Magical Thinking: Science vs. Spirit

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.

ire28The 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.

Is that more than five? Well, what do you expect? I’m a linguist, not a mathematician.


18 responses to “Magical Thinking: Science vs. Spirit”

  1. Have you had your one-in-a-million miracle for May?

    According to that eminent magical philosopher, Terry Pratchett, million-to-one chances always come off… but they have to be exactly a million to one. 🙂

    Oh, and thanks for the tag! Does this mean I have to nominate five more people? If so I’m gonna have to throw in the towel on my haven’t-been-nominated-before rule…


  2. Oh yes! From Guards, Guards! What a genius Pratchett is. My wife and I read him every single night. We’re in the middle of Soul Music now.

    Half the time, I’m amazed at how accurate his descriptions of magical phenomena are; and I suspect that his spirit guides are whispering in his ears, and he thinks they’re his own ideas.

    The other half of the time, I think he just makes stuff up.


  3. Wow, Jeff, thanks for nominating me. It was a wonderful surprise, at the bottom there 😉

    Every summer when I was a kid, my family would go to an amusement park, and I would be amazed at all the other people who planned to go to same place on exactly the same day as us. It seemed magical, yet when all the various factors are taken into account, the magic disappears.

    Not that I disbelieve in ‘magic’. There are some coincidences that cannot be explained away easily. Coincidences can occur that lack meaning, but they can also form meaningful patterns—a chain of seemingly related events that ‘communicate’, guiding us, or even misleading us.

    I think about all the various ways we can commune with the magic in various belief systems, using scripture, divination, meditation, and such, and I cannot help but see them as all having the power to communicate and influence us.

    When it comes to using ‘magic’ as a way to generate misfortune or bend others to our will, I’m very uneasy. I don’t like thinking that people are able to tap into magical forces and use them this way, any more than I like to believe in demons.


  4. David McIntosh Avatar
    David McIntosh

    Well, I wouldn’t call it a ‘one in a million miracle’, but I did have a strange dream about someone who I once knew very well but hadn’t seen in five months (because he didn’t have phone or internet), and afterwards I was thinking a lot about the dream. That night, my sister ran into him at his workplace (we didn’t know he worked there).

    Ever since I started looking for synchronicities in my life, I’ve found them. Magic or not, they’re very interesting.


  5. Thank you for the nomination. 🙂 You and Erik have both nominated me now, so I probably should get my butt in gear and pass on the honor–but, honestly, I read so few blogs and the ones I do read have all been nominated already… I think I’m going to prowl the intraweb for a while and see if I can’t unearth some diamonds-in-the-rough to call attention to (it goes without saying that otherwise I’d nominate you and Erik right back, but that gets a little redundant, doesn’t it? 😉

    I thought this post was particularly interesting, by the way. It reminded me of a story by Jorge Luis Borges–themes of labyrinths, mysterious texts, libraries and mirrors occur again and again in his work as metaphors for existential and metaphysical quandaries. This particular story is about a “universe” that consists of alcoves upon alcoves of books–an infinite number of alcoves, in fact, holding an infinite number of books. Sadly, what is written in these books are not readable texts, but endless nonsense strings of letters. Still, because the “universe” is infinite, and the number of letters and their combinations finite, it is said that everything that could ever be written, is in fact written somewhere… including the story of your life. People who live in this universe sometimes devote their entire lives to seeking for their own story–seeking for meaningful patterns within the collective nonsense. And they might easily give up, except every once in a while, they come across something that seems to make sense–they discover someone else’s story–and this glimpse of meaning fuels their continued search.

    I’ve always loved that story, because it captures both the drive to find meaning, and its apparently astronomical futility. I think it’s natural for the human mind to seek out and recognize patterns, in part because patterns do exist in the world. The thing that skeptics underestimate or perhaps don’t consider is that the human mind also has a great capacity to create meaningful patterns–we do this every day, though language, art, social and cultural organizations. Creating meaningful patterns is different, if only subtlety, from imposing meaningful patterns. Magical thinking allows for the former while still acknowledging that the latter can be detrimental or misleading. In that way, I think that magic and art have a great deal in common. Ross Nichols said ritual is poetry in the realm of acts, after all, and what is magic if not art in the realm of coincidence?


  6. Thanks Jeff. 🙂 I’m gonna need to expand my blogroll if this keeps happening. I’m trying really hard not to nominate anyone who has been nominated before, but it’s getting difficult.


