“Better to trust the man who is frequently in error than the one who is never in doubt” – Eric Sevareid
Skepticism can be a healthy approach to modern life. If you have an inkling your girlfriend is cheating on you, she probably is. A politician will say whatever he thinks will get him elected. When sitting in an interrogation room listening to a cop tell you that he can’t help you unless you help him, believe only the first part of the statement. That tuna is not actually dolphin-safe, and those crackers are unlikely to be truly gluten-free. Despite the label, there is shrimp paste in the soup and nuts in the chocolate bar. These examples vary in degree of mortal threat depending on your allergies and legal representation, but it’s still prudent to always remain alert. In short, skepticism can help avoid anaphylactic shock and save lives, if not marriages when it’s approached as a general philosophical stance in an increasingly complex world, rather than a professional posture of intellectual superiority, most clearly evinced by an obsession with the “magical thinking” of others, particularly the vast majority of humanity that are imagined to be mentally sub-standard and thus susceptible to irrationality which only the skeptic can see.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m down with the idea that there are veritable hordes of naked apes milling about who would float if dropped in a bowl of clue, but that’s admittedly a function of my rather pure misanthropy and neurotic mistrust of the intentions of what I regard as a malign universe, rather than a judgement on the relative weights of rationality vs. irrationality in the average mind that characterizes the expositions on “magical thinking” that can be found on most any book or website devoted to skepticism regarding strange phenomena. What is magical thinking? It is a stance on causality, dubbed a “fallacy” by fundamentalist skeptics as it posits the potential for a causal relationship between actions and events that is not in concert with an exceptionally narrow version of science’s dominant positivist ontology that handily ignores foundationalist, fallibalist, and coherentist scientific epistemologies that have driven discovery in science while admitting the possibility that our concept of rationality may be flawed and were in fact defenses against skepticism of the Socratic variety (the only thing we know is we don’t know anything for certain), suggesting instead that we build ourselves some models and see how they work out. If we have to shift some stuff around, so be it. All too often this manifests itself as a questioning of scholarly credentials, to which I would respond that many a moron has attended an elite university and even gone on to be President, and if the primary support for the validity of your claims versus others is the cost of the parchment your diploma is printed on, perhaps you should seek more robust evidence of your ability to think.
The label of “magical thinking” is routinely applied as thinly veiled class consciousness perpetrated on the unwashed masses by a self-appointed technocratic elite. Now, this might sound like I’m headed towards some sort of conspiracy theory. While I’m happy to imagine there are conspiracies everywhere, I also imagine they are almost all unsuccessful at (a) maintaining secrecy for any extended length of time, and (b) achieving their goals. Similarly, this probably has very little to do with the social and intellectual divisions between the academic world and popular culture. Being a professional skeptic (blogging about it, writing books, giving lectures, podcasting, preaching on street corners) is a gig like any other, and I’m loathe to be down on anybody else’s hustle. What you’re selling is expertise, and whether that expertise is derived from endless years of academic research under a particular paradigm or chasing Bigfoot through the Pacific Northwest with a gun, the commodity you’re selling is “technique”. Skeptic and Ancient Aliens fanboy alike are arguing that they offer a specialized methodology that will unearth the hidden truth behind the historical headlines.
That the much maligned “magical thinking” has long conveyed evolutionary advantage is of little consequence to the devout skeptic (who blithely translates the attribution of causality to psychopathology when it offends a strictly encapsulated logic). Anthropologists have suggested that attributing occurrences to an agent that may or may not exist is an important element in the survival of our species. It’s better to notice that something is happening and misattribute its agent than to fail to notice it at all. If the bush is rustling and the dogs have not alerted you to the presence of a predator, it’s far safer to assume the presence of a preternatural predator and act with caution, even if you are wrong, than to go back to sleep. You might avoid being eaten, uncomfortably probed, smited, or invited to dinner at your in-laws.
