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Magical Thinking  @psychohistorian.org

Magical Thinking

posted: 3583 days ago, on Thursday, 2010 Aug 12 at 08:12
tags: magic, atheism, skeptic, supernatural, miracles, Kobus van Rensburg.

I love magic. Not the silly kind that the degenerates believe in, but the conjuring kind, legerdemain with a deck of cards. Not only is it fun, but its also engaging intellectually.

When performing a good card trick, you amaze and surprise your audience, because the seemingly impossible happened before their eyes – it's magic! A trick is engaging precisely because it cannot be explained in terms with which the viewer is familiar.

One of my favourite effects plays out like this. I present an ordinary deck of cards and shuffle the cards thoroughly. I then hold the deck out towards the audience member, in full view.

"You're familiar with cards, right?" I ask, as I hold up the top card. "Please tell me what this one is."

"That's the Jack of Spades," she says (or whatever it is).

"Good," I say, "lets put the Jack back on top of the pack," which I then do.

I bring the deck even closer to her, saying, "Now watch this carefully..."

With my other hand I wave once, twice, over the deck, not touching it, and mumble something obscure.

"OK, so that's the Jack, right?", I say, gesturing to the top card.

She nods.

"Go on, take a look..."

She lifts up the top card, and, voilà, it is revealed to be the Joker!

A "wow!" is sure to follow as she experiences a tiny "mind-quake", a feeling of surprise, and an emotional buzz that often leads to a smile or a grin.

To anyone familiar with card magic, this is a very basic effect. But to the uninitiated, well, it's real magic!

If I press her and ask, 'So what just happened?', she may come up with various explanations to describe the apparently-impossible. What if all of her explanations are shown to be incorrect?

A well-crafted trick tries to anticipate all these "outs" or explanations and nullify them beforehand, maximizing the spectator's eventual perplexity.

I don't suppose anyone reading this *really* thinks it is magic – that I used some supernatural ability to change the Jack into a Joker. I think most modern readers, while unable to explain exactly what I did, know that there is some sleight-of-hand involved. And I suppose that the person viewing the trick also knows this. But the emotional punch of a good card trick is undeniable.

Why is it silly to explain a card trick as a supernatural power?

Simply, because superpowers aren't necessary to do a trick. The supernatural explanation is redundant.

To mislead someone, all you need is a bit of skill and misdirection. With a card trick, the better you can manipulate the cards and mess with the psychology of the viewer, the greater your impact will be.

Most people greatly underestimate the degree to which psychological mechanisms can be employed to influence them. If you doubt this, I will prepare a special horoscope/Tarot reading/palm reading/crystal ball gazing just for you – for a fee, of course.

Invoking the supernatural to explain something is a reasoning error. It doesn't explain anything at all – it just gives it a label. Of course, once something has a label, this reduces (albeit in a small way) the feeling of uncertainty, which could lead to the erroneous conclusion that it has been explained.

Sadly, there are people in this world who exploit this human tendency. These dishonest individuals prey (pray?) on people by presenting themselves as special agents of the supernatural. They do so for a number of reasons, and money is certainly one of the powerful motivators. Some of these supernatural agents do it also for power and status. In the western world these agents of the supernatural are politely called priests, ministers, and prophets. Bluntly put, however, they are frauds, fakes, charlatans, hucksters, and con-artists.

Other con-artists peddle health and well-being: homoeopaths, reflexologists, iridologists, and so on.

The worst kind peddle both religion and health: these are the faith healers, moral vampires who pretend they have supernaturally-endowed abilities to cure the sick. Instead, they rob the afflicted of their money and atrophy their eventual psychological well-being.

On one point, absolute clarity is essential. There is zero evidence that faith healing works. There is no documented proof that prayer, or laying-on hands, or whatever ritual you care to mention, has any lasting curative effect. If you read this and you strongly disagree with this statement, I plead with you to think a bit further – physical and psychological health is a serious matter.

The mind is powerful and amazing, but it can make errors of judgement, and it can be misled. Only the unwise think that they are immune to deception and never make mistakes. (Horoscope, anyone?)

Various flavours of faith healing have been subjected to scrutiny. Careful review of the available evidence has repeatedly shown its claims to be false. A leg growing longer under the prophet's ministrations (a commonly-seen "cure") is a simple magic trick. Psychic surgery (the removal of a deep-seated bloodied tumour using only the hands and fingers, without a scalpel) is a neatly-executed sleight-of-hand. Cripples have been made to walk in evangelical revival tents since the mid-19th century – but only for the duration of the show, with painful later consequences. And that's only if they were really cripple to begin with. The list goes on.

Medical fraud is illegal. Spiritual fraud is worse.

And now, for something completely different.

