Rationally speaking, is a presentation of New York City skeptics dedicated to promoting critical thinking, skeptical inquiry and science education. For more information, please visit us at NYC Skeptic's Doug. Welcome to, rationally speaking, the podcast, where we explore the borderlands between reason and nonsense, I am your host, Massimo Luchi, and with me, as always, is my co-host, Julia Gillard. Julia, why are we going to talk about today?
Massimo, we have a guest with us in studio today. I'd like to welcome Matthew Hutson to the show. Matthew is a science journalist in New York City. He has degrees in cognitive science and in science writing from Brown, MIT. And he was the news editor at Psychology Today for four years from 2006 to 2010. And he's also freelanced for a bunch of other great publications, including Wired Discover, Scientific American Mind and The New York Times Magazine.
And most recently, he has published a book called The Seven Laws of Magical Thinking, which we are going to explore in detail during the episode. Welcome Mat. Great to be here.
So, Matt, what's the basic idea? Superstition is good.
Well, I started out not with the idea to argue that superstition is good. I basically wanted to explain explain superstition.
I argue that we all have a tendency to believe in magic on at least some deep level.
We all tend to believe in things like luck and God and life after death and Essence's and and destiny and karma and that sort of thing. So first, I just wanted to try to figure out why this type of irrationality is so common.
And then I wanted to look at what the effects are, what are the upsides and the downsides. And to me, the more surprising aspect was that there are some upsides, even though these are illusions, there are some benefits to these illusions.
So can you give us an example of a good superstition? So the belief in luck, for instance, there's one study I like to cite in which subjects were given a golf ball and asked to make ten golf putts, and half the subjects were told that the golf ball was a lucky golf ball and these subjects actually made thirty five percent more successful golfers than the other subjects. So just feeling lucky increase their self efficacy and increase their performance.
And then there were other studies by the same researchers showing that when people had a lucky charm or when they were wished good luck, they performed better on other cognitive or physical tasks.
Now, just to make sure I know that there is no suggestion that there actually is such a thing as luck or trauma or suffering.
So what's the mechanism that then that causes that effect when people believe that they're lucky? But what actually is making the difference?
So the researchers found that it increased self efficacy. People felt more self-confident. And so when you feel more self-confident, you're more likely to set higher goals for yourself and you're more likely to persist when you encounter difficulties.
I, I remember a quote from the physicist Niels Bohr, who had some lucky charm nailed to his door. I believe it was a horse or a horse.
You thank you. And his fellow physicists were surprised to see this lucky charm on the door of such a brilliant physicist. And they asked, Surely you don't believe in this? And bore, at least according to the story, replied, Of course not. But I hear it works even if you don't believe in it.
Yes, but you're right. It actually works if you do believe me, if you believe it. Yeah. So that's the point I make. And I mention that that that anecdote and I say that it's sort of the opposite. It works only if you believe it.
So so just to be clear here, the kind of superstition you're talking about is is not the the stuff that skeptics tend to focus on, like astrology and and the secret, for example, or would you would you consider that more blatant?
You do so.
And is your general attitude that, uh, superstition has benefits, but that the net effect is not necessarily positive? Or is it or do you actually think the net effect of superstition is positive?
It's hard to say what the net effect is. All I'm saying is that there are some positive effects. And as I said, that to me was the more surprising element. I grew up well until I was 10 or so.
I went to church every week and I was Christian. And then I became an atheist and a very outspoken atheist when I was a kid and sort of I argued with everyone who believed in God and who believed in anything supernatural and and said that it was all negative and there are no positive sides to it. And so I'm coming from that position where it's interesting to think that, oh, maybe it's it's not so bad and maybe this does things for people.
But that's an interesting analogy right there. So, you know, I consider myself an atheist and I suppose by certain people's standards are pretty outspoken.
But nonetheless, I wonder why. But but. Yeah, there was this a little skeptical reaction from Julia there anyway. Nonetheless, I never bought into the idea that religion doesn't have any positive effect. Right. I mean, that's that seems flatly contradicted by the empirical evidence, both anecdotal and actually systematic. There is there's all sorts of things, good things, the good effects that religious beliefs do have. I mean, these are sort of all sorts of, you know, charity donations, for instance, are remarkably higher among people who are religious to consider themselves religious than people that are not, for one thing.
