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Arts & Entertainment

Cause and Effect

Penn & Teller

Lesson time 10:22 min

Magic oversimplifies and distorts the principles of cause and effect. In this chapter, Penn & Teller discuss the philosophical aspects of cause and effect in relation to magic and the human psyche.

Penn & Teller
Teach the Art of Magic
In their first-ever MasterClass, Teller breaks his silence as he and Penn teach their approach to creating moments of wonder and astonishment.
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[MUSIC PLAYING] - I've bridled against the cause and effect in magic a lot. And every time I have, I've failed. It really seems like you need to punctuate the story and you need to have something for them to ride onto. It always seems to me on paper, and it always seems to me when I'm spending time thinking about tricks that there's something kind of profound about there not being cause and effect because it probably isn't cause and effect in the real world. There's no compelling argument for the being any free will whatsoever. The idea of cause and effect is no more real than my appearance here. We're clouds of molecules, and we're making an image in our heads. None of that has any sort of bearing on what's happening in the real world. But the thrust of the way we live our lives, the way we are forced to have the illusion of free will-- Christopher Hitchens was not the first to say it. Sartre said it. And it goes back much farther than that. But do you believe in free will? I have no choice. We need to believe in free will to live. And part of that, part of built into the way we live in order to remain sane is cause and effect. And in magic, you have separated cause and effect. You have a false cause and an unrelated effect, very often. - If we do a magic trick and we don't give the audience some sense of what the make-believe cause is, or what the real cause is, or what any kind of cause is, the magic trick fails, whether it's pure poetry-- there's a trick that that I've done for a long time in which I cut a rose apart by slashing its shadow. Now, that certainly isn't the way things work in real life. But it is a poetic idea that's kind of cool. And when you see the petals of the rose going and slashing and then, later on, me cutting my fingertip, and now my shadow bleeds, that cause and effect is a kind of beautiful, cool thing. We've turned that a little bit inside out many, many, many times. - If you try to say this is something that just happens, it becomes incredibly unsatisfying. The one that broke my heart, really broke my heart, was you do a thing where you vanish a cell phone, and it appears inside a fish, a borrowed cell phone. And I was in love with the idea that the vanish of the phone would just be a vanish of the phone. It would just vanish. So you've got an audience member and the two of us on stage. You've got six hands. You got people moving. You hold the phone, you hold the phone, you hold the phone, you hold the phone. The phone is in plain sight with the whole audience all the time, and then all of a sudden it isn't. And you don't know if the audience member had it last, or I had it last, or Teller had it last, where it went. Just it's gone. It was terrible. It was terrible. The audience couldn't perceive that the phone was gone. They couldn't perceive it as a trick. They didn't have a moment for it. It was just terrible. I do not like when the wand hits and there's the moment it's gon...

Open your mind with magic

With more than 40 years performing together, Penn & Teller have sold out shows around the world, earned a star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame, and created the longest-running headline act in Las Vegas. Now the legendary magicians are taking you behind the curtain. Learn fundamental magic tricks and the psychological tools that create amazement, at home or on stage. Expand your perception of the possible.


Students give MasterClass an average rating of 4.7 out of 5 stars.

supremely awesome! very clear instruction and i thought the whole series was perfectly put together

Penn and Teller are a wonderful pairing, I felt that I got insights that I was not expecting, like their ethos in magic.

I am actually good at magic for the first time!

This is a brilliant Master Class. The lessons arm you with the tools to create outstanding magic and the lectures truly put you in the mindset of how to be a great magician.


Clark M.

Penn's introductory statements in this lesson lost me. I will have to watch this segment a couple of more times to, hopefully, grasp what is fully meant to be learned in the lesson. ???

A fellow student

Just because cause and effect is real doesn't meal free will isn't, or that free will somehow negates cause and effect. Free will is about choosing, just like they chose to make these videos. They didn't wake up one morning and automatically start cameras rolling without any control or decision making, just because; they chose to make them because it benefits them in some way. Cause and effect on the other hand simply means that doing one thing logically results in another thing happening (or not), within the framework of the laws of physics. It doesn't mean that everything that has ever happened has occurred because something *uncontrolled* has happened; some things that have happened have been the result of choice, of an intelligence deciding to act based on a set of wants or needs within a framework of survival and a larger framework of reality. Yes, people can react, but they can also act, and it's not an illusion or mere belief.

Matthew M.

Magic, to me, is much more interesting when I'm told what's involved because then I have to try to figure out what's happening under what cursorily appears to be improbable conditions. Knowing, for example, that sleight of hand is taking place and not being able to see it happen is intoxicating. Knowing exactly the moment it's taking place and still not being able to see it, well that's real magic to me.

Arthur M.

Must say that this was another great lesson. Cause and effect is a concept that is rarely covered in books and loved seeing Teller do the red ball. I have often wondered if this trick is a take off from Abbott's "Floating Ball" as Teller described in "House of Mystery" Such an incredible illusion that never ceases to boggle my mind.

A fellow student

The coin trick teller that teller described is a thing. The trick is created by zee but I don’t now if it is for sale I have just seen him do it.

Margaret M.

The discussion about how effects are unsatisfying without a "magic moment" makes me think of Stranger in a Strange Land (if I've got the right book here). Mike Smith could actually vanish objects, but his magic tricks weren't impressive because he didn't "sell" them.

Joaquin Kotkin @MediaBarba

Aristotele said :" Theater is the imitation of action in the form of action" Teller: "MAGIC is the imitation of an IMPOSSIBLE action in the form of action"

Nicholas G.

That may have been a little too abstract for me — and I have a master's degree in rhetoric, along with a bachelor's degree in philosophy! I get that Penn is alluding to David Hume's (and others') critique of perception, but I do not at all understand what he means by the notion of a magic trick without cause and effect. Kant and Hume were both correct to note that cause and effect are elementary (even if illusory) aspects of all possible experience. "All possible experience" obviously includes the experience of the apparently impossible (i.e. magic), so I have no idea what Mr. Jillette is on about when he seems to say that he has a private concept of magic that does not include cause and effect. I wonder if HE even knows what the phrase "magic without cause and effect" means! You may as well speak of water without wetness. In other words, magic without cause and effect is not just a bad entertainment idea; it is a totally unintelligible idea. To say you like magic, but would rather it see it done without cause and effect, is like saying you enjoy circles, but only if they are made entirely out of straight lines. It's not just misguided; it is a priori absurd. It is demonstrably absurd BY THE VERY DEFINITION of the terms used. So why did these guys need to empirically test an outright absurdity by trying to vanish a cell phone without offering the audience a discernible cause for its disappearance? And since this discussion centers on an unintelligible dilemma, why was it at all worth having?