The World As If

This is an account of how magical thinking made us modern.

When people talk about magical thinking, it is usually as a cognitive feature of children, uneducated people, the mushy-minded, or the mentally ill. If we notice magical thinking in ourselves, it is with a pang of shame: literate adults are supposed to be more sophisticated than that. At the same time, magical thinking is obviously rampant in the world. It’s hard not to be fascinated, even if it’s a horrified fascination.

Matthew Hutson’s popular book The 7 Laws of Magical Thinking attempts to get beyond the low-status connotations of magical thinking, as indicated in the subtitle (How Irrational Beliefs Keep Us Happy, Healthy, and Sane). Hutson notes that the concept of magical thinking is vague and problematic. He quotes Carol Nemeroff and Paul Rozin:

[T]he variety of things to which [magic] refers is far-reaching, ranging from a social institution characteristic of traditional societies, to sleight-of-hand or parlor tricks, to belief in unconventional phenomena such as UFOs and ESP, to sloppy thinking or false beliefs, and even to a state of romance, wonder, or the mysterious. One must at least entertain the possibility that there is no true category here at all. Instead, the term “magic” in current usage has become a label for a residual category—a garbage bin filled with various odds and ends that we do not otherwise know what to do with.

(Nemeroff, C., an P. Rozin, 2000, “The Making of the Magical Mind,” p. 1)

Nonetheless, Hutson argues that the underlying similarity among things called “magical thinking” is “a confusion of subjectivity and objectivity”:

There’s the world of the mind, defined by intention and conscious experience, and the world of outside reality, defined by matter and deterministic forces. But we instinctively treat the mind as though it had physical properties, and we treat the physical world as though it had mental properties…. We perceive mind and matter mingling together, working on the same wavelength.

(Hutson at p. 8.)

I think that the reason that it has been so difficult to precisely define “magical thinking” is that what we call “magical thinking” is a collection of stigmatized examples of a more general, and generally useful, cognitive capacity. This is the ability to think in “as if” mode: “as if” inanimate objects had minds, “as if” thoughts could affect reality, “as if” symbols had power over their referents.

Vaihinger’s Useful Fictions

As moderns, we are thrown into a confusing mess as we come to terms with the world through the lens of literacy, and especially through the hyper-literacy of internet-mediated reality (through which I am making these claims). We grapple with a sense of unreality, with the suspicion that layers of illusion underlie our world. Making sense of fakeness seems to be a pressing problem. Hans Vaihinger (in The Philosophy of As If, 1911, C. K. Ogden trans. 1924) provides a refreshingly clear model for thinking about unreality and its bearing on our world.

Figure 1. Two forms of initiating an “as if” mode. Photo: Thomas Zimmerman. Note that interpreting the dog bow requires a double “as if” – we must treat, for this purpose, the dog as cognitively capable of engaging in “as if” thinking, and then interpret his meaning.

Vaihinger reveals the complexity of the “as if” mode of thinking. When we say, “we must live as if we were free (Adam Michnik, arguably paraphrasing Kant),” or “one treats the dead as if still alive (Xunzi),” or “we must conduct ourselves as if God existed (Diderot),” this implies a strange kind of reasoning:

  1. Even though something is not the case (or is not expected to be proven to be the case),
  2. We must nonetheless act as though it were the case (opposite to reality).

But why might we do that? Why would we treat something untrue as if it were true? There are, in fact, two missing parts of this reasoning. The whole “as if” moment looks like this:

  1. Even though something is not the case (or is not expected to be proven to be the case),
  2. We must nonetheless act as though it were the case (opposite to reality),
  3. Within some context,
  4. For some purpose.

It is easiest to see with Vaihinger’s geometric example: treating a circle as if it were a polygon with an infinite number of infinitely small sides. We know that a circle is not a polygon, but for the purpose of calculating the properties of a circle, it may be useful to regard it as such. Unlike a hypothesis, we do not ever expect to discover that a circle actually is a polygon. But being able to treat the circle as if it were a polygon, for a particular purpose in a particular context, is useful.

Consider the progressive degeneration that we might imagine happening to this message, in a game of telephone, presented by Vaihinger (p. 195):

The circle is to be regarded as a polygon of infinitely numerous and infinitely small sides.

The circle is a polygon of infinitely numerous and infinitely small sides.

The circle is a polygon.

