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.
Sunday, July 22, 2012
(A review of Matthew Hutson’s book, “The 7 Laws of Magical Thinking”)
Like many RS readers, I value epistemic and instrumental rationality very highly. Of course, I could be accused here of making a hollow claim: “Surely everybody values rationality, as conceived by themselves! Maybe next you’ll drop the bombshell that you like good things?” To avoid triviality, therefore, I define rationality in terms of a set of specific ideas: Bayesian probability theory and its special case, classical logic; Ockham’s razor and related heuristics; considerations of internal consistency; decision theory, et cetera.
Matthew Hutson’s lovely book “The 7 Laws of Magical Thinking” makes the case that even hardcore skeptics are (a) constantly violating their own stated ideals of rationality, and (b) that’s often — or at least sometimes — a good thing. Let me see if I can make a thumbnail sketch of his arguments, using examples from my own life (I’ll leave Hutson’s artfully chosen examples, which are far more entertaining, for the book).
Even as I type this paragraph, there are two things in front of me that Hutson might very well smile at. One is a wedding band. As everybody in our culture knows, these are tangible symbols of two people’s commitment and love for each other. However, Hutson argues, since we instinctively believe that “objects carry essences” (Law #1) and “symbols have power” (Law #2), my behavior with respect to this piece of metal is bound to be rather peculiar. For example, when I lost my original ring while swimming in Lake Okanagan a couple of years ago, I immediately apologized to my wife Vikki, and the apology was not merely for the loss of money to get it replaced.
On the pinky of my right hand, meanwhile, is a little stainless steel ring worn voluntarily by most Canadian engineers, called the iron ring. It is supposed to be worn on the working hand, to remind us of our ethical obligations to the public, to the environment, and to the people and organizations we work with. I will say nothing of the ceremony in which it was presented to me, except that afterward I did feel a serious sense of having changed by making an oath. This could be seen as a bit wooly, though. After all, oaths and ceremonies are just words dressed up with props and solemnity; it’s hard to see how they could affect the world.
Law #3 is that “actions have distant consequences,” a reference (in part) to the idea of lucky rituals and possessions. Having done a good deal of fishing in my life, I am no stranger to such things. My father has a set magical phrase he uses to make the fish bite (he would be very offended if I revealed it to strangers). A family friend can “read the water.” As for myself, I wear a raggedy old hat that has now shrunk to at least 2 sizes below my head size, and although I don’t explicitly think of it as lucky, it’s hard to explain why else I still occasionally wear the ugly old brain-corset.
Every year on November 11, the Commonwealth observes Remembrance Day (Veteran’s Day in the US). In many public and private institutions (schools, for example), a minute of silence is also observed, during which it is understood that one makes an effort to remember the sacrifice of the allied soldiers (rather than, say, making plans for the weekend). This could be interpreted in terms of an implicit idea that if the allied war dead are remembered by the living, they are better off for it. It’s as though we imagined that our thoughts had spooky causal power (Rule #4, “the mind knows no bounds”) — not only that, but dead people (!) are in a position to be somehow benefited by those thoughts (Rule #5, “the soul lives on”). Of course, we can also cash it out more prosaically by saying that it serves the purpose of reminding us of the cost of war, in order that we might not treat the decision frivolously.
I am slightly embarrassed to admit that my two cats, George and Gracie, have fully developed human-like character traits, as discovered by their cat-to-human simultaneous translators (my two years in linguistics proving their worth!). Gracie is haughty, aristocratic and sporting; George is mischievous, a bit cowardly, and slightly obtuse. I have to admit that I do now tend to think of them in these ridiculously anthropomorphized terms, which just goes to show our tendency to interpret the world in terms of human psychology (Rule #6, “the world is alive”).* Of course, the most amusing instantiation of this tendency comes about when people talk about gods, moving effortlessly from abstract pronouncements about “the ground of all being” to asking a larger version of Brian Blessed for his help in winning the Superbowl.
People who are in good relationships will also find it hard to square the sheer contingency of their love lives with the feeling of retrospective teleology that often accompanies them. Objectively speaking, I have no reason to suspect that the set of counterfactual worlds in which I grew up in a different city and never met my actual wife or friends, would be unusually bad worlds for me to live in. I would not be uniformly less or more happy in them than I am in the actual world. Yet from a personal perspective, certain relationships seem as though they were (or ought to have been) inevitable. Lovers want to hear this from each other, too — that they are the only possible felicitous combination.** This ties in with Hutson’s final Rule #7, that “everything happens for a reason.”
