The problem with Magical Thinking

A few years ago I had put several posts on social media deriding "magical thinking." I was specifically talking about religious thinking; in generic terms this amounts to belief without evidence, or belief in the face of contrary evidence. I am pretty sure that some of those posts got me "unfriended" by folks who took offense.

I am here today to reaffirm my commitment to the dangers of this type of thinking, as we can plainly see with this past weekend's (as of this writing) horrific events in Orlando. Nearly 50 people were killed at the scene or died very shortly thereafter, and more than that number were seriously injured.  This act was perpetrated by a single person armed with a rifle and a handgun.

There are clearly motivations for his actions yet to be discovered.  What most of us can agree on, I'm confident, is that his motivations will, when they are brought to light and examined, be both absurd and based in something other than fact.  I predict they will be linked to either his religious beliefs or to the culture in which he was immersed, which, again, I predict will turn out to have been influenced heavily by religion.

However, in the near-immediate aftermath of this nauseating tragedy, I have seen other instances of magical thinking in the general sense. Examples of this include the instantaneous and sickening pre-emptive assault by the pro-gun-rights brigades here in the U.S. in response to a simple statement by the president bemoaning the ease of obtaining such weapons as were used by the shooter. The magical thinking here is exposed by the point that there is no evidence of, and certainly no proposal has been offered to enforce, a reduction in the availability of guns.  In fact, more guns have been sold in the past eight years here than in any previous 8-year timespan.  This is magical thinking at its core – firmly held not just despite a lack of evidence, but in the face of strong countervailing evidence as well.

Another form of magical thinking that might affect policy and the way people here vote is related to the widely accepted (and academically supported) inability of humans to accurately assess risk.  We greatly overestimate the risk of sensationalized events or those that "feel" more real to us (such as those extremely rare yet spectacular events we are exposed to constantly through media outlets, or those that involve larger numbers of people).  Congruently, we also greatly overestimate our own ability to react in a dangerous or emergency situation.  In the case of the Pulse Nightclub shooting, at least one police officer was (and, in some reports, three officers were) on the scene and engaged the attacker with gunfire outside the club, but the killer was able to enter the club nonetheless. Yet I have heard many times already in the short intervening period how "one good guy with a gun" can stop these things.  Here we had a good guy with a gun; this good guy was a trained police officer who practiced with his weapon regularly (probably more often than 90% of non-law-enforcement gun owners), and who had significantly more training than probably 99% of non-military and non-law-enforcement gun owners. Somehow he and two other similarly trained and prepared officers were unable to prevent the ensuing carnage. 

The fantasy that an average person who carries a gun, concealed or otherwise, will be mentally ready and completely capable of assessing and reacting in such a situation, not to mention physically capable and sufficiently accurate in aim, is just that: a pure fantasy based in nothing other than an insufficiently knowledgeable yet overactive imagination.  There are known instances where battle-hardened veterans of multiple combat campaigns, genuine war-heroes, fail under stress, in unpredictable ways. That a modern-day cowboy with a gun would have prevented the worst mass-shooting in the history of the U.S. (to date) is magical thinking on a very dangerous level, for those who believe thus are very committed in that belief, and will actively try to influence public policy to allow, even encourage, that lunacy. In fact they spend millions of dollars to that effect. In a similar vein, these same types will promulgate the equally fantastic notion that if they arm themselves then they will be able to prevent the government from encroaching on their civil liberties, yet our military is the most powerful in the entire history of the world, larger than the militaries of the next four countries combined. It is patently absurd to think that a few guns in the hands of weekend warriors would stop such a force from doing almost whatever it wanted.

At this point I freely admit that I am moving into a more speculative area, as I am making some guesses as to the motivations of the shooter.  There seems to be conflicting information coming to light.  The shooter’s own father claims that his son was not motivated in this instance by religion per se, but instead was offended mightily when his son saw two men kissing one another.  The club he targeted, Pulse in Orlando, Florida, is a gay nightclub.  At some point during the hostage-phase of the attack, he phoned 911 and pledged allegiance to ISIS (the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq), which is undoubtedly a religiously-motivated organization.

It is a fair question to ask from whence stems this man’s hatred of LGBT persons.  Since he pledged allegiance to ISIS and was raised as a Muslim, it’s probably fair to say that he was enculturated within that atmosphere – his father is certainly dedicated to Muslim-causes.  ISIS has posted videos of its members executing LGBT persons by throwing them off of rooftops; many Muslim countries such as Saudi Arabia and Iran impose death sentences on those found guilty of being gay. Such edicts and laws are based upon writings taken directly from the Koran and the Hadith.  And this leads us back to the magical thought process, and the dangers of allowing it to occur.  There is no evidence whatsoever, at least nothing that we would normally call evidence in any strict or rigorous sense, that either of these sets of texts is or was divinely inspired, yet they are taken as the literal and unalterable truth by millions including those with access to massively destructive weapons, as was Omar Mateen. Omar’s thoughts and beliefs were based upon simply fantastic notions about the world, notions with no veridical correspondence to actual reality.  This situation is the same with respect to any text or utterance considered beyond the realm of human influence: Christianity (in all its flavors) and Judaism come to mind.  In fact, those two along with Islam are the so-called Abrahamic-faiths, and the foundational story of Abraham coming to the very brink of sacrificing his son is also a fantastic, magical tale.  Nowadays if a person were to bring their child to a sacrificial altar and raise the knife to commit the deed, all while claiming to be following the voice of divine authority, we would assume such a person was out of their right mind and immediately seek psychological or other emergency help – in other words, we would act as if they were beyond reason.  It is ironic that such a fantastic tale is still held as either ethical or true in any sense.

