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False Beliefs and Practical Guidance

False Beliefs and Practical Guidance

4 Mins
January 25, 2011

Question: You may have heard of the “law of attraction” splashed throughout modern self-help literature. While the law of attraction is bogus as a concept of reality, as a metaphor it may be very good. It is one of those positive illusions that one may have in one's belief system that helps propel one forward.

Growing up, movies like Rocky highly motivated me in sports even though I consciously knew they were fiction. And the (fictional) concept of “chi energy” highly motivated me and got me interested in martial arts and even Yoga and health, even though I now know all these to be bogus concepts.

Is it OK to use these fictional concepts as metaphors? My guess is “yes”: because one is still being rational by identifying them as metaphors and not reality. Further, if there is a need to use them—such as if a fictional metaphor such as the law of attraction somehow motivates one to be productive and go after riches—then they are serving a rational function and the virtue of productivity.

We know that the “biased brain” easily comprehends metaphor and stories (e.g., Aesop's fables). Tales and speeches using stories work very well for the persuader. Even Ayn Rand presented her philosophy via stories.

Answer: I think you are asking to what extent it is right to embrace and follow teachings that are in some aspect known to be false. Examples would be “Chi energy” (the “Qi” of Tai-qi exercise) and the “Law of Attraction” from the book and film The Secret. We might put religious teachings generally in this category. Many people look to religions for practical reasons: a feeling of hope, a sense of moral order, or a community to take part in, for example.

You also mention art. Art is another matter, really. Art can and does inspire us, allowing us to imagine “What if?” It lets us see the world through different eyes and explore values and ideals. But that is just a first step toward practical action. If we find in an artwork—a painting, a movie, a novel, a sculpture, a song—ideals we admire and metaphors that resonate for us, we must next ask: What in the real world corresponds to that ideal and its sources? What real connection might the metaphor be capturing? Only when we see the facts that underlie the ideal, facts that indicate how the ideal might be achieved, can we set out to take practical steps toward making it real. Seeing Rocky, for instance, shouldn’t make you set out for Philly to start a career in boxing. But perhaps it should make you consider the value of dedication and perseverance, and look to consider if they work in practice.

Objectivism holds that one should live by reason, and indeed that rationality is the central virtue. If we cut ourselves off from facts, we are setting ourselves up for a fall. In fact, many false belief systems have provided the framework for swindlers to do their work. In many cases, the false (or partly-false) systems have genuinely harmful components: for example, religious morality usually emphasizes altruism and self-sacrifice. This gives adherents unearned guilt and promotes harmful ways of living. Religious wars are the worst examples, but more prosaic ones include repression and hatred of oneself.

I think the “law of attraction” is an example of a mostly harmful swindle. If I have it right the “law of attraction” is, in essence, the principle that by sincerely wishing for something you can make it happen. In most presentations, it is based in a false metaphysics and false ideas of human physiology: namely, that our minds are radically distinct from our bodies and that thoughts have direct power over distant objects.

Most successful swindles get near to something important or true.

Most successful swindles get near to something important or true. The true and important thing that the “law of attraction” relates to is the virtue of integrity. It is true that to seek values, one needs to act consistently and be of one mind on the matter. One needs unity of one’s principles and practice. In this context, it is true that sincere commitment to one’s values helps one attain them. But this is because sincere commitment brings a consistency to one’s actions, not because commitment as such is the source of values. Values cannot be won without effort (productiveness), and one needs knowledge in order to guide one’s actions (rationality).

There are direct psychological benefits from consistency. Since reason is our guide to values, it feels good to think in a consistent, coherent fashion—one’s thinking itself seems clearer, aimed more directly at its target. To take up a cause, or direct oneself into a career, can be immensely satisfying for this reason. But consistency divorced from practical action toward objective values is just obsession. To wish without a rational basis and without a commitment to practical action is self-defeating.

However, many imperfectly rational systems provide practical benefits that make them objectively worthy of consideration. Tai-qi is a good example of this: setting aside its false view of human physiology, it is, as far as I know, a health-promoting and mentally calming exercise practice and can be enjoyed without any need to embrace dubious metaphysical doctrines. In such a case, thinking of the dubious aspect of the practice as a metaphor may be helpful, although this raises the question: “a metaphor for what?”

In an ideal culture, all healthful practices would have a fully rational basis. But that culture is a long way away. So in our culture as we find it, we have to look for healthful practices where we find them, or invent our own. While we do this, we need to keep a rational philosophy in mind. We should try as far as possible to enjoy the rational and beneficial aspects of the practice in question, while avoiding its irrational or harmful aspects. If practical advice from “law of attraction” preachers helps you keep focused on your goals, then use it. But don’t drop the broader, objective context in which that advice should be placed.

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