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David Foster Wallace
In his Kenyon College commencement speech, David Foster Wallace makes the claim that the "real value of a real education…has almost nothing to do with knowledge" (Wallace, 2008). Instead, Wallace believes that college education is about training the mind to think, giving students "not the capacity to think, but rather the choice of what to think about" -- or, as he phrases it later in the speech, "learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think." He clarifies this by painting a larger picture of how, in his opinion, the mind works. For Wallace, the human mind is "hard-wired" for self-centeredness, and he believes virtuous behavior consists in learning how to override the mind's "default setting" and instead redirect the attention to something else. His examples mostly pertain to things that he believes undergraduates have no experience of, like the tedium and "petty frustration" of waiting in line at a supermarket after having to work long hours: with his experience as a novelist, he paints two hypothetical pictures of such an experience, one in which the mind's default mode of self-centeredness is allowed to view all the other people encountered during this experience of dull frustration with contempt and hostility, and another in which the mind allows itself an imaginative sympathy in which the other people encountered are viewed according to the most generous possible suppositions about their own level of difficulty in life. This ultimately can lead, in his opinion, to a kind of religious acceptance of the transcendent power of tedium and frustration: "it will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, hot, slow, consumer-hell type situation as not only meaningful, but sacred, on fire with the same force that made the stars: love, fellowship, the mystical oneness of all things deep down."
The difficulty with Wallace's view of things here is that he seems to blur the distinction between thought and belief. The first two anecdotes he uses by way of illustration in the speech are, in themselves, a good indication of how this works. The first anecdote -- presented in an appealingly self-effacing fashion, with a full awareness that this is the sort of anecdote that one expects to hear in a commencement speech -- entails two young naive fish, who are swimming along. An older fish asks them "How's the water?" One of the young fish turns to the other and says, "What the hell is water?" This story is meant to illustrate the way in which sometimes the most immediate facts of our environment, or of our psychological make-up, do not even enter our consciousness -- as Wallace phrases it, "the most obvious, important realities are often the ones that are hardest to see and talk about." This is certainly true, and obviously one of the great values of education is the value of training the mind to be critical and to be evaluative. But the next anecdote Wallace offers is slightly different: it involves a committed atheist and a committed religious believer, having a drink together in Alaska. The atheist says to the religious believer that he has actually "experimented with the whole God and prayer thing" -- while lost in a blizzard and certain to freeze to death, he cried out to God for help. The religious believer sees this as the kind of proof that should have converted the atheist to belief. The atheist says that his loud prayer merely attracted the attention of some nearby Eskimos, who showed him the way back to camp. For Wallace, the story is about the way in which the meaning of events is constructed, according to "individual templates and beliefs." But this is already blurring the distinction between thought and belief. In Wallace's first anecdote, the young naive fish have not learned yet to think critically about their environment and what constitutes it. But nobody would say that the atheist and the religious believer in the second anecdote have not learned how to think -- for Wallace, each one has a "different belief template" and "how we construct meaning [is] not actually a matter of personal intentional choice." Yet ultimately Wallace ends up eliding the difference between thought and belief altogether, defining the choice in how to think in terms of a choice in what to believe -- "You get to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn't. You get to decide what to worship." And then at this point, Wallace basically says that everything in some way qualifies as a form of "worship" -- that "there is no such thing as not worshipping" and "the only choice we get is what to worship."
The difficulty here is that Wallace's distinctions between thought and belief do not really seem to hold up to particular scrutiny. He begins by promising us that everything relies on thought, but then he ends up defining pretty much all thought as being dependent on belief. This is useful in certain ways. For example, Wallace's speech dates from 2005 -- the next year, biologist Richard Dawkins wrote a bestselling book entitled The God Delusion. Dawkins' book, which is frequently discussed and debated on college campuses and in online discussions about the value of religion, is probably the best proof imaginable of what Wallace means when he says that "in the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism." Dawkins is also the best possible illustration that I can imagine for Wallace's example of a fish that doesn't know what water is. The God Delusion offers a host of little anecdotes as to why religious belief strikes Dawkins as irrational or delusional, but at the same time it never offers a definition of what religion actually is: it is a social activity, people may choose to bring their children up within a specific religion as a climate of belief from which to begin, and it frequently hopes to spread its message. Dawkins does all of this in his book, and is basically engaged in promoting atheism as a religion, without ever noticing the contradiction in what he is doing. For example, he spends plenty of time excoriating the indoctrination of children, wringing his hands about Muslim fundamentalist madrasas -- then goes on to offer a plug (and a web address) for a profit-making institution called "Camp Quest" which "takes the American institution of the summer camp in an entirely admirable direction" by inviting children to engage in organized group behavior disproving the existence of unicorns (Dawkins 76). It is one thing to prize skepticism above dogmatism, which anyone with an education is likely to do -- but it is another thing to fail to understand that beliefs are forces for social cohesion and organization, and the atheist summer camp is not so different from a madrasa in some ways. This makes all of the individual arguments offered in the book against religious belief difficult to swallow -- instead Richard Dawkins seems to be organizing a new religion, where the chief goal is to make fun of the sincerely-held beliefs of others.
I raise the issue of Richard Dawkins and The God Delusion because they epitomize one subject which seems to get discussed on college campuses a lot. And to a certain extent, this subject pervades David Foster Wallace's graduation speech as well. Wallace offers the anecdote of the atheist arguing with the religious believer, but notes that "we prize tolerance and diversity of belief" and so we do not want to take sides in listening to the anecdote, and to the two different interpretations offered for the same set of evidence. But ultimately there must be some difference between what it means to think and what it means to believe. We tend to have associations that we automatically pin onto these categories -- thinking entails being critical and skeptical, whereas believing entails being passive and overly certain about a specific view of the world (and one which, in the opinion of Richard Dawkins or his undergraduate fan-club, does not have sufficient evidence to back it up). The refreshing thing about David Foster Wallace is that he thinks that "religious dogmatists' problem is exactly the same as the…unbeliever: blind certainty, a close-mindedness that amounts to an imprisonment so total that the prisoner doesn't even know he's locked up." This makes Wallace an excellent antidote to reading Richard Dawkins, who is a perfect example of a fish who doesn't see the water in which he swims, or a prisoner who doesn't comprehend that he's in prison. But anyone who has engaged in an undergraduate discussion about religious belief knows that it does not advance the cause of truth to point out that Richard Dawkins is just a religious writer for an atheistic belief-system. The people who made him a best-seller are not looking to be reminded that social cohesion, especially in the Facebook generation, is a profound force. It is also a way to trivialize selfhood altogether: as Zadie…[continue]
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