THR Web Features   /   August 24, 2022

In Praise of Bewilderment

Trading false simplicity for complicated truth.

Alan Levinovitz

( “States of Mind III; Those Who Stay” by Umberto Boccioni, 1911 [via Wikimedia Commons].)

Curio · The Hedgehog Review | In Praise of Bewilderment

There is hope for America’s ailing soul. It draws on a standard teaching technique familiar to anyone reading these words: bewilderment.

I use bewilderment in every class, especially when the topic seems settled. Take the relationship between religion and science. My students may be unfamiliar with the Scopes “monkey trial,” but almost all are certain that these are incompatible ways of knowing the world. Galileo vs. the Church. Evolution vs. the Bible. Done and done.

When someone is certain, it is very hard to learn. So, I begin with bewilderment. Are you familiar with Gregor Mendel, the nineteenth-century Roman Catholic friar whose mathematical acumen and love of biology gave us the earliest known laws of genetic heredity? Did you know Sir Isaac Newton wrote much more about religion and astrology—no, not astronomy, astrology—than physics? Maybe you find history dull. Then consider Dr. Francis Collins, former director of the National Institutes of Health, leader of the human genome project, and…avowed evangelical Christian.

Bewilderment takes time. It can also be frightening because it means surrendering a part of yourself. Our certainties function as nodes in what philosopher W.V. Quine called our “web of beliefs.” Each is connected to other beliefs, all hanging together to give us a worldview. That worldview, we feel, is essential to making meaning and taking action.

And so, when challenged, people dig in, resist, defend their cherished certainties. They deploy counterarguments: Collins’s religious and scientific beliefs really are incompatible, despite his attempts to reconcile them. And Newton, he was just messing around with all that occult nonsense, or he was a product of his time. As for Mendel—did he even believe in Catholicism? The friar part of his identity could have been a charade, a role he played to fund the science he loved.

Such objections recur in my classroom. Nevertheless, we press on. We counter the counterarguments. How do you explain the sophisticated celestial models of ancient China, which were infused with divine significance; or the architectural mathematics of ancient Egypt, developed and deployed in the service of worshiping the dead? We consider alternative case studies: not Galileo but Kepler, the brilliant astronomer whose Christianity was an essential part of his work.

Eventually, if we’re lucky, we achieve bewilderment. Fine! What is the relationship between religion and science?

And there, in the space created by uncertainty and ambiguity, learning can begin. That space is humble, open, flexible. My students discover that I’m right there in it with them. I don’t have the answers either. We work together, think things through, and, as in any good class, we emerge changed, not validated.

But please don’t let my initial example constrain the virtue of bewilderment. It is much more than a strategy for classrooms. Socrates, that great master of bewilderment, deployed it in the pursuit of wisdom—and to defend themselves, his contemporaries killed him. Zen koans, Sufi riddles, Christian parables (without the added explanations), all are engines of bewilderment. Wisdom is impossible without it. One of the most celebrated, and translated, examples of this principle is the beginning of the Dao-de-jing, a proto-Daoist Chinese classic: “The Way taken as the way cannot be the Way that is always taken.” What a way to start a book about the way!

Nor are the beneficial effects of bewilderment restricted to religious and philosophical traditions. In the context of politics, the classic example of bewilderment is the jester. Jesters existed within the system—serving at the pleasure of the monarch—but they were granted the authority to undermine the system’s authority. Without jesters, real jesters, monarchs too easily become tyrants. The inertia of their ultimate power has nothing to change its course, just yes-men urging it onward.

In the absence of bewilderment, we become like tyrants: inflexible, certain, over-confident. Rigid oppositional binaries reign supreme. Religion vs. Science, Left vs. Right, Us vs. Them. Change is nearly impossible—the only way it can happen is through intensification of what we already believe, which isn’t really change so much as acceleration.

And this brings us back to the problems we face in America (and, perhaps, globally). As we become like tyrants, we also become susceptible to the rhetoric of tyrants. We do not invent our rigid, moralistic binaries. They come from outside ourselves. And when we crave them, we seek out political leaders eager to provide them, despots shouting salvific certainties, red-faced and enraged, promising paradise if only we can rid ourselves of the damned and the unholy. Their politics can be nationalism, or it can be revolution—but it is always impatient. The devil, as they say, is in a rush.

We are most vulnerable to the tyranny of certainty in times of crisis. Trump, climate change, gender ideology, racism, wokeness, censors, deadly crimes, deadly cops, Putin, Xi Jinping. No matter where one is on the political spectrum, apocalypse is nigh, our sense of it heightened to a fever pitch by the churning whirl of media perfectly calibrated to exploit our amygdales, flooding our nervous systems with fight and flight.

