Appealing to Romanticism


We, as a species, seem to be fairly romantic. I mean this in the sense that we like to romanticize reality. We speak as if life gave us lemons. We invent concepts like fate and luck to explain what we experience. We say things like ‘I believe there is nothing stronger than human perseverance.” If this phrase is uttered at any event involving a stage, it is guaranteed applause, if not a standing ovation. But it means nothing.

Nothing at all.

The fact that most reading this may have just bristled at my apparent cynicism or whatever it would be labeled is evidence of my point.

Yes, perseverance can get us humans through many uncomfortable things. That’s what the word perseverance means. If they’d instead have said “You show great perseverance.” to whomever they were speaking, I’d have no problem with it. The former phrasing is what I will call an appeal to romanticism. It’s been on the edge of my cognition for a while but I’ve been thinking about it after I heard this phrase said a few days ago on some kind of talent show. A woman who had what looked like a robotic (or otherwise mechanical) arm was playing the violin, and playing it well. The appealer was a judge on the show.

It’s probably fair to actually call this an appeal to emotion instead of romanticism, but I see a distinction between them. I think this goes past mere anxiety or love or whatever else influencing opinions. It’s the desire for the world to be interesting. ‘Magical’. To be ‘storybook’. ‘Meaningful’, with some numinous connotation. Not because they have anxiety if it isn’t, but because it is more fun to believe? Less boring? I’m not exactly sure yet, but I can’t allow myself to call it an appeal to emotion.

Now, explaining the context of that earlier phrase likely makes people’s opinion of my assertion even more negative. Why is that? It’s as if my disapproval of the judge’s phrasing is somehow insulting to the woman with the bionic arm. I can feel it myself. I can separate my mind from its current values to assess – to emulate – what it may have felt like to hear someone else say these things when I was younger.

Is this actually insulting to the woman? I, myself, see statements such as this as a mild, lazy form manipulation of the audience. A ‘gimme’. Low hanging fruit. The audience feels obliged to applaud something which doesn’t actually carry much value but feels, for whatever reason, insightful and deferential. I don’t find it as either. It is meretricious. The speakers heart may (or may not) be in the right place, but I don’t like it. I have no idea where this tendency comes from in humanity. Why do we want to romanticize things? Why is romanticized preferable to an accurate view of reality? Call the woman outstanding and inspirational if you wish – that certainly seems justified – but save your pithy, meaningless statements.

Please note that I am not separating myself from the rest of my species – I feel the urge myself. I want to believe in the ‘magic’ of reality. When I was younger I hoped that maybe if I focussed and wished hard enough, I would be transported into Middle Earth (no luck). I was optimistic to a fault. I wanted to believe I was inherently special. I wanted to believe in a soul, deep within me. I couldn’t have explained love scientifically back then, but I absolutely wouldn’t have wanted to believe it was merely chemicals and instinct, but rather some deep seated mysterious thing that could ‘conquer all’, whatever that means. I would have much preferred to think of consciousness as something more than countless synapses in the brain. But I don’t want to believe those things at the cost of deluding myself, having a less accurate view of reality, or engaging in (or believing) mild manipulation.

The above was really just a preamble to what I wanted to talk about. The catalyst of this essay was watching a debate between Christopher Hitchens and Rabbi David Wolpe, tonight. Hitchens mentioned, near the beginning of the video, that God was an invention by humans – at least partially because we were desperate to feel like we were loved probably more than we deserved. He also gave an anecdote from Pierre-Simon Laplace. He presented his model of the solar system to the emperor and the emperor asked “I don’t see a God here. Where is God?” to which Laplace responded, “Your majesty, this model doesn’t require a God to work.”

Wolpe seemed ruffled and addressed the crowd thus:

“[…] Deep down, do you believe that the universe is constituted only by stuff? By material? Or is there a mystery at the heart of things? Do you believe that you are purely synapses, or is there something immaterial and eternal about you and those you love? Do you believe that things like love are just a phenomena of the way evolution has put us all together or do you think there is something in the fact that immaterial things like ideas and love and consciousness has such a profound influence on our lives that lead you to believe that the intangible can be at least as real or more real than the intangible. If that way of looking at the world appeals to you or speaks to you then you understand that Laplace, in order to explain how the heavens go, may not need the hypothesis of God, that in order to explain why there is something rather than nothing, why there is a deeper meaning of life than stuff alone, that that something that speaks to you and lets you understand that God is real.” […]


This is one giant appeal to romanticism. “Do you want to believe that there is something ‘deeper’ inside you?” Even without explaining that sentence further, I believe most people would answer “Yes.” to that question without thinking. Why would they? It is a meaningless statement. It is romantic nonsense. It feels good to tell ourselves, yes. That doesn’t make it justified to believe it.

