Berny Belvedere is a professor of philosophy and a writer based in Miami, Florida. Follow him @bernybelvedere on Twitter. Check out more of his writings at www.belvyland.com.
It’s a strange thing that over 177 episodes scattered across eight seasons Fox’s “House,” a show fascinated by philosophical and ethical problems, never once introduces us to a sophisticated believer. To be sure, Hugh Laurie’s Dr. House encounters plenty of proponents of traditional views, yet not one of them is able to offer a credible account of their faith able to withstand House’s relentless rationality.
It is certainly possible that in years of engaging with others on matters of religion and ethics, a man as brilliant as Dr. House never comes across a formidable opponent. After all, intellectual reflection is not exactly a hallmark of religious experience in America. Our culture teems with forms of spirituality, with professions of belief in a higher power, yet this commitment is a mile wide and an inch deep. Still, why wouldn’t more thoughtful approaches to these views ever make an appearance given that Dr. House sometimes spars with those whom you’d expect to have better answers?
Of course, House is not the first television show to undersell traditional views, nor will it be the last. But if House had the opportunity to elevate the discussion concerning theism and atheism, and between moral skepticism and moral realism, it is interesting that in the end it did not do so. We could chalk this up to dismissiveness. Perhaps these traditions are not deemed plausible enough to be awarded intellectual seriousness. Or maybe the writers are simply ignorant, entirely unaware of the existence of rationally respectable versions of these views. The truth is somewhere in the middle.
For Dr. House, moral and religious beliefs are not valid “meaning generators” but are little more than coping mechanisms. Here we are not far from the views of another famously fastidious doctor, Sigmund Freud, who viewed religion as wish-fulfillment. Though Dr. House’s patients think they have good reasons for their beliefs, they are really just deluding themselves.
But this may not necessarily reflect the show’s disapproval of religion. Dr. House is a tragic figure. If he is the representative for atheism and moral nihilism, the show might be attempting to warn us from adopting these positions. Perhaps by housing (please forgive me) these views in the head of such a tortured character, the intentions of the writers were to discredit these challenges to theism and moral realism, not to promote them.
This would suggest that Dr. House’s critiques were never intended to persuade. Why shouldn’t we take his views as simply being the bitter, discontented mutterings of an insufferable misanthrope? On this view, the writers expected the force of Dr. House’s judgments to be mitigated by the fact that his own life is a colossal failure. Logically, he’s irresistible. But personally, he’s toxic. His arguments may be infallible, but since he ruins everything he touches the real message of the show is think twice before you adopt Dr. House’s coldhearted aversion to God. It will leave you depressed and friendless, just as he is. On this view, who Dr. House is functions as the best argument against what Dr. Housesays. At one point he tells a patient, as well as the show’s viewers, “You don’t want to be like me.”
This explanation, however, is not persuasive. Certainly, having the criticisms come from such a jilted character makes the show palatable to many who would otherwise be bothered by its unrelenting attack on traditional mores. But it’s unlikely that Dr. House’s character defects are a serious attempt to mute his insights.
Why? In addition to numerous personal failings Dr. House was also endowed with a blinding brilliance. He is not only Princeton-Plainsboro Teaching Hospital’s preeminent diagnostician but also its resident voice of reason. So the show placed a hardened atheism and moral nihilism in the head of its smartest character, and lets him run wild. Indeed, it was rare for Dr. House not to have some religious or ethical principle in his crosshairs. Viewers saw him at his cheeriest whenever he had an opportunity to expose some traditional belief as a relic of pre-enlightened, pre-scientific thinking. Nothing delighted him more.
The results from these “debates” are always the same. Dr. House doesn’t just win these duels; he annihilates his competition, often embarrassing his opponents intellectually. All that the poor, unenlightened saps who disagree with him can ever muster is a variation of: “But I can’t live that way! I can’t live as though these things don’t exist!”
Or perhaps, as was suggested earlier, the writers aren’t familiar with more robust representations of these positions. If so, it would hardly be surprising, given the character of religious commitment and ethical reasoning one abundantly finds in society. Yet it also seems likely that if the writers had any reservations about the accuracy of Dr. House’s judgments, the doubts would find their way into the show somehow. If the writers felt that Dr. House’s position could be seriously challenged, the challenges would be inserted via some worthy representative. But instead we’re treated to a different sort of counterargument: House is a failure at life, ergo House’s arguments might after all be failures, too. The conclusion is that while it may be that traditional beliefs are pragmatically useful, they are not rationally defensible. They are useful fictions, but useful fictions are never more than fictions in the end.
But if these traditional views are no longer defensible, then what is stopping us from accepting Dr. House’s worldview? In a sense, Dr. House is. Viewers are treated to a depiction of atheism that is intricately connected to unhappiness. Yet we can distinguish the two. Viewers can conclude that atheism and moral nihilism are fully livable positions, so long as one avoids the pitfalls of behaving like Dr. House. Indeed, there are moments in the show where the writers flirt with the idea of infusing Dr. House with contentment, perhaps even fulfillment.
Yet in these moments they don’t require him to give up his existentialism; he gets to keep his outlook, but he must choose to stop being petty, insulting, and selfish. In the end he always fails to act decently, but the implicit reason given by the narrative is that he’s morally unwilling, not that he’s a prisoner of his worldview. He acknowledges that love makes life worth living, yet he is unwilling to love. If this is true, then the show is not attempting to claim that atheism and nihilism lead to unhappiness. While they might perhaps exacerbate misery, this only really happens to those already lost or ruined. In other words, these beliefs aren’t the problem; the problem lies elsewhere, somewhere not in the ideas themselves.
Yet, why this selfishness and unwillingness to love from Dr. House? We have seen that if Dr. House’s atheism isn’t what’s causing his suffering, then something else must be causing it — but what? Perhaps all we can say in the end is that it is something having to do with his personality, or his past experiences (his leg operation being one), or a combination of the two.
Whatever the answer, Dr. House’s beliefs come out unscathed, vindicated even, which makes sense within the internal logic of the show, since, after all, House’s diagnostic beliefs are far more likely to be right than those of his fellow doctors. It doesn’t require a giant leap to carry his brilliance in medical reasoning over to philosophical reasoning. If we trust his reasoning in one sphere, why would it suddenly lead him astray in a different one? The effects of his diagnostic beliefs are