The World As If


EXCERPT: [...] I think that the reason that it has been so difficult to precisely define “magical thinking” is that what we call “magical thinking” is a collection of stigmatized examples of a more general, and generally useful, cognitive capacity. This is the ability to think in “as if” mode: “as if” inanimate objects had minds, “as if” thoughts could affect reality, “as if” symbols had power over their referents.

As moderns, we are thrown into a confusing mess as we come to terms with the world through the lens of literacy, and especially through the hyper-literacy of internet-mediated reality (through which I am making these claims). We grapple with a sense of unreality, with the suspicion that layers of illusion underlie our world. Making sense of fakeness seems to be a pressing problem. Hans Vaihinger (in The Philosophy of As If, 1911, C. K. Ogden trans. 1924) provides a refreshingly clear model for thinking about unreality and its bearing on our world.

Vaihinger reveals the complexity of the “as if” mode of thinking. When we say, “we must live as if we were free (Adam Michnik, arguably paraphrasing Kant),” or “one treats the dead as if still alive (Xunzi),” or “we must conduct ourselves as if God existed (Diderot),” this implies a strange kind of reasoning:

1. Even though something is not the case (or is not expected to be proven to be the case),

2. We must nonetheless act as though it were the case (opposite to reality).

But why might we do that? Why would we treat something untrue as if it were true? There are, in fact, two missing parts of this reasoning. The whole “as if” moment looks like this:

1. Even though something is not the case (or is not expected to be proven to be the case),

2. We must nonetheless act as though it were the case (opposite to reality),

3. Within some context,

4. For some purpose.

It is easiest to see with Vaihinger’s geometric example: treating a circle as if it were a polygon with an infinite number of infinitely small sides. We know that a circle is not a polygon, but for the purpose of calculating the properties of a circle, it may be useful to regard it as such. Unlike a hypothesis, we do not ever expect to discover that a circle actually is a polygon. But being able to treat the circle as if it were a polygon, for a particular purpose in a particular context, is useful....

"There’s the world of the mind, defined by intention and conscious experience, and the world of outside reality, defined by matter and deterministic forces. But we instinctively treat the mind as though it had physical properties, and we treat the physical world as though it had mental properties…. We perceive mind and matter mingling together, working on the same wavelength."---(Hutson at p. 8.)

The practicality of the dualist premise---that reality requires matter AND consciousness to become present. We become immersed in a realm of thinking substances and platonic archetypes. Science AND spirituality. Physicalism AND idealism. Without all that flustered cognitive dissonance. If a photon can be a wave and a particle at the same time, why can't reality be physical and mental at the same time?

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