Friday, October 17, 2008

Logic vs Magic

I've ranted about magical thinkers often enough, and I've had to explain what magic means often enough, that I should really just write it up and get it over with.

The three fundamental concepts underlying magical thought are association, opposition and essentialism. These contrast against the three fundamental concepts underlying logical thought which are implication, contradiction and structuralism.

Let's look at each of these pairs in turn.

Association vs Implication

Association is a symmetric relation between two things while implication is not. Magical thinkers have difficulty comprehending that relationships are not symmetric. So if A implies B, they have difficulty comprehending that B doesn't imply A.

Among other things, magical thinkers have problems with the whole concept that correlation doesn't imply causation. The closest thing to implication which they understand is causation and so they invariably think that if two events are associated with each other, the prior event must have caused the latter.

This all comes from the fact that neural networks like the human brain work associatively. Logical implication is a higher-order abstraction which doesn't run on the brain's native hardware. Magical thinkers are piss-poor at holding abstractions in their minds, or even learning them, so when faced with logical implications, they will fall back on associations.

Opposition vs Contradiction

When two things are in opposition they are in conflict with each other. Perhaps they can only exist in different places at the same time. But when they are in contradiction then only one of them can exist in physical reality.

The concept of a contradiction is highly abstract since it involves the notion that one thing's existence over here prevents the other's existence over there. Contradiction embodies within it a concept of non-locality or universality which is extremely abstract. Opposition does not embody such a concept.

Without an understanding of contradiction, magical thinkers are prone to spew literal gibberish such as "three in one". Words strung together that don't actually mean anything. This is no barrier to the magical thinker who thinks quite sincerely that contradictory things can just coexist side by side. Even when there is no "space" to coexist in!

Essentialism vs Structuralism

Ahh, now here's a tough one to convey. Essentialism is more or less the conviction that abstractions don't exist or aren't real. Which of course makes perfect sense for people who can't retain or focus on an abstraction long enough to use it, let alone manipulate it. If abstractions aren't real then what is real? Well, concrete things are real. But what does that mean exactly?

The brain has this notion of 'object identity' which persists through time. A ship has a magical essence, much like a spirit, which gives it its identity even after all of its component pieces have been replaced or upgraded. Note that it isn't the object's structure that gives it its identity. Because structure is an abstraction and the belief that abstractions exist and that they are real is structuralism, the polar opposite of essentialism.

This magical essence of a thing leaves an imprint long after the thing's structure has been destroyed. So dehydrated milk is a kind of milk apparently, and apple juice contaminated with toxic elements is still apple juice. And a liquid made from petroleum that's chemically identical to apple juice wouldn't be apple juice. Nevermind that quantum physics most emphatically says this is bogus, magical thinkers can't process contradiction anyways.

In essentialism, what matters is not the structure of the thing but rather its history, ancestry and origins. So it doesn't matter that a black person has a high IQ, high education and was raised with Western values by white parents. What matters is that they've got black genes and black "blood". Perhaps someday in the far future the "blood" will be "purified" through good (or intelligent whatever) manifestations of the race's members, but until that happens they're all tainted.

Racism and nationalism are inherently essentialist ideas. It isn't logically possible for a structuralist to be a racist. Of course, since the world is run by magical thinkers, the definition of racism is corrupted to suit them and you get all kinds of absurdities about racism supposedly being about skin colour. Then again, you get all sorts of nonsense about how races supposedly don't exist also.

Essentialism often shows up in the more idiotic arguments of humanists too. The fact that my body was constructed from DNA which traces its lineage back for hundreds of generations to the same cave-dwellers as everyone else on the planet is supposed to matter to me. It's supposed to make me not despise 90% of the people on the planet. Same thing with the fact that my intellect is only the product of dumb luck. Yeah, only problem is I'm a structuralist so I'm quite comfortable in my contempt.

Oh and beware of pseudo-structural essentialism. The fact that I share DNA and a bodily shape with magical thinkers wouldn't make me side with them against an AI that would exterminnate them.

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