“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”.
In my opinion, magical thinking belongs to prior ages where literacy was uncommon and machines with moving parts didn’t exist.Magical thinking needs to be abandoned in favor of a technological orientation. This doesn’t mean miracles and marvels don’t exist, far from it; but instead of “speak the magic word and something unexplainable happens” we need to understand that the word itself didn’t do the energy transformations and technology needed to obtain the unexplainable result.
The technology may be at a level beyond the human race, and even located in higher dimensions, but the basic notions of cause and effect, and visible changes require the requisite energies, should never be absent in a mature mental framework. Unfortunately, the higher a technology is, the more invisible it is, leading the masses of humanity toward thinking in magical terms.
Otherwise, kudos again to EsoterX for an interesting article.
Complex machines with moving parts did already exist 2,000 years ago at the time of the Roman Empire (for example complex water milling facilities used for industrial purposes i. e. working on metals) and mass-production is also not a new invention of our times. And a lot of very old buildings scattered all over the world required also a very high technology for constructing them, just try to build the Cheops pyramid today and you will face a lot of problems to be solved. Magical thinking used to be always a privilege of poets and artists what has not changed over the times. And modern theoretical physics is somehow quite often more like a new religion because a lot of alleged matters can not be seen or experienced by us, so this means also a question of beliefing (string theories, idea of multiverse instead of universe, etc. pp.) and irrational approach.
I hate pseudoskeptics. Still, there is a good amount of this that I don’t really agree with. My issue with pseudoskeptics bitching about “magical thinking” is that it presumes that there is no such thing as real magic. After all, if magic is real, then there is nothing wrong with thinking in magical ways. It reminds me of the Star Ocean series of video games, where a futuristic, Star-Trek-like human society runs across a planet full of primitive aliens who have real magical abilities. Anyway, I don’t really think that pseudoskeptics mean anything when they talk about “magical thinking.” I think that they just use this as a negative statement designed to disparage people.
Reblogged this on Kate McClelland.
“The term ‘magical thinking’ itself is so vague that it’s hard to identify what constitutes this presumed aberration from the mass mind. Who doesn’t believe that thoughts have power to affect events? The idea that there is consistency of thought within the mass mind is fantasy. Who is qualified to judge which is “magical” and which “reasonable” or “scientific?” To my mind (assuming the mind exists, which no one has proven), anyone who presumes to judge another’s reality is delusional.
Magical thinking can never be defined exactly, otherwise it would be no longer magical. This simple sounding logic is of course no reasonable approach which would be in any case a simple illusion.
I agree. That’s exactly why it’s equally difficult to discount it as “irrational,” “unscientific,” or otherwise insignificant. I believe “magical thinking” is the foundation of all human creativity, where innovations begin as wild imaginings, until someone makes them practical. Look at what Galileo did with the telescope, for which he was excommunicated.
He dared defy dogma. I contend modern science is just as dogmatic as religion, expecting people to accept on faith assumptions that science has yet to prove. The only difference is that “science” is supported by modern panache and the erroneous assumption that we are smarter than our forebears.
Earlier this month, you made a strong case against casting aspersions on the sanity of one’s opponent in debates about anomalous phenomena and rightly argued that validation is valid. In this post you’ve deftly explained why the “magical thinking” label is a clumsy ad hominem attack. If debate participants (skeptics and believers) were to forgo these disreputable ploys, discussions of Forteana run the risk of degenerating into something productive and transformative. Fear not. Discredited ad hominem gambits could be rescued by tying them to some pathogen (operating in the manner of Toxoplasma gondii) that hypothetically muddles the thinking of those who disagree with us. Research into pathogens that influence human cognition and behavior has been in the works for a while and biological reductionism has long been the dominant paradigm in psychiatry, so don’t be surprised if biological justifications for insulting someone’s sanity or thinking becomes fashionable.
In short, I think many would prefer to preserve fallacious debating tactics because they get their jollies from social performance rather than exploration. If so, weaning social creatures from the satisfactions of social performance is a daunting task.
Magical thinking in psychology is tied to superstitious or irrational behavior (that is, always wearing your red socks when you fly to prevent your plane from crashing). That’s the only definition of magical thinking that’s familiar to me.
What you’re talking about seems much closer to wishful thinking. We wish to believe in magic because we want miracles to be real. That is, we want strange, bizarre, and mysterious things to happen in the universe for no reason. After all, the universe can be a pretty grim place without the magic and mystery of the paranormal.
The universality of the Internet has allowed paranormal “folklore” to propagate and morph almost at the speed of light. However, hoaxers and charlatans are there to prey on those who need to believe in them so badly their good judgement is suspended.
But, more concerning than that is the patina of sinister conspiracy that covers these paranormal folk tales. And the perpetrator of these dark and evil conspiracies is always the government (or sometimes the governments of the world in concert . . . yeah right, we can’t achieve world peace but we can achieve a universal UFO cover up).
Whether your anomaly of choice is Bigfoot, UFOs, an underground race of humans (or aliens), Reptilian shape shifters, alien abductions, vortexes, time slips and time travelers, ghosts on Civil War battlefields, Chupacabras, people gone missing in National Parks, etc., the government is either out to hide the truth from you or sometimes is just out to get you (there’s a pact with aliens allowing them to do experimentation on human babies and/or use them for food). Maybe it’s just me, but I think unquestioningly believing some of this shit and blaming it on the government is potentially dangerous to the well being of the greater society. No wonder hardly anybody votes.
I think we really do need the skeptics to pull us back from the razor’s edge of insanity (or at least give it their best shot), whether we want them to or not. After all, when anybody tells us an uncomfortable truth we don’t wish to be true and don’t want to hear, that hapless person is always a bad guy.
Purrl Gurrl is a pseudoskeptic who said a bunch of garbage in her comment that isn’t even true. Pass it on.
Yoda says there’s either a skeptic or believer. What’s a pseudoskeptic? I can’t stop chuckling over this.
Yoda said it, so it must be true.
Anyway, if you haven’t looked up the word “pseudoskeptic” by now, then I would suggest that you spend less time chuckling and more time using a search engine. You can also throw in the name “Marcello Truzzi” – a former member of one of those so-called “skeptic” groups. Truzzi is believed to be the one who came up with the word “pseudoskeptic.”
Who has the last word on crazy? That the mass media bombards us with violence, crime, football, advertising, political posturings, and trivial silliness is not necessarily crazy. That people are willing to watch it, become addicted to it, and to be more or less hypnotized by it, could be called “crazy,” in some people’s realities. If television isn’t a perfect example of magical thinking gone mainstream, what is? We have entire generations of people discussing fictional TV characters as if they are real.
It’s probably just me, but I don’t think the counterpoint to craziness is more craziness. Happy 2016.