We Are MagicalSep 18, 2023
Mental health professionals are trained to notice so-called “magical thinking” in their patients/clients. We are taught that the belief that a person’s thoughts, words or actions can influence the “outside” world is a “thought disorder.”
This kind of thinking - according to the psychological and psychiatric literature - is childish superstition at best. At it’s worst, magical thinking can be a symptom of serious pathology, an indication of obsessive-compulsive disorder or perhaps schizotypal personality disorder.
From the turn of the twentieth century to the present, theorists from Sigmund Freud to Jean Piaget and beyond have sought to understand and classify the roots of this “malady.”
There is certainly no shortage of magical thinking, even in today’s highly sophisticated, technological world. It should be easy to rid oneself of such primitive notions. Just let go of the idea that thought can influence “reality.”
Disavow the foolish concept that ritual can have an impact on the “real world.” Ritual is, of course, just thoughts, words and actions. Only a neanderthal would expect personal thoughts to change the world, amiright?
Let’s start with “thoughts and prayers.” This obviously fallacious reasoning is akin to the sacrifice of a goat to bring about a good harvest. Except the goat and the sacrifice are real, and therefore more likely to be effective, of course. Thoughts and prayers (which are just thoughts, after all) can obviously have no effect on a real life situation, so we will immediately do away with that nonsense.
But let’s not stop there. There are many such delusions to be abolished in the pursuit of sober rationalism. Consecration, benediction, communion, confession, baptism, ordination, The Eucharist, marriage, reconciliation, anointment of the sick, the laying on of hands; all require acceptance of clearly erroneous causal inferences.
And that’s just for those of the Christian persuasion.
In fact, all belief in any spiritual system - including all religion - constitutes magical thinking and literal insanity by currently codified mental health guidelines.
I find it particularly ironic that the psychologists and psychiatrists who define “magical thinking” as a sign of mental illness also believe that psychotherapy - their words and actions - can effect real change in a patient. (Read that again.)
A Crazy World
No wonder the topic of magical thinking has been studied so assiduously. The world, it turns out, is full of people who resort to magical thinking.
You don’t have to be a superstitious (and possibly schizophrenic) caveman who resorts to spirituality, religion and other forms of magical thinking to be crazy. “Hope,” “belief,” “faith,” and other such concepts that accept as real thoughts about that which can not be proven are likewise manifestations of mental illness as presaged by magical thinking.
The distinction is deontological: you are either a scientist or a superstitious primitive. It is quintessential hypocrisy to accept the sanctity of the scientific method and then go to church on Sunday (or any day). Do you accept magical thinking or not?
Science, you see, relies on hypothesis testing.
Trust The Science
A hypothesis is merely a statement about a situation we think might be true. If we hypothesize that an apple will fall to the ground when dropped, we can drop one and measure the result.
Stay with me for a moment. We never prove that a hypothesis is true, mathematically speaking. Instead we prove that the opposite (what we call the null hypothesis) is probably false. If our hypothesis is that dropped apples fall to the ground, the null hypothesis is that some apples will float off into space when we let go of them. We then drop a bunch of apples, measure (count) how many float away and do some math on the results. If they all fall down (which they will, since gravity is a law and not a theory), we have disproven the null hypothesis and can then say with some mathematical certainty that our hypothesis is true.
The key here is that to scientifically prove something, it has to be falsifiable. In other words, there has to be a chance that the null hypothesis is true. That means it has to be measurable.
The Reality of Belief
Consider the existence of God. If we want to avoid magical thinking, we need to do an experiment to scientifically prove that God exists. But remember that such a hypothesis must be falsifiable to be mathematically tested. In other words, there has to be a chance that our measurements can prove that God doesn’t exist. Since we can’t measure “the existence of God,” it isn’t falsifiable. Therefore the existence of God isn’t amenable to the scientific method.
TLDR: if you can’t measure it, it can’t be scientifically proven (or disproven).
For this reason, when we use science as our standard of whether something is real or not, we relegate all non-falsifiable - not scientific - situations to the realm of hope, faith and belief. And, therefore, superstitious, magical thinking as defined.
To assign every situation - such as the possibility that our thoughts can affect material reality - to “magical thinking” because we can’t measure it presupposes that we can measure everything. Since we aren’t nearly smart enough to know how to measure everything, it is hubris to assume we can know what is “real” and what is “magical.”
What Do We Know?
Since we are talking about science, perhaps we should take a look at the specific question at hand. Is there scientific evidence that thought can change material reality?
The “Maharishi Effect” refers to a significant reduction in crime measured in targeted populations. It has been replicated on many occasions1. What causes the reduction in crime? A small group of people practicing Transcendental Meditation.
There are reports of other such real-world manifestations of human thought. Even the US government got involved, with projects such as Stargate and MK-Ultra. But much of this is conjecture and speculation. Not scientific enough for you? I understand. The last thing you want is to be caught up in magical thinking.
