Beliefs are like warts; you just have them.
This quote is one of the few things I recall from Western Philosophy class in college. My professor was debunking Pascal’s Wager, the mathematician’s famous proof for why it’s in our best interest to believe in god. The proof posits four possible outcomes based on two sets of two possibilities: either god exists or s/he does not, and either you believe or you do not. Those possible outcomes are best rendered in a simple chart like this:
To Pascal, if an individual 1) chooses to believe and god exists, they just won the jackpot. Woohoo! If they 2) choose to believe and god does not exist, well, it’s no big loss because church bake sales are still pretty cool and tithes are tax-deductible. Now, if the individual chooses 3) a life of pleasurable sin and god does not exist, well, good for them, but is it really worth the gamble if that same individual chooses 4) NOT to believe and finds out upon death that god DOES indeed exist? Not to Pascal — that sinful pleasure is not worth the possible tradeoff of eternal damnation.
But, as my professor stated so eloquently, belief is not a choice. We don’t choose our beliefs, “we just have them, like warts.” So, given humans’ inability to choose to believe, what Pascal prescribes is more like acting like you believe, which would be dishonest and therefore immoral and readily apparent to an all-knowing god. Therefore, “my advice to you,” via the housekeeper Sabina in Thornton Wilder’s The Skin of Our Teeth, “is not to inquire into why or whither, but to enjoy your ice cream while it’s on your plate; that’s my philosophy.”
“A man with a conviction is a hard man to change.” Chris Mooney begins his Mother Jones article, “The Science of Why We Don’t Believe Science” with a quote from psychologist Leon Festinger. “Tell him you disagree and he turns away. Show him facts or figures and he questions your sources. Appeal to logic and he fails to see your point.”
Mooney’s article, on what has come to be known as “confirmation bias,” argues that humans are not rational creatures so much as we are rationalizing creatures. “We push threatening information away; we pull friendly information close. We apply fight-or-flight reflexes not only to predators, but to data itself.”
I mention this because Anthony Day has served up a new series of airbrush portraits of what he calls “American Progressives,” and the words “progressive” and “progress” necessarily conjure up the Enlightenment, its privileging Reason (with a capital “R”) on a pedestal, its elevation of science as the only valid method of knowing (with an attendant minimizing of emotion, intuition, and other “irrational” states, including love, faith, and altruism). Enlightenment thinkers inspired this country’s Founding Fathers–their ideas are written into our Declaration of Independence and our Constitution–and continue to inform the mythology of the United States–Manifest Destiny, “American Exceptionalism” and the “Shining City on a Hill,” etc etc etc.
A Houston native who has spent a great deal of his life in Massachusetts (particularly Boston and Plymouth), Day has long been interested in the ideals and mythologies of the US, dating back to the Colonial Era and continuing through the present day. So, exploring the idea of “Freedom of Thought,” Day presents of series of 10 portraits of historical figures who stood up for their beliefs (against the odds, more often than not).
But it’s the colors that first draw the viewer in. Day’s color choices are bold and unorthodox. B.B. Warfield, Professor of Theology at Princeton Seminary, looks like some wretched pauper from a cartoon adaptation of Dickens. Jerry Falwell jumps out at the viewer, gesticulating like a rap mc. Betrand Russell, with his wide collar, resembles a playboy grasping a strippers’ pole, and Christian Science founder Mary Baker Eddy appears like a ghostly presence coalescing in the misty airbrush medium. “Miami Vice” is how I describe the color scheme for Day’s portrait of Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen, Nation of Islam founder Wallace Fard Muhammad strikes me as a villain out of a Fat Albert cartoon, and the founder of Mormonism, Joseph Smith, strikes this viewer a bit like Dracula.
When asked to explain the grouping of these figures, and that under the banner of “Progressives,” Day says:
These paintings are an effort to deal in ideas of values and beliefs, the inherent conflict that arises when discussing and adopting values and beliefs…[and] the inherent competition in the variety of beliefs, with the differences in people’s beliefs being a large impediment to shared purpose and progress.
