Do You Believe in Magic?

By Mark Trodden | January 23, 2007 12:18 pm

I’m about to teach and then fly to D.C. to do some of that wonderfully fun government work that we are occasionally called upon for. But I couldn’t leave before pointing out an interesting story by Benedict Carey in today’s Science Times.

Titled “Do You Believe In Magic?“, the story details common superstitious beliefs and the behaviors that accompany them. It is a lead in to discussing a fascinating set of experiments on inducing such irrational beliefs in people, carried out by Princeton and Harvard psychologists. The article is well worth a read, and presents a number of plausible arguments for the origin of our appetite for belief.

My only quibble is that it is a little inconsistent when treating religion. There is a disclaimer near the beginning that I think is far too broad and dismisses how much simple superstitions have in common not only with religion, but with how we stay hooked on it.

These habits have little to do with religious faith, which is much more complex because it involves large questions of morality, community and history.

This seems to be thrown in so as not to offend the religious, although it seems to me that, while the caveats mentioned certainly exist, the mechanisms discussed have, on the contrary, a great deal to do with religious faith.

Despite the disclaimer, later in the article we read

It is no coincidence, some social scientists believe, that youngsters begin learning about faith around the time they begin to give up on wishing. “The point at which the culture withdraws support for belief in Santa and the Tooth Fairy is about the same time it introduces children to prayer,” said Jacqueline Woolley, a professor of psychology at the University of Texas. “The mechanism is already there, kids have already spent time believing that wishing can make things come true, and they’re just losing faith in the efficacy of that.”


… they often link two events based on nothing more than coincidence: “I was just thinking about looking up my high school girlfriend when out of the blue she called me,” or, “The day after I began praying for a quick recovery, she emerged from the coma.”

But there is one place in the article where the author is clearly not referring to religion, at least as practiced by quite large numbers of people

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. When something important is at stake, a test or a performance or a relationship, people don’t simply perform their private rituals: they prepare. And if their rituals start getting in the way, they adapt quickly.

OK, so I couldn’t resist a little religion-bashing, since I do think the press has far too hands-off an attitude to it, but I really did enjoy this article, because we desperately need these issues discussed more frequently and openly in society. Not because it matters if someone goes out of their way to avoid walking under ladders, but because it might help people to explain why they do that, and then question other beliefs which are far more damaging to society.

As we’ve discussed here at Cosmic Variance before – The World is not Magic.

  • Vince

    The disclaimer is correct. Let’s use Christianity as an example. This religion depends on events which took place around 2000 years ago. Since we currently cannot accurately investigate these events, we are left to conclude that they did or did not happen. Therefore, the religion is or is not correct. We can’t prove it either way.

    Superstition is different.

  • Vince

    And since you don’t really know whether or not there have been any scientifically-documented “miracles” (from #102, “…Richard Dawkins”), you probably shouldn’t conclude that “The World is Not Magic” so to speak.

  • spdyer

    scientifically-documented “miracles” aaah the semantic cesspool.

    Is a remission of a particular cancer a miracle or is it simply a physiological process through which a body regenerates healthy cells, destroys unhealthy ones, and engages in systematic and prolonged improved immune responses??? Well, a person of a certain faith would leap up and scream miracle, while a reasoned and well-informed medical practitioner would describe it as a remission. Completely different sets of semioticities grounded in divergent epistemological constructs, but each describing the same natural phenomena. Hence, one says magical and divine, the other not magical nor divine. Are both correct? No, because that would create a relativism that the magic believers find abhorrent. Can’t quite have it both ways now, can we??

  • Vince

    I agree with you, spdyer, I’m sure most instances of cancers completely disappearing are a result of a natural process without any sort of divine intervention. However, that explanation does not exhaust all cases of terminal illness/injury followed by complete recovery. Claims of miracles also occur in aspects of life other than illness. Thanks for commenting. :)

  • Arun

    What do you mean by “magical”?

    If you mean that we cannot by will or by hocus-pocus work around a natural law, then, yes, there is no magic.

    If you mean non-intuitive, wonderful, surprising, etc., then the universe is magical.

    E.g., we know of it by long experience, and we have the mathematical laws that describe it, but I would still say it is magical that a slender copper wire can transport energy for miles and miles with no visible change to itself. This “common-place” thing is magical.

  • Lord

    Oh boy, do I believe in magic! It is what science brings us new each and every day.

