A Skeptic’s Guide to Magical Thinking – Part 4

This is the fourth installment of my five-part series on Magical Thinking, running Monday – Friday this week, which picks up on the themes I introduced at Skepticamp Toronto last weekend.  Parts 1, 2, and 3 are here, here, and here.

On Holism, Contagion, and Sympathy

In the last article in this series, we discussed our tendency to essentialize and vitalize – to see living things as more than just the product of physics and chemistry – and how it’s critical for our ability to love.  If you have any doubt of this, go grab a photograph of a loved one.  Now take a pin and poke their eyes out repeatedly.  Seriously, try it – it’s not easy.  It’s clearly just a piece of paper with some ink splattered on it  – anyone can see that – so why should we feel physically sickened by doing it damage?

Welcome to the intersection of essentialism and sympathy.  Sympathy is the notion that like goes with like, and that when two things are alike, a transfer of essence may indeed occur.  So to our mind, it’s not just a piece of paper and ink, it’s the essence of our loved one that we’re brutally stabbing.  Worse, we’re stabbing their eyes – recall from the article on dualism how human gaze is critical to our ability to infer intentional minds.

I talked about sympathy a while back in an article on “sympathetic magic” – the anthropological term for beliefs and practices that rely on sympathy and contagion (discussed further below).  The research from cognitive psychologists like Paul Rozin confirms that sympathy is the result of our mind design, and may have originally been developed as part of our disgust response, which is why it’s so hard to overcome.  His research saw this sympathy-induced disgust response kick in when he asked subjects to eat chocolate shaped like dog feces, or drink juice from a sterilized beaker labeled “poison”.  We saw the same effect in our photograph experiment above.

Brain food

But as we’ve seen with dualism, vitalism, and essentialism, otherwise useful mind design can be misappropriated for all sorts of unhelpful magical thinking.  And so we get the Doctrine of Signatures – the notion that god or nature (depending on your belief system) left sensory clues as to what various things are to be used for.  Walnuts look like brains, so let’s prescribe them for headaches.  Turmeric is yellow, and thus cures jaundice.  Certain mollusks bear a resemblance to female genitalia, so they must be aphrodisiacs – as must tiger penis, which bears a striking resemblance to my own.  As Austin Powers might say, Grrr, baby, very grrr.

Traditional medicine (e.g. TCM’s material medica) is based in large part on these sympathetic principles, as are many shamanic practices.  Voodoo is an obvious one, but if you read the anthropological literature, you’ll find accounts of shamans who enact sympathetic birthings to help their patient through labour, and a hundred other variants on this theme.

Just look up in the sky for more – astrology relies on a sympathetic principle, i.e. “as in the stars, so with the man”.  Tarot card readers tell us our lives will resemble the cards, rune readers their runes, palm readers our palms.  Divination is based largely on our natural, er–, sympathy for sympathy.

The Hol-Truth

Let’s pick this apart some more.  If vital essences can transfer from a “subject” to a like “object”, there must be a conduit on which it can travel.  Enter holism, the belief that all vital energy is interconnected.  Picking up on the metaphor from the previous article, if vitalism is the vehicle that our essence travels in, then holism is the road that vehicle travels on.  And if it’s not too much of a stretch, sympathy is a well-signed route.

Holism could be considered just a property of vitalism, but we see it enough that I think it warrants its own status, especially considering western new-age beliefs where, for example, crystals might channel the energy between us and other living things.  It’s also present in such concepts as reincarnation, Jungian synchronicity, and the medieval Christian idea of the Great Chain of Being.

There’s one more piece to this puzzle — what I like to think about as the dust you pick up while driving on that sympathetic route.  The essential properties being transferred along holist conduits stay with you because of contagion, the belief that  “once in contact, always in contact”.  Contagion is the other concept anthropologists lump into sympathetic magic, and homeopathy is a great example of how these ideas interplay.  The ingredients are selected on a sympathetic “like cures like” principle.  Contagion allows the desired properties to be transferred via “water memory” even after extreme dilutions.  And the net result is to nudge our vital essence back into alignment.

