Are We Rich Yet?
As you may know, Oprah has been promoting a group of authors and speakers selling The Secret, a not exactly new New Age formula for achieving success by visualizing it. According to the “Law of Attraction,” if you think the right thoughts, about prosperity for instance, prosperity will be yours. The universe obeys your every wish, if your wish is sufficiently strong and single-minded. And of course, you’re in charge of your wishing, so it all comes down to you. Not rich yet? You’re the problem, buddy. For a thorough debunking of The Secret, see Ingrid Hansen Smythe’s report for the Skeptic Society. The New York Times style section covered the creation of The Secret in Shaking Riches Out of the Cosmos, also reprinted here - most entertaining.
To naturalists, this sort of magical thinking about thinking is a sad example of supposing the self is causally privileged over the world, of attributing to ourselves a supernatural ability. Playing to the universal desire for control and power, sellers of The Secret purvey the manifest falsehood that one’s thoughts somehow directly influence things outside the head. To state the obvious (from a naturalist perspective): thoughts, physically instantiated in the brain, are part of a causal chain that sometimes has effects on behavior, that then has effects on the world. Thoughts themselves have their own causal antecedents as well, of course. Oprah is doing her audience a vast disservice in promulgating the idea - that is, causing her audience to think - that they can merely think and grow rich, that behavior isn’t necessary to get the universe to give them what they need. It’s sad because it gives people false hopes, sets them up for self-blame, and blocks exploration of realistic means for achieving success.
But how could anyone believe such nonsense? Part of the answer is that Western society routinely sets up the self as a first cause, a mental controller that can bootstrap itself into anything it wants to be. We’re taught from day one that it’s all up to us, that we can rise above our circumstances, that if we want something badly enough, it can be ours. So, let’s all work on wanting things, really badly, and the culture is happy to help with that. In short, we’re predisposed by the mythology of the American dream to accept the premise of The Secret, that success is mostly a matter of your attitude, the force of your will and desire, which you can manifest if you just choose to. Work on your mind, the rest will follow.
Another part of the answer is our long love affair with mentalistic paranormal powers that transcend what the mere body can accomplish. The Secret plays this to the hilt, suggesting that the self-motivated mind or spirit somehow controls reality directly, without needing a bodily interface. Exactly how this works is necessarily left obscure, but the promise of such power is pretty seductive. We become like gods, self-created and practically omnipotent.
To suggest instead that our powers are merely material, and that the self and its will are a function of physical circumstances, might not fly as the core concept of a best-selling self-help program. It doesn’t have quite the all-American, individualist ring to it. Still, it’s arguably a better bet than magical thinking about the power of thoughts, since we can learn about how our circumstances affect us, our motivations, and opportunities for action, then change the circumstances in ways that generate effective behavior. It might be replied that the myth of thought-power is empowering since it gives hope, spurring motivation. Perhaps in the short run for some people it is. But the smart money is on staying in touch with reality, in which it’s always necessary to act to make things happen. The sellers of The Secret act effectively on their own behalf by promoting the myth that we need not act, merely think. Nice work if you can get it.