Easy Habits and the Consequences of Belief

At first glance, the two books could not be more different. Subject, tone, everything seems different. Not at odds so much as…nonoverlapping.

Which is ironic, since both deal, in their separate ways, with that very idea, the separation of areas of knowing.

Probably because I read them so close together I recognized their shared concerns as clearly as I did. Whatever the reason, it struck me as obvious in so many ways that I began to recall all the other books over the last few years that could be likewise gathered within this same subset, all on distinct topics and yet all based on, to some degree, an analysis of the same human propensity to disregard evidence when it contradicts belief.

Let me begin with the more general of the two.

Jerry A. Coyne is an evolutionary biologist.  Compared to others with public profiles, he has published few books.  Three, to be precise.  His latest, Faith Vs. Fact: Why Science and Religion Are Incompatible, is a direct challenge to Stephen Jay Gould’s idea of “nonoverlapping magisteria.”  Gould’s premise is that science and religion should not conflict with each other because they are concerned with entirely separate realms of knowing—hence the nonoverlapping part—and except for certain agenda-driven partisans, there is no reason for them to be in conflict.  Coyne sees this as accommodationism, which he thoroughly discredits in his book.

My claim is this: science and religion are incompatible because they have different methods for getting knowledge about reality, have different ways of assessing the reliability of that knowledge, and, in the end, arrive at conflicting conclusions about the universe.  “Knowledge” acquired by religion is at odds not only with scientific knowledge, but also with knowledge professed by other religions.  In the end, religion’s methods, unlike those of science, are useless for understanding reality.

Coyne identifies Accommodationism as an attempt not to stir the hornet’s nest, because scientists are often dependent on politically sensitive funding.  Science, especially Big Science dealing with questions of origins, is expensive and the days of the independently wealthy scientist are largely gone.  Rocking the boat by annoying those who hold the purse strings would seem ill-advised.

The conclusions, he goes on to argue, of scientific inquiry continually poke holes in those claims by religion that still assert authority over secular matters.

But more than that, such deferral to authority erodes our critical capacity and can lead to false conclusions and bad judgments, all because we accept the hegemony of “faith.”

…a word defined in the New Testament as “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.”  The philosopher Walter Kaufmann characterized it as “intense, usually confident, belief that is not based on evidence sufficient to command assent from every reasonable person.”

The sticking point for many would be that “reasonable person” proviso, for surely, as Coyne concedes—often—there are many reasonable people who nevertheless espouse a religious faith.  What are we to make of that?  Is the basis for the assessment of “reasonable” perhaps too ill-defined or is the scope of “belief” too broad?

Coyne takes us through the process, giving a thorough explication of why science and religion are incompatible if not a convincing argument for the down-side of belief for belief’s sake.  He tells an anecdote early in the book about how he yearly teaches undergraduates a course in evolution, which the majority do very well at, but admit, after earning their A, to not believing a word of what he taught.  Because it contradicts their religious belief.

It is this that Coyne sees as the dangerous aspect of faith as promulgated through religion, the a priori rejection of evidence in favor of a set of usually unexamined beliefs.  He takes us through a catalogue of negative manifestations, from the rejection of medicines to the acts of terrorists to the rejection of solid science (like climate change), that have their underlying justifications in religion.

Coyne, an admitted atheist, puts all this forward while taking pains to admit the personal comfort to be found in religion by many people.  From a certain point of view he tends to go the extra kilometer to be fair.  Of course, going through the comments on various review sites, those predisposed to reject such arguments accuse him of profound bias if not outright malicious intent.  One cannot help but wonder if they bothered to read the book, all or even in part.

The book makes its case clearly and concisely.  It avoids the polemic outrage to be found in other tomes by big name atheists by sticking largely to evidentiary concerns and philosophical arguments.

