Thursday, May 17, 2007

It's not so much that we agree, but why we agree

Over the last several months (or maybe it's a bit more like years), a friend and I have been in a prolonged debate. It started when I saw What the Bleep do We Know? with him and his wife; anyone who knows me more than casually know that this movie drives me absolutely up the wall, and it started that night. It was a parade of nonsense that was built on a foundation of massive equivocations mixed in with some mild misinterpretations of quantum physics and history and a major dose of new-new-age pseudopsychological mumbo-jumbo. Ever since, these two friends have regularly baited me (although in no way that inspires animosity or an urge to dislike or ridicule them) into discussing these "laws of attraction."

Some of you might have twigged to the fact that this is all related to The Secret, and my specific views on that book and its popularity are summed up by someone else here. Anyhow, in the course of this exchange, I did, in the interest of intellectual honesty, concede that there is a vague and roundabout sense in which it is true--thinking about owning a Porsche has a discernible effect on the likelihood of one's actually owning one (look no further than the Walrus for validation there); however, that's simply a truism, and obvious conclusion that emerges from a mature understanding of cause and effect and the role of planning in achieving goals, not a magical formula for getting the universe to serve up your heart's desire on a silver platter. I can envision jumping off my roof to the moon every day, and there will be no measurable increase in the likelihood of that happening (that is, admittedly a bit of a strawman, but try out acting as though you have already won the Megamillions jackpot and see how much money that gets you). Positive thinking and visualizing goals are certainly important facets of realizing those goals, and I am certainly focused more on that kind of thing lately than usual (my existential crisis of the moment isn't worth getting specific about, but it has certainly been a major concern of late), but only to the extent that they influence me to try to do the things that I want to do.

What really concerns me here, though, is the why. Why someone holds a certain belief or takes a certain course of action is often the overriding concern for me. Are American Evangelicals really allies to the state of Israel if they only support its existence because it must exist to fulfill the end-time prophecies of Revelations? I would certainly be uneasy about accepting their support knowing that they were just keeping me around because there have to be some Zionists in the lakes of fire.

My friend asks me why I get so worked up about The Secret and What the Bleep... when I agree with the basic principle at the root, but not with the metaphor used to make the point. I guess that's why he studied engineering (then became an organic kiwi farmer) and I studied literature. I see metaphors as dangerous things to be handled with extreme caution. People who don't think much about words in and of themselves are often in danger of conflating the metaphor with the thing it represents--see John 6:51-56. The Eucharist seems like a bizarre misinterpretation of an interesting philosophical idea (albeit one that holds nothing for me), and Karma isn't really what Earl Hickey thinks it is, or the active, seemingly conscious force for good that the writers of the show make it out to be (I do think that My Name is Earl is a fascinating exploration of the concept told with great humor and intelligent writing; it's even more so in light of the season finale). I don't think that there are a lot of people out there who take the show literally, but I don't think that Jesus (if he existed as an actual historical personage) was betting on people "literally" eating his flesh and drinking his blood on a regular basis, either.

The road taken seems at least as important as the destination.


  1. If the act of thinking about owning a Porsche had a mystic effect I would have had a MUCH better Porsche...

  2. Anonymous7:41 PM

    I had a major Lennon moment with your last line. "Life is what happens to us while we're making other plans."

  3. Metaphor is a particularly dangerous thing in the hands of a person who regularly engages in magical thinking. It makes it easier for that person to blur the line between empirical reality and lesson-teaching examples.

    One of the things that fundamentalists seem to forget was that Jesus, at least according to what has survived to our day and is considered canonical, was constantly telling stories to try to get a point across (and quite often grew frustrated because the apostles were thick as logs and didn't get it). A lot of shit in that book they hang on so vehemently is symbolic. If only they'd remember that.