Widgets Magazine


Sense and Nonsense: Too Scared to Believe

When it comes to believing, there are two dangerous pitfalls. Dogmatism is the traditional one, where people know what they know so wholeheartedly that they never appreciate complexity and their views never change. We have been fighting that problem for centuries. A mixture of moral relativism and abstinence from public beliefs is now often the college fashion, where students know (or kind of, sort of think?) what they know so weak-heartedly, and with such skepticism about the knowledge-seeking enterprise, that they never gain a firm grip on their own opinions or bother to wrestle with differing views.


Stanford graduate Sam Harris ‘89 described on The Daily Show last week how we have “a kind of intellectual and moral emergency” today where the only people on the planet who think there are right answers to moral questions are “religious demagogues.” Everyone else, he argued, “seems to think that there’s something suspect about the concept of moral truth.” Kevin Baumgartner wrote a nice piece in The Stanford Review last week about moral relativism on campus (and I think he underestimated its prevalence). In the introduction to “The Closing of the American Mind,” Allan Bloom describes how it took a lifetime for Socrates to figure out he was ignorant, but now every high school student knows only that.


There was a time when what most university students needed to appreciate, on a fundamental level, is that the world is naturally complex. Now, many students either think it is so complex that it is impossible to judge anything, or they simplify it by cutting out the complex parts. Moral relativism and abstinence from public beliefs are common results.


These results are strengthened by our political world. Students are conscious of how past generations have proven intolerant and unable to appreciate all the basic ways in which the differences between us do not justify differing political or moral treatment. Crusades, slavery, imperialism, segregation, oppression and tyranny—that’s one version of History 101. Our response to it has been: stop believing there are differences in the first place or thinking that your beliefs can somehow be better. It is not that students do not have moral or political opinions, just that they have a problem with the idea of defending them, or even of taking them too seriously.


The difficulty with this attitude is that progress requires thinking about debatable things, which requires thinking thought can get us somewhere. That is how we agreed (in another version of History 101) that slavery is wrong, that women should vote, that it would be nice if children had the chance for an education. It was through pioneers who fought for the right beliefs, who believed in believing, but also in earnestly engaging with differing views. An appreciation of this version of history was, I think, underlying the Dalai Lama’s urge to students at the end of his talk on Thursday to embrace the 21st century as the “century of dialogue.”


The “Know-Nothing” nativist political movement of the 1840s and 1850s, sparked by popular fears that the U.S. was being overwhelmed by German and Irish Catholic immigrants, got its label because it was so dogmatic. Its followers knew nothing because they thought they knew everything, and thought so despite their true ignorance of the world. Now, too many of us take refuge in claiming to know nothing about morality or other complex things. It is true that when we do not believe anything, or do not claim that our beliefs are meaningful, we at least avoid making mistakes and becoming arrogant about mistaken convictions. Those are genuine pitfalls. But we should keep in mind that without mistakes, and without the misplaced self-assurance that can accompany them, we make no progress.


To believe while still appreciating the world’s history of mistakes (and each of our personal histories) is contradictory. It means believing we know things while earnestly accepting that we will one day believe we were wrong about some of them. This contradiction is an inherent part of human life. Perhaps the biggest challenge for today’s students in trying to be as logical as we can about the world is to accept—while ever ordering—its inherent illogic, and still be willing to persevere. Maybe that’s what intellectual maturity is.


Aysha will probably believe intellectual maturity is something else tomorrow. She welcomes your thoughts at abagchi@stanford.edu.

  • Clay Boggess

    We are becoming a people who are loosing their way and their identity because we have lost our moral compass over time. We no longer stand for moral principals because we are afraid of offending people whose views may be different from us. How dare we claim our ‘right’ and our ‘wrong’? Are we seeking to impose that onto others? Why, do we think we are somehow better? At one time most people probably believed in absolute moral truth but now we are afraid to. As a result, we are now simply out there drifting in ‘no-mans land’. We cannot continue to drive the car if it is in neutral.

    Clay Boggess

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