Against Magical Thinking

October 17, 2009

by Roger Koppl

The term “magical thinking” has different meanings, most of them involving something like extrasensory perception or the efficacy of spells.  Here I define it as an argument, one of whose steps requires something impossible.  (Larry White helped me with this definition, but gets no blame for it or anything I say here.)  It is not magic thinking if your argument has an unexplained piece.  Darwin knew didn’t have anything like Mendelevian genetics as a mechanism.  That was a hole in his theory, eventually filled by others.  No magic there.  Magical thinking exists when one fills the gap with something that is logically or physically impossible.

If you can show I have engaged in magical thinking, you have overturned my argument.  Magical thinking in this sense is clearly to be rejected.  And yet we find magical thinking often in supposedly scientific reasoning.  Jacob Viner’s famous problems with the envelop theorem is a nice example.  Computable economics has revealed other examples of magical thinking in economics.  It turns out, for example, that best-reply strategies are not always computable, even in finite games.   Computing the Nash equilibrium does not necessarily get you around the infinite regress of “you think that I think.”  Imagining otherwise turns out to be magical thinking.

Following Lewis (“Some aspects of constructive mathematics that are relevant to the foundations of neoclassical mathematical economics and the theory of games,” Mathematical social sciences, 1992, 24, 209–235.) Tsuji, M., da Costa, & Doria ( “The incompleteness of theories of games,” Journal of philosophical logic, 1998, 27, 553–564) have shown that even finite games can be noncomputable.  Computability issue crop up in contexts we had thought of as “finite,” because our vague descriptions allow an infinite variety of finite games to fit the description. The problem here and in the best-reply result is that an infinite set of possibilities intrudes in an unexpected way.

Tsuji et al. draw the inference that rational economic planning under socialism may be impossible.  Here is what I say about that in my review of Velupillai (Computability, Complexity and Constructivity in Economic Analysis, Blackwell, 2005):

One can no longer answer Hayek (1935) and von Mises (1920), who argued that “rational” economic planning under socialism is impossible, by appealing to modern computers as have Lange (1967) and Cottrell and Cockshott (1993). Doing so turns out to be another example of magical thinking. Instead of implicitly assuming that rational agents can make impossible calculations, however, such arguments explicitly assume that magical computers can make impossible calculations. In reaching this result, da Costa and Doria have shown what advantage markets have over central planners: markets do not have to know what they are doing. Markets achieve their equilibria because the overall results are not planned and need not be computed. Needing to compute the result ahead of time, central planners have given themselves the impossible task of computing the future.

This blog’s dustup on evolutionary psychology provides another interesting example of magical thinking.  I defended evolutionary psychology against Gene Callahan’s criticisms in part by raising the example of landscape preference whereby, among other things, young children show a preference for the landscapes of our biological ancestors and do so more strongly the younger they are.  Gene asked, “as Bob Murphy notes, why wouldn’t evolution favor this preference arising more strongly in young adults, who actually might lead the tribe somewhere, rather than in young children?”  He refers to this comment at Free Advice:  “If you wanted to make a fitness story, wouldn’t it be the exact opposite? A young child has no influence over where the family / tribe sets up camp. If you wanted to give a bunch of ignorant apes an advantage, and could only program a preference for the savannah at a certain age range, then I’d stick it in the 13 – 25 year olds, not the 0 – 12 year olds.”

This is magical thinking, too.  This super-Planglossian interpretation of Darwin transforms natural selection from a filtering process that explains speciation into a magic wand that creates impossible adaptations on demand.  Murphy seems to basically accept Darwinism his discomfort with evolutionary psychology notwithstanding.  But I do think many creationists make natural selection magic and then point to its failure to produce super-Panglossian results as counter argument to the theory.

1 Corinthians 13:11 nicely expresses why we should not engage in magical thinking. “When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.”

20 Responses to “Against Magical Thinking”

  1. Silas Barta Says:

    Hm, I don’t see how Bob’s comment counts as magical thinking. I mean, it is anthropomorphizing natural selection, but everyone does that😛

    Bob is just saying that selection pressures would favor genes that program for a different timewise development of love of landscapes, not that some evolution fairy would think real hard about what would promote the genes, figure out what would work the best, and then insert a specific program, which is how you seem to be reading it.

