May 19, 2007

The Secret Behind The Secret

Over at AvatarBrieflets, the Princess has linked to a video of The Chaser's take on "The Secret".

If you haven't heard of "The Secret" and if you don't know what it is, be grateful.

The article, below, is from the eSceptic newsletter.

I'm providing the complete text from the newsletter of March 07, 2007, because it's important to fully understand, intellecutally and emotionally, why this "fastest selling self help book" is depraved rather than thaumaturgic.

What is Attracting Millions
to the Law of Attraction?

by Ingrid Hansen Smythe

Psst! Have you heard The Secret? If not, the first thing you need to know is that The Secret isn’t a secret, and this in itself should set your skeptical alarm bells ringing, since whenever the very name of a thing is a contradiction of the thing itself, it is easy to imagine that the bridge up ahead may be washed out.

The Secret is a simple New-Age notion that is the subject of a recent and wildly successful book by Rhonda Byrne and DVD by Rhonda Byrne of Prime Time Productions. The secret is “The Law of Attraction” that asserts what you think creates what you feel, and these feelings flow from your body as magnetic energy waves over vast distances, which then cause the universe around you to vibrate at the same energy level as your feelings. If your feelings are negative, negative experiences will inevitably flow right back, positive feelings elicit positive experiences. Like attracts like. “Thoughts are sending out that magnetic signal that is drawing the parallel back to you. It always works; it works every time, with every person.”1 Thus there is no such thing as accident or coincidence; it is you, the individual, who brings misery on yourself because of your toxic thinking. But the good news, Eeyore, is this: if you can only alter your thoughts, and therefore your feelings, you can actually cause the universe around you to vibrate at a positive energy level and the desires of your heart will come to be realized! All you have to do is AskBelieveReceive.2 You just have to visualize what you want, feel good about it, and then ask the universe (and ask once only, oh ye of little faith) — and whatever you can imagine can be yours. “This is like having the universe as your catalogue and you flip through it and go, ‘Well I’d like to have this experience and I’d like to have that product and I’d like to have a person like that’ … It is you just placing your order with the universe. It’s really that easy … [Just] start to have different beliefs like there is more than enough in the universe, everything goes right for me … have the belief ‘I’m not getting older, I’m getting younger.’ We can create it the way we want it.”3

This is excellent news indeed for those of us who previously thought that something like aging was not optional. There are 100 assertions that constitute the backbone of The Law of Attraction,4 including:

  • Whatever is going on in your mind is what you are attracting.
  • Thought = creation. If these thoughts are attached to powerful emotions (good or bad) that speeds the creation.
  • Those who speak most of illness have illness, those who speak most of prosperity have it, etc.
  • It’s OK that thoughts don’t manifest into reality immediately (if we saw a picture of an elephant and it instantly appeared, that would be too soon).
  • Everything in your life you have attracted. Accept that fact; it’s true.
  • You get exactly what you are feeling.
  • What you think and what you feel and what actually manifests is always a match — no exception.
  • You don’t need to know how the universe is going to rearrange itself.
  • How long??? No rules on time; the more aligned you are with positive feelings the quicker things happen.
  • Size is nothing to the universe (unlimited abundance if that’s what you wish). We make the rules on size and time.
  • If you turn it over to the universe, you will be surprised and dazzled by what is delivered. This is where magic and miracles happen.
  • The Hows are the domain of the universe. It always knows the quickest, fastest, most harmonious way between you and your dream.
  • Our job is not to worry about the “How”. The “How” will show up out of the commitment and belief in the “what”.
  • We are mass energy. Everything is energy. Everything.
  • An affirmative thought is 100 times more powerful than a negative one.5

One needn’t quarrel with the psychology behind some of The Secret’s hysterically cheery rah-rah motivational coaching. For instance, their “Don’t Be A Negative Sourpuss” philosophy has its roots in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, a psychological approach to altering maladaptive, unrealistic, and negative thoughts in an effort to change feelings and, as a result, behavior. It is hardly revolutionary to claim that attitude and negative feeling-states can have an impact on goal attainment. Who among us has not had the experience of trying to accomplish some task, only to fall prey to our Inner Idiot who keeps telling us, “You’ll never learn this,” or “You’re an impostor,” or “You hate this,” and these irrelevant messages lead to avoidance of the task, depression, and the dreaded self-fulfilling prophecy. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy can help rid the individual of unhelpful self-talk, and this inevitably leads to more successful living — no supernatural intervention required.

