If you keep up with contemporary literature, you likely know David Foster Wallace as the writer of Infinite Jest. If you really, really love journalism, you probably know him from some of his non-fiction essays.
The average person, however, knows him (if they know him at all) from his famous commencement speech given at Kenyon College in 2005 — a speech that is both the opposite of the average commencement speech and yet exactly what you would expect it to be.
It’s a thought-provoking summation of what it means to think, to be aware, to learn, and to live. It’s profound less for what he says — which he accepts is mostly things we all already know as cliches — but more so for how he says it. He makes the familiar unfamiliar in such a way that it forces you to stop, pause, and revisit the foundation of what you thought you knew.
There are many gems I can pick out from it, but my favorite section is near the end, where he makes the case that all of us, in a sense, are religious.
“In the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshiping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship.”
This, I suspect, is profound even beyond the examples of day-to-day worship that he gives to prove his point. He talks about money, power, beauty, and intellect as superficial artifacts of our unconscious obsession, but real-life worshiping goes a step further, and it, too, applies to everyone.
We are all constantly trying to make sense of the world around us. In some ways, we do well; in others, we don’t. Worshiping is our way of adding cohesion to what is otherwise scattered, and for better or worse, it guides everything else we do.
A World We Don’t Understand
There is a word in behavioral science I was recently introduced to that labels our lack of a linguistic and cognitive model of something: hypocognition.
In plain English, if you grow up in a culture that doesn’t have a particular technology like a mobile phone, for example, and then someone introduces you to a mobile phone, the chances are that all of its benefits would mean very little to you because it’s not something you’ve been exposed to before.
You can see an object or an idea and still not realize its significance or its meaning unless you have developed the mental machinery to put it into the functional context that it needs to be in to provide you with utility.
One of the biggest reasons that we worship things is that we live in a world we don’t fully understand. It’s complex and strange and, as a result, we are all hypocognitive to some aspect of it. That said, in order to survive, we need to make it less complex and strange. So: what do we do?
We lay a foundation, one based on some sort of a belief, and we then build our life on top of it. We put our faith in God or reason or love, and we use these foundations to fuel action and commitment and orientation, while conveniently ignoring that the source of our foundation is still hypocognitive to the other parts of reality that contradict us.
We may be able to explain some of these other aspects away here and there, but due to the mere fact that there has been so much disagreement about what is true and what is real over the course of history, we can only be sure of one thing: We have a good reason to be skeptical about everything.
Even people who don’t openly talk about their object of worship do worship something, and this something can be identified in their day-to-day actions.
When David Foster Wallace referred to it in his speech, he mostly assigned a negative connotation to the idea of worship, but the truth is that none of us would be able to survive for very long if we didn’t worship anything.
The best we can do is ensure that what we worship doesn’t guide us down a problematic path we can’t find a way back from.
The Answer to the Last Question
Questions and answers drive the human mind. They determine what makes sense and what doesn’t. If you formulate a question in a way that can be answered, you can temporarily come to a happy conclusion.
The problem, however, is that no matter what answer you settle on, you can always ask another question, and another, and another. Questions are by default open-ended while answers are close-ended. But every answer can be re-opened with a new question.
Given how vast the universe is and how little of it we actually understand when it comes to the really fundamental questions, this game can be played again and again, leading only to what is nonsensical.
There is always something more, and what distinguishes people and what they worship is when they stop asking the next question. Most religions are obvious in calling the last answer God — the thing you can’t question — but it’s evident in science, too, where we simply stop at calling something we don’t know “complexity” or ending the conversation with the big bang.
Rather than accepting that we don’t know, or can’t know, we elevate the object of our worship to a level beyond what is reasonable. Science as a whole, of course, is humble in acknowledging what it doesn’t know, but many people who worship science — and by extension, reason — mistakenly assign a level of truth to it that it hasn’t earned and can’t possibly earn.
No vehicle of worship can ever reasonably contend to be about the capital T-truth. All forms of worship are about utility — about what works. And because many different things work depending on the context and the person, it’s worth having an open mind even if you are comfortable settling for your own personal answer to the last question.
The problem with answering God or complexity or the big bang isn’t that they aren’t effective, but it’s that having such a rigid anchor stops you from further inquiry, which than deludes you into thinking that your internal model of reality is more correct than the important feedback given by a world that is often contradictory and, sometimes, unreasonable.
Our mind is programmed to be religious, and it’s for a good reason, too. That said, any religion is only as useful as its functionality.
It all begins with the question of what it is we worship, a question we all answer either explicitly, by abiding to some philosophical framework, or implicitly, by how we live and what we pay attention to.
Given that the world is mostly incomprehensible, there is always another question to ask in regards to what it all means, how it all works, and the optimal way to live. This applies no matter where you draw the line.
The gist of this ties into something Albert Einstein once wrote:
“The fairest thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion which stands at the cradle of true art and true science. He who knows it not and can no longer wonder, no longer feel amazement, is as good as dead… It is this knowledge and this emotion that constitute the truly religious attitude; in this sense, and in this alone, I am a deeply religious man.”
Einstein was agnostic. I am, too. I don’t believe in the truth of God, or the stories told in any Holy Book. But I do respect religion for what it is: an answer to the last question. And if that is indeed what it is, then in this way, we are all religious, whether we like to state it that way or not.
Everybody has their own answer to this question, even if they don’t explicitly label it. What is important isn’t that you call it God or reason or complexity or love or science or humanism or some other grand-unifying force. What is important is that you realize that you are, in fact, living in a way that implicitly assumes that there is some foundation beneath it all.
Behind the last layer, the mysterious still exists. Our job is to respect and value it so we can treat it with the humility that it deserves to be treated with. The most important question in life may well be: How do we deal with the mysterious? The best answer, however, doesn’t try to explain the mysterious away. It still inquires, and it still acknowledges its own fallibility.
Living in a world we don’t understand means that we need some sort of a coping mechanism to provide an anchor for the rest of our beliefs.
The anchor you choose will give you both strength and orientation. But it will only align with reality if you are also willing to loosen its grip.