But, one may ask, so what?  Religion and science are two realms in which most people would assume they have no stake. Castles in the air, esoteric arguments about things that have no impact on our daily lives.  Most people seem to keep a religion much the same way they have a pet and certainly in the West the majority live secular lives and only rarely feel compelled to apply their religious convictions to anything.  As for science, as long as the technology we depend on works, all the rest is so much theoretical handwaving.  It makes no difference if we have almost no understanding of quantum mechanics and certainly evolution is just tenure-building nonsense having to do with million-year-old bones and what kind of textbooks the school district might use next year.  Nothing to do with us in our daily lives. So what if people rely more on faith and belief in making their daily judgments than on evidence-based science?  We operate more on heuristics defended by aphorism than by reason and applied understanding, or so Daniel Kahneman tells us in his excellent study, Thinking, Fast and Slow, and we by and large get along perfectly well that way.

How does this argument concern me?

Johann Hari’s new book, Chasing The Scream, has an answer to that.  Of sorts, if we but make the epistemological leap.

Hari is writing about the drug war. It is, for him, as much a personal examination as a journalistic one, as he admits to having family and friends who are addicts.  He begins with a simple question.

I scribble down some questions that had puzzled me for years.  Why did the drug war start, and why does it continue?  Why can some people use drugs without any problems, while others can’t?  What really causes addiction?  What happens if you choose a radically different policy?

Okay, three questions.  Still, simple, basic questions, to which any reasonable person might reasonably expect a reasonable answer.

Yet we spend billions, bully small countries, destroy thousands if not millions of lives, all in pursuit of policies which rest on an appalling lack of informed justification.  By the end of the book you come to see that there are no answers to those simjple questions which in any way validate our continuing on with things as they are.  As they have been for a hundred years.

Hari goes back to beginning of the war, before drugs were illegal, and takes use through the history.  Back to Harry Anslinger, the head of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, who fueled the drug war for the twin purposes of maintaining his agency and exorcizing demons that had possessed him since childhood, even in the face of substantive research and sound arguments denying his approach to the problem had any merit and more than ample evidence—Prohibition—that it would lead to catastrophe, not only on a national but on a global level.  Hari details Anslingers battle to destroy Billie Holiday and his use of intimidation and police tactics and, subsequently, U.S. foreign policy to assure the continued crusade to eradicate drugs and destroy addicts.

Not because of any evidence Anslinger understood that led him to think this was the only if not the best way, but because he believed it in spite of growing mountains of evidence that this was a wrongheaded approach.  He suppressed evidence, hounded physicians who dared present alternative models to the drug problem, intimidated politicians—except those who could secure him funding—and strenuously denied the validity of any evidence that  contradicted his belief.

He believed.

As many did and still do.  It is this that trumps hard evidence.

Even as a young adolescent I thought the argument for our drug policies was lacking.  I thought at the time that I just didn’t understand.  Never having been in the least interested in drugs and knowing few if any who were involved with anything more serious than marijuana, it seemed not to concern me.  Later, I did a short stint as a volunteer drug counselor, but the work was far more than I could handle at the time.  I trusted the people in charge knew what they were doing and certainly the gang violence associated with drugs seemed to make a persuasive case that this was a worthwhile and often desperate fight.

But as the years went by and the war continued, I began to notice bits of research here and there and how certain politicians contradicted themselves and how the prison population, especially in the wake of Nixon’s near militarization of the police community and the drug war ethos, was growing and in very worrisome ways.  I began to seriously rethink my position with Reagan’s zero tolerance policies and the mandatory sentencing guidelines he established through Ed Meese, one of the notable Puritans of the modern age.  Even so, I had the nagging suspicion that maybe I was just missing something.  Certainly I didn’t approve of drug addiction, but I more and more came to believe that these people needed help, not punishment.  We understand that process very well with alcohol, why is it different with narcotics?

And besides, there are plenty of people who receive perfectly legal prescription narcotics and never become addicts.

The number of holes in the picture kept growing.  I no longer trusted stated drug policy, but I didn’t understand the instransigence of people over reform.

