We Can All Be Fundamentalists, and Fundamentalism Is Everywhere

Do you believe in science?

In some circles, to answer this question with anything other than a resounding yes would be heretical. In other spaces, it’s the opposite response that could prompt social and professional exile. Regardless, it’s a query that, in recent years, has morphed into a proxy for morality: Are you on the side of truth or lies? Are you open-minded or closed? Are you good or evil? 

For Morton Schapiro and Gary Saul Morson, it was the ideological nature of the question, and what it seemed to suggest about science, that caught their attention. To them, the question suggests a perception of science as “a solid block of doctrines to be accepted, uncritically, and with equal confidence.” But that idea of science is antithetical to its practice and purpose: science progresses not through unquestioning faith but through methodical inquiry.

Instead of professing that we believe in science, Morson explained, “We should respect the scientific method and the spirit behind it, which involves the careful weighing of evidence, testing ideas by those who doubt them, and arriving step by careful step at the best available answer, subject to revision in the light of future evidence.”

In other words, there’s a middle ground between the extremes of questioning nothing and questioning everything. But it’s a middle ground that today we rarely see in the wild, argue Schapiro and Morson’s in their new book, Minds Wide Shut. In it, Schapiro, an economist and the president of Northwestern University, and Morson, a professor of arts, humanities, Slavic languages and literature, describe what they call the fundamentalist mindset, explaining what fundamentalist thinking is, where it shows up, and why it’s one of the gravest threats not only to democracy but to meaningfully addressing the greatest problems we face as a country: racism, climate change, and poverty, just to name a few.

That’s in part because fundamentalist thinking stretches far beyond the realm of politics and religion and into spaces like economics (for example, the idea that capitalism can solve all of our economic and social problems) and the sciences more broadly. Its messengers can claim to have answers to all questions or deny that any answers exist. But at its core, fundamentalism is characterized by a “radical simplification of complex questions and the inability to learn either from experience or from opposing views,” they write.

At its core, fundamentalism is characterized by a “radical simplification of complex questions and the inability to learn either from experience or from opposing views.”

Fundamentalism is not just “out there,” lurking in other people, but inside each of us. And yet, when I spoke with Morson and Schapiro, their message was not to deny and dismantle all of our core convictions, or, to paraphrase a variously attributed quote, to open our minds so wide that our brains fall out. Rather, it was to gain a deeper awareness of where fundamentalism can hold us back, and how, by cultivating the skills of “self-questioning, recognizing our own limitations, and attentive listening to those who differ,” we might learn to think and engage differently.

For instance, instead of determining to discover a single truth or the one right perspective, what if we became more comfortable holding two or more truths in our minds at once, something the authors call “double vision”?  

Our conversation, edited for length and clarity, is below.

Elizabeth Weingarten: We tend to associate fundamentalism with religion, but the “fundamentalist mindset” you write about is much bigger than that. What is the fundamentalist mindset, and where did it come from?

Morton Schapiro: The term “fundamentalist” has been around for about a century. It came in the context of interpreting Christian holy texts—in the sense that they are the word of God. But it’s now used as a catchall for what you don’t like—anybody who is narrow-minded, anybody who has really bad ideas, anybody who you think is evil is a fundamentalist. But that wasn’t the original genesis of the term.

Saul Morson: [The fundamentalist mindset is] a style of thinking in which one believes they have the key to all the questions. There’s a system that gives you the answer, and the answer is perfectly clear for those who’ve got the system. In today’s world, if you want to claim you have all the answers, you don’t talk about religion. [Instead], you claim you have a science because nobody can argue with science. That’s the modern secular equivalent to “God spoke to me” back in an earlier period.

How do you see the fundamentalist mindset manifesting in the social and behavioral sciences?

SM: There are economists who think that they have a hard science, and there have been political scientists who thought they had a hard science. Then there were all these ideologies that posed as hard sciences.

In the Soviet Union, Marxism and Leninsm was the truth that could trump genetics or physics if they contradicted. The explanation was it was a science, and you couldn’t doubt it. You know, the original name for the new field of sociology was social physics, because the idea was it should be possible to do for society what Newton did for astronomy—hard and simple laws, right? The founder of modern anthropology, Bronislaw Malinowski, thought he had a hard science [of immutable natural laws] that was capable of prediction. When structuralism [editor’s note: the theory that all elements of human culture and behavior can only be understood in relation to larger structures and systems] came in the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s, the leading structuralist, anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss, thought we had a hard science and that we were on the verge of being able to predict the future. He said, “I will soon be able to tell you what women’s fashion will be next year.”

In the book, you relay a lesson from economics that helps to expose the inconsistencies in our own thinking: it’s our behavior, rather than our words, which reveal our true preferences. For instance, we may think that we want to banish poverty, but if we aren’t interrogating every possible solution to the problem, even those that might challenge our core beliefs, what we really want is to remain at intellectual ease, or to avoid disagreeing with our friends or acquaintances. How do you see this playing out in ways that can prevent us from finding better solutions to our problems?

MS: The great philosopher Karl Popper said that unless what you’re proposing is falsifiable it doesn’t have a lot of value. People are so sure they know how to solve poverty and they’re so sure they know what to do about climate change; or that maybe a big increase in the minimum wage is going to be the worst thing that happens to vulnerable workers. But science is about falsifiability. You have to make sure that whatever you say is set up as a hypothesis and then you objectively look at the evidence. When the professed and the preferred means are not open to question, the end is not really what you’re interested in. If it were, then the preferred means would be open to question if they didn’t work. You’re much less interested in reducing poverty than having your solution that claims to reduce poverty.

When the professed and the preferred means are not open to question, the end is not really what you’re interested in … You’re much less interested in reducing poverty than having your solution that claims to reduce poverty.

