Writing biography is a strange thing to do. It's a journey into the foreign territory of somebody else's life, a journey, an exploration that can take you places you never dreamed of going and still can't quite believe you've been, especially if, like me, you're an agnostic Jew and the life you've been exploring is that of Muhammad.
Five years ago, for instance, I found myself waking each morning in misty Seattle to what I knew was an impossible question: What actually happened one desert night, half the world and almost half of history away? What happened, that is, on the night in the year 610 when Muhammad received the first revelation of the Koran on a mountain just outside Mecca? This is the core mystical moment of Islam, and as such, of course, it defies empirical analysis. Yet the question wouldn't let go of me. I was fully aware that for someone as secular as I am, just asking it could be seen as pure chutzpah. (Laughter) And I plead guilty as charged, because all exploration, physical or intellectual, is inevitably in some sense an act of transgression, of crossing boundaries.
Still, some boundaries are larger than others. So a human encountering the divine, as Muslims believe Muhammad did, to the rationalist, this is a matter not of fact but of wishful fiction, and like all of us, I like to think of myself as rational.
Which might be why when I looked at the earliest accounts we have of that night, what struck me even more than what happened was what did not happen. Muhammad did not come floating off the mountain as though walking on air. He did not run down shouting, "Hallelujah!" and "Bless the Lord!" He did not radiate light and joy. There were no choirs of angels, no music of the spheres, no elation, no ecstasy, no golden aura surrounding him, no sense of an absolute, fore-ordained role as the messenger of God. That is, he did none of the things that might make it easy to cry foul, to put down the whole story as a pious fable. Quite the contrary. In his own reported words, he was convinced at first that what had happened couldn't have been real. At best, he thought, it had to have been a hallucination -- a trick of the eye or the ear, perhaps, or his own mind working against him. At worst, possession -- that he'd been seized by an evil jinn, a spirit out to deceive him, even to crush the life out of him. In fact, he was so sure that he could only be majnun, possessed by a jinn, that when he found himself still alive, his first impulse was to finish the job himself, to leap off the highest cliff and escape the terror of what he'd experienced by putting an end to all experience.
So the man who fled down the mountain that night trembled not with joy but with a stark, primordial fear. He was overwhelmed not with conviction, but by doubt. And that panicked disorientation, that sundering of everything familiar, that daunting awareness of something beyond human comprehension, can only be called a terrible awe.
This might be somewhat difficult to grasp now that we use the word "awesome" to describe a new app or a viral video. With the exception perhaps of a massive earthquake, we're protected from real awe. We close the doors and hunker down, convinced that we're in control, or, at least, hoping for control. We do our best to ignore the fact that we don't always have it, and that not everything can be explained. Yet whether you're a rationalist or a mystic, whether you think the words Muhammad heard that night came from inside himself or from outside, what's clear is that he did experience them, and that he did so with a force that would shatter his sense of himself and his world and transform this otherwise modest man into a radical advocate for social and economic justice. Fear was the only sane response, the only human response.
Too human for some, like conservative Muslim theologians who maintain that the account of his wanting to kill himself shouldn't even be mentioned, despite the fact that it's in the earliest Islamic biographies. They insist that he never doubted for even a single moment, let alone despaired. Demanding perfection, they refuse to tolerate human imperfection. Yet what, exactly, is imperfect about doubt? As I read those early accounts, I realized it was precisely Muhammad's doubt that brought him alive for me, that allowed me to begin to see him in full, to accord him the integrity of reality. And the more I thought about it, the more it made sense that he doubted, because doubt is essential to faith.
