credit: Jim Lears


This is part 4 of my series on magical thinking in everyday life. Part 1 is here; part 2 is here; part 3 is here.

So last time I wrote about the little rationalist demon that sits on the shoulder of practically everyone in the modern secular West. I tried to show that this demon is in one way or another a tiresome, demanding spirit. Religious fundamentalists are hardened in their fanaticism by the demon’s provoking insistence that their beliefs are nonsense; rationalist fundamentalists are goaded to an irrational denial of their own beliefs in their attempts to appease the demon. When the demon says “jump,” the former group says “go away” and the latter group says “how high?” Either way, the demon gets a satisfyingly outsized reaction. And demons like it that way, since they are not so very different from us and enjoy the attention.

As I wrote last time, fundamentalists can only accept one truth and despise pluralism — for example, the idea that there can be multiple gods or kinds of knowledge.* They place the greatest possible value upon purity, and pluralism is impure. But most of us are impure. Depending on our mood and situation, we’re sort of religious, sort of rationalist, and, if we are completely honest, given to the odd bout of magical thinking as well. Maybe you have a deck of tarot cards gathering dust on a high shelf somewhere, or maybe you’re like Ivy in that little story I wrote a while back and, in the right mood, will make a decision out of a feeling that disparate things in your world have come together in a certain patterned and meaningful way.

But at such moments of magical thinking, the rationalist demon will come for you too, just as it does for your purer brethren. When it makes its presence felt, you don’t say “get thee behind me Satan” and neither do you snap right to attention; your response is kind of impure and mixed up as well. You might grudgingly set to tidying away your irrational notions but (like a sullen teenager told to clean his room) maybe mumble “oh, fuck you” under your breath. Or else you rebel against the demon and ignore him — but then you feel guilty about it and eventually give him his due. This is what I meant when I wrote that we tend not to trust our own experience and, when called to account for our actions, will forget whatever magical thinking might have impelled them.**

I have been writing about our demon as if rationalism and skepticism were his only qualities. Did you notice, though, that in my last post I wrote almost as much about belief as I did about skepticism? This is unavoidable, as the one term implies the other. How can you believe in something unless there is the possibility that you might not believe in it? How can you be skeptical without having first failed in the belief of something? I wrote last time about the strange symmetry between hardcore believers and hardcore skeptics, and this symmetry is due to the way each group tries to maintain a pure state of belief or skepticism, as if it were possible for one term to exist entirely without reference to the other. Their futile attempt at purity drives them to repress what they cannot recognize in themselves. As I wrote last time, the shadow side of the skeptic is belief, and the shadow side of the believer is skepticism.

The ace of spades from Marshall McLuhan’s “Distant Early Warning” card deck

So now we’ve learned something about our demon: he does not represent a single simple idea, but an idea polarized, pointing in two contrary directions. All your better sort of demons have two horns on their heads, and our demon’s horns are the horns of a dilemma — that paradigmatically modern dilemma between skepticism and belief.

You’ll notice that I’ve pushed the demon-on-the-shoulder metaphor pretty far by now. Is it even a metaphor any more? Well, I don’t mean to imply that a rationalist demon with horns and maybe a pitchfork exists in the same way as my computer exists. But at this point he is something more than a figure of speech. I am treating him as if he exists in some way (exactly how is not important right now), and, by invoking the mighty magical formula AS IF, I obtain a magical result: a very abstract idea is somehow much more easily comprehensible.

Remember Ramsey Dukes’s distinction between asking what things are and asking whether they work. If we are interested only whether an idea works to make sense of something — for example, whether the personification of a habitual and inhibiting rationalism makes such an abstract idea easier to understand — then we can enable this line of inquiry by setting aside the question of whether it exists (or even the more philosophical question of what it means for something to “exist”) and proceeding to our investigations by assuming it does. We say, “let’s proceed as if a complex abstract dynamic within intellectual history is an entity with intelligence and volition” and let the procedure be justified by what it yields.

What I am doing is to personify a complex problem of human thought and behavior. As Dukes has repeatedly pointed out, personification is a good strategy for human beings, whose brains have evolved to be extraordinarily sensitive to the subtle behavioral cues of fellow human beings and can read phenomena more acutely when they are treated as if they are humans as well. Much of my argument in this post is potted from Dukes’s Uncle Ramsey’s Little Book of Demons, which in turn works through ideas developed in an earlier book of essays, What I Did In My Holidays: Essays on Black Magic, Satanism, Devil Worship, and other Niceties. That rather blood-curdling title hides a down-to-earth and humane notion: we do best when we negotiate with and reconcile ourselves to intelligent entities — be they demons or our neighbors — rather than blindly accept or reject them. “When you start trying to treat phenomena as if they were human you learn many things. One of them is how better to treat your fellow humans as if they too were human.” (URLBoD, 85.) “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” turns out to be the dread secret at the heart of demonic pacts — understanding, of course, that by “demon” we mean any apparently non-sentient phenomenon to which we are according some measure of our own sentience. The more of our own sentience we accord the world, the more subtle our interactions with it.

This is the way out of our impasse: it is how we can relate to the pervasive and limiting rationalism of our age without either saying “go away” or “do you want fries with that?” Robert Anton Wilson wrote that “belief is the death of intelligence,” but as I pointed out last time, neither he nor anyone else could transcend belief altogether. Wilson’s way of handling belief was to turn belief and skepticism into entities he could invoke at need or pleasure. In Cosmic Trigger, he writes his autobiography from not from the usual standpoint of some presumed unitary self, but as a shifting array of different personae: “the Skeptic,” “the Materialist,” “the Fool,” “the Shaman,” “the Reporter,” and so on. When skepticism is called for, the Skeptic takes the reins, but he is politely asked to step aside when circumstances call for someone else to step up. Each persona is treated in an as-if way: if we call up the Skeptic, we are not saying that his point of view is natural and inevitable, but only that we are treating his viewpoint in a more limited and heuristic way. We don’t believe that it is really true; we act as if it were really true. Thus we arrive at what Wilson calls “model agnosticism,” which assumes that no one model of reality can be entirely congruent with reality itself.

