“Replacing Magical Thinking with Rational Discourse”:
a talk to the American Ethical Union’s national Sunday meeting on January 31, 2021.
(What is magical thinking? )
What is magical thinking? It is fanciful, associative, and
emotional thought. It is making mental connections by associations of images, elaborating dramatically engaging or emotionally satisfying stories.
Its stories are often soothing, personally sustaining, even dramatically engaging. It is often psychologically encouraging, providing us with quite satisfying experiences. But it is thinking that Is neither empirically tested nor critical re-evaluated in the light of experienced consequences.
We all are tempted by such ways of thinking – and probably indulge in them quite often. We fantasize, we daydream, sometimes we even pray. And we certainly love dramatic stories, many of which are really quite imaginatively fantastic. We probably all want the world to be one that embodies our hopes, desires, and needs. To be a world in which we feel we belong, where we feel at home, and safe. In short, to feel that we are in a world that assuages our fears, and anxieties, uncertainties and powerlessness. How else are we to understand the pervasiveness of human beliefs in eternal beings, or in heavenly fathers who look out for our well being?
Of course, imaginative thinking can often take us out of our ordinary humdrum reality and our daily routines. It can not only contribute to flights of fancy, but even sometimes nourish our creativity, originality, and artistic innovation.
But unless it is intelligently re- connected to the objectively existing social and natural world, it remains nothing but a personal flight of fancy – magical thinking without constructive practical or social relevance.
Even worse, however, it often invites identification, and even possibly infatuation, with its emotionally satisfying scenarios, thus presaging disaster when taken as an interpretation of reality and as a guide to action. For magical thinking is not empirically accountable, nor rationally coherent.
Rather, its associative imagery is fanciful, sometimes delusional, and thus not constrained by the need to take into account the real patterns of society and nature. As a guide to action, therefore, it almost inevitably leads us in inappropriate, self-defeating, and likely destructive directions. That’s why we need rational thought and critical thinking.
So What then is rational thought?
It is thought that is internally coherent, and objectively attentive, and responsive, to the experienced consequences of events. The best way to understand the function of rational thought is to compare it to the using of tools. And thus to think of ideas as mental tools.
(Ideas as mental tools.)
Of course, We all know what a tool is? A material object a) made by someone; b) for a purpose; c) with reference to a job to be done.
If the tool is the right one for the job, it will facilitate our task.
But If the tool is not well made, or is not appropriate or well designed for the job to be done, it will certainly make a mess of the work.
Now consider a map, which is a kind of tool to guide us around a terrain.
To be useful, the map must be appropriate to the task: for example, a geological survey map would not be very helpful if we are trying to find what roads to take to get us to our destination.
But the road map, or today the GPS, will only be helpful if it correctly maps the actually existing road patterns. Otherwise it will be worse than useless.
Similarly with thinking.
All thinking involves some mapping of our world, and that means, some interpretation of how things fit together. We have to decide what part of the world we are concerned with, and what we want to do with it. To this end, we need ideas that accurately map that world, that is, that make sense of its structure, selecting the relevant causal interactions, and the likely practical consequences of different possible actions.
That’s the very meaning of science. Empircal, experimental, self-correcting science, is clearly the most reliable way to map our world, and thus our best guide in successfully navigating our interaction with that world.
If, on the other hand, in place of scientifically-based rational thinking, we were to rely on magical thought, and the associative emotional patterns that make us feel good, it would be just like using the wrong or poorly designed tools: we are almost certainly going to make a mess of whatever we undertake.
Just briefly consider a couple of examples:
[ Of criminals]
If you think it is obvious that crime is simply caused by criminals – you will probably conclude that the best way to reduce crime is to focus your research on the criminals that create it. For example, what is it about these criminals that causes them to engage in crime? Have you noticed that every time there is a mass murder, we become so focused on understanding the nature and motives of the killer. Focusing on the criminal, we will look to their background, perhaps their genetic endowment, and we’ll probably increase law enforcement and even enhance legal penalties in order to repress crime and remove these criminals from society.
But, of course, with such a criminal character based focus as your critical conceptual mapping, you are quite unlikely to even consider such possible social determinants of crime, as poverty, joblessness, community deterioration, inadequate education, lack of social supports, family disintegration, even economic exploitation, political oppression, or cultural dehumanization. Wrongly mapping the conceptual and causal terrain is like using the wrong tool to do a job – and with similar results.
[Of Trump, race and deaths of despair]
Or consider the Trump phenomenon. If you neglect the significant role that race plays, you will certainly miss an important element. But, if you also think that race is the sole or central motive for most Trump supporters, you will completely fail to appreciate those “deaths of despair” that has devastated much of white middle America, so brilliantly diagnosed recently by Anne Case and Angus Deaton.
Did you know, for example, that for the period since 2000, the average life expectancy for white Americans between 45 and 54 years of age has actually been declining — and that this is a pattern that is seen almost nowhere else on Earth, and that includes among people of all races or ethnicities?
It would thus be neither sensitive, nor respectful, to respond to the desperation of such people, as often too many well meaning people have done, to claim that they benefit from white privilege. Not only would that be personally insensitive, but it is almost certainly counter-productive, communicating one’s disdain for their suffering and driving them more firmly into the arms of those who do not insult them.
So let us take our humanistic values and our rational and scientific analyses seriously, but also self-critically, and with sufficient humility, always remaining on guard against the natural tendencies for self-reinforcing group thinking. We should recognize that our values and goals are never realities to be imposed upon the world as if they embody a perfected ideal, but rather we should treat them as continually révisable moral and theoretical guides in furthering our present undertakings. That is the path forward of a rationally responsible humanism.