Separating the Wheat from the Chaff: Critical Thinking Skills for Pagans

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Athena, Greek goddess of wisdom and rational thought.

(Excerpted from “The Wiccan Mystic”, chapter four.)

Information on the occult and on alternative religious paths such as Wicca is readily available now more than ever before. Most mainstream bookstores carry at least a few books with titles like “Easy Wicca” or “Casting Spells in 3 Simple Steps,” or might have a wider selection from scholarly philosophical tomes to straightforward how-to books. It’s easier than ever now to get your hands on information that used to be accessible only to those who had joined secret occult groups. Not so long ago you had to be lucky enough to find a group nearby and had to go through extensive training before being shown even the basics such as how to read Tarot cards or how to cast a magick circle.

People learn through a variety of methods that depend on the personality, background, and capabilities of both the student and teacher. Some people absorb concepts easily through reading, others through hearing the concept explained verbally, and others learn best through hands-on doing. Different teachers or sources of information have their own presentation styles that might emphasize one learning style over another. Sources of information, whether printed books or flesh-and-blood teachers, are also fallible and make mistakes. A good education is usually the result of the student seeking out a variety of sources so they can hopefully fill in the gaps in their education and correct misconceptions. Lessons that might not be absorbed through one source’s teaching style can be picked up when repeated through another source’s variation on that lesson. The most valuable lessons can come from the cheesy “Wicca Made E-Z” books just as they can from the densest scholarly tome. When the Divine speaks to us should we refuse to listen because the message is presented in a way other than a university course lecture?

With all this information now freely available it is easy to be overwhelmed with the diversity of choices.

Increased diversity also brings a greater number of conflicting theories that attempt to explain the basic ideas. There is a greater need now for those exploring the occult in particular to develop a healthy skepticism. Knowing how to sort the useful information from the less useful is an essential skill for anyone exploring the occult.

One thing to keep in mind is that despite claims to the contrary occultism is more an art than a science. Science is a process where explanations are based on observations that can be repeated and verified, explanations are challenged and tested, and results must be reproduced reliably to justify those explanations. Explanations that are tested and disproved are abandoned. To be truly scientific tests must always produce the same results no matter who is conducting the experiment. Art, on the other hand, is very much a matter of personal preference. What is considered significant art for one person might be irrelevant for another. Things like proof and the ability to always reproduce results exactly are not necessarily important in art. Art is more about self-expression and an interaction between the individual and the environment or the individual and an idea, while science is more about hard and unchangeable facts.

There are certainly elements of science in occultism. There are myriad theories, systems, and explanations that try to describe the universe and the role of humanity. Some of these theories adopt scientific terms in an attempt to impress while missing the important point that to be scientific the theories must be testable and provable. Making a theory sound scientific unfortunately doesn’t mean that it is.

Philosophers have identified an impressive list of fallacious arguments that can serve as helpful guards against mistakes. If one of the main points of studying occultism is to discover what really works for us, educating ourselves in how to spot errors in thought will help us to avoid wasting our time examining theories which prove groundless.

Common Fallacious Arguments

This is just a summary of common fallacious arguments. There are undoubtedly more, and are indeed the subject of numerous books.

Just because something is possible doesn’t mean that it is real.
For example, it is possible that a species of dinosaur evolved to look just like modern humans, and this species is secretly dwelling among us. This does not mean that it is true unless verifiable proof could be produced. Many things are possible but aren’t true.

Just because something hasn’t been disproven doesn’t mean that it must be true.
This is a common assumption among occultists. There are many people promoting their own occult theories who insist that their theories must be true since they haven’t been disproved. To be true, an idea must withstand attempts to disprove it, but must also succeed in tests to prove it.
For example, I could claim that I can teleport from one location to another without physically moving through the intervening space. My claim isn’t proven just because it hasn’t been disproven; I must still prove that I can actually teleport.

Just because something hasn’t been proven doesn’t mean that it’s false.
This is the flip side of saying something must be true because it hasn’t been disproven. Often skeptics will go too far by insisting something could not possibly be true because it hasn’t been proven.
For example, the claim that the Earth orbits the Sun was true even before Copernicus proved it mathematically. Proof just confirms the truth of a claim.

Just because something hasn’t been explained doesn’t mean it’s supernatural.
The word supernatural means outside the bounds of nature. Just because something is not explained does not mean it is not natural. Many things are natural regardless of our inability to understand them.
There are frequent cases where an ill person recovers and doctors are at a loss to explain why the patient was healed. In many of these cases, people claim that the healing was miraculous or supernatural. With enough study, however, it is likely that science will discover a perfectly rational and natural explanation for why the illness was overcome.

