The Cult of Experts

Faith and Reason need not be the mimetic rivals our society has made them

To escape the cesspool of confused and conflicted ‘expert opinions’ that are flooding our brains daily, we’ll need to turn to something outside of those skull-sized kingdoms—something that elevates and expands the scope of reason beyond the narrow confines of science.

Because when you’re sinking in the mud, you can’t pull yourself up by your own hair.

Dostoevsky saw the problem clearly. His protagonist, Raskolnikov, has a dream during a grave illness near the end of Crime and Punishment: “He dreamt that the whole world was condemned to a terrible new strange plague that had come to Europe from the depths of Asia.... Whole villages, whole towns and peoples went mad from the infection. All were excited and did not understand one another. Each thought that he alone had the truth and was wretched looking at the others, beat himself on the breast, wept, and wrung his hands. They did not know how to judge and could not agree what to consider evil and what good; they did not know whom to blame, whom to justify.”

The French social theorist René Girard saw the infection described in Raskolnikov’s dream—in which no medical symptoms are mentioned—as a virus that causes the breakdown of human relationships. Nobody can agree on who is to be trusted. Each is left to their own subjective form of rationality, which then becomes a weapon with which to attack others. There is no guiding Logos.

Girard wrote:

“Having repudiated religion in order to be more rational, modern man comes full circle and, in the name of a superior rationality, embraces a rational and technical form of irrationality.”

He thought the repudiation of religion in the name of reason inevitably leads modern man to become more religious than ever—but through a form of anarchic religion that justifies itself in ever more rationalistic ways. There are new rituals, for instance, but they are thought of as merely health precautions.

Responses to pandemics like Covid-19 have included not only purification rituals, but also liturgies (in many forms, including press conferences) and sacrifice. The mediators of reason, like high priests, determine the acceptable sacrifices—such as hospital restrictions that prevent people seeing loved ones in their final hours. In a world as complex as ours, no single person has access to all of the knowledge they need to make the most ‘informed’ decisions possible, so the experts tell us that we must rely on them for all things. They alone have access to the knowledge needed.

Girard, more importantly, saw that humans are fundamentally imitative creatures: We look outside of ourselves for models of behavior on which to pattern our own. And he recognized that in a world in which there were no longer powerful shared models—transcendent models, like historical figures or leaders whom nearly everyone agrees are worthy of imitation—then smaller and smaller groups of people adopt their own models, often at odds with the models of other groups. And this eventually begins to threaten social cohesion.

Let me be clear: there is nothing inherently problematic with expertise. (The word comes from the Latin expertus, meaning “tried, proved, known by experience.”) In the past, an expert craftsman—for example, a wood carver—could be observed executing his craft by a lay observer without any specialized knowledge.

In the information economy, though, things have gotten trickier. I still want an expert surgeon and pilot, and I would like an epidemiologist who can help me assess risk to my family and to others. But expertise is now, in some sense, hidden from view: We are told to trust the experts because they have certain credentials or have been cited by other experts; we can’t see their expertise with our own eyes, as we may have been able to do in times passed.

We are told to trust the experts because they have certain credentials or have been cited by other experts; we can’t see their expertise with our own eyes, as we may have been able to do in earlier periods.

In our modern, secular society, each person is considered free to choose their own experts to follow. “Once we are deprived of transcendental guideposts we must trust our subjective experience,” wrote Girard. The dilemma is that “whether we like it or not, we are little Cartesian gods with no fixed reference and no certainty outside of ourselves.”

The transcendent models are gone. Modern man

“…no longer relies on priests and philosophers...but he must rely on many other people nevertheless, more people than ever as a matter of fact. They are the experts, the people more competent than we are in innumerable fields of endeavor.”

And there is an expert for seemingly everything today: love making, lasagna baking, decluttering our homes. If you are struggling, then you must not be listening to the right podcasts. You must have missed, say, Malcolm Gladwell’s recommended nonfiction titles for 2021. This heavy reliance on one’s preferred form of expertise in all spheres of life, detached from religious sense, is part of a modern Gnostic revival—salvation through knowledge alone.

The result is that experts are pitted against one another like warring gods, and there is not always an easy way to know which one is worth listening to. We can’t know which expert is superior in real time like we could see that Tiger Woods was the best golfer in the world during his prime. We must rely on intermediaries: the media, friends, markets.

Some of those intermediaries aren’t even human. Experts can be made by algorithms and anodyne platitudes tweeted out at a high enough frequency that they start to be believed. As a result, the world is indeed becoming flatter, but not in the way the economist Thomas L. Friedman meant. It is becoming flatter because there are no longer transcendent models to follow. We have only one another and our man-made experts to follow.

An alternative model exists. It situates expertise, or reason, in a transcendent perspective. “Faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth,” wrote Pope John Paul II in his encyclical “Fides et Ratio.”

In this framework, certain truths have been revealed to humanity that reason alone would not have and could not have arrived at entirely on its own. Openness to revelation allows access to these truths. But once those truths are accepted as they are proposed, reason is able to probe them and understand human life in a more profound way than if it was limited to its own powers alone.

Never since its publication has the encyclical been more relevant. If we are looking for a trusted model to follow, I propose this saint who combined a penetrating intellect with the humility of one who knows the limits of that intellect. And that allows him to go further than most. Not because he was standing on the shoulders of giants, but because he had opened himself up to the source and summit of all reason.

Learn more about the Cult of Experts in my book, Wanting. This article was adapted for Substack from an original piece in America magazine.