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How Irrationality Makes Us Happy and Sane

Recently I mentioned a book called The 7 Laws of Magical Thinking: How Irrationality Makes Us Happy, Healthy, and Sane, by Matthew Hutson, a New York-based science writer. It sparked a few thoughts.

First, do we need yet another book about irrationality? Surely we get it by now. Humans are desperately weak-minded and fool themselves in all sorts of ways. Political and business leaders are among the worst – always in the news for doing crazy things. Yet we’re all guilty of it much of the time.

Still, there’s been a kind of progression. In the newness of discovery twenty years ago, psychologists were lamenting irrationality as a problem to overcome. If we understood the ‘magical’ way our minds work, the argument went, we could avoid the mistakes that blight our lives. (The implication was that it was a problem for other people - the authors themselves were OK.)

The theme developed somewhat. Humans can’t help being irrational, poor things; it’s the way they’re made. The evolution of the human brain has not progressed much since prehistoric times, so we’re ill equipped to deal with the modern world. We just have to make the best of it.

Hutson’s book represents a logical further step. Yes, we humans are irrational and no, we can’t help it. But hey, it’s good for us. As long as we understand it we shouldn’t worry. On the contrary, we should embrace magical thinking as part of what we are, as something that helps us cope with life.

For although we’re beset by illusions about how life works – attributing an agency working behind the scenes, when none exists; finding meaning in utterly random processes – these are positive illusions, that reduce anxiety and get us out of bed in the morning. We shouldn’t knock people who believe in fate or karma, or any other superstition, if it helps them deal with the bad stuff that happens to them.

It’s the perfect synthesis. Now we can stop feeling guilty about our little superstitious quirks. We can be paid up atheists, materialists, rationalists, all the rest, fully respecting of science, but accept a little magical thinking as part of a healthy make-up.

Hutson follows the party line when it comes to psi phenomena (he uncritically endorses ‘experts’ like Susan Blackmore and Victor Stenger). But he has a strong belief in the human need for meaning, and even for the sacred. His point is that all of us think magically in different ways and contexts.

For instance we tend to revere objects that mean something special to us, endowing them with a kind of inner essence or spirit. The piano that John Lennon used to write ‘Imagine’, for instance; people who came into contact with it felt it contained something of his spirit, that it brought him into their presence. Even sceptics and atheists do it, for instance when Richard Dawkins describes the ‘weird feeling’ he gets when he handles some stuffed pigeons that belonged to Darwin, or picks up his prized first edition of The Origin of Species.

We know that computers and robots aren’t human, even if they are made to mimic human behaviour in certain ways. Yet we naturally endow them with personalities. Designers strive to make the interfaces more natural, so that the user appears to be collaborating with a partner, not working a machine. A degree of magical thinking helps us do that.

It also helps us be positive about the events that happen to us. It seems that whenever a couple adopts a child, no matter how chaotic or random the circumstances, and however ugly or misshapen the child they end up with, they firmly believe that it was fate that brought that particular child to them – that it was meant to happen, and good that it happened. In experiments, subjects who insist they disbelieve in such woolly concepts may nevertheless believe that major events in their lives, such as flunking a course or landing a dream job, were meant to happen for some reason.

When one engages with the sacred, reality feels a little less flat, Hutson suggests.

You get the vague sense that we’re not just soulless atoms, that the world is imbued with a deep significance that can’t be explained away. The answer to ‘Is this all there is?’ becomes a ringing ‘No’. The ability to elicit the perception of sacredness on command would seem a valuable skill, and in fact you can train yourself in the art, according to one study.

His point is that magical thinking is much more than silly sports superstitions or tribal voodoo hexes.

It’s about how we use symbols. It’s about how we treat mysteries. It’s about how we value things and people. It’s about how we construct systems of ethics and justice. It’s about how we think about life and death. It’s about how we find reasons to go on.

Hutson has recognised what many people in this burgeoning machine age seem not to, which is that humans are not biological robots. We are creatures who feel and experience. Yet many intellectuals - psychologists, atheists, Darwinists, materialist philosophers - seem always to want to strip us down to the bare mechanics, to get us to understand that we’re just machines and would be much more successful if we thought and reasoned like computers. It’s nonsense, and it’s very much to Hutson’s credit that it lays that bare.

A lot of the psychology in the book seems sound, in the sense of describing how humans engage with the world. Obviously I disagree with the fundamental premise: the genuineness of psychic phenomena suggests at the very least that the materialist narrative is incomplete. But it’s true as far as it goes, and one can see how the psychological processes Hutson reveals might one day be fitted into a different framework.

