Born Thinking Magically: James Alcock on Confusing Labels for Knowledge

If you’ve been around the secular community for any length of time, you’ve probably heard the cliché that goes, “we are all born atheist.” I bristle at it, because it’s not as though we come into the world affirmatively rejecting the supernatural beings hypothesis. It’s kind of like saying we’re born undecided voters.

James Alcock is our first CSICon speaker, and he’s talking about how human beings make associations between things that actually have no relationship. He began with circular explanations for things that actually give us no information, as when one asks, “why does the apple fall from the tree,” and the answer is, “because of gravity.” How do we know gravity is operating? Because the apple fell, silly.

“We confuse labels for knowledge,” says Alcock. No real information comes out of that.

It applies to things like the association of prayer with events in the real world: one prays to get over an illness, one gets over the illness, and it’s falsely assumed that prayer works.

But here’s the thing. We’re wired for this. Alcock explains that we have evolved to perceive agency in things that have none, to make associations that might not exist. Believing comes naturally.

Critical thinking is one of the last intellectual skills human children develop. We’re not born atheist, you see. As we learned from Alcock today, “We are born as magical thinkers.” I think that just makes skeptics’ work all the more important.