Monday, November 7

Believing Whatever


A Vatican university is reviving its exorcism curriculum to confront burgeoning satanic cults in Italy, and a cardinal with close ties to the new pope recently backed away from the church's acceptance of evolution. Catholics can now line up with Protestant fundamentalists in the United States who are determined to get creationism into the biology curriculum because they believe in the Book of Genesis, literally. Fifty-two percent of Americans believe in astrology; 42 percent believe in communication with the dead. Forty-five percent believe in Noah's flood, and, when they visit the Grand Canyon these days, helicopter tour pilots accommodate them by describing, without judging either way, two accounts of the canyon's formation — one geological, the other being 40 days and 40 nights of rain.

Take your pick. It's a free country.

A lot of highly educated people find such developments pretty alarming, but if we want to understand what's really going on, we need to look past resurgent know-nothing movements. Try this. Take an informal little poll of a class of humanities students in any graduate school in the country. Ask how many believe in paranormal phenomena or alien abduction. If they feel free to respond honestly, the results won't be that different from what you would get if you polled an Oprah audience. They won't, for the most part, affirm a definite belief, but they won't want to issue any blanket denials either. Maybe, they will say, who knows? Who really knows anything?

How did this situation come about? A little anecdote may shed some light.

The scene: a glorious summer day on Cape Cod, circa 1975. A dear friend of mine and her mother (lifelong bonds among all three of us) are sitting on a screened-in porch, sipping lemonade. They have just returned from a three-day retreat at an ashram in the Berkshires and are telling me all about it. I was curious about meditation. I knew it was correlated with measurable physiological effects, and I had heard a lot about it from trustworthy people — I was thinking I might try it. So I was listening with genuine interest. But it soon became apparent that this particular retreat had ventured way beyond meditation. Apparently, the Maharishi (the one who hung out with the Beatles) had achieved a breakthrough. He and his closest disciples at the central ashram (in Geneva, was it?) had embarked upon a radical new phase of enlightenment. They had achieved something very special, soon to be revealed to the world at a mass meditation event that would channel peace vibes across the planet. But some of these highly secret new techniques had been shared with the fortunate participants at this particular retreat in the Berkshires, by way of preparation for the big day.

And what was this achievement, I asked?


I expressed a certain, ahhh, skepticism, shall we say? And they turned on me. These two extremely intelligent, Ivy League-educated women turned on me and proceeded to rake me over the coals with considerable vim. How could I be so arrogant and close-minded? How could I know that levitation wasn't possible?

As a general rule I make a practice of avoiding discussions of this kind; I smile and nod (no doubt a bit condescendingly) and wait for the subject to change. But this time I just snapped. I launched into a lecture on probability (I was reading a lot in philosophy of science at the time). I set up a scale to illustrate degrees of unlikelihood. At one extreme, logically impossible — a round square, given our definitions. Next, utterly, wildly unlikely, breaking established laws of physics at the Newtonian level — levitation. Next, very, very unlikely, given known laws — say, clairvoyance. And so on, through ESP and alien abduction and, toward the other end of the scale, I put the probability that Hitler and Eleanor Roosevelt were living together in Argentina.

All in vain. They believed.

Apparently they had been shown videotapes from the ashram in Geneva, and, though the tapes were rather grainy and shadowy for some reason, you could make out enough to tell that those yogis were ... hovering.

Plus, my friends had practiced some of these techniques themselves in the Berkshires, don't forget, and, though they never actually got airborne, they could definitely feel themselves getting ... lighter.

They wanted to believe. That's the key to this whole phenomenon, the thread to keep track of.

Exasperated, hoping to jolt them out of their post-retreat trance, I proposed a bet. Five hundred dollars each (a lot of money in those days, but I wasn't worried) that in two years levitation would be a universally acknowledged fact. Squadrons of levitating gurus floating down Fifth Avenue, on the Johnny Carson show, evidence like that.

And they took the bet!

Time passed, and no levitators materialized, but my dear friends were remarkably undisturbed. They weren't embarrassed into reassessing their worldview from the ground up, not at all, far from it. It was as if they had lost a bet on a sporting event. They had been wrong about the specifics on this one, but what did that prove? Maybe next time, who knows?

Who really knows anything?

Just recently I happened to tell one of my very best graduate students that story. I was chortling as I went along, confident that she would share my point of view, but as I reached the end of my tale I noticed a little frown on her face — and she said, guess what?

"How do you know levitation isn't possible?"

Then she told me about how she had once seen this dancer/acrobat who raised his whole body in the air on one finger.

Flabbergasted, I exclaimed, "But the finger was touching the floor, right?"

It didn't matter. Unusual balancing abilities and really strong fingers didn't interest her. She wanted to believe that this guy could have been on the way to levitating, at least.

She called me close-minded, too.

I asked her if she had studied science. Sure, and she'd done very well, as in all her studies. But it wasn't her thing. She didn't identify with it. What she most remembered, in fact, was that all those scientific theories eventually get disproved anyway — so, see?

Anything is possible. That she could identify with.

