November 23, 2007

It's bad luck to be superstitious

>> Re-post from January 24, 2007.

I saw an article through this morning that I thought was interesting and thoughtworthy and really cool. It's called Magical Thinking: Why Do People Cling to Odd Rituals. Even Diesel Sweeties, mentions it. Apparently the belief that your own thoughts can affect the physical world is very common and easy to elicit experimentally.

Read the article with a pinch of salt though.

The appetite for such beliefs appears to be rooted in the circuitry of the brain, and for good reason. The sense of having special powers buoys people in threatening situations, and helps soothe everyday fears and ward off mental distress. In excess, it can lead to compulsive or delusional behavior. This emerging portrait of magical thinking helps explain why people who fashion themselves skeptics cling to odd rituals that seem to make no sense, and how apparently harmless superstition may become disabling.

It's interesting to think that our brains accept a magical interpretation to a series of events or situations in the absence of a rational explanation, but where the author of the article is very quick to see purpose I see a side-effect of our imaginative and creative brain. The ability to make quick judgments about causation and form hypotheses quickly, even before logical thinking, is something I judge to have been very helpful in our evolution as well as our development into adults. So in my opinion, any propensity towards magical thinking, or religion, doesn't really have a "purpose" of its own, but is rather an interesting property of our mental abilities, a by-product of the abilities that have been advantageous in our evolution. Which makes the following statement even more bewildering...

If the tendency to think magically were no more than self-defeating superstition, then over the pitiless history of human evolution it should have all but disappeared in intellectually mature adults.

Frankly, I can't figure out what that's even supposed to mean.

Even though I'm sure we all know that feeling of security from "positive omens" and so on, most sound people don't walk around actually believing that our thoughts can affect the outcome of events independent from us. At least that's what I hope.

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