And if you think that a charitable donation is a good thing now, you can argue that point on charitable donations here and good donations to their church. Right. Am I wrong about that?
They probably do. But I think it's I think the way they ought to go. I'm referring to the study that I'm referring to that actually calculated the sort of that the fact of the kind of the amount of money that actually goes into charitable work, whether it's done by religious organization or not.
OK, now, the other thing is, of course, religious organizations themselves do work that often is socially useful and socially has a socially positive impact. So the whole idea that just because it comes from a religious organization or from from a church is therefore inherently bad and ultimately negative. I found that one of the things that I've ever heard from from atheists and unfortunately it is a pretty widespread belief among atheists.
That said, one could easily also counter argue that, OK, fine, but but since it's not the religion per say that that cause causes those effects, there are all sorts of reasons why people might want to do charitable things. There are lots of reasons that the mind use people to behave in a certain way rather than another.
So clearly, although religion is one way to achieve that goal because it does in fact have equally obvious negative effects, perhaps we should look for other ways of incentivizing people to do certain things. So wouldn't the same applied for the idea that superstition used to? I mean, perhaps it is.
In fact, I should drop to perhaps the empirical evidence is pretty clear that it is under certain circumstances, but maybe we can find ways to make people work harder and and be more effective at what they're doing without actually telling them that their golf balls are magical. Yeah. So that's that's a good point. Some of the benefits that are achieved through magical thinking, such as a sense of control or a sense of meaning in life, can be achieved through secular beliefs.
It's unclear which one works better in any given situation.
So that's something that's an area where we definitely need need more research.
So the idea is that there may be certain areas where there is no substitute or no no equally efficacious substitute. It's possible there could be situations where magical thinking is the most effective tool in your toolbox.
But did your research actually show that there are some other examples that are already known of that? That's what I'm asking you guys.
Or is it I mean, I grant you that it's a possibility, but I don't know of any clear experiments where they take a magical belief and a secular belief that both have the same goal and see which one is more effective in the way that you would test like two different medications against each other. Yeah, I don't know of any clear cases of that, but people do rely on magical thinking so frequently in life. I mean, it's such a common thing around the world and throughout human history, forms of religion and superstition and mystical beliefs.
So that suggests one advantage possibly of magical thinking is that it's so intuitive and that it comes as a second nature that you just you can automatically think that something is lucky before you then start to question whether luck is real or you can assume that something meant to happen, for instance, and that will provide you a sense of meaning in life before you even, you know, try to think about, OK, how should I find meaning in this so magical thinking?
And it's you know, it's a tool that can be used and it's ubiquity suggests that it's a very convenient tool.
How much stock do you put in the idea that we can be like selectively irrational and in the cases where we expect it to benefit us, but not irrational in the cases where we don't like? It just seems like that. I know I I cannot do that. It's possible other people can, but it seems like it would require such a high level of doublethink to to think something and not think it at the same time. It like a couple of people that would fit that description, a high level of.
Well, thanks, but yeah. Go ahead. I mean, so I'm not talking about people who compartmentalize and places and rational and others because obviously that's widespread, if not universal. It's just I'm talking about like thinking at some level about when you should be irrational and when you should not, and trying to make a rational decision about when to be irrational and then somehow forget that you made that decision. How does the. Work, do you have any insight into this?
That's a good question, how basically how can we fool ourselves and to what degree can we fool ourselves when one example, one personal example of this is knocking on wood? I tend to knock on wood. If I say something that I think would you know, it seems as if it could jinx myself, even though I don't believe in Jinx's, then I'll have a natural reaction to knock on wood and it eases my anxiety. It just makes me feel better.
I know that it doesn't have any direct physical effects on my fortunes that are not mediated by my own thoughts and behaviors, but I do it anyway.
And so it's the kind of thing where part of me believes this is B.S. and then part of me believes, you know, I should do this. And so you can have these two parts of yourself and they can sit next to each other and you can strategically say, OK, I'm going to do I'm rationally deciding to perform this irrational behavior for a cause, for an unknown outcome.
So don't be like, look, I'm sorry, I can't be reduced anxiety. Yeah. That would be like exploding consciously exploding a placebo effect. Exactly.
Yeah. Yeah. But hasn't there actually been research showing that placebos work even if people know that they're placebos. Right.
