Friday, April 24, 2015

Beyond New Age The Problem Isn't Just Belle Gibson

It's a well known truism that, in life, we tend to find what we're looking for.

I realize this truism is tautological, and it's been rendered down so far that it seems meaningless, yet it is something we repeat to one another in so many forms.

This idea has been central to the 'positive thought movement' for well over 100 years, with many different off-shoots, but all can be considered unified in regard to this particular idea: "our mental states are carried forward into manifestation and become our experience in daily living".

The belief is that Somehow (and this is The Secret), our mental picture effects the world. This produces the "law of attraction," whereby like attracts like, and our thoughts somehow manifest reality. This is the very foundation of what's happened with Belle Gibson, as JR Hennesey explored on the Guardian today:
Gibson needed to fake cancer, because the New Age narrative of transcending physical and spiritual sickness is so ingrained into its marketing. New Age philosophy is the clearest example of a utopian movement utterly absorbed by capitalism, which it once (feebly) opposed.
This is a good article on the subject, and I recommend you read it. However, that's not what I want to focus on here,. Instead, I want to look at a deeper process. When we look out into the world, how surprising is it that we see our presuppositions and even past experiences reflected back at us? Are we actually manifesting our thoughts, or could something else be at work? Finally, can we really consider this a phenomenon that's entirely unique to the New Age movement?

I was thinking about these issues for several hours yesterday on a long, terribly long and awful bus trip back to Boston. In the process, I happened upon this wiki on Depressive Realism.
Depressive realism is the hypothesis developed by Lauren Alloy and Lyn Yvonne Abramson that depressed individuals make more realistic inferences than do non-depressed individuals. Although depressed individuals are thought to have a negative cognitive bias that results in recurrent, negative automatic thoughts, maladaptive behaviors, and dysfunctional world beliefs, depressive realism argues not only that this negativity may reflect a more accurate appraisal of the world but also that non-depressed individuals' appraisals are positively biased.
The "evidence against" section begins like this:
Some have argued that the evidence is not more conclusive because there is no standard for reality ...
Indeed. Without probably intending to, they had struck on one of the fundamental philosophical issues that challenges all psychological research of this sort.

This adds a new spin to one of our questions. How much more likely is it that we find what we're looking for because of an intrinsic bias that resides behind all intent?

We can even demonstrate this using that genie of the modern age, Google. If you search for "climate change a hoax" you're going to find very different source articles than "climate change proof."

Maybe that goes without saying, but even when we don't actively put our bias in the search terms, it seeps in, at the very least, through the articles we choose to select. Especially on the internet, we're all cherry pickers. Because we have to be. There are articles out there, and even apparently valid research, that supports pretty much any interpretation you want to bring. This may be less true in particle physics than it is in psychology, but whenever interpretation is a part of the process, we can't help but write ourselves into the picture.

When you search in the world, you bring the aggregate of your past experience with you. You use it to make sense of what's put in front of you. As we've discussed before, this is one of the fundamental ways that narratives are so intrinsic to our humanity. So this tendency to find the same things over and over, to be plagued by the same "luck", may not be the result of some metaphysical sleight-of-hand.

Unfortunately, knowing this doesn't extricate us from this web, any more than thinking happy thoughts will banish the waking hell of depression or anxiety. We can of course attempt to balance our assumptions by aggregating them with contrary opinionsone of the reasons that the atmosphere of PC "security" can be so counterproductive to our personal growthbut we can't come to those interpretations of the facts as anyone other than ourselves.

To borrow from another cliched truism, "wherever you go, there you are." Read the National Report if you identify as a liberal, or Mother Jones if you identify as conservative. Can you entertain the worldview without being converted? Can you accept that the narratives that resonate for you as "true" could be equally biased?

Science is science to everybody, but we still have to make determinations about which claims to take seriously, and how to interpret what we see and hear. Maybe who we are is the worldview we bring along with us, that very same mind that makes the grass green. Can we make it blue, because we wish it so?

All It Takes Is The Right Story. Mythos Media

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