    So the worst you can say is that Bob is being sloppy with specification of the mechanism.

  2. Mario Rizzo Says:

    I hardly think the author of Corinthians — traditionally considered to be St. Paul — should be used as an authority against magical thinking.

  3. Bob Murphy Says:

    Roger, if the experiments had turned out so that 12 – 24 year olds exhibited the preference for savannah trees, evolutionary psychologists would not have said, “Wow we’re stumped. It’s both logically and physically impossible that natural selection could have anything to do with these findings.”

    On the contrary, I expect they would have said, “All right! This looks like the obvious result of natural selection. We defy other disciplines to explain this result.”

    And that’s totally fine. Critics of the theory could come up with their rival explanations (that were equally consistent with the findings), and ideally they would propose a new experiment in which the two theories gave different predictions, to separate the wheat from the chaff.

    My only point in all of this, was that you thought you were showing Gene an example of where EP can’t “explain anything,” when in fact I think that’s just what you did.

    I won’t find a quote from Ayn Rand (a famous atheist) to bolster my point.

  4. koppl Says:


    I don’t want to insist too much on Bob and Gene. OTOH, I still sorta think my description fits. How could nature have so neatly programmed us that our preference for more habitable landscapes kicks in only at the age when, supposedly, we can act on it? As you say, no mechanism, just the supposed result.

    I am just starting to realize that they took me to say that fitness-enhancing landscape preferences exist only in little children who then outgrow them. I was, of course, saying only that fitness-enhancing preferences can be modified by experience in local environments for children living off the savanna. Still, their attempted comeback suggested to me the idea that evolution can magically produce the perfect design every time. If that were true we wouldn’t have a blind spot on the retina! Bob and Gene are not supporting the idea that evolution can magically produce everything, but imputing that view to certain defenders of evolution.

    The point about mechanism is huge and missed by some of the more vociferous critics of evolutionary psychology. They interpret EP to say that evolutionary magic has given us a finely tuned mental module for every possible problem; they then lampoon that evidently silly notion. Unfortunately, this mistaken criticism gets support from the fact that some evolutionary psychologists do play fast and loose with mechanism issues. Alas!


    Ironic, no?🙂


    If the preference for fitness-enhancing *African* landscapes kicked in only at age 12 it *would* be sensible to suspect an adaptation! The fact that persons with no experience of the savanna prefer landscapes that would be fitness-enhancing for our Pleistocene ancestors in Africa is the thing that seems to call for an evolutionary explanation. I think your comeback was meant to say that evolution predicted a more perfect adaptation and therefore the observed phenomenon did not look much like an adaptation.

  5. koppl Says:

    Here’s what you said, Bob:
    And then, why the added “confirmation” that the preference fades with age? If you wanted to make a fitness story, wouldn’t it be the exact opposite? A young child has no influence over where the family / tribe sets up camp. If you wanted to give a bunch of ignorant apes an advantage, and could only program a preference for the savannah at a certain age range, then I’d stick it in the 13 – 25 year olds, not the 0 – 12 year olds.

    So you’re saying a more finely tuned adaptation better fits evolutionary logic. Anyway, that sure how it looked to me.

  6. Gene Callahan Says:

    “How could nature have so neatly programmed us that our preference for more habitable landscapes kicks in only at the age when, supposedly, we can act on it?”

    That would be unbelievable. It would be as though, say, evolution had set things up so that we began to get really interested in the other sex, say, just as we started to be able to reproduce! And we know nothing that ridiculous could ever happen.

  7. Bogdan Enache Says:

    Slightly off topic : Magical thinking, according to Weber, historians of religion and many others, is one of the first forms of rationalization; the monotheistic theology – Jewish, Christian or even Muslim – is one of the most developed form of religious metaphysical rationalization. The propensity for metaphysical thinking – in religious or secular form – is deeply ingrained in the nature of human beings, notwithstanding how many gaps in the explanation science – itself an elaborate and complex autonomous process of rationalization – fills and then opens back, and so on…

  8. koppl Says:

    I completely take that correction, Gene. And I think Bob’s comment was premised on the misunderstanding I noted in my response to Silas. So I’ll withdraw him as an example too. My apologies to both Gene and Bob for mistakenly using them as examples of magical thinking.

