Friday, October 23, 2009

Computers and magical thinking

My continued inability to post any comments on some people's blogs (because I am officially "signed out" of certain people's blogs and can not sign back in no matter what I try) is seriously pissing me off. On the lighter side, it reminds me of how ludicrously ignorant I am about what makes computers work. I think that it has something to do with "electrons" moving through "semiconductors" in the form of "binary code" following complicated sets of instructions known as software, but I have to take that completely on faith. If I had been taught as a child that computers were driven by powerful and unpredictable spirits residing within the metal and plastic boxes, and that glitches could best be cured by sprinkling the blood of a freshly killed goat all over the machine at midnight, then I would have gone through many, many goats in the past 20 years (not to mention that the corner of my room with the desktop would be very dirty and foul-smelling).

I suspect that this is true for a lot of people. If you don't know much about computers or other electronic devices, then you basically stand in the same kind of relationship with them as people in earlier ages did with the weather and the seasons. These things were/are controlled by mysterious forces that you don't really understand, and when it comes to explanations you pretty much have to take someone else's word for it, or work hard to be initiated into the mysteries of the knowing elite. I think that this is more or less what people are referring to when they talk about "magical thinking" (someone correct me if I'm totally wrong).

This may be a wild over-generalization, but I'm going to say that most people's basic approach to reality today isn't much different from that of earlier people who hunted and gathered for food, or farmed with stone tools. Most people just want to find what works so that they can get things done and get on with their life. When it comes to explanations, most people will accept what the experts say. Even though science is surely a more accurate way to understand the physical world around us, most people who accept the knowledge and insight gained by science still accept it because it's what the experts say.

The question is which groups are considered the experts in any given society. Is it scientists, religious authorities, political figures, celebrities, something else, or some combination of these? It may seem strange, but a society that accepts scientifically established facts doesn't necessarily have any higher a percentage of truly "critical thinkers" than one that accepts religious explanations of natural phenomena. It is just a question of which group of experts has more prestige in a given society.

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