Ludwig Wittgenstein famously argued that Sir James Frazer’s scorn for magic was misguided. Ultimately, Wittgenstein held, magical beliefs are part of a coherent system that speaks its own language, and it would be a mistake to judge them from another language. This opened Pandora’s box of relativism in anthropology. Ever since, anthropologists have tried to argue that magical beliefs are not irrational as long as we immerse ourselves in their premises, and therefore, we Westerners must not mock natives who consult oracles.
To me, this has always seemed to be postmodernist relativist trash. Science is intellectually superior to magic and religion, plain and simple. The mere fact that a system of magical beliefs has some degree of inner coherence does not make it true, not even rational. Magic is, as E.B. Tylor well put it back in Victorian times, a delusion. But, what about the emotional aspects of magical thinking? Is there any pragmatic advantage in that? Well, maybe there is. And, inasmuch as magical thinking may indeed have important functions (even if magic itself is delusional), we moderns are not prepared to fully embrace rationality and abandon magical thinking.
Matthew Hutson makes a very entertaining tour of magical beliefs among modern people. We become obsessed with cherished personal possessions, as if they had some sort of mystical force. We refuse to wear a jacket previously owned by a serial killer. We refuse to call our kids “Adolf”. We do little rituals to enhance performances in all areas of life. We knock on wood “just in case”. We believe animals are more conscious than they really are. We see faces in the clouds. Most of us know this is nonsense, but it makes life easier for us. True, every once in a while, these beliefs may be obstacles if they become too obsessive, but on the whole, a little superstition won’t hurt.
I am aware most modern people fall prey to many of the weird behaviors Hutson describes. I sometimes knock on wood or pray a Hail Mary when there is turbulence during flights, but on the whole, I am not the superstitious type. And, even when I do engage in magical thinking, I am aware my thoughts do not correspond to the way the world really works. But, hey, what the hell! There is not much to lose, so I’d go along the Pascalian wager: “just in case”, I cross my fingers. And, even if I waste my time engaging in a losing gamble, it at least makes me feel better. At this superficial level, conscious self-deceit does work for me.
But, Hutson’s book is not so easy-going when it comes to more profound areas of life. Morality and a dimension of the meaning of life come to mind. Why be moral? It’s a perennial question, ever since Glaucon challenged Socrates, in his telling of the story of the ring of Gyges in The Republic. Hutson seems to side more with Glaucon: if no one is watching, it is difficult to come up with a rational motive to behave altruistically. Thus, in order for morality to make some sense, we must recur to magical thinking and invent an omniscient camera that records all our deeds. Maybe, after all, without God (or any other watchful eye), everything is allowed.
Perhaps, as Hutson wrote to me in a private email, we still hold an additional non-magical motive to act morally: to feel good. Surely our brains are hardwired to release chemicals that give us pleasure when we help others. But, as Ernest Mayr famously argued, it is hard to explain what possible selective advantage may come with helping others, if they are not our kin, we don’t expect the favor to be returned, or the moral action does not enhance our reputation. Call me a heretic if you want, but I still think unconditional altruism is still an evolutionary puzzle that has not been solved.
I have the same uneasy feelings when I read Hutson’s discussion of our daily motivations. Why wake up early in the morning and work hard? Ernest Becker famously argued that, our prime motivation in life is to leave some legacy after we die. But, rationally speaking, what is the point of working so hard to achieve this legacy, if we will be dead anyways? We won’t be around to hear others say, “He was such a nice guy”. Why worry about global warming, if it won’t kill my generation? Unless we put in some magical thinking premises (i.e., there is an afterlife, or we are part of a larger consciousness), there really isn’t much point in waking up early in the morning, or consuming green stuff.
That is fine with me; I don’t mind magically hoping to be immortal in my compatriots’ hearts (to use Woody Allen’s famous phrase). But, unlike knocking on wood, this is a more serious business, and I am not so sure that conscious self-deceit works as smoothly. Hutson keeps arguing that, to be happy, we should just get rid of too much rational thought. A rationalist worldview may be too depressing. Gosh, I wish it were that easy! Rationality is akin to the “universal acid” described by Daniel Dennett: it just won’t be stopped. I just can’t let rationality go. Yes, the idea of heaven makes my life more meaningful, but then, I immediately think about its problems: where, exactly, is it located?; by what criterion of personal identity, is the person in heaven the same person that lived on earth?; will we have free will in heaven?
I am afraid Hutson leaves me deeply unsatisfied, but then again, this is not meant to be a self-help book. It is foremost an academic book, and Hutson achieves his goal of showing how irrational modern people may be, and why this may not be such a huge tragedy. Furthermore, his unwillingness to separate religion from magic, is a most welcome approach. It is simply not tenable to claim, as monotheists tend to do: your beliefs are superstition, mine are dogmas of the one true faith. To believe in the efficacy of knocking of wood is as bizarre (and as anxiety-calming) as praying five times a day facing Mecca.