Magical Thinking

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Arthur C. Clarke propounded that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic” (Clarke’s third law). Certainly, we have reached the point where our own technology seems magical to some. We can communicate instantly with almost anyone almost anywhere on the globe. We have devices that can pinpoint our position on the earth within a few dozen feet and calculate a route for us to follow to get to any destination, even taking into account heavy traffic and road construction. Computing technology has advanced so quickly that science fiction can no longer stay ahead of it. The blinking lights and toggle switches of thirty years ago feel almost as ancient now as wooden water wheels and ox-drawn plows. Computer interfaces have become increasingly simple. We will soon have interfaces that can understand a wide range of spoken languages, perhaps even translating on the fly. These technologies, which seemed far-fetched only a few decades ago, are now within our grasp.

Nevertheless, there is an important difference between technology and magic that has enabled even the most primitive cultures to easily grasp that the wonders of modern technology are man-made, not magical. Put simply it is this: technology works according to easily accessible principles of cause and effect, but magic works by performing rituals that have no discernible connection to the desired outcome.

The difference between technology and magic is the difference between scientific thinking and magical thinking. For example, suppose I give you a little box with a button on it, and I tell you that every time you press the button, your garage door will open if it is closed or close if it is open. Can you test this assertion? Certainly. You press the button and see if the garage door opens. Wow! It works! But how does it work? You try pressing the button when you’re at a friend’s house. Nothing happens. You try pressing it when you’re on a nearby hill where you can see the garage. Nothing happens. You learn with a little experimentation that you have to be within about 150 feet for the button to work. Perhaps you examine the garage and see a motor that activates when you press the button. The motor is attached to a chain, and the chain is attached to your garage door. When the motor activates, it raises or lowers the door. You can do all this and see all this knowing nothing about radio waves, yet you know that what you are seeing is not magic. It is technology. It works; it obeys simple rules; you can see some of the connections that make the system operate.

Now, suppose you give me a little box with a button on, but you tell me that pressing the button will give me healing hands so that the next person I touch will be healed of a disease. I decide to try it out, and it seems to work. Everyone I touch after pressing the button gets better. A few get better right away, but most get better after several days. Another few get better after many days or even a stay in the hospital. Still, I have good success with the button, and I begin to believe in its power. Then somebody I touch after using the button dies a few days later. Maybe there are limits to the power of the button. It doesn’t always work, but neither does your garage door opener.

So what is the difference? When I use the button, I do not see any discernible pattern in how I use it and the results I get. Sure, almost everyone gets better, but perhaps they would have gotten better anyway. In addition, I don’t see any connection between my use of the button and any other phenomenon. When you press your button, you can see a motor activate and see how it connects to the door and raises it. For me to believe in the effectiveness of my button in the face of objections requires magical thinking. Somehow, pressing the button imparts healing power to my hands. I don’t know how it works; I can’t explain it, but I know when I touch people after pressing the button they get better.

It may seem that only religious people are subject to magical thinking, but this is not so. Nearly everyone at some time or other has tried to influence events outside there control by observing some kind of ritual. People of no particular religion talk about gremlins getting into their computer or about how some good deed they have done gives them a karmic edge in a competition. Sometimes when I am driving with my daughter, and she doesn’t want to be delayed by any traffic lights, she will intone as we approach a red light, “Turn green. Turn green.” If the light turns green before we get to it, she will claim that she made it turn green. Of course, if I seriously pressed her, she would acknowledge that she can’t control traffic lights, but in more desperate circumstances, people are willing to try more desperate measures even if they doubt their efficacy.

Magical thinking doesn’t merely claim ignorance; it claims that the connection between ritual and outcome is unknowable or inexplicable. Scientific thinking may well claim ignorance, but it will also insist on devising experiments with a testable hypothesis to see just how a particular cause produces an observed effect. Magical thinking ignores or suppresses evidence; scientific thinking welcomes evidence.

We know now about diseases caused by microbes. People used to think they were caused by evil spirits. Microbes are invisible; so are evil spirits. Overcoming microbes requires expert intervention (a doctor); so does overcoming evil spirits (a priest or shaman). But microbes can be seen if we have the right instruments. They can be cultivated. We can discover what they need to survive and what wastes they produce. We can’t do any of that with evil spirits. This is not to say that spirits do not exist. It is to say that we should not expect to find physical evidence of spiritual phenomena. Someone who claims that the spiritual world does not exist because there is no physical evidence for it, is like a deaf man who refuses to believe in music because no one can tell him what color it is.

Belief in a spiritual world, however, should not make us think that we can control the physical world through ritual observances—any ritual observances. Prayer has no measurable effect on the physical world. Why should it? The purpose of prayer is not to give Christians control of the world but to give God control of the Christians. If we live in obedience to him, with our minds tuned to his Spirit, then we will transform the world. If we think that living by biblical principles is a means to worldly wealth and prosperity, then we will become conformed to the world and nothing good will come of us.

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