London, Kramer Books in Washington DC, The Bookworm in Beijing, and many more.

As time slows down a bit this season, I hope we all get a chance to pick up a book and get lost for a while. I know I will…


Exploring the Outer Edges of the Mind

I had the good fortune last week of working with the School of Music, Humanities and Drama at the University of Huddersfield last weekend. The event is part of my role as a Visiting Professor of Performance Magic, which involves contributions to the Journal of Performance Magic, working with drama students, and performing my own material in evening shows.

This year, I worked with Nik Taylor and David Wainwright (FRSA) during the day with drama students in filming four short videos that explored a little known syncretic religion from Mexico, the medieval symbolism of the Tarot, the power of history through inherited objects, and the magical morality of Plato’s Ring of Gyges.


La Flaquita explores the Mexican cult of Santa Muerte through offerings, transformations, and yielding to important messages. I had been exposed to this phenomena while in Mexico last January and became further intrigued after reading Andrew Chesnut’s fascinating Devoted To Death. I arranged for Andrew to give a talk on his book at Treadwell’s bookshop this summer and developed my own magical exploration as a result. A connection is made through the use of a pendulum, a coin mysteriously vanishes, tobacco transforms into wine, a prayer disappears over a candle to leave an uncanny message, and concerns of a young woman are revealed through direct  communication with La Flaquita.

The true origins of the Tarot are unknown, but many believe that the cards evolved from a game of the court to a set of medieval archetypal images that represent different phases in our development (the Major Arcana), accompanied by ongoing forces relevant to our daily lives (travel, health, romance, adventure, material wealth, etc. as articulated through the Minor Arcana). My own exploration of these ideas involved two young people, free choices and contemplation, which made themselves known to me, perhaps from the shared community of human minds. In the event, a the radiance of The Sun and the compassion of the Queen of Wands were revealed in a truly inexplicable fashion.


I explored the power of history through a set of inherited objects: a small book, a silver coin, a key, a ring, and a gold watch. These objects are introduced in the context of my grandfather from Leiden and accompanied by his photograph and letter. The letter explains that each object has a deeper set of meanings that transcend their immediate physicality. The book is a miniature version of The Tempest and signifies knowledge and magic, the silver coin is a Morgan dollar and signifies material wealth, the key signifies secrets, the ring symbolises trust and commitment, and the watch stands for time, order and progress. My helpful participant ordered them thus: watch, key,  coin, ring and book. He was keen to focus on the orderly aspects of life before using the key to unlock opportunities, before looking at issues of wealth, trust and commitment, and the hidden world of knowledge that awaits him. Other participants made hidden selections which were divined, and the final selection was predicted in the letter, but nonetheless chosen by our final participant.

ring of gyges

Deep within the pages of Plato’s Republic is a thought experiment on morality called the Ring of Gyges. The ring is found within the belly of a bronze horse and renders its wearer invisible. The question for Plato centres the kinds of immoral acts one would commit while invisible and the temptation to wear the ring knowing the immoral acts that are possible under such circumstances. Two participants were given the choice to put the ring on (out of sight) or to leave it in the box (and shut), while my own powers of perception divined their true intentions.

lifting the veil-1

The day was capped off with a performance of my show Lifting the Veil of ignorance. The Milton Theatre was full for an evening of magical exploration of fundamental ideas such that concern us all: epistemology, morality, justice, human rights, language, the nature of the modern state, and the role of practical wisdom. The evening was hugely enjoyable with many wonderful surprises from the audience as they made choices, imagined outcomes, and engaged with my mind games with a view to delivering a serious message about what constitutes the good life.


Transformational Education

This week I was asked to speak to our first year business students about what a transformational education means at the University of Essex. This was both an honour and a privilege as I have always believed that a University education is truly transformational and is one of the most incredible times in your life. My own time at the University of Pennsylvania in the 1980s was unbelievably good. The professors, the campus, the extracurricular activities, and the dense social relationships all combined into four years of learning, living, and lucidity that have been a great foundation for all that I have done ever since.


In preparing my comments for our new students, I reflected on my time at Penn with great fondness and thought back on all the changes I experienced. I also reflected on the word transformation and its different meanings. For the talk, I made reference to the natural world and included images of the life cycle for a butterfly and a frog. I then reflected on the Aristotelian notion of telos accompanied by an image of an acorn and an oak tree. Inside all of us (acorns) is an oak tree waiting to get out.

