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The Nuisance of Magical Thinking

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Recently the New York Times ran a front-age article on the phenomenon of magical thinking. Originally this was a fairly narrow psychological term, applied to schizophrenics and other mentally disturbed patients who believed that their thoughts could alter reality. In its most abnormal form, magical thinking makes paranoids believe that they rule the world or that if they fall asleep space aliens will invade the earth. More harmlessly, magical thinking gives rise to lucky rabbit's feet, game-day shirts, and small rituals of protection like knocking on wood.

The Times article centered on psychologists and anthropologists who are curious about why magical thinking survives among modern people. It is prevalent even when a person has no religious beliefs. "...and for good reason," the article's writer declares. "The sense of having special powers buoys people in threatening situations, and helps soothe everyday fears and ward off mental distress. . . . This emerging portrait of magical thinking helps explain why people who fashion themselves skeptics cling to odd rituals that seem to make no sense, and how apparently harmless superstition may become disabling." By clear implication, magical thinking is a holdover, a nuisance soon to be eradicated once we get our wires straight.

The reason this conjecture caught my eye is that around the same time an evolutionary biologist at Harvard told an interviewer that brain research would soon unlock the key to all of human behavior. In both cases, a mechanistic explanation is deemed sufficient to explain us to ourselves. Instead of relying on even a shred of subjectivity, however brilliant the observer might be, all inquiries lead to hard wiring, genetic imprints, and ultimately a string of chemicals.

This whole world view continues to expand confidently, but one can't help wondering. At some point the line between hard and soft wiring must be drawn, and it's enormously over-simple to keep favoring the hard side of the equation because the soft side won't fit easily into laboratory experiments. Behaviorists need to be reminded that Jesus, Socrates, St. Paul and Augustine, Isaac Newton, and Shakespeare all exhibited some form of magical thinking. Writing them off categorically as evolutionary puppets of biology is more than foolish. It discards an enormous part of life's meaning. Do you worship God? Take a pill. But what if I worship art and music? Is there a pill for that?

The bald fact is that human beings aren't machines, and as detailed as MRIs and genome maps may get one day, they will never explain the meaning of existence. They will only reduce it to mechanisms that apply to tissues and cells, not to the whole person. We know that human beings aren't deterministic, which is where all this hard-wiring speculation is leading. Put into stressful situations, some people fall apart, others grow angry, still others escape, or go into a dozen patterns of response, ranging from delusion to imagination to profound reflection on the human condition. No one can deny this kind of diversity, nor can it be denied that machines have no interest in meaning, whereas we do. To call our craving for beauty, love, spiritual significance, and self-worth an evolutionary trait or the result of a genetic imprint is extremely foolish. Magical thinking can be harmless or pathological, as the article states. But it can also take one to the far horizon of consciousness. Magical thinking has prompted prophets and poets to go on spiritual journeys that changed the self in profound ways, and sometimes the world. If anything, we need more of it.

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