SM: Economists say if people don’t look for the best solution considering the trade-offs then they’re interested in something else. You always immediately know when somebody is not really motivated by what they say they’re motivated by if they don’t consider trade-offs. All solutions have trade-offs. What are the difficulties with relying on wind power? What are the benefits of natural gas even if it is imperfect? There’s a Latin saying, Fiat justitia, pereat mundus, that was very popular in the nineteenth century. Let justice reign, though the world perish. You feel real good about yourself and the world comes to an end.

It’s easy to talk about this subject in the abstract, and at arm’s length. But in reality, we all hold some fundamentalist views—none of us is a purely open-minded person all of the time. How do you both think about this tendency in yourselves?

MS: [It’s important to] recognize that all of us have some fundamentalist views—that we know we’re right, and no evidence is going to change our view of that. You know, I’m an observant Jew. No one’s going to convince me anything about God. It’s completely off the table. There are certain things that we believe that make us who we are. You should recognize where you’re a fundamentalist, and what is open to debate. What defines you if everything is open to debate?

SM: You want to keep as much as possible open for debate. And when it’s not, you don’t want to claim that you can justify it by evidence if it’s not that sort of thing. It’s the claim that really matters. I was struck by this in a series of debates I went through one time regarding what constitutes plagiarism: How much does a student have to copy before it’s plagiarism? It’s the wrong way to think about it. What is plagiarism? It’s the intent to deceive, and it’s the false claim. It doesn’t matter how much you copy. If you copy everything and have a footnote that says, “I’ve copied everything,” it’s not plagiarism. It’s the claim that makes it plagiarism. What you claim is really important. Don’t claim science when you don’t have it. Don’t claim to have a reason to hold a position when in fact you just hold it beyond reason. We all do this, and it’s all right. But then let’s know that. 

In the book, you bring up the concept of “real dialogue” as a way of conversing that’s often lost among people who maintain fundamentalist mindsets. What does it mean to have a real dialogue?

SM: In a real dialogue what you’re really interested in is arriving at the best ideas—what’s closest to the truth. You don’t do it just by affirming your position. It’s not about scoring debating points, and it’s not getting the other person to see it your way. [It’s being open to the idea that] maybe the best solution is something I haven’t thought of. It’s valuing the process of the exchange itself, which means you really listen, and actually respond to what’s being said. And at the end of this process you know more than you did before, and you’ve arrived at a point where neither of you started. If you’re saying, “Anybody who disagrees with me is either evil or stupid,” then dialogue can’t work. It has to be [rooted in] the willingness to understand that you don’t know everything to begin with, and that the process of exchange is a value in itself.

If you’re saying, “Anybody who disagrees with me is either evil or stupid,” then dialogue can’t work. It has to be [rooted in] the willingness to understand that you don’t know everything to begin with, and that the process of exchange is a value in itself.

What are the factors both in our environments and in ourselves that can make it more likely that we develop fundamentalist mindsets?

MS: When Saul and I grew up everybody watched CBS, NBC, ABC News, and none of them was like Fox News versus MSNBC. Now, if you go to Breitbart, and you watch Fox News, or you read The New York Times and The New Yorker and The New York Review of Books, it’s just people speaking to themselves. We never had that ability, before 20 years ago, to live in an echo chamber.

SM: The way people used to define themselves by religion, they now do by political affiliation. Eight or ten years ago, when I was doing a discussion group, I remember a couple of students said, “Oh, well, you know, of course we have no problem marrying somebody of a different religion, but I couldn’t marry a Republican.” It was the same tone of voice in which I heard, “I couldn’t marry a Catholic,” back when I was growing up. That identity has switched, and that’s terrible for politics. Democracy depends on goodwill, splitting the difference. “Okay, you win this one, I win the next one.”

Dictatorships depend on force. Democracies depend on compromise and trading, and when you hate, you don’t do that, and democracy doesn’t last long.

I appreciate that you don’t claim to have all of the answers for addressing fundamentalist thinking. But you do write about how great literature can help us get out of the rut of our fundamentalist mindsets. What should be on our reading lists?

MS: Reading really good fiction transports us. Maybe we want to understand what it’s like to be a different sexuality, race, ethnicity, gender expression. But I think the most important thing is the different sense of right and wrong. When you read fiction, written from the point of view of a different sense of right and wrong, it makes you consider more thoughtfully the things you accept as given. If you want to understand more about what it’s like to be Black in America, read Americanah. If you want to understand what a totalitarian country is like, read The Sympathizer. I thought A Gentleman in Moscow was so brilliant. I bought 20 copies and gave them out for Hanukkah presents. Finally, I would add one more: All the Light We Cannot See. And it was the first time I was able to better understand what it was like to be a German soldier in World War II who was not a Nazi. Having lost a quarter of my family to the Shoah, I’ve never had much interest in reading about other Germans, other than Nazis, but—I’ll tell you—it also gave me perspective because it’s written from the point of view of a blind woman.

SM: My first will be Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice. What that book is about is how your pride and prejudice distort your perception. The heroine is so convinced she’s right, and then realizes that it could be seen differently and should be seen differently. Next, George Eliot’s Middlemarch is a great English novel, and it’s all about getting out of your own head and seeing it from a different point of view. People hurt each other trying to help each other because they do for others what they would want done for themselves. The stories of Anton Chekhov—his theme is precisely this empathy—seeing the world from other points of view, not just as a matter of knowledge, but as a matter of ethics. There’s an amazing short story writer—I think the best since Chekhov—by the name of Varlam Shalamov. He wrote the book Kolyma Tales. Kolyma was the worst of the slave labor camps in the far north, where you went to work at 60 degrees below zero. It’s a study in subtraction—What is the minimal human being? You learn things about your humanness by this radical experiment, and that’s what he’s really interested in.