Imagining that we are like magnets is not an especially harmful mental exercise in metaphorical thinking, but when metaphor slips into metaphysics, problems with The Secret become glaringly apparent. The Secret relies heavily on fuzzy thinking, and nowhere is this fuzziness demonstrated better than by the fact that The Secret is actually proposing two completely different systems for achieving one’s goals and then blurring the line between those systems — in effect, selling the system that works on the back of the one that doesn’t. On the one hand, we are told that all that is required to get what we desire is to ask, believe, and receive. For example: A little boy wants a bike, he believes he will get a bike, he gets a bike (as dramatized in The Secret DVD). On the other hand, we are told that we can’t merely ask, believe, receive. “A lot of people watch The Secret and they say, ‘Well, I’m sitting around visualizing my millions coming into my lap.’ Well, they’ll come take your furniture away. And then how are you going to visualize [when you’re living] on the curb? You’ve got to act on it.”6 So, a little boy wants a bike, he gets a paper route to earn money to get a bike, he gets a bike. In the first scenario, the supernatural is required. In the second scenario, a paper-route is required. The second scenario is the one that most of us recognize as the only one that will actually work, in which a person has an “idea,” then acts on that idea, and then gets the desired results. The second system renders irrelevant the first system.

The testimonial of the editor of the Chicken Soup for the Soulbooks, Jack Canfield, provides an excellent example of the first system (ask-believe-receive) getting the credit for the second system (idea-action-results). He tells us that he visualized earning $100,000 (even writing the desired amount on a bill worth far less and tacking it to the ceiling above his bed) and focused his mental energy only on the goal of attaining the money. He tells us that he had absolutely no idea how he was going to get the money — he simply focused on believing that he would get the money, somehow. But how? For four weeks he had no breakthrough ideas but then, one day in the shower, he remembered that he had written a book and, if it was published (particularly if he sold 400,000 copies and he made a quarter on each) he just might achieve his financial goals. Of course the book was published, and the results were only a few thousand dollars shy of 100,000 dollars.7

Mr. Canfield attributes his success to knowing and applying the principles of The Secret — he literally attracted 100,000 dollars through good feelings, positive energy, and the power of visualization. Is it possible, however, that this is a misattribution, and that the actual reason for his success is that he suddenly remembered that he had written a book, got it published, and subsequently earned money from it? You know, the way all other authors do it. The post hoc ergo propter hoc (after this therefore because of this) fallacy would appear to be working overtime in the minds of enthusiastic Secreteers. “It happened because I wished for it,” the Secreteer would say, instead of the more obvious explanation, “It happened because I worked for it.”8

Perhaps the believer in The Law of Attraction imagines that to use both systems in conjunction is more powerful than using just the one. It seems to me that this is like a woman using some form of birth control and then lying back and affirming “I will not get pregnant! I will not get pregnant!” It seems obvious that it is the birth control, and not the positive thinking, that is getting the job done. Certainly affirmations alone do nothing to prevent pregnancy — any woman who believes otherwise is undoubtedly a mother. The Secreteers seem to think that positive affirmations and happy feelings affect the probability of an occurrence, but it would seem that the only odds that are being improved in the above example are the odds of having a pretty lousy time.

Other lines are also expertly blurred by the editors of The Secret DVD. For example, we are shown a man visualizing himself attracting a car and — no surprises here — magically getting the car. But here an objection arises — if everybody knows The Secret, won’t there be a mad dash for all the good stuff and no one will get anything? Not to worry. Not everyone wants the same things, we are told — and here there is a visual of an Indian snake charmer, followed by a little Chinese woman in a boat with a bunch of domestic fowl. Apparently, the Indian man and the Chinese woman don’t want a car. (“We don’t all want BMWs,” we are told, and this is undoubtedly correct.9 Some people want Hummers.) “The truth is there’s more than enough good to go around. There’s more than enough creative ideas, there’s more than enough power, there’s more than enough love, there’s more than enough joy.”10 So in one breath we’re talking about attracting a car — with the next breath we’re suddenly talking about attracting love and joy and other emotions sans wheels or an engine. Add to the above the following quote: “Wise people have always known this … Why do you think that 1% of the population earns around 96% of all the money that’s being earned? Do you think that’s an accident? It’s no accident. It’s designed that way. They understand something. They understand The Secret.”11 Ah, there it is then. It is the wise people who have the money and the BMWs. Are we to conclude that the Indian man and the Chinese woman are fools? The deeply offensive racial overtones are hard to ignore, as are the sexist slurs — for instance, during the delivery of the above quotation, the visual is of a boardroom full of white, cigar-smoking male executives. Evidently social inequality and injustice, a lack of resources, several thousand years of patriarchy, oppression and inequality between the sexes — all the usual explanations as to why people don’t have money are incorrect. Social factors are irrelevant in a world where “You are the only one who creates your reality. It is only you; every bit of it you.”12

