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Posts from — July 2015

The Flaw of Attraction

The Flaw of Attraction

It was in the late 1980s that I read Ken and Treya Wilber’s candid article, “Do We Make Ourselves Sick?” and recognized in it a truth that went against my own longterm fascination with the then widely popular subject of “consciousness-as-cause.” In the article, which is well worth the read (it’s still floating around the Internet, for anyone interested), The Wilbers make the simple but powerful point that the New Age claim that our thoughts and beliefs create every aspect of our experience is not only seriously mistaken, but dangerous.

Personalities including Seth (Jane Roberts), Abraham (Esther Hicks), Wayne Dyer, the spokespeople for “The Secret,” and others have made millions selling this idea, which came to be known as the “law of attraction,” proving that wishful thinking indeed can command a high price tag, but it is wishful thinking nonetheless. Beyond the groundlessness of the claim, there is the serious ethical implication, equally misguided, that whatever happens to us, we bring upon ourselves through some convolution of our consciousness. If we are ill, then, we have in some perhaps unwitting way, brought this upon ourselves. And if we cannot mobilize consciousness to bring ourselves back to a state of health through the various recommended inner techniques, then in addition to being sick, we have to carry the burden of having failed spiritually in some essential way.

It is not a spiritual failing, however, if one becomes ill, not an unwanted condition that one brought upon oneself, somehow, or “attracted” in order to learn some esoteric life lesson. Even the simplest illness can result from many things, none of which the New Age “law” takes into account. Causes are often complex, and while belief can play a role, sometimes an important one, sometimes perhaps even a decisive one, it is not the sole player. Anyone who puts this to the test will learn quickly that while the universe certainly is able to surprise us through synchronicities—startlingly helpful, even guiding correspondences between our outer and inner life, it never seems to do so directly when bidden. Life itself, like health, love, prosperity, and all of the other conditions that the alleged law of attraction tells us are ours if only we will believe, is far less predictable than the simplistic formula propounded by New Agers. The events that make up our personal experience seem less governed by visualization, affirmation, and other tricks of consciousness than by chance and some inscrutable timing that wends its way mysteriously through the metronomic passing of the hours, days, and weeks, or the months and years, according to laws far subtler and autonomous than the law of attraction would have us believe.

In his philosophical work on scientific truth, Karl Popper established falsifiability as the defining criterion. In other words, a truth claim that nothing would count as falsifying may be many things, but scientific it is not, because scientific truths, based on empirical observation and inductive thinking, are subject to revision. Something could come along that would prove the claim false. Pseudosciences, such as astrology, like dogmatic religious systems, never allow any condition to count against what they claim to be true. In this self-conferred authority, they seek to elevate their claims to the status of absolute knowledge, knowledge that is beyond any possible invalidation, but in Popper’s view, their belief is no longer scientific, no longer supported by evidence, and while they may have value in other terms, they cannot be taken seriously as claims of how the world is organized and operates. An example makes this clear: If I make the claim, “The cat is sleeping on the bed,” I am asserting that a certain set of observable conditions is in effect, and the claim is scientific, because one can make the experiment of observing the bed in question to see if there is indeed a cat sleeping on it. Making this experiment and finding no cat on the bed would falsify the claim. If, however, I insist that the statement is true in a way that nothing can falsify—that the cat is sleeping on the bed whether it is there or not, then the statement becomes nonsensical, for what can it mean to maintain that the statement, “The cat is sleeping on the bed” is true in those cases when the cat is observed to be sleeping on the bed and also in those cases when it is observed not to be? Apart from further observation that might provide new information, the statement is not scientific, not asserting an empirically demonstrable set of conditions that observation can both confirm and falsify.