This is what my rationalist demon is saying to me right now:

stfuPenn Jillette is the perfect embodiment of my rationalist demon. In real life, Jillette is a kind of Vegas Dawkins, a blowhard pseudo-skeptic who indirectly inspired the South Park satire of the New Atheist movement. But though he’s not who I would choose to play me in a Hollywood movie about my life, he is (I confess) rather like me: a big guy with a loud voice, confident in his views, taking up a lot of space in a room. Or at least Jillette is like one part of me, which is the side that likes to call bullshit on bad ideas and gets pleasure from dispatching them with a certain merry brutality. Dukes calls such a personality an “ideas yob” — sort of like the yobs who vandalize parks and beat up strangers at soccer matches, only with ideas. After years of feeling helpless, uncontrollable, and immoderate rage at the sight of trampled flowers and damaged trees, Dukes realized that “vandalism and rabid anti-vandalism represent the two horns of the same demon” and asked himself, “how could a sweet, loving person like myself … harbor anything akin to a demon of vandalism in my soul?”

It took a lot of soul searching and dialogue to discover that I am an ideas yob, in that I have a demon in me that, when it sees neat and tidy prejudices, cliched arguments set out in rows with well trimmed dogma, feels like any vandal faced with prissy flower beds and twee tree saplings. It wants to sing “Ere we go, ere we go, ere we go” and trample over the lot of them. (URLBoD 104-05.)

As Dukes points out elsewhere, every demon we harbor offers some service in return for the torments we suffer at its hands — otherwise, we wouldn’t put up with them. For me, thinking of my rationalism as an intelligent entity makes it clearer to me that, however much I am now trying to wriggle out from its powerful grip and imagine philosophical justifications for a kind of controlled irrationality, I am cannot do so without his help. I am calling upon him right now, in writing this post.

manservant hecubus


He has been with me throughout my academic career, indeed throughout my life, arming me against toxic ideas and the tyranny of received wisdom. In Hermetic symbolism, intellect is symbolized by the sword — a weapon that cuts through illusions, divides truth from falsehood, and dissects all things, rendering them available to critical analysis.*** And you need that weapon, especially if you spend any time investigating irrational systems of thought, because without the ability to say “bullshit!” you make yourself prey to uncontrolled belief and also to those who can leverage your credulity for power (a.k.a. weird cults). Or you might just go insane. Magicians aren’t the only ones that think everything is connected to everything else. Paranoiacs do too.

Visualizing my rationalist demon as Penn Jillette allows me to see him a bit more in the round. He’s a fun guy to have around — sometimes. But you have to know where to draw the line. He reminds me of an old friend (let’s call him “Magnus”) who phones me sometimes. Magnus is grandiloquent, grandstanding, jovial, bursting with life and energy, supremely confident in his opinions and not terribly interested in yours. If I let him, he would talk all day, holding forth with his Correct Views on Everything. He is living proof that you do not need to be female to get mansplained to within an inch of your life. He and I go way back, and I am always delighted to hear his voice on the other end of the line, because I genuinely enjoy his good-humored damning of whatever it is that’s exercising him. A bit of this goes a long way, though, and at a certain point in the conversation I will suddenly remember an urgent appointment and (politely) shut down his monologue. But even if I were in no mood for Magnus’s conversation, I wouldn’t yell “go away” into my phone when he calls — that’s no way to treat an old friend, nor even a casual acquaintance. Neither, though, would I simply listen for as long as he wanted to talk. I have learned how to take what I value from Magnus’s friendship and avoid having my patience abused. I have learned to enjoy his worldview without taking on board those of his ideas that don’t get me anywhere.

What I am suggesting is that troublesome idea-entities, like our rationalist demon, are best handled in the same way. Knowing when to invite the demon out for a drink and when to spend time in other, perhaps more congenial company, is both a personal skill and an intellectual one. It is intellectual work conducted in the spirit of glorious impurity and messy humanity that our lives as social animals bequeath to us. It is not at all how we are trained in the academy, though, which I think is one reason why so much writing in the humanities is so flavorless, humorless, and somehow as distant from actual humanity as can readily be imagined. We allow ourselves to become besotted by the ideal of airtight logical consistency, which isn’t something you find often among human beings, or in their works of imagination.

Perhaps irrationality has a place in the humanities, because irrationality is the condition of humanity generally. And perhaps irrationality is already at home in the humanities, and we just don’t know it. And perhaps that’s not a bad thing. I want to consider this some time soon.

*I guess you could have a polytheist fundamentalist, though — someone who insists on the One Truth that there are many gods. Likewise, it has often been noted that dogmatic postmodernists believe in the One Truth that all truth is relative. But this is only a slightly more paradoxical version of monism.

**”Weird shit happens to us all the time, but if we can’t find an explanation for it that fits our education and cultural norms, we file it away in a mental folder marked ‘awkward/miscellaneous’ and never look at it again.”

***The words critic, critique, critical, etc., all come from the Greek rootword krinein, which means both “to decide” and “to separate.” The symbolism whereby the cutting blade represents the intellect is very widespread: in Buddhism, Manjushri, the bodhisattva of wisdom, is usually pictured with a sword.

About Phil Ford

Chairman of the Committee for the Memorial to the Victims of Modernism
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