As a magician, I had of course to reflect on alchemy and the scholar magicians of the 16th century, who were interested in the conversion of base metal into gold, as well as the process of spiritual development. For me, the notion of the vessel from alchemy was important for my talk. Inside the vessel, all sorts of changes happen. The vessel as a metaphor was useful for my point about education at Essex.

We take our base material (the students), put them in a vessel (library and classrooms), ferment the students (books, lectures, knowledge, skills, relationships, learning environment), and distillation (the newly formed graduate), the result of which is a person ready to take on the world.

I shared my own personal transformation from an idyllic childhood in rural Pennsylvania to an Academic Magician living in England. To cap off the event, I performed a quick demonstration using a Rubik’s Cube and a mind reading experiment using Thomas Hobbes classic tome Leviathan.Wivenhoe House

I like the openness of the University of Essex to these kinds of ideas. It is a University that has been challenging convention since its founding in 1964 and this week was ranked among the top 100 in the world for the social sciences. It has been my professional home since 1993 and a base from where I have been able to explore the world.

Next week, the Edge Hotel School, the first of its kind in the UK for work based learning in the newly refurbished Wivenhoe House Hotel, will host my new show ‘Lifting the Veil of Ignorance’, which explores many foundational philosophical ideas through the medium of magic and mentalism.

Like the lecture, the show offers a different opportunity for transformational education, which for me, is something that is ongoing and never really reaches an end…

Philosophy and Magic



This week I had the opportunity to be engaged in an examination of a doctoral thesis at Oxford University and was once again seduced by the sheer magical qualities of the city. The venue for the examination was within easy walking distance from the train station, but far enough away for me to get a real sense of the city, with its spires, yellow buildings, quirky doorways, and delightful streets, shops, and greens.

Beyond enjoying the examination and catching up with colleagues and friends, I also had the good fortune of walking to the station the next morning and passing by the Bodelian Library. I walked through the gates, which are part of a high fence topped by the heads of ancient philosophers with their imposing and slightly menacing gazes.

As I wandered through the squares and courtyards in the early hours of the morning, I was struck by two things. On one side of the square was a doorway marked Schola Metaphysicae and on the other, there was a small sign advertising a special exhibition called Magical Books.

What better place on planet earth for the Academic Magician to find himself!

Here, bracketed within a square that has been on this site for hundreds of years over which the footsteps of thousands of scholars have passed, I was standing and taking in the majesty of this space and the ideas that it communicated.

The exhibition featured the great works of magical fiction inspired by Oxford, such as the works of  C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Susan Cooper, Alan Garner and Philip Pullman, as well as ‘books and manuscripts that contain the myths, legends, and magical practices on which these Oxford-educated authors freely drew for inspiration.’

How wonderful to acknowledge the magical traditions at Oxford and inspired by Oxford. The city is also home to Deborah Harkness’ Discovery of Witches, part of the All Souls Trilogy; itself a tale of mystery, fantasy and intrigue based on a magical manuscript entitled Ashmole 782.

This framing of the square was important to me, since the Schola Metaphysicae symbolises thousands of years of philosophical investigation into all matters that lie ‘above’ (or perhaps beyond) the physical world (Aristotle first wrote the Physics and then the Metaphysics) and the exhibition celebrated all things magical that continue to inspire wonder in our minds.

My own work on philosophy and magic finds solace in this space that was inadvertently framed for me on Tuesday morning. I thought about the imaginary worlds of Tolkien and Lewis that fascinated me as a young reader, but also the imaginary worlds of Plato (The Republic), Machiavelli (The Prince), More (Utopia), Dante (Inferno), Hobbes (The State of Nature) and Rawls (The Veil of Ignorance) that have been so influential in my academic work as well as my own version of performance magic.

Magic, wonder and thought can come together through performance in ways that address fundamental questions about how we know what we know and why what we know matters for the pursuit of the good life. Performance magic can disrupt our sense of what we know and provide alternative pathways to understanding the human condition, and in my own performances such a perspective allows me to address the sources of knowledge, the world of ideas, the nature of the state and human motivation, free will, morality, justice, human rights, and practical wisdom.

Some say the moment on Tuesday morning was pure chance; the product of a few extra minutes on the way to the train station. But the magician in me thinks otherwise.