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RS66 - Matthew Hutson on The 7 Laws of Magical Thinking

Release date: July 29, 2012

You may think you're a skeptic, but are you really as free from superstition as you think you are? Matthew Hutson thinks not. The author of "The Seven Laws of Magical Thinking" joins Massimo and Julia on this episode of Rationally Speaking to discuss some common, innate forms of superstition that affect even self-identified skeptics, and why the human brain is predisposed to magical thinking. Along the way, the three debate: Overall, are our superstitions good for us?

Matthew's picks: "Believing in Magic: The Psychology of Superstition,"
"SuperSense, " and
"The Belief Instinct: The Psychology of Souls, Destiny, and the Meaning of Life"


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    Response: Neundenker

Reader Comments (9)

Another good, thought provoking podcast. What if the "intentional stance" is a form of magical thinking? Using the intentional stance I look at someone who says that he is carrying his lucky rabbit's foot, and I assume him to be a rational agent who should be able to distinguish between rational and irrational beliefs. What if that stance and assumption are also forms of magical thinking?

If we accept the folk psychology idea that there are such things as beilefs and thus such things as rational and irrational beliefs, might there be a third category that we could call non-rational? A non-rational belief, which may be expressed more via attitudes and dispositions than propositional statements, might be one which is not rational but cannot be reduced to being nothing more than irrational.

Maybe a non-rational belief would be one that cannot be reduced to being an irrational belief because it is not merely a belief that is not rational that one might grow out of (such as belief in Santa Claus) but is one that is designed to help one grow beyond it in a way that would otherwise not be possible.

For example, we can imagine someone who says he has never enjoyed fiction in any form, novels, short stories, plays, movies, etc. And we might surmise that this is because he is unwilling to willingly suspend disbelief. In order for such a person to get to the point where he can willingly suspend disbelief to the point that he can enjoy fiction, he might need to compensate for being overly rational by erring in the opposite direction until there can be a balance. (As a physicalist I would say this could be accounted for without reference to "minds" and "psyches" in the same way that we could say that someone whose left arm has atrophied while his right arm is like that of a freakish weight lifter might need to let his right arm hang limply by his side for a while, so that he can work on getting his left arm developed until both arms are significantly more balanced.) In oither words, some people are so hyper-rational (Spock being the classic example) that they might need to "go a little crazy" (as Seal sings) if they are ever to develop out of that. And obviously this would not be without risk, for we can imagine a Spock going "a little crazy" and turning into a New Age nutcase.

July 30, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterEurydice

Eurydice, if I understand you correctly, I think your point was made by Massimo when he talked about his preference for chocolate. But I am troubled by your phrase "overly rational." Julia has a great post about the "Straw Vulcan" which goes straight against your point. Check it out on "Measure of Doubt." Only through misunderstanding (or misrepresenting) rationalism can you really suggest that one could do it too much. But maybe you don't mean it the way you seem to. When Massimo jokingly suggests that other people aught to like chocolate too, that could be an example, if taken seriously, of being overly rational. The attempt to claim you have reason on your side for things which reason cannot decide -- that is, if not "overly rational", uh, pretending to be rational when you aren't. At any rate, I've never met someone whose problem in life is that they don't enjoy fiction enough. I'd say most people suffer from fictionalizing themselves and the world too much. Rationalism is a clunky yardstick, to be sure, but it's the only one by which we can try to measure our actions against our values. And it's the only one by which we can measure our values against the effects of our actions, especially when our actions are coherent with our values.

August 5, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterAaron

Hi Aaron, I see your point about the "straw Vulcan," and I think that I probably don't mean "rationalism," "overly rational" and "hyper-rational" the way it may seem. I accept responsibility for not being more clear; I'm still in the process of thinking through this.

To me, a straw Vulcan would be a human being who is quite capable of having feelings and emotions but who is attacked as being Spock-like because he or she isn't as demonstrative about feelings and emotions as his or her attacker thinks people ought to be. I've heard Paul and Patricia Churchland described in such terms, always by people who abhor what the Churchlands say about consciousness, and I think that when they are so described, that is an instance of a "straw Vulcan" type argument.

But I can imagine someone who, after seeing the movie Gladiator, might say not only that Russell Crowe's character's belief in pagan gods and an afterlife was irrational, but that it is irrational or ridiculous for anyone at all, in any time or place, to find instrumental value in such beliefs. Perhaps such a person would be like someone who argues that one ought to like chocolate in the sense that they would seem to think that because they can get by without certain irrational beliefs, everyone - including Crowe's character - ought to get by without such beliefs. I think it would be reasonable to compare someone like that to Spock.

August 7, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterEurydice


Listened to audio clipping intensly. Greate appreciation to all participants. The coverage is so wide-the purpose of Universe, belief, faith so on so forth. I have a suggestion to make rather I wish to here again of the discussion if all the participants meet once again without memory and mind or kill the mind and debate.
---Guru Mahagaonkar

August 16, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterGuru Mahagaonkar

I don't read fiction either, but not for the reasons you "surmise". I just find non-fiction so captivating that fiction pales by comparison. Believe me, I've tried to read both classics and modern highly recommended novels, but I always end up filling this is time ill-spent and return to my beloved non-fiction. I honestly don't believe I've read a novel all the way through since college. So what does this make me?

August 22, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterWading Thru

read fiction either,

September 11, 2012 | Unregistered Commentermester

Interesting listen and I think there are allot of interesting avenues these issues can take us. IMO they are not explored adequately. That is why I spend allot of time dealing with some of these issues in my blog.

I think clarifying what we mean by beliefs is somewhat important here. I have never heard of "alief". I generally have understood "belief" to mean what W.V. Quine described as a disposition to act a certain way if certain events occur.

These issues tie in with discussions of pragmatic encroachment views of knowledge as well. I try to explore this a bit here:

A commentator on my blog thought this conversation reminded them of my blog here:

I wonder if you would think belief in some things being good and bad/evil, in a moral sense, is magical thinking.

One interesting claim was along the lines of this:
Understanding that "the discovery that universe has no purpose need not prevent a human being from having one." might make you "better off" and not having that understanding might make you worse off. If in reality there is no purpose, I wonder how that could be the case that we would be "better off" with one belief or another. Is the refusal to accept there is really no purpose and trying to create one a form of magical thinking? You guys started to go down this path a bit but I wonder how you each would ultimately crack it up.

Anyway thanks for the interesting podcast.

August 18, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterJoe McCarron
for better or worse I'm aspect-blind in relation to these kinds of cognitive-biases, anyone have any info about how many other minority mutants there are out there?
June 26, 2015 | Unregistered Commenterdmf
Actually, superstition has some practical and quite rational applications. If people constantly open up their umbrellas indoors and smash each other in the face, you can inform them that they will have bad luck if they ever open up, or fail to close, an umbrella indoors. If people frequently smash into your glassware, windows, or mirrors, you can let them know that breaking such objects exposes them to several years bad luck. Not sure about a black cat - unless you happen to actually own a black cat and want people to leave you alone.
January 23, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterJameson

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