Bad Arguments: Magical Thinking

card3217Today I’m going to talk about a bad argument that doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with god claims, Magical Thinking. This type of faulty belief is the basis of all sorts of things from astrology, to ghost whisperers, and does, of course, include religion.

Magical thinking is similar to the Argument from Ignorance, but is based on the Causation Fallacy. It’s basically pattern recognition gone wrong. Humans have evolved amazing pattern recognition skills. Our ancestors learned that people got sick when they ate the yellow berries, but not when they ate the red berries. They concluded that the yellow berries were the cause. When you are walking down the street, and you hear tires screeching, you assume that a car accident is imminent. This is that pattern recognition in action. There’s nothing wrong with this pattern recognition, until it fails us.

Our ancestors also found a pattern between the stars and planets and our lives. We now know this to be false, yet some people persist in believing that it is true. Why? Is it comforting? At least religion offers people a sense of belonging, and the idea of an all powerful entity watching over us is appealing to some. Astrology doesn’t offer these things. Plus it’s super easy to falsify. Ask someone who does believe in astrology what their sign is. Then read them the results from the newspaper. But read them the wrong sign. Since they believe, they’ll still say that it applies to them. Even though it’s the wrong sign. If someone asks you your sign so they can give you a reading, give them the wrong sign. It will be just as accurate.

Magical thinking is seeing a connection between reaction and action that isn’t really there. Remember, correlation does not equal causation. That’s all this line of thinking is. It’s seeing a causal link that doesn’t exist. Anthropologist Edward Burnett Tyler called this type of thinking “pre-logical”, as in it was used before people learned how logic worked. While researching this topic, I found a running theme. The anthropologists who study this kept referring to primitive peoples. Because this is the type of thinking you’d expect from people who didn’t know how the world really worked. The type of people who did not have modern education, science, or critical thinking skills.

This is the same reason why witches were burned at the stake. People gave meaning when there wasn’t any. If your son got sick and died, and it just so happened that the new old lady who moved next door had a wart, it didn’t mean she was practicing the dark arts.

There are news stories in the current times of people dying for witchcraft. Rational people realize that things like magic, witchcraft, tarot, astrology, are all things that pre-scientific people used to try to explain the unknown. But we know better now, or at least we should.

See, we attribute meaning when there isn’t any. If you forget your keys, it doesn’t mean that life is out to get you, or you’re being punished. It means you forgot your keys. Maybe you were distracted. Maybe you thought you had them in your jacket. It is puzzling to me how we can already have explanations for things, yet people still want to explain them with the fantastical. It’s not enough for some to accept that there are real answers. They need to believe in unproven, often easily falsifiable, claims.

It’s wish fulfillment, in some cases. People want to believe that they have some sort of power that enables them to tap into something that better controls their lives. I get that. I wish I had Zebediah Killgrave’s (Purple Man from Marvel) powers to control people’s minds. Wanting it, and even believing it, doesn’t actually make it true, though.

Tarot is another one. I have a friend who claims to have predicted Trump’s election before it happened. She went through all of the cards and explained how she interpreted them. Then, I took those same cards, Googled their meaning, and was able to “interpret” them to predict Clinton winning. Their excuse? Well, you have to read the cards together. Uh huh. You mean interpret it in a way that makes you correct. People force meaning. And I’m not even going to get into the cold reading.

Part of this is the confirmation bias. If people already believe that something affects their lives, they will always notice events that seem to confirm their beliefs, while ignoring the events that seem to disprove it. There’s a line from Game of Thrones, that I’ll paraphrase. Bran believes that his dreams show him the future. “What about all of your dreams that didn’t come true?” This perfectly explains why this type of thinking is fallacious. Sure it turns out his dreams do come true, but this is also a story with dragons and ice zombies.

Let’s assume that something like voodoo worked. Now the question becomes why? Why does it work? Is it because demons and gods listen to the faithful’s songs? Or is it a coincidence? It should be testable, otherwise they are just plain assertions.

Many times, when talking with religious people, they claim that since their holy book got a few scientific things accurately, that the rest of the book must be accurate, too. Of course, they ignore the things their holy books got wrong, but even if we accept that the books are 100% accurate, WHY? Why is it accurate? Were the writers actually inspired by their god? Were they just really smart? Did they just get lucky? Did they guess? There is still no evidence that links the accuracy of the holy book with their god.

Same with all of these other things. People CLAIM that there is a link, but always fail to demonstrate it. No one has demonstrated that astrology works, or tarot, or voodoo, or their lucky (insert object here). They just believe there’s a connection.

My grandma says prayers every day. One of the prayers is for the sun to rise again the next day. Sure enough it does. Does this mean her prayers have been answered? Or was the sun going to rise anyway? What if one person prays for the sun to rise, while another person prays for the sun to not rise?

Not everything has a hidden meaning behind it. We have real explanations for a lot of things, and we are searching for answers for the rest. I’d rather have the CORRECT answers, than magical ones that can’t be proven. Plus, even if science hasn’t found an answer yet, it doesn’t mean that magic is the answer until then. That would be an argument from ignorance.

I think it comes down to comfort. People want to believe what they want to believe, and they don’t care if it’s true or not. I mean, they’ll claim that they do care if it’s true, but what they really mean, is they care ONLY if it’s true. As soon as you prove their assertions false, then they hide behind faith or make excuses. Anything to keep their beliefs and avoid admitting to being deceived. When someone makes truth claims, they have a burden of proof. And every time you test things like tarot, or astrology, or those people who claim they can talk to the dead, they fail the tests. Yet the believers will continue believing. Because they WANT it to be true. That’s fine. Just admit it. Don’t pretend that these people have magical powers. Accept that you are deluding yourself because you like it.

1 comment

  1. Ive already proved a couple people wrong…. .

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