Sunday, April 19, 2009

Magical versus Rational Thinking

I've been on a bit of a reading binge the past week, completing a total of six nonfiction books and having three more underway. Whenever I do this, interesting things begin to happen (like not getting anything else accomplished??) the way the juxtaposition of so many ideas and perspectives leads me to novel thoughts or insights. The topics may be wildly different, and yet my mind works in the background to synthesize what can be synthesized, always on the lookout for some grand unifying theory, I guess.

Here are the six books I read this week:

Woman Who Glows in the Dark: A Curandera Reveals Traditional Aztec Secrets of Physical and Spiritual Health, Elena Avila with Joy Parker

The Time Before History: 5 Million Years of Human Impact, Colin Tudge

Race: A History Beyond Black and White, Marc Aronsen

The Tribe of Tiger: Cats and Their Culture, Elizabeth Marshall Thomas

Sick Societies: Challenging the Myth of Primitive Harmony, Robert B. Edgerton

Outliers: The Story of Success, Malcolm Gladwell

The three other books I'm reading are:

The First Word: The Search for the Origins of Language, Christine Kenneally

The New Case Against Immigration: Both Legal and Illegal, Mark Krikorian

Civilization and Climate, Ellsworth Huntington

Quite a mix, isn't it? In the next few days I hope to make several posts on the thoughts that have arisen as a result of absorbing this massive jumble of words. But today I want to focus on just one line of thought and that concerns magical and rational modes of thinking.

The Time Before History had me taking in the whole sweeping span of our evolution, so the events of the past few centuries (or even millennia) seemed to all be part of the same modern moment, just a blip in time.

Woman Who Glows in the Dark, and Sick Societies both made me realize magical thinking is not something far off in our past. European cultures believed in witchcraft in recent centuries (i.e. right now, modern times, if we take into account our long history) and many indigenous people still believe to varying extents in witchcraft.

Race, an excellent young-adult book by Marc Aronson (and by no means beneath an adult readership), traced the evolution of various forms of discrimination from ancient times up to our present-day racist notions.

Civilization and Climate was written in 1915 by Yale geographer Ellsworth Huntington. I'm reading it as part of my research into the subject of environmental determinism. Huntington was one of the biggest proponents in modern times of the idea that climate is a major determinant of human behavior. Environmental determinism eventually became passe because it was frequently used to further various racist agenda, and I didn't have to get very far into Civilization and Climate to see the glaring racial bias. Although Huntington was a scientist and was clearly trying to use a sound methodology that eliminated bias, the fact is he was a product of his times and his culture and was so totally immersed in the racist paradigms of his time that he couldn't begin to see his own biases. None of us can really comprehend the limits and biases of our own time and culture. We have to escape the paradigm before we can see it clearly.

So, all of these various ideas came together in my mind and I had a new insight: magical thinking is the same thing as rational thinking. Until now, I've always seen magical thinking as irrational, the opposite of rational. Yet these books all pointed to something different. In my post Tracing the Rise of Ego and Materialism I shared my ideas about our human evolution. It's my belief that we've evolved from unconscious fusion with our environment (our earliest tribal, pre-literate days) to a conscious but separate state of being (the present time) and that we're on a trajectory which will eventually bring us back into fusion with the larger environment, only then it will be a conscious fusion.

Magical thinking and rational thinking both have emerged in the current blip of history. They both emerged now as a result of us becoming conscious, separating out of the matrix that birthed us, developing egos and a sense of Self and Other, of subject and object. I can't emphasize enough how recent this has all been. As we developed consciousness and language and a sense of separateness, we began to try to make sense of everything. Before we separated out there was no way to make sense of anything. We just were. If you're fused with everything else there are no points of reference, but become a separate dot of awareness and suddenly you can start comparing everything and trying to make sense of everything. On top of direct perception we added this drive to make meaning. Magical thinking is an attempt to make meaning, to attribute causes to effects, to theorize about the way all of these separate things interact. It's a very rational thing to do. These theories may not be accurate, but then again neither may quite a few of our scientific theories be accurate either. Our scientific theories suffer from the unconscious biases of the day--we theorize from the current state of our knowledge, but that state of knowledge will always be incomplete and therefore erroneous. I don't mean to imply that I think science is bunk--I believe we get closer and closer to the truth as we evolve and as science evolves. What I want to point out is that magical thinking and rational thinking are not separate phenomena. They are the same phenomenon. It's the phenomenon of humans playing with metaphor, playing with consciousness, trying to make meaning.

All of this is necessary if we're ever to reach our next phase of evolution. By making meaning of things, consciously, what we are really doing is internalizing (or re-internalizing) everything that's out there. We're using mind to bring all the parts of the matrix back together. We separated from it in order to become conscious and we'll use our consciousness to join back with it. Our search for meaning is our search for oneness.

I still want to delve into this a bit more, but this post is getting a bit long. For today, I'll just close with a link to an article on by Srinivasan Pillay: "Why Rational Thinking Is Not All It's Cracked Up To Be". He hits on the idea , which I've been encountering more and more frequently, that we use rational thinking to come up with reasons for what are ultimately emotional or gut-level decisions. We think we are being unbiased and using the most neutral higher-level cognitive functions of our minds, but really we are driven by emotions. My way of interpreting this is that we have a direct perception of reality--what IS--and our way of experiencing direct perception is through feelings. We want to make sense of our direct perceptions, so we start to layer meaning on top of them. That the meanings may not end up being accurate is beside the point. We can go along for long stretches of time applying inaccurate meanings to phenomena, but eventually we seem to break through to a new paradigm that allows more accurate meaning to be attributed to our direct perceptions. Inaccurate meaning inevitably gives us feedback--and not happy feedback--so we evolve a new paradigm of meaning. What was the feedback from our magical thinking about race? What is the feedback we're getting from our magical thinking about a growth economy? What is the feedback we're getting from our magical thinking about limitless resources, or pollution?

Anyway, I could go on. When I get back to this subject I want to include a quote from Ellsworth Huntington's Civilization and Climate (published 1915)where he is trying to show how very unbiased he is, but it's clear to us how very, very biased he is, and compare it with a very similar quote in Mark Krikorian's book The New Case Against Immigration (published 2008). Krikorian certainly doesn't believe he has a bias against any particular type of immigrant (Latinos), but to me it just glares off the page.

P.S. Ellsworth Huntington's book Civilization and Climate is in the public domain and is available free in digitized form at

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