In 1937, E. E. Evans Pritchard published a seminal work of anthropology entitled Witchcraft, Oracles and Magic Among the Azande. Pritchard had been studying the Azande, a people living along the upper Nile, for eleven years. In it, he recorded the interesting case of someone who cast a death spell on another member of the tribe. The victim died soon afterwards, killed without warning by a collapsing roof.
The curious Pritchard soon discovered that this roof had been riddled with termites. When he brought this to the attention of the tribe, and asked whether they still believed the spell had worked, they replied, well, of course.
“But it wasn’t the spell that collapsed the roof!” said Pritchard. “It was termites!”
“Yes,” said the people of the tribe. “But how did it just happen to fall at that time, when the victim was under it?”
No one disagreed about the proximate cause of the event. The question was whether the timing of the collapse of the roof was caused by magic, or was simple coincidence.
Magic or Coincidence?
Magic in fantastic tales sometimes takes the form of bolts of lighting from fingers, or balls of fire, or physical transformations; but in the real world, people who say the have performed magic, or experienced magic, are talking about something different: events that may seem to be luck or coincidence to the outside observer, but which were carefully and consciously planned and expected by the mage. The flashier kinds of magic may be possible, say the magicians, but if so it’s much more difficult and rarely achieves its ends better than the subtle sort. If you’re casting a spell to help pay your bills, and unexpected inheritance is just as good as a bag of gold from the sky — and easier to explain to the tax audiors.
But then (of course!) how can we really know the ‘magic’ has done anything? Wouldn’t the inheritance check have arrived anyway? After all, from a scientific point of view, it is much simpler to assume that no supernatural agency is at work, and any magical practice that seems to have an effect is simply happenstance.
Experienced magical practitioners dismiss this option out of hand. At first, many admit, they wondered whether their magic really was having an effect: they didn’t want to delude themselves, after all. But when, year after year, spell after spell — Tarot spread after spread — the magic continued to work, they became convinced. The idea that it was all just chance became more and more untenable.
To this, skeptics have two replies: statistics and the credulity of the human mind.
Have You Had Your One-in-a-Million Miracle for May?
Kara-Leah Masina relates a seminal event on her journey from skeptic to believer: a case in which, for three days in a row, she drew the same three Tarot cards (except for one) — and the cards created a meaningful message for her, as well! What were the chances of that? Even leaving aside the applicability of the message, the chances are pretty remote, as it turns out — one chance in 2,741,474,736 (I think!). If one hundred thousand people threw three cards every day, you would expect that to happen once about every three hundred years. Still, that doesn’t mean it’s impossible. Besides, suppose Kara-Leah didn’t shuffle them perfectly…? (Actually, I’m sure she did — but I’m trying to think like a skeptic.)
Beyond that, the mathematician J. E. Littlewood showed that, given certain assumptions, everyone should, on average, experience a one-in-a-million chance event every month. The reasoning is as follows (from Wikipedia):
Littlewood’s law, making certain suppositions, is explained as follows: a miracle is defined as an exceptional event of special significance occurring at a frequency of one in a million; during the hours in which a human is awake and alert, a human will experience one thing per second (for instance, seeing the computer screen, the keyboard, the mouse, the article, etc.); additionally, a human is alert for about eight hours per day; and as a result, a human will, in 35 days, have experienced, under these suppositions, 1,008,000 things. Accepting this definition of a miracle, one can be expected to observe one miraculous occurrence within the passing of every 35 consecutive days — and therefore, according to this reasoning, seemingly miraculous events are actually commonplace.
On the other hand, just because something could be a coincidence doesn’t mean it was one. The only real way to show that magic has a causative influence is to actually do studies over thousands of cases and see if the pattern continues beyond a reasonable doubt. And people have tried to do this — with flash cards, random sound modulations, and other experiments. Some studies seem to show evidence of psychic phenomena, but frequently the effect is tiny — tiny enough to be dismissed as chance — or there turns out to be a flaw in the design of the experiment. It turns out to be frightfully difficult to create and execute an experiment that will conclusively show magic at work.
For many skeptics, that argument is sufficient. If you can’t design an experiment to show the effect of magic, then, they say, the effect of magic must not exist. Magical practitioners, however, frequently say that magic is a highly personal thing that depends strongly on intent, belief, and life circumstances, and these things simply cannot be controlled for in a laboratory.
