|"Is this all there is?" So asks a recent New York Times article reporting on spiritual discontent among a new crop of successful and prosperous Americans. As the economy has boomed, they've worshipped the Almighty Self, offering unto it CDs, PCs, and ATVs, and now these egoists are wondering if they've missed something important. Maybe on the way to Bloomingdale's they passed up some deeper transcendent meaning. Maybe at the end of a long day of riding a bull market they've realized that it's not the economy, stupid. Now they're shopping around, the article says, looking for something in the spiritual line.
And the line is crowded. In books, magazines, movies, and television, spirituality is big. But then, occasional spikes of interest in spirituality have always been big in America. Sociologists may be at a loss to explain why they happen as they do, but there is no mystery about why they happen at all. Such numinous blips are a subset of the broader pursuit of meaning, which is endemic among creatures that have evolved to the level of personhood. In fact, it can be plausibly argued that meaning is the energy that helped spark such evolution. Meaning makes hope possible. It provides a reason for living and, sometimes, a reason for dying. It can power a Great Awakening, an Enlightenment, a theory of relativity, a Koran, and a Leaves of Grass.
It can also run a nation. In the new book The Real American Dream, Andrew Delbanco takes a look at the major sources of meaning that have driven Americans and engendered hope. He maintains that meaning-what he calls a "sustaining narrative"-is necessary to keep at bay "the lurking suspicion that all our getting and spending amounts to nothing more than fidgeting while we wait for death."
He identifies three such narratives: Self, God, and Nation. Self is the narcissist's quest for personal gratification, now widespread in the land and, Delbanco believes, ultimately empty. Its symbols are corporate logos, and its eventual result is a pervasive sadness. God, Delbanco says, is the Christian narrative of our early history, when religion suffused so much of life, both public and private, providing a framework upon which to hang the joys and terrors of a strange land. Nation is the secular notion of the "state as the source of justice, mercy, and hope." God is replaced by the idea of "citizenship in a sacred union." This narrative has its roots in Enlightenment rationality, was nurtured by Lincoln and Whitman, and-according to Delbanco-ran out of steam in the 1960s. Delbanco believes that all of these sources of meaning have lost their power to generate hope. He hints at a possible replacement for them but never quite delivers.
But he does offer another reminder that hope runs deep and moves us far-and that we should be careful when we handle such a valuable commodity. So why is it that in Delbanco's treatise-and in most current discussions of meaning and hope-the two most fundamental questions are seldom seriously considered? The cheeky, profane, politically incorrect queries are: Is this alleged source of meaning real? and Are the premises of this narrative true?
Shopping for Hope
Rational queries like these are resisted or ignored everywhere. Inquiring whether someone's deepest hopes (especially those laced with spirituality) are based on falsehood or fantasy is no way to make friends. People tend to react with dismay or astonishment, as though you had asked them to justify a good mood that has come over them. Imagine! Asking if someone's theological, spiritual, or philosophical premises are justified! When it comes to the most important issues of our lives, "Don't ask, don't tell" is standard policy.
The supposed pointlessness of breaking this taboo follows from various epistemological views-that is, from notions about the nature of knowledge. One is relativism, the idea that truth is relative to individuals or cultures, so that a belief is true if an individual or culture says it's true. It's therefore silly to ask whether any worldview is objectively true because there is no objective truth.
All of this is quite inviting except that no one can make something true just by believing it to be true. In addition, the relativist view leads to many absurdities-for example, if relativism were true, every individual or culture would be infallible, and disagreement among them would be virtually impossible.
Faith-or, belief without evidence-also forestalls any serious questions about meaning in life. It's thought that, because faith is an alternative way of knowing (alternative to reason and commonsense, the modes known to be generally reliable), no one can question its conclusions on rational grounds. You either believe or you do not. Rational resistance is futile-and so are doubts about the worldview that faith endorses. But as with relativism, believing doesn't make it so. Knowledge is more than belief-even more than true belief. (A lucky guess is true belief, but few would think that it constitutes an instance of knowledge.) Knowledge requires that there also be some indication-justification, good reasons-that a belief is true. Faith can give rise to grand doctrines, high cathedrals, lucky guesses, and warm feelings in hard times-but not knowledge. To believe otherwise is to have a very odd conception of what knowledge is. Faith's notorious disengagement from justification, perhaps more than any other, helps explain the incredible multiplicity of religious belief.
Then there's the comfort factor, which may be better than anything else at squelching important questions about meaning and hope. In the anxious hours of night, in the awful moments before terrible news comes, a hoary myth gives you comfort and hope-and so you believe, or try to believe, clinging to the principle that New Age gurus make explicit: "If it feels good, it must be true." Thus the comfort factor can be more persuasive than a stack of reasons.
