Mini-Feature: Magical Thinking

Why are humans so susceptible to magical thinking?

People are obsessed with magic. They want it to be more real than reality and they want reality to be less real when it suits their purposes.

People are also obsessed with what we might call meta magic, knowledge of how to do things that appear to be magic or feel magical even if magic itself can never be real.

In a sense this is even more deranged insofar as they want to make themselves pretend that what they know is pretend is really real, not in a material sense but in the sense of using skill to make dreams matter more in our lives than reality. If reality is just a pale substrate barely visible below many layers of incredibly rich and all consuming magic—confected dreams that suspend disbelief—then how real, really, is reality?

These days contrary to belief we are in the hard process of experiencing the return of reality. Some say we are in the throes of a “dream politics” where one side sees pedos everywhere and the other nazis. What is really happening is the collapse of “normie” magic—that of twentieth century movies and television and twentieth century fiat currency and twentieth century celebrity and twentieth century advertising and spin doctoring and talking heading—is creating a massive refugee crisis from dreamland and the idolization of imagination that the then-dominant technological environment fostered. Our many refugees race toward the most extreme fantasies hoping they still have enough juju to survive the mass disenchantment of televisual and televised magic.

This is not happening because the magic of beamed dreams is strengthening but because it is shattering. This is why people on the right grow tired of magic incantations of “muh principles” and people on the left grow captivated by the authority woke religion possesses that John Lennon’s anti-religion of the imagination does not. This is why the Jobs-Asimov world, where any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic, is giving way to one where any such technology becomes a kind of monstrous demigod—something no imagined magic is more powerful than.

-James Poulos, executive editor of The American Mind


Some significant fraction of people who follow sports believe that their level of attention affects the outcome of the game. Anthropologists would group this kind of derangement with cargo cults, fetishes, rooster-blood propitiation, and lucky number lottery divination under the category of "magical thinking." The idea that thoughts can produce material effects is something that children might earnestly believe. 

Of course, it's no great irony anymore to observe that magical thinking is not just for animists and toddlers. It's everywhere once you start looking for it; sometimes we call it "confirmation bias." During our late election season, for instance, some may recall the fury with which people with no special understanding of the statistics of sampling argued over polls and their respective methodologies. The appearance of a new poll showing one's favored candidate down 17 points in a swing state could easily be spun as a reason to exult, because only a sample that was totally divorced from reality and based on flawed reasoning could possibly be so extreme; therefore, the real numbers must be trending in the right direction.

The religiously devout might take exception to the idea that prayer is a species of magical thinking, but it's hard to think of it otherwise when strangers implore us to pray for their dying relatives, for instance. 

On the other hand, when you consider what thought has wrought, it's hard not to impute some sacred mystery to the process. Anything that involves purpose, planning, and foresight—everything, basically—was sparked by thinking about it. Maybe a certain lazy slipperiness leads us to cut out the crucial second step—execution—between thought and deed, but at root we engage in magical thinking because thinking is magical.

-Seth Barron, managing editor of The American Mind

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“At present we are on the outside of the world, the wrong side of the door. We discern the freshness and purity of morning, but they do not make us fresh and pure. We cannot mingle with the splendours we see. But all the leaves of the New Testament are rustling with the rumour that it will not always be so. Some day, God willing, we shall get in.”

—C.S. Lewis, “The Weight of Glory” 

We fall for fairytales—they make our hearts ache and thwart our better judgment—because there is in fact magic in the world. We all know it. Or rather, not magic exactly but the reality of which the magic in stories is a symbol: there is something which can break the mechanical laws of mere nature. This “something” reaches in from outside and saves us from pure determinism—as does reason, which is form of magic if rightly used. 

The fact that we can not only perceive the physical world but know that we are perceiving it, and alter it based not merely on our immediate perceptions but on our understanding of the whole, suggests something about us which stands outside of time, space, and matter. Otherwise we would have no way of evaluating time, space, and matter, or using such words about about them as “good” and “bad”: there would only be “is.” The oldest realization in the book is that our capacity to evaluate things and pass judgment upon them hints at our participation in some consciousness which stands outside of nature and in whose image, to coin a phrase, we were made. 

Now a certain kind of magical thinking about reason—viz., that reason boils down to calculation and refers only to the physical world—has had the effect of blinding us to the higher functions of which our mind is capable and, ironically, to the real magic of the world. If you think your thoughts are just illusions belched out by your neurons, which fire exactly as they would in a machine and according to the same predictable rules, then you will think there is no magic in them except the fact that you notice them, which is an illusion. But you will still know in your heart that there is more than that, so you will go looking for magic elsewhere—you will worship it in the crudest forms, trusting shamans to predict the weather 100 years from now or mystics to pronounce you healed of invisible ailments. 

Ironically then, our “cold, hard rationalism” has left us vulnerable to exactly the sort of magical thinking we used to do before had thought things through—“professing [ourselves] to be wise, [we have] become fools.” This is because we denied the existence of something for which we did not cease to hunger, and so went searching for it everywhere but where it is. 

-Spencer Klavan, associate editor of The American Mind