Just because something seems real doesn’t mean that it is.
Our senses can sometimes be fooled into accepting things that aren’t really as they seem. For instance, optical illusions can fool our eyes into believing that in certain locations gravity appears to allow objects to roll uphill, or tall people appear to be the same height as short people. Careful examination of the situation though reveals that a clever use of angles and specific points of view can fool our eyes. Similarly, uncritical observers can be fooled by charlatans into believing they have witnessed occult phenomena when in fact they are seeing sleight-of-hand tricks.

Just because you believe something is true doesn’t mean that it is true.
There are many beliefs that were firmly and genuinely held which have proven to be false. For instance, at one time it was common to believe that the Earth was the center of the universe, and the sun and other heavenly bodies orbited us. Many people firmly believed this was true although now it has been quite thoroughly refuted. Sincerity and strength of belief does not make something true.

Something doesn’t become more true because more people believe it.
The vast majority of people once believed the sun and planets (and indeed the whole universe) revolved around the Earth. This belief was still just as incorrect regardless how many people believed.

Something doesn’t become more true because it is old.
This is a common misconception in the occult community. Some people consider old ideas to be more true than new ideas merely because they are old.
An idea might be true if it has been proven repeatedly and has withstood attempts to disprove it. In this case, an idea that happens to be old might in fact be more valid than a competing idea that is newer, but the difference is really a matter of testing and not of age.
Old ideas are frequently replaced with new ideas in science, as old ideas are refuted and new ideas prove true through testing. It is this replacement of old ideas with new more suitable ideas that accounts for advances in technology and medicine. If older were always better, then we would still be using slide rules for performing calculations, and these new-fangled computers would likely not exist. And there would be no such thing as faster, more capable computers becoming available to make older models pale in comparison.

There is an external reality that is independent of our perceptions of it.
Trees that fall in the forest still hit the ground regardless whether there are any humans around to observe or not. Birds that sing in the depths of the Amazon still produce sound, fish in the unexplored depths of the ocean still eat and reproduce and die, microbes still flourish regardless whether any humans realize they are there or not. There are an uncountable multitude of stars, solar systems, and galactic objects that orbit and spin in their cycles from before we came to be and will exist long after we are gone. Humans are just a small part of the universe. It is supremely arrogant for us to act as though everything exists on some human whim.

The more a claim conflicts with proven facts, the more reason to doubt the claim.
The process of learning involves building on what you already know, what has already proven to be a collection of reliable explanations which accurately predict phenomena. When new claims appear to conflict with existing reliable explanations, there needs to be a good explanation for why this should be true. In many cases it turns out that the new claim involves a phenomenon that is not accurately understood, and the proposed explanation is misleading rather than illuminating.
Proving the validity of a claim through rigorous testing is the only way to truly prove or disprove a claim.

Just because someone is an expert in one field does not mean they are an expert in another.
People who are experts in one field sometimes succumb to an over inflated sense of self-importance, and act as though their expertise extends to topics they haven’t studied. This sort of arrogance has a tendency to make the expert appear like a fool, and sometimes tarnishes their reputation even in their area of expertise.
One historical example of this is Margaret Murray’s post-retirement books on witchcraft in Europe and the United Kingdom. Murray was (and still is) considered to have made valuable contributions in her area of expertise, Egyptology. Unfortunately she made a lot of rather remarkable claims about European history regarding witchcraft that have been refuted quite soundly by people who are actual experts in this field. While her witchcraft theories were largely discredited her Egyptology work is still considered authoritative.

Look at disproving as well as confirming evidence when evaluating a claim.
People who have a specific agenda or claim to promote are often accused of selective presentation of the evidence. It’s easy to impress others with a claim when only supportive evidence is presented. A more honest approach is to present a truly representative sample of the evidence which includes both supportive and discrediting material. Allowing people to make up their own minds is always wiser than trying to force a particular conclusion.

A claim is scientific only if it is testable.
Some claims just can’t be tested because of the nature of the claim. For example, I could claim that in the year 1037 for thirteen days there was a colony of extraterrestrials who lived on the surface of our Sun, protected from the harsh environment by special ice houses which slowly melted. Since we do not have any method available to us currently that would either confirm or deny this claim, it cannot be considered scientific. A claim must be testable and the test must be designed to produce either a clear positive or negative outcome if it is to be considered scientific.

The best hypothesis is one that makes the most accurate predictions.
Occultism is not just about exploring the mysterious but is also about finding practical methods to help us live more fully. Mystical or magickal theories are entertaining but need to have practical uses to make them last. If an explanation enables accurate results to be obtained then that explanation is more valuable than one that is strictly theoretical and untestable.

