A Skeptic’s Guide to Magical Thinking – Part 2

This is the second installment of a five-part series on Magical Thinking, running Monday – Friday this week, that fleshes out my brief talk at Skepticamp Toronto last weekend.  Part 1 is available here.

On Dualism

In the first article in this series, I explored how we might create an ontology for Magical Thinking.  Rather than group beliefs into discrete categories, I proposed that it might be more useful to look at which of the six general operators that underlie magical thinking – Dualism, Essentialism, Vitalism, Holism, Sympathy, and Contagion — are at play in any given belief.  Today’s article will unpack the first of these operators.

Anyone that’s ever taken a philosophy course will be familiar with dualism, the notion that two types of substance exist – one material and one immaterial.  It’s one of the classic philosophical problems, the stuff of tens of thousands of mid-terms, and it should be no surprise that this is so.

After all, our very experience of consciousness seems to support it.  Consider your mind for just a moment, and you’ll just know that it’s a thing separate from your body – it’s the you in control of your body.  Of course, at one level most of us know that it’s the brain at work, but it sure doesn’t feel that way.  Rather, it feels like our mind is disembodied, floating separate from the material world on which it acts.

Young children understand this intuitively.  Ask them what the brain does, and they’ll say it’s for thinking, but when they’re angry, it’s them, not their brain, that’s mad.  Our emotions, our creativity, our relationships, our selves – basically everything in the top three tiers of Maslow’s Hierarchy – seems to us the domain of the mind, not the brain.

Yet the research suggests that dualism is present even before we can articulate our experience of consciousness.  Almost from birth, babies understand that living things have minds that motivate their bodies, and that objects don’t.  If they cry, their parents will grab a bottle, the cat will run and hide, but the blocks just sit there motionless.  Children can tell living things from objects by the fluidity and rhythm of their movement, and by their faces – especially their gaze.  The ability to recognize these things is hard wired into our mind design.

Babies perceive, not wholly incorrectly, that if a thing is living, it is purposeful and intentional, and that intentionality is due to a mind.   This  perception is fundamental to understanding that mind and body are separate, and as Bruce Hood says in his book Supersense, “once we buy into the independent existence of mind and body, there is no limit to what the mind can do.  If the mind is separate to the body, it is not constrained by the same laws that govern the physical world.  It can leap great distances, travel through solid walls, never age, and travel forward and backward in time.”   And so in dualism, we have the basis for a lot of our magical thinking, including:

  • Theism and its belief in immaterial intelligences / gods
  • Animism and its spirits everywhere
  • Ghosts
  • ESP, telepathy, and other forms of psi
  • Wish fulfillment and the Law of Attraction

Yet it’s not hard to see how this substance dualism is an illusion.  First, there’s the philosophical problem: how exactly would an immaterial mind enact its intention on a material body, i.e. what’s the mechanism for control?  Second, there’s the physiological problem: we can prove the mind is created by the brain because we can manufacture experiences in our mind – emotions, memories, tastes, smells – by stimulating certain regions of the brain directly.  There’s simply no other conclusion to draw but Stephen Pinker’s maxim, that the mind is what the brain does.  [UPDATE - a commenter on Reddit reminded me of a great xkcd comic that makes this point particularly well.]

Yet if dualism itself is wrong, not everything it engenders is without value.  Certainly there’s little reason to buy into the claims of psychics, but consider a few of dualism’s greater triumphs:

  1. Self-Preservation – understanding that living things have intentions is a pretty good survival skill in the jungle, especially if your mind is hard-wired to look for the faces, eyes, and movement that are the markers of living things whose intention is to rip you apart for an hors d’oeuvre.
  2. Social Interaction – our disembodied minds actively try to understand what other disembodied minds are thinking, a type of mind reading that is critical to just about all social interaction, including business and interactions of an amorous nature.
  3. Free Will – this is a big topic on its own, but there’s growing evidence that our very perception of free will, a fundamental component of our experience of consciousness, may be created in the mind after the decision to do something is made by the brain (and often after we start doing it).  We can see this lag on brain activity scans.  Cognitive scientists believe it’s a sort of post-hoc justification designed to reduce dissonance by giving us a perception of control.  Feel free to insert your favorite Matrix quote here.

It’s hard to imagine humans being as successful as we’ve been without our dualist notions, and it continues to be useful to us even in a Smilodon-free world.  Psychics, Slimer and The Secret are  merely side effects, but pertinacious ones because of how closely dualism is intertwined with our very notion of who we are – what some might call our essence, a topic I’ll take up tomorrow. [Read Part 3]

One Response to “A Skeptic’s Guide to Magical Thinking – Part 2”

  1. Froztwolf says:

    The article is mostly good and I do like the conclusions you draw and mostly how you come to them. However, I must subject your methodology to the same scrutiny as I would any form of magical thinking itself so I have a couple of comments:

    “Almost from birth, babies understand that living things have minds that motivate their bodies, and that objects don’t. If they cry, their parents will grab a bottle,”
    Babies cry because they understand that they get a bottle. If you know of research that suggests that they know (or care) about their parents or the inner workings of their parents in that context then you know more than me and a citation would be appreciated.

    “Of course, at one level most of us know that it’s the brain at work, but it sure doesn’t feel that way.”
    This by itself sounds like magical thinking to me. I don’t know that it’s scientifically proved that our brain is the sole instrument in thinking. Again if you have information to back this up, please cite.

    “Second, there’s the physiological problem: we can prove the mind is created by the brain because we can manufacture experiences in our mind – emotions, memories, tastes, smells – by stimulating certain regions of the brain directly.”
    By your own words, this can only prove that we can affect the mind through the brain. There are further things that back up the theory that the mind and the brain are one and the same but this by itself does not do so.

    As far as I know dualism and materialism both have the same scientific statuses of “unproven theories”.
    That said, I do understand that dualism does not appeal to scientificly rigorous sensibilities while it does allow a lot of room for magical thinking.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks


  • 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