I recently read an editorial by Jerry Davich, a Tribune writer, focusing on a new book by Kurt Anderson, Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire A 500-Year History. The book chronicles the history of the American psyche on belief. It sounds fascinating. Davich says it resonated with what he believes about “Americans’ beliefs”, but what Davich says doesn’t resonate with me.
Davich quotes Anderson’s observation that “this post-factual, ‘fake news ‘ moment we’re all living through … is not something new, but rather the ultimate expression of our national character”. We are free to believe absolutely anything in this country, and so we do, “proudly so, ” says Davich!
I can see how the “wishful dreamers, magical thinkers and true believers” Anderson describes in his book could “be embedded in our DNA”. The United States of America was founded by dreamers and believers. And such wild thoughts of fancy as carried pioneers to our shores were likely fertile soil for the “hucksters and their suckers” who became a part of the American experience.
While these things do strike a chord and make some sense, the conclusions that Davich reaches about belief, itself, strike a discordant note with me. They throw the proverbial baby out with the bathwater. While mixing metaphors may be bad literary taste, I think the shoe fits.
Davich asserts that “we believe in so many things that the very notion of factual reality has become a laughable oxymoron”. He includes lies, fake news and “misguided beliefs” among the un-factual realities the collective “we” believe.
I was hanging with him up to this point.
Of course, the devil is in the details. Which beliefs are the misguided ones? I am imagining the Scarecrow in the Wizard of Oz pointing both ways with his hands crossed when Dorothy asked him for direction as I write this.
Davich has a distinct direction in mind. According to Davich, any beliefs are misguided. Which means that he believes that any belief is misguided.
Do I need to point out that this very assertion is a belief?
If we apply Davich’s assertion to itself, we get the absurd result that his belief that all beliefs are misguided is misguided. (Somehow that actually works in this case.)
Davich stumbles closer to the edge with the assertion that “belief is the last refuge of the desperate”. If so, then we are all desperate – even Mr. Davich. But, so be it. I am willing to be counted among the desperate, like Mr. Davich and the rest of our human lot.
But, Davich plunges over the edge as he seems to carry on as if he, and others like him, as excluded from the desperation of belief – his words, not mine. Perhaps, he doesn’t feel the desperation of his belief. Neither do I, but that is beside the point.
The idea that a person can just do science and limit his worldview to facts, avoiding anyf belief, is a postmodern delusion, of course. We all believe something. Try as he might not to believe anything, as soon as Davich puts pen to paper, he fails. What he believes to be true is right there for all to see in black and white.
I don’t say this with any feelings of judgment or superiority. This is simply the human condition. We don’t know what we don’t know. Human beings are not the plumb-lines of the universe. We aren’t even a very significant part of the universe, from a purely materialistic, existential point of view. We have been here for only a fraction of a second in the cosmic timeline, and we will vanish as quickly as we appeared. That we can cobble together any understanding of the universe is quite remarkable.
Davich continues, “Belief is enticing despite facts to the contrary. That’s its beauty. All you need is the belief, nothing more. Not facts. Not proof. Not reality.”
I don’t know Mr. Davich’s worldview, but this sounds like the drum beat of the new atheists. Richard Dawkins, a missionary of the new atheism, defines faith as belief in something without evidence; or belief in the teeth of the evidence. Meanwhile, Dawkins hold himself out as rationalist who doesn’t indulge in faith or belief.
But that could only be true of someone who knows all there is to know. That excludes people, in case you want to keep count. Even people like Richard Dawkins, and Jerry Davich, have belief in something, even if it is belief that we can live without believing in anything.
Davich tries to set himself apart from the “mutiny of desperate believers”, like one “scrambling to find scientific facts or undeniable truths as life preservers”.
We all need something to hold onto. We all see the world through a particular lens. We have precious few undeniable truths, and part of the unsettling nature of our existence is that scientific facts do not provide all the answers to our questions. Davich isn’t the only one scrambling for life preservers here.
The fact is that science does not (and cannot) answer questions about beauty, love, purpose, community, morality and similar things – and incidentally, these are the very things we hold most dear in life. As John Lennox once quipped, science can tell us what will happen when we put strychnine into Aunt Margaret’s tea, but science doesn’t tell us whether we should do it in the first place.
Belief without evidence and belief in the teeth of facts is belief that is not well-anchored, but there is nothing in the nature of belief that requires that it be so unhinged.
Perhaps, Mr. Davich is not willing to commit to many things, and perhaps he tries to anchor his understanding of the world to nothing but the cold, hard facts that science reveals, but he must exercise the very thing he claims to have rejected whenever he interprets those cold, hard facts. Unless he is willing never to draw any conclusions from those facts, he is deluding himself to think that he has succeeded in shedding belief from the way he views the world.
Frankly, no rational person thinks that belief, or faith if you will, should be maintained with no evidence at all to support it. Belief is simply where we put our trust and confidence after we consider the evidence and the facts. Granted, some beliefs are better anchored than others.
The fact that we live in a free country allows us the freedom to indulge many beliefs. That is no doubt true. The fact that Americans do, in fact, hold almost an infinite variety of beliefs and are very willing to express those beliefs as publicly as they do is a testament to that freedom. We shouldn’t think that people in countries that are less free do not have any number of different beliefs, though they may not feel the freedom to express them.
But this exercise also misses the point. The point is that we all lean on our own understandings of the world, and this confidence that we repose in that understanding is a belief system. We can’t escape it. Finite beings must necessarily take some things on faith, as the saying goes.
For some, science and science alone may be the only place they are willing to anchor their belies. I would not criticize Davich if that is where he puts his trust. For me, science does not have enough explanatory scope to address the most important questions we face, and I am not content with the answers science can give.
That doesn’t mean that I reject (or don’t believe in) the facts science reveals for us. It simply reflects the fact that science is limited to the study of the natural world, and the natural world is not sufficient to explain the all of reality, including the reality in between my own ears.
The neurons firing in our brains simply don’t explain our ability to write articles and discourse about them, derive meaning from them, make judgments about them – and they don’t explain why we might care to engage in this dialectic exercise in the first place.
There will always be hucksters and suckers. While it may be fascinating to learn about the myriad American expressions of belief that have been afforded by our unique freedoms, hucksters and suckers are not confined to the shores of the United States of America. I dare say that the scientific community has had its share of hucksters and suckers over the centuries. Hucksters can use facts as effectively as lies to fool people, and suckers can be just as fooled by a fact as a lie.
The key is what we do with the facts we know, and that is where belief comes in.
Is your belief coherent? Does it make the best sense of the world? Is it consistent? Does it have integrity? Does it have explanatory scope?
People are apt to be fooled by lies (and sometimes even facts) who entertain the delusion that we can get through life without believing in anything and shouldn’t try to make sense of those beliefs than people who are honest about the nature of our place in the world, brave enough to put those beliefs to the test and humble enough to be open to correction.