What about the scientific claims upon which The Law of Attraction is based? Such as: Our thoughts are magnetic and travel as energy and vibration for vast distances. “It has been proven scientifically that an affirmative thought is hundreds of times more powerful than a negative thought.”13 “It is no more difficult to attract on a scientific level something that we consider huge to something we consider infinitesimally small.”14 “Our physiology creates disease to give us feedback, to let us know we have an imbalanced perspective and we’re not loving and we’re not grateful.”15 “Even under a microscope you’re an energy field.”16 “You’ve got enough power in your body to illuminate a whole city for nearly a week.”17 These are extraordinary claims that surely require extraordinary evidence, which The Secreteers do by using the word “science” over and over, as if merely saying the word is the same as doing it — as if feeling good about science will attract more science into your life.

“Quantum physics really begins to point to [The Secret],” says a proponent of The Law of Attraction. “It says that you can’t have universe without mind entering into it. The mind is actually shaping the very thing that is being perceived.”18 Here, then, we have an authority on the subject telling us that our minds create reality. First, however, it seems obvious that a universe without sentient minds perceiving it is entirely possible, given that this was the story on Earth for the first 13 billion years. Second, it would seem that this particular proponent of The Law of Attraction is using an understanding of quantum physics based more on the questions that Schrödinger was trying to answer, rather than on the answers themselves. Does the mind of the observer truly shape reality as claimed? After all it is true that, at the quantum level, a scientist has great difficulty recording and measuring particles and their interactions without changing the results of the investigation. Is this because the scientist’s mind is influencing the experiment? Is it because the scientist perceived the experiment and, as a result of perceiving, changed the results? No. The answer is far more mundane. To put it in crudely simplistic terms, as soon as the scientist switches on the light to see what’s going on, other particles, like photons, get in the way. It is the photons that are responsible for messing up the results, not the thoughts of the experimenter.19 This explanation has the obvious disadvantage of being extremely boring and must be ruled out on the basis that it doesn’t support the “create your own reality” claim.

Besides scientific gibberish, The Secret DVD props up faltering dogma by relying on charismatic representatives and a lot of smooth talk, which is so expert and cleverly edited it is easy to miss the false premises, tautologies, red herrings, straw men, non sequiturs, and other varieties of fuzzy thinking. However, even if The Law of Attraction was logically consistent and scientifically sound, the moral implications of a Law such as this are alarming. Interestingly, some of the difficulties with The Law of Attraction are similar to those encountered by believers in The Law of Karma, and comparing and contrasting the two yields some curious insights.20

It is the business of both laws to explain why good and evil befall us, and both laws come to the conclusion that the fault is exclusively ours. In neither system can there be accident or coincidence — we are all at all times getting exactly what we deserve, and what we have attracted.21 The Law of Attraction seems particularly suited to the modern temperament though, given that with karma, you might have to wait a thousand lifetimes to get the good things you deserve, whereas with The Law of Attraction everything is possible in this lifetime. No waiting! Better service! The Law of Attraction might be said to be the lazy person’s karma, since karma is based on doing, whereas the Law of Attraction is based on feeling. This is also handy for the modern American, who is quite busy enough as it is. In addition, karma is concerned exclusively with morality (specifically good and evil deeds), but The Law of Attraction is concerned only with positive feeling vibrations, which needn’t necessarily be connected to pesky morality at all.22

