Magic and Modality

The Antinomic Experience

Several weeks ago, we discussed the circus as aesthetic experience. Specifically, we considered the circus as a performance created with the intention to produce an experience of magic, or an experience of the impossible. This might have sounded romantically profound when we considered it, but do we understand what it means?

Most of us don’t believe in magic, if by magic we mean something supernatural and beyond the established order of the universe. As much as we love Harry Potter, Middle Earth, and other fictional worlds involving magic, most of us understand that these are merely fictions. The universe doesn’t really allow that people can just *POOF* be turned into toads. But if we don’t believe in magic, and impossible things are, well, impossible, then what exactly are we talking about when we say that the circus produces the experience of magic or the impossible? We might as well say that the circus produces an experience of nonsense!

An anomalous occurrence is one that deviates from what is normal.  An anti-nomic experience is one that deviates from the laws of nature. Anything that deviates from the laws of nature is, by definition, a kind of impossibility.

In “The Experience of Magic”, Jason Leddington claims that “the distinctive aim of theatrical magic is to produce an experience as of an impossible event.” He aims to introduce an “an aesthetics of the impossible,” and to make sense of an “antinomic – and not merely anomalous – experience.” While Leddington is primarily concerned with theatrical magic, not the circus, his discussion is nonetheless relevant for our purposes.

Many circus acts intentionally create some kind of mystical illusion for the audience. Aerial artists, for example, perform certain movements in the air that seem to defy gravity. Audiences know that these aerial artists are not, in fact, breaking laws of nature. But it may nonetheless seem as if the performer is violating some established order of the universe. It may seem as if they are doing the impossible.

Most performing arts aim to transport the audience into some realm of imagination and make-believe. Dance, theater, music, etc., all aim to tell some kind of story, and engage the audience in a fictional world. This requires getting the audience to believe – even just for a few moments – something that isn’t true. As we’ve discussed before, this isn’t always easy. The performers must somehow get the audience to actively engage their imagination, to suspend their disbelief, or to indulge in a temporary world of make-believe.

Yet for magicians and circus performers, this task is even more daunting. Not only do they aim to have their audience believe in something that is not true, they aim to have their audience believe in something that is not possible.

Lots of things are not true: it is not true that I grew up in Paris, it is not true that this post was written in 2016, it is not true that I have traveled to Antarctica. Yet all of these things – even though they aren’t true – are still possible. In contrast, here are some things that are not only not true, they are also not possible: it is not possible that you can sprout wings and fly, it is not possible that squares are round, it is not possible that 2 + 2 = 5.

These examples help, but let’s be more precise. What exactly is the difference between something that is merely not true, and something that is not possible? 

Possibility, Impossibility, and Necessity

Suppose I ask you: “Can you juggle?”

Some of you, before taking this class will say ‘no.’ Some of you, after taking this class, will say still say ‘no.’ Some of you, having learned juggling from your buddy Ziggy awhile ago, will say ‘yes.’

Whatever your answer, you likely interpreted the question can you juggle? as a question concerning your abilities right now. You understood the question as: if I were to give you a few juggling balls right this second, could you juggle them? Are you able – is it possible – for you to juggle currently?

But suppose I change the context of the question. Lots of animals have arms or legs or limbs. But not many animals have hands or fingers or opposable thumbs. My dog, for example, has four legs and four paws. But, sadly, my dog will never be able to juggle three balls in the air with his paws, the way a human juggles with her hands – my dog is just not anatomically built that way. Dogs can’t juggle, but humans can.

Now I ask you: “Can you juggle?”

Your answer this time is probably: yes. You have arms and hands and opposable thumbs. You have the sort of anatomical make-up that, if you were given juggling lessons and enough time to practice, you could juggle. You are not built like a dog. You have certain physical capabilities that dogs do not, like juggling.

Talk about what we can and cannot do is talk about what is and isn’t possible. That we can take questions about possibilities (can you juggle?) and interpret them in different ways in different contexts, indicates that there is more than one kind of possibility.

How many kinds of possibility are there? And what are they?

Philosophers distinguish between (at least) several types of possibility: epistemic, nomological, metaphysical, and logical.

Epistemic possibility is whatever you think is possible, given what you already know. Suppose you’ve lost your car keys and now you wonder: where could they possibly be? Given what you know about yourself, it is possible that you left your keys in the car, or in the mail room, or that you dropped them somewhere along the way to your office. Yet also given what you know about yourself, it is not possible that your keys are in the peanut butter jar, or the swimming pool, or floating out in space.  It is physically possible that your keys are in any of these latter locations, but it is not epistemically possible, given what you know about yourself, the world, and where you and your keys have recently been.

Nomological possibility is whatever is possible, given the laws of nature. Given your anatomical make-up, and the laws of nature, it is impossible for you to spontaneously sprout wings and fly. Given our laws of nature, it is possible to for there to be to be a nugget of gold on earth as large as and in the shape of a freight train. There doesn’t in fact exist a lump of gold as large as and in the shape of a freight train, but there is nothing about our laws of nature that makes this impossible.

Metaphysical possibility, in contrast, is whatever is possible, given the metaphysical make-up of the world. It may be against the laws of nature that you spontaneously sprout wings and fly, but there is no metaphysical contradiction in the idea of you, a human being, somehow sprouting wings and flying – you can imagine it, even if you admit that it is not something that can happen given our actual laws of nature. In contrast, try to imagine something that is colored but non-extended. Can you do it? What are you picturing?  Our very concept of something colored seems to metaphysically require that this thing be extended; if it is not spatially extended, where does the color go? So while it is metaphysically possible that you sprout wings and fly, it is not metaphysically possible that something is colored and non-extended.