Of course there will be slippage. Context and nuance will be lost in translation. “Many a statement made by the founder of a religion was originally meant by him merely as a conscious fiction,” says Vaihinger. “But the poverty of language in primitive times, the pleasure derived from short, pregnant, rhetorically effective sentences, and consideration for the less educated, childlike minds of his hearers, led, or rather misled, the founders of religions into expressing in the linguistic form of a dogma what they themselves took only in the sense of a conscious fiction (ibid.).”

Vaihinger asserts that “less educated” people will have more trouble with “as if” thinking. The Soviet psychologist Alexander Luria would provide evidence for this a few decades later. Rather than living in a childlike world of imagination, illiterate people seem to keep their capacity for “as if” thinking under tight control.

Luria’s White Bears

In The Making of Mind (1979, esp. Chapter 4, “Cultural Differences in Thinking”), Alexander Luria reported on the cognitive differences between older, uneducated, illiterate nomads in Uzbekistan and Khirgizia in Central Asia, and the younger people who were attending school and beginning to participate in centralized farms. Luria found that the older, illiterate people focused on personally-experienced reality and pragmatic context for categorization. When given an assortment of skeins of yarn to organize, the illiterate women didn’t use color names, like “green,” but said what each resembled: spruce trees, or new spring grass. They organized them in some cases based on intensity of hue rather than color. On the other hand, the younger women with more education organized them by color term (green, blue, red). The older people organized representations of shapes (circles, triangles, filled in or empty, sometimes missing their tops) by what useful items they resembled—a kettle stand, a cup. Younger people organized the shapes by the abstract taxonomy they had been taught.

Luria and his colleagues presented people with “one of these things is not like the other” problems. The older, illiterate peasants organized the items based on whether they could be useful in a common context: they lumped wood together with hand tools, because hand tools, they said, need wood to be useful. (One informant mentioned that many useful tools could be made from wood, such as door handles.) They lumped a sparrow together with a gun and a dagger, because without the sparrow, you have nothing to hunt or divide. On the other hand, younger, educated subject easily classified objects on the basis of abstract categories (tools, made of glass, weapons, etc.).

The younger people were more willing to organize the world based on abstract categories—”as if” these categories existed. Older people were engaging in “as if” reasoning of a kind (“as if” each skein of yarn was a thing in the world, “as if” one were attempting to use several things at once). But, crucially, the older, illiterate people did not base their answers on “as if” realities on the symbolic, logical, analytic constructs that the younger people took (and most WEIRD people take) as utterly obvious.

The most famous example from Luria’s studies concerns the color of bears. Can the uneducated nomads understand syllogistic reasoning? They were asked, for example,

In the far north, where there is snow, all bears are white.

Novaya Zemlya is in the far north.

What color are the bears there?

The illiterate elders were very hesitant to answer that the bears were white, though the younger, educated people easily did so. The elders hedged that they themselves did not know. They did not seem to be able to grasp the “as if” context presented by the syllogism. The young people, on the other hand, easily recognized the syllogism as an opportunity to show off knowing the “correct” answer.

Even when the elders did produce the “correct” answer, they refused to endorse it, as if they expected there to be reputational consequences if they spoke about something they did not know (Everett describes a similar insistence on an evidentiary basis for statements among the Pirahã). The younger people, meanwhile, understand that the syllogism form is an invitation to an “as if” world, and that one’s statements about that world aren’t subject to the same real-world verification (e.g., having personally seen a white bear) as ordinary statements.

In reading Luria’s transcripts, the elders seem to hold themselves back from participating in “as if” worlds. The literate young people, however, have no hesitation about doing “as if” reasoning. In each young person’s brain is a portal to unreality, unconstrained by old-fashioned codes of evidence. If anything, these logical unrealities are of high status, associated with education, achievement, and power.

Logic and Magic

Logic is related to magic, in that both involve the mental representation of “as if” alternate worlds. The logical world of syllogism and abstraction, useful at it is, corresponds to nothing in the immediately perceptible world. Accessing the power of the world of logic, math, and theory means getting unreal. Discerning patterns is an essential component of human intelligence, but it can get out of hand (like a sorcerer’s apprentice might discover about a spell).

