On Deepities and Bullshit

11 May 2018

I was sitting at a bar last week, when I had the misfortune of being asked the following question by the person next to me. In a profound tone of voice: “Do you believe in the Law of Attraction?”

The so-called Law of Attraction is one of the cornerstones of New Age positive thinking, and one version of it (out of many) goes like this: if you sincerely believe with all your power that you already have what you want, then it will come to you.

So for example, if you want to get into law school, then according to the Law of Attraction, you should “believe with all your power” that you have already gotten in—and then you’ll get in. If you want to have a romantic relationship, you should believe with all your might…etc.

Being asked this put me in the unfortunate position of trying to navigate between politeness and honesty. Honesty would yield a brusk dismissal of this so-called law of the universe, of which my conversation partner was enamored. Politeness would call for a softer appraisal.

I decided to attempt a middle route, which involved pointing out that the Law of Attraction is a textbook case of what Dan Dennett calls a deepity.

“What that?” my conversation partner asked.

A deepity, as Dennett characterizes it, is a sentence or other utterance that has more than one interpretation; it has “two readings and balances precariously between them. On one reading it is true but trivial, and on another it is false but would be earth-shattering if true.”

Dennett’s toy example of a deepity is this: “Love is just a word.”

Consider these two readings:

  1. “Love” is just a word.
  2. Love is just a word.

The first is obviously true—the string of four letters inside the quotation marks really just is a word. But the second, while it seems profound in some way, is false: as Dennett points out, love might be an emotion, or a relation, or a commitment, or many possible things, but it’s not a word! Words are strings of sound or written marks that constitute a unit of language—love itself is not one of those.

The impact of deepities arises as follows: the first reading convinces you of its truth, while the second reading convinces you that it says something profound, even mind blowing.

So I explained this to my conversation partner in relation to the Law of Attraction. First, there is a reading of it that’s true but trivial, namely this: representing something in your mind is often instrumental to acquiring it; after all, if you represent what you want clearly, that might help you figure out how to get it. But this is no more insightful than a grandparent’s advice to plan ahead and think about your goals, and it certainly doesn’t imply anything of cosmic significance like a law of gravity. Second, there is a reading of the so-called law that would be earth shattering if true: just by intensely visualizing, wanting, and believing you have something—poof!—you have it…the universe will align itself to make it happen. And yes, that would be completely amazing. But obviously, it’s false. Magic, I explained, doesn’t actually exist.

The disappointment on my conversation partner’s face was palpable. I enjoyed my drink in relative peace after that.

But that conversation did get me thinking, and that takes us to the question of this blog. Are deepities always bad?

For hard-nosed analytic philosophers, the immediate impulse is to say yes. After all, clarity is next to godliness, as one of my former professors liked to say. And deepities are the opposite of clear. Furthermore, deepities seem to convince by equivocation, which is a hateful tactic in the circles in which I move.

But in the last couple of days I thought of another perspective on deepities—at least some of them—that I wanted to float without actually endorsing.

The mundane reading of the Law of Attraction is good advice, though it’s boring. Common sense suggests that representing something clearly in your mind can help you get it, as long as you also figure out intermediate steps for how to get there. (I suggested something similar under the heading honest imagining back in 2009.) But the mundane reading is not all that exciting. So the psychological power of the deepity structure could be that it pairs the mundane reading with something that feels astonishing, thereby increasing the motivation and staying power associated with that mundane reading. It’s like sensible advice in a mind-blowing package, which might be really helpful.

I confess, however, that I’m shocked that I just wrote that. As a philosopher, I’ve been a fan of Harry Frankfurt’s On Bullshit (also this episode of Philosophy Talk), which in various ways implies that representations such as deepities are deleterious to ethical life and honest communication. So I don’t want deepities to be good. Still, I have a sneaking suspicion that a well-chosen deepity or two (which might be few and far between) could provide useful motivational mantras, for any task from getting in shape to overcoming a drug addiction.

Ultimately, of course, empirical evidence will have to decide whether deepities happen to work in the useful way I just suggested. I remain skeptical—most are probably just useless quackery that works on weak minds like revelation (to use Karl Popper’s phrase)—but I can’t rule it out either. Either way, however, I do think we should have a default presumption against them: ambiguity is often an impediment to acquiring knowledge, which is valuable both practically and intrinsically.

In any case, my now more open stance toward the earth-shattering half of any given deepity might make my conversation partner happy to hear about, if she ever does. And for all I know, she could be at a bar somewhere right this moment, believing with all her might that I might one day come around…

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Saturday, October 24, 2020 -- 8:02 AM