How we think, what we spend our time thinking about, and the way we view and understand the world is important. If we fail to develop accurate beliefs in the world then we will make decisions based on causal structures that do not exist. Our actions, thoughts, and behaviors will inhibit knowledge for ourselves and others, and our species will be worse off because of it.
This idea is at the heart of Quassim Cassam’s book Vices of the Mind. Throughout our human history we have held many beliefs that cannot plausibly be true, or which we came to learn were incorrect over time. Cassam would argue (alongside others such as Steven Pinker, Yuval Noah Harari, and Joseph Henrich) that adopting more accurate and correct beliefs and promoting knowledge would help us systematically make better decisions to improve the life of our fellow humans. Learning where we were wrong and using science, technology, and information to improve our decision-making has helped our world become less violent, given us more opportunity, provided better nutrition, and allowed us to be more cooperative on a global level.
This is why Cassam addresses paranormal beliefs, superstitions, and conspiratorial thinking in his book. While examining conspiracy theories in depth, he writes, “studies have also found that belief in conspiracy theories is associated with superstitious and paranormal beliefs, and it has been suggested that these beliefs are associated because they are underpinned by similar thinking styles“ [italicized text is cited with Swami et al. 2011]. Cassam argues that conspiracy theories are different from the other two modes of thinking because they can sometimes be accurate in their descriptions of the world. Sometimes a politician truly is running a corruption scheme, sometimes a group of companies are conspiring to keep prices high, and sometimes a criminal organization is hiding nefarious activities in plain sight. Conspiratorial thinking in some instances can reveal real causal connections in the world.
However, conspiratorial thinking is often bizarre and implausible. When our conspiratorial thinking pushes us off the deep edge, then it does share important characteristics with superstitious and paranormal thinking. All three can be described by positing causal connections that cannot possibly exist between phenomena happening or imagined in the real world. They create explanations that are inaccurate and prevent us from identifying real information about the world. Superstitions posit causal connections between random and unconnected events and paranormal thinking posits causal connections between non-existent entities and real world events. Conspiratorial thinking seems to fall in line with both ways of thinking when it is not describing reality.
Over the last few years we have seen how conspiratorial thinking can be vicious, how it can inhibit knowledge, and how it can have real life and death consequences when it goes wrong. Superstitious thinking doesn’t generally seem to have as severe of consequences, but it still prevents us from making the best possible decisions and still drives us to adopt incorrect worldviews, sometimes entrenching unfair biases and prejudices. Paranormal thinking has been a foundation of many world religions and fables used to teach lessons and encourage particular forms of behavior. However, if it does not describe the world in a real way, then the value of paranormal thinking is minimized, and we should seriously consider the harms that can come from paranormal thinking, such as anxiety, suicide, or hours of lost sleep. These ideas are important to consider because we need to make the best possible decisions based on the most accurate information possible if we want to continue to advance human societies, to live sustainably, and to continue to foster cooperation and community between all humans on a global scale. Thinking accurately takes practice, so pushing against unwarranted conspiracy theories, superstitions, and paranormal beliefs helps us build our epistemic muscles to improve thinking overall.