A Skeptic’s Guide to Magical Thinking – Part 3

Welcome to the third installment of my five-part series on Magical Thinking, running Monday – Friday this week, which provides more background for my talk at Skepticamp Toronto last weekend.  You may wish to read Part 1 and Part 2 first, to put this post into context.

On Essentialism & Vitalism

In yesterday’s article, we discussed how humans are natural substance dualists.  Partly, this is due to the way we experience our mind as disembodied, but even babies too young to be aware of their consciousness intuit that there is a purpose and intentionality to living things – that there’s a special something inside us that’s not inside an object.  That something is our essence, our vital force, and the topic of today’s discussion.

Almost from birth, we begin to sort the world – to create mental categories for what we see and interact with – and we’re quite good at it.  Critically, we’re able to see past superficial differences and find the common ground.  So children naturally understand that a calf may look different from its mother, but that they’re both still cows.  That a tree is still a tree when its leaves are off in the winter.  And that just painting a stripe on a cat does not make it a skunk — thus they laugh at Pepe le Pew’s folly.  This is not something we learn, but are born with, and the effect can be seen too early for cultural transmission.  In short, we are natural essentialists.

Essentialism is rampant in the Socratic dialogues, and Plato tells us that there is more to a thing than our senses perceive.  At one level this is correct – our eyes and ears only pick up information within a limited frequency band, and there are of course myriad invisible elements in our world – atoms, viruses, etc.  Yet Plato was getting at something decidedly different – that what we perceive is merely a shadow of the true essence of a thing.  And that this essence actually exists separate from the physical manifestation we perceive.

Essentialism is the belief that living things have an irreducible quality that cannot be explained by physics and chemistry alone, and it’s powerful stuff because it’s so fundamental to how we perceive the world.  Just look at what happens when things don’t line up in (what we perceive as) their “natural” categories – the queasy feeling you might get when you look at conjoined twins; the hostility many people feel toward hermaphrodites or mosaics – or even homosexuals for that matter; our visceral reaction to cloning and other forms of genetic modification.  While the specific subject matter that triggers this disgust is culturally determined (learned), the underlying mechanism — essentialism — is a mind-design template that’s universal.

Essentially just a toaster

Or consider a classic philosophical problem – would a perfect, meat-based android, identical to a human in all aspects, effectively be a human, and if not, why not?  Fans of the recent Battlestar Galactica reboot faced 5 seasons of this question when it was learned that the Cylons looked like humans now…and could even interbreed.  Was there something essential about humans that distinguished them from such a being?  No philosopher was required to answer that question for the crew of the Galactica – they were human and Cylons were (in the parlance of the show) “toasters”.  The disgust response kicked in and they distanced themselves from the category violation, and dehumanized it.

Don’t get me wrong, our natural inclination to categorize is also pretty useful – it is, after all, the root of science and human knowledge.  How could we possibly have gotten here without it?  It’s an amazing feature of our brains, but as we’ve seen, it doesn’t always lead to rational behaviour.  Variation is to be expected in any randomly distributed system, and our rigid adherence to an internal, culturally-determined category structure has led to some of the worst instances of intolerance and violence in our collective history.  It’s also the basis for much of our magical thinking.

Although objects can have essences (something I’ll take up tomorrow), when it comes to living things, essentialism is closely intertwined with our innate dualism.  The essence is who we are, and who we are is our disembodied mind, a key constituent of our soul or life force. And this is also where essentialism meets vitalism, the belief that living things posses an animating energy or life force.  I like to think of vitalism as the vehicle that our essence travels in – we hitch a ride on that energy, and at death drive it straight out of the body.  Which is why, if you’ve ever watched someone die (even an animal), you can actually feel them leaving the body.  It’s our intuitive vitalism and essentialism at work.

Grandma's at a nice farm up north

In yesterday’s discussion, I suggested that one of the advantages of dualism was that it allowed us to perceive free will, which serves to reduce cognitive dissonance and increases our perception of control.  This interplay between vitalism, essentialism and dualism may actually work the same way to help us reduce dissonance about death. Death is a rather hard notion to reconcile with dualism — if the mind is separate, why does it die with the body?  But if our vital essence has an escape route, then our mortality is no longer in conflict with the way we perceive our consciousness.  It’s worth noting that children develop their sense of vitalism about the same time they start to experience their conscious mind, and it clearly helps them to process death.  Before this point, children are simply confused by death – When is grandma coming back? – but once they develop vitalism, they can accept death as permanent and irreversible.

Heart and Soul

In 1907, a Massachusetts physician named Duncan MacDougall thought he’d found the smoking gun in this equation – a loss of 21 grams in the weight of his test subjects immediately after death, clear evidence that the soul exists.  Better, when he repeated the test with dogs, there was no loss of weight, proving that dogs didn’t have souls.  Sadly, the results were not replicable, though the idea was compelling enough to spawn a movie with Sean Penn and Benicio del Toro.

Notions of the soul aren’t the only thing reliant on our intuitive vitalism and essentialism – it’s omnipresent in Asian medicine and its notion of chi / ki / prana – and gaining increasing prominence in alternative medicine practices in North American and Europe as well.  From acupuncture, reiki and qi gong in the east to chiropractic subluxation, homeopathy, and crystal healing in the west, alt-med is filled with vitalist and essentialist justifications.

As skeptics, I think it’s important that we maintain an awareness of just how hard wired these ideas are when we’re trying to dispute them.  We’re not simply arguing against ignorance or stupidity, but against the way the human mind is designed to perceive the world.  Certainly many of us develop the metacognitive skills to second guess those perceptions and mitigate our cognitive bias, but it’s not the native mode for most of humanity.

You loved it, admit it.

But more than this, I think it’s important to remember that this mind design is not merely an accident of evolution – it serves a purpose that has proven evolutionarily useful.  I’ve already mentioned how our inclination to categorize is a fundamental underpinning of science, but even before the first philosophers began their scientific inquiries 2500-odd years ago, essentialism was already a driving force behind the quality that makes us most human of all – love.

We’ve heard it in a hundred romantic movies: it’s not your body, it’s you I love.  Not your shape, not your blood, not your bile, not your pancreas, but the fundamental essence of you as a person.  I’m connected with you – our souls are intertwined – our vital essences have become one.  It’s simply impossible to experience love as humans do (separate from the biological urge to procreate) without our essentialism.  And that’s a kind of magical thinking we should all be grateful for. [Read Part 4]

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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