Friday, June 8, 2012

No Religion, Too; or, The Rapture of the Nerds

I'm reading another new book, The Seven Laws of Magical Thinking: How Irrational Beliefs Keep Us Happy, Healthy, and Sane by Matthew Hutson (Hudson Street Press).  I glanced at it, thought it had potential, and so far (about 80 pages in) it's turning out to be interesting.  Hutson is a popular science writer, with previous books about the moon and the sun to his credit.  This one is obviously a change for him, and it reads like he's personally invested in it, which is good.

Basically, his thesis, backed up by research studies, interviews with researchers, and anecdotes, is that magical thinking is part of being human, part of our evolutionary heritage, and as such it's double-edged: it can lead to destructive ideas and behavior, but it also has positive aspects.  In one sense this won't be news to evolutionary-psychology buffs, or to science buffs in general; but it may bother those who like to think of themselves as more evolved than the irrational many, and that if we try hard enough we can transcend our genetic programming -- which is a piece of magical thinking in itself.  Hutson holds that all of us are in the sway of magical thinking, and I think he's right.

One thing I like about the book is Hutson's humane generosity.  He begins by telling about the time, in 2006, John Lennon's piano (now owned by George Michael) was sent on a tour of the US.  "Free of velvet ropes, it could be touched or played by anyone," and it was (11).  No one made any claims for the piano, "but after playing it, people came away shaking and crying" (18).  It was the piano on which Lennon wrote "Imagine", and Hutson also quotes a 2006 interview in which Jimmy Carter told NPR, "[I]n many many countries around the world -- my wife and I have visited about 125 countries -- you hear John Lennon's song 'Imagine' used almost equally with national anthems" (17).  The story illustrates the way that people invest objects with essences.  Do you think it's only silly irrationalists who do that?  Silly you.
As Bruce Hood pointed out to me, in the documentary The Genius of Charles Darwin, [Richard] Dawkins embraces historicity by picking up a preserved pigeon at the Natural History Museum in Tring, England, and remarking, "It's a very weird feeling.  These are actually Darwin's own specimens." (Later in the documentary, Dawkins pulls a book off a shelf and says, "This is the most precious book in my collection.  It's a genuine first edition Origin of Species. ... This book made it possible no longer to feel the necessity to believe in anything supernatural") [16-17].
On the other hand, I've never considered Dawkins particularly rational anyhow.

Of course we project these essences onto these objects, that's the point.  Hutson discusses lots of studies which show it's virtually impossible not to do it.  (I admit I'm wary, though, because he seems to make the common error of supposing that because a large majority of people are susceptible to belief in pollution and the like, it's therefore universal.  I'd like to know more about the people who don't.  Maybe those who aren't susceptible to one form of magical thinking are susceptible to others.  It's not important, but I'm still curious.)

I thought this was especially suggestive, though:
In times of stress, when there's little room for error, we tend to buckle down.  One might think that on a bobbing ship hundreds of miles from land a sailor's grip on reality would tighten.  The Polish anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski found that even the tribal Trobriand Islanders in the South Pacific rigorously adhered to practical considerations on the water.  "They have, in fact, a whole system of principles of sailing, embodied in a complex and rich terminology, traditionally handed on and obeyed as rationally and consistently as is modern science by modern sailors," he wrote.  "How could they sail otherwise under eminently dangerous conditions in their frail primitive craft?"

But he found that these dangerous conditions, which forced the fisherman to control every element of the mission they could, also drove them to seek control over things they couldn't.  "Even with all their systematic knowledge, methodically applied, they are still at the mercy of powerful and incalculable tides, sudden gales during the monsoon season and unknown reefs," he wrote.  "And here comes in their magic, performed over the canoe during its construction, carried out at the beginning and in the course of expeditions and resorted to in moments of real danger."

In contrast, Malinowski discovered that the safe and reliable practice of inner lagoon fishing featured very little magic.  Only the dangerous and uncertain nature of open-sea fishing brought out the spells [70-71].
This sort of thing is important to remember, because some secularists are prone to fall into either/or, all-or-nothing thinking: if you believe in gods or spirits or magic, then you don't believe in a physical world at all, and you think you can just walk on water.  But as the story of the Trobriand Islanders shows, a person who believes in magic can and does attend first to practical matters.  Magic is an attempt to protect against all the things that practical knowledge can't cover -- which is most of them. We moderns like to congratulate ourselves on how much more control we have over nature than our primitive ancestors did, but when you look at it from a larger perspective we haven't gained that much control at all.  Even on this planet we are still buffeted by weather and natural disasters, and our grand technology has accelerated climate change in ways that we can measure but not control, let alone reverse.  We haven't really mastered even our own tiny planet, and the universe is so vast we can't even imagine it.  Yes, we've learned a lot about our bodies and their ailments, but every time doctors start crowing about our triumph over disease, something new and nasty comes along that we can do nothing about.  And in the end, everybody dies.  Everybody.

