Why I hate Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist

I must confess that I have not read The Alchemist so maybe I’m about to do it an unforgiveable disservice. I have seen it lying around, though, and I have dipped into it. I have had backpackers I’ve met in hot cafés highly rated by the Lonely Planet extol its virtues. I might have even agreed with at least one of the prettier ones for my own prurient purposes (I assure you I’m much more intellectually honest now).

If you don’t know the book, the argument is this: If you really want something to happen badly enough, the universe will conspire to make it happen.

I despise this line of thought.

Why?

Because its bullshit.

Ok, you need more than that?

Because it says that people who die of cancer just didn’t want to live enough. That sexually abused children just didn’t want to be left alone enough. That the poor, or the sick, or the disabled, or the stupid, or the unlucky, are to blame for their predicament, because they have not desired hard enough. That insufficiency of desire, somehow, can be considered a just cause for all ills.

(Incidentally this is the exact opposite of what the author of the Apocryphon of John would say).

All this is before we get into any discussion of the sentience or desire of the universe to help some, if they prove themselves worthy, and not others. As I’ve stated before, I believe the universe to be entirely disinterested. Even if it did care, there are so many individuals and so many desires they are inevitably contradictory. Logically the universe can’t satisfy all of them. So this idea seems a kind of personal exceptionalism at best, or solipsism at worst.

I can get into some more nuanced and softer analysis.

If someone really believes in something, they’re more likely to achieve it. But that’s not the universe conspiring, that’s them being lucky enough and successful enough to make it happen. Depsite all my splurging on the Agency Trap their drive might generate results.

There’s something really to be explored about our experience of ourselves as being other or separate from the universe in which we live. Coelho’s argument suggests that separation is an illusion. I agree. Any psychedelic or religious experience calls it into doubt. But Coelho abuses that insight with the self-interested direction he takes it.

We only know anything of the universe through experiences which are mediated by our senses. We judge everything according to what’s gone before. We compare it to our expectations. We have confirmation bias. We can’t help but use stereotypes and patterns as a short-hand to thinking because we can’t judge everything afresh all the time. That thing that looks like a chair will take my weight. That thing that looks like a stone won’t be good to eat, but that thing that looks like an almond pain au chocolat will. Its wise to steer clear of the dog with the bared teeth.

What we experience, therefore, is always a product of our mind at least to some extent, regardless of whether something external triggered it at all. We don’t take the time to examine the stone to make sure it isn’t tasty. Likewise, how we react to pain, or bad news, or a compliment, or traffic, is all coloured by our personal history, and that of our forebears.

In which case changing our minds CAN influence the universe. Not by making it rearrange itself for us, but by changing how we experience it AND how we act in it. If we constantly assess, recalibrate, and improve the stereotypes we use in thinking, the results can look like the universe adapting itself to meet our desires. In fact we’re adapting ourselves to meet them.

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