Which so I read that and then I, I wondered whether that only works if you know that placebos work, even if you know that they're placebos.
It could be sort of an iterative thing. Right. How many layers of self deception do you want to add? Yes.
Yeah, that's the weird thing about a lot of this stuff that unless you're you're actually believing or trying to get yourself to believe some some some empirically wrong fact about like physics or, you know, the chain of causality in this case, unless you're doing that, all you're really believing is if I believe this, then it will happen.
And if that is true, then it's sort of this weird, like superposition of rational or irrational there where like, yeah, you know, it's irrational, but then comes true and therefore it was correct and you were correct to believe it.
So it's rational, but a self-fulfilling prophecy. Yeah. So I think it's actually not as hard as it as it might seem in that our natural inclination is to believe in magic and to believe in destiny or luck or these sorts of things.
And so it's a matter of allowing yourself to go along for the ride and and sort of not dampen down not not suppress these intuitions.
So. Well, let's explore it for a second. Actually, these this idea of natural magic and natural belief in magic. So, um, first of all, from an empirical standpoint, are we claiming that belief in magic is natural because it's, I don't know, present across cultures? Is it? It's certainly not universal among human beings. I mean, there are some people who don't actually believe in magic. Right.
Well, I should I should clarify what I mean by magical thinking. Yes. That would be a good idea for a couple of it.
OK, so when I talk about magical thinking or magical beliefs, I'm not referring just to explicit conscious beliefs. I'm also referring to biases or intuitions or or feelings or, you know, if you have a sort of a subtle sense that something supernatural might be happening, even if you can consciously reason yourself out of it. So, for instance, my knocking on wood, even though I can reason that knocking on wood is is, you know, not is B.S., I would still count that as an example of subtle, magical thinking.
I think this is really interesting because it forces us to break down a little bit our concept of what it means to have a belief that there are a lot of things like we might act as if we have a belief, but if we never consciously think that thing, I mean, at a certain point, this is a question about semantics, like do we want to call that a belief or not?
It doesn't matter that much except for, you know, the utility of communicating with other people. But but it does at least show that that belief is not as clear cut a concept as one might naively think.
No. And in fact, there is there is actually a fairly large literature in philosophy about the concept of belief and the different aspects of it. I mean, yes, you're right. To some extent that becomes a matter of semantics, but it is actually a matter of making interesting distinctions. I think, for instance, the one you just pointed out, the distinction between a conscious belief in an unconscious belief, you know, you may or may not want to use the same word, their belief, but you certainly want to qualify because clearly the fact that I have a certain bias, unconscious bias or way of reacting to certain things is very different from the fact that I'm holding on a certain notion because I thought about it and reflected.
And I and I sat at the. That is actually something that makes sense, yeah, regardless whether we use the word belief in both cases or not, there's some very distinct things.
Yeah, I actually I feel a little confused about what's going on. Belief wise, when I get really wrapped up in a story, you know, I it sort of feels like some part of my brain believes that that these people are real people, which is why I care about them. But I feel like I could also quite possibly describe what's going on. Is my brain imagining what if it were the case that such and such, how sad would that be?
I don't actually know.
I don't know what which way of describing what's happening is more correct.
And I don't know what kind of evidence I could look at to to indicate which of those descriptions are correct.
There's a philosopher at Yale named Margot Gendler, who uses a separate word for this type of belief called Alief.
Yeah, actually, yes.
Like when if you're watching a movie and you become engrossed in the movie or one example she uses as if you're walking on the glass platform that hangs out over the edge of the Grand Canyon, and you feel terrified.
If you're scared, it's the Alief that you're in danger.
Yeah, I'm really I've read about this and I'm really interested in discordance between our beliefs and beliefs.
And sometimes it's a case where our our belief is actually correct that we won't fall from this bridge, whereas our alif is incorrect and other times it's the reverse that our like.
So, for example, you might you might think that you believe that you will go to heaven when you die and you might like reflectively endorse that belief, but you don't act as if you believe it because you would, you know, feel happy when people die who are virtuous because they're, you know, in bliss for the rest of eternity now. But you don't actually feel that way. And that's sort of an indication that your alif might be different from your belief.
Yeah. That we hear that as is, I think, short for anticipation.
So it's like what what your anticipation is about the world indicate about this unconscious belief.
And that's an interesting example of whatever, because that's an example where actually you alif makes more sense than your belief.
