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The following pop culture references contain no spoilers.

On Felicity. Felicity has a theory that pasta being served on Monday means a bad week. A dog disrupted her activity a few times (the same activity each time) and she thought that was a sign not to do it. When something works out conveniently for starting a relationship with a guy she thinks that is a sign as well.

In Harry Potter, Harry hugs a friend and tries to put unsaid things into the hug, and believes the person understood some of it.

Lovers often speak of fate and destiny, and are pleased by silly coincidences like having the same birthday (or even star sign, which has 1/12 odds). Or having the same favorite color or band or movie. Or having the same phobia, or having lived in the same area in the past. "Was it really a coincidence that we both were at the bar that night? I hadn't been to a bar for months; I don't even really like them!"

This is magical thinking.

Felicity may not mean that there is a wizard casting a spell on her. But she does, undeniably, mean there may be *information* coming from these sources. The laws of physics don't allow for pasta choices to control whether events go well or not for the next week, nor do they give you a surprise dog as a hint not to do an activity. Any thinking that ignores the laws of physics and imagines things happen outside the laws of physics is magical thinking.

Harry's idea that a hug can explain his feelings on a number of complex matters is also magical thinking. A hug has information in it, but only a few bits. You can hug a bit tighter, or a bit longer, but people can't tell the difference very precisely and how that will communicate any sentences is a mystery. You could have a code, but you'll need about five bits per letter; communicating even a single letter that way would be difficult. Just imagine trying to work it out so you and your friend hug and then you figure out which letter of the alphabet he meant based on hug length and tightness, arm position, etc... Back in reality his hug is not communicating all the things he imagines. Hugs do not form magical connections between minds. All he's really communicating is one simple thing: positive feelings. To the extent the other person applies this data point to various outstanding issues within his own mind that is not communication at all, but just him figuring stuff out himself. He will only reach the conclusions Harry hopes if he independently comes up with the same ideas. That's a reality-based way to look at this. But Harry does not; he tries to do magic. (Magic of a sort not allowed in Harry Potter universe.)

Magical thinking is extraordinarily self-centered. It imagines either that the laws of physics are watching over your shoulder like an intelligent being and taking steps to help you out, or that if they are written in stone, timeless, on that stone are laws just about you. The real laws of physics do not say anything specifically about humans, let alone about you personally. They don't have clauses to make information pop into the heads of people you hug. They don't change lunch menus for your edification.

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Let's consider rival theories to the idea that there is objective truth, and that we have ways of seeking truth such as the scientific method and reason. What, exactly, do they claim? It's objectively true that there is no objective truth? If we all have our own personal truth then can't I have an objective truth for me, and have it apply to everyone else as I want it to? (And thus I have taken away everyone else's personal truth. Sorry.) The idea of subjective truth is like saying just because there is a door there for me doesn't mean it's in the same place in your world. In other words, we all live in different worlds that aren't necessarily connected. But if that's the case, how is communication possible? How can we understand each other without having any facts in common? Having no facts in common doesn't just include locations of objects, it also includes gestures and speech made by people. The only serious ideas are that we have facts in common between all people (ie, there are some objective truths), or solipsism (ie, other people aren't real, I'm just imagining them).

Solipsism is very silly. The other people have complex, autonomous behavior. Whatever you want to call them, they are outside your mind. So, they act *as if* they are real people. The claim that they somehow aren't is completely arbitrary.

Consider someone who says the scientific method, or reason, is bad or doesn't work well. Well, does he want justification? That's an epistemic error. Does he have a rival theory? Let's hear it! And subject it to criticism. If he doesn't have a rival theory of how to seek the truth, how'd he come to his conclusion that the scientific method or reason are ineffective? Did he do auguries? Did he use reason?

If it's essentially undeniable that some facts, like the location of a large building, have the same truth of the matter for everyone -- they don't depend on our subjective opinions -- then we should consider if there are any things for which this can be denied. Any sort of measurable, physical fact is out. The cafeteria does not serve pasta for Felicity and roast cow for me, and when we each pick up menus they just magically say different things (and they change themselves undetectably if we swap menus), and there are not two different versions of the kitchen, located in the same place, preparing different meals. (By the way, that undetectable menu change is a good example of magical thinking. It requires physics be paying attention to what we are doing and intelligently manipulate affairs.)

That leaves logic, math, philosophy, religion, and morality -- things we cannot measure or observe.

All of these things, essentially, are facts. (Religions contain magical thinking. Never mind them.)

Math is a good example. Math is not a bunch of arbitrary rules that people made up. It derives very closely from physical facts. First there were the counting numbers. These were invented to let people think about who has more cows which is a matter of fact. And it let people think about the fact that if they have eight cows, and two die, they have six left. These concepts, just like any other part of our language, were just words and ways of thinking we developed to correspond to the physical facts.

This story does not just account for the counting numbers. We can cover all the rest of math. Sets, for example, are a way of organizing cows into groups convenient for various types of thinking. Zero is when all your cows die. Negative numbers are for keeping track of how many cows you owe your neighbor, or expressing your change in cows some months. Fractions came about when two brothers inherited three cows. And these fractions allowed them to express lengths with arbitrary accuracy. Which allowed them to notice the fact that the area of a square is the length of a side squared. These things can also be discovered by writing equations. X+3=1 is an equation involving only counting numbers and addition but which reveals the existence of negative numbers and which corresponds to reality. 2*X=3 shows two brothers times their share of the cows makes three cows (again, it corresponds to reality, to facts), and that reveals fractions. Now that we have squaring we run into: X^2=2 and we discover square roots and hence real numbers. And "imaginary numbers" come from X^2=-1 -- they are a way of expressing what X is in that simple equation. Whether you like to consider them real or not, they express what that X is; they are, like the other numbers, terminology and ways of thinking that correspond to reality. And there you go, that's most of the basic concepts of math.

Good philosophy and logic also correspond to reality -- to facts. Computers are built out of logic gates, and they really do work. Evolution is a philosophical theory about a method of creating knowledge, but it also is a fact: if the preconditions are met, evolution takes place, and the results are as stated. The philosophy corresponds to the fact, and if it did not then it would be bad philosophy. And morality -- choice theory -- is about this fact and its consequences, and other related facts like the results of an open society. The results of various choices are also facts, determined by the laws of physics, and how well they correspond to the outcomes we intend is also a matter of fact.

The fact that there has been a lot of faulty thinking, and ideas which do not correspond to reality, shouldn't be taken to mean the quest of finding true ideas -- ones that do correspond to reality -- is hopeless. The Earth is not flat is a good idea we worked out, despite the abstractness of the idea of flat, and also of the idea of categorizing a certain set of molecules as the Earth.

Elliot Temple on July 24, 2007


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