Follows is a letter to editors of The Atlantic in regards to an article it published: How America Went Haywire.
Kurt Anderson argues that America’s crazies prefer to “disregard science in favor of [their] own beliefs.” No less a scientist than Albert Einstein disregarded the evidence for quantum mechanics in favor of his belief that God didn’t play dice with the universe. His colleague, Max Plank, noted that science advances not by a careful weighing of evidence, but “one funeral at a time.”
Anderson misunderstands what it is to be human. It is human nature to disregard science in favor of our beliefs (more precisely, to disregard that which conflicts, whether empirical or not, with our beliefs). It is human nature to mistake our beliefs, our self-constructed metaphysics, for reality. Anderson, himself, does it, flagrantly. His entire argument, until he mentions a survey three-quarters of the way through his essay, is bereft of any empirical evidence. He neither offers nor uses an empirically tested theory of cultural change or of human psychology that explains the changes he sees in America since the 60s. Instead, he gives us a sterling example of confirmation bias (another behavior eminently human)—selectively picking evidence that supports what he already believes. Another historian could offer an equally impressive array of counter examples.
In essence, Anderson has built an argument based on what he “feels” is right. He has used his reason—as humans do—to, post facto, validate his worldview. His relationship to reality is no less blinkered than Esalen’s shamans. His advantage is that, at this point in time, his worldview more closely aligns with today’s liberal zeitgeist.
But Anderson, in his righteousness, misses the deeper issue. An evolutionary psychologist would argue that there was a selective advantage to humans who built a rich metaphysical construct of the world–one thick with cultural norms and taboos, moral values, beliefs, gods, spirits, and explanations of how the world works. A constructed worldview shared unquestioningly by a tribe bound it together enabling it to survive better than a group with disparate worldviews. But what worked on the savanna doesn’t necessarily work on a city street. Civilization often requires us to give up behaviors that our evolutionary past wired into us: It requires us to give up tribalism for diversity; unity of belief for tolerance; personal retribution for rule of law; spirituality for secularism; a deeply held belief for a conflicting fact.
But consider the cost: Who would give up an embracing and nurturing world view that explains who we are, why we’re here, gives us meaning and purpose, that binds us to our families and tribe, and which gives us our identity in favor of a scientific understanding of the world stripped of meaning that offers none of this? The tension between where we have come from and where we are going is great; there are going to be retreats.
Ultimately, Anderson’s essay doesn’t serve us—it only further divides us. Its moral context is “We are right you are wrong; we are better than, you are less than.”
We are all human, all equally capable of the behaviors he derides. The essential question we must ask is what do we—humans—require in order to meld who we are with who we need to be?