Taoist mythology, Lanna history, mythology, the nature of time and other considered ramblings

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Location: Chiangrai, Chiangrai, Thailand

Author of many self-published books, including several about Thailand and Chiang Rai, Joel Barlow lived in Bangkok 1964-65, attending 6th grade with the International School of Bangkok's only Thai teacher. He first visited ChiangRai in 1988, and moved there in 1998.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Magical, and religious, thinking

Most of us engage in it. Indeed, it seems everyone does at least sometimes. It’s a semi-rational approach helpful in the face of irrationality. Defined as believing events happen as a result of other events, without plausible link of causation (or, belief that an object, action or circumstance not logically related to a course of events can influence its outcome), it’s a kind of wishful thinking. Simply in order to live we must believe some things without proof.
The sorts of magical thinking are many and vary widely, from luck superstition to religion to belief in abstract mathematics to hope that the Hadron Collider will “unlock” secrets and supply answers to some of life’s deep mysteries.
When trying to understand the opposite sex, the behavior of small children, death, international finance, war, or GMOs, we inevitably, but usually without recognizing it, turn to magical thinking.
To break a bad habit like reliance on intoxicants, many fear that will-power alone won’t do. They might replace one crutch with another, as in meetings with coffee for beer in bars. Works like magic.
To save for the future some become penny-wise but pound-foolish, which works like magic too, as magic has a tendency to bite one in the ass. Get a personal trainer or spiritual adviser and you can accomplish things you otherwise wouldn’t, in much the same way that a St. Christopher medallion can help one reach a destination, with or without high holy Catholic church sanction.
Confidence lends to increased competence, and also, in the opposite way, worry undermines our abilities and effectiveness.
Make sacrifices, wear the right colors, follow the instructions of a food guru, rigorously adhere to a schedule of placebo ingestion, and you’ll surely do better than you’d have done by just being lazy. It’s not just magic, it’s a process of abiding by a decision. When you feel like you’ve done something, it’s almost like you have.

Science has yet to explain all that much of what we experience, and perhaps cannot, so we naturally grasp at straws, at anything we can to make sense of things and allow us some hope. The only real differences between magical world-views and science is that science has a self-correcting mechanism and procedure for determining which concept best fits what is observed, while magic doesn’t.
Behavioral psychologist B. F. Skinner showed that pigeons frequently repeat actions they learn to associate with positive reinforcement, i.e. when food was released to them, as if seeing a pattern, even when the food in fact becomes released at purely random intervals (intermittent reinforcement). When hungry, they'll do what once brought them food. Once a mental association is formed, it becomes like a habit, hard to break. Superstition and behaviors often characterized as “magical thinking” may be more closely connected with blind instinct than with sapient thought, or perhaps it's that established patterns tend to replicate, sometimes inexplicably.
Magical thinking, involving as it does, several elements, including belief in the interconnectedness of all things through forces and powers that transcend both physical and spiritual connections, invests special powers and forces in many things seen as symbols. The majority of the world’s peoples believe in real connections between symbols and their referents, and that some real and potentially measurable power or influence flows between them. There might be neurobiological basis for this, though the meaning, significance and specifics of symbols aren’t absolute, but culturally determined. Magical thinking accepts that transfer of energy or information between physical systems may take place solely because of their similarity or contiguity in time and space, &/or that one’s thought, words, or actions can achieve specific physical effects in a manner not governed by the principles of ordinary transmission of energy or information, and often, that wishing something can cause it to occur. Thoughts, words or actions assume a magical power, are able to prevent or cause events to happen without a physical action occurring; thinking equates with doing, and the individual assumes an importance rational science or philosophy is hard put to allow.
Thus, while appetite for such beliefs may appear to be rooted in the circuitry of the brain, it is also ego-reinforcing. Sense of having special powers buoys people in threatening situations, helps soothe everyday fears and wards off mental distress. But in excess, it can lead to compulsive or delusional behaviors. People who fashion themselves skeptics may yet cling to odd rituals that have no clear semblance to sense, yet can generate helpful faith – until they undermine genuinely productive efforts and become disabling.
The brain apparently has networks that specialize in producing explicit, magical explanations, in some circumstances, connecting otherwise unconnected dots, so to speak, in a manner easily preferred to rational explanations. A constant state of negotiation with the world results in bribery, promises, repetitious activity and sacrifices that cannot be scientifically demonstrated to achieve any results except to provide a kind of anxiety reducing reassurance, reassurance perhaps necessary.

Seven “laws” of magical thinking have been posited: “Objects Carry Essences” - everyday items become emotionally significant by taking on the spirit of their previous owners or unique pasts. “Symbols Have Power” - we confuse symbolic associations in our minds for causal relationships in the world. “Actions Have Distant Consequences” - superstitious rituals and attempts to channel luck through physical acts can bolster confidence. “The Mind Knows No Bounds” - belief in mind over matter, extrasensory perception, and transcendent experiences cannot be totally discounted. “The Soul Lives On” - it’s hard to believe that your mind dies when your body does. “The World Is Alive” - we often treat inanimate objects as conscious. And “Everything Happens for a Reason” as long as we insist that higher powers guide natural events. These “laws” apply equally to religion, ’though most Believers make clear distinction between Faith and magic!

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