Objects Carry Essences
We expect like to cause like in nearly every endeavor, even if cause and effect are alike only in very abstract ways.
Because we think symbolically and associatively, we have the capacity and the compulsion to see everything as a representation of something else. And if we treat symbolic relationships as real, physical, ones, the universe becomes a web woven with invisible threads of influence mirroring our own associative networks. Human meaning then becomes a mediator of causality, and the whole world becomes magic.
Recently, a team of psychologists demonstrated the therapeutic potential of rituals with symbolic content, or what they call metaphor therapy . When people wrote down things that bothered them--regretted decisions, unsatisfied desires, reactions to a tragedy--and sealed them inside envelopes, they gained emotional relief. Envelope closure led to psychological closure.
Actions Have Distant Consequences: Using Superstition to Make Luck Work for You
Error management theory: if, over the course of human evolution, making a mistake in one direction hurt more than making a mistake in the other direction, we'll consistently veer toward making the less costly mistake, even if we end up making more mistakes overall than if we attempted a true course. Picture walking along the top of a low wall along a ledge. If you fall to the right, you plummet thirty feet. If you fall to the left, you drop only three. I suspect you'll lean to the left a little. That's why we startle at the sight of a stick on the ground that vaguely resembles a snake. The embarrassment of flinching at a branch (dropping three feet) pales in comparison to the danger of missing a real snake (splat). Our perception leans to the left. So while any one instance of superstition may seem silly, the overall error management strategy that leads to superstition is supremely rational.
She and her collaborators found that those who believed they were lucky had no intention of sitting back and letting good things come to them; they wanted to go out there and take on the world, with luck as their copilot. "The more you think of luck as a stable, personal trait," she told me, "the more you feel personal agency, and the more you have a preference for challenging tasks." The idea is that if you think you're the type of person who goes into a difficult situation and comes out ahead, you're going to put yourself in more of them, and you're not going to accept defeat. People think of luck as a deployable skill.
The Mind Knows No Bounds: Psychokinesis, ESP, and Transcendence
Untouchable ideas (including theism, string theory, parts of Freudianism, and many of our deepest convictions) are sometimes said to be "not even wrong"; they might be wrong, but there's no possible piece of evidence that could show it. And since they're compatible with any observable result, they provide no predictive power. They're the porcelain hammers of science: pretty but useless.
Some psychologists believe we are natural dualists--we instinctively dichotomize the world into two types of substances: thought and matter, body and soul, mind stuff and stuff stuff.
Treating something not alive as if it's alive is called animism. Treating something nonhuman as if it's human is called anthropomorphism. The two often go hand in hand, as animism feeds into anthropomorphism: when we treat something as alive, we treat it as alive like us, with our full catalog of mental states.
So we're adept at seeing minds because seeing minds is a useful skill. It allows us to predict the behavior of predators, prey, and people, and to interact with them. We look for minds especially when we have a need for control or when we feel lonely. And our mind reading continually spills over to entities that don't actually have minds. The consequences of this spillover include the relationships we build with animals, the trust we accord technology, the blame we direct at gods, the protection we provide our environment, the desire we have for cute consumer products, and the metaphors we use to understand a range of phenomena in fields such as science, economics, and politics (selfish genes, bullish markets, the war on drugs).
Everything Happens for a Reason: You've Got a Date with Destiny
Arguing that because something has a function it was intentionally created for the sake of that function is what's called teleological reasoning. (Telos is Greek for "end" or "purpose.") Teleological reasoning is an appropriate response when looking at a watch--it tells time and was indeed created for the purpose of telling time. But some things that look designed result from natural events. "We are entirely accustomed to the idea that complex elegance is an indicator of premeditated, crafted design," Richard Dawkins wrote in The Blind Watchmaker. "This is probably the most powerful reason for the belief, held by the vast majority of people that have ever lived, in some kind of supernatural deity."
Referential thinking, the finding of self-relevant meaning in random events, is a natural part of our stream of consciousness.
I see synchronicity's usefulness in its manifestation not of a higher consciousness but of one's own subconscious. Each remarkable moment is like a Rorschach test: how will you interpret it, and what does that say about you?
Teigen concluded that the two factors defining luck aren't positivity and improbability but rather the difference in value between reality and its most salient counterfactual, and the closeness of that counterfactual. How much better or worse things could have been, and how nearly they were.
