Breaking the Magician’s Code

Last night I watched an episode of Breaking the Magician’s Code: Magic’s Biggest Secrets Finally Revealed. It’s notable for a number of reasons, not the least of which being that the direction the narrator received must have been, “Bored! You’ve never been so bored! Just read your lines like you don’t care about anything!”

The basic premise is contained in the title. Someone who went by the stage name “The Masked Magician” revealed how to do a number of very old magic tricks. But the approach is very curious: they don’t approach this with any sort of excitement or awe, but rather a sort of bored annoyance.

Now, the thing I find very interesting about that is the timing. Breaking the Code was released from 1997-1998. That precedes the emergence of the New Atheism by around 8 years, but of course the New Atheism would be better called the Warmed Over Atheism, and the market for the books which would come to define the New Atheism was forming over this time period.

I’m not asserting any sort of causal link between the two, but I do see a similarity of attitude. In particular, Breaking the Code was dismissive and very reductionist. It took an air of superiority, though to what was unclear. And more importantly, it presented tricks as if there was only one way of doing them, without variations. Yet I myself have seen plenty of variations which the explanation given did not cover, and I don’t watch much magic. I’m not, of course, claiming that there are real magicians practicing for entertainment—among other things, if a man had the power to levitate people, I don’t think he would be all that interested in being a stage magician. But I do think that there may be clever tricks involved in some stage magic, while the attitude taken by Breaking the Code is that magic is all really dumb, simple stuff. And that faith—that whatever has happened, it must be trivial—is very familiar from dealing with atheists.

“Skeptics” Are Amazing

This post will require a little backstory. The “short short” version  is that a friend of mine appeared in silhouette on a video of mine explaining why he wouldn’t be joining me in doing a response video to Deconverted Man’s video about me, and Deconverted Man &co thought I was faking my friend’s existence. (Skip down to “Analysis” after Deconverted Man’s video if you don’t want to see the specifics.) Here’s the video, if you’re curious:

A few of Deconverted Man’s followers (or people I believe to be his followers) showed up in the comments of that video, claiming that my friend (who wishes to remain anonymous) is really just me. This one from “Show-Me-Skeptic”:

I’m pretty sure the shadow man is the channel host. I find it inhumanly disgusting that the whole reason the “friend” chickened out is that Deconverted Man has a slight speech impediment. One that the “friend” says indicates special needs. Then the host goes on to completely straw man DM’s response, and flat out LIES about “12 valid proofs for god.” The host is too cowardly to face DM, and has to resort to gutter apologetics to cower out of a real debate.

(As a side-note, my friend mentioned several reasons that Deconverted Man reminds him of the special-needs people he used to work with and Deconverted Man’s speech impediment was not one of them.) “Username” said:

Missing The Mark You realize we can all tell your “friend” is you right? The way you take a breath and smack your lips is very distinct and noticible

Finally, “William McIntyre” said:

you went through a lot of trouble to hide in the dark so no one can see you and used a voice changer so that no one can know your voice and for what? No one cares if you lied about haveing a friend.

Actually that last one might have been posted after Deconverted Man’s video. Which said, in response to my friend’s portion of the video (in the person of a puppet):

This is deconverted man’s friend and I don’t wanna do this video either, because having both of us in the same room at the same time would be hard. We’re different people though, totally. Just trust me on this.

Btw, If you want to view Deconverted Man’s video, here it is:

And in the comments to this video “Hector Defendi” added:

Finally… His friend is Him . There is NO friend. He threw on a wig, and turned off the lights! (I have Photoshop) What a fucking LIAR!


There’s something deeply impressive about these “skeptics” leaping to such a strange conclusion in the face of evidence to the contrary. I re-watched the portion where my friend spoke and not only do we sound very different, we look very different in outline. He’s got long, flowing hair while my hair is quite short. Yes, this is funny that they’ve spun what one might call a “conspiracy of one” theory, but I think it’s actually quite psychologically interesting, because presumably this same sort of “thinking” gets applied to their rejection of faith.

