Scientific thinking is hard is because our brains are not wired for it. Instead, our minds are wired for magical thinking. Magical thinking is a part of all aspects of our lives, and exists at the core of neural functioning.
What is scientific thinking? Scientific thinking is a process of testing ideas with evidence. It is a process of having a theory about how things work in the world, and then going out and doing an experiment or making an observation to see whether that theory actually pans out. Scientific thinking is involved when you examine your ideas to figure out what very specific and concrete things that those ideas tell you that you should expect to see… and then go out to find out whether you see them.
What are some other kinds of thinking?
Logical thinking is a way of testing out relationships between ideas. Logical thinking can be used to see whether two theories are consistent or inconsistent with one another. Logical thinking can be used to see whether one theory can be broken down into smaller or more basic assumptions. Logical thinking can be used to see whether one theory automatically implies another theory. However, logical thinking has nothing to do with the real world: it is about relating ideas to ideas.
Magical thinking is a process of coming up with stories to explain things. Like scientific thinking, magical thinking is about creating relationships between ideas and the world. However, magical thinking doesn’t involve testing or skepticism. Instead, magical thinking is about seeking out patterns and relationships! Magical thinking is about coming up with a good story to explain our experiences in life.
(Some people would simply call this “creative thinking”, but I prefer the term “magical thinking” and you will understand why later on in this article.)
Magical thinking and scientific thinking are very different. Scientific thinking is skeptical, while magical thinking is always ready to believe a good story. Scientific thinking believes in coincidences, whereas magical thinking hates coincidences because it knows there is always a secret connection between things! Scientific thinking seeks out the exception that will disprove the rule, while with magical thinking sucks up every pattern it can and ignores everything else!
Magical thinking acts like a positive feedback loop: it will find patterns within patterns within patterns, that will grow and grow until everything seems related to everything else, and even inconsistent evidence seems to be a confirming part of the puzzle. (Magical thinking is behind most political conspiracy theories.)
Scientific thinking is relatively recent thing, historically-speaking. Greeks didn’t have scientific thinking. They knew the dangers of leaving magical thinking unchecked, however, so they tried to temper it with logical thinking. This was the idea behind their dialogues and rational philosophy. In order to keep magical theories from getting out of hand, they would question them using logical analysis. They would look for consistencies and inconsistencies in arguments, and try to break down theories into simpler and more fundamental pieces.
This approach–a combination of magical thinking and logical thinking–continued throughout antiquity and through the middle ages. The whole idea of testing hypotheses with experiments and data didn’t really catch on until the Renaissance. (That is not to say that nobody had the idea at all. There were people who would, from time to time, think that ideas should be tested by “trying to bring about those situations in the world pertinent to the content of an idea”. But this didn’t become popular or catch on until very late.)
One of the reasons that I use the term “magical thinking” for this creative process is that, when it was left to its own devices, one of the most prominent results that we see in history is…. well, magic!
If you look at texts on the occult, on sorcery, on witchcraft or caballah, whether they were written in 300 A.D. or 1300 A.D., they are filled with magical thinking (the way that I have defined it, above). You can find page after page of people seeking out relationships and drawing parallels, and creating patterns and stories that weave those patterns into ever larger tapestries. There are seven planets plus the stars plus heaven, which makes nine spheres, which correspond to nine choirs of angels, and since nine is three times three of course you have three choirs of angels for each member of the Holy Trinity, and these are of course also related to the constellations, which are in turn related to the old Greek Gods, and when you write out the permutations of the names of God in Hebrew, these also can be made to correspond to the planets, and the spheres. Incidentally, all of these things also are related to the four elements, each of which can be described as a pair of two binary properties….
…and so on and so forth. It is an ever-growing elaboration of stories and explanations that in turn give rise to ever more elaborate stories. It is a process of drawing connections between patterns and then justifying those connections by creating more stories about why they should be connected. It is a beautiful ballet of human creativity.
A beautiful ballet that can totally get out of hand. This is part of why science, as an endeavor, has been such a success. It provides a way of evaluating theories based on something other than whether they “make sense” or “make a good story”.
Don’t get me wrong! Creativity–or Magical Thinking, as I have been calling it–is actually necessary for the scientific process, as a whole! Coming up with new stories, and making leaps of intuition and creative connections between new things, is part the fuel and passion of science. But what makes science productive is that this creative fuel of magical thinking is restrained and tested by the controlling force of scientific thinking: experiment, and hypothesis-testing.
Scientific thinking without magical thinking is boring and does not advance. Magical thinking without scientific thinking is wild and crazy and out of control.
But let’s not talk about these as if they are somehow “equal and opposite” forces in the world of human thinking. They are not. The vast, vast majority of human history has been wrapped up in magical thinking, and scientific thinking has only appeared recently.
Even though we have now had the idea of scientific thinking for a few hundred years in human culture, people are still terrible at it.
People don’t believe in coincidences, but they do believe in horoscopes. People think “everything happens for a reason” and they are more persuaded by personal stories that “just make sense” than experiments and statistics. Ultimately, magical thinking is what comes naturally to people, and requires a real effort for most people to use scientific thinking at all… and even then they only succeed part of the time.
I’d like to propose, however, that this is very natural and understandable when you look at the way that our brains work. I think people are hard-wired for magical thinking, and that is why it comes so naturally.
The human mind is a story-creating machine. Internally, the connections within the brain are set up with all kinds of positive feedback loops that allow us to partially figure things out based on very incomplete information. This is why we can figure things out so quickly. This is why we can see a rich and detailed world around us, even though the information about patterns of light that we get from our eyes is terrible and two-dimensional and incomplete.
But when people are on LSD, the way that they encourage hallucinations is by staring at the same location for a long time, without blinking. When people who are on LSD do this, whatever they are looking at will begin to change. Any patterns in their visual field will grow, and move, and become more complex. A wood grain will move and become a flowing river, or a face, or a strange geometric pattern that gradually spreads out until it covers the entire visual field.
Why does this happen? Because one of the things that LSD does is that it suppresses the inhibitory activity in the visual cortex. You see, your brain is hard-wired to constantly create patterns based on what it gets from your eyes. If you are staring at a fixed spot for a long time, it is getting no new data. So, if its normal “brakes” are taken off (by the introduction of LSD), then it very happily starts creating patterns… and these patterns grow, and grow, and build on each other, until they take over everything that you see.
So I’m sure you can see the analogy. People writing about magic in the middle ages, before the invention of scientific method, were like the visual cortex on LSD. They were not getting “data” (because they had not yet developed the idea of testing data), so they were happily going about their normal business of creating stories, upon stories, upon stories… until it was all “hallucination”: it had nothing to do with reality. It was a beautiful pattern created by a mind that had no “brakes” on its own creative process.
Just as I pointed out that magical thinking is an important part of science, I would also like to point out that this creative pattern-creation in the visual cortex is a critical part of our visual process. The reason that we don’t see our “blind spots”, the reason that we can experience a coherent three-dimensional world based on two dimensions of light hitting out eyes, is all because out minds are actively coming up with “stories” to tell our brains about why our eyes are seeing what we are seeing.
Our experience of a three-dimensional world is a story that our brains are telling us based on the light that hits our eyes.
So story-telling is essential to our perception. The magical process of creating patterns, and even finding patterns where there might be none, is wired into us at such a low level that it affects our very senses.
It should not be surprising, therefore, that thinking magically comes so much more easily–at every level, and on every topic–than thinking scientifically.