You can argue about what a rational response to our smallness and mortality would be.  I feel sure that what it isn't, is the attempt to wish them away.  I'm thinking of Stephen Hawking, among others.  On his 70th birthday Hawking reiterated a concern he's evidently expressed many times.  "I don't think we will survive another thousand years without escaping beyond our fragile planet," he told the audience at his birthday celebration through his computer.  There are several kinds of magical thinking going on in that sentence: one is that "we" means the human species, and that the individual participates mystically in the survival of Homo Sapiens even though her body dies.  (I prefer Woody Allen's quip "I hope to achieve immortality by not dying."  Lots of luck in that endeavor, though.)  Another is that even if "we" destroy this planet, "we" can move on to another planet in another solar system -- assumed, in classic colonialist fashion, to be empty of people but still suitable for "us" to live on -- and smother it in smog, cigarette butts, and nuclear waste.  At which point we can blow it up and move on to the next one.  Yet another is the assumption that humans will and must avoid extinction forever, perhaps as genetically-engineered Omega Man and ultimately as software uploaded to a virtual cloud drive, which will last billions of years until the heat death of the universe and beyond.  There's more packed into those fifteen words, but that's enough to unpack for now.

I recently subscribed to a popular-science astronomy magazine, to bring myself up to date on the field.  The technology has certainly changed since I was reading books about grinding one's own telescope mirror as a teenager in the 1960s, and I am pleased by how much is being learned from the space telescopes.  But there's a lot of foolishness too.  Remember when Pluto was "demoted" from planet to dwarf planet?  A lot of people, including Matthew Hutson, are still fuming about it, and I've seen the fallout in the magazines.  The current issue has a cover story on "How we are going to travel to the nearest star (No kidding)."  No kidding, maybe, but it's a scam.  The article explains the unimaginable distances involved, the present lack of any workable vehicle to get human beings there, and then finesses the gap between where we are now and where we need to be to even try. (One graphic attending the article is titled, "Exploring the Neighborhood," which is a magnificent example of magical thinking itself: if we just think of a distance of 25 trillion miles as "the neighborhood," crossing it will be like a walk around the block.)
O'Neill also points out that fusion propulsion may be too violent for any passengers on such a ship.  "Humans are soft and squishy, so accelerating an interstellar craft to huge speeds rapidly may [!] be detrimental to the health of those on board."  And then there's the issue of radiation (also a problem for fission-based propulsion), which would require significant shielding.  These all amount to engineering issues, though, meaning they're likely to be overcome sooner than later, making fusion the propulsion method of choice.
The little fusion-propelled space ship that could!  I think I can, I think I can for 30,000 years or so, and your seed-ship will be looking at a new world.  Several writers, none of them Luddites, have pointed out the practical difficulties that stand between Man and the Stars.  The most remarkable thing is the reactions they got in comments: many space enthusiasts were not only critical but upset and hostile.  Often the objections were along the lines of You aren't thinking big enough, all we need to do is develop a solar sail, and it'll pull a giant space colony to Alpha Centauri!  (Here's a good example.  Or this one -- but there's an embarrassment of riches. The subtitle of this post comes from this one.)  You'd think someone had told them that there's no Santa Claus, or that Pluto wasn't a planet.

The science fiction that thrilled so many people from the 1930s until the first moon landing in 1969 got around the difficulties with similar hand-waving: faster than light travel, space warps, wormholes, singularities, warp drive, etc.  It became easy to think of interstellar, even intergalactic voyages as feasible, just a jump here and a warp transition there, not different from Columbus crossing the Atlantic except in degree.  And "hard" science fiction, with its editors' and writers' insistence that they stuck to real scientific possibilities, either kept that promise and wasn't very glamorous, or cheated.  It was fiction, after all, but many fans began to think of it as reality, a future history instead of allegories.

Going back to Matthew Hutson, though, all of this becomes more understandable once you recognize the pervasiveness of magical thinking, even or especially among those who fondly believe themselves free of it.  It likely is part of our evolutionary heritage, and as such, evolutionary psychologists should embrace its inevitability and even its benevolence.  Even if they don't like it, we won't be able to change it until we  can change the human genome.  (I'm alluding mischievously to evolutionary psychologists' handwringing over male sexual aggression.)  It's not surprising that, faced with a dangerously damaged planet or even our own individual mortality, many people will seek to get a sense of control by fantasizing about colonizing the stars, or uploading themselves to a silicon brain.  Or even that the computers will take care of us.  The project of human mastery over nature is itself a product of magical thinking.