As backstory, this friend of mine is an old college friend. We’ve known each other for over 15 years. He was a groomsman at my wedding. Unfortunately we live in different states and since I have small children while he has none, he tends to visit me approximately once a year, though that hasn’t worked out every year. And that’s what happened. Originally I only meant to push off the response to Deconverted Man’s video by a few months because it would have been a lot of fun to make fun of Deconverted Man’s recycled atheist tropes together. Then my friend saw Deconverted Man’s debate challenge and his really weird response video (filmed from the nose up) and said he thought Deconverted Man had a developmental disability like autism. I disagreed, saying (as I believed and still believe) that it’s just an odd shtick. But since I couldn’t prove my point, I actually went to Deconverted Man in the comments of either his video or mine—I forget—and asked him to confirm that he is not autistic. He refused to confirm or deny it, and said that we shouldn’t give him any special consideration. Finally my friend visited a few weeks ago, and I tried to talk him into doing the video but he opted out, giving the explanation above.

Deconverted Man was never told the specifics of how long I’ve known my friend, but he certainly knew about me trying to get him (Deconverted Man) to confirm that he is in fact neurotypical and that (I said) my friend pulled out because (in part) he (Deconverted Man) wouldn’t confirm that.

Given all this, Deconverted Man’s explanation for my friend’s explanation in my video is that I made up my friend to somehow justify why it took me so long to put out a video in which I said that Deconverted Man’s video missed the point of mine but had the minorly redeeming feature that he did understand how to use reason in a very minor case (buying clothes) and should work on building that up into being more generally reasonable. Oh, and that he completely misunderstands what special pleading is.

This paints a very curious picture of his view of human psychology as well as his approach to interpreting evidence. My story is out of the ordinary, but unusual things happen all the time and moreover people do often have friends and plans do often fall through. Furthermore, eventually making a response to a video after a year could more easily be explained by just saying, “OK, I’ve put this off long time, time to finally get it done so I can forget about it.”

If any sort of explanation was needed at all. My YouTube channel is hardly about current events; I did a video on the Richard Dawkins Foundation For Reason and Science’s recruiting video If You Are One of Us, Be One of Us when that video was more than a year old. Actually, it’s a fun video if you want to watch it:

Anyway, there was no sensible reason for me to pretend to have a friend, and furthermore you can hear his voice clearly and it sounds very different from mine. Yet these skeptics come up with the idea that I’m disguising my voice and wearing a wig in order to put on a rather strange and pointless pantomime. I don’t think it should be a shock that they reject the historical evidence for Christianity, but I do think that this gives some psychological insight into how they go about rejecting it.

On Proving Negative Claims

If one hangs out long enough on the internet, one will hear it said, “you can’t prove a negative.” This is of course obviously false stated in this level of generality. You can easily prove that the sun didn’t explode ten thousand years ago killing all life on earth and leaving the earth a barren wasteland by simply pointing up in the daytime sky at the intact sun, and noting that you yourself are alive and on the earth while you do it.

But people do not, generally, mean the statement at that level of generality. What they do mean varies with the circumstance but is usually some version of either:

You can’t prove the universal non-existence of a thing which could be anywhere due to the limitations of finite time plus one’s inability to travel to everywhere.


One cannot prove that a thing which would have left no trace did not happen over a time period large enough that there were no witnesses who saw whatever was not doing the action over the entire time.

Both of these are things no sensible person would object to, though occasionally you do see them come up. “You deleted a tweet you made over the last six months!” “How can I possibly prove that I didn’t since Twitter keeps no record of deleted tweets?”

(I think it’s worth noting in passing that the inability to provide physical evidence for things that would leave no physical evidence is precisely why we have witness testimony in the first place.)

These sensible things are not, however, the limits of that to which people will apply “you can’t prove a negative”. While not going so far as to claim that all negatives are strictly unprovable, I have seen this taken to rather ridiculous extremes. The one that comes to mind is a point I made in my recent video about Deconverted Man:

I pointed out that much of what he says rests on the idea that he’s never seen any evidence nor any “logically coherent” arguments for God’s existence, and that furthermore this is rather implausible because all the world is evidence for its creator and there are many sound arguments which demonstrate God’s existence.

