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)

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The Limits of Epistemic Hygiene

Perhaps the most impressive (and measurable) achievement of technological modernity has been the drastic reduction in infectious disease mortality. It is difficult to exaggerate the magnitude of this victory. It is one thing to say that half, or a third, or a quarter of children used to die before their fifth birthday from infectious disease, and more adults besides. It is another thing (and quite difficult) to imagine what it was like to live under this alien (to us) regime of death. Cholera, diphtheria, smallpox, typhoid, polio, influenza, tuberculosis, pertussis, dysentery, measles, plague, yellow fever, and more besides, claimed the lives of human beings, leaving behind disfigurement, suffering, grief, and fear. There was almost nothing to be done:

The little child of Newton and Etta Riggs Loomis was removed to the home of its grandparents, Mr. and Mrs. J. C. Loomis, after diphtheria was pronounced to be in the home of Mrs. Ann Riggs, in the hopes that it might escape the dread disease. But the monster followed it and the child died Monday, aged 2 years.

Badger State Banner, January 15, 1891, collected in Wisconsin Death Trip, Michael Lesy, 1973.

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Paradox and the Origins of Civilisation

This is a guest post by Darren Allen, joining us from his home turf at

The famous duck-rabbit optical illusion is a paradox, meaning that it is both one thing, and another, at the same time. The interpreting mind can never experience it this way. To the mind the image is either a duck or a rabbit, one after the other, but not both at the same time. The abstract thinking mind may know it is both, but this knowledge is itself a non-paradoxical either-or idea. The thinking mind cannot experience something that is simultaneously itself and something else; it can only comprehend one thing after another. Every time you try to directly experience the image as it fully, paradoxically, is, as both things at once, it is immediately reduced to what it partially, non-paradoxically is; to one thing or another. For a split second you think you’ve got both the full, direct, primary duck and rabbit simultaneously—perhaps because you can successfully label it a paradox—but really you are just flashing rapidly between partial, indirect, secondary mental interpretations.

Duck-Rabbit Duality

Duck-Rabbit Duality

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