My point here is that the acceptance of such obviously false tales contributes to the atmosphere of magical thinking that seems to pervade all societies, or has for the entirety of recorded history.  Humanity is suffering from cognitive dissonance, and is largely unaware of it.  We question in painstaking detail all aspects of, say, the construction of an automobile or airplane, demanding tangible and reproducible evidence that all of the claims behind its design and fabrication represent the true, factual state of reality, while at the same time we fail to expect even a whiff of supporting evidence for the most ridiculous of religious claims, precisely because they are labelled as “religious.”  And, our acceptance of those claims clearly has direct bearing on our behaviors and actions.

Humans seem to exhibit this cognitive dissonance to varying degrees – some are completely in thrall to unsubstantiated ideas and others have mostly shed them from their minds.  What is perfectly clear is that without a path to discovering truth and reality, we are at the mercy of whatever stokes our passions.  And ideological systems, of which religions comprise the largesse, more than any other human institution, have mastered the art of exploiting our emotive responses.

This is why the quotation from Voltaire in the picture above is one of my favorites – by allowing ourselves to think magically we have unilaterally disarmed ourselves.  This goes deeper than one might imagine, for even the most passive and liberal Christian still holds any number of unsupportable ideas in his or her head, and this contributes in important ways to the mindset that causes society to think it rude or inappropriate to criticize one’s religious faith or ideas.  This is the root of the problem and multiplies the confusion surrounding what would otherwise be fairly straightforward discussions. We are therefore left with no valid means to criticize or even distinguish toxic ideologies.

The odious presumptive Republican nominee, Donald Trump, has promised many ridiculous things (he is a magical thinker in any number of ways), among which is to “build a wall.”  This is indeed a stupid and terrible idea for many reasons, but what we desperately need to do is tear down the wall that already exists inside our own minds which allows us to carry so many contradictory ideas and thoughts. Only then can we speak plainly enough to eliminate the true causes behind tragedies like the one suffered this past weekend.

Open letter to LGBT Friends and Allies

This is a letter of encouragement (and thanks) that I wrote for the students at a local high school who are members of its Gay-Straight-Alliance chapter.  I thought it might be nice to publish it here:

Dear LGBTQ Friends and Allies,

I just wanted to write you a short note, in large part so that I could simply extend a very big thank-you for the mission that you fulfill at this school and in the wider community.

As I’m sure you’ve recently seen, a number of issues affecting the community that you belong to (as well as serve) have come to the very forefront of public and political discourse, in a highly-publicized and oftentimes contentious manner.  This has happened on all levels – here in our school, in nearby cities and towns, across our state, as well has nationally.  We have even garnered international attention (although I don’t think our state and our country should be at all flattered by what is being said!). All of this has happened in a very short period of time, and it comes hot on the heels of historic victories, notably in the area of marriage equality.

Although I am honestly a bit dismayed at the continuing bigotry, intolerance, and outright hatred that is still evident, I am so much more overwhelmed, and overjoyed, at the reaction of a growing number of thoughtful people against those sentiments.  I see people from all walks of life coming to our defense in compassionate and heartfelt ways; this ranges from small kindnesses like a simple smiley-face or a “like” on a social media post all the way up to the Attorney General of the United States, herself a black woman and a native of Greensboro here in NC, making a historic, heroic public acknowledgement of the transgender community as well as announcing strong social and legal defensive measures on our behalf.

What I think is key to understand is that each of you is a playing a vital part in that struggle whether you realize it or not.  Every action you take and utterance you make, no matter how small or insignificant it might seem, puts a human face on the issues.  The importance of that cannot be overstated.  There is a remarkable concept that crosses the boundaries of Psychology and Philosophy called the Circle of Empathy, and it refers to those people around an individual with whom one feels a connection, or in whose shoes one can and does imagine oneself.  It is a widely acknowledged fact that as our circles of empathy have grown, societies have become less violent, more tolerant, more just, more prosperous, and are simply happier.  All of those are very good things, and the first three are especially so in regards to people like us.  So, every time you join a face and a personality to an act, statement, or an injustice, you are working to expand everyone’s circles of empathy.  You are connecting yourself as a living, breathing, feeling human being to a concept or an idea in someone else’s head, turning it from an abstract into something that matters on a personal level.

That, more than anything else, is what lies behind the stunning social and moral progress that is happening all around us now. And make no mistake that we are experiencing progress that would have been totally unthinkable, perhaps even ridiculous, not very long ago.  You are helping to make all of humanity itself more humane, and for that, we owe you such a large debt.

The term “The Greatest Generation” refers to those who grew up during the Great Depression in the 1930’s and who participated in the efforts of World War II. I see a lot of obvious similarities between those truly special individuals and the young people of today, even though the battles are very different. I strongly disagree with comments I hear about how the millennial generation is just entitled and spoiled – don’t you believe that for a second!  Surely there are flaws in each of us, but the younger generations are growing up with compassion, tolerance, acceptance, and senses of moral and social justice in measures that are unparalleled in human history.

So, again, thank you so very much from the bottom of my heart for what you are doing, and also merely for being the wonderful individuals that you are.