I have skipped over a lot of fascinating exposition here, in the interests of laying a groundwork for the rest of this post. Hutson has done some thinking about the causal factors involved in all of these funny little cognitive tendencies of ours, as well. Some of it is rather speculative, but certainly food for thought.
I want to address what I take to be Matthew Hutson’s main point, but first, one large nitpick. The chapter on Rule #4 (“the mind knows no bounds”) treats free will and ethics as if they were obviously delusions (useful delusions, but delusions nonetheless). Very well. I am a compatibilist, Hutson is not. I am a moral (quasi-) realist, Hutson is (probably) not. What I object to is the lack of qualifiers in his discussion here: he presents the Benjamin Libet experiment (enough with the Libet experiment already, people!) as proving that our conscious will is an illusion, and — that’s it! No mention of the possibility of compatibilism, or different interpretations of the Libet data (as opposed to the standard asinine “your brain makes the decision before your mind does” interpretation). I think that when we take non-trivial philosophical positions, we ought to make it clear that we’re staking a philosophical position rather than objectively presenting science.
Now, what is Hutson’s overarching point in his book?
I take him to be attempting to vindicate certain aspects of what he calls “magical thinking” as psychologically useful, and in many cases essential to our humanity. At the very least, he succeeds in showing skeptics to be (typically) massive hypocrites on this score. However, two responses occur to me.
One is that Hutson often seems a bit overzealous in pronouncing a phenomenon “magical.” I have already ranted about free will, but what about speech acts (such as the marriage vows and oaths I alluded to earlier)? I do not see these as especially spooky, yet Hutson presents them as if he were a triumphant Poirot in the library, exposing the culprit’s villainy.
Second, we might wish to think about the conditions in which we want our behavior to be epistemically rational, and those in which we can relax with a bit of nonsense. Part of the reason that I am more than happy to wear my lucky fishing hat is that (a) it really looks like it doesn’t matter, (b) somewhere in my head, I do actually have an explicit model of reality that precludes unusual interactions between haberdashery and ichthyology. For other irrational beliefs in other circumstances, neither of these conditions applies, and this may matter very much indeed, as the irrational subject may in fact mentally model the world explicitly according to their irrational ideas. This is much more worrisome to me, not least because failing to have an accurate model of phenomenon X renders very suspect any judgements you make about how much phenomenon X matters. Not only is a hardcore cult member epistemically wrong, their bad epistemology makes them also unable to appreciate the gravity of their situation.
Lastly, I want to try to put some of these phenomena in the proper perspective. I think the common thread with many of these quirks of human psychology is that something which appears epistemically irrational might in certain circumstances be instrumentally rational. For example, it might be wise to believe in your own abilities a bit more than is truly justified — take William James’ example of the person who needs to climb down a cliff or die, but is not a particularly talented climber: “I believe that I will make it! I believe that I will make it!”
Very well then, it may sometimes be rational to violate epistemic rationality for the sake of other considerations, like pragmatic needs. But the only reason we need to do so, is because our psychology is already skewed. What kind of lunatic would design a mind such that its abilities were affected by its beliefs about its abilities?! It would be like designing a car engine to be controlled using the speedometer needle.
I have mild astigmatism and nearsightedness; my eyeballs are warped such that they don’t focus properly. The cure for that is to put another warped optical element in front of my eyeballs. This definitely does not imply that somebody with 20-20 vision should wear my glasses. The analogy doesn’t quite hold for cognitive flaws, because by and large all humans have the same flaws. Nonetheless, there is a distinction to be made here between what we might provisionally call “ideal rationality” — what you would design for, if you were building a thinking machine — and “crooked timber epistemology” for mere humans, which sometimes necessarily uses flaws to correct other flaws. I thank Matthew Hutson for motivating me to make the distinction.
* I do also want to add that although my cats do not have all the character traits we playfully ascribe to them, they certainly have distinct and recognizable personalities.
** Explanation of this behavior in terms of signaling arms races left as an exercise for the reader.
Note: Matthew Hutson will appear in a soon to be released episode of the Rationally Speaking podcast with Massimo and Julia. Stay i-Tuned...