But Wolpe seems to know well the value of these appeals. He essentially admits the appeal when he says “If that way of looking at the world appeals to you or speaks to you then you understand […]”. That sentence was his greatest sin in what he said. He sets up this grand statement solely to appeal to our romanticism and narcissism and then grants the audience permission to believe something solely if it makes them feel good. Because it’s appealing. It is shameful that he said this. This convincingly proves to me that he is an enemy of those who respect epistemic responsibility and thus an enemy of utilitarianism.

This is going a little off the rails, but what evolutionary advantage did we receive by looking for meaning in everything? We obviously were not predisposed to being rational about it, hence were very often wrong in what we saw. There is Michael Shermer’s convincing argument that false positives helped us survive and pass on our genes – thinking there is danger even when there isn’t – thus passing on that particular tendency to our offspring, but I’m not sure that can directly translate into this situation. I’ll need to think more on this topic.

Wolpe started his diatribe by saying atheists would often attribute their own beliefs to logic and others beliefs to psychology (something I would grant him, sure), and then defensively says he doesn’t believe what he believes because he wants to be loved or needs a crutch, but because it’s true and scientific.

A few things: I think it fair to say that the typical atheist – the most common atheist view – would not say Wolpe is wrong in his beliefs in God (though, not the bible, which logically can’t be entirely correct). They would say he has no justification for his certainty. Wolpe says ‘it’s true’ with no hedging, no qualms, no doubt, and he says this within a reality in which there has never been a scientific study that has shown any religion a likely possibility, let alone proven the existence of (any) god/s.

He may be a great guy. Maybe he makes fantastic french onion soup. Maybe he lets kids win when he plays chess against them. But why, when he doesn’t value what direction evidence points, should anyone ever listen to his advice on what to believe? Science is the greatest human invention for discerning truth we have ever discovered, bar none. Nothing else has led humanity higher. Nothing else has even come close to providing provably accurate insight into our reality or revealed more demonstrable fact. Not religion, not superstition, not shamanism, not chance, not myth, not even observation – nothing. It is indisputably the tool to use when trying to discern what the truth actually is, and he shows he has no reverence for what it tells (or doesn’t tell) him.

Before the religious bros come at me shouting “SCIENTISM!!!”, let me just say this: Science tells nobody that God doesn’t exist. Science simply give us the most valid methods for searching for the truth of the question, and though it will never give us any answers on this front with certainty, it has never given us any reason to believe. The answers tell us that to believe in any God is unjustified and irrational. One may still exist. Maybe we just haven’t yet found the proper experiment.

Also, the fact that atheists (and the religious and arguably every single human demographic) are guilty of a self-serving bias does not mean it is incorrect to ascribe psychology to religious belief. Psychology is very important to the religious debate. The religious clearly don’t believe in God because they ‘feel’ or ‘hear’ or ‘see’ God, as “the religious” constitutes believers in thousands of different Gods who logically are almost entirely fiction at best. There must be psychological reasons for this. There are unquestionably reasons within the human condition that make us want to believe in a God, even without evidence. If he denies that this is relevant to the debate, then he loses more credibility.

Further, he calls his belief ‘scientific’. There is nothing scientific about religious woo. At best, his beliefs are philosophical, but even that is generous. The God of the gaps is not even that (it does have large psychological implications, though), and this is what the majority of the religious circle in most debates I see utilize and in most interactions with those in my life, on TV, in movies, books, etc. There is zero actual scientific evidence to support his beliefs. Every efficacy of prayer study has come back with zero correlation between increased healing rates and those prayed for. Not a single claim of ‘miracles’ or ‘bread turning to flesh’ or ‘crying statues’ has ever been credibly verified. The same reason that most people (including Christians) don’t believe aliens have abducted people is the same reason I have for not believing in any god/s. The fact that it’s a common claim is irrelevant.

Instead, what they mostly argue when this topic is brought up, is that ‘Life can’t exist without God. Science doesn’t know how life began so they can’t prove us wrong!’. This is God of the Gaps. They have absolutely nothing in terms of scientific evidence of divinity. Therefore, any claim that his beliefs are scientific shows that he hasn’t a grasp on what science actually means (which makes sense, given his side’s historic demonization of science), or it is pure sophistry. I see no other option with which to steelman his argument.

He also claims that “more than half” of the American (National) Academy of Science believe in God. What he’s referring to is a poll by Pew in 2009 that surveyed scientists in the American Association for the Advancement of Science, rather, that showed 33% believed in a god, 18% believed in a spirit or higher power, with 41% atheist. What he’s doing is conflating ‘god’ with ‘higher power’. To be fair, the only concept most of us have of a higher power is a god, but they had the poll choice to select ‘god’ and they didn’t. That means they don’t believe in a god, making his statement statistically false.