When dealing with instances of extraordinary evil, however, both The Law of Karma and The Law of Attraction break down rather spectacularly. Imagine a particularly hideous situation — a healthy young girl is raped and tortured, hacked to pieces, her remains stuffed into a plastic bag and thrown in the trash. What the believer in karma is forced to admit, as morally repugnant as it may be, is that this girl deserved what happened to her. There is no innocent suffering in a universe where we all, at all times, are getting what we deserve. The believer in karma must also conclude that this event is in some sense good because this girl rid herself of an enormous amount of bad karma and is bound to come back to a glorious life next time around. Likewise, a philosophy that claims we are always getting what we ask for, and that nothing is accidental, must also believe that this girl in some sense deserved what happened to her because she attracted this evil to her. (Remember the law: “Everything in your life you have attracted. Accept that fact; it’s true.”) One might protest that a young girl has not yet developed the “magnetic powers” to attract anything to her — but one must then ask at what age do these powers develop, and does it really make the situation any less tragic? If a 12-year-old boy can attract a shiny new bike, can a 12-year-old girl attract a rapist and killer? It would seem the answer is yes, since there are 12-year-old girls who come to such a brutal demise. Perhaps, though, 12 is too young to attract such powerful evil; is it really better, though, if we imagine the rape, dismembering, and plastic-bag-stuffing of a 25-year-old woman? A 35-year-old mother of three? A grandmother? Can we really feel comfortable ever saying that people attract fatal accidents, illness, trauma, and death?

It gets worse, for what can the believer in karma or The Law of Attraction possibly say about an event such as the Holocaust? Again, the believer in karma is forced to say that each and every individual got what he or she deserved and that karmic justice was served. “Whatever one deserves … he deserves by virtue of his actions and he gets all that he deserves and only that which he deserves. Nothing which accrues to a doer on account of his actions is ever lost and nothing accrues to him on account of anything other than his actions.”23 What about those who hold the belief that, through your feeling-state, you attract either positive or negative events? Here is a little visualization for the believer in the Law of Attraction: Imagine looking each of those six million Jews in the eye and telling every one of them that due to the negative feeling-states they were each projecting, they were all, in effect, asking for it. They got what was coming to them because, “What you think and what you feel and what actually manifests is always a match — no exception.”

The Secreteers say that “There is no such thing as coincidence… Everything happens by principles and laws in our universe.”24 How can this be true in the face of such evil? Does The Law of Attraction simply not apply in some cases? Why not? Why does the believer in this alleged “law” jump to credit The Law of Attraction for a little boy magically receiving a bike from the universe, or for a motivational speaker landing a spot on the Oprah show, but fail to mention dead girls stuffed into plastic bags or six million Jews butchered in concentration camps? Is The Law of Attraction really a law at all? The Secret’s proponents want to claim for it the unchanging status of a physical law of the universe. “Just as there is a law of gravity — if you fall off a building it doesn’t matter whether you’re a good person or a bad person you’re gonna hit the ground.”25 Thus, if the Law of Attraction is also a physical law, it cannot be suspended to allow for events such as the Holocaust. Pity the believer in The Law of Attraction, therefore, who is in the unenviable position of having both to congratulate a little boy on attracting a bike, and also explain to all those other unfortunates that, due to their negative feelings, they attracted an airplane piloted by terrorists, a tsunami, muscular sclerosis, cancer, genocide.

Given the moral defects, the lack of scientific backing, and the various philosophical shortcomings, how is it that a significant number of people still believe there’s something to The Law of Attraction? Part of the reason must certainly be the powerful testimonials coming from celebrity figures such as Oprah Winfrey, a woman who attributes her success to her mighty powers of attraction, and not to the stupefyingly enormous Oprah industry which she, and many thousands of others have worked so hard to put in place.

One might conclude, Well so what? What harm is there in believing in things that are not literally true as long as the desired result is achieved? The harm is great, I think, and no one has given voice to these concerns better than W.H. Clifford in his essay The Ethics of Belief:

The danger to society is not merely that it should believe wrong things, though that is great enough; but that it should become credulous, and lose the habit of testing things and inquiring into them, for then it must sink back into savagery… It may matter little to me, in my cloud-castle of sweet illusions and darling lies; but it matters much to Man that I have made my neighbors ready to deceive. The credulous man is father to the liar and the cheat.26

The Law of Attraction cannot admit doubt or skepticism. If one begins to doubt the power, or even to harbor negative thoughts in one’s unconscious mind, one is assuredly on the road to ruin.27 The Law of Attraction requires uncritical acceptance of, and unwavering belief in, a doctrine that has been revealed by alleged authorities, which is interpreted literally, not metaphorically, and is at the extreme end of credulity. It is just another kind of magical thinking and, worse, another brand of fundamentalism.

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous12:38 AM

    And above all a crock of shit!
    ( So saith Kath, nodding sagely)