If this seems a startling idea at first, consider that doubt, as Graham Greene once put it, is the heart of the matter. Abolish all doubt, and what's left is not faith, but absolute, heartless conviction. You're certain that you possess the Truth -- inevitably offered with an implied uppercase T -- and this certainty quickly devolves into dogmatism and righteousness, by which I mean a demonstrative, overweening pride in being so very right, in short, the arrogance of fundamentalism. It has to be one of the multiple ironies of history that a favorite expletive of Muslim fundamentalists is the same one once used by the Christian fundamentalists known as Crusaders: "infidel," from the Latin for "faithless." Doubly ironic, in this case, because their absolutism is in fact the opposite of faith. In effect, they are the infidels. Like fundamentalists of all religious stripes, they have no questions, only answers. They found the perfect antidote to thought and the ideal refuge of the hard demands of real faith. They don't have to struggle for it like Jacob wrestling through the night with the angel, or like Jesus in his 40 days and nights in the wilderness, or like Muhammad, not only that night on the mountain, but throughout his years as a prophet, with the Koran constantly urging him not to despair, and condemning those who most loudly proclaim that they know everything there is to know and that they and they alone are right.
And yet we, the vast and still far too silent majority, have ceded the public arena to this extremist minority. We've allowed Judaism to be claimed by violently messianic West Bank settlers, Christianity by homophobic hypocrites and misogynistic bigots, Islam by suicide bombers. And we've allowed ourselves to be blinded to the fact that no matter whether they claim to be Christians, Jews or Muslims, militant extremists are none of the above. They're a cult all their own, blood brothers steeped in other people's blood.
This isn't faith. It's fanaticism, and we have to stop confusing the two. We have to recognize that real faith has no easy answers. It's difficult and stubborn. It involves an ongoing struggle, a continual questioning of what we think we know, a wrestling with issues and ideas. It goes hand in hand with doubt, in a never-ending conversation with it, and sometimes in conscious defiance of it.
And this conscious defiance is why I, as an agnostic, can still have faith. I have faith, for instance, that peace in the Middle East is possible despite the ever-accumulating mass of evidence to the contrary. I'm not convinced of this. I can hardly say I believe it. I can only have faith in it, commit myself, that is, to the idea of it, and I do this precisely because of the temptation to throw up my hands in resignation and retreat into silence.
Because despair is self-fulfilling. If we call something impossible, we act in such a way that we make it so. And I, for one, refuse to live that way. In fact, most of us do, whether we're atheist or theist or anywhere in between or beyond, for that matter, what drives us is that, despite our doubts and even because of our doubts, we reject the nihilism of despair. We insist on faith in the future and in each other. Call this naive if you like. Call it impossibly idealistic if you must. But one thing is sure: Call it human.
Could Muhammad have so radically changed his world without such faith, without the refusal to cede to the arrogance of closed-minded certainty? I think not. After keeping company with him as a writer for the past five years, I can't see that he'd be anything but utterly outraged at the militant fundamentalists who claim to speak and act in his name in the Middle East and elsewhere today. He'd be appalled at the repression of half the population because of their gender. He'd be torn apart by the bitter divisiveness of sectarianism. He'd call out terrorism for what it is, not only criminal but an obscene travesty of everything he believed in and struggled for. He'd say what the Koran says: Anyone who takes a life takes the life of all humanity. Anyone who saves a life, saves the life of all humanity. And he'd commit himself fully to the hard and thorny process of making peace.
SOURCE: TED TALKS
Lesley Hazleton: The Doubt Essential to Faith
Perspective is everything, especially when it comes to examining your beliefs. Are you a soldier, prone to defending your viewpoint at all costs — or a scout, spurred by curiosity? Julia Galef examines the motivations behind these two mindsets and how they shape the way we interpret information, interweaved with a compelling history lesson from 19th-century France. When your steadfast opinions are tested, Galef asks: "What do you most yearn for? Do you yearn to defend your own beliefs or do you yearn to see the world as clearly as you possibly can?"
So I'd like you to imagine for a moment that you're a soldier in the heat of battle. Maybe you're a Roman foot soldier or a medieval archer or maybe you're a Zulu warrior. Regardless of your time and place, there are some things that are constant. Your adrenaline is elevated, and your actions are stemming from these deeply ingrained reflexes, reflexes rooted in a need to protect yourself and your side and to defeat the enemy.
