A Skeptic’s Guide to Magical Thinking – Part 1

Just in time for Halloween, I’ll be presenting a five-part series on Magical Thinking that will run from Monday – Friday of this week, picking up on the theme of my talk at Skepticamp Toronto last weekend.  The first instalment is below:


Toward an Ontology of Magical Thinking

A few months ago, I wrote an article on Sympathetic Magic that explored the cognitive underpinnings of practices as diverse as homeopathy, toxin fears & cleanses, astrology, shamanism, and voodoo.  The basic premise, supported by research coming out of cognitive psychology, was that these practices rely on non-scientific ideas about similarity and contagion that have been hard wired into our mind design by evolution.

I intended to follow that article with two more that took a similar look at other types of magical thinking.  You see, in my mind I’d formed a rough ontology that sorted all magical practices into 3 categories.  In the first category, I put the sympathetic magic practices above.  In the second, I lumped everything that had to do with a life force or vital essence – acupuncture and traditional Chinese medicine, chiropractic subluxation, astral projection, reiki, Q-ray bracelets, crystals, etc.  An in the third category was everything that posited some sort of internal or external super-intelligence – including theism, aliens, ghosts, psi, and conspiracy theories.  It looked something like this:

But as I started to write the next article, I began to see several problems with my model.  First, many practices fit in more than one of my categories.  For example, homeopathy, while generally identified as sympathetic magic, is often said to work by impacting a vital force.  Conversely, Traditional Chinese Medicine is highly vitalist, but its materia medica is largely based on a perceived similarity (sympathy) between the drug and the disease.  Scientology is a form of intelligent magic, but its eMeter is vitalist.  Catholocism is primarily intelligent, but the Eucharist is sympathetic.  Dowsing practitioners alternately claim any or all of the above.

Second, some superficially similar practices have very different underlying mechanisms.  For example, animism is generally considered alongside theism as a religious belief, yet its spirits typically profess no intelligence, making them more akin to a vital energy than a god.  Similarly, iridology is similar to acupuncture in its practice, yet professes no underlying vitalist account of its operation.  Lacking this, it seems to follow a Similarity principle similar to astrology’s, with “as with the stars, so with the man” becoming “as with the iris, so with the man”.

But where's the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex?

Third, Intelligent Magic had become something of a catch-all, and I wasn’t sure such a broad definition was really that useful.  For example, internal intelligences like PSI seem an awkward fit alongside external intelligences like gods, ghosts, and aliens.  Also, not everything on the list is actually intelligent, e.g. animism or some crypto-zoological creatures.  (For example, when was the last time anyone said, “Wow, that was the smartest Chupacabra I’ve ever seen!”)   Perhaps most worrying, it might not be accurate to call bogeymen theories magical thinking at all – they’re certainly not supernatural thinking, since they don’t break any natural laws.  Indeed, the same is true of aliens.  Was there a non-supernatural type of magical thinking that needed to be considered, and did it belong in the same category as the rest?

Clearly I needed to take a different approach that reflected these concerns.  And while it’s taken me a few months of reading and consideration to get there, I think I’m finally at an appropriate starting gate.

Defining Magical Thinking

I define magical thinking simply as any non-science based explanation for an event or experience.  There are three important points to note about this definition.

First, it does not say that a belief is magical merely because it violates an established scientific principle.  After all, quantum mechanics did that when it was first introduced – even Einstein rejected it.  But quantum mechanics was borne out by the scientific method and thus provided testable predictions and a means for falsifiability.  By contrast, the quantum mysticism espoused by Deepak Chopra and others does no such thing, and is rightly called magical.

Second, this definition is not normative or pejorative – a belief is not wrong or false merely by being magical.  By tying it to the scientific method, we admit that there are three possible values for a magical belief:

(a)  The belief has not been tested

(b)  The belief is un-testable by scientific means

(c)  The belief has been tested and is false

There is no (d) because a belief that has been tested and shown true becomes scientific, and is thus not magical.  Of course, like all scientific statements, the words “true” and “false” should be read as probabilistic in nature, and thus come with confidence intervals.

Third, the definition accommodates both supernatural beliefs and those that don’t violate any natural law – and so handles astral projection and alien abduction equally well.

The Six Operators

Because magical beliefs cross-pollinate, I no longer believe it’s useful to define a discrete category structure, as I initially tried to do above.  Such an ontology will necessarily end up either too precise to be useful, or (as with my earlier attempt) too crude to be accurate.  Rather, I propose to take a different path and identify a set of generalized operators, any or all of which may be operating within a specific belief or practice.  These are as follows:

  1. Dualism – the belief that there are two types of substances, one material and one immaterial
  2. Essentialism – the belief that living things have an irreducible quality that cannot be explained by physics and chemistry alone
  3. Vitalism – the belief that living things posses an animating energy or life force
  4. Holism – the belief that the vital energies of individuals are all interconnected
  5. Sympathy – the belief that those interconnections are made according to likeness
  6. Contagion – the belief that essences are contagious, and that once in contact, always in contact

Using this model, it will be possible to create a matrix of magical thinking and identify which operators are at play, for example:

In the next three articles, I’ll go into more detail on each of these operators and talk about why they’re so prevalent in human thinking.  Hint: it’s the mind design, stupid. On Friday, we’ll talk about what this means for our own attempts to think rationally, and for how we as skeptics should approach the magical thinking we encounter. [Read Part 2]

8 Responses to “A Skeptic’s Guide to Magical Thinking – Part 1”

  1. John Greg says:

    Good Monday morning kickoff play. I rubs me paws in anticipation of parts 2 through 5.

  2. daijiyobu says:

    Great post.

    -r.c.

  3. Bert says:

    Nice and interesting: but how did you identify ‘magical practices’?
    About your second and improved model: the magical practices shown are not the same hiearchical level (and thus not comparable).

    • Erik Davis says:

      Bert – to be honest, the first go around wasn’t all that considered — I started with a big list of pseudo-scientific and paranormal phenomena I found on the web and started grouping them according to the rough ontology I thought existed. In the second model, I define the term “magical thinking” to help make that distinction.

      But I’m intrigued by your second comment – can you elaborate on what you mean by “same hierarchical level”? I don’t think the intent was to compare them, but more to identify which are at work in any given magical belief. To my understanding, all of these are common “templates” in the human mind, and I think they’re sufficiently discrete to be useful, though certainly they interrelate. The only one that I would see as arguably different is holism, which could be understood merely as a property of vitalism, but I think there are at least a few cases where holism is the prime actor (e.g. crystal energy), so I’ve considered it as separate. Apologies if I’m misunderstanding your point though.

  4. Mark P says:

    I’ve always defined Chi in purely naturalistic terms, as essentially the ability to use precise movements to control the amount of inertia in the different parts of your body. The only energy that is involved is kinetic energy.

  5. Ian Chadwick says:

    Reminds me of the quote from Witter Bynner in his introduction to the Tao Teh Ching: “Everywhere men yearn to be misled by magicians.”

  6. Nancy says:

    “In short, we need to focus on ways to encourage religious moderation”
    Yeah, man, let’s set goals that are at least conceivable. :0

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  • Erik Davis

    Erik is a technology professional based in Toronto, focused on the intersection of the internet and the traditional media and telecommunications sectors. A reluctant blogger, he was inspired by the great work Skeptic North has done to combat misinformation and shoddy science reporting in the Canadian media, and in the public at large. Erik has a particular interest in critical reasoning, and in understanding why there’s so little of it in the public discourse. You can follow Erik's occasional 140 character musings @erikjdavis