  7. Mahud, your anecdote about the amusement park reminds me of something I read recently (in Science of Discworld, actually, Erik!): something like 85% of all Israeli fighter pilots have only daughters, no sons. Isn’t that odd? Doesn’t it make you want to seek out a reason for it? But the authors of the book point out that it could easily just be chance. Think of all the different professions in the world — American firefighters, Chinese computer programmers, South African accountants… Out of all these groups, it would actually be surprising if one or two of them didn’t randomly have an unusual preponderance of one gender or another. Or a preponderance of baldness, or an unusual concentration of cancer… and so forth.

    Once you have a population as large as the Earth’s is now, it gets really, really hard to have an intuitive grasp of how likely coincidences are to occur.

    But all of that is just to say that coincidence is a possible explanation — not that it IS the explanation, or that it’s even a LIKELY explanation.

    As for black magic, I know next to nothing about it… I’ve encountered a few unpleasant beasties in my meditations, but nothing that some simple vibration-raising exercises couldn’t get rid of. Raising your vibration — attracting and exuding good feeling — seems to be a general-purpose defense mechanism, according to Erin Pavlina and others I’ve spoken with.


  8. David, your statement about finding synchronicities when you look for them is just the sort of thing that a skeptic would point to and say, “See! These synchronicities were always there before, but you didn’t notice them! Now you notice them, because you’re looking for them!” The implication is that since they were always there before, they’re meaningless coincidences. But that doesn’t follow at all.


  9. I can’t wait to see your diamonds in the rough, Ali! What is the “intraweb”?

    I love that story too — “La biblioteca de Babel”. It has an amazing atmosphere of awe mixed with near-despair. I say near dispair because the narrator always seems to be holding out the barest chance that, despite the unimaginable odds against it, tomorrow or next week might yet bring the eucatastrophe…

    I definitely agree about magic and art. Didn’t we have a conversation somewhere before about calling on the Muses? What are they but magic in the service of art? In great art, the borders are blurred between the Muse, the artist, and the work itself.


  10. Thanks for including me in your list, Jeff.

    Also, Thanks for bringing up some memories. As I was reading this, I realized that I had heard/read that story about the Azande before but didn’t remember the book. I just realized that it is sitting on my bookshelves and that I read it in an anthropology class about 10 years ago. I’m going to have to go back and re-read it.

    On another note, I would think that there is a difference between magic and coincidence. Wouldn’t that difference consist of intent?


  11. Your welcome! Thanks for your awesome blog!

    Apparently it’s a real classic in the field… Is it a good read?

    I don’t think a skeptic would claim that there is no difference between magic and coincidence. I think a skeptic would claim that magic doesn’t exist, except in people’s minds; so any event that is apparently caused by magic is actually caused by coincidence (or some other natural cause). In other words, intent, by itself, is irrelevant.

    Speaking as a non-skeptic, I agree with your definition entirely. 🙂 Especially if the “intent” can come from nonhuman agents as well (gods, spirits, etc.).


  12. Robert Anton Wilson was famous for saying that humans are mighty haughty about what they know, given that they only use 10 percent of their brains. He wondered how we would perceive the universe if we could get the other 90 percent of our brains in gear. It’s in that 90 percent that synchronicity lies. Somewhere.


  13. […] I’ve been nominated twice for the Thinking Blogger award thing. First by Kay at Songs of Unforgetting and again by Jeff Lily over at Druid Journal. Thanks guys for including me, and I’m truly shocked that I write stuff that makes you think. […]


  14. David McIntosh Avatar
    David McIntosh

    You’re right, that definitely doesn’t follow. Most of the synchronicities are things I would have noticed even as a skeptic. As a Christian, I would have simply interpreted these things as ‘God speaking to me’, but I would just wait for them to come to me. Now that I actually seek them out and focus on them, external reality is becoming more synchronized and my life is making more and more sense.


  15. Nice article. I thought you did a good job discussing both sides of the question. However, your comments about the subconscious activities of the brain being a black box is not accurate. Scientists have identified many specific brain structures associated with some of the phenomenon you describe. There’s still much to learn, but it’s unfair to claim that scientists are just tossing all open questions into the black box of the subconscious. Also, the association of subconscious brain activity with “spirit” seems very questionable to me (at least, based on the doctrine of spirit in the related belief systems I know).

    You ask why the subconscious (or more accurately, unconscious) brain activity wasn’t put in charge over the conscious activity. I don’t believe either was put in charge of the other. However, most people operate without conscious awareness much of the time so one could say the subconscious mind is actually in charge, by default.