Hari’s book lays it out very clearly.  Money is high on the list.  We fund too many of the wrong people at too high a level for them to be easily weaned from the teat.  Foreign policy is also tied to this, especially in these days of international terrorism which has a strong drug component.  But the factor that ties this in to Jerry A. Coyne’s book is the one Hari covers only glancingly.


It is easier to rely on what we have always believed than to look at evidence that requires us to change our mind.

Many aspects of our lives are covered by this observation, but where problems arise are those with political and social ramifications.  The persistent beliefs about the poor, about minorities, about people with different beliefs, even when evidence is provided which significantly challenges such beliefs and suggests strongly that not only are they wrong but that we would be better off discarding them, we cling to them.

Hence my conflation of these two books and the suggestion that they share a common idea.

Not that I argue that all beliefs are wrong.  What is wrong is the intractable nature of unquestioned belief.  The only reason the drug war continues is that it has considerable popular support and the only reason it has that is that many people cannot bring themselves to change their minds about it in the face of not only evidence but what we euphemistically call common sense.

But that can be said of so many things which directly and indirectly impact our lives.

Perhaps it is a stretch and perhaps I argue out of my own biases, but it seems to me the most valuable tool we can have in our intellectual toolbox is the ability to say “well, I believe that but I might be wrong.”  Faith cannot maintain, however, among people who are able to say that and apply it to anything and everything.  Science is built on exactly that principle—all knowledge is conditional—but belief, as exemplified by religion, thrives by the absence of that principle.  It says some knowledge is absolute, not to be questioned.

In the contemplation of matters of theological concern, this perhaps offers consolation, comfort, a certain utility, to be sure.  But it is easy for unquestioning acceptance of arguments from authority to become habit and then apply it to anything that our prejudices suggest we may wish to avoid examining.  Drug addiction is an unfortunate affliction and it may be uncomfortable for people to see it for what it is—a disease, like alcoholism.  That discomfort makes room for assertions from authority offered by people who claim to be working on our behalf.  Our unwillingness to ask evidentiary questions is a cozy environment for demagogues and despots.

When you ask “What does this have to do with me?” you might be surprised at the consequences of avoidance and the price of unquestioning trust.  Why should we learn science and how to apply the discipline of examining evidence?  So we don’t hurt ourselves out of the easy habit of belief.

Primary Influences

Reading and writing are inextricably linked, but it’s a lopsided relationship.  One can be a voracious reader without ever feeling the need to write, but being a writer by necessity demands voracious reading.  There are some who seem to believe they can write without having to read extensively (or at all!) but I imagine this is a self-correcting delusion.  It may be a more obvious problem in this age of self-publishing ease, when one’s shortcomings can make unfortunate and sometimes wide spread public displays, but the simple absence of any kind of artistic æsthetic on which to base the work is fatal to the endeavor.

Besides, what would be the point other than a profound narcissism.  Part of the fantasy of “being a writer” is to join a fraternity whose past membership has provided the delight you hope to offer, a delight you have presumably found in reading.

I imagine that for some writers, the desire grows gradually, a cumulative response emerging after many books.  Specific texts are less important than the experience itself.  For others, there’s a turning point, a moment when the reading experience in a given work sparks the “I want to do this!” response that grows, if nurtured, into a lifelong obsession.

I can pinpoint my own turning point.

foundation covers

Isaac Asimov’s Foundation and Empire was the book that decided me.  I bought it at the corner drug store in 1968.  Mr. Leukens had a spinner rack from which I’d been obtaining paperbacks for almost a year by then.  I can say quite honestly and without embarrassment that it was the cover that caught my attention.  That Don Punchatz rendering radiated “significance” in a way other covers failed to achieve.

