Mini-Feature: Arbitrary Beliefs

Is there anything you believe for completely arbitrary reasons and is there anything wrong with that if so?

“Arbitrary” is one of those funny little words that has, over time, just about flipped its meaning. It comes from the Latin for coming or going to serve as a judge—or a witness. Now it very nearly means something serving as the opposite, as a “reason” without a reason, either abstract, in the manner of law, or particular, in the manner of testimony. “That’s just, like, your opinion, man...”

But opinions can be quite different when rooted in the abstract versus the particular. An opinion arising from a kind of idolatry or unattached principle isn’t like one arising from the testimony of experience. The citizen opining on how to repair the town bridge or arrange for sufficient local security is doing something different, with different kinds of results and habits involved, relative to the post-citizen arguing in favor of supporting a rhetorical catchphrase. 

The pressure of today’s environment is one in which any opinion not “verified” by officialdom is one officially deemed unverified—that is, without sufficient or proper accounting: if not obeying the logic of evil or immorality, then simply “arbitrary” in today’s sense, without entitlement to standing.

But the clear implication of this state of affairs is that the logic of officialdom in acting as censor this way boils down to a great “because we said so”—the epitome of arbitrary power. “You say” trivia; “we say” the law. After virtue, as MacIntyre suggests, comes law. But the theory of law which holds it to be nothing more than the great “say-so” of officialdom, of “the sovereign,” runs contrary not just to the best of our inherited Western traditions, but to the anthropology at their root—Christ’s injunction to render to Caesar what is Caesar’s notwithstanding.

Belief in the arbitrary is at once the ticket to man’s slavery and his masters’ power. 

-James Poulos, executive editor of The American Mind


Man, nearly everything I believe is based on unexamined faith. Do you understand—or have time—to chase down the scientific and mathematical principles informing our existence? And don't get me started on things like justice. Don't front like you have a grasp, and don't let Martha Nussbaum fake the funk, either.

Anyway, you cannot go spelunking down every cave, so when the Man tells you the water is safe to drink, the wings on the flight won't fall off, the New Yorker has value, and your wife married you for love, you must accept. 

-David Bahr, managing editor of The American Mind

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I suppose I have hunches—intuitions I can’t justify but feel convinced of. I’m very protective of those. “Can you prove it?” and “do you have data to back that up?” are two questions that are asked relentlessly these days in all sorts of areas where they have no business being asked. In themselves they are not objectionable questions: nothing wrong with subjecting one’s empirical beliefs to empirical scrutiny and adjusting when you’re proven wrong. But as the sole determiner of what is and isn’t true, “proof” represents a deeply impoverished epistemology. 

One hunch I have is that most coincidences aren’t coincidences, and that if we practice we can discern in seemingly random things the hand of Providence. There’s no proof of this, much as we believers might like to furnish some to those in doubt. If you believe it, you see it everywhere: the song that came on just as you were seeking the guidance its lyrics give, for example, or the chance encounter that changes your life. If you don’t believe these are governed by Intelligence, no proof will be enough for you. But after a while, you might develop a hunch. Don’t give up on it as easily as the skeptics want you to. 

-Spencer Klavan, associate editor of The American Mind