Tricks of the Mind and the evils of relativism

I’ve had a weekend off for the first time in . . . literally months. While I was in town on Friday afternoon, I picked up a very interesting book – Derren Brown’s Tricks of the Mind. A thoroughly enjoyable read and pretty addictive stuff – I started it on Friday and finished it on Sunday afternoon.


Tricks of the Mind is an unusual sort of book – it’s not that hard to tell that it probably came about for commercial reasons – I’d guess Brown was offered a publishing deal to get something into the shops ASAP on the back of his popularity as a TV and stage performer. The resulting book is a mixed bag of personal invective, anecdote and practical techniques from Brown’s experience as a mentalist and illusionist – things he has come across that have a theatrical application but may also be of interest or use to the reading public.

All these are sandwiched together into one volume, which rather surprisingly works because of the manner in which they are tied together by the author’s . . . well personal vision sounds far too pompous. Perhaps personal conviction might be more apt.

However, this isn’t a book review, and while the book is good, it needn’t be for the purposes of this blog entry. Many things in Brown’s book struck me as interesting, and undoubtedly it’s an entertaining and educational read. Anyone who would like to understand more about the astonishing things Brown does will enjoy it, but actually I found the sections dealing with the nature of belief and the development of the new age culture to be more interesting.

In particular, in a section headed Science and Relativism, he talks about the idea of relativism. This is the concept that all cultures are valid and that no one culture has the right to judge or impose its value system on any other. This insidious curse is largely behind the movement in favour of political correctness and multiculturalism and interestingly, it’s comparably recent in conception. Brown points out that it was an anthropologist named Clifford Geertz that paved the way for these ideas by being the first to talk about tribal cultures in the 1960s on their own terms, rather than as exotic or primitive curiosities.

Geertz seems to have been the first to see the values of a different culture as no more or less valid than those of another, which of course is total nonsense. Anyway . . .

“This was a real step away from the distasteful colonial ethos. In time, as we slipped into post-modernism, a fetish developed for all truth being relative. Our ‘truths’ and ‘meanings’ were seen as simply products of our own value systems, and to suggest that one belief was somehow better or more valid than another was at best deemed old-fashioned and sweet; at worst it was treated by certain commentators and self-styled intellectuals as a symbolic rape. This relativism – both the extreme opposite of fundamentalism and yet an effective means of promoting dangerous and unfounded ideology by disregarding the value of evidence – was typically enshrouded in layers of purposefully obscure language, as if exhaustingly impenetrable wording was necessary proof of superior thought.”

Brown postulates that this trend is what has ultimately undermined the public appreciation for the role of science and it’s evidence-based methodology in the modern world.

“Scientific knowledge came to be seen as just another example of subjective and personal meanings, this time happening to belong to the scientists and a mere product of their value system. It was seen as neither more nor less valid than the most unscientific beliefs held by an eccentric new ager.”

Interesting stuff. Obviously, Brown is better know for his fantastic TV shows in which he uses magic, hypnotism, NLP, pyschology and bare faced lying to produce astonishing results. This is my current favourite clip from youtube.

And if you want to know how he might have done this, watch this clip.

  1. Alex, and the next step up from Tricks of the Mind can be found []

    Just finished the Quirkology book. Its a great read and goes abit deeper than Browns.

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