Crisis resists bewilderment in two ways. First, by convincing us that anything less than complete certainty is dangerous. How can we be open to thinking differently about climate change? About racism? About autocrats and tyrants? Isn’t bewilderment just fancy talk for “both-sides-ism,” that enemy of truth disguised as false balance? No. What crisis calls for is action. By shrinking time to a single point, crisis tricks us into confusing bewilderment with complacency.

The second way is by increasing our cognitive load. When you are worried, there is no time or energy to think about anything else. Certainty is easy. What food should I buy? The organic food. Or the cheaper food. When it comes to reducing cognitive load, the rule doesn’t matter—what matters is having a rule to follow. So, too, for political issues or religious issues. How should I feel about abortion? What is the truth about cops? There’s no room for ambiguity in our exhausted brains. Easier to let simple certainties do the work for us.

I’ve struggled to come up with a metaphor for how bewilderment works in our culture and in ourselves, and unfortunately the best I’ve got is a bit ridiculous. Bewilderment is like the elastane (Lycra or Spandex) that clothing manufacturers have begun adding to fabrics like denim. Typically 100 percent cotton, denim can be inflexible and uncomfortable. By adding just 1-2 percent elastane, denim gets much more comfortable. More flexible. More resilient. Gain a bit of weight and you can still squat without ripping your pants. Without elastane, fabric is inflexible, more likely to tear.

This flexibility is essential when trying to deepen your perspective on politically radioactive issues like abortion. In my Comparative Ethics course, we read a modern classic in sociology of religion, Liquid Life, a book by Zygmunt Bauman that explores abortion and Buddhism in Japan. In the safe space of another culture, we can begin to ask the questions that have already been settled in our own: When does life begin? Is abortion tragic? How do politics, culture, and religion shape the answers people come up with?

My students are a very rough a microcosm of America, some staunchly pro-life, others pro-choice. But in the course of studying abortion and Japanese Buddhism, they slowly come to realize—as I have—that answering these questions with dogmatic certainty is hubris. As Barack Obama famously (and flippantly) put it when asked when life begins, the answers are “above my pay grade.” After all, if they couldn’t figure it out in Japan, maybe it’s just hard to figure out, period.

Allowing bewilderment to infuse our approach to an issue does not mean we cannot have strong beliefs. I strongly support abortion rights, and I think rolling them back is a terrible mistake. But in the space created by bewilderment, I might temper my understanding of how those rights ought to be protected. Should parents be allowed to electively abort children based solely on dissatisfaction with their gender, as they often did (and do) in China? The thought of that disgusts me, and I’m not sure how to reconcile it with my support for abortion rights and my desire to keep the government out of women’s wombs. I’m bewildered. And when I foreground that bewilderment to someone who disagrees with me about abortion, our conversation turns into a dialogue instead of an argument. We make progress instead of war.

But right now, all around me, I see the scope of space for dialogue shrinking. There’s too much crisis, too much cognitive load. Increasing it is too much of an ask—and besides, this is a time for rigidity! How else to resist evil?

So yes, the problem with America’s soul is a lack of elastane. The fabric of our society is increasingly inflexible, brittle, fragile. Our rigid ideologies are ready to crack under the slightest pressure, like a freeway built without empty space to absorb the expansion and contraction of the concrete. There are no mystics to temper the dogmatism of our ideologies. The jesters, my jesters—Stephen Colbert, Jon Stewart—have betrayed their calling by turning into preachers.

But this is a democracy, and we can fight against the inertia of tyrannical certainty one person at a time. We can cultivate bewilderment in ourselves and, by our own example, encourage its cultivation in others. We can admit, with the relief of honesty, that some questions are genuinely difficult. We can reject the rigid binaries forced upon us by a sense of crisis. And we can recognize that our resistance to doing so isn’t in the service of making progress, but rather a way of protecting our selves. I have hope for our collective soul, which, if we have the courage, can stretch and change instead of tearing itself apart.

For those who find bewilderment terrifying, who value the integrity of their web of belief, I can only offer the reassurance of my own experience. There is, I admit, an initial shock to the system, like when you jump into a frigid lake. But the shock doesn’t last. It quickly gives way to relief, even comfort. You no longer need to exhaust yourself pretending to understand what you don’t or making pronouncements about questions that are above your pay grade. You can trade false simplicity for complicated truth. And the resulting worldview is more useful and more beautiful because it genuinely reflects reality. That’s why a synonym for bewilderment is wonder, which, at least for me, is not terrifying but exhilarating.