During the past few months, just about every free minute of my time has been sucked into a soon-to-be-revealed Secret Project(TM). One consequence is that news & updates to psychohistorian.org have been very few. And the regular flow of reader's comment about my views on one of South Africa's charlatans, "prophet" Kobus van Rensburg, have been ignored. However, three comments submitted this past July piqued my interest. They were all sent anonymously, and read as follows:

Name supplied: "anon!!"
Date submitted: 2010 July 27, 13:46
"carnally minded people cannot comprehend that which is spiritual, same as the storty of nicodemus, you remind me of him, how can this be, how can that be....the main thing is, if you are so sure in your beliefs, why is there still a void in you life? you will probably deny it for 'pride' sake...ever heard the saying..pride before tha fall?...no amount of worldy matter can fill that that void that you have...and once this article is done..and you go into your room and when it is all quiet...and you lay down your head and shed those tears and ask why this and why that...remember this blog...it was a start to your enquiring mind...whether your motives are pure or not, you will get an answer soon enough to thos unanswered questions, the ones not even the most brilliant scientist cant answer...you are not of this world....but you cant deny that Jesus is King...even this message will make you cringe in you stomach and all amounts of hatred and unthinkable thoughts may bubble up in your mind...ask yourself...where do those thoughts come from...and who is controlling YOU!!...search your heart...and stop messing about, your fighting a losing battle.."

Name supplied: "IamwhatIam"
Date submitted: 2010 July 27, 12:55
"Leave this Auke person alone, if you are fueling this article and you are a christian and this article upsets you, just ignore it, it seems as though he is enjoying everyone commenting and then having to totally disrespect people for there opinions or views is simply childish, leave this man to his opinions, but dont stop praying for him, this is the persecution you face as a true christian, I am sure that Kobus is laughing at this as I am if it even reached him....so ending comment, I dont mean to offend you if you an aetheist, I hope with all sincerity that you find what you are looking for, but next time rather pick on someone else that you actually have a 'valid' reason to speak negatively about instead of speculating things, GET YOUR FACTS IN ORDER BEFORE YOU GO RUNNING CAMPAIGNS ON RUNNING PEOPLE DOWN"

Name supplied: (none)
Date submitted: 2010 July 21, 10:25
"Auke. God loves u nd so do I. Prophet Kobus Luvs u 2 coz he is a man of God. believe wat u want, miracles are happening and we believing God for limbs growing, we have seen the blind see and other great miracles but its all by grace from God lf we could make it happen by ourselves well we deffinatly would heal the whole world in 1 day but watch the space, as scripture says, creation is longing nd yeaning for the manifestation of the Sons of God So Do U, I can feel the vacum in your Spirit (forgive me but its true)
"Prophet Kobus is just but 1 of the Sons of God that are being manifested in our day, there many out there some too simple in very remote places but still seeing God at work.
"Christianioty is life... u are wellcome man.. don be left out.. He created nd luvs U!!!!"

While there is much diversity in the three writer's styles, they come across as being quite sincere, and are motivated to get their point across. So for that I'd like to thank them, for taking the time to express themselves, instead of falling into all-too-common apathy.

"anon!!" is the most emotional and seems to be speaking from personal experience. I suspect "anon!!" is the youngest of the three writers, while "IamwhatIam" is the oldest (and/or the most educated). Both "IamwhatIam" and the third author have a degree of tender-mindedness (not wanting to be offensive), but "IamwhatIam" also has an aggressive, righteously indignant streak. But then, this is all pure speculation on my part as I'm by a long shot not a good enough psychologist to extract much from their writings.

What is clear is that all three, in grappling to understand why I wrote what I did about the fraud van Rensburg, conclude that there is something lacking in me, a 'void':

"… why is there still a void in you life? … no amount of worldy matter can fill that that void that you have …"

"… I can feel the vacum in your Spirit …"

"… I hope with all sincerity that you find what you are looking for …"

No matter how you slice it, humans are a curious species. We seek to make sense of the world around us. Incoming information is processed, interpreted and then organized so that it makes sense. In some instances, this organization of input is carried out automatically, without us being able to control it (and indeed without us even being aware of it; for example, some organizing of visual input happens in the eye, long before any signal reaches the visual centres of the brain).

Under conditions of uncertainty, however, it isn't always possible to organize, and thus explain, events correctly. Sometimes, one simply doesn't have sufficient and accurate information. Not being aware of missing data, or an unwillingness to go and find out more, is likely to lead to error.

The three writers fundamentally misunderstand a number of key points. There are many avenues that could lead to this condition, and I have no way of knowing which combination of factors are at play.

One factor could be ignorance. If you don't know how a card trick or a microwave oven works, it could look like magic.

Another factor could be arrogance and closed-mindedness. If you're afraid of the unknown and unwilling to admit that the world is a very complicated place, it will make you happier to think you have all the answers. In which case, surprising and contrary events could look magical.

Whatever the specific factors (and there are more), compounding the problem is the investment of personal identity. If you strongly identify with a certain lifestyle or point-of-view, and commit resources to it, it becomes more difficult to let go when you discover all is not well. That's when the blinkers come on, and your only recourse is to magical thinking.

And magic is where you find the frauds and fakes, priests and prophets.

Further reading

1. Profit Kobus van Rensburg

nothing more to see. please move along.

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