I’d been reading science fiction in one form or another for as long as I could remember.  Comic books, mostly, but once I’d obtained my library card, the occasional SF novel came home with me.  A lot of them seemed…well, stodgy compared to the movies.  I admit to being disappointed with science fiction that was set in more or less the present day.  I was a kid, after all, I was after the gosh wow! more than the cerebral pleasures that are the chief attribute of the form, at least in those days.  I wanted Forbidden Planet and John Carter not stuff stuck on Earth.

Asimov I knew from another novel, Pebble In The Sky, which I had read earlier in the year.  I still wasn’t connecting authors with preferred experiences, at least not as a guide to find more of the same.  Partly this was because I had no reliable way of getting more by a given author.  Leukens Pharmacy was my primary source and the fact is he had no control over what ended up in that spinner rack.  It was hit or miss.

That month, the only one of the trilogy available was the second volume.  (I didn’t even know what “trilogies” were yet.)

Gradually, I came to regard Avon as the imprint that provided me with the kind of material I most wanted.  Along with the Foundation books, I got a lot of Robert Silverberg, B.N. Ball, James Blish, and later they published the Science Fiction Hall of Fame collections.  Their books had a particular “feel” and quality that seemed lacking (or at least different) from other imprints.  (So in a peculiar way I was initially more aware of publishers and editors than authors.)

Asimov sold the first Foundation story to John W. Campbell in 1941 and went on to write all the stories that comprised these three books by the early 1950s.  I read them out of order.  The middle book first, then the first one, finally, after months of searching, the last one.  The covers above are from a slightly later edition, but basically the same ones I eagerly sought and devoured.

They were everything, at the time, that I wanted from science fiction.

But what was that?

I was 13, almost 14.  My reading had been chaotic though wide and I had a smattering of history (not nearly enough to form any cogent opinions of events) and I had the sense that a lot of fiction, especially in the movies, was disconnected from all that went before whenever the events of the story took place.  Right off the bat, Asimov offered a simple, elegant way to imply a concrete history by the epigrams of his fictional Encyclopedia Galactica (an obvious but nevertheless effective play on Encyclopedia Britanica and American).  That “scholarship” existed on which the chronicler of these wholly fictional and fantastic events could draw provided a basis of  “authenticity” that completely sucked this reader in.

What followed was a self-consciously analytical treatment on the way history might work.  The premise is Cartesian—if one knows enough about enough, then one can make reliable predictions.  The sheer control offered by Seldon was profoundly seductive.

And then, of course, there was the Empire, spanning the entire galaxy, thousands of worlds, a massive civilization bound together by hyperdrive and the Imperial center on Trantor.  Trantor itself was such a startling idea, an entire planet completely covered by a single city.

Gaal Dornick’s arrival on Trantor, on later reflection, was the arrival of any young man from a more rural part of America to New York via Grand Central Station, and the awe of such a massive construct.  (Samuel R. Delany rather elegantly recapitulated this in the opening scenes of his Atlantis: Three Tales with the actual New York.)  In a way, Dornick’s reaction is very like the reaction of a new reader who suddenly “gets” it.

Considerations of cost and the unlikelihood of achieving any fraction of the kind of homogeneity, political or otherwise, never entered into it.  Asimov had loosely based his Galactic Empire on the Roman Empire and that itself was a highly improbable collection of provinces under a single banner.  If you could accept the one (which had actually existed) you could accept the other, especially since as the story opens the Empire is beginning to crumble.  By this device, Asimov acknowledged the latent impossibility of a “galactic empire” by letting us watch its demise from sheer social and political entropy.

New things are born from the ruins of the old, and the rest of the series is about these new things.  What I found so appealing was the inherent historicity of the Foundation stories.

Of course, the idea of mathematically predicting future events with the kind of precision suggested in these stories is fantastic at best.  The notion behind it is not fanciful, there is something to the dynamics of large groups in motion that lends itself to patterning.  Asimov simply worked a variation on actuarial math and raised to dizzying heights.  It is a criticism of which he was well aware, one I already agreed with since I’d begun with the middle volume—the one in which The Mule appears to completely overturn everything Seldon had constructed.  The fey element, the unpredictable, the unaccountable.  Asimov subverted his own premise.

