Saturday, January 14, 2006

"Just Believe!" Why?

Children's fiction often promotes credulity as a virtue. Consider, for instance, the admonitions in Disney's Peter Pan, in Elf, or in The Neverending Story. These and many other works teach our children, "Just believe!"

Children's fiction employs this trope so often that it fits a formula. A wise character tries to convince the protagonist that something wonderful will happen if only he or she will earnestly believe an improbability. Consider, for instance, how Yoda tells Luke to cast aside all doubt if he wants to levitate his x-wing from the swamps of Dagobah. "Do, or do not. There is no try," Yoda explains. Following the usual script, Luke resists, courting disaster, before he finally embraces faith and wins its rewards.

Why does this theme occur so often in children's fiction? Such works often aim to instill in children the sorts of virtues that we value in adults, such as bravery and kindness. I don't think that moral instruction adequately explains the extent to which children's fiction promotes credulity, however. Perhaps religious and political leaders, among others, would like to see youth raised to believe without question. But other parties, at least as equally influential in shaping children's fiction, favor the contrary values of independent thinking and rational inquiry.

I propose a different, less conspiratorial cause. I suspect that children's fiction so often promotes gullibility as a virtue because those who author such works know, at some level, that they rely on children's gullibility. Given its counter-factual presumptions—that we can fly, or that Santa Claus exists, or that we can lift heavy objects just by thinking about them—children's fiction requires the willful suspension of disbelief. By arguing against rational skepticism, the authors of such works wear down the defenses that might otherwise deflate the impact of their stories.

I have nothing against entertaining children—or adults!—with fantasy. I do wish, however, that that the authors of such works would stop preaching credulity. The best works of fiction don't require such rhetorical slight-of-hand, as they create worlds so internally consistent and rich that we don't hesistate to buy into them (consider, for instance, the works of Tolkien or Rowling). Only hacks feel the need to teach our kids ignorance.


Glen Whitman said...

I, too, am annoyed by the touting of credulity as a virtue. However, there is a version I think is often acceptable: the teaching of belief in oneself. There are some circumstances (such as, perhaps, piloting an X-wing Fighter) where being too self-conscious can ruin your performance. Sometimes confidence can be a self-fulfilling prophecy.

As for the bad kind of credulity promoted by children's fiction, I wonder if it might come from the author's memory (perhaps false memory) of how happy he was before he let reality impose too many constraints on his imagination. He remembers how exciting life seemed back when he thought Santa Claus could be real. So he exhorts his young readers to extend that period of credulity as long as possible. But as you note, this goal would be better accomplished by creating a good enough fictional world that explicit exhortations are unnecessary.

Tom W. Bell said...

I'm glad you brought up that point, Glen, as I have canned rant about the "believe in yourself" line, too. In very brief, I think it confounds causes with effects. People who by dint of practice master skills quite rightly "believe in themselves." But, excepting perhaps a marginal benefit that might accrue from quelling irrational self-doubt, self-confidence offers no short-cut to ability.

Hit the right button, and I'll pour forth yet *another* related rant. I here refer to my critique of how people confuse causes and effects in claiming "don't think" strategies will lead to zen-like mastery.

Plainly, I have many axes to grind.

Charles Johnson (Rad Geek) said...

Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that "faith" was once counted among the cardinal virtues?

"Where [is] the wise? where [is] the scribe? where [is] the disputer of this world? hath not God made foolish the wisdom of this world? For after that in the wisdom of God the world by wisdom knew not God, it pleased God by the foolishness of preaching to save them that believe. ... But God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise; and God hath chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things which are mighty; ..."

This is not to say that the theme of "just believe" in children's fantasy is an intentional or even an accurate expression of the purported theological virtue. Or that people were right to regard this kind of faith as a virtue to begin with. But I do think that this obviously has to be part of the correct explanation.

Glen Whitman said...

I agree that teaching self-esteem without the corresponding ability is bad. That's why I was limiting my approval to cases where self-doubt interferes with performance. I do think there are a number of such cases; for instance, public speaking is an area where ridding oneself of doubt is half the battle. Thinking too much about the fact that you're speaking in public is a good way to be a bad public speaker.

David Friedman said...

An alternative explanation is that adults believe, with some justice, that they know more than children. In their interaction with children, they find themselves in the situation of telling children things the adults are sure are true but either cannot persuade the children of or are not willing to take the trouble to persuade the children of.

Consider, as obvious examples, advice about the perils of sex, or drunk driving, or drugs--or, at a much younger age, the risk of crossing the street without looking both ways or not eating your vegetables.

The adult ends up with the feeling of "why doesn't the kid just believe me--I'm the grownup, after all." Hence the attraction--to adult authors and adult purchasers of children's books--of scenarios where the wise person representing the adult is telling the younger and less wise person representing the child to "just believe."

Tom W. Bell said...

