Choosing to Know

The fact that nearly half of all Americans reject evolution is depressing enough, but the opinions of college graduates may cause despair. One in three holders of bachelor’s and postgraduate degrees deny that “Darwin’s theory of evolution [is] proved by fossil evidence.” Even more dismal, only about one-third of U.S. college graduates and postgraduates admit to a “belief in evolution”—while about sixty percent accept Creationism or its Trojan Horse, Intelligent Design.[1] In over thirty countries, including every other advanced society, a higher percentage of the general population accepts evolution: in pious Ireland, for example, the number accepting evolution is sixty percent higher than in the U.S.! Americans are just as likely to choose to believe in ghosts and UFOs as Creationism, and only somewhat less likely to believe in witches and astrology.[2] Three-quarters of Americans admit to at least one “weird belief,” to use Michael Shermer’s apt phrase, including clairvoyance (26%), ESP (41%), telepathy (31%), and communication with the dead (21%).[3]

Was the Enlightenment overly optimistic to express confidence in ordinary people’s ability to make sense of their lives and the world? This was once, after all, a radical claim about human capacities. Immanuel Kant proclaimed: “Dare to know! ‘Have courage to use your own understanding!’—that is the motto of enlightenment.”[4] It has become a civilizational social, political, and intellectual starting point to affirm the general human capacity to develop reason, answer life’s essential questions, live according to one’s own lights, and become full and active citizens. One shining example is the first article of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which says: “[A]ll human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience.”

If this is true, why is our society awash in weird beliefs, which people embrace despite an absence of scientific support and against logic and evidence? Why did 30% of Americans continue to link Saddam Hussein with 9/11 long after this had been disproved and disavowed? Our seemingly ineradicable gullibility before half-truths, official lies, and media manipulation is truly remarkable in a society so based on education, science, technology, and information—so dependent on the intellect and demanding that we be rational at every turn. How is it possible that today has become in Susan Jacoby’s words, the “age of American unreason”—a time characterized by growing hostility to science, intelligence, and rationality?[5] As Jacoby points out, we can not reassure ourselves by pretending that those who reject science and rationality are holders of recently eclipsed beliefs living earlier lives in rural backwaters—they are modern people rejecting modernity, and using its chosen tools to get out their message. These realities would make the Enlightenment weep.

There are two ways to approach this problem. One is to focus on the conditions that make for the “intertwined ignorance, anti-rationalism, and anti-intellectualism” of today’s America. Jacoby does this by exploring the deleterious effect of television, the internet, and popular culture, the dumbing-down of politics and education, and perhaps above all the rise of religious fundamentalism.[6] These shape the environment for all of us today. But people are not simply the products of the environment. They choose, create their own behaviors, and have good reasons for doing as they do. “The problem is,” says literary critic Laura Miller, “when push comes to shove, we don’t always feel like facing reality.” As she argues insightfully in a review of The Age of American Unreason, we must also focus on people’s motivation for choosing to not be rational, to believe weird things—to be ignorant.[7]

“Choose,” Embrace,” “accept,” and “deny,” are all crucial starting points of this discussion. To choose to know is to encounter the world in a specific way. It is a way of acting. It is to decide to reveal an aspect of the world, or to let it be revealed, or to accept what others with appropriate credentials, arguments, and evidence have revealed about it. Jean-Paul Sartre, in a little-known posthumously published book, Truth and Existence, stressed the connection between the two meanings of the French ignorer: to not know, and to ignore. In English we preserve this link in the shift from ignore: not paying attention to ignorant: the condition of not knowing. Creationists ignore, turn away from, refuse to acknowledge, what is there and waiting to be seen, and for which there is ample evidence: modern science’s complex but compelling understanding of how the earth, plants, and animals came into existence. To choose not to know that humans have evolved over millions of years is to ignore what we have collectively learned is so.

