Last Friday I had an idle chat with a middle-aged Chinese lady (not Mrs. Derbyshire). I mentioned that the following day, July 20th, would be the 40th anniversary of the death of movie and martial-arts star Bruce Lee. Lee had died suddenly from some variety of what medical professionals call a “brain event.” That is not unusual, even among healthy young people—Lee was 32—but the contributing cause(s) can be hard to pin down, so there was much speculation and controversy at the time.
The Chinese lady had it figured out. “He was poisoned! Important people in the Chinese government were angry with him. They thought he was giving away the secrets of our martial arts. That’s why they had him killed.”
Uh-huh. I get this all the time—I mean, I hear things at this level of preposterousness. We all do. People believe the darnedest things.
This now vexes me much less than it used to. Looking back in my archives, I see that only eight years ago I was railing against intelligent design. Remember intelligent design? What happened to it? No doubt lots of people still believe in it, but I think the Kitzmiller decision in December 2005 killed it off as a topic of public controversy. Be that as it may, if it were to pop up again as something over which opinionators were expected to have opinions, I don’t think I could be bothered.
Probably this is merely a function of getting older and happier. We are happiest at 23 and 69, according to a recent news story. I can’t remember much about 23, but I’ll be 69 next year and, yes, life is good—a whole lot better after you’ve survived a couple of bouts with the big C. You want to believe nutty things? Be my guest. Have a blast. I’m going to sit out on the deck with a cold Newkie Brown.
What causes a belief in nutty things, though? Intelligence? There’s some sort of connection there, but it’s not a straightforward one. The Chinese lady is about average IQ for her race, I’d judge; which means a tad above the average for my race. Sir Isaac Newton’s IQ must have been off the charts, yet he was an enthusiastic seeker of hidden prophesies coded in the Bible. Being stupid surely makes it easier to believe nutty things, but being smart is no inoculation.
Race has something to do with it. A lifetime of mixing with East Asians has left me with the impression that the level of nuttiness there is somewhat higher than it is among Europeans. I don’t have much direct experience with blacks, but people who do tell me that high proportions of them believe in something crazy: AIDS is a CIA plot, a mad scientist named Yakub created the white race, O. J. Simpson didn’t kill his wife, etc.
Oh, and all those blacks being murdered in Chicago? Illinois State Rep. Monique Davis says it’s the cops:
There’s some suspicion—and I don’t want to spread this, but I’m just going to tell you what I’ve been hearing—they suspect maybe the police are killing some of these kids.
At the highest level, beliefs shade off into religions, which seem to be a good thing social-capital-wise, even when nutty. Mormonism, for example, looks nutty to well-nigh all non-Mormons—and recently, according to The New York Times, to a growing number of Mormons, too—yet Mormons are exceptionally well-socialized and pleasant.
Above the things we believe is an attitude, a general approach to belief. My own is empirical and skeptical. I like to see plain evidence for a thing; that’s the empirical. If evidence is not forthcoming, I’m unwilling to invest cognitive resources in something. I wouldn’t be dogmatic about its impossibility—that’s the skeptical—and I might go through the motions of belief for social or emotional reasons. I could be a churchgoer—darn it, I have been—but I could never be a student of theology.
Experience has taught me that this is an unusual and unpopular cast of mind. Fideistic and dogmatic is the norm. Empirical and dogmatic sells plenty of books. Fideistic and skeptical is too unusual even to be unpopular.
The philosopher Thomas Nagel (whose 114-page introduction to philosophy is an ideal gift for a curious high-schooler) coined the phrase “the view from nowhere” for the objective way of looking at our own mental events. We should strive, says Nagel, to see our beliefs not as cosmic truths but just as things that some person believes.
I agree with that and the general outlook it implies. Apart from anything else, it’s the foundation of good literature. I remember my delight as a young teen on reading the concluding paragraph of Vanity Fair:
Ah! Vanitas Vanitatum! which of us is happy in this world? Which of us has his desire? or, having it, is satisfied?—come, children, let us shut up the box and the puppets, for our play is played out.
All those real-as-life characters, with all their vivid thoughts, feelings, and beliefs—the guy just made them all up! Now they go back in the box, like toys.
Thus primed by a view-from-nowhere novelist, I was ready to encounter, soon afterwards, a poet applying Thackeray’s image to actual people:
’Tis all a Chequer-board of Nights and Days
Where Destiny with Men for Pieces plays:
Hither and thither moves, and mates, and slays,
And one by one back in the Closet lays.
A memorable image from this past week was a photograph of our planet from the neighborhood of Saturn, taken by the Cassini spacecraft. It was a view from somewhere, I guess, yet it was somehow encouraging to those of us who like the view from nowhere.
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