The Emperor’s New Clothes, One More Time


IMG_3005Most of life is pretty autobiographical.

What we think about, what we do, where we live, why we care about some things and not others, and on and on; in thousands upon thousands of ways what we think and say and do grows out of who we are. This is as true for me as for anyone.

While the decision to drop out of college seemed pretty innocent to me at the time, the longer I live the more I see that that choice was formative for the rest of my life. After two years of college, I had questions that college-as-I-knew it wasn’t answering, and I was sure it wasn’t a good place for finding answers. Why study? Why be a student? What was college supposed to be? How could I learn about things that mattered most to me?

And so I spent the next years thinking about those questions. The quest took me back to California, and I spent a year living in Palo Alto, working on a magazine that grew out of the counter-cultural visions rumbling through America in the late 1960s and early 1970s. We lived together in a communal way, and month-by-month worked on Renaissance, dreaming of a new day and a new world as we were. Living between the universities of Stanford and Cal, hitchhiking across the Bay week-by-week, stepping into the worlds and worldview of gurus of all kinds, I began to understand that the question, “Who are we as human beings?” was the heart of every other question. The meaning of politics, of economics, of the arts, of sexuality, of work, grew out of the way we answered the question of our identity as human beings.

The next year I dug more fully into that question, hitchhiking across America and flying to Europe on Icelandic Airlines— all the “on-the-road” books of the counter-culture promised Icelandic as the cheapest flight —entering into another communal experience, this one called L’Abri. There I met people and ideas that have shaped me for the rest of life.

But it was there too that I learned something about learning. To my surprise I found that it was possible to learn about things I cared about, that learning could be more than jumping through hoops to pass one more test. That in fact, if I learned to ask the right questions, they could lead me through the academy, giving meaning to my life and learning. I began a pilgrimage that I am still on.

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I thought of all this again reading the Atlantic, with its cover story on “The Mind of Donald Trump,” sober as that prospect is to our body politic, but I won’t say more here. The article that I’ve been thinking about is “There’s No Such Thing as Free Will,” which sets forth this thesis: Every social science indicator argues conclusively that when we see human beings as responsible, everyone and everything works better. We flourish and our communities flourish. But sadly, now that we know that we are not responsible— and cannot be and never will be —we need to pretend that we are so that life doesn’t become a final chaos.

And why aren’t we? Why is “responsibility” an impossibility? Because we live in a materialist universe, where all that is is a result of time plus chance plus matter— and that’s it. As B.F.Skinner, the psychologist/philosopher of a previous generation put it, we are now “beyond freedom and dignity.” Or as the contemporary biologist/philosopher E.O. Wilson has argued, we are nothing more or less than our DNA. In the world and worldview that shapes the modern mind— and schooling from kindergarten through the university —the wiring has already been done, “the fix is in,” and therefore we are who we are and what we are is because of billions and billions of years of evolutionary materialism. The pantheist East has its own version of this, calling it karma; in the materialist West we call it determinism.

And therefore, as the Atlantic essay concludes, while it may be nice to imagine ourselves as “responsible” for our decisions, while it may be happier for us and everyone else to see ourselves as making choices for which we are accountable, that is a fantasy, and we had better “grow up,” realizing that that is not the world in which we live– though we “may be better off believing it anyway.”

Reading the piece, I found myself thinking about many things, among them the starker reading of the same beliefs offered by Nietzsche a century-and-a-half ago, father of modern atheism that he was. As he put it, “Of course I don’t believe in God, or that we are made in the image of God; that cannot be. But there are consequences for us if that is what we believe, a price tag, so to speak: we must no longer speak about meaning and morality.” He saw where the lines-in-the-sand are, that metaphysics, meaning and morality as integral— and was more honest, which I honor. The new atheists of the 21st-century cannot get themselves to that kind of intellectual honesty, instead arguing in essays in places like the Atlantic that while every insight from psychology and sociology and politics and economics indicates that we are dependent on “responsibility” for human flourishing, we are not. It is its own telling of the tale of the Emperor’s new clothes; naked that he was, everyone had to pretend he wasn’t.

And so cosmic accidents that we are, we must pretend, and smile anyway. As he concludes, “This may sound like a gratuitous attempt to have one’s cake and eat it too.” Well, yes, that’s just what it is, sad as it is.

At the end of the day, I want my ideas to have legs, I want my beliefs about life in the world to meaningfully order the way I live in the world. My dropped-out years persuaded me that honest questions require honest answers; in the world in which we really live, we don’t actually get to “have our cake and eat it too,” i.e. we don’t get to believe in a world that doesn’t exist, in a worldview that cannot answer our deepest longings for morally meaningful politics and economics, beautiful and true art, education that matters, sexuality that satisfies, work that serves the common good because it believes in a common good.

Even the littlest ones among us know that naked Emperors are just that— simply, starkly that.

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  • Stephanie Boda

    Thank you for stretching me and challenging me to trust deeper and think larger.I have always wished that I had stumbled upon L’Abri.