Yeah, exactly. That's right. Right. So I was trying to contrast that to the case of walking on the glass bridge where your belief makes more sense than fear right now.
So let's go back to what counts as magic. So now you don't think, however, that every bias, for instance, let's say cognitive bias, would count this as magic? Right.
OK, so the way to find it in the book is it's the attribution of mental properties to non mental phenomena or non mental properties to mental phenomena. So a case of the former would be believing that things happen for a reason, believing that natural things in the world have some sort of inherent intention in them, and example that the latter would be believing that your thoughts can have direct causal influence on the world through mind over matter and the law of attraction, that sort of thing, or the idea that your thoughts can contaminate something and be transmitted as some sort of essence through contact.
Right. So the first one would be a case of what then then it calls an intentional stance, right? Yeah. So the idea that we project agency on to things that don't necessarily have agency. Yeah.
That seems to be one of the most plausible explanations for the very origin of supernatural beliefs to begin with, part of the origin of of century, the kind of belief that eventually led to to religion. So hyper attracted agency detection. Correct.
And now the argument has been made, as you know, that that tendency to project agency is possibly evolved because it was somewhat adaptive.
Right. The difficult scenario there is well, if you're walking in the middle of the forest and you've been you hear the leaves moving, it could be the wind. There could be a predator. You know, if it's the wind, which is clearly agentive cause and you go with that explanation.
But it turns out there was actually an agent, there was actually a predator after you then your dinner. And that's that's the end of the story. If you make the opposite mistake. On the other hand. Well, if you'd lost it, you know, you've got to scare a little bit. But it turns out it was, in fact, the wind.
But wouldn't hyper agented thinking there be thinking that the wind was was intentionally ruffling the leaves?
Ah, well, the idea is that if it is in fact the wind, you don't. But your immediate reaction is that you don't think it's the wind, that you immediately think that it's a predator, even if it is in fact the wind. Right. So that you tend to assume that your default assumption is that there is an agent behind.
I think there's sort of two similar but different concept concepts here. So one would be anthropomorphism. Yeah. So as Stuart Guthrie, the anthropologist, has written, it's better to mistake a boulder for a bear that to a bear for a boulder. Yeah, but nice concise way of putting it.
Yes. And then treating the. And not as an animal, but treating the wind as caused by some sort of intentionality, like maybe God is blowing on the trees, that would be teleology would be seen some phenomena in the world, not as an agency in itself, but as the effect of some sort of agency.
I was going to ask about that because some forms of magical thinking, it wasn't clear to me how they fit into the definition of of intentionality, like believing that there's some plan, for example, that that things things were fated to happen a certain way.
Does that count as intentionality in the world?
I believe so. OK, I'm counting under that umbrella seeing anything in the world as being caused by some sort of mind.
I don't know if fate implies I mean, I can't tell exactly what people are thinking when they think they believe in fate, but it didn't seem necessarily tied to like a conscious entity.
Well, if it's if we're talking about, I guess, determinism where things are just sort of preordained in terms of billiard balls, you know, one thing physically causing another, then that wouldn't be magical thinking.
But if it's fate, as in some sort of supernatural entity wanted something to happen and know if it's not clear, thinking of things like this is the person I was meant to be with.
You know, I don't know what you mean by magical thinking. Yeah. Because then the question of if you think this too well, they may not.
As we said earlier, it's not that I Kati's to have a monopoly on not being wrong about. Oh. Right now. But I wanted to explore this idea that atheists are guilty of thinking evangelicalism. Yeah. Yeah.
I was just trying to separate that form of thinking magically from the belief in some kind of supernatural entity.
But I wanted to comment on the distinction between faith and determinism, actually, because that is an interesting one, that and there's a fairly clear distinction in Julie's right that, you know, it's sometimes sometimes somewhat vague what people actually mean by by faith.
But there is even within philosophical traditions, there is a very clear distinction there, which is determinism certainly does not imply any conscious agents. So you can be a thoroughgoing materialist and say, OK, the universe just goes by mechanical laws. And whatever is happening now, this conversation was bound to happen from the Big Bang. And that's it. You know, in the story that doesn't have anything to do actually with fate. The idea of fate is that actually there is a particular plan of action.
