About Rationally Speaking
Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.
Thursday, March 29, 2007
The Immorality of The Secret
The Secret is apparently a “theory” of channeling, the idea that by feeling something (positive or, more disturbingly, negatively) you somehow get the universe to “vibrate” in a way that will make your feelings determine physical reality. No need to worry about how this exactly (or even approximately) works: “Our job is not to worry about the 'how.' The 'how' will show up out of the commitment and belief in the 'what'.” Wow, Francis Bacon said that knowledge is power, thereby ushering in the era of modern science, but this is even better, here ignorance is power! Which perhaps explains why The Secret has been so prominently featured on Oprah Winfrey and the Larry King show.
Writing in eSkeptic, Ingrid Hansen Smythe pointed out that The Secret sounds like a version of cognitive behavioral therapy run amok. CBT is the idea, as one prominent book in that area puts it, that the mind can overcome moods, i.e. that rethinking why we feel in certain ways we may be able to redirect our energy in more positive and productive directions. CBT, in turn, is attractive to rationalists because it is a modern incarnation of Aristotle's view that practice makes virtue, i.e. that acting well doesn't come natural to most of us, but can be helped by working on it. The Secret, however, perverts all of this and suggests to people that their feelings can affect matter because, you know, “we are mass energy. Everything is energy. Everything.” (Again as pointed out by Smythe, this is a caricature of Einstein's famous equation: E=mc^2 only says that matter and energy are equivalent, not that they are the same thing, just think of the equivalence, as opposed to identity, between water and ice to get the point.)
All right, one might say, but why get so worked up about it, even to the point of raising the charge of immorality for followers of The Secret? It's not just that believing nonsense can't be good for your (mental, and sometimes even physical) health. It's that a “philosophy” like the one espoused in The Secret immediately falls prey to the same fundamental issue plaguing much of Christian-Muslim theology: the problem of evil. If everything that happens to you is because of your feelings (or because an all-good god decreed it), then also whatever evil befalls you has the same source (unless you use the convenient escape clause of inventing a Devil). Sure enough, the author of The Secret has been saying that if only the children of Darfur had a little more positive attitude about their predicament... This is so outrageously immoral that the media and the public should be up in arms denouncing it, instead of rushing to buy copies of The Secret and inviting its author on national television. To put it as Smythe did in eSkeptic: “Imagine looking each of those six million Jews in the eye and telling every one of them that due to the negative feeling-states they were each projecting, they were all, in effect, asking for it.” Or, which is the same, tell them that they went to crematoria because of past accumulated bad karma, or because god has some obscure but really good plan in store for them.
This is why believing nonsense is dangerous, and sometimes immoral. You are not only fooling yourself (which is bad enough), you may also more readily excuse human injustice and not act against it because, you know, the universe has a reason for it. Here is something you can do to help inject some sanity into the world: instead of buying The Secret, donate the equivalent sum to the campaign to save Darfur, or to the International Rescue Committee. And tell your friends to do the same, while you're at it.