A JESUS BLOG COLLECTIVE

An Honest Liar

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“No matter how smart or well educated you are, you can be deceived.” James Randi, the world-famous magician, bookends his biographical documentary with this warning.

In An Honest Liar, “The Amazing Randi” reveals what two things drive him in his career as a magician. First, he endeavors to become the best magician he can possibly become. And second, he makes it his life goal to uncover as many cases of dishonest deception as possible.  In Randi’s universe, there is good (or ‘benign’) deception and then there is unethical and even, dare one say it, evil deception. Unethical deception is that which is fueled by a desire to transfer another’s money into one’s own pocket.

As the film’s title suggests, there are honest and dishonest liars. Randi lives and walks among the honest liars, because a true magician announces to his or her audience that they are a magician, unlike a sorcerer or con-man. An accomplished magician may gain many fans; a good sorcerer gains many followers. While fans may love a magician for his or her skill at slight of hand and his or her ability to entertain, followers give sorcerers, faith healers and psychics their hopes and hearts. The thievery of emotional currency is as vulgar to Randi as the pilfering of actual cash. For Randi, manipulating people’s emotions to turn a profit is never an option.

The mentalist Uri Geller

The documentary itself is more educational than beautiful, but its core message is one that begs to be heard. The bigger question that is implied in this film is, “Why do we believe what we believe?” Uri Geller, a self-proclaimed psychic whom Randi effectively discredits, argues, “A billion people believe in God, and you can’t touch that.” His argument is that people will believe what they want to believe; even in spite of there being ample evidence that reveals their belief to be false.  What both Gellar and Randi fail to acknowledge is that everyone has a bias.  Geller is correct in asserting that many people will believe in God even if evidence is brought forth that refutes God’s existence.  Basically, when they think they are trying to learn the truth, what they are really doing is seeking bias confirmation.  But what Randi fails to realize is that he feverishly seeks bias confirmation as well.

Randi is an Atheist who believes that there is a scientific explanation for everything.  If Randi were in Charles Dicken’s A Christmas Carol he would play the part of Ebenezer adamantly asserting that actual ghosts are nothing more than the product of bad digestion.

C.S. Lewis elaborates in his book Miracles:

“If anything extraordinary seems to have happened, we can always say that we have been the victims of an illusion.  If we hold a philosophy which excludes the supernatural, this is what we always shall say. What we learn from experience depends on the kind of philosophy we bring to experience” (2).

As a magician, Randi believes that anything that cannot be explained by science is ultimately a trick that he hasn’t figured out yet. Randi is keenly aware of the biases of others, while unfortunately blind to his own.

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In a world full of deception, a man schooled in the art of deceit can be a valuable friend. Hopefully, Randi’s worldview might eventually allow room for the honest person of faith. While Randi’s world is filled with wonder, it is ultimately a closed system. As Christians, we believe that a cleft has been opened in the pitiless walls of the world and that God has come through. It is one thing to admit that one is an honest liar; it is another thing to come to terms with the fact that one’s biases functionally limit what one can actually see. True honesty consists of acknowledging this fact and being open to the possibility that one might be wrong. Christians as well as Atheists can only benefit from remembering this truth. Randi is biased to be sure, but has a gentle spirit, one that thankfully appreciates a sense of play and wonder in all things. Much healthy dialogue is to be had by those who are open to the possibility of true magic invading their closed systems at any moment.

  • Steven Jillson

    Thanks for sharing Kent! I really liked what you said about needing to come to terms with “the fact that ones biases functionally limit what one can actually see.” I’ve been thinking about that a lot lately.

    The post reminded of this quote from David Bentley Hart:
    “So much of what we imagine to be the testimony of reason or the clear and unequivocal evidence of our senses is really only an interpretive reflex, determined by mental habits impressed in us by an intellectual and cultural history. Even our notion of what might constitute a “rational” or “realistic” view of things is largely a product not of a dispassionate attention to facts, but of an ideological legacy.”

  • Chris Merritt

    No. You are wrong.
    We do all in fact experience bias, which Randi does not “fail to acknowledge”. He would be the first to admit bias. As evidenced by your opening Randi quote, he often shouts from the rooftops that even the most educated and intelligent can be deceived.
    The important difference is that Uri Geller does not subscribe to evidence-based science. Randi does. Naturalism is the philosophy that there is a reality outside the human mind, and as human beings, we can only try to peer past our limited perception of that reality. We use evidence and prediction to get closer to the truth.
    Randi uses evidence to show people how they have been tricked.
    Science and naturalism is, in fact, a philosophy, or worldview as you say – but the important difference is that when the evidence comes in, science dictates that any bias or preconception must bow to the evidence, no matter how unwanted or unexpected.
    Con artists like Geller use human beings’ instincts to believe in magical falsehoods, like the ability to mentally bend spoons, to their own advantage, despite knowing the truth themselves.
    Science and naturalism has a better track record too – it’s given us all our knowledge of the world, the solar system, the galaxies, biology and evolution on earth, most of the technology that enables us to prosper and progress, and all of our free, democratic societies.

    • KadoRestavek

      Whats up Chris. I want to chime in here. What I’d like to clarify is your definition of naturalism because I assume it to mean something very different. (I’m resisting the temptation to google it for corroboration) 🙂 I thought naturalism – at it’s most fundamental – didn’t allow for a reality outside the material world – which the mind is a product of. If the mind is a product of the material world – how can material reality be outside of itself? Furthermore, I appreciate science for the reasons you state – it’s given us a lot and I think it’s important to keep pursuing knowledge – its an adventure. The only thing I’d like to push back on – I’m not sure it has a better track record (than what?) – its also given us some pretty terrible things like nuclear bombs and pollution which has led to disease (my dad died of Cancer which he got from Agent Orange in Vietnam…). So as much as it could be our savior, it has the same propensity to be our undertaker. Also, when I was a kid, Pluto was a planet. With new info, that’s not the case anymore. While I love pursuing knowledge (and will continue to, no doubt), when new information supplants old information, paradigms shift. Don’t think we’ll ever reach a static state. I think there’s life in the pursuit but I wouldn’t place 100% of my trust in what we know now because that could change tomorrow. For all we know, 1000 years from now, they might be referring to our generation with some insulting rhetoric like “Those 21st Century motorheads. They clung to Platinum Age myths” or something 🙂 I haven’t seen this doc yet but you and Kent have given me cause to enter the conversation and give it a go. Thanks for your perspective.

    • Kent Webber

      Hi Chris,
      Thanks for taking the time to respond. My buddy Brian responded better than I could. I really liked the film, even if I didn’t totally agree with everything. I agree with you that the Scientific method has a purity about it. I appreciate the point you made that as new evidence comes in, Science dictates that any bias or preconception must bow to the evidence. Although, I don’t think it’s that simple. C.S. Lewis’ book entitled “Miracles” is very helpful in this regard, I think you’d really like it. He argues that are prior beliefs effect how we perceive the evidence and effect the conclusions that we are even able to come to.

      As far as being wrong, I often am. There is very little that I am sure about in this world. One thing I really do believe though, is that you are more than just a cosmological mistake. I may be wrong about a lot of things, but you my friend are very valuable, this I do believe. I hope this message finds you well. Whether you believe in God or not, peace be with you my friend.