It is interesting to note that in all the books, all the tapes, all the workshops on the “law of attraction,” one finds no claim that any amount of experience could falsify. If one makes the experiment of consciousness-as-cause as presented by the New Age, one finds that far more often than not—that is, almost always—visualization and affirmation techniques fail to materialize the desired conditions. The so-called law, it turns out, is not a law at all, for laws—a word reserved for scientifically demonstrable principles involving how the universe operates—are consistent within the framework of observation. The law of gravity is a good example. If I drop a coin off a building within the system of Earth’s gravity, it will fall every time at a rate of 32 feet per second per second. It will not fall at this rate sometimes, and other times grow wings and fly away. Or vanish. Or turn to water. The philosopher David Hume raised profound questions about whether we have any basis for inferring from this that there is a law of causality working, for “law” implies necessity, as we have said, and Hume pointed out that we never observe necessity. He argued that we really have no empirical grounds for believing that there is any such thing as causal law, but that we assume there is simply because we have observed certain kinds of events following other kinds of events—but there is no contradiction in the idea that events might depart from the inferred causal link. The coin dropped off the building might grow wings and fly off—and while we might be hard pressed to explain it, according to Hume, there is no law preventing it, only a belief in a law based on past experience, and there is nothing that obligates the future to conform to the past.

Now, if the status of causality as a law is subject to skeptical deconstruction, so that we are invited, if not philosophically compelled, by Hume’s reasoning, to investigate our beliefs about causality more closely than we may have to date, then what of the “law of attraction,” which as a pseudoscientific principle, sidesteps falsifiability in order to give itself an unassailable credibility, which as Popper has made plain, actually has the reverse effect? If I visualize or affirm prosperity, and nothing changes in my financial life, the practitioner of the law of attraction will suggest that I unwittingly derailed the process, that I am not willing to receive the thing I have claimed in consciousness, that there is some greater reason the universe has for postponing the manifestation, that I must learn release and surrender—all of which may be true, but invoking these reasons to defend a pseudoscientific truth claim, one that states that the universe operates thus-and-such but refuses to accept any observable condition as disproof—this is dealing from the bottom of the deck. It is faulty thinking. The law of attraction, as it turns out, is more aptly termed the “flaw of attraction.”

Why make so much of it? Well, there is much at stake. People have bet their lives on the New Age’s exaggerations, and lost. As the Wilbers point out, many who are struggling with grave illness (or other adverse conditions), taken in by New Age oversimplifications, may suffer the additional burden of self-judgment, believing that they somehow have failed spiritually, because they can’t seem to lay hold of the reins of creative consciousness—or perhaps they come to the conclusion that they are being given a particularly harsh course of instruction by the universe—but in this, the New Agers confess a heartlessness that will end the discussion with anyone who has even a modicum of empathy. Rhonda Byrne, author of “The Secret,” for example, states that those starving in Darfur have created their reality of misery through negative thinking. Here we have the New Age at its worst in a thoughtless and heartless promotion of “blame the victim.” But surely, the laws of the universe are not so cruel. Even an indifferent universe would be kinder than that.

Good science is, of course, open minded. Its methods, rooted in fair play, protect it from dogmatic thinking. Its descriptions of how the universe works take on living power and credibility because science stands ready and willing to stipulate some set of conditions, even if only a theoretical one, that it will count as falsifying what any given hypothesis claims. As for consciousness-as-cause—it is an area that we will do well to examine with honesty and clear thinking, avoiding exaggeration, taking care to avoid hasty generalizing, and letting our experience reveal to us over time what is true and what is not. Certainly, there is a mind-body connection, a correspondence between our beliefs and the world. To some extent, we get what we look for. There is no denying it. Emotions have a real effect on health and recovery outcomes. A bad mood can ruin a meeting or a marriage, and when we “go negative,” our good seems eager to fall from our hands. None of this, however, can be fairly generalized into a “law” or method for manipulating our worldly reality as though it were nothing more than a matrix of “vibrations” or “energy” that has no choice but to do our bidding. The universe is a baffling, complex, unpredictable place, and events far more often than not seem to follow a timing dictated by hidden and chaotic forces among which our most heartfelt intentions are only a small part. In the end, allowing that one’s beliefs are subject to falsifiability comes down to humility. We are not here to order the universe around, but to live and grow and discover, learn to move with rather than against, transcend adversity and contradiction, and rise to the occasion of our being-here. To reduce experience to some putative law based on magical thinking is far too limiting, and childish. At the very least, let us recognize it for what it is.

July 31, 2015   Comments Off on The Flaw of Attraction