There is Wonder in Knowing

So, Scientific American can fuck right the hell off.

No, seriously, they can.

In one of their recent articles, they explore why “magical thinking,” the superstitions we adopt in our everyday lives, seems to work for some people. Essentially, the argument is that if we really, really believe in something being “lucky”, then that causes us to set loftier goals and to work harder at achieving them. This is in reaction to a study done at the University of Cologne and published in Psychological Science.

That’s not really a big deal. Yea, people think that they can accomplish more with a little supernatural help. I’m not a fan of the tone of the piece, which suggests this is a good thing. It’s what Greta Christina calls The Santa Delusion, and basically it’s an argument from utility. Yes, belief in Santa makes children act better, therefore adults should also all believe in a real, physical Santa in order to make them behave better as well. While this is nice in a touchy-feely sort of way, it’s not an accurate reflection of truth and ends up holding us back because we can’t exhibit genuine moral behavior when we see our actions as only a reflection of whether we will be rewarded or punished.

Similarly, the problems that can be caused by reliance on superstitions rather than ones own abilities far outweigh the ability to pretend that your socks are making you run faster. I mean, I’m sure there’s some pleasure derived from peeing on your hands for some people and I have no particular problems with gold thongs, but wouldn’t it be better just to show people you’ve always had the power to go back to Kansas?

But even that isn’t what annoys me about this article. It’s this line

Like the science of astronomy strips the starry night of its magic

The link is to a Whitman poem. I can’t stand nonsense like this. Knowing doesn’t strip away wonder or magic, and it’s a poor and desiccated thing if your ability to dream is founded solely on your ignorance. This is childish thinking at its worst and is roughly like saying that film students can’t find magic in movies or English majors can’t enjoy Whitman (which I still do, BTW).

We ought to be above cheap tricks as a species. I like illusions and magic as much as the next guy, but it all pales in comparison to the sheer size and complexity of the universe around us. While Whitman sees just the stars, I see a glorious dance happening at breakneck speed made to seem slow only by the vast uncharted distances it takes place over. It is a grand sky full of explosions and swinging bodies and impossible journeys. Everything I learn about it makes it more amazing, and encouraging people to miss the sheer prodigious nature of the universe while touting the efficacy of rabbit’s feet when a person doesn’t know any better is really disappointing.

Science is the poetry of reality, and I pity anybody who can’t see the wonders of those poems.

(h/t to Dex for posting about this himself)

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