To choose not to know is an act of bad faith: we seek to deny what we in some sense already know is there, and we degrade ourselves by willfully suppressing our awareness of it. We do so because we don’t want the situation we ignore to be the way it is. Through imprisoning ourselves in ignorance we seek a kind of fantasy makeover of the world to fit our desires, crippling our understanding rather than adapting ourselves to the world by knowing it as it is and acting accordingly. We deny what may be troubling or disheartening, threatening or terrifying.[8]

There are many reasons why someone would choose to ignore evolution, or turn away from it, or deny it. Whether or not people are motivated to accept or reject it is, of course, often conditioned by forces well beyond their immediate control—being raised in a subculture that believes in absolute knowledge based on faith and authority, being trained in the schizophrenic attitude of rejecting science while living by its fruits, schooling in Biblical interpretation that insists on accepting the literal truth of chosen passages of the Bible, obedience to parents and Fundamentalist religious authorities who anathematize evolution, being part of a community that stipulates belief in Creationism as a requirement of belonging. Most churchgoing African Americans are Creationists, for example, because accepting evolution entails going against the primacy their pastors accord to a literal reading of the first book of Genesis. Whatever the motivation, embracing Creationism is a refusal to undertake the hard and threatening work of reconciling one’s faith with the realities of life.

Creationism is only one way people choose not to know today. Another appears again and again throughout American culture: the maxim, “Everything happens for a reason.” In addition to the conditions described by Jacoby, this form of bad faith is motivated by people’s weak preparation for coping with the enormous and rapidly increasing amount of essential knowledge explaining an increasingly complex world. A single day in any life today demands that we learn constantly about both the basics and the latest knowledge concerning health, politics, household management, and many other broad areas. It requires plowing through enormous quantities of information and imposes constant decisions about what is relevant and what is not; when one has learned enough about a topic; how to integrate new information into what one already knows; and how to apply it.[9] We must become active, intentional, and adaptive learners of new ideas and information rather than passive absorbers of a relatively stable body of knowledge. It is up to us to make sense of it all, constantly synthesizing knowledge drawn from several disciplines.[10] These habits or abilities are always mentioned among the key aims of contemporary liberal education.[11]

The problem is that the American education system does not achieve this. How often do students go beyond the passive learning of absorbing and trying to remember what they are reading and hearing—to active learning in which they gain experience in questioning, validating, and applying it? The little objective evidence that has been gathered indicates that only only 6% are “proficient” and 77% “not proficient” in critical thinking, which is, after all, not a “subject,” but a set of attitudes and abilities learned throughout one’s education—or not.[12] It is not learned by taking undergraduate survey courses in various disciplines (the distribution or general education requirements) which are, furthermore, kept in separate watertight compartments and not brought or thought together. And it is not learned in undergraduate majors, whose main function is to prepare students to specialize and one of whose main goals is to recruit graduate students. From the research university to the community college, students are rarely encouraged to integrate different disciplines.[13]

Belonging to an impatient culture promising instant answers, often poorly equipped and overwhelmed, most people struggle to piece together their fragments of faith, knowledge, and experience as best they can. Some of the most curious spirits restlessly surf the internet in hot pursuit of questions that their schooling has not helped them even to ask, let alone answer. They often begin by being rightly suspicious of all official stories and seeking more compelling explanations. In the infinite space of the internet, with the whole culture at one’s fingertips, millions of answers cry out. It is the freest of all free markets, yet people are rarely trained to negotiate it.

With immense energy people search their way among gurus, conspiracy theories, spectacular short cuts, easy answers, the latest political scandal, parodies of ancient wisdom, pseudo-scholarship decked out in scientific trappings, real knowledge and thoughtful reflections, newfangled or eclipsed religious and political wisdom, every established and every insurgent point of view, and sheer nonsense—and they are free to consume and reassemble it as they wish.

In this situation and with the tools our culture provides, people produce today’s most common weird belief: “Everything happens for a reason.” This expresses a complex contemporary mood that life is filled with connections beneath the surface; that no-one knows what these are or how they operate; that they can only be thought about in a quasi-religious way. We hear the phrase at every turn in the United States today: spouses telling why they met each other or why they broke up, one baseball player explaining why he didn’t make the team, another explaining why he made the team, anyone reflecting on a coincidence, a student softening the blow of a failing grade, a cancer patient coming to grips with her illness. Good happenings or bad, personal tragedies, disasters, matters of chance, striking coincidences, enormous disappointments, the unexpected—all become rationalized as being part of a larger plan.

