Monday, 13 February 2017

My Years of Magical Thinking, by Lionel Snell

Lionel Snell is without doubt one of the great magical thinkers of the last half-century. This book is somewhat different to his other books, because he is offering his arguments to the wider public beyond the magical ghetto. It is a concerted defence of magical thinking - but as one of four basic types of thinking, four basic human ways of apprehending our worlds.

This four-directions model is not new - Snell's first book, SSOTBME, from 1974, laid out this model of human apprehension, but I must confess I never got that it was supposed to be a normal mode of thinking; somehow I assumed he was smuggling it in to complete his picture, and that it was still a fringe thing. Thinking back, I am puzzled at how I misread that idea, but it no doubt has to do with the fact that my own approach to magical thinking has often emphasized the fringe-y, even freakish nature of such thinking - the freakiness of which I am quite comfortable with.

Snell is careful to explain that this is not a map of 4 quadrants, into which all thinking can be neatly stuffed, but a compass of 4 directions, tendencies. These tendencies do have at their core some ideal kind of thinking which is of course always referred to, often emulated but never achieved in a pure form. He points out that this model is in itself an example of magical thinking, and is aware of the price we pay for making systems:
'No theory can claim maturity until it has been accused of being "a gross over-simplification".'

So what are the characteristics of the 4 types of thinking?

Magical thinking is based on a combination of feeling and sensation - we gather evidence directly via sensation and then decide how to act by what 'feels right.'
This is a fast mode of processing, much faster than Scientific thinking's combination of sensation and thinking. So it is much more useful in a pinch. I was reminded of the words of one of my favourite songwriters, Arthur Lee, when he sings: 'I believe in magic / Why? Because it is so quick / I don't need power when I'm hypnotized...'

Here is an elegant indicator of Religious thinking:
'...a notion has no religious meaning unless it is capable of being disbelieved (for otherwise there would be no non-believers from which the believers could differentiate themselves).'

Magical thinking is characterized by an inclusiveness of thought:
'In magical culture, a belief in any one system does not compel disbelief in another system that contradicts it, and this sets magical thinking apart from religious or scientific use of the word "belief`".'

For example:
'...I clearly accept the theory of evolution as a myth. I accept the myth that consciousness is generated within my brain, because that too works well for me - but it does not stop me also accepting the myth that I have an immortal soul that has incarnated in this body because that also works well in other contexts. I can at the same time accept the myth that light is a wave as well as the myth that light is made of particles, as both those myths work for me in their own way.'

Magical thinking also involves a game-like approach to life, not taking belief in what you are doing too seriously. The edges of magic, perhaps on the Science side of the compass, show up where:
'You do find magicians apparently so serious about a particular set of symbols that they appear to have accepted it as "absolutely true". Does that mean they are no longer playing a game?'

In contrast, the attitude of the official game-playing world of sport is much more serious, and Lionel puts it under Religious thinking, in which we have to believe in one thing and exclude all others, belong to one in-group and relegate all other people to the out-group.

The edges of Scientific thinking are interesting. Snell shows how theoretical physics is Platonism, of a peculiar kind:
'For example, any experiment as experienced subjectively by a scientist must be assumed to have a one-to-one relationship with an experiment taking place in the higher Platonic reality of a physical universe that is assumed to "really exist" and whose shadow or image makes up the experimenter's subjective experience.'

Plato, as I read him, is talking about subjectivity, and therefore the ideal states he talks about are subjective ones, and our discrimination around them is what leads us to spiritual awakening. But in our post-Cartesian world, spirit and even consciousness is rejected as being too difficult to understand, so theoreticians like Dennett and Dawkins pretend it doesn't exist (the most ridiculous philosophical position imaginable, since consciousness is the only prime datum we have). So instead physicists have projected an ideal out onto the external world, of an objective existence behind what we experience but which we can never reach.

The final section addresses some issue in the modern world. Snell tells us we are living in a culture where magical thinking is once again rising to prominence. This is of course not all good - it is the sort of era when some pundit in all seriousness can coin the phrase 'post-truth', a world in which prominent figures are not even shamed when their lies are revealed.

I have not, in this brief review, done justice to the layered and thorough arguments in this book, and I know I haven't plumbed its depths either. That will take another reading and then some. I recommend it unreservedly for anyone who wants to go on a journey of thinking about what magic means and what culture does with it.