In his recent New Yorker article, "The Future of Faith," John Updike raises this issue in a particularly poignant way. He acknowledges the irrationality of religion, muses on how Christianity, like the universe itself, is "winding down, growing thinner and thinner," and calls the world's faiths "tired, grotesque, irreplaceable." He wonders how anyone not born into Christianity could ever take it seriously. Yet he clings to the dusty rituals of his Protestant youth and draws on a tenuous faith to counter bouts of existential dread. His implication is that faith is credentialed by the protection it offers from the common mortal terrors that lurk just out of sight.
I can imagine half the world shouting, "Why not?" Why shouldn't we reach for comfort-even the comfort of a chimera-to give life some meaning and steel us against black thoughts of mortality and emptiness?
It's difficult to see how you could derive comfort from a belief you know to be false. But let's say that you do believe, without good reason, that some proposition is true, and you're soothed by that belief. In fact, you're willing to live your whole life guided in part by this inspiring proposition. What's wrong with that? Well, nothing-if you don't mind diminishing one of the things that helps make you a person. A person is someone with full moral rights and the capacity to make free, rational choices. That is, persons can know things and choose which of them is really important in life. But when persons undermine this power-by believing without good reason-they diminish an essential property of personhood. They may be more comfortable-but are somehow smaller.
Philosopher Robert Nozick illustrated this point once in a thought experiment. Imagine that you're hooked to a machine that supplies you with ready-made sensory experiences. You think and feel that you're writing a novel, making a friend, and doing a thousand other pleasant things. But you're actually just floating in a tank while the machine does its work. You are happy, blissful, believing that you are directing your own life and choosing freely all the time. So you stay hooked up for life.
Does anyone really think that such a life would not be diminished? That it would be meaningful? Being in the tank is not utopia. It's hell. Nozick's little story shows that being happy is not enough. Fantasy is not enough. Being hermetically sealed from woe is not enough. Being a person and living a meaningful life means making real choices. While in the tank you can't make any real choices because you're disengaged from reality. You're not an authentic person; you're a replica of a person. If somehow you came to realize the full implications of your situation, I think that you would rise out of the tank, unplug the electrodes, and walk off to meet the real world-and encounter its real pain, real darkness, and real meaning. And never look back. Fantasy can be a wonderful thing, except when it's mistaken for reality.
Can a realist/rationalist do any better at finding meaning in the real world? Yes, but not by looking to the narrative of Self. On empirical grounds alone it seems not to be very sustaining at all, at least not long-term. But it must be rejected on even stronger grounds. It's not true. It reduces to moral egoism, which flies in the face of our considered moral judgments. Philosophers shot this horse a long time ago.
The God narrative also fails. I can find no indication that it is anything but an attractive detour. The notorious failure of all arguments for this narrative renders this hope hopeless. Worse, the problem of evil is more than just an irritant to theists who must apologize for God's behavior-it has evolved into a well-honed argument against any traditional God narrative. It is an excellent indication that the God narrative is not actual.
Matthew Arnold noted forlornly that "the sea of Faith" had receded, and the wisdom of men had dissolved. He was left to find meaning in another's heart, the last remaining enclave of hope. Arnold was right about faith but was too pessimistic about its replacement.
There is, for example, the narrative of Nation. It's based on the central concerns of morality-justice and rights, ideals that are bigger than the egoistic self. To not be concerned about rights and justice is to be in conflict with our considered moral judgments. Because the search for these is part of moral life, they are at least plausible candidates for sources of meaning and hope. They offer positive possibilities that have sustained some of the finest minds and hearts in history. The fight for justice and universal rights has been the most powerful sustaining force in the lives of our greatest heroes.
But these ideals are only some of many that have always sustained creatures in need of hope. There is also the search for knowledge, which has enthralled and energized the likes of Aristotle and Darwin and Curie and Einstein and Russell (who characterized his search for knowledge as a never-ending spiritual quest). To paraphrase Carl Sagan, there are plenty of wonders in the universe that will knock your socks off without having to invent them. Some people say that their soul's thirst cannot be slaked by anything as arid as science. I believe them. And I believe those who say that chasing the Holy Grail of knowledge quenches their thirst just fine.
All of the best narratives transcend the individual, being larger than life and death. When these looming dreams become powerful, when they inspire us with their magnitude and glory, they pull us into the realm of the spiritual. And, best of all, they are real. Many believe that the only satisfying narratives are those that cannot be rationally supported. I cannot help thinking that this view often derives from a simple failure of imagination.
In short, there is no news here. The real dreams have not changed. Most of us would still give our lives and our fortunes in pursuit of some hallowed cause of justice, rights, knowledge, love, or beauty.
So let's ask the impertinent questions, and if they lead to further questions about how to judge the answers, so be it. It would be wonderfully shocking to pick up the New York Times and read that Americans are debating the epistemological worth of faith, relativism, subjectivism, and science. Such debates could easily ascend into serious explorations of the real and the true. If this unlikely event were to happen, I would hope that people would conclude, as Socrates might have, that the unreal life is not worth living.
Lewis Vaughn is the Editor of Free Inquiry.