Wishy-Washy Millennials

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The Millennial generation, of which I count myself an ambivalent member, is accused of many things, but close-mindedness is not one. In many ways this is laudable; it leads to greater tolerance. In a remarkable performance available on YouTube, the teacher and poet Taylor Mali ridicules a related, but not so laudable, attitude that afflicts us: a reluctance to speak with conviction.

Taking aim at the abuse of language exemplified by an array of turns of phrase and self-undermining colloquialisms of which the Millennial generation is, like, totally guilty -- you know? -- Mali points out that it has somehow become "uncool" to sound as though we strongly believe in what we say. The invisible question marks and parenthetical qualifications that have been "attaching themselves" to the ends of our declarative sentences -- which "used to, like, you know, declare things to be true... okay?" -- are just ways to distance ourselves from our own opinions.

Mali's indictment cuts deep. It highlights a symptom of something more serious than linguistic tepidity. We are afraid to speak with conviction because we are increasingly afraid to have convictions. In an age of proliferating points of view and, some say, growing relativism, it may seem odd to worry about a lack of convictions. But there is, nevertheless, cause for such.

In a discussion section for a philosophical theology course last year, I tried to get my students to talk about the nature of religious belief. Since this course counted for one of two undergraduate philosophy requirements, my students were largely not philosophy majors, though they were very bright and also Catholic. What surprised me was that most of them nevertheless had no beliefs -- or were afraid to admit they had them. Let me explain.

To get the discussion going, I began asking them about beliefs in general. Does believing in something also entail the belief that the denial of that thing is false?
Consider an example. I believe that today is Super Bowl Sunday. Do I thereby commit myself to the belief that the following is false: today is not Super Bowl Sunday? Surely.

To judge that my belief in the first entails my belief in the second assumes a logical principle known as the law of excluded middle. This law says that a statement must either be true or false; hence something cannot be not true and yet not false. So it cannot be the case that 'It is Super Bowl Sunday' is not true and yet 'It is not Super Bowl Sunday' not false.

Philosophers debate whether or not this law always holds. But in ordinary life -- of which the philosophy seminar is thankfully one tiny part -- to doubt it would be crazy. If you tell me "today is not Super Bowl Sunday" -- unless you convince me otherwise -- I would believe that you are mistaken, in other words, that your belief is false. That's just what it means for me to believe it's Super Bowl Sunday.

This all seems reasonable enough; but in the context of religion, my students began to balk. I asked them if believing in the divinity of Christ entails believing that non-Christian theology is false; they answered with a resounding no. Their tolerance was heartwarming; less so their reasoning.

I put the question more plainly. Can you both believe that Jesus Christ is God and yet not believe that the following statement is false: 'Jesus Christ is not God'? Doesn't a belief -- not a guess, or a suggestion, or an inkling, a belief -- that Christ is God entail that I think someone who believes that Christ is not God is mistaken? They were more reluctant to answer this form of the question in the negative -- nevertheless most did.

I pointed out that your merely believing in the divinity of Christ does not prove that the other person is wrong, but it surely proves something about what you believe to be the case, namely that the person is wrong. No dice. The reasoning wasn't lost on them, they just didn't like it.

Why? Remember that most of my students self-identify as Catholic; they believe in the divinity of Christ -- or claim to. So their reluctance did not stem from an overt insecurity or agnosticism about religious belief.

According to them, it stemmed, rather, from a feeling that asserting the falsity of another's belief is morally wrong. To do so is to impose one's beliefs on another. It implies a certainty about one's own beliefs that rules out alternatives, or discounts their rationality -- that leads to intolerance. To say someone is "wrong" is to say that that person is morally wrong.

Tolerance is a very worthy thing, as is the recognition that one could be wrong in one's beliefs -- even religious beliefs. And the former likely requires the latter. But does tolerance rule out my believing that what I believe is not not true? I certainly hope not. Or does believing that what I believe is not false entail that I am absolutely certain of my beliefs? I certainly hope not either.

One of the oldest philosophical distinctions is that between belief and knowledge. To believe something is to assert the truth of that thing; to know it is also to possess the requisite certainty or justification for its truth.

Historically most philosophers who accept this distinction agree that few people have much that qualifies as knowledge. Socrates famously claimed to know nothing. This of course doesn't mean that most people don't believe things -- or even believe things that are true. It just means that the kind of certainty requisite for a belief to qualify as knowledge is hard to come by.

I believe it's Super Bowl Sunday. But how do I know? I looked at a calendar, which told me so. But how do I know the calendar is accurate? How do I know I can trust my senses? We live and operate in the world of opinion and belief. But this just amounts to saying that we are fallible -- that we are human.

From the fact that I believe, say, that Christ is God, and you don't, it doesn't follow that I am certain I am right; or that I am certain you are wrong; or that I think your view is irrational or morally wrong; or that you are irrational or morally wrong; or even that I ought to convince you that you are mistaken.

But it does follow that I believe that you have a false belief. This doesn't mean I'm intolerant; it means we have a disagreement. One can't have tolerance without disagreement; there would be nothing to tolerate.

The problem is that the kind of confusion about belief that leads one to deny the falsity of others' beliefs, even when they contradict our own, leads not to tolerance, but to an abolition of belief. It may stem from an admirable disposition, but it leads to gobbdlegook. It produces not a lack of conviction -- although that will follow -- but a lack of convictions. And who knows what that will lead to?

In many ways my students are not representative of culture at large. But I believe that, in this instance, they give voice to a characteristic of our culture at large -- at least my generation's version of it -- one that explains the prominence of the linguistic barbarisms lampooned by Taylor Mali. What is that characteristic? We are growing wishy-washy to the point of absurdity. Before we can start asserting ourselves with conviction -- which, I believe, we ought to do -- we had better decide whether or not we have any convictions left.

M. Anthony Mills is a PhD candidate in philosophy at the University of Notre Dame, specializing in philosophy of science.

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