Paradoxes in Thinking?

thinkTowards the middle of the semester in my “Writing Arguments” class, I introduce students to fallacies and flaws that unintentionally, and many times intentionally, creep into arguments. These are fallacies with which most of us are familiar, if not by their name then by their usage, and ones that the media uses frequently and judiciously. Informal fallacies are common, rhetorical tools of politicians and pundits, but they are the fundamental and foundational basis of argument for conspiracy theorists. Read through that wiki list of fallacies and then think about arguments proposed from the likes of Holocaust deniers, 9/11 Truthers, Creationists, NWO believers, etc.

Fallacies are akin to what James Frazer termed “magical thinking.” Magical thinking allows an ignorant mind to make sense of the world in non-scientific terms. Arthur C. Clarke famously stated that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Indeed, we encourage this type of thinking in children whether we mean to or not. Every time a child asks “What was that noise in the sky,” and we reply “God bowling” instead of explaining thunder–every time we tell a child “Don’t say that because it might come true,”–every time we encourage a child to believe in Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, or the Tooth Fairy, we encourage them towards magical thinking as a valid, problem-solving mindset.

Fallacious logic and magical thinking bring out the worst in humanity. Willful ignorance only spawns more willful ignorance, and once the feedback loop begins it’s difficult to end.

Now, I do my best to steer students away from this type of thinking in my classes, but I’m only one person, and I can only do so much. Also, I’m only human, and therefore I’m not immune to fallacies and magical thinking.

But while I do my best to eschew this type of thinking in myself and my students, I have to admit, I’m a little hesitant to do so. I’m terrified that by pushing away fallacies and magical thinking that I’ll also be pushing away imaginative sympathies and my ability to daydream. Some of the most beautiful pieces of art and literature the world has ever known were born out of magical thinking, and I’m not no so sure that silencing that aspect of my brain, or my students’ brains, is necessarily a good thing. Can evolutionary biology and evolutionary psychology explain the existence of systems of morals and values as adaptive and selective mechanisms? Absolutely. Sadly, those explanations are scientifically dense and dry, and they are no where near as magical, nor nearly as beautiful, as the story of the Garden of Eden.

Fortunately, people like Isaac Asimov, Mark Twain, Terry Pratchett, Kurt Vonnegut, and George Orwell have shown us that magical thinking doesn’t have to squash rationalism and logic.

The inherent problem is that apparently you actually have to be someone like Isaac Asimov, Mark Twain, Terry Pratchett, Kurt Vonnegut, or George Orwell to keep those two disparate mindsets in check. No small task, that.



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  1. Laila says:

    “The inherent problem is that apparently you actually have to be someone like Isaac Asimov, Mark Twain, Terry Pratchett, Kurt Vonnegut, or George Orwell to keep those two disparate mindsets in check. No small task, that.”

    Ah, but if they weren’t such amazing people you would never have listed them, because then you wouldn’t know they exist. A logical fallacy, that.

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