Rad Geek: Maaaybe. But even supposing faith once ranked with other virtues, it was always faith of a very particular sort. Believe in the wrong god, and you got burned at the stake! The kids' fiction I critique, in contrast, seems to promote indiscriminate credulity. Kids are supposed to believe whatever some elf, or sprite, or cute fuzzy guy ardently insists they believe.

Glen: I guess we agree about the marginal effects of dispelling misconceived self-doubt. You raised another point, too, though: Authors' happily remember their own ignorance, and wish it on their audiences. That might explain some such cases, I guess. But surely most authors, on reflection, would realize that it was well worth giving up Santa Clause, the Tooth Fairy, et al., to get rid of the ghosts, goblins, vampires, mummies, werewolves, etc. Leastwise, that deal has left me much happier.

David: I'm skeptical that parents want their kids to consume fiction that teaches credulity. Why? Because it seems to me we want not *belief* from our kids, but obediance *despite disbelief.*

We surely don't want to teach our kids uncritical acceptance of whatever we, or other authority figures, say. And we cannot command beliefs very well, anyhow. But we do want our kids to *act* in certain ways--to wear their bike helmets even if they don't think they'll ever wreck, for instance. And, happily, we can control actions moderately well.

Gil said...

I don't think there's much of a conscious plan. I think these stories reflect a prevalent meme that romanticizes the idea of childlike innocence and credulity.

Of course, it is suspiciously in the interests of those who are threatened by skepticism.

The idea that there's something wrong with kids who are justifiably skeptical is something that really bugged me about The Polar Express.

Caliban said...

I was about to add "Polar Express" but Gil beat me to it. It's the best example of this genre, as it explicitly condemns those who would expect dirty facts to cloud their beliefs.

I think the problem is that as libertarian-type people, we accept that people are rational. Children are not.

When a child is 2 years old, you can certainly tell them WHY something is bad or good, but the real motivating factor is going to be "because their parents said so" or "faith." This is because they are not rational individuals.

Which is why we argue that statist/central control type people try to convince people they are not rational/responsible for their actions (and use parental analogies for society like "Fatherland").

The problem is the transition from irrational child to rational adult is a gradual and unpredictable one. Are the children portrayed in Polar Express old enough to make decisions based on verifiable facts?

I think the fact that the irrational-rational (minor-adult) transition is so poorly handled by parents is one of the primary problems of society. Many of the criticisms we level at people are based on the facts that they have not evolved out of their childish beliefs that everything should be provided for them, or that other people should be punished merely for doing things that annoy them.

We all know that the majority of crimes are committed by 16-24 year old males, the group that perhaps has the greatest divide between childhood and adult expectations.

So, the solution, like in many cases, is better parenting. :)

Which, of course, we must regulate and standardize through some all-knowing Department of Parental Standards! Surely this will work. :)

Tom W. Bell said...

Thanks for the tip-off, guys: no "Polar Express" for *my* kids! (Or, at the least, make sure to follow up the teachable moment with a critique.)

Gil said...


I just want to be clear that I enjoyed many aspects of The Polar Express; and I suspect your kids might as well. The CGI was very cool. I'm not advocating shielding your kids from the film.

I think your idea about exploiting the teachable moment with a critique is a good one.

I also want to distance myself from the theory that children are irrational. I think they are extremely rational. But they are also somewhat ignorant and often need help and advice.

I don't think it's youth that makes children behave irrationally, but it's most often an effect of being coerced by parents operating under the "children are irrational" theory.

I think that theory is more pernicious than the "children should be encouraged to be unreasonably credulous" theory.

Gil said...


Forgive me, but I don't find your position very persuasive.

Yes, these things are true in these constructed worlds, but the message is to "Just believe" and not "Don't just trust what you 'know' already to be true, try, and learn for yourself." Quite the opposite position is explicitly stated.

Nice try, though.

As I indicated, I think kids can still get a lot of valuable things from these stories; but, good epistemology is not one of them.

Scott said...

Good epistemology? Is there such a thing? The logical positivists are dead and Gettier remains at large.

TGGP said...

I'm surprised nobody's mentioned David Brin yet.

Rupert Hippo said...

"Perhaps religious and political leaders, among others, would like to see youth raised to believe without question."

I'd like to object to the notion that blind faith is good religion. The problem with blind faith is that one can have blind faith in literally anything—regardless of whether it is true or false. Considering that the consequences of believing something false can be critical—such as the difference between obeying a deity and violating a cardinal prohibition, or the difference between whether someone lives or dies—belief without reason or (worse) belief against reason is not acceptable. When someone insists on blind faith, expect something to be wrong with the belief system propped up by that blind faith. Ask your rabbi, priest, minister, imam, guru, etc. for explanations with impunity, and be a better religious person/agnostic/atheist/whatever for it!

Anonymous said...

You might want to read Vladimir Propp and Joseph Campbell's work...Propp analyzed Russian folk tales in the early 20th C. Joseph Campbell was an American academic who specialized in mythology.