The first of those two points is arguable only by trying to creatively redefine “evidence” to mean something like “unambiguous evidence” or “conclusive evidence” or something else which cannot in theory exist because what they really are asking for is something which would force them to believe in God, and that’s not how the human mind works.

The second, though, is curious, because I was told by more than one of Deconverted Man’s fans that it’s impossible to prove a negative so he has nothing to prove. Of course they didn’t think this through and don’t really take it as a principle, but it is amusing to consider what the principle would mean: as long as you phrase it negatively, you can make the most outlandish claim and it’s up to others to prove you wrong. “I’ve never stood on a floor” is a negative claim, as is, “I am not affected by gravity.”

(In case you’re wondering what would happen if I were to try to push that issue, in addition to being told I’m stupid, I’d then encounter the average online atheist’s inability to distinguish between a Straw Man and a Reductio Ad Absurdum.)

The Strategic Narcissism of Atheists

A very odd thing I’ve noticed is that online atheists only know how to be on the defensive. Many of my friends have observed that this is because they’re on a one-trick pony, and their one trick is rejecting all arguments presented to them. This generally doesn’t work with me because while I’m willing to answer questions, I’ve no interest in trying to force people to believe anything. To that end, I made the video, Dear Lack of Belief Atheists, I’m Not Your Father:

This puts online atheists who want to “argue” with me in a difficult position, since if I will simply accept that they don’t accept an argument, they’ve got nowhere to go. Some of them merely say, “OK”. I’ve even had a few of them thank me, which I find a bit odd since they all came to me, I didn’t seek them out. It just seems a bit odd to me to walk up to someone then thank them for not talking to you.

But the ones who do want to argue now need some way to try to get me to prove things to them. And while there are several techniques that I see, the one I find oddest is what I’ve called strategic narcissism. Basically, they tell me about how they don’t find arguments compelling. In general, I tend at this point to ask why I’m supposed to care, though of course I’ll vary the specifics with the circumstances. And then the usual response is to get offended. I’ve had more than a few tell me that they’re magnanimously overlooking my rudeness. I’ve never yet had one tell me why I’m supposed to care. Now, I doubt that they’re genuinely so self-absorbed that they think everyone must truly be interested in their (lack of) thoughts; I suspect most of this is various people trying various things combined with an evolutionary monkey-see-monkey-do approach, but it is none the less a very strange thing to be on the receiving end of. I’m almost tempted to start developing better rhetorical strategies for atheists just so I don’t have to listen to all of the terrible ones all the time. Almost.

Censorship We Will Always Have With Us

There’s probably a sense in which this is a continuation of Is Philosophy for Private Gardens?

Most people are not equipped to deal with hearing contradictory opinions on fundamental subjects. Once you accept that, a great deal of human history makes sense, and especially recent reactions to a free-for-all in which everyone became allowed to trumpet their opinions into the public sphere. And if you don’t think that this is new, recall that for most of its history blasphemy was a punishable offense in the United States. And in fact this was most of the world for most of its history. Publicly proclaiming what the ruling powers found offensive was illegal to various degrees in most places and most times.

Of course, this has never meant that offensive opinions weren’t held, simply that they tended to go underground. But going underground poses a problem, because how do people who don’t already know that they share a view share that view?

They came up with ways to communicate subtly.

That is to say, they got around censorship laws by not being explicit. They did things like write out the argument but left the conclusion unstated. Or they talked about parallel situations. I’m told that this is a popular approach in China—when one wants to criticize the Chinese government, one writes a historical drama in which the villain is doing the same thing as the present government. Since China has a very long history, one can find a suitable bit of real history for almost any narrative, I’ve heard, and since the present government holds itself to be in distinction to the previous dynasties, it’s not in a great place to complain about depicting how awful the previous governments which the present government overthrew were.

Getting around censorship is of course a neutral thing; it has been used by heretics to spread lies to undermine truth as well as by saints to spread the truth to undermine lies. That is to say, it’s just a tool. So I think as society degenerates further, it’s a tool very much worth studying.

