Saturday, November 26, 2005

Magical Thinking - by Owen

Kids ask a lot of questions.

If they get good answers (in their minds), then they quickly move on to the next questions, taking their newly learned information for granted.

If, for whatever reason, they don't get answers that satisfy them, they resort to what child psychologists call "magical thinking".

Magical thinking is when a kid decides that his sister grew from a seed planted in a "nursery" on top of the hospital, or that apples are made in an apple factory in the back of the grocery store, or that it rained because he did a rain dance, or that his grandmother got cancer because he (secretly) wondered if god was really REAL, and god got mad...

Magical thinking is what happens when there aren't clear answers to questions of how things work. Magical thinking is when supernatural answers are concocted for real world things that kids wonder about.

Magical thinking is often funny to grownups (like the nursery and the apple factory). Sometimes its sad (like the kid who think he killed his grandma). And sometimes it is very serious (like when under-educated teenagers think that they can have sex, and as long as they don't pray for a baby, then they won't get pregnant!).

The thing with Magical Thinking is that it is divorced from Reality. Magical answers do not refer to the actual workings of the real world, so, ironically, the answers have a certain stability. Imagining god as an invisible vengeful giant with super powers means that it is no surprise that you'll never see him (or her). Therefore, evidence is irrelevant! The rain dance might work sometimes and fail sometimes for lots of reasons. Perhaps you didn't dance hard enough this time... Better dance harder with more sincerity next time!

Something else about magical thinking: it's not confined to children. Many grownups have magical answers for things they don't really understand. The trouble with grownups is that they're much less likely to admit that their beliefs are silly, and take in new knowledge.

History is filled with magical stories invented by people who couldn't figure out what was going on in the world.

People believed that their cows got sick because the medicine woman must have cursed them.
They believed that the world was a big flat disk balancing on the back of a huge turtle.
OR that it was a big flat disk floating in nothingness, with a dome of heaven speckled with stars... (some people still believe this)
They believed that women had secret magical powers to produce babies.
Or that the world was a great big garden made for them to cultivate.
Or that epidemic diseases (or droughts, or hurricanes, or blizzards) were punishments from an angry god.
Or that Truth is transcendent and independent of human thought - we simply discover the abstract truth of the universe... (and, by the way, the other guys are wrong about it, we are the only ones who've got it right!)
Or that sitting around and thinking long enough and hard enough can give you the answers to any question (those silly greek philosophers).

Most modern people in industrialized nations like to think that they have left this kind of silliness behind them. But consider the following popular beliefs (maybe you believe some of these things, or know someone who does...):

-Aluminum pots caused alzheimer's disease (a rumour started by Jehovah's witnesses).
-You can't get pregnant the first time.
-You won't get a sexually transmitted infection if you know the person (but he's a friend of a friend! - or, but he said he didn't have anything!!).
-Deodorant gives you breast cancer.
-Natural medicines can't hurt you because they're natural.
-Extremely diluted potions of "medicine", if they're shaken up properly, get more powerful the more you dilute them (homeopathics).
-Pesticides don't harm humans, only bugs (and maybe birds, or maybe rats) - because humans are different from animals.
-Pesticides are safe for humans, because the government says so.
-Diseases are caused by imbalances in your energy field.
-You can lose weight by eating lots of meat and cheese and fat, as long as you don't eat carbs.
-God wants the Americans to win (popular among americans, at least).
-Doctors know it all, because they have Science on their side.
-Doctors don't know anything, because their intellects get in the way.
-Alternative medicine practitioners have deeper understanding of the human body because they are more spiritually advanced (more popular on the west coast...).
-Your good luck or bad luck today are determined by the movements of planets and stars (stars that were where we see them to be thousands of years ago, who'se light is just reaching the earth now...)
-A good attitude can keep you healthy.
-Praying for someone can make them get better.
-Eating more protein will make you stronger.
-Dying for the cause gets you straight into heaven (more popular in oppressed islamic countries with active fundamentalist organizations... but it has a certain appeal to a certain segment of the American public too).
...and on and on.

All of these beliefs are characterized by the following characteristics:

1) They do not refer to anything in the real world (observations made with the senses and confirmable by other human beings).
2) They are not backed up by facts (they do not fit into the system of knowledge generated through systematic observation and study).
3) They are not fleshed out in any detail (they are vague and abstract).
4) They are not believed by anyone who is educated in their subject matter (people who are professionally involved in actually knowing what is going on in that particular field).
5) They are believed by people who have not either a) never looked into it, or b) haven't learned how to research properly (which is most of us)

These particular beliefs are all imaginary answers to real world questions, each of which has actually been successfully answered!

The way out of magical thinking is exploration. Exploring the real world instead off sitting around and making up stories about it.

People found out the world was round, not flat, by sailing around it. Until they could sail around it, no one could be sure...

People found out that epidemics are caused by germs, not angry gods or nasty witches, by inventing microscopes and discovering germs. Until microscopes, no one could be sure...

People found out that the world is way way way older than humans, and that humans have only gardened for a really short while (hunting and gathering the rest of the time)... so the Earth was obviously not made to be a garden for humans (who didn't even exist when the earth came into being). Until paleontology... no one could be sure.

There are many other beliefs that aren't so easy to answer - that may not have been thoroughly investigated by professionals. These are harder to sort out, but it can still be done.

Nowadays, researchers are discovering many of the answers to really Big Questions that have been on the table for thousands of years! Many of the great philosophical questions are now being answered, one by one.


At 6:44 AM, Blogger Jungle Love said...

I particularly like the concept about colours at the end of the post. Human machinery have chosen to view colours in specific ways; wonder what life would have been like if we interpreted colours differently. Or had additional sensory perception into heat sensitivity, or the ability to perceive air densities or something. :)


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