It’s hard to say how things used to be. It’s hard to remember what things were like ten years ago. But there is some evidence that there used to be less “as if” thinking in earlier modes of cognitive and social organization. Magical thinking is not some embarrassing remnant of primitive life that pops up now and again; it is an ancient capacity long kept in check through cultural and technological means, and now running wild.

In Language and the Discovery of Reality (1961), Joseph Church (after Piaget) highlights three modes of (educated) children’s causal experience. These modes are not limited to children, but persist into adulthood under the radar of conscious experience. First, realism is the tendency to treat all things “as equally real and real in the same sense and on the same plane: pictures, words, people, things, energies, dreams, feelings (Church p. 15).” Realism underlies the “magical thinking” tendency that mind and matter “work on the same wavelength,” as Matthew Hutson puts it in a passage quoted earlier. Second, phenomenalism is the tendency to accept things as given, without inquiring into how they function. Adults are able to use bicycles and can openers without knowing just how they work. They just do! Church (p. 17) reports that all elementary school children and the vast majority of college-educated adults in a sample reported that an island floats unattached to solid ground (although some islands, though floating, are apparently moored to the ocean floor by roots or seaweed). If we can’t understand how islands work, what hope have we for genuinely grasping servers and blockchains? Finally, dynamism is the idea that some generalized energy links together objects and events; magicalism is a species of this. This energy is much simpler for a human to grasp than electricity, though it is not reducible to consistent physical laws.

All three of these are “as if” stances. And all three work together:

In a “realistic” world, where images and feelings have the same status as objects, their interactions can only be dynamistic. Phenomenalistic explanations make sense because implicit dynamic forces fill in the logical gaps and obviate inquiry beneath the surface.

(Church, p. 18-19.)

We moderns have less understanding than our ancestors, not more, of how our technology works and where our food, clothing, tools, and dwellings come from. The more complex a technological package, the more a phenomenalistic stance toward technology is valuable. Insisting on understanding each implementation detail of our world would drastically inhibit our ability to live in it. We must take more and more things for granted—”as if” they were only their functionality—risking abstraction leaks, but reaping rewards in the successful domestication of unrealities. Using a map is “as if” mode. So is reading.

“As If” Slippage

Of course, levels of unreality slip into each other, and even into our own world. The scope and purpose of “as if” modes are sometimes elided or changed: “we must live as if God exists” becomes “God exists,” or vice versa. In many cases, it is quite obvious what the scope and purpose of “as if” mode are. Attending a play at the theater, people get emotionally caught up in the action “as if” it were real—but nobody attempts to interfere with the action, for instance, by “protecting” a character from being murdered.

In addition, if a conscious fiction is useful enough within its scope and context, it might be useful to just believe it in general rather than trying to keep it cognitively bounded in its proper place. Behaviors identified as “magical thinking” in our world, such as unrealistic fears of contagion or refusing to sell one’s soul, seem to reflect unusually useful fictions that refuse to yield ground to the intrusion of newer, more logical fictions.

The Great Flip

In pre-literate societies, “as if” thinking was limited by unfamiliarity with symbolic reasoning and, in some cases, by evidentiary honor or politeness codes by which speculative or imaginary reasoning was tabooed. “As if” thinking was expressed in stories and ritual, but kept constrained to certain domains of life.

As societies became literate (and then hyperliterate), “as if” thinking jumped out of its box, and useful fictions proliferated. Only the old forms of “as if” thinking, the shameful remnants of an ignorant past that we think of as “magical thinking,” were tabooed.

Magical thinking “confuses” the relationship between symbol and referent, between mind and world. Our modern world, to confuse matters even more, is mostly made of minds. In an attention economy completely translated into symbols and words, it is the case that symbols and words have power over the material world. Toppling statues and meme magic are the hallmarks of an ever-more “as if” world: symbols have power, and mental attention is power.

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About Sarah Perry

Sarah Perry is a ribbonfarm contributing editor and the author of Every Cradle is a Grave. She also blogs at The View from Hell.
Her primary interests are in the area of ritual and social behavior. Follow her on Twitter


  1. This “As If” sounds like priors. I really love when people come at Bayesian thinking from a different perspective that is more human, less averse to reality slippage, with more literary dimensions, Alexander Luria cultural dimensions, … It reminds me of an excerpt from Theory of Narrative Selection:

    “Detective fiction, writes Todorov, is made of two separate stories (crime and investigation, past and present, fabula and sjuzhet), and these two stories ‘have no point in common.’ Well, not quite: clues are precisely that point in common. An incredibly central position, where the past is suddenly in touch with the present; a hinge that joins the two halves together, turning the story into something more than the sum of its parts: a structure. And the tightening up starts a morphological virtuous circle that somehow improves every part of the story: if you are looking for clues, each sentence becomes ‘significant,’ each character ‘interesting’; descriptions lose their inertia; all words become sharper, stranger.”