In service of which, here are a few elements of avoiding censorship which seem to be useful:

  1. Don’t argue directly with the powerful. It attracts their attention. It also makes them assume everything you say is against them.
  2. Make your arguments without stating your conclusion. Someone intelligent enough to understand how the conclusion follows from the argument is intelligent enough to supply what the conclusion actually is. Those who aren’t will get no benefit from the argument anyway. But the unintelligent oppressors won’t realize what you’re saying.
  3. Talk more about first principles than about specifics. This can be over-done, but if you can win people over on first principles the specifics will be relatively easy. If they’re not won over on first principles, they’re not likely to be persuaded on specifics. If a man doesn’t first love God, it’s pointless to argue with him about loving his fellow man.

Nothing is foolproof, of course. #2 was, as I understand it, the approach used by Averroes, but unfortunately for him Al-Ghazali understood and exposed him. Still, I think that these things are worth bearing in mind and developing further, the more dangerous it becomes to be explicit.

What Are Christians to Make of Jordan Peterson?

Or you can watch the video on YouTube:

I should not that Jordan Peterson has identified as Christian, but in the same interview he said that he’s agnostic as to whether the resurrection happened (i.e. he neither affirms nor denies it), so while my statement in this episode isn’t perfectly accurate, I think it’s essentially accurate from a traditional Christian perspective. At mass every Sunday we say the Nicene Creed. And I think that Jordan Peterson himself would think what I said was fair from the perspective from which I was speaking.

Keeping Our Eyes Fixed on God

The Frank Friar reflects about keeping our eyes on God as discussed by Br. Lawrence of the Resurrection:

For Br. Lawrence, our treasure is God.  All actions we say or do, must be pointed to this treasure.

It’s a topic I’m very fond of; it’s related to the instruction to “pray always”. The really interesting question is how to do this? One approach (which is a good one) sounds like this:

For him even the most mundane task  can be blessed by God and offered up for the Divine Glory… Thus, as we journey through our day, I believe Br. Lawrence would ask us to take minute, then during that minute to actively think about whatever it is that we are doing.  When we understand, what it is we are doing, then we can begin to see if we are eye keeping our eyes fixed on God.

There is a another—related—way to look at this, which I’m not sure how to describe, but is something to the effect of fully considering what we’re doing. It is probably not the intention, but when I hear language about offering up our tasks for divine glory (which is common language), it sounds to me as if there is somehow a way in which the task is not involved in the divine glory but can be made so. Now of course no one would say, if it was put this way, that there is anything which does not serve God’s good purposes, but even so, there seems to me to be a tension between doing things well and always thinking about God; one can’t put one’s full attention in two different places at once.

And I think the key to resolving this tension is that one does not need to put one’s attention away from creation to put it on God. This is because all things in creation point to God. There is nothing in creation which, if seriously considered, is not fundamentally about God. Clouds and ships and chairs and dust all point to the one who makes them in every instance of their existence; each thing, insofar as it is good, is a reflection of God. It seems to me, then, that the most effective way of turning a task into a prayer is to take the effort to truly be present in the task; to really focus on the task as it is in itself, which is to say to focus on it as it is part of God’s creation. All of creation exists relationally; truly it is not good for man to be alone. And neither man nor dust is alone; God has put us together.

The problem comes in when we think of our tasks only as a means to an end, because that means we consider our tasks not in themselves but in ourself; when we focus on our goals we think only of things as they relate to us and our purposes. We may wash the dishes worse if we fold our hands in prayer while washing them—with what would we wipe the dish if not our hands?—but we will not wash the dishes worse for considering the dish we’re washing instead of absent-mindedly thinking of something else. The dishes want to tell us of God, if only we’ll listen. Perhaps the most effective way to be always praying, while we do the dishes, is to pray with the dishes instead of ignoring them.

Atheists often want to concentrate on the secular, because they think this is a common ground with believers where they don’t have to hear about our faerie-stories. They are, in this, gravely mistaken. The secular world all shouts about the glory of God, if only we’ll stop talking inside our heads about what we want, and listen to it.

There is a sense—a very limited sense—in which holy places are the enemy of sanctity, for holy means “set aside”. In this fallen world it is good that there are places we set aside to do nothing but think of God; still, I think it’s a worthwhile goal to figure out how to make that unnecessary because there is no place where God is forgotten.