But that opened the narrative up to a more sinister thread, one which has also been geared into history: the secret society, the hidden group which from time to time people believe to be the real rulers.  In this, Asimov was still playing with the plausibilities of accepted historical narrative.

It was easy then to accept that Asimov was writing about the collapse of the Roman Empire—and the perfectly agreeable desire to shorten the inevitable “dark age” following the fall of such a huge and apparently monolithic construct.  But as one grows older and continues the kind of necessarily broad and voracious reading essential to being a writer of any worth, such simple comparisons erode.  The falls of empires probably always follow certain patterns, but in the details they differ.  I now suspect Asimov, if he was being intentional in his subtexts at all, was writing about the vanity of empire rather than of any particular one, and the costs of such things to those who become dependent.  Asimov was a refugee, born in Russia.  Perhaps too young to remember anything of his early childhood there, no doubt he heard the stories, and of course there was World War One, the first death blow of a European Order that went back a millennia at least.  By the time Hitler was trying to establish a new Roman Empire (at least in terms of territory if not intent), it was obvious that the old regimes were done for, and the future was about to be in the hands of the bureaucrats, apparatchits, and opportunists in a way never before seen.  In such a world, the idea of preservation itself might be seen as the only worthwhile enterprise—the preservation of knowledge, which would make Seldon’s Encyclopedists the first moral actors in a post Imperial age.

I think Asimov was writing about the world he lived in rather than either the Roman Empire (or Republic) or the Galactic Empire.  Naturally, insofar as science fiction is always really about the present, viewed through the distorting lens of a future tense.  But more than that, because he was establishing priorities.  Empires rise and fall—the Foundation itself becomes an empire (much as America did after WWII, if not in fact at least in influence) and all empires become pieces on a larger chess board in a game played by those behind the scenes—but what matters is the continuity of knowledge and access to it for all those people who must survive the changes in political fashion.

I couldn’t possibly have recognized all this when I first read these books.  Some of my peers, and certainly many of the adults around me then, dismissed them as they did all SF as “mere” entertainment, idle speculation, and, at worst, a waste of time.  But for me, what may or may not have been latent in the text was sufficiently present to inspire.  The seriousness with which Asimov approached his subject was very different in tone and effect from, say, Doc Smith.  Insofar as I have ever been scholarly, the Foundation series spoke to me on that level, and triggered the response that led me to start writing my own stories.

It’s telling that in Asimov’s autobiography, In Memory Still Green, he claims that he had no idea what he intended to do after writing and selling that first Foundation story.  But he had put a hook at the end of it which demanded a second story, thinking himself clever that he had in some way trapped Campbell into having to buy the sequel in order to answer the question, without quite realizing that he then had to deliver.  He goes on to claim that he never could work from an outline, not then and not later.  Maybe not on paper, but there was an outline in his head somewhere that provided a reliable template.

Of all the SF I read back then, I find few I can reread with any pleasure.  This is one of them.  It still enthralls me.  I can still see the vast deeps between the stars and the terrible force of history unfolding and enfolding across time the matrices in which we nevertheless decide for ourselves what we want and struggle to accomplish.

That, at least, is my story.


Me-Colored EyeHow many books do you read at the same time?

Once in a while, a book so grabs me that I can’t read anything else till I’ve finished it.  (Also, once in a while, I have to read a book that is by its nature a struggle and if I read anything else during the effort I’ll never get through it.)

There are days I miss the ability to do multiple things at once—read, listen to the radio, watch television, carry on a conversation.  I think we all remember a time when we could do this, but I also wonder if we remember how much we actually got out of it.  I know that if there are voices around me now, spoken or sung, reading is impossible.  I write to music—instrumental music—but that’s the limit of my cross-discipline multitasking.  (I’m writing this to Glen Gould’s performance of Beethoven’s 1st Piano Concerto.  I find myself recognizing passages during the pauses between thoughts, but the rest just flows by, creating a kind of aural creative cushion, a continuity that fills in the gaps left by interrupted imagination.)  I rarely read to music.