At its root, the maxim mixes events that do indeed have comprehensible causes outside of ourselves along with pure accidents, and mixes these up with results that we ourselves produce through our own actions. All become the mush of a totally deterministic universe in which every last thing has a meaningful cause (but no one knows what it is) or is planned by a superhuman mind, presumably directing things for the best (and whose logic is also unknowable). Our dependence on specific structures and forces is erased, with all of its specific detail, supplanted by a vague and unrecognizable force or will. One’s own responsibility for oneself and the world dissolves into this. And those who may be held culpable, individuals and institutions, are spared any reproach for whatever goes wrong. As this low-grade sense of fate or God or whatever percolates below the surface of American life today, many of us who lack a sense of control over our lives fall back on it, as do many traditionally religious people—and so many others.

And it cannot be completely dismissed. “Everything happens for a reason” claims, vaguely, that what we experience, but whose reasons we can’t comprehend, is part of a larger pattern—which is often true. It expresses people’s hunch, often quite wise, that what happens is linked to larger forces and causes than those we have been trained to grasp. And it is often a wish to see justice done, even if only ultimately, and a hope for real meaning where there seems to be sheer randomness.

But it is cast in a way that usually ends discussion rather than beginning it. A healthy sense of linkages, larger purposes, and logics and forces beyond our control might lead people to environmental, epidemiological, sociological, political, economic, and historical study, and yield important but troubling insight. Is it any surprise that people are motivated instead to avoid making this vague intuition concrete, and instead continue recirculating empty profundities?

Creationism and “Everything happens for a reason” are not the only ways people embrace ignorance today. The opposite choice, to know, to reveal, to use one’s reason, depends on an increasingly rare understanding that it is possible to know. This means overcoming the widespread postmodern skepticism toward objective knowledge, as well as the puzzling and even more widespread ignorance about how much we humans already do know. Being able to do the first depends on understanding what objective knowledge really is. Knowing is a matter of humility. It entails allowing oneself to enter into discussion, to submit what one says to the judgement of others, to be proven wrong by them, to be seen as fallible, and thus to realize that any particular piece of knowledge is always tentative, always subject to revision, always demanding verification. This in turn implies a commitment to a communicative process in which we are always in dialogue with others, and in which they are always looking over our shoulders and commenting on what we claim to be true.

Truth is never absolute, but is objective. It is never raised above humans, but always takes place with, for, and about others. It emerges in “communicative action” and follows rules, which themselves are always up for discussion.[14] This is even, or especially, so of science. Its knowledge is self-consciously provisional, can be challenged and even overturned—which makes it dramatically different than the supposed “absolute knowledge” conferred by religious faith.

Truth, then, can never be the realm of the dogmatic, inflexible demand and the obedient, submissive response. Nor is it the postmodern space occupied by a near-infinity of individual and group points of view. Its spirit is not best imbibed passively, by rote, or by accepting that everyone’s claim to truth is as valid as everyone else’s. It is generated actively, among people, questioningly, challengingly. To choose to learn today is to accept living within this process, to embrace being part of the widest possible human community.

What, then, can we know today? When I started thinking about this essay, I asked friends and acquaintances what they thought were life’s most important unanswered questions. The responses were fascinating: How can the world become a better place? After death, will you meet the people from your life who have died? Would I be different if I were born on a different day? What causes envy? Is there life after death? Why in every society are men more violent than women? What is it that makes me myself from one moment to the next? Is paranormal experience possible? Is truly altruistic behavior possible? What is beauty? What causes cancer? What is/ where is/ who is God? Where will I be after death? How do you know if you’ve chosen the best path for your life? Are we reborn in different forms? Is there a soul that exists separately from the body?

After a short while, I realized what was wrong with my original question. It encouraged among my friends the sense that life’s most important questions were in fact unanswerable. I myself had been unconsciously participating in one of our culture’s great weird beliefs, thoughtlessly pointing people toward life’s great mysteries rather than the great human achievements in making sense of our world.

I realized my mistake while watching a PBS program on the human heart that focused on what was learned by the Framingham Study of Risk Factors in Heart Disease. Its first published results, in 1961, revolutionized how we think about heart attacks by confirming the decisive effect of smoking, diet, and lack of exercise.[15] We now know all this! We know dozens, hundreds, thousands of things that are vital for human understanding and well-being—have verified, confirmed, and implemented them. In this, the twenty-first century, so much that was once cloaked in darkness is known, and so much that is really essential to our lives is knowable. We sell ourselves short to pretend otherwise. We have developed methods of analysis, synthesis, and reasoning that can be taught and learned. All of this is now part of what John Dewey called the “social consciousness of the race” and it belongs to all of us. It is waiting to be claimed and used.