There's a particular way in which events are supposed to to go so that anything that deviates from that plan is somehow counteracted by whatever agency is in charge of the fate thing. So this is the classic idea of the Greek tragedies, right? That the Greek tragic hero is somebody who knows. Let's he's told that he's going to kill his mother and his father and Mary's mother. And so he goes away and starts traveling to avoid his fate and then somehow, in fact, manages still without knowing who killed his father, Mary's mother.
Yes. So that's the idea there is that it doesn't matter where you go. Somehow the universe, the gods or whatever it is. So congeries things up so that you're going to go back to the way you were supposed to go.
You know what I love about Hollywood's take on that trope? They basically preserve that whole you can escape your fate, except you can escape it if you have to love that movie.
But that's what you break out of your are.
The basic idea, therefore, is that for determinists, it wouldn't make any sense to say, oh, you're trying to escape. There's no way to escape fate.
It's just one trajectory. And that's that's the end of the story for somebody who believes in fate. On the other hand, there may be different trajectories, but they're all going to converge. And there are certain points in that in your existence or in history, they're going to happen anyway, regardless of what else you might do before that.
So it's totally logical reason Palios is Greek for an end like so there's some sort of end or purpose in mind. And, you know, if you deviate from some path and it's all sort of like a like a river, it's all going to head towards the same, you know, tributary now.
So what I was going to do with bringing up the idea of of the evolution of or the alleged evolution of agency projection, and I say alleged because as our listeners know, I tend to be somewhat skeptical of evolutionary psychological ideas about claims about where things come from biologically, not because they're implausible.
Nessus, I mean, I find this one particularly plausible, for instance, but because it's hard or or next to impossible to actually find evidence of that. I mean, one would have to have some way to measure the fitness effect in places in times of how many times you. He thought people thought that they had people who had a tendency to think in a Gentec way, did they actually have survive and have more children? And I don't know that it seems plausible, but it's OK to run human evolution over different circumstances.
It's the kind of thing that it's not feasible. So but still, if one doesn't consider those explanations sort of to raise the level of science, but but only to the level of plausibility, OK, this is a plausible scenario.
Now, where do you see so in your mind is all magical thinking of that type? In other words, does magical thinking also plausibly derive from the fact that it was advantageous at some point in the past?
Clearly, a lot of magical thinking is at least a side effect of adaptive features of cognition.
So, for instance, the way that we intuitively judge causality, for instance, the sort of if A is before A, B and A is related to B and there's no other obvious cause of B, then we judge that A probably cause B, even if it doesn't really make logical, even if you know A is your thought about an event, you'll still have this intuition that your thought is called event B, that's enough of a relation.
So when you say it is related to B, you don't mean has some plausible causal connection conceptually related to that event and then the event happens then know, which translates into a standard logical fallacy.
Although it works pretty well a lot of the time, which I guess is all that is needed for it to become an intuition and human brain. Exactly.
So we just have these heuristics that are very adaptive in many situations and then sometimes as a side effect of having these mental shortcuts, they lead to these sort of irrational beliefs in God or mind over matter or that sort of thing.
So then the question is, do then those side effects, do they become adaptive in themselves and does evolution select for those things and themselves?
So, for instance, if God is or if belief in God is a side effect of hyperactive agency detection, is there then some advantage to belief in a supernatural God that then helps us survive and reproduce?
And some psychologists have argued that there is some advantage. And so now evolution has been selecting for for some of these natural I don't honestly to be even more skeptical, that kind of conclusion than that.
The first order for for for reasons that go first of all, that's a derived hypothesis. So evolutionary path, which means that if I'm already skeptical, of course, of the base hypothesis, I'm going to be even more skeptical. There's going to be even more difficult to test. But the other thing is that once we get into these somewhat highly abstract notions, such as, you know, the concept of religion or the concept of omnipotent God and that sort of stuff down, now you're getting into into areas where certainly cultural evolution had a major hand.
Right now, I don't believe the culture is entirely independent of biological evolution, but I do think that there is a very good argument that one can make that the closer in time you get to modern time, the more its things happen because of cultural evolution and not because of biological evolution. Simply in terms of the timescales, for one thing. Yeah, you know, over the last few thousands of years, that human genome hasn't changed that much and that bacteria is in fact a biological fact that any any explanation of these kinds of phenomena has to take into consideration.
