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The seated woman longs for her dead twin . She may “ feel ” her sister is trying to reach out to her , physically or mentally . But her brain is likely just misreading some sensory cues such as soft air currents in the environment around her . VALENTINRUSSANOV / E +/ GETTY IMAGES
Motivated by cases such as these ( and by work in the dual-processing tradition in psychology ), Tamar Szabó Gendler has recently developed a theoretical concept she calls alief . 9 She explains : A paradigmatic alief is a mental state with associatively linked content that is representational , affective and behavioral , and that is activated — consciously or nonconsciously — by features of the subject ’ s internal or ambient environment ( Gendler , 2008 : 642 )
Moreover , alief contrasts in important ways with both belief and imagination . First , belief involves endorsement of a representational content . By contrast , in alief , a representational content is present in the subject ’ s cognitive system , but it is not endorsed . Still , it is associatively linked to affective and behavioral contents , so it is not idle : it makes you feel , and inclines you to act , in certain ways . Second , alief is distinct from imagination . While “ we can ( for the most part ) imagine at
9 ) See Gendler ( 2008 ; n . d .; 2006 ). will , we do not seem to have the same sort of freedom in alief ” ( Gendler , 2008 : 651 ). Furthermore , there is no cognitive conflict involved in imagining that not-p while believing that p ; or , as Szabó Gendler puts it , in doing this , “ I am violating no norms .” By contrast ,
… if I believe that P and alieve that not-P , something is amiss . Learning that not-P may well not cause me to cease alieving that P — but if it does not , then … I am violating certain norms of cognitive-behavioral coherence . No such criticism is possible in the analogous case of imagining . ( Gendler , 2008 : 651 )
Here , then , we have a type of cognitive conflict that is passively-incurred , has affective and behavioral consequences , and is not a matter of conflicting belief . My suggestion , then , is that we should treat the experience of magic as essentially involving , neither suspension of disbelief nor conflict of belief , but the alief that x is happening , where x is impossible and known to be so .
Suppose this is correct . Even so , the point of a magic performance is not simply to generate cognitive dissonance by inducing an alief that an impossible event is happening ; rather , as I argue in the next section , the magician must , in a very specific way , maximize this dissonance . Only then does the spectator have a properly “ magical ” experience .
IV . The Experience of Magic
The best way to understand the experience of magic is to consider what undermines it . Take Copperfield ’ s flying illusion . If you see the wires , you cannot have an experience of magic . But concealing the wires is not enough , either , for if you so much as suspect that there are wires , you cannot have an experience of magic ( no matter how good the illusion ). In general , suspecting that you know how a magic performance is accomplished is enough to ruin it . And since , when witnessing the apparent presentation of an impossibility , you typically will have some ideas about possible methods , the magician has to do more than conceal the actual method — namely , “ cancel ”