Is that a tiger penis or are you happy to see me?

But it doesn’t end there – simply open a newspaper to see contagion at work.  Mercury contaminates vaccines, and harms the patient.  Flouride, minerals, and acidity all contaiminate our water supply.  Wifi, cell phones, and other EMF “pollution” are frying our brains and causing cancer – as are minute levels of pesticides and other inorganic agricultural practices.  And don’t even think about touching the doorknob in a public restroom with your bare hands.

Rozin fond that contagion, like sympathy, is part of our mind design – and also rooted in the psychology of disgust.  Just try to eat food that’s been walked over by a cockroach.  The cockroach was sterilized first, and anyway it only touched the corner of the sandwich — you could just cut that part off, but would you?  Thanks to contagion, the whole sandwich is ruined.

Essential Objects

Bristol psychologist Bruce Hood picks up on Rozin’s research in his public lectures, using an old cardigan as a prop.  Once told that the cardigan used to be owned by a brutal serial killer, the number of people in the audience who would willingly put it on drops dramatically – even after they’re told that the killer never actually wore it.  The object has become contaminated by the killer’s essence, and it’s simply bad news.

A friend of mine experienced something similar when learning that the house he had recently purchased had been the site of an infant death, in which a child had been left unattended in the lovely claw-foot, cast iron tub in his second floor bathroom.  Neither he nor his wife could stand to keep the tub in the house – it was contaminated with the essence of that dead child.  And so we performed a sort of exorcism, meaning I helped him lug the 250 lb. beast down the stairs and off to the dump.

Tomorrow is another day to think magically about Tara...Tara....Tara

Yes, objects can have essences, and not just to store their acquired contaminants.  Americans can’t stand to watch their flag burned, so tied up with the essence of their country is it.  Muslims and Jews treat their holy books with similar reverence, since they have the essence of god – his words – within their pages.  Scarlet O’Hara essentialized Tara.  As social creatures, we imbue these objects  with essence to create personal and shared meaning, and increase social cohesion.

And it doesn’t end there.  In Amsterdam recently, I went to the Rijksmuseum to see the real Rembrandts.  I had seen most of them in reproductions many times, but somehow the real ones were more fulfilling because they were authentic – they contained the painter’s essence in a way that the reproductions never could.

Try this thought experiment – suppose it was proven tomorrow that Shakespeare didn’t write Hamlet.  It was a forgery written 87 years later by an otherwise mediocre playwright that had one good play in him, and thought calling it a “Shakespeare” would give the performance a little extra marketing oomph.  Would the play continue to be staged with the regularity it is today?  Would you enjoy watching it as much?  The words didn’t change, but the essence did.

All of this is magical thinking, but arguably these last cases actually improve our lives by increasing social cohesion, amplifying the effect great art has on us, etc.  Likewise, the contagion principle at its best helps us avoid potentially harmful bacteria and viruses – a built-in, rudimentary germ theory that no doubt stood our species in great stead throughout the millennia.  Nor is similarity a bad filter to view the world through – after all, most of the time, things are basically what they seem.  Even holism contains some truth – we may not be connected by energies, but we’re certainly connected by culture, and the shared objects that help define it.

As we’ve seen over the past several days, magical thinking is a double edged sword, stemming from the same mind design responsible for much of what makes us human.  This will be the focus of tomorrow’s article, where I’ll attempt to put together a framework for addressing this mixed blessing through skepticism. [Read Part 5]

One Response to “A Skeptic’s Guide to Magical Thinking – Part 4”

  1. Healingmuse says:

    Ah the magic of writing – well written thank you. I wish there was a smidgeon of such contemplation in many others who attempt to write, discern, evaluate but instead get stuck in spewing prejudices. There will never be enough ‘magic’ in this world.


  • 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