So now, I'd like you to imagine playing a very different role, that of the scout. The scout's job is not to attack or defend. The scout's job is to understand. The scout is the one going out, mapping the terrain, identifying potential obstacles. And the scout may hope to learn that, say, there's a bridge in a convenient location across a river. But above all, the scout wants to know what's really there, as accurately as possible. And in a real, actual army, both the soldier and the scout are essential. But you can also think of each of these roles as a mindset -- a metaphor for how all of us process information and ideas in our daily lives. What I'm going to argue today is that having good judgment, making accurate predictions, making good decisions, is mostly about which mindset you're in.
To illustrate these mindsets in action, I'm going to take you back to 19th-century France, where this innocuous-looking piece of paper launched one of the biggest political scandals in history. It was discovered in 1894 by officers in the French general staff. It was torn up in a wastepaper basket, but when they pieced it back together, they discovered that someone in their ranks had been selling military secrets to Germany.
So they launched a big investigation, and their suspicions quickly converged on this man, Alfred Dreyfus. He had a sterling record, no past history of wrongdoing, no motive as far as they could tell. But Dreyfus was the only Jewish officer at that rank in the army, and unfortunately at this time, the French Army was highly anti-Semitic. They compared Dreyfus's handwriting to that on the memo and concluded that it was a match, even though outside professional handwriting experts were much less confident in the similarity, but never mind that. They went and searched Dreyfus's apartment, looking for any signs of espionage. They went through his files, and they didn't find anything. This just convinced them more that Dreyfus was not only guilty, but sneaky as well, because clearly he had hidden all of the evidence before they had managed to get to it.
Next, they went and looked through his personal history for any incriminating details. They talked to his teachers, they found that he had studied foreign languages in school, which clearly showed a desire to conspire with foreign governments later in life. His teachers also said that Dreyfus was known for having a good memory, which was highly suspicious, right? You know, because a spy has to remember a lot of things.
So the case went to trial, and Dreyfus was found guilty. Afterwards, they took him out into this public square and ritualistically tore his insignia from his uniform and broke his sword in two. This was called the Degradation of Dreyfus. And they sentenced him to life imprisonment on the aptly named Devil's Island, which is this barren rock off the coast of South America. So there he went, and there he spent his days alone, writing letters and letters to the French government begging them to reopen his case so they could discover his innocence. But for the most part, France considered the matter closed.
One thing that's really interesting to me about the Dreyfus Affair is this question of why the officers were so convinced that Dreyfus was guilty. I mean, you might even assume that they were setting him up, that they were intentionally framing him. But historians don't think that's what happened. As far as we can tell, the officers genuinely believed that the case against Dreyfus was strong. Which makes you wonder: What does it say about the human mind that we can find such paltry evidence to be compelling enough to convict a man?
Well, this is a case of what scientists call "motivated reasoning." It's this phenomenon in which our unconscious motivations, our desires and fears, shape the way we interpret information. Some information, some ideas, feel like our allies. We want them to win. We want to defend them. And other information or ideas are the enemy, and we want to shoot them down. So this is why I call motivated reasoning, "soldier mindset."
Probably most of you have never persecuted a French-Jewish officer for high treason, I assume, but maybe you've followed sports or politics, so you might have noticed that when the referee judges that your team committed a foul, for example, you're highly motivated to find reasons why he's wrong. But if he judges that the other team committed a foul -- awesome! That's a good call, let's not examine it too closely. Or, maybe you've read an article or a study that examined some controversial policy, like capital punishment. And, as researchers have demonstrated, if you support capital punishment and the study shows that it's not effective, then you're highly motivated to find all the reasons why the study was poorly designed. But if it shows that capital punishment works, it's a good study. And vice versa: if you don't support capital punishment, same thing.
