Ch1 L30: Beliefs – part VI (Magics)

  1. The concept of causality [1] has enabled us to react to causes instead of effects and the belief [2] in it has directed us to look for the causes of phenomena. In fact, we can analyze the history of Sapiens based on the type of causes they’ve assigned to the things around.
  2. Sir James Frazer [3], in “The golden bough” [4], has categorized the three eras: the magic, religion, then science era. Since there are people who still believe in magic or religion, we can say that the categories would reflect the evolution of the mind rather than being the historical landmarks.
  3. According to Frazer, in the magic era, humankind believes that what they themselves do cause circumstances. This delusional overestimation of their power might be the result of their ability to build tools (since they saw that they could change things, they prematurely generalized [5] that they could cause everything) or their undeveloped childlike brains. An infant thinks that the world ceases to exist when they close their eyes. Piaget [6] said that it takes up to 2 years that they can form the concept of object permanence [7] which means that the world still exists when you close your eyes. I’d like to say that a child would perceive that the world wouldn’t exist without them which could lead to the egotistic belief that I’m the center of the universe [8].
  4. For example, “the Mikado [9], the spiritual emperor of Japan, was obliged to sit on the throne for some hours every morning, with the imperial crown on his head, but to sit altogether like a statue, without stirring either hands or feet, head or eyes, nor indeed any part of his body, because, by this means, it was thought that he could preserve peace and tranquillity in his empire; for if, unfortunately, he turned himself on one side or the other, or if he looked a good while towards any part of his dominions, it was apprehended that war, famine, fire, or some great misfortune was near at hand to desolate the country.” [10]
  5. “Similar priestly or rather divine kings are found, at a lower level of barbarism, on the west coast of Africa. At Shark Point near Cape Padron, in Lower Guinea, lives the priestly king Kukulu, alone in a wood. He may not touch a woman nor leave his house; indeed he may not even quit his chair, in which he is obliged to sleep sitting, for if he lay down no wind would arise and navigation would be stopped. He regulates storms, and in general, maintains a wholesome and equable state of the atmosphere.” [11]
  6. These and numerous examples that Frazer discussed in “The golden bough” show how humankind, in the early cognitive stage, believed that their actions could cause some natural circumstances/disasters. Therefore, they tried to find a way to change the causes which formed the magic era.
  7. Our curious ancestors tried to relate things to each other based on the law I called the law of adjacency [12] which can be spatial, temporal and conceptual (similarity). Two or more adjacent things are related to each other. If we add causality to the notion, then we can conclude that they will also affect one another. It’s correct that two similar things can be connected. The problem, however, is if the similarity is one dimensional, then the relation between the other dimensions is meaningless.
  8. That’s where they went astray. They thought that physical resemblance can induce similar results in other dimensions. For example, a hunter who tattooed the figure of a tiger on his body believed that they’d capture its power and they’d hunt more successfully. Their drawings or paintings of hunting also indicate the same type of magic.
  9. We shouldn’t completely discredit what they achieved. First of all, the belief that they’d hunt like a tiger, boosted their confidence which we earlier discussed is an imaginary estimation of our power [13]. Dealing with less stress made them braver, thus increased their chance of success. So, it shouldn’t be surprising that they believed the figure of the tiger had some sort of power.
  10. Secondly, the drawings developed their imagination and enabled them to create abstract ideas [14]. When you outline a tiger, you see something in it which doesn’t exist. There’s no line to separate a tiger from its environment the way we perceive. That’s an astonishing achievement for the brain.
  11. Thirdly, they were thinking about hunting, preparing themselves mentally to concentrate only on the prey and not anything else.
  12. Lastly, they weren’t totally wrong. Forms can induce meanings [15]. Wear a devil mask and you tend to think and plan diabolically.
  13. Daniel Kahneman [16] in “Thinking, fast and slow” [17] tells us many examples of how the form of experience can direct our feelings or thoughts. In an experiment, some researchers asked each experimentee to take the lift to another floor. In the lift, a guy asked each to hold his coffee cup so he could tie his shoelace. For one group the cup was cold and for the other warm. After the experimentees left the lift, they were casually asked if they’d met the guy and how he was. Those who held the warm cup evaluated him warmer and friendlier.
  14. In the next post, we continue investigating magics.


[1] We discussed causality in the previous post. Link

[2] This is the 6th post about beliefs. You can refer to the first post to catch up with the story. Link

[3] Link to the Wiki page about Sir James George Frazer.

[4] Link to the PDF of “The golden bough” which is highly recommended.

[5] Link to the post about generalization.

[6] We used Jean Piaget’s ideas on intelligence before. How a child develops intelligence through assimilation and accommodation. Link

[7] Link to the Wiki page on “object permanence”.

[8] The main problem that the Catholic church had with Galileo‘s discovery was he proved that the earth wasn’t the center of the universe. Link

[9] Link to the Wiki page about Mikado

[10] Imagine how they’d react if the Mikado sneezed.

[11] Both examples are from “The golden bough”.

[12] Link to the first post I defined the law of adjacency to explain how the brain connects things to each other.

[13] We talked about how confidence could affect the fight-flight response in the 3rd post. Link

[14] Link to the post about concepts and abstraction.

[15] We started the study of meaning from the 13th post and we’re still on the same path since beliefs are meanings with high amplitude or frequency. Link

[16] Link to the Wiki page about Daniel Kahneman

[17] Earlier we used some of Kahneman’s ideas about thinking from “Thinking, fast and slow”, another must-read book. Link


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