You've had similar encounters, I'm sure, from one side or the other, I hasten to add, because I'm guessing there might be some wide-open-minded readers of The Chronicle who are frowning at me too, right now. Maybe you're a blue-state educator with multiculturalist commitments and a lapsed membership in a Wiccan coven who wouldn't have minded having, say, the Gaia hypothesis in the earth-science curriculum back in the day? But, either way, perhaps we can all agree on this? For my old friend, her mother, and my student, beliefs are essentially choices. They are expressions of our freedom, interpretations that people (and cultures) construct out of an otherwise indeterminate experience.

Why does this view of beliefs persist among us, even as right-wing fundamentalists move to take advantage of the opportunities afforded by this ethos? Because make no mistake about it — that's exactly what's happening. When George W. Bush and Bill Frist say students should hear "both sides" in the debate of intelligent design versus evolution, they have the winds of postmodernism at their backs. It's awkward for so many of us to rally behind the position scientists advocate — namely, put it in the curriculum if you must, just not in the science curriculum. After all, we're the ones who've been problematizing and destabilizing such categories for the last 30 years. No, let's face it. Feyerabend and Latour helped to pave the way for creation science. And values politics on the right is a form of good old identity politics — an imposition of a Foucauldian discourse. In this context, the hard sciences, and those who represent them in popular venues, are helpless to defend the privileges of logic and evidence.

Here's why.

Take the Science section of The New York Times, for example. Every other Tuesday or so, it carries a sort of (but not really) accessible description of dark matter or multiple universes or time-space foam or quantum strings that oscillate through 10 dimensions or whateveryou know the kind of thing. But since you can't do the math on any of it, all you have to go on is the metaphors the grateful science writers borrow from the few hundred physicists in the world who can do the math.

But here's the thing. Those metaphors actually do seem to converge on the message that anything is possible. A recent one I recall concerned the in-principle possibility of time travel. I remember it so well because they chose to illustrate the main thesis (everything that ever happened or ever will happen is, at some theoretical level, always happening) by comparing the entirety of space-time to a really big loaf of bread. They splashed a drawing — in zany 1920s-cartoon style — across half a page, like a big old Mad magazine spread, very retro, lots of kooky detail. It showed the entirety of space-time as this loaf of bread, with slices falling away from each other slightly. A dinosaur was poking his head out of one slice, looking hilariously baffled. Some caveman — complete with leopard-skin toga and club — was peering out of a more "recent" slice with a question mark over his head.

Cute. Lots of mind-bending conundrums leavened with a few chuckles — that's the editorial recipe for these stories.

But consider. If you can't do the math, and all you understand about science you get from a steady diet of this kind of thing, then, over time, levitation is going to start to seem pretty tame, right?

Plus, of course, that hardy old perennial, the humanist's favorite science sound bite — the uncertainty principle — is standing by. And though you can't do the math on that either, it supposedly proves that the observer creates reality at the quantum level or something like that, right? Like with Schrödinger's cat, they always trot out this poor homeless feline to make that point, don't they? But leaving the ephemeral tabby aside for the nonce — observer-created reality? Where have we heard that before?

But it gets better. Such impressions of science inevitably merge, in spite of what the scientists and their lay supporters intend, with all the special-effects depictions of the supernatural in popular culture. And just to make the whole process seamless, high-impact digital technology is making it more and more difficult to distinguish the latest installation at the natural-history museum from a sci-fi flick. The resulting flood has somehow to be processed. Internalized or passed over. Believed or not. Or, most typically, simply suspended, left hanging out there among the limitless possibilities that now surround us because — who knows?

Under such conditions (not to mention the rest of your busy life, which is what really matters), who has time for reasons when motives will suffice?

After you've decided to believe something, then you have time for reasons, to support what you've decided to believe. Supporting opinions we already have is what keeps this mediated culture buzzing, the scribblers scribbling, the talking heads talking, the bloggers blogging. But the original belief choice?

That's a matter of personal entitlement.

And that's why people tend to believe whatever they want to in the political realm as well. They feel entitled, not merely to their own opinions but to their own facts. And they can easily find media niches that will reflect back and reinforce whatever they have chosen to believe. September 11 a U.S.-Israeli plot? Step (click) this way. Saddam Hussein in league with Al Qaeda? Step (click) that way. Facts galore in every venue, custom-made for every suite of prejudices. Digitized copies of secret documents suppressed by government agencies. Photographs. Videos. Authentic-looking individuals, displaying credentials of all kinds, testifying to just about anything.

Some people live full time in one niche, but most people cruise around, cutting and pasting, cobbling together a worldview to suit their tastes, furnishing their minds with beliefs the way they furnish their homes. According to taste and subject to fashion.

Conservatives construe all this as "relativism." They want to reduce an all-encompassing context to a doctrine, something they can oppose — and blame on the 60s. Rational neocons call for a revival of the canon. Religious fundamentalists recommend us to Scripture. As if, in a culture saturated with options, choosing to believe something traditional were somehow not a choice.

But of course it is. "Relativism" focuses on, clings to, an epistemological symptom of a pervasive cultural condition. The mediated world offers so many belief options, so compellingly and elaborately represented, that you have no choice but to choose. Most people are comfortable with that freedom, most of the time — but some can't bear this last necessity. They crave the old-fashioned kind, the kind that is given by an unquestionable tradition.

That's why there are so many fanatics out there.

Thomas de Zengotita teaches in the Draper graduate program at New York University and is the author of Mediated: How the Media Shapes Your World and the Way You Live in It (Bloomsbury, 2005).