    I do still think some critics of evolution give it a super-Planglossian interpretation that transforms natural selection from a filtering process that explains speciation into a magic wand that creates impossible adaptations on demand. Many thanks to anyone who might give me a couple of nice clean examples.

    I think some defenders and some critics of Hayek’s evolutionary arguments fall into the same error, although I don’t have a nifty example ready to hand. Andy Denis has a paper in Constitutional Political Economy specifically charging Hayek with Panglossianism, but I don’t recall the article well enough to know whether he fits the pattern I’ve been talking about.

  9. Gene Callahan Says:

    Thanks for your graciousness here, Roger.

    In response, let me note what I think is an absolutely brilliant application of Darwinian thinking. I’m not going to look up everything I say here, so I may get some details wrong, but I think that doesn’t matter because I believe I have the gist of the case correct, and I don’t think anyone in this discussion will try to dispute this gist.

    The question on the table was the diffrent distribution of lactose tolerance amongst the world’s people. It was obviously clear that lactose tolerance was more prevalent amongst “herding” people than amongst others. (But note that it is present in both populations.) What recent studies (apparently) have shown is that this tolerance developed after herding began to be practiced.

    As I understand it, a gene has been isolated that enables the digestion of lactose. This gene functioned so that this ability, in humans circa 10,000 years ago, was almost always turned ‘off’ as children passed the nursing stage. But not always!

    So we have variation within a population, ready to be selected. Then, certain of these people began herding (milk-giving) livestock. It seems that, within a couple of thousands years, in those populations the gene shut-off ceased to operate for the majority of those people.

    This difference is somewhat racially distributed, but far from decisively. Northern Europeans are more lactose tolerant than Southern Europeans. Asians are often lactose intolerant, but not so with the Tibetans or Mongolians, both herders. Africans are largely lactose intolerant, but not so with herders like the Masai.

    In this case, I don’t see how any reasonable person could doubt the Darwinian story. We have a population with variability ready to be selected for or against in particular cases. We have isolated the genetic factor involved. We have a sudden introduction of a rich source of nutrition into certain groups but not others. After that introduction, we see exactly what Darwin would have predicted: the formerly rare mutation of being able to digest lactose as an adult rapidly spreads through the groups where that mutation has suddenly become highly advantageous.

    This can hardly be termed a ‘just so’ story, since the opposite result (lactose intolerance becoming more prevalent in herding peoples) would have been stunning and quite inexplicable on Darwinian terms.

    This is a brilliant use of Darwinism — and, I suggest, quite different from the suggestion that rapists are obeying a ‘rape module’ in their brains demanding that, if they can’t reproduce otherwise, they ought to resort to force.

  10. koppl Says:

    Funny you mention rape. In my review of the book, “Evolutionary Forensic Psychology” (Evolution & Human Behavior, 2009, 30(5): 377-379) I identify rape as a hot-button issue in discussions of evolutionary psychology. It’s a real lightening rod. It’s also an issue, IMHO, where some of the Darwinians have really dropped the ball. I criticize one chapter’s model of
    the ‘opportunistic rapist,’ who rape ‘if the associated benefits . . . outweigh the costs’ (p. 108). The opportunistic rapist, it seems, is the perfect economist rightly weighing costs and benefits. If natural selection could produce such refined choice, why bother with Charles Darwin when we’ve got Gary Becker?

    That’s a shame in my view as I suspect rape probably is an adaptation, especially considering the existence of “coercive sex” in other animals:

    My error in using you and Bob as examples of magical thinking has gotten us far away from the topic of my original post. I think magical thinking (as I have defined it) is a widespread phenomenon in science and popular culture both. Think of Laplace’s idea that you could infer the future of the universe if you had the “motion” of each particle. Cop shows on TV are all about magical thinking. They remind me of a scene from “To Kill a Mockingbird” in which Jem infers from tracks in the ground that Boo Radley has a long jagged scar across his face! I wonder if jurors are subject to magical thinking when considering forensic-science evidence.

  11. Bob Murphy Says:

    Some sundry thoughts:

    * Roger, I appreciate you conceded some things to Gene and me. That is such a rarity on the internet that I almost don’t know what to do with myself. (Maybe I’ll pour myself a tall glass of milk and browse pictures of African trees.)

