Putting Your Head in the Sand Does Indeed Make You Blind: Matthew Hutson and Magical Thinking

by Ryan Sanford Smith

It is hardly a revelatory proposition that often what one can most learn from sifting through the New York Times editorial pages is how little one can get away with saying and still be featured. I do feel one can more often find rather insightful conversations there, which only makes it all the more disappointing when some fluffy, same-old-thing dust gets blown in through the door.

On April 6th, the Times published a piece by  Matthew Hutson, ostensibly a lengthy self-blurb for his new book The 7 Laws of Magical Thinking, a book whose title and website seem as refreshing and compelling as its premise. When I say ‘fluffy’, I mean precisely that–I feel a bit baffled as to why someone like Hutson, a self-proclaimed atheist who has a strong background in neuroscience, would spend his intellect and energy on such a project. This isn’t to say, actually, that the initial premise is wrong; Hutson puts forth that even the most stridently skeptical of us fall prey to small, even unconscious episodes of wishful or otherwise irrational belief and that one need not feel shame over this as it is simply part of our nature. There’s nothing to really contend with here, it seems more or less self-evident to my mind, which makes this particular line of discourse feel hollow and fruitless to me. I don’t know of anyone making a counter-argument to this claim. The cliché response feels warranted: and the sky is blue, Mr. Hutson, so what?

There’s a bit more to pick at in what follows that first ‘theory’, which is simply that such irrationality is part of the universal human experience because it is so unerringly effective at offering comfort, meaning, and the feeling (he avoids the pejorative but entirely justified term ‘illusion’, here) of control. Again, very little controversy here–he implies in the Times piece and states explicitly on the book’s website his reliance on ideas from social and evolutionary biology, and this is rather well-tread ground; one can find evolutionary biologists among others casually making the same points about the evolutionary advantage in things such as perceiving oneself as smarter or more attractive than one perhaps is. Another example one could offer is the sometimes obnoxious extent to which parents cherish their children not only out of love but out of a skewed perspective that their children are the smartest, most unique, etc. as evolutionary mechanisms tied into motivations to support and protect one’s offspring. Well, fine, the sky continues to be blue Mr. Hutson, so what?

Hutson’s main premise however holds far less water in my opinion. He seems to be saying that magical thinking does this not only universally (at least, again, in small doses for we relentless skeptics) but that it is the foundation of a ‘happy and sane’ human experience. It feels strange to me to read an avowed atheist making a claim that is tired the defense of so many theists, which is that no matter how well science informs our understanding of the world and our place in it, there’s an eternal line after which one must merely, despite any contrary evidence, fall upon wishful thinking as a means to feel comforted, fulfilled, and to lead a meaningful life. Hutson appears to want to get away with some sleight of hand here–essentially talking light-heartedly about such examples as college students who to some extent perhaps feel they have an effect on a football game just by watching it before shifting to moments of self-deception that are much less superficial, yet he looks to carry between both ends of the spectrum while drawing the same conclusions: that wishful thinking and its corollary feelings of comfort and control are all okay because, well, we’re human and we just can’t get on any other way. This seems to simultaneously accomplish narrowing our opinions of ourselves and what I suppose I’d call our existential maturity while also neglecting to give weight to the negative repercussions of emotionally and intellectually short-cutting our way to these positive feelings.

Hutson–and most people in general, all of us at some point, actually, per his agreeable initial premise–gets away with this sleight of hand largely because most of these moments are largely casual; believing vaguely that wearing one particular White Sox cap is ‘good luck’ when watching a game, half-jokingly rapping on wood for good luck, etc. But at its core, the act of self-delusion on any level, no matter how good we feel or how much meaning it imparts or how terrible our tragedies, is a form of self-sabotage that hinders our ability to engage with the concrete reality of our situations. I find myself reminded of Sam Harris’ recent discourses on lying and most recently on free will. The pseudo-logic behind Hutson’s claims are the same surrounding ‘white lies’–they’re small, mostly meaningless moments, but not entirely meaningless and their repercussions can often be large, if so subtle we almost never have to notice them directly. If to any degree whatever I feel knocking on a wooden desk on my way to a job interview genuinely grants me a bit of control over a nervous situation, I’m failing to accurately gauge and interact with the situation. To say that such wishful thinking is what keeps us from being debilitated by our lives is to deny our potential and agency to actually engage with our lives without such thoughts, no matter how rare or casual they may be.

It’s vitally important to also realize how rarely such thinking actually is rare or casual. The fight of secularism and rational thought is very much still an overwhelming struggle by a very vocal but very minor segment of human society against the institutionalized mechanisms of wishful thinking and self-deception on legitimately ubiquitous scales. If you spend several evenings praying about an upcoming job interview as opposed to preparing for it you absolutely might feel more confident and less nervous, but you are not only not better equipped to do well in the interview, you’re sabotaging your own success. Put logically, if you are feeling fulfilled or sane or in control by means of irrational thinking, by definition it means you’re not any of those things and are actually working against your own best interests. Again one thinks of the white lie, with its short-term benefits of avoiding awkwardness or hurt feelings while neglecting the longer-term, more complex prices one pays for being dishonest on even the most minute scale. While Harris was talking about dishonesty with others, every bit of the philosophical arguments he constructs would seem to apply in regards to one lying to oneself. Along the same lines, his discussions on the illusory nature of free will seem applicable here. Grappling with the idea that free will is an illusion might run counter to almost every bit of cultural understanding we have about ourselves, but that contextual dissonance doesn’t make it more true. In actuality, Harris argues, understanding that it’s indeed an illusion frees us up to more enlightened (if more unwieldy) thinking on our own lives as well as how we treat others.