So why should we not simply believe people when they say that they’ve seen magic work again and again in their lives? Surely they are reliable eyewitnesses? But skeptics claim that people are, in fact, not reliable witnesses — that memory can be fuzzy, desires can skew perceptions, and the subconscious mind can impose patterns on chaos. Kara-Leah says that the spread she threw three times was meaningful for her, but maybe she would have found meaning in just about any three-card grouping.
The subconscious mind, and how easily it fools itself, is something that comes up a lot when skeptics discuss magic, synchronicity, and psychic ability; here’s a great example. But it has turned into a sort of black box into which is thrown almost anything that is difficult to explain. The subconscious mind supposedly can:
- Find meaningful patterns in just about anything from Tarot cards to tea leaves to astrological charts;
- Remember all sorts of things that the conscious mind has forgotten, from where you left your keys to the details of your 2nd birthday party;
- Weave from whole cloth the complex symbolism of dreams, which frequently stump the best trained professional conscious minds that try to decode them;
- Process sensory input behind the scenes so as to provide “gut instincts” about other people’s feelings and intentions;
- Sabotage the conscious mind’s efforts to reach goals like losing weight (thereby showing, possibly, an independent will?).
One wonders why the subconscious mind was not placed in charge in the first place. The conscious mind seems entirely superfluous. And all of this, please note, from a mysterious part of the brain… that has never been located on any brain scan.
Does it make sense to posit a subconscious mind at all? Wouldn’t it be simpler and more sensible to just label the black box “Spirit”?
One final point about credulity. If the skeptics are right, and magical thinking is little more than delusional, wishful thinking backed up by an amazngly talented (yet somehow easily misled) subconscious mind, then why is it that magical thinking so frequently leads people to live happier, more productive, and more compassionate lives?
Don’t get me wrong — it is certainly true that there is such a thing as “psychic addiction”, in which people begin to depend on psychics, or astrology, or what-have-you as a crutch for their self-esteem. They return again and again to the same psychic or astrologer, getting the same advice every time, and never following it.
But most people who go to a reputable psychic or medium, or throw their own cards with honesty, get a message that is uniquely relevant and gives them immediate benefit. (I can certainly vouch for this in my own life.) It is a curious kind of delusion, wishful thinking, or credulity that leads to such great benefits.
The Simpler Theory
On the one hand, then, we have a universe saturated wth woking magic, spirits, guides, ghosts, angels, G/god(s), and so forth. On the other hand, we have a bare natural universe, but we have the odd fact that many people believe in magic and claim to have seen it work; and to explain this odd fact, we have to make a bunch of odd assumptions about the mysterious subconscious mind, the credulity of humanity, and the unexplained fact that the credulous, deluded people who believe in magic are frequently happy, well-adjusted, and seem to be otherwise completely sane and competent. What are we to conclude?…
Well, I’ve planted my flag.
The Thinking Blogger Award
This post was inspired by the Thinking Blogger Award. Over the last couple of months, I’ve been awarded this honor a number of times, for which I am extremely grateful! I want to thank Kara-Leah, Nathalie, Damian, and Sojourner who nominated me, as well as Kullervo, who kindly said he would have nominated me if I hadn’t already been nominated… Thank you all!
I would have acknowledged the award sooner, but when I started wondering what it meant to be a “thinking blogger”, I began to think about what “thinking” was, and then I realized I had some…um… thinking to do.
Since I have been tagged, I need to pick five other bloggers who make me think. All the bloggers I read frequently have been tagged already, I believe; and even if they haven’t, I’ve given up trying to keep track. So I’m going to nominate my top-five thinkin’-bloggers, regardless, and if they’ve already been tagged, well, they’re just gonna have to deal with it.
My criterion for choosing these five is that I always hesitate before reading their feeds, because I know if I do I’m going to be sucked in to thinking and commenting on it for the next half hour. Next to each of the five links I’ve listed what the blog makes me think about.
- Bernulf (Heathenry)
- Sojourner (Paganism)
- Adam (UU & General Philosophy)
- Mahud (Mythology & Mysticism)
- Erik (Paganism & Hellenism & Philosophy)
- Kara-Leah (Spirit, Mind, Inspiration)
- The Language Log (Linguistics)
- Ali (Druidism, Christianity, Poetry)
- Kullervo (Religion, Philosophy, Belief)
- Slade (Spirit, Inspiration, Blogging)
- Kay (Religion, Philosophy)
- Anne (Paganism, Life, Buzzards)
- Mike (Buddhism)
Is that more than five? Well, what do you expect? I’m a linguist, not a mathematician.