  • kapakapa

    ‘Reality is the most potent check on runaway magical thoughts,…’

    Magic is yellow gold euphoria. By definition it is elusive and short lived. The proof? – written on the faces of the majority of passengers on the return flight from Las Vegas. Your wallet is the most potent check on the reality. The casino industry run away with it unless you can strategically bring down the house, and that is not a magic.

    But I have to admit, a hole in one does seem like a MAGIC! From so far away, into a tiny hole…..

  • Darrell

    How is superstition different? An event that happened sometime in the past that resulted in a new meme being created that is based solely on speculation, and that is then modified many times through the years to fit current preconceptions or to serve someone’s purpose. That has never been shown to be true with a confidence that would persuade a reasonable person to consider changing their concept of how the world works.

    The only difference I see between religion and your run of the mill superstition is that a whole lot of people got behind it and pushed, and aggrandized it, and institutionalized it for various reasons. Such as ignorance, fear, greed, power, appeasement, tradition, and probably many others.

  • citrine

    With (a) all the thinking (wishful and otherwise) that we do everyday on many topics, and (b) all the events we experience everyday, I would think that there is a non-zero probability of a connection between the elements of the collections in the two categories (a) and (b).

  • Joe Fitzsimons

    I hate to point it out, but there is a perfectly good reason for not walking under ladders: Things can be dropped on your head if you do!

  • Sonomabob

    Since science by definition can never know the “truth”. But only come up with workable mathematical models.

    Then how can what is at present thought of as “magic” be dismissed out of hand?

    Who knows what we will discover in the future.

  • Carl Brannen

    That humans have a tendency to give magic explanations for random things is undoubted. However, this doesn’t go very far at proving that humans also invented God. Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.

    One might reverse the microscope. Suppose several of my liver cells began wondering if they were part of a huge organism that had mysterious motivations that were beyond their understanding. I dare say that the more scientific liver cells would express disbelief in my existence, but would instead assume some sort of mechanical universe, too big to understand, but with no free will.

    In short, if I assume that I have free will, it becomes impossible for me to refute the assumption that things much larger than me, i.e. the universe as a whole, also has free will. The free will of the universe would be expressed in modifications of the laws of physics as subtle for me to observe, as the subtle coincidences that my liver cells would have difficulty observing.

    On the other hand, if I assume that I do not have free will, then why should I expect to increase my understanding of myself by studying physics. And if I assume that everyone else is just a bag of chemicals, then why shouldn’t I use them at my convenience.

  • Scott

    I think science and a little magical thinking can be cool assets to enrich our lives.

  • Giles

    I’m about to teach and then fly to D.C. […]

    This looks like magic to me !

  • greg

    Your religon bashing is far to religous for my liking.

    What ever happed to tolerance? What is with amercain Science these days that they need to hit anyone with faith in some God?

    Its not like that here in the EU.

  • magic

    If “magic” does not exist, where comes from this word?
    …When the telephone was invented, there were many dark brained people who said it will be worthless.

  • Giles

    “Magic” said : “If “magic” does not exist, where comes from this word?”

    The word “magic” refers to a concept or to an idea, not necessarily to a reality or an object. Like the word “Unicorn”. We need words for things that do not exist.

  • Stephen Uitti

    Quantum entanglement looks like magic. AFAIK, no one has any idea how it works.

  • Kevin Winters

    spdyer: “Well, a person of a certain faith would leap up and scream miracle, while a reasoned and well-informed medical practitioner would describe it as a remission.”

    And what about the “reasoned and well-informed medical practitioner” who believes in miracles? The practitioner cannot determine the exact causes of the caner’s remission and it is only by faith in the assumptions of science that one can dismiss it. What, exactly, is the proof for the assumptions that make miracles improbable or impossible? What experiment (or, if you will, set of experiments) finally laid bare the impossibility of belief in God? I would wager that it is the mere assumptions of many scientists that make that belief impossible, not any determinate data or experiment.

  • spyder

    What, exactly, is the proof for the assumptions that make miracles improbable or impossible?

    One word, short answer, complete thought: SEMIOTICS

  • Bodhidharma

    If there is something like magic – there must be people who are very good at it, or? If you are worthy, don’t you think that they will find you?

    Otherwise: of course there is no magic! All just mumbojumbo… :>


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About Mark Trodden

Mark Trodden holds the Fay R. and Eugene L. Langberg Endowed Chair in Physics and is co-director of the Center for Particle Cosmology at the University of Pennsylvania. He is a theoretical physicist working on particle physics and gravity— in particular on the roles they play in the evolution and structure of the universe. When asked for a short phrase to describe his research area, he says he is a particle cosmologist.


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