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Appearance and reality: in conversation with Derren Brown

Updated Monday 27th September 2010

Nigel Warburton talks to psychological illusionist Derren Brown about appearance and reality, and what kind of people are most gullible.

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Nigel Warburton: Do you think everybody’s gullible to some extent that they’re going to fall for the appearance at some point?

Derren Brown: Well, for me, for my model of seeing it, it isn’t about gullibility. There’s not a lot of science done on gullibility; there’s plenty done on how people swindle and how people fool us but not much done on people getting fooled. Somewhat counterintuitively it’s the more trusting people, the people that score as high a trust as that actually emerge as less gullible. They obviously get fooled, as we all do, I think regardless of whether you’re trusting or not. But what they tend to do is to, high trusting people tend to be very good at learning from those experiences where they have been duped. They tend not to generalise it over everybody and then just start being cynical about everything, which then makes them more effective socially. But, as far as gullibility goes, if you go and see a psychic, it doesn’t matter how sceptical you are, unless you really know the sorts of tricks that fake psychics at least use it can be very convincing. It doesn’t really matter how much you believe in it or not believe in it, it’s about specific knowledge, specific skills. As far as what I do goes I see it very much about playing specifically to people’s intelligence. You create a false logic. You create what appears to be an A, B, C. So in the case of a card trick A is you pick a card, B is I make some magic thing over it and C is it’s in my pocket, and that seems impossible. But you miss in fact that between A and B there was another stage where maybe I, you know, so you picked a card when I sort of, I took them back and gave them a little shuffle and handed them back to you or there was something in the way that you picked the card that actually was, I was forcing a card on you. I was controlling your decision. But it doesn’t seem important so you don’t really remember that. And similarly between me doing the magic part and it ending up in my pocket maybe I did something else. Maybe I asked you to put the cards in your pocket and I gestured in my pocket as I did that, and that’s when I loaded the card in. But it doesn’t seem important to the story, and you remember at A, B, C that’s impossible. But if you see it in terms of that’s actually A, C, E and the real B, so it actually goes to A then B then C then D then E, then it becomes quite possible. So to me that’s not about gullibility; that’s about a certain grammar that people will follow.

Nigel Warburton: But you’ve managed to persuade thousands of people, millions of people that you’re going from A to C when in fact they haven’t realised how complex the route was. So can we ever be sure of anything then?

Derren Brown: We can’t function unless we form those patterns, you know, and this presumably goes back to if you see half a sabre toothed tiger coming round the corner at you, you don’t wait for the other half, you run, and it’s better to have that false positive than a false negative. In the same way the magician creates that false pattern knowing we are hard wired probably to fall for that and fall for the easier pattern as presented to us in the same way. I think that’s something that’s pretty much inescapable and ultimately probably positive.

 Delve deeper as Nigel explores the subject of appearance and reality in more detail.



Nigel Warburton: Is this a dagger I see before me? No really, is it? Does the fallibility of sensory evidence, the fact that we can make mistakes about what we’re seeing, hearing, touching, tasting or smelling, does that mean that our senses are never reliable? Well Macbeth was just hallucinating, but in ordinary life we can make mistakes too. Take this pencil for example. Now I’m no magician, but it looks bent doesn’t it? But we know that’s just an illusion. But if appearances can be deceptive, does that mean we should never trust them? Surely that would make life unliveable. So generally we have to treat appearances as accurate, at least until experience proves otherwise. Philosophers are interested in getting behind appearances. We want to know what the truth is, how things really are. Or if we can’t discover that we’d like to establish the limits of what we can know so that we can avoid talking nonsense. In the worst case, we’d also like to know if we can’t know anything at all except the fact that we can’t know anything at all, which would be disappointing but hey we’d still like to know. So that’s what we want to know but can we know anything? Plato: Imagine prisoners that have spent their entire lives chained deep inside a cave. They have been chained so that they cannot see behind themselves and they are forced to stare endlessly at the cave wall in front of them. Behind them a fire is burning. Nigel Warburton: Plato used the metaphor of a cave to explain what he saw as the true nature of reality. Most of us are like people chained facing the wall in the cave watching flickering representations on the wall and taking these shadows for the real things and not realising there’s a world outside the cave. Philosophers, however, aren’t so readily taken in by appearances. By the power of reason they get beyond the unreliable evidence of the senses and think their way towards the truth. But surely I can know that I’m awake. I can know that I’m not dreaming can’t I? Well, that’s a hard one. I might feel that I’m awake but most of us have had dreams in which we think we’ve woken up but are really still asleep, so-called false awakenings. Maybe that’s happening now. Perhaps I’m still really asleep. And perhaps you are too. But there are some things everyone knows. Two plus two equals four. Something as abstract as that must be beyond doubt.

Brain: Not necessary. Now that’s a shame. Well, what I was going to tell him was that I might just be a brain with electrodes sticking out of it with evil scientists manipulating my inputs so that I have the illusion that two plus two equals four when in fact it equals five. I know that’s pretty unlikely but I can’t be certain that that’s not what’s happening. What would the evidence be? A really clever scientist might be able to give me a complete illusion of reality and if this scientist can make me believe whatever she or he wants then perhaps I can’t be sure of anything.

Nigel Warburton: Possibly not but the great philosopher Rene Descartes had a clever answer to that question. He called just about everything into doubt until he could come up with something that he thought had to be true. And the rabbit he pulled out of his philosophical hat, I exist or cogito ergo sum as he put it in Latin, I think therefore I am. This must be true because in the very act of questioning my own belief and doubting that I exist I prove that I do exist. I think, I doubt, therefore I exist. Now I might not be able to say very much about what I am, I might not even exist as a body and most or even all of my other beliefs might be delusional but still as long as I doubt I exist, I must exist. But that answer only leads to another question. Even if I’m sure I do exist, which I think I do, and therefore I am, then who am I? I can think therefore I am, but what kind of I am I?


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