For thousands of years, folks have been encountering the unnatural, and efforts at explaining the unexplainable have been derided as illogical or irrational, conveniently ignoring the far more productive proposition that “magical thinking” is symbolic, rather than instrumental. Human consciousness is thought by many psycholinguists to have metaphorical foundations. It’s why we’re such a charming species. We make associations. Sometimes our attribution of agency is an abstraction, and sometimes we can point to a concrete source. If symbols could not exert material effects, we wouldn’t have civilization. If magical thinking is regarded as expressive (suggesting a desired state) vs. offering a practical and repeatable cause and effect relation, is it not more than “wishful thinking” and instead a means by which we synthesize information that is anomalistic? Skeptic and believer are engaged in a social performance, constructing metaphors that have cognitive resonance with whatever ontological approach suits their fancy, often mistaking their ontology for an epistemology, and thereby denigrating opposing views as opposed to reason, a reason very narrowly defined by adherence to an imagined set of precepts that form the foundation of reality.
The inevitable response to such a proposition is “where is the evidence?” Where are the UFO’s, aliens, Bigfoot, ghosts, and all manner of paranormal occurrences? The presumption that we have clear cut criteria for evidentiary “proof” in a universe that continues to present us with mysteries of an exceedingly mundane variety suggests that the problem is not rooted in the existence or non-existence of various strange phenomena, rather if we adhere too closely to whatever intellectual discipline is in vogue, we by necessity must declare what can exist and can’t exist by criteria that are metaphorical. This is how we establish the superiority of our technique, or as Charles Fort said, “It is our expression that nothing can attempt to be, except by attempting to exclude something else: that that which is commonly called ‘being’ is a state that is wrought more or less definitely proportionately to the appearance of positive difference between that which is included and that which is excluded”. But, such exclusions are based on ontological assumptions, rather than epistemological differences.
I’m not deliberately trying to start a fight with skeptics. Skeptic lives matter. It’s simply that whenever a discussion devolves into declarations that the majority of humanity is susceptible to “magical thinking”, and this is forwarded as an explanation for everything from religion to the experience of the paranormal, it strikes me as an assertion of rational superiority based on strict adherence to a particular technique. A technique which you can sell. I don’t necessarily consider this a problem. Dude has got to make a living. Unfortunately, what has emerged as a central problem in anomalistics is that the relation between ego and reason has been reversed. Reason flows from the ego. The imagined superiority of one’s ego now expresses the bounds of reason in what Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche warned about when he said, “Reason believes in the ego, in the ego as substance, as a being, and projects this belief in ego-substance onto all things. It first creates thereby the concept of a thing…. Being, which is construed as cause, is thought into things, and shoved under them: the concept of ‘being’ follows and is derived from the concept of ego”. That is, we think, therefore our thoughts about existence are derived from our ego. Consequently, our varied epistemologies recapitulate our ontologies, not deliberately, but inevitably.
During World War II, hardcore behaviorist and pragmatic psychologist B.F. Skinner demonstrated that he could train pigeons as effective guidance systems for missiles. This has nothing to do with my thesis, but it struck me as odd. Anyhow, Skinner also demonstrated that by giving food to pigeons at regular intervals with no reference to their actual behavior, strange obsessions could be introduced whereby a pigeon believed that chance actions which coincided with food delivery were directly associated with feeding, and thus were repeated in expectation of the same results. What can you say? Pigeons aren’t that bright. Or perhaps pigeons are smarter than we give them credit for. They noticed an association. They experimented. Given time, they would abandon the association when it no longer proved fruitful. Yet, many skeptics would maintain that the same mechanism is afoot among believers in various strange phenomena as the “superstitious pigeons”, neglecting the fact that the pigeons opted to proceed “as if” they could control the mechanism for feeding in the absence of any other explanation. The pigeons didn’t have an ontology to explain why some crazy human would be tormenting them in weird and presumably pointless (from a pigeon perspective) experiments. If the pigeon was aware of the experimental design, it would no doubt have been rather blasé about the whole thing. The foundation of most professionalized skepticism is that they have keen insight into the experimental design of the universe, and you are the unfortunate pigeon.
Thus, I remain suspicious whenever the concept of “magical thinking” is introduced into debates between skeptics and believers, as it is more often than not code for declaring one’s intellectual opponents as “anti-intellectual”, which amounts to saying that “the reason you disagree with me is that you can’t think”. While comforting, this is no different from saying “my wife doesn’t love me because she’s incapable of love”. Maybe you smell. Just as an industry has formed around uncritical belief, so too has an industry formed around skepticism. This is not necessarily bad. Let the best man win, but be aware that accusations of “magical thinking” are not about discourse. They are about ego, and as Sigmund Freud observed, “The ego is not master in its own house”.