I’m in the process of taking my third and fourth courses from Professor John Stackhouse right now, and I think it would be fair to say that my own views of epistemology have been profoundly shaped by my time spent under his tutelage. In one of our classes last semester we discussed the postmodern tendency to be untroubled by lack of coherence or consistency with respect to one’s views about the world. So, for example, someone may have no difficulty thinking in strictly rationalistic terms in their professional roles, in Romantic terms when it comes to interpreting the “objective value” of a piece of art, or appealing to the law of karma when thinking in the “religious” sphere of life. This multiplicity of mutually incompatible cognitive styles seems unproblematic to the postmodern mind—a feature Stackhouse claims to be unique in intellectual history.
I was presented with evidence for this peculiar phenomenon several days ago while going through my daily on-line newspaper tour. It seems that “magical thinking” persists—even in the 21st century, and even amongst educated folk who ought to “know better.” Professor Giora Keinan of Tel Aviv University notes that “persons who hold magical beliefs or engage in magical rituals are often aware that their thoughts, actions or both are unreasonable and irrational. Despite this awareness, they are unable to rid themselves of such behavior.” What could account for this stubborn tendency to believe in forces beyond the observable world, which can be appealed to, or somehow manipulated to improve one’s situation—even when all of the evidence seems to point against the existence of such forces?
For one answer, we could look to Princeton psychologist Emily Pronin who says the following regarding the human tendency to project the illusion of magical power: “I think in part it’s because we are constantly exposed to our own thoughts, they are most salient to us”—and thus we are likely to overestimate their connection to outside events.”
How helpful. Yet while I agree that I am constantly exposed to my own thoughts, I can’t help but wonder why I might conclude that these thoughts of mine are causally connected to outside events—especially with so much evidence to the contrary.
To make a long story short, this article suggests that the tendency to believe in things like mind-control, magic, voodoo etc. is just the fruit of a peculiar piece of neurological circuitry which has obviously evolved because it conferred some sort of evolutionary advantage upon creatures that adopted it. Those who believed, however casually, in some kind of extra-sensory world which could be manipulated by human beings, must have been able to better cope with the harshness of reality, whether that was loneliness, despair, or feelings of helplessness brought on by what the world threw at them.
In the end, these beliefs—at least for most—turn out to be relatively harmless, and are given up quite easily. According to this article, “Reality is the most potent check on runaway magical thoughts, and in the vast majority of people it prevents the beliefs from becoming anything more than comforting—and disposable—private rituals.”
I couldn’t help but wonder, as I was reading the article, what (if any) difference there was between the disposable magical beliefs of the people who participated in the experiments cited in the article and those of us who believe in a God who hears and responds to prayer, and inhabits a realm beyond sensory perception. Does Christian belief in a good God who can be appealed to in order to alter one’s circumstances simply represent one more coping mechanism to deal with the harshness of a reality too difficult for us to navigate on our own?
Reality certainly is a “potent check” on runaway thoughts—magical or otherwise. From my perspective, it also forces reconsideration of the notion that the world apprehended through sensory perception represents the sum total of existence. Bumping up against a harsh reality that is not amenable to spiritual manipulation could certainly force one to reconsider one’s allegiance to things like magic. The experience of reality as harsh, and unfriendly to human desires and intentions could also represent one element of reality that has to somehow be accounted for.
Which leads to what I consider to be one of the differences between magic and prayer. In the first, manipulation and control seem to be what is sought. Performing the right rituals, repeating the right words, invoking the proper —these are thought to be causally efficacious in producing a desired outcome. While I do not doubt that many view prayer in precisely this way, I think that ideally prayer represents, among other things, an aligning of the human will with the redemptive purposes of a sovereign God. It ought not to be about control and manipulation but about trust in and participation with a God who is in the process of redeeming this world which can seem so harsh and unfriendly to human aspirations. One expression of this trust and participation could be—indeed ought to be, as the Psalms teach us—genuine protest or lament at the lack of fit between reality as we experience it and what we think ought to be the case.