As a result, either at present or in the foreseeable future, we can know when the earth came into being and how. Why black Americans are poorer than white Americans. How human freedom evolved. How life began. Why cities like Detroit, Manchester, Liverpool, Leipzig, Halle, and Ivanovno have been shrinking for a generation. What people need to have the chance to live better lives. Why Creationism flourishes in the United States. How the human brain operates. Why Americans are more religious than people in every other advanced society. How many people the earth can support at an adequate level of subsistence. Why the Holocaust happened. Why Pizarro conquered the Incas and not the Incas Spain. Why Americans are less tall than members of other advanced societies. Why the British were able to dominate massive areas of Africa. Why so much of Africa remains poor today. Why the U. S. murder rate is higher than any other advanced society. Why Honduras and South Africa have the highest murder rates in the world. Why Greenland and the polar ice caps are melting. Why university costs rise faster than the rate of inflation. How the incredible diversity of plants and animals has evolved from single-celled beings over the last 3.6 billion years. Why Israel is reluctant to make peace with the Palestinians. Why Palestinians are reluctant to make peace with Israel.

We can answer most of these already, and none of the remainder will remain shrouded in mystery forever, or even for very long. Each reader will be able to make a similarly impressive list of life’s answerable questions. This is the important list. It tells us where we are. It is the one we can use to live our lives and make sense of our world. It is the one from which we can take bearings. It provides what we need to create a decent life—if we choose to know.


1. “Belief”?—even the designer of the survey fails to understand this difference between science and faith, that the evidence of the first compels assent, not belief.

2. According to Harris Interactive Nov 30, 2007.

3. Shermer has made a career of doing battle with anti-rational and anti-scientific currents—on talk shows, in debates, as editor of Skeptic magazine. See Why People Believe Weird Things (New York, 1997), 24-43.

4. Immanuel Kant, “An Answer to the Question: What is Enlightenment?”

5. Susan Jacoby, The Age of American Unreason (New York, 2008).

6. Jacoby, xx.

7. Laura Miller, “America Closes the Book on Intelligence,” February 15, 2008.

8. Ronald Aronson, “Introduction: The Ethics of Truth,” Jean-Paul Sartre, Truth and Existence (Chicago, 1992).

9. Traditional education in societies’ stable traditional knowledges used to form an essential aspect of human life, in all cultures and for nearly all of history. Most of what one needed to know was passed on directly and experientially, by one’s elders and parents, during the long process of growing up. By watching, by practicing, by listening, by memorizing stories, young persons acquired the necessary skills as well as what Dewey called the “social consciousness of the race”—the society’s historically developed cultural outlook. Dewey, “My Pedagogic Creed”

10. These are connected with the “scholarship of integration,” “scholarship of teaching,” and “scholarship of application” described by Ernest Boyer in Scholarship Reconsidered: Priorities of the Professoriate (Princeton, 1991).

11. They are included in Greater Expectations: A New Vision for Learning as a Nation Goes to College, published by the Association of American Colleges and Universities, an impressive clarion call to transform American higher education.

12. Liberal Education Outcomes: A Preliminary Report on Student Achievement in College (Washington, D. C., 2005), sections 4 and 5.
13. For the most part, active learning takes place during graduate education which, however, is professional training with a greatly narrowed focus. Even so, except for Creationism, here is where the sharpest drop-off in weird beliefs can be seen. Perhaps this is because graduate students become intentional learners by setting their own goals, and because they engage in active research—no longer simply receiving and recalling knowledge, but now applying and creating it. Active researchers who knows what it is to know will have significantly less tolerance for believing in UFOs, witches, astrology, or the devil (although apparently more accept reincarnation!).
14. Jürgen Habermas has written a number of works developing this theme, above all Theory of Communicative Action 2 vols. (Boston, 1982, 1987).
15. Affairs of the Heart, PBS Documentary, #4, “How’s Your Heart?”

Ronald Aronson is, to quote The New Humanist, ‘internationally recognised as the foremost Sartre scholar in the English-speaking world.’ His latest book is Living Without God: New Directions for Atheists, Agnostics, Secularists, and the Undecided, from which this is an extract.

Comments are closed.