Now, however, I want to go back to to the broader question of, OK, so so far we have that superstitious behavior, at least under certain conditions, can, in fact, be advantageous. I'm using the word advantageous, not in the sense of natural selection, but in the sense of, you know, if you want to do better at golf, you better believe that your your ball is magic, helping the individual, not the genes.
That's right. Exactly. So we're not talking about cultural stuff, cultural achievements, not not genetic ones, OK? What we don't know, however, according to your research, one important thing, which is whether or not how much the same effect can actually be accomplished by different means. That's open to empirical empirical question.
We also don't know much about or do we that I guess that that's my my next question is, do we know much about the tradeoff that is OK, believing in magic will allow you to do better at golf, but what else would you do that it's actually going to negatively affect what your life or your quality of life or the way you behave and so on.
So, yeah, there are obvious tradeoffs. It's difficult to measure one versus the other.
So, for instance, believing in destiny or fate, it can give you a sense that there's meaning in life and it can help you deal with setbacks. Or it can. Help you deal with trauma, if you sense that maybe a trauma was meant to happen, then it might be easier to find a silver lining and you can sort of deal with it better and better and adjust better. So that would be an upside to believe in destiny or fate.
But then a downside might be if something bad happens to you, you might also happen to have the reaction that the world is working against you.
And maybe this is a sign that you weren't meant to go down a certain path in life. So in every aspect of magical thinking, there, there can be pluses and minuses and it's very difficult to measure. Exactly. OK, this has will give 10 points to this positive effect, then minus 10 points to this other other effect. So there are two obvious objections there. One. One is that has been raised in the context by skeptics, in the context of things like notions like the secret that is that that kind of attitude implies essentially a blaming of the victim.
Right. So if everything is in fact true that positive thinking will bring good stuff to you, then by conversion has to be true that if you've got negative stuff going on in your life, it's your fault. You were not positive enough. You were not you know, you were not able to to conjure up the right cosmic situation and so that you got the cancer. I mean, I actually just saw today before coming down for for this episode, I saw a cartoon that sort of encapsulated this idea that was the image was of this person in the middle of of the ocean surrounded by sharks.
And somebody else was, on the other hand, safe voices shouting from distance, just picturing yourself surviving this and then make it happen.
So it's like, OK, so there's that up that that issue, which you're right, it's difficult to to sort of quantify, although I suppose it's possible. You know, social scientists do all sorts of interesting things with these with these problems. And I suspect that the reason we might not have found much research in that area is because not that many people actually working on the effect of superstitions and trade offs and so on.
But that's one thing. The other objection is more, if you will, philosophical, but it's related to it. So, again, when you mentioned fate a minute ago and so one of the philosophical objections to philosophies of life that are based, that incorporate an idea of fate, fate such as many Eastern philosophies in the Western tradition, stoicism is that they engender a passive attitude towards social problems. Right.
So the Stoics, for instance, were known for this idea that that, you know, there's a lot of things you cannot change in in the way things work, which they derive from the idea effect. They thought that there was a universal plan and the universe was going in one direction or another. And therefore, if you couldn't do certain things, that's because it was not meant to be. Now, the result of that and so their idea, their approach to this was, look, about those things you shouldn't be worried about or you shouldn't be.
That should not cause you pain or anything, because that pain is simply a result of your attitude. You should change your attitude since you cannot change the thing in itself. You change your attitude.
Well, that sounds nice and sort of positive until you realize that that's also a recipe for a passive activity or social change. So that means, well, there is a problem in society I was meant to be, and I'm not going to be able to do anything about it.
So so there's this concept of negotiable fate, which is the idea that.
Yeah, so it's kind of a combination between primary control, which is adapting your environment to fit your needs and secondary control, which is adapting yourself to fit your environment. So the idea is you change what you can and the rest you accept.
That seems to be an eminently reasonable position, but I doubt it. Yeah, exactly. I mean, that's not a, you know, superstitious idea of a general general concept.
Now, I have this model of the relationship between rationality and effectiveness or happiness.
And I think that one common mistake that's made is people talk about rationality is one thing like you're either rational or you're not. Whereas I think it's much more realistic to model rationality as consisting of dozens or hundreds of different components. And different combinations of those various components can make you better off to different degrees or not make you better off at all, or even in some cases make you worse off.