He’s doing the same thing people did and still do for Einstein. If he had heard you claim that he believed in a god, he would make very clear that you were wrong. He didn’t believe in any ‘consciousness’ or deity or ‘thing’, yet would still claim he believed in a higher power.

I should make my exit before I go through this whole debate. I’m only currently at the 12 minute mark.

Wow, except now he’s now brought up determinism – my baby – around the 16:15 mark and used it again in an appeal to romanticism. He’s holding free will hostage, trying to get converts in the audience. His point is that everything appears to be predetermined by cause and effect. You were predestined to be what you are from the moment of the big bang. But IF you believe you have free will, how do you think you got it? Spoiler: It’s God. He’s telling the audience that unless they believe in God, they can’t believe they have free will.

Following this, he says  “Without [religion] you have to fall into determinism”. Framing. ‘Fall into’? Why did he choose those words? He’s again communicating to the audience that this is a bad thing to do, as one ‘falls’ from grace or ‘falls’ into drugs or the ‘wrong crowd’, etc.

A little later, he says that every scientist he’s asked about this believed that ‘determinism was the only worldview that’s consistent with an understanding of the way science works’. What are his possible reasons for saying that? How did it further his goals in this debate? I can’t think of many ways except to demonize scientists further. “Us vs them”. “They aren’t like you”. “They would disagree with what you wish so badly to believe, therefore, they are not on your side, therefore, don’t believe what they have to say on the matter.” I don’t think it helps his argument much for rational people who are listening – he is admitting that those people most concerned with truth and who are the best at finding it believe in determinism.

Knowing how intelligent he is and the experience he’s had with these debates, I’m sure he’s well aware of how badly people want to believe they have free will (they don’t, but that’s irrelevant, here). He’s aware of how irrational they will be to defend that belief. “If you want to believe you have free will, then God is the only one who could have provided that. Therefore, you must believe in God.” Again, this is merely conjecture on his part. It’s ascribing the divine to something science cannot yet know. The God of the Gaps.

He’s also completely ignoring the findings of quantum mechanics that seem to prove that there is, in fact, true randomness, invalidating his point, which Hitchens also later points out. We don’t have free will, but not because the universe is causal. He pseudo-argues for determinism as if he just learned of the idea last week and has not done much further research on it. He’s using old, old arguments to support it. I don’t think I’ve ever seen this before, however. He is arguing it simply to back the listener into a corner. He’s painting the idea and likelihood of determinism as bleak and inescapable but then offers them a way out from this invented horror. Appealing to their romanticism and trying to force them to believe what he wants them to believe instead of what is most rational. That’s pretty despicable, in my view.

I see this appeal in far more than just religious talk, of course. It’s prevalent everywhere – even in everyday conversation. Most of these times it’s not particularly egregious to do so as the stakes are quite a bit lower, but it’s still dishonest no matter how otherwise trivial or innocent. At the moment, I’m at work sending out plates for a military fort’s newspaper. The military seems especially made for this type of speech.

A photo caption says “Soldiers watch the superbowl from the Warrior Zone [room]”. *eyeroll*. I’m not anti-military (though, you could probably argue that I’m against military action in favor of diplomacy more often than not), but I am against manipulation, which is what I consider this oft used tactic. It’s a rec room. You have to believe that whoever had the authority to change the name of a room did so for a purpose. At the same time, I have Machiavelli in my head, again asking me if it’s justified to demand good people refuse to use these tactics when the bad ones have no qualms with it. How will the ‘good guys’ compete when the bad guys’ methods are so obviously more effective?

I can see someone asking why I should even care in this instance. The military are the ‘good guys’. If it is a little manipulative, it’s for a good cause, yes? If anyone’s sense of romanticism should be assuaged, it should be soldiers, yes? Well, it’s a double standard. I still haven’t reconciled Machiavelli’s thoughts with my own, but what I do know is that allowing yourself these dubious tactics makes your criticism of those tactics mean much less. It’s like claiming murder is bad but allowing your tribe to do it because they’re the ‘good guys’. It makes every future statement made on that point sound incredibly insincere.

Think of the commercials: “The few. The proud. The Marines.” I, myself, have great respect for the Marines. But I can sense in myself, when I watch those commercials, the slight tinge of “I want to be one of the few. I want to be one of the proud.” But the thought is honestly not even connected to the idea of the Marines. They are defining a group and my psyche wants to be a part of it, regardless of what that group is. And much more effectively than that, they are defining an exclusive group. It could be “The few, the proud, the flat-earth society.” and I would still feel that slight tinge, regardless of how I loathe entirely the flat earth conspiracy fad. That tinge would violently evaporate when my mind decodes the entire meaning of the sentence, of course, but still. It’s psychological manipulation.

I’m sure there should be better examples of this, but it may take some time for me to formulate and/or experience them with this observation now a part of my conscious mind. I have a much improved chance to notice these things now that I’ve defined it to myself.

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