The best hypothesis is the simplest one that explains the widest range of observations.
Scientific study has shown that in many cases the simplest explanation turns out to be the most trustworthy, the explanation that is most useful in accurately predicting phenomena. When examining two competing explanations simplicity and elegance tends to win out through testing.

A hypothesis, no matter how extraordinary, should be accepted if no ordinary one would suffice.
The whole point of an explanation is to accurately describe what is being observed and possibly also show how the phenomenon is produced. If an explanation proves reliable for predicting the phenomena and withstands tests to disprove it then it is likely the explanation is valid. This is true even though the explanation might appear to be extraordinary. Sometimes skeptics go too far in doubting and disbelieve an explanation even after it has been clearly proven.

Anecdotal evidence does not substitute for tests to prove a claim.
Anecdotal evidence is one popular way to mislead towards a desired conclusion by only presenting supportive evidence. No matter what the claim there are always at least one or two people who are willing to come forward with amazing stories to support the claim. It doesn’t matter there are thousands of instances where the claim is disproved as those will of course be carefully omitted.
Carefully constructed tests with obvious positive or negative possible results, which are repeatable and verifiable, are the only real way to confirm a claim. If a claim is to stand up it must be able to withstand possible negative evidence and show how it is true in spite of apparently disproving evidence.

An idea can be true even though its source is questionable.
It does help when examining a claim to look at the character of the person making the claim, to suggest possible motives and methods that this claim could prove to be deceptive. Despite the character of the messenger, however, a claim must still stand on its own merits and withstand appropriate tests. Just because the person making a claim might have been a liar in the past doesn’t mean that they are necessarily telling a lie right now. Be skeptical but examine the evidence and then determine if the claim is true or not.
In the occult community, it happens that people will allow prejudices to influence them towards discounting information. For example, due to the image of the Ouija board in the media and pop culture many practicing occultists refuse to accept there might be any validity to its use. Messages or phenomena that come through the channel of the Ouija board are discounted out of hand as frivolous, while the same information or phenomena produced through other methods such as a pendulum, tarot reading, scrying, or dream work is considered valid. The message should be examined on its own merit regardless of opinions about the messenger that brought it forward.

Insulting the messenger does not make their message untrue.
When engaging in discussion about a particular claim some participants resort to insulting their opponent rather than addressing the issue. This tactic, called an ad hominem attack, does not invalidate a claim made by an opponent. If anything, it just makes the one flinging personal insults to appear incapable of supporting their own position. People with the facts to back them up don’t need to resort to distraction to try and win the favour of onlookers.

An idea is not made more or less true by our emotions or desires.
Unfortunately we sometimes invest a lot of emotion into particular claims being true. Perhaps we really like someone who made the claim and are trying to strengthen a personal relationship with them so we take their side in believing a claim. Perhaps we have invested a lot of energy in examining a particular claim and would feel a loss of face if the claim were disproved. Perhaps the claim is one that we worked hard in crafting ourselves through our own personal observations and feel that an attack on our claim is an attack on our person.
In all these cases the strength of one’s emotional involvement in a claim has no bearing on whether the claim is valid or not. We fight against having our emotions hurt, which is a natural reaction. It is a mistake, though, to assume that a belief must be more true if we have strong emotions about one particular explanation or claim.

Generalizations that are insufficiently tested should not be assumed to be true.
The validity of a claim is dependent upon its ability to pass tests designed to confirm or disprove the claim. It is often tempting to make a generalization based on observations of specific cases that have passed tests. While generalizations can be helpful they must withstand testing of their own to be considered valid. Just because a specific case has proven true does not mean a generalization based on the specific case is also true.

Just because one thing happens after another does not mean that the first caused the second.
Humans tend to perceive things in a linear fashion where one thing follows another in a chain of events. Sometimes two events follow one another in such a dramatic fashion that we automatically assume they are connected. If they are truly connected events then it is a natural assumption to believe that the first event caused the second to happen.
While it is true that everything is connected in some fashion, it does not mean that two sequential events are necessarily a cause-and-effect pair.
For example, if I were to start feeling ill immediately after shaking hands with a specific person I might assume that I had caught the influenza virus from that person. Unfortunately, it often takes at least a day after exposure to the flu before symptoms start to appear. This means that when I start feeling ill it is more likely that the person I shook hands with a day or more ago was the one who transmitted the virus to me. The cause of an effect does happen first, but it’s sometimes deceptive because there is a lag between the cause and its effect showing up.