And so this seems sort of like a case where if you have the rationality module that allows you to realize that there isn't any built in purpose to the universe, that might make you actually worse off if you don't also have the rationality module that. As as Irwin Edmonds said, quote, The discovery that the universe has no purpose, need not prevent a human being from having one. So you don't have that piece of rationality and you just have the former, then that could make you laugh.
But I don't know that that's a knock against rationality, period.
Just a warning about incomplete rationality.
Yeah, I would call that the rational use of irrationality, which is.
Yeah. So this is goes back to what we were talking about earlier. We're sort of using the placebo effect on yourself, tricking yourself into believing a certain thing.
So acknowledging, OK, there's no purpose in the world, but I'm going to go ahead and believe that I have a purpose because it gives me a calling and that so irrationally deciding to hold that irrational.
Oh, I think that well, at least the way I interpreted the Edmond quote was that you can choose to the purpose for yourself, not that you can irrationally believe that you have some guilt and purpose. Yeah, I wanted before we close, I wanted to ask about something in you.
You have this great article in The New York Times Sunday Review from April, uh, sort of outlining some of the points of your book. And towards the end, you say magical. You say all of these benefits of magical thinking don't necessarily imply that there isn't a downside to magical thinking. At its worst, it can lead to obsession, fatalism or psychosis. You say and then you say. But without it, the existential angst of realizing we're just impermanent clusters of molecules with no ultimate purpose would overwhelm us.
Do you have you not met people who who really viscerally have internalized like reductionism and physicalism, everything and and yet are still perfectly like Happy End and enjoy life and are motivated because it's a trick question that was rhetorical.
I mean, I feel like one of those myself, essentially not that I think I've gotten rid of every, like, instinctive piece of magical thinking. But when I when I think about the world as having no purpose, as just being, you know, made of smaller, unconscious, unthinking pieces interacting with each other, that doesn't bother me. Like, it doesn't actually make me give me this existential despair that you seem to be assuming it gives everyone.
So I would argue that perhaps there is a layer of magical thinking that you're not recognizing. You're interesting. So, for instance, dualism sense that or Cartesian specifically the sense that when you die, that's not completely it and some part of you will live on. And I accept that.
I think that we maybe have accepted it logically and not accepted it logically. But I think there is still some intuitive part of us that is dualistic that we can't completely get rid of and that it might be buffering our existential.
So this can be to some degree, of your knocking on wood, even though you know that it doesn't work. So, yeah, the example may be, for instance, an atheist who even though he knows that there is no life after death or something like that, is still going to be concerned about what's going to happen to his body if he dies or something like that.
How would I know if I have this, like, subconscious intuition, like, is this testable?
So there's a field called terror management theory that explores what's called symbolic immortality, which is the belief that we will live on through our acts in the world or creating some sort of transcendent meaning.
And so there are ways of if you provide people a sense of or give people the sense that they will live on through their creative acts in the world and then measure how they react to reminders of death.
For instance, you can see that that type of of prompt reduces their anxiety about death. So that's sort of a subtle way of getting at these subconscious beliefs.
So have you heard the quote from Woody Allen who said, I don't want to achieve immortality through my work, I want to achieve immortality through not dying?
Yes, that that's that's that's about the immortality. Now, I have one more thing that I guess to add to this thing, which is we have not actually gone into that much, which is this. So let's say that we grant all the basic points. There is there is a fair and measurable effect, empirically measurable effect, positive effect of of magical thinking. Now, let's assume for a moment that further research would even demonstrate that the tradeoffs are not necessarily overwhelming, at least in some cases.
Um, OK, then there is a question of value or whatever. So there is a question of what else we value in life, because basically most of our discussion has been instrumental. That is, you know, if if believing that the ball is magical allows me to win my my game at golf, then, you know, that's a good thing. But in so doing, I accept consciously or unconsciously or I exploit a falsehood. So one objection there to the whole idea of sort of re-evaluating supernatural magical thinking is, yes, but but now what you're doing is you're dropping from the scheme of things a value which is truth.
Right. And so now you're saying basically anything goes as long as I can achieve the goal, whatever works. Now, for some people, that may be fine, but other people may have an objection based on the fact that that what is instrumentally rational depends on your values, at least in part on your values, not just on your objectives. Right. Because otherwise, all of our actions would be, in fact, instrumental and manifestly not. Sometimes we don't do something that is actually good for us in certain respects because we hold certain values that sort of overwhelm or override.
