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Magical thinking is hallucinating a causal connection where there is none.1 It includes ideas such as destiny, “messages from God” (or “from the universe”), belief in physical effects of “magical” acts, psychic powers, and so forth.
Eternalism is the stance that everything has a fixed meaning. Magical thinking gives specific, wrong meanings to many meaningless events; and eternalism can be used as a theoretical framework for justifying the meanings given by magical thinking. (“It’s not just a naturally-occurring omen, it’s a message from God!”) So there is a powerful synergy between eternalism and magical thinking. In fact, most major religions probably began as systematic appropriations of everyday magical thinking by elite eternalist priesthoods.
However, magical thinking is not necessarily eternalist. For example, believing homeopathy works, without giving it any spiritual significance, is magical thinking—but not eternalism. On the other hand, if you think homeopathy has something to do with cosmic Oneness, that is eternalistic.
Magical thinking causes harm when you act on mistaken causal beliefs and get bad results.
Part of the antidote to magical thinking is understanding that brains just naturally do it. You have to watch out for it. Once you see its patterns, catching it becomes automatic, and you can laugh at it.
Another part of the antidote is to learn how the world actually works.
- 1. More precisely, magical thinking is belief in a causal connection without having an adequate epistemological basis. There are interesting borderline cases, such as nutritional “science”—which I write about later—for which the epistemological basis is contested. I am more skeptical of nutritional “science” than most people; and I also believe that it is heavily laden with covert moral claims, thereby attributing ethical meanings to food that it does not have. All this makes nutrition a fascinating contemporary example of eternalism, magical thinking, and the metastasis of ethics into domains where it has no legitimate business.