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Sunday, June 10, 2012

Matthew Hutson and magical thinking

Massimo Pigliucci recently wrote a critique of an article by Matthew Hutson in which Hutson previews his forthcoming book on superstition and magical thinking. Hutson checks in in the comments section to respond to Pigliucci's criticisms, and I am much impressed by what he has to say (and the charming way he says it).

In particular I am interested in his comments about our inability fully to comprehend our mortality.

Here is the paragraph in question:

[Y]ou ... take issue with my claim that "without [magical thinking], the existential angst of realizing we're just impermanent clusters of molecules with no ultimate purpose would overwhelm us." We cannot fully grasp our material, temporary nature. If you try to picture what it will be like to be dead, for example, you're still picturing something that it is like to be. Further, we are intuitively Cartesian dualists. And so we have this sense that our consciousness (or "soul") continues beyond death. Granted, no one can be sure how we would feel if we *could* fully grasp death, but there's plenty of research showing that we have strong defense mechanisms to deny our mortality--by believing we are creating transcendent meaning with our lives, for example. I see the denial of death as a form of magical thinking.

The pugnacious Pigliucci claims, by the way, that he can conceive of his future non-existence perfectly well! But I find Hutson's account both of how the brain works and of how we might reasonably deal with our ingrained irrationality to be more plausible than Pigliucci's.

In contrast to Pigliucci, Hutson sees value in 'magical thinking' on pragmatic grounds. But his pragmatism is not the semi-religious Pragmatism of (for example) William James but rather (it seems) just a recognition that our brains have certain quirks which, though irrational, can help us get through life more successfully, and simply recognizing this reality and going with the flow to some extent is not such a bad thing.

He seems to be quite as non-religious as Pigliucci, but has a more nuanced response to the irrational elements in our nature.

Hutson's general approach may point to a satisfactory way of answering some of the questions I have been addressing lately on this site.

I have been wanting to come to some sort of conclusion about whether there is any value in (the more sophisticated) religious points of view, and about the implications of limited knowledge. My default position is to reject all religious claims but, given the limitations of our scientific knowledge, it seems sensible to acknowledge that mysteries abound.

But can we, I wonder, make any progress at all in coming to terms with this realm of mystery? Are the sorts of approaches that, say, someone like Martin Heidegger made to questions of existence and being (taking inspiration from the pre-Socratics) of any value at all? Or is this sort of thing just self-indulgent, pseudo-religious rambling?

My provisional answer is that Heidegger was struggling with real and important issues – like facing mortality – but he got carried away with his own rhetoric and a belief in the power of his own intuition (his fanciful etymologies are a good example of this).

There are, of course, many styles of 'doing philosophy', but I think it safe to say that most philosophers place too much credence in the power of our unaided minds to see the truth of things.

I'm not sure that we need the likes of Heidegger or Sandel (to whom Pigliucci appeals) or Pigliucci himself. Too often, in my view, philosophers are driven by a hidden religious, semi-religious or political agenda.

In fairness, though, if that (say) religious agenda reflected important aspects of reality, then any philosophizing based upon it would have to be taken seriously.

But, in the absence (as I see it) of any good reason to accept any particular religious or moral-metaphysical doctrine or point of view, one must find knowledge and wisdom where one can.

And, fortunately, there is little doubt that the perspectives put forward by scientifically-grounded writers like Matthew Hutson can be very valuable in helping us resolve problems once deemed exclusively philosophical or religious.