Some of the context for this thinking is my recent induction into fatherhood and the call to think about how to raise a person from birth, my wife’s desire to baptize our child, a life long interest in spirituality (with no religion, no current real realization, depth, or revelation). Also, I have an ongoing interest in how communities work for change, and a general desire to help do positive work, and sadness about limits that presents.
So, I press him on his statement that “people explain their actions through their beliefs,” referring back to the Mother Jones article (linked to above). I ask which comes first: the action or the belief? In other words, do people explain their actions through their beliefs, or do they believe on the one hand and act on the other hand, then rationalize their actions, accordingly?
Sometimes actions are justified by belief and sometimes actions are inspired by belief. Beliefs are a lens that everything is seen through, no matter how you come by them. It is also extremely interesting how the [Mother Jones] article cites Dan Kahan’s research [on “the cultural cognition of scientific consensus”] which identifies leanings in individuals’ personalities as “individualists vs communitarians” and “hierarchical vs egalitarian.” Apparently we are predisposed to one outlook or another. Take that and add a world view or belief system on top of that seems like there is little room for discussion with people…
This does not preclude rational capability, but definitely tints all information…[A]ctions for beliefs are infallible to the believer, it would seem. There are amazing number of examples of actions made according beliefs that are horrible: genocide, slavery, oppression, cfc, lead, mercury (to put sience and culture in the same box for a second). In fact, this is my ultimate problem with belief systems, that they reach a point of interpretation that creates a line where those on the outside become victims. But believing in something is inescapable. Take your pick rational or rationalizing, kind of a heavy beauty in this problem.
The ironic thing, for me, is that when I asked Day to list some of his influences, the first names he mentioned were William Blake and Francisco de Goya: Blake, the Romantic poet/illustrator and Goya, the Gothic (Dark Romantic) painter/printmaker. Why is that ironic? Well, both the Romantic and the Gothic movements in art and literature were reactions to the limits of The Enlightenment (Progressive thinking) prevailing at that time (and since). If the Enlightenment privileges that which is Rational, then Romanticism shines a light on the sublime — those things which are so large, so beyond our capability to understand, that they inspire awe or terror or some combination of the two.
The Gothic (Dark Romanticism) is similar, but might be characterized as looking more inward, into psychology, for the irrational (dark) proclivities in humans’ hearts and minds. What happens when humans sleep, sleepwalk, dream, hear strange noises in the night, or fly off the handle in a violent, murderous rage — when they enter the realm where the rules of logic and Reason no longer apply? Or what happens when Reason (in the guise of Science) gets too big for its britches? This is the space that the Gothic imagination explores.
Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is my favorite example of Gothic literature. Though modern adaptations have shifted the focus, in Shelley’s novel, the scientist, Dr. Frankenstein, is the real monster/villain. Dr. Frankenstein is so clouded by hubris that he defies god’s laws to reanimate a corpse (Whyt? Because he can, that’s why!), but his experiment goes out of control and wreaks havoc on the countryside.
Compare Frankenstein’s monster to nuclear weapons, nuclear power, genetically modified organisms, subsidized corn and other monocultures, the Great Pacific garbage patch, climate change, and the myriad human illnesses borne of post-Industrial extraction, production, manufacturing, and distribution of materials and goods. Then think of those whose unshakeable faith in science and technology assures them that science and technology will solve problems created by science and technology. Is it rational? Or is it just another example of blind faith dressed up in a lab coat and safety goggles?
Given Progressives’ underlying faith in the inevitable march of history toward a shared “progress” guided by Reason, I found Day’s choice of Goya’s “The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters” as one of his favorites artworks particularly rich. On the one hand, Day consciously champions Reason and Progress, but his tastes tend toward the very critics of those ideals.
Anthony Day does not necessarily believe that if humans are given more and “better” information they will necessarily make “better” decisions. We have a glut of information about climate change, for example, but that information has yet to influence policy in any significant way. As a father, however, he must necessarily hope, and so, via his whimsical palette, he invites his viewer to look at these American dreamers. (And viewers may feel free to confirm or deny, based on their own predispositions and proclivities.)