But I do generally have three or four books going at the same time.

Right now I’m reading David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas and at the same time working my way through Oliver Sacks’ Musicophilia.  (Does that count as a kind of musical background?  Nah!)  In between, I’ve been reading short stories in current issues of Asimovs SF  and I’m about to start research into Madame de Stäel for the next book in the trilogy I’ve been working on.

The trick is to mix them up.  I almost never read two novels simultaneously.  History and a novel, essay collections and a novel, science, politics, etc.  From time to time they color each other, to interesting (but I’m not sure to superior) effect.  I recall once reading Michael Moorcock’s marvelous The War Hound and the World’s Pain and C. V. Wedgewood’s history of the Thirty Years War more or less at the same time.  Whatever else I might have been reading got overwhelmed by the totality of those two books.  Sort of like reading Norman Mailer’s first novel, The Naked and the Dead and a biography of Admiral Halsey together, or just a good history of World War II in the Pacific.

While we read with our entire brain (especially fiction, in which the internal creation of images is strongest), it seems we can compartmentalize detail.  I wonder sometimes if when I put down one text and pick up another, what I’m doing is giving my subconscious an opportunity to process the first text.  It feels curiously relaxing sometimes to go from one to another, like changing up an exercise routine.

I am a slow reader.  I read roughly 80 books a year, cover to cover (probably if I added in the total page count of articles, short stories, partial reads, and such it might get closer to 120, but nevertheless) and it can sometimes take me a seemingly inordinate length of time to get through a book.  (Having done two works now with a reading group—Ulysses and Dante’s Commedia—the upper range now stands at seven years to get through a text.)  Many factors are involved, the chief being the time to sit down and read.  Life interferes.  Where once it seemed I had a whole day to go through a book, now I read them in 20 minute to 2 hour chunks.  And the depth of the text places its own constraints on how quickly it will be absorbed.  (I can read a standard murder mystery in a couple of days, but I’m looking at a book on my shelf that I know will take a month at least—Daniel Walker Howe’s What Hath God Wrought, a history of the United States from 1815 to 1848.  The older I get, it seems, the more attention I find I must give to such books.  I zipped through William Shirer’s The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich in high school and did it in less than a week.)  “Processing time” is more necessary, but the urge to keep reading is abated only by picking up a different book for a while.

I have yet to confuse texts.  I always manage to keep whatever I’m reading this way separate.  That might change were I to read similar books simultaneously.  (In fact, I do recall confusing sources during a period of intense research into the Civil War, wherein I switched from one text to another regularly in an attempt to glean a collective comprehension of the period.)

Almost all of my reading, however, is linear (as probably is most people’s).  There are some I’ve known who open books at random and read in the middle, then the beginning, then somewhere else (though not novels, but I wonder how this might work in history?) but not me.  Beginning to end.  Yet I keep them all separate—multi-linearity?—which might seem difficult, since I put one down to pick another up and each return is like starting over.  Yet…

It makes for an interesting, often fascinating journey.  Dancing down the Yellow Brick Road on the way to Versailles at the height of the Sun King’s reign and finding the legation from Vega waiting in the trans-Plutonian consulate fora.  Metternich and Monroe are over there in corner, at the end of the buffet, discussing the Euro with Aragorn while Peregrin and Meriadoc introduce Nero Wolfe to delicacies from Canopus.  There are serious issues under discussion among the gathered dignitaries, not least of which is the true location of the Maltese Falcon and whether or not the heirs to the Dukes of Burgundy have right of return, for which cause Chingachgook represents them to the Culture Minds who may or may not intercede.  The whole arrangement of the imaginative universe could be altered.  Everyone is waiting for arrival of the next book in the series.  in the meantime, we read widely to grasp the multiverse in which existence itself is given meaning…