Laura King has found that, when combined with positive affect, referential thinking (seeing events such as traffic light changes as having a significance meant specifically for oneself) is correlated with finding one's existence purposeful and meaningful. "It makes events that are random and chaotic feel like they belong in a coherent narrative about who you are and what your life is," she says. "You become a character in a much more interesting narrative when the whole world is conspiring to take part in your personal drama." You want to believe that all those flukes of luck leading to where you are were somehow meant for you. Customized kismet means someone's got your back. It also means that those events that happened for a reason may be building up to some future purpose. It gives the entire story of your life both continuity and a destination, something to strive for. You were put here for a reason, you matter, and you're on a mission. Everything before now was to prepare you for your calling. The universe is counting on you.
To say something was "meant" to happen implies that its meaning is transcendent, its purpose a matter of fact. A superior being willed it to occur with an end in mind, and our job is to recognize and accept that end--to understand God's plan and submit to it, if not aid in its actualization. What happens if you reject this notion? If you say that nothing, anywhere, was ever "meant" to happen? You become an existentialist (specifically an atheistic existentialist, which is almost redundant). Existentialism is the ultimate "shit happens" philosophy. Maybe your house burned down and something good came of it. But nothing good had to come of it, the house could easily have not burned down at all, and you could easily not have even been born in the first place. No one put you here and torched your house as a gift. Further, because nothing was ever "meant" to happen, the biological organism you call your self was never "meant" to behave any special way, so universal moral law goes right out the window. You're free to do what you want, as long as you're willing to experience the repercussions (including feelings of guilt). Many find this freedom terrifying. The freedom to define right and wrong for yourself, the freedom to interpret life however you wish. Sartre wrote that "man is condemned to be free: condemned, because he did not create himself, yet nonetheless free, because once cast into the world, he is responsible for everything he does." Renouncing externally imposed goals and taboos increases our responsibility by widening our options. We have to think harder about what to want and do.
Existentialism makes decisions harder in at least two ways. First, it erases any divine signs that might highlight or eliminate certain options. And second, it increases the possibility for regret, because you alone hold responsibility. But while existentialism can make life harder, it does not necessarily make life more empty. Denying any inherent meaning in the universe is not to deny meaning full stop. Each person creates his own meaning, decides his own values, defines his own destiny. Because existentialism is the ultimate "shit happens" philosophy, it's also the ultimate "do it yourself" philosophy. (Nihilism actually parallels existentialism on the "shit happens" scale, but in its denial of even personally created meaning, it replaces "do it yourself" with "what's the point?") As the Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw said, "Life isn't about finding yourself; life is about creating yourself." An obstacle in your path doesn't necessarily mean you're supposed to find yourself in a different direction. No, you're charged with deciding then and there whether to pick a new destination or hitch your britches and march over the obstacle. Freedom can feel imprisoning but ultimately it's empowering.
EPILOGUE The World Is Sacred: A Stab at a Secular Spirituality
Magical thinking ain't so bad. It's a set of illusions, sure, but in many cases they're positive illusions. They primarily emerge from functions that have evolved for other reasons, but they have functionality of their own. First, magical thinking provides a sense of control. The value of an illusory sense of control is that it reduces anxiety and increases a feeling of agency, which can spur you to seize real control. Second, magical thinking provides meaning. There's meaning as in comprehension--understanding how things happen or how to do things--which allows for control. But there's also meaning as in a sense of purpose--grasping why things happen or why anything is worth doing. This is the stuff that gets you out of bed in the morning and lets you sleep at night.
When one engages with the sacred, reality feels a little less flat. You get the vague sense that we're not just soulless atoms, that the world is imbued with a deep significance that can't be explained away. The answer to "Is this all there is?" becomes a ringing "No."
I believe the most meaningful lives include a balanced combination of long- and short-term goals.
Assuming you're in the right frame of mind (and chemistry of brain) to experience meaning, the meaning is there for you to create, whenever you want it. The historian of religion Mircea Eliade wrote in his classic book The Sacred and the Profane, "every human experience is capable of being transfigured, lived on a different plane, a transhuman plane." With a focus on living meaningfully even in minor tasks, your prosaic path becomes poetic; your mission gains a metaphysical significance. Every moment becomes sacred. Breathe in, breathe out, wax on, wax off.