    But, while necessary, I don’t think this “As If” categorization is sufficient to carve magical thinking at its joints. It seems too general a label, or at least largely incomplete. That said, I thought Joseph Church’s three levels, on top of a general confusion between subjectivity and objectivity, are nice discernments.

    Would you recommend The 7 Laws of Magical Thinking?

  2. I have both too much to say and too little to say in response to this so I’ll say nothing :D

    • Aptenodytes says:

      Apparently, there also exists the occultists’ own definition(s) of magic. For example, Dion Fortune defined magic as “the art of changing consciousness”. The primary problem with those definitions is that they are not even wrong, as therapy can change consciousness. On the other hand, traditional religion defines it as using the power of the supernatural to effect changes in the world.
      When compared to both Venkat’s and Sarah’s definitions, they appear too…lacking in dimension. Thoughts?

  3. I gave a presentation on a sort-of-similar theme at David Chapman’s postrationalist gathering (which was in turn based on a talk I did at one of the Refactor Camps). It was more about treating as-if as a very basic part of the cognitive machinery — that is, I think it’s involved in all thinking and representation, rather than limited to special-case modes. I doubt the linked preso makes much sense on its own, but it is related to enactivism which is a pretty trendy theory of mind right now.

  4. My favorite magical thinking vignette is from Catch-22. If you’ve read the book you know what happens next 😆

    “I really can’t believe it,” Clevinger exclaimed to Yossarian in a voice rising and falling in protest and wonder. “It’s a complete reversion to primitive superstition. They’re confusing cause and effect. It makes as much sense as knocking on wood or crossing your fingers. They really believe that we wouldn’t have to fly that mission tomorrow if someone would only tiptoe up to the map in the middle of the night and move the bomb line over Bologna. Can you imagine? You and I must be the only rational ones left.”

    In the middle of the night Yossarian knocked on wood, crossed his fingers, and tiptoed out of his tent to move the bomb line up over Bologna.”

  5. I think the magical thinking of “primitive” cultures is thinking “as if” everything that can act in unpredictable ways, unlike a rock or stick, including animals, but also rivers that dry up or overflow their banks, lightening, weather, etc, must be animated, and have purposes, intentions, whims. This is completely reasonable by analogy with the most important such entities they experience, other people. So there is a spirit of the river or the lightening that wants something.

    Animals’ play tends to be risk-free practice in doing things that are dangerous and require skill. Some biological mechanisms, like not wanting, in play to really go for the others’ jugular put boundaries around it and make it safe, like using fencing foils that don’t really puncture flesh. To become good at certain complicated things you have to do them. To be an engineer you have to practice designing and making things. Armies must have war games. Mathematicians must spend a long acting “as if” they were making a discovery by proving things that were proven long ago without looking at someone else’s proof.

    Models are related to play; we play with model cars, model airplanes… Dreaming may be a simulation engine for developing a repertoire of canned responses to things that could happen in real life, as argued in

    It seems like coming at these things with the kind of language philosophers and social scientists have used in their word-castle building produces difficult and awkward results.

  6. Sorry if I offend. Sometimes I need lessons in saying things more gently, but it seems to me observations and analysis are coming from multiple empirical disciplines that will leave behind much of the mid-20c style of thinking about psychology and the social behind.

    • Doesn’t “to offend” mean to trespass fences?

      I am reading an excellent book on some 2500-3000 year old books written in india (Vedic texts) I am surprised to never see Venkatesh discuss. And, in a literal and also non-literal sense, they say: knowledge is sacrifice; sacrifice is knowledge.

      Who learna what really matters without their fences being impinged on (or wiped out)?

      • Aptenodytes says:

        Although Venkat never discusses the Vedic texts, he did discuss the Mahabharata when he cited Eklavya in “King Ruinous”. As for the fences question, I learned the Gervais Principles at the expense of my old moral fences.

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