Let’s get scientific.
William Tiller, Ph.D. was a world-renown professor emeritus of engineering and materials science at Stanford University. His work at the Westinghouse Research Laboratory was such that he was the first person ever to be appointed - not promoted - to the rank of full professor in that department.
His work in crystallization earned him a Guggenheim Fellowship to study at Oxford University and an appointment to Werner von Braun’s team at NASA, where he developed materials used in the Apollo program. Before his retirement in 1992, he mentored more than 50 Ph.D. students in materials research.
But it was not his distinction as one of the world’s most respected physical scientists that led me to invite Bill Tiller to speak at the college of which I was president in 2006.
Dr. Tiller was working on another line of research during his time at the Westinghouse Labs. He wanted to test Descartes’ hypothesis that, “…no human qualities of consciousness, intention, emotion, mind or spirit could significantly influence a well-designed target experiment in physical reality.”
His well-controlled experiments demonstrated that human intention (I.e. thought) does indeed measurably and with statistical significance, influence
The pH of water
The voltage of a gas discharge event
The gestational time of fly larvae
The in-vitro thermodynamic activity of alkaline phosphatase (a liver enzyme), and
That human intention can be measured as a thermodynamic variable and captured for use at a later time and place.
He also experimentally demonstrated that there is no discernible effect of time or distance in the human energetic fields.
Finally, his work demonstrated significant improvements in communication, sociability, cognitive function and physical health in autistic people as a result of human thought (as intention)2.
The Real Magic
So - in scientific fact - human thought does influence physical reality. So much for the definition of magical thinking.
But we didn’t really need science to tell us that we are magical. Consider the existential reality of our existence, insofar as we understand it.
At our most granular, we are the product of quantum particles. These are impossibly small things, the existence of which we can only infer from their interactions with other particles. Quantum particles are simultaneously a wave and a particle, exist in multiple physical states at the same time, are entangled in such a way that there is no measurable time or distance between their interaction - even on opposite sides of the universe - and are governed by the uncertainty principle, which means the more we know about one property they have, the less we know about another.
You are made of these.
Feeling magical yet? Let’s go on.
From these particles come atoms, which are mostly…nothing. (Unless that empty space is full of “dark matter,” of course.) Since we are mostly empty space, we should be able to easily walk through a brick wall, which is also mostly empty space. Try this, and you will quickly experience the apparent contradiction between quantum and Newtonian physics. And we don’t really know why.
The Magical World
On a larger scale, consider that everyone who has ever existed in human history has done so on a roughly spherical rock, about 8,000 miles in diameter. There are two primary reasons we can exist on that rock.
First is the fact that there is a tiny layer of gaseous water and other elements held in place by gravity (which we do not understand at all). And - by the way - as you read this, you are spinning about 1,000 miles per hour (at the equator, slower as you near the poles). Can you feel it?
Second, we are caught in a precariously specific gravitational orbit around a tiny star. If we were flying around that star a little more slowly, we would get sucked in by its gravity and vaporized. If we flew a little faster, we would fly off into space and turn into a little ice ball. Either perturbation would kill all of us.
Oh and also, the little star (our Sun) and all of the little rocks caught in its gravity (the Solar System) are hurtling through our local galaxy at about 65,000 miles per hour. And the galaxy itself is flying off into cold deep space at about 450,000 miles per hour.
But don’t worry about getting too cold: the sun will expand and vaporize the Earth and everything on it at some point in the future.
And yet there you are, looking out the window of your coffee shop (as am I) thinking you are not magical.
Shame on you.
We Are Magical
You only exist for a tiny spark of time in the overall scheme of things. Even in the time scale of human experience, you will be completely unknown in just a few generations. You have no knowledge (maybe some hopes, beliefs and faith) of where you came from, why you are here, how long you will stay, or where - if anywhere - you will go next.
But for a brief moment, you are here and conscious. You think and feel and sense the world and yes, know things that aren’t scientifically proven, “magical thinking” be damned.
How dare you think for a second that you aren’t magical. Show me something more magical.
Go on; I’ll wait…
I didn’t think so.
The only truly magical thinking is that we think we know the reality of life and consciousness.
Go on, now: dream your dreams and live your magical life.
1. deFiebre, Conrad (7 October 1994). "Meditation touted as crime-fighter // Study presented builds the case for 'Maharishi effect'". Star Tribune. Minneapolis, Minn. p. 03.B.
As always, I welcome your thoughts. You can reach me through the comments section on my Substack or Medium accounts or the blog section on my website. If you found value in this article, come follow my Instagram and Twitter accounts. Subscribe to my River of Creation podcast - The Podcast for Creators, coming this November, wherever you download your podcasts.
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