    * FWIW, now that I am simulating your mind, I realize that I probably came off as a Bible-thumping hick who thinks the theory of evolution is obviously dumb. But that’s not what I was doing (I hope!) in these exchanges. E.g. when I was a professor at Hillsdale a wrote a letter to the editor decrying a student who had claimed that the laws of thermodynamics “proved” that Darwin was wrong. I asked if the student “believed in” solar-power calculators. So you see, I can manage to annoy everyone in this debate. (Gene and I are quite similar in this regard.)

    * Just to be clear, my point wasn’t to say, “That’s dumb Roger, why would evolution have made it the way you describe? Clearly, if it’s evolution at work, we would have a preference for the best trees at age 12-24, and we would have laser beams in our eyes to hunt lions.” To repeat, what I was trying to demonstrate was that you were (in my opinion) fooling yourself for thinking that the preferences for the trees among only the young “clinched it” as the work of evolution, because I could have told an even more compelling evolutionary story if the preferences had been found among a different age cohort.

    * I realize there are important reasons that the objection applies to one group versus the other, but I note that atheists do the same thing. E.g. if a believer in Genesis says, “I believe that God designed the human body; look how complex the eye is!” then the standard modern Darwinist response is to (a) give a story accounting for the eye through natural selection and (b) claim, “If I were God, I would have designed the better much better than this clunky thing we have.” So part (b) is analogous to your complain here. Yes, God is omnipotent and so *could* give us laser beam eyes, but it is not taking the Christian worldview seriously to simply assert, “This is what your God would have done, so there.” After all, God (if He exists) allowed Hitler etc., so the mere fact that I get leg cramps doesn’t disprove Genesis.

  12. koppl Says:


    Well, I seem to have given you the idea that landscape preferences evaporate during childhood, which would indeed make the whole thing pretty hard to squeeze into a Darwinian box. I didn’t what the misunderstanding was until I was responding to Silas here. Alas!

    “After all, God (if He exists) allowed Hitler etc., so the mere fact that I get leg cramps doesn’t disprove Genesis.” Yeah, Christians are somehow not bothered enough by the problem of evil to give it up. Personally, I can’t get around that one. Anyway, I completely agree that magical thinking is a non-sectarian vice. It’s all over. Lots of social scientists engage in magical thinking, and at least some Darwinians fall into magical thinking on evolution. I gotta figure there’s a lot of it in the physical sciences too, but I have no specific grounds for saying so. Often the magic slips in when we implicitly assume information costs are zero.

  13. Greg Ransom Says:

    Magicalmdoes not equal impossible.

    Martians may have drained your gas tank. This is a rivalmexplanation for an empty gas tank. I is not impossible, but there is no evidence for it, and it’s fantastical. There are more plausible rival explanations.

    Philosopher Larry Wright has done a lot of work looking at explanatory rivals and their role in explanation.

  14. Greg Ransom Says:

    Darwin had to account for adaptation as part of his explanation of speciation. He had to account for both things.

    It turned out that accounting for the first provided part of the mechanism explaining the second.

    Ernst Mayr is great on the explanatory problem and solution provided by Darwin.

  15. koppl Says:


    Yes on speciation and adaptation. On the other point: I stipulated a definition. True, the martian thing would seem to escape the labeo, but I think my stipulated meaning is useful for my purposes. It is helping me get something straight in my head. But if you pressed me hard on what that purpose is, I don’t know whether I could articulate it adequately. Well, that’s part of what great about blogging: you think out loud get rapid feedback.

  16. koppl Says:

    I meant “label” not “labeo” of course

  17. teageegeepea Says:

    The Masai actually have a different mutation allowing for lactose tolerance than the one found in Indo-Europeans. Greg Cochran & Henry Harpending give a great account of that and other recent (for some values of “recent”) changes in “The 10,000 Year Explosion.

  18. […] Roger Koppl has an excellent discussion of the logical contradiction involved with 'magical […]

  19. Potpourri Says:

    […] Cage Match: Gene Callahan & Bob Murphy vs. Roger Koppl & St. Paul. No matter who wins, we lose. No Responses to […]

  20. gcallah Says:

    Where is that screen where I can unsubscribe to comments?

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