So Hutson is someone after my own heart, someone who is bound to a particular worldview, yet strives to approach the opposite viewpoint, and make it in some sense accessible. It struck me that it’s the mirror image of what I’m doing as an author and blogger on the opposite side of the fence. I stopped some time ago worrying terribly much about hostile sceptic behaviour – the fact of it, that is – and turned my attention to the why of it. Why is it so desperately important that claims about psi phenomena be distorted and suppressed?

In Randi’s Prize I argued that, among other things, it’s a matter of temperament. Some people just can’t help fighting it, just as we often resist what we perceive to be mistaken in the political sphere. In extremes it could affect anybody. I couldn’t quote psychological studies, as writers like Hutson can do – two or three to the page in some places – because it's not something psychologists have noticed. But there’s evidence from psi research literature of a peculiar mental function at work, a psychological gag reflex triggered by paranormal claims.

It seems to me that if we want to persuade other people that there is meaning in psi phenomena, that it’s not just fluff in crazy people’s heads, then we have to address the underlying fear of it. But surely there are real concerns here. I’m not one of those who thinks that the world would suddenly be a much better place if the materialists all faded away and our spiritual nature was fully acknowledged. On the contrary, paradoxical as it must seem to some, I believe that secularism is a framework that enables humans to express their spirituality.

If that’s true – and of course I shall have to argue the case - then we must surely be concerned about science suddenly endorsing the existence of other realms beyond the senses, interfering unseen agencies, and so on. This has huge implications for society, and it’s something we need to think about carefully. Secularity and spirituality may seem to be in opposition to each other, but perhaps we should see them as complementary. Reaching a synthesis will be a long, gradual process – and that’s exactly how it should be, how it can only be. The line between them needs to be secure. So from that viewpoint, the self-appointed vigilantes carry out an essential function, however much we may dislike them, and try to resist their stupidities and excesses (eg, the vile nonsense that's been going on over Rupert Sheldrake's Wikipedia page - see Craig Weiler's posts for the latest developments).

This is a theme I’m working on for my next book. In a sense it will be a mirror image of what Hutson is doing here. The progression in sceptical psychology goes like this:

  1. Psi is false, and it’s bad that we believe it.
  2. Psi is false, but we can’t help believing it.
  3. Psi is false, but it’s good that we believe it.

For the critically minded psi-advocate there might be a similar progression:

  1. Psi is true, and it’s bad that we deny it.
  2. Psi is true, but we can’t help denying it.
  3. Psi is true but it’s good that we deny it.

Hutson ruefully acknowledges that, in struggling to unite his allegiance to critical thinking with his celebration of enchantment, he has no doubt spurned the loyalty of readers on both sides of the aisle. I suspect that will be the case for me, and that my view won’t sit well with many of my readers. But I think the point is worth investigating, and I hope people will give me the benefit of the doubt, at least until I can make it clearer.

More on Sheldrake and Wikipedia

I posted briefly earlier this week about Rupert Sheldrake’s travails with Wikipedia. He’s now published an article about it on his own blog:

Wikipedia is a wonderful invention. But precisely because it’s so trusted and convenient, people with their own agendas keep trying to take it over. Editing wars are common. According to researchers at Oxford University,the most controversial subjects worldwide include Israel and God.

This is not surprising. Everyone knows that there are opposing views on politics and religion, and many people recognise a biased account when they see it. But in the realm of science, things are different. Most people have no scientific expertise and believe that science is objective. Their trust is now being abused systematically by a highly motivated group of activists called Guerrilla Skepticism on Wikipedia.

Read the rest here.

Sheldrake and Wikipedia

Some readers will recall a couple of posts I wrote a few months back about so-called ‘guerrilla skeptics’, the folk who aim to stamp out any favourable reference to what they stigmatise as ‘pseudo-science’ and ‘occultism’ on Wikipedia (here and here).

Most, although not all, of the comment that followed was along the lines that Wikipedia is a lost cause, so why bother trying to do anything about it? These ideologues are much more committed than we are, so it would do no good, the argument goes. My personal feeling was that actually some kind of fight-back is unavoidable in the long term.

A few weeks later I met Rupert Sheldrake at an event, and found he was of the same mind. In fact he was dead keen to get on and do something, and wrote about it in his regular newsletter. That triggered an attack on his own Wikipedia biog page, changing the profile from one of a well-credentialled biochemist into that of a despised pseudo-scientist. Attempts were made to resist, but these guys are well organised, and very practised at interpreting Wikipedia’s large array of policy guidelines as a means to impose their intolerant viewpoint. Like clever, unprincipled courtroom lawyers, you might say. (Anyone who has a serious amount of time to waste can follow the ins and outs on the talk page.)

The wiki-sceptics may have won that battle but it doesn't mean they won the war. I was away at the time, so had to watch from the sidelines. I’ve since been busy with other things. But Craig Weiler has been following the events, and has just written this excellent analysis of the affair so far. It will be interesting to see how things unfold from here.