Our judgment is strongly influenced, unconsciously, by which side we want to win. And this is ubiquitous. This shapes how we think about our health, our relationships, how we decide how to vote, what we consider fair or ethical. What's most scary to me about motivated reasoning or soldier mindset, is how unconscious it is. We can think we're being objective and fair-minded and still wind up ruining the life of an innocent man.
However, fortunately for Dreyfus, his story is not over. This is Colonel Picquart. He's another high-ranking officer in the French Army, and like most people, he assumed Dreyfus was guilty. Also like most people in the army, he was at least casually anti-Semitic. But at a certain point, Picquart began to suspect: "What if we're all wrong about Dreyfus?" What happened was, he had discovered evidence that the spying for Germany had continued, even after Dreyfus was in prison. And he had also discovered that another officer in the army had handwriting that perfectly matched the memo, much closer than Dreyfus's handwriting. So he brought these discoveries to his superiors, but to his dismay, they either didn't care or came up with elaborate rationalizations to explain his findings, like, "Well, all you've really shown, Picquart, is that there's another spy who learned how to mimic Dreyfus's handwriting, and he picked up the torch of spying after Dreyfus left. But Dreyfus is still guilty." Eventually, Picquart managed to get Dreyfus exonerated. But it took him 10 years, and for part of that time, he himself was in prison for the crime of disloyalty to the army.
A lot of people feel like Picquart can't really be the hero of this story because he was an anti-Semite and that's bad, which I agree with. But personally, for me, the fact that Picquart was anti-Semitic actually makes his actions more admirable, because he had the same prejudices, the same reasons to be biased as his fellow officers, but his motivation to find the truth and uphold it trumped all of that.
So to me, Picquart is a poster child for what I call "scout mindset." It's the drive not to make one idea win or another lose, but just to see what's really there as honestly and accurately as you can, even if it's not pretty or convenient or pleasant. This mindset is what I'm personally passionate about. And I've spent the last few years examining and trying to figure out what causes scout mindset. Why are some people, sometimes at least, able to cut through their own prejudices and biases and motivations and just try to see the facts and the evidence as objectively as they can?
And the answer is emotional. So, just as "soldier mindset" is rooted in emotions like defensiveness or tribalism, scout mindset is, too. It's just rooted in different emotions. For example, scouts are curious. They're more likely to say they feel pleasure when they learn new information or an itch to solve a puzzle. They're more likely to feel intrigued when they encounter something that contradicts their expectations. Scouts also have different values. They're more likely to say they think it's virtuous to test your own beliefs, and they're less likely to say that someone who changes his mind seems weak. And above all, scouts are grounded, which means their self-worth as a person isn't tied to how right or wrong they are about any particular topic. So they can believe that capital punishment works. If studies come out showing that it doesn't, they can say, "Huh. Looks like I might be wrong. Doesn't mean I'm bad or stupid."
This cluster of traits is what researchers have found -- and I've also found anecdotally -- predicts good judgment. And the key takeaway I want to leave you with about those traits is that they're primarily not about how smart you are or about how much you know. In fact, they don't correlate very much with IQ at all. They're about how you feel. There's a quote that I keep coming back to, by Saint-Exupéry. He's the author of "The Little Prince." He said, "If you want to build a ship, don't drum up your men to collect wood and give orders and distribute the work. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea."
In other words, I claim, if we really want to improve our judgment as individuals and as societies, what we need most is not more instruction in logic or rhetoric or probability or economics, even though those things are quite valuable. But what we most need to use those principles well is scout mindset. We need to change the way we feel. We need to learn how to feel proud instead of ashamed when we notice we might have been wrong about something. We need to learn how to feel intrigued instead of defensive when we encounter some information that contradicts our beliefs.
So the question I want to leave you with is: What do you most yearn for? Do you yearn to defend your own beliefs? Or do you yearn to see the world as clearly as you possibly can?