So this gets into, I guess, utilitarianism versus Christology. That's right. So. So you think that this is a that that that utilitarians would be more sympathetic to a rescuing, a supernatural thinking than, say, the anthologist or this?
This is a complex question in that we only have 30 seconds to answer. So go ahead.
OK, so rationality is one is one value that is important to, you know, hold dear. But there are also other values, for instance, irrationality. Without irrationality, there would be no love, for instance, when we got there.
Oh, man. How can you say that thing when we have 10 seconds left? So I'm just going to hold that thought up.
I will I will link on the website to a talk that I gave called the Star Vulcan in which I explicitly engage with that argument. OK.
So please, God, no love. Or for instance, what love is a value. I'm not sure that that it is. And I think that's what I think falling in love at least, is a form of insanity, temporary insanity.
It certainly has been defined that way. Yeah, that's true.
But there are some perhaps one one one of the things that's been missing then then here is the idea that there is actually a space in between rationality, indeed rationality. There are certain things that are simply irrational. They're not rational in the sense that there's no particular reason to do it or a particular better way to do it. But they're not necessarily irrational, meaning that they don't actually involve any contradictions or any any any any negative course of action or any problematic course of action followed.
But perhaps could be one of those people conflate irrational and irrational, right?
Yeah, that is something some choices are irrational. I mean, the fact that the obvious example is the fact that I prefer dark chocolate over any other kind of chocolate, it's not rational or irrational. It's just erratic. It's got nothing to do with it. It's just a matter of taste. Now, I still don't understand why anybody would eat anything other than dark chocolate. But, you know, and I can probably I feel like I could make an argument that dark chocolate ought to be the thing to be right.
But I can do that.
I cannot do it because, in fact, it is, in fact, an irrational thing now. And there's also another another problem here. We may need to distinguish between reason and rationality. So I may have reasons why I say fall in love with somebody, but that may actually turn out to be an irrational decision because perhaps it you know, it actually and it ended up being a predictable wreck or it's going to cost me a lot emotionally or financially or whatever.
So you may have reasons, meaning that if you ask me, why did you fall in love with that person again?
Exactly. Exactly. It's not insanity. Like, I can give you reasons, but the fact is that those reasons actually lead to a course of action, that it turns out to be fundamentally irrational or instrumentally irrational.
Yeah, exactly. Well, this is actually really interesting.
But if I let this conversation go on any longer than I mean, I give up my opportunity to make this travel an argument, but for not so. So for that reason, I'm going to get a thought now and we will move on to to hear that, rationally speaking, Pich.
Welcome back every episode with a suggestion for our listeners that has tickled our rational fancy. This time we ask our guest, Matt Hudson, for his suggestion.
So I'm going to mention three books that I would recommend to other people who are interested in magical thinking and who are sort of general readers. The first one is Believing in Magic The Psychology of Superstition by Stuart Vyse. This is from 1997 and it's from an academic press. So it's a little bit more academic, but it would actually make a good introductory book for a psychology course and talk a little bit about scientific methods and psychology and that sort of thing.
The second one is by one of the psychologists that I whose work I cite in my book, same as Bruce Hood, and the book is Super Sense Why We Believe in the Unbelievable. And he's done a lot of work on children and beliefs and essences and magical contagion and then also voodoo. And then the third one is by Jesse bearing. It's the belief, instinct, the psychology of soul's destiny and the meaning of life that came out last year.
And here's another psychologist whose work I mentioned in this book, specifically in talking about belief in life after death. And he's a very funny writer.
So if you're interested in magical thinking and you want to pick up three books on the topic that are engaging and pretty comprehensive, I would recommend those three.
Thanks, Matt. And we will post links to all of those three on the rationally speaking podcast website. That wraps it up for this episode of Rationally Speaking. Thanks so much for joining us on the show, Matt. Thanks for having me. It's great. It a pleasure. Join us next time for more explorations on the borderland between reason and nonsense.
The rationally speaking podcast is presented by New York City skeptics for program notes, links, and to get involved in an online conversation about this and other episodes, please visit rationally speaking podcast Dog. This podcast is produced by Benny Pollack and recorded in the heart of Greenwich Village, New York. Our theme, Truth by Todd Rundgren, is used by permission. Thank you for listening.