Logical possibility is whatever is possible, given the laws of mathematics and logic. Logical possibility is sometimes understood to be the widest (most permissive) kind of possibility. If something entails a proposition of the form “P and not-P,” then it is logically impossible; otherwise, it is logically possible. Take our example of a colored, non-extended thing. Intuitively, whether something is colored does not logically entail anything about whether that same thing is extended – that is just a conclusion that we draw upon reflection of the content of our concepts of colored objects and extended objects. So while a non-extended colored object is metaphysically impossible, it is nonetheless logically possible because it does not entail a proposition of the form P and not-P. In contrast, something cannot be both extended and non-extended at the same time (in the same way, in the same respect, etc), since this would require that something is P and not-P.

In ordinary discourse, we do sometimes say things like “he is both bald and not bald” of someone who has some, but not very much, hair. Or “she is both moving and not moving” of someone who is exercising on a stationary bike. Or “that tamale is both hot and not-hot” of something that is spicy but not at a high temperature. But in all of these cases we are playing on vagueness or ambiguity. Someone can be bald according to one standard (relative to someone with a full head of hair), but not bald according to another (relative to someone with no hair whatsoever). Someone can be moving in one respect (their legs are in motion) but not moving in another respect (they are not changing their location relative to a stationary point). And something can be hot in one way (spicy) but not-hot in another (temperature-wise). None of these examples are true statements of the form “P and not-P.” To do that, whatever is taking the place of the variable “P” would have to be univocal in meaning in all occurrences.

Most philosophers believe that there are no true logical impossibilities; there are no true statements of the form “P and not-P.” Moreover, they think that such a statement is not even possibly true. In other words, statements of the form “P and not-P” are necessarily false.

At this point, you might have noticed that we are combining several interrelated ideas: possibility, impossibility, and necessity. Philosophers call these modal notions.

If something is impossible, then it means that it is necessary that it fails to happen. If 2+2 = 5 is impossible, then necessarily, 2+2 = 5 is never the case. If something is not necessary, then it is possible that it doesn’t happen. It is not necessary that you have a grilled cheese for lunch today, so it is possible that you don’t have a grilled cheese for lunch today.

What could have been, what could not be, and what must to be, are intricately connected concepts.

Experiencing the Impossible, Experience As If

Yet if all of the above is right – if impossible things are those which are NOT POSSIBLE, and thus, NOT TRUE – then how in the world can we experience the impossible? How can we have an experience of that which does not and cannot happen?!?

Think about any experience whatsoever: the experience of smelling a rose, the experience of your first sip of coffee in the morning, your experience of falling in love. All of these experiences are experiences of things that exist. As such, they are all experience of things that are possible. While the details of each experience are different, the main story is: there is something in the world, you interact with this thing, and you have an experience of the thing in question. Intuitively, there has to be something in the world for you to experience in order to have an experience of it. Take away the thing that you experience, and there goes your experience.


Well, what happens when you read a book about made up places, or see a play about made up characters? Works of fiction often create unreal worlds of people and things for you to ‘experience.’ There isn’t really a region of Middle Earth called Mordor (and there isn’t really a Middle Earth), but you may have nonetheless thought that you had an experience of these things when you read Lord of the Rings. Maybe we can have an experience of the impossible in the same way that we have an experience of fictional places. (Of course, just how it is that we have experiences of fictional places – places that don’t exist – just pushes the problem back: how do we do that?)

But still: most fictions are of things that are at least possible in some way or another (keeping in mind the variety of possibilities we discussed above). So, it might be understandable how we have experience of things that are not true yet possible. But how do we have experience of things that are impossible? How can we have an experience of that which is not only not true, but not even possible?

Consider the following picture:

Impossible Triangle

How should we describe your experience when you are looking at this image?

Certainly the thing you are looking at – the picture itself – is in the world and exists. But the object that the picture is supposed to be of – the thing that the picture is supposed to represent – not only doesn’t exist, it is not even possible! If you assume that this 2-dimensional picture represents a 3-dimensional shape, and you ‘follow’ one of the outside edges, the outside edge turns into an inside edge, and the shape seemingly contradicts itself. The 3-dimensional object that the picture is supposed to be a picture of does not and cannot exist!

What is going on here?

One suggestion is to make a distinction between an experience of the impossible (which is impossible) and an experience as if something is impossible (which might be what is going on above). The idea is: you aren’t really having an experience of an impossible object when you look at the picture above. How could you? Impossible things don’t exist! Rather, you are having an experience as if an impossible object exists.

The key is to make use of our ability to pretend, or see things as if or as though they are the case (even if they are not or cannot be).

“Magic is a form of theater that depicts impossible events as though they were really happening.”  –Teller in Stromberg, “Teller Speaks on the Enduring Appeal of Magic

Much more needs to be said here – in particular, much more needs to be said about imagination, make-believe, pretense, and what exactly we are doing when we have an experience “as if” something is happening. (We’ll save discussion of representation and pretense for another day.) But hopefully we now have a better understanding of how to maintain the integrity of the meaning of “impossibilities” (they are things that, by definition, cannot happen), yet also make sense of how we might nonetheless have an experience of something that somehow represents that which cannot happen.

As we’ve discussed many times before, trying to pin down one precise definition of ‘the circus’ that captures the wide variety of circus-y performances and experiences is much like, well, trying to pull rabbit out of a hat. But the circus – however we categorized it – seems to be unified at least in the aim to give the audience a spectacular experience, one of wow and wonder, by providing a taste of what appears to be impossible. The circus, one might suggest, is a performance that aims to give the audience an experience as if the impossible were really happening.

What do you think? Is this right?

How else might we make sense of experiencing magic or the impossible? How else might we categorize the aim of circus performance?


Suggested Reading

Got thoughts?