    I agree that even delusions can be beneficial in some situations. In fact, some cognitive psychologists suggest that some degree of delusion is necessary for most humans to act effectively. The brain is wired for survival. How could it function knowing that it won’t survive, knowing that death is the end. No god. No soul. No eternity. No meaning of life in a universal context. No individual existence of any kind after death. Nothing.

    In that light, I see religion in all it’s forms as a key aspect of reflective conscious thought. We are aware we will die so we must delude ourselves that we won’t really die.

    Thanks for a thought-provoking article.


  16. Hi Frank,

    It’s great to have you drop by! You raise some great points; let me see what I can say to them.

    I don’t think my characterization of the state of neuroscience is unfair: I made sure the article was checked over by my wife, who has a degree in cognitive science from MIT. I didn’t mean to suggest that scientists were not trying to investigate these phenomena, nor that they have made no progress at all. It is true that some unconscious functions have been associated with certain brain structures. For example, processing linguistic syntax is an unconscious act, and some neuroscientists suggest it might be located in Broca’s area. However, locating a function in the brain is a long way from explaining how that function works, or telling why it’s an unconscious function rather than a conscious one. The main thrust of my argument is that so much mental activity is unexplained, and fits so poorly into what we know about the brain, that it’s actually quite a leap of faith to imagine that the brain is really the source of all of it. Personally I think the brain is a lot more like a radio than a computer.

    As for who was put in charge over whom: perhaps it’s true that most people simply follow the urging of their subconscious mind, without making real conscious decisions. At least then the smarter part of the brain is in charge. But the larger question remains: why have subconscious brain activity at all? Why aren’t all these powerful brain functions available to the conscious mind? My answer would be: because they’re not part of our minds at all, but arise from the spirits, guides, and gods that take an interest in our affairs. And in my experience, the more you try to listen to these entities, the more these “brain functions” come into focus.

    As for the matter of delusion: it’s certainly true that people are sometimes good at not thinking about unpleasant things, so that they can get on with their lives. However, the life-after-death issue is far from the only area in which religion is helpful. As I’ve explored my own belief system further, I’ve found more and more areas where it’s directly helping in my daily life. I would continue to use it and believe in it, even if my spirit guides came to me and said, “You know what, Jeff? All that stuff we were telling you about reincarnation? Well…” Religion has made my life meaningful in so many ways that in a very real sense, whether my soul lasts forever is rather incidental.


  17. Thank you for the thoughtful response. It appears we agree that the subconscious activity of the brain is not completely a black box. Along with Broca’s area many other regions have been associated with numerous functions, including higher level functions like social activity, predictive abilities, goal driven behavior, imagination, memory formation, empathy, emotional responses, and so on. It’s true that at the lowest neural level scientists are still studying how these components work and cooperate, but the body of knowledge is growing very rapidly.

    I think that dividing the brains function (“mind”) into conscious and subconscious parts is a false dichotomy and leads to the wrong kinds of questions. There is no part of the brain that is always conscious. Even the term “conscious” has varying definitions. There are parts of the brain closely related to conscious experience (prefrontal lobes, for example) but they can also operate without consciousness (self-awareness). There are other areas, such as those that control autonomic physiological functions, that are generally considered “subconscious”. It’s difficult to control those areas from the “conscious” parts of the brain because there are few neural connections between them. However, it’s apparently possible in some cases (e.g., fakir control over autonomic functions like heart rate, body temperature and pain sensations).

    One answer to why all brain functions are not easily available to conscious control is that the prefrontal lobes are a very recent evolutionary development. It’s not wired as well to some parts of the brain as others. For example, the amygdala (with is closely related to certain types of emotions) has more connections into the higher areas of the brain than vice versa. That’s why it’s generally easier for the emotions to control our rational thinking than the other way around. As to why we evolved this way, I have no idea. (I also wonder why men have nipples, but I doubt there is any paranormal explanation for it. ;-)).

    Have a great day.


  18. Frank: I have heard two scientific explanations for why men have nipples; both may be true:
    1. They’re simply left over. Since male embryos develop from female ones, it would take a certain amount of energy to remove them from the body’s blueprint; and since they don’t hurt anything, they’ve just been left.
    2. Women like them. 🙂 This would be an example of sexual selection.

    That said, I have also heard a “paranormal” explanation for them, having to do with the face-like structure created by the two nipples (eyes), navel (nose), and other bits (mouth).

    If you want more of my opinions about the mind, emotions, the amygdala, and science, you can check out this post: Trust Your Feelings.

    Thanks again for your insightful comments, Frank!


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