Chet Raymo on Santa Claus, Hot Stoves, and the Blooming, Buzzing Confusion

We cannot live without some sorts of make-believe in our lives. Without made-up maps of the world, life is a buzzing, blooming confusion. Some elements of our mental maps (Santa Claus) satisfy emotional or aesthetic inner needs; other elements of our mental maps (a hot stove) satisfy intellectual curiosity about the world out there. We get in trouble when the two kinds of maps are confused, when we objectify elements of make-believe solely on the basis of inner need.

The passage is from Chet Raymo’s book Skeptics and True Believers: The Exhilarating Connection between Science and Religion (1998). Raymo is Professor Emeritus of Physics, raised as a Catholic, with a religious sensibility alongside a firm skepticism. He recently stopped posting on his blog, Science Musings, but the inspiring archives remain open.

We all carry around mental maps of the world—images and words that guide us—that should not be confused with the real world itself. Raymo writes about the two kinds of entries on our maps. Some entries reflect our neediness, since we were children, for emotional comfort, simple explanations, and a sense of our own importance. Santa Claus is on the map for many children. When we’re adults, other superstitions, miracles and astrology often take Santa’s place. Such beliefs help many of us make sense of the world. They also help us feel we have a place in it, for there is nothing worse than thinking that we are only insignificant specks.

As Raymo puts it, these are beliefs about what we yearn for. In contrast, we also put on our maps more objectively realistic items that we learn about. These include the facts that stoves can burn us and that dinosaurs and humans did not walk the earth at the same time.

Artificial island in the Maldives, in the Indian Ocean (pinterest)

An artificial island in the Maldives, in the Indian Ocean

But—and here’s what makes the book so valuable—Raymo is not saying simply that we should value the learn items and let go of the yearn ones. For a person who values only objective knowledge runs the risk of becoming cold and arrogant. We need a mix of worthwhile knowledge along with an appreciation of what we don’t know and yearn to understand.

Raymo’s central metaphor for all this is that our map resembles an island in a sea of mystery. The island is our knowledge and the sea is the actual, mysterious, and infinite universe around us. On our island, “We dredge up soil from the bed of mystery and build ourselves room to grow. And still the mystery surrounds us. It laps at our shores. It permeates the land.” When such thinkers as Galileo and Einstein illuminate some of the mystery, that mystery sweeps in on a tidal wave and overwhelms much of what we thought we had known for sure. So we rebuild.

As we expand the island and extend its shores, the border between the land and the sea, instead of shrinking, grows longer. That is, the more we know about the objective world, the more that the mysteries of existence beckon the scientists, artists, and other creative people who are open to them. Raymo’s book appeared in 1998, but his metaphor of this extended shoreline fits well with recent discoveries of the many planets circling other stars and with the neuro-imaging of the brain. Both advances in knowledge have, instead of dulling our sense of mystery, excited and extended it.

Where on the island, Raymo asks, do we find the best and most creative work being done? At the shoreline. “We are at our human best as creatures of the shore, with one foot on the hard ground of fact and one foot in the mystery of the sea.”

The stance describes Raymo himself. And it reminds me that to relish both our knowledge of living things along with our sense of the mystery of being alive is a good place to be.

Magical Thinking: Happy, Healthy, or Hazardous?

Do you make wishes over birthday candles? That’s magical thinking. Have you crossed your fingers, wished someone good luck, tried to “push” the long fly ball fair or foul? Magical thinking. Do you pray for people or feel sure that after you die some part of you will go on existing somewhere? Spiritual beliefs too are viewed by some as magical thinking.

The 7 Laws of Magical Thinking: How Irrational Beliefs Keep us Happy, Healthy, and Sane by Matthew Hutson is a perceptive and well-written book. Magical thinking takes place when “we treat the physical world as though it had mental properties” that we can influence. Our minds, we think, can reach out beyond our bodies to inanimate entities—from objects to time itself—that have the capacity to respond.

Adults blowing out candles

Making a magical wish.

We indulge in magical thinking because, all in all, it’s good for us, according to Hutson. It has evolved through natural selection because it boosts our confidence and our sense of control, crucial ingredients for human survival in a chaotic world.

Far from a sign of stupidity or weakness, magical thinking exemplifies many of the habits of mind that made humans so successful. Once you’ve accepted that the brain constructs reality, and that the brain has evolved like any other organ to help its owner survive and reproduce, it follows that the brain constructs reality in the most useful way possible for its owner. The key word here is useful, which is not to say accurate.  The brain doesn’t care so much what’s really out there; it just needs to stay alive and be replicated, which might involve telling us a white lie now and again.

Hutson demonstrates how thoroughly magical thinking permeates our lives; his seven “laws” are actually seven categories: meaningful objects, the power of symbols, action at a distance, people-like animals, telepathy, the afterlife, fate. Magical thinking is more than just superstition. It helps get us through the day in big ways and small, consciously and unconsciously.

Marilyn M on reasons

The appeal of magical thinking

But magical thinking has its critics. Its attractions fall away quickly when it results in genocide, persecution, bigotry, domestic violence, child abuse, and run-of-the-mill unhappiness. Stuart Sutherland’s Irrationality offers a comprehensive discussion, with chapters on “Conformity,” “Ignoring the Evidence,” “Overconfidence,” and “False Inferences.” Hutson acknowledges throughout his book that magical thinking has its dangers, but his emphasis is on its value. As he sums up in his New York Times op-ed on the subject,

Which isn’t to say magical thinking has no downside. At its worst, it can lead to obsession, fatalism or psychosis. But without it, the existential angst of realizing we’re just impermanent clusters of molecules with no ultimate purpose would overwhelm us.

Joan of Arc (

Magical thinking as horror: the burning of Joan of Arc (

I’m on Hutson’s side. If the main effect of our projecting awareness on to entities of all kinds had added mostly misery to our lives, it seems to me such imaginings would have dropped from our mental skill set long ago. Maybe we can stay comfortable with harmless magical thinking while we learn to curtail its murderous side. Keep your fingers crossed.