Published on 28 May 2020.
Reading time: 2 min.

Originally published in Nobody Knows.

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The loss of certainty

I recently wrote a book called VANISH. The book breaks down what a vanish is from a magician’s perspective. It also explores the cultural, artistic and philosophical interpretations of making something disappear. I wrote the bulk of it before the pandemic had really started to affect our lives. We’ve now been in lockdown for a few months, and so much of our normal ways of living have changed drastically. Lots that we used to take for granted has gone.

I think the most striking thing that’s disappeared is certainty. For most of us, it’s the first time in our lives where we don’t know what’s going to happen in the coming months. We don’t know when we’ll go back to work. Whether we’ll be able to travel, what’ll happen to the economy. When we can next see loved ones.

In a research paper from 1972, the psychologist Jerome Kagan argued that searching for certainty is one of the primary motives that determines everything we do in our lives. When we don’t know what’s going to happen next, we continuously grasp for an answer until we reach an explanation. We try to move towards a state of mind which the social psychologist Arie Kruglanski dubs cognitive closure. Having a temporary lack of certainty can be fun on a small scale: it’s the reason why we enjoy watching thrillers, reading murder mysteries, and seeing magic tricks. But on a macro scale, like we’re all experiencing right now, it’s much less enjoyable.

Magic is intrinsically tied to certainty. When you perform magic, you simulate something impossible occurring. Magic is a way of playfully exploring ideas around what is real and not real, what we can be certain of and what we’re unsure about.

When you see a magic trick, you’re either fooled or you’re not fooled. If you’re not fooled, you know that what you’ve seen is merely a clever illusion or sleight-of-hand manoeuvre. Your understanding of the natural laws that govern the world remain intact. But, when you’re fooled, and on those rare occasions when you’re fooled real bad, when you get hit by that epistemological sucker-punch which knocks you off your feet… in those moments your certainty is shaken.

So magic toys with the idea that certainty is a fabrication.

Is clinging to certainty a good thing? In this really wonderful interview, Chioke points out that our need for certainty can lead to a “fundamental anxiety that many humans have about their lives in the first place. A constant kind of question as to: where is this going? what should I be doing?” Because of this, he points out that “there’s not really a willingness to kind of sit and just be.” So he advocates for spending time peacefully in silence, learning to quieten the mind. I agree with Chioke. The best way of tackling the discomfort from uncertainty is by starting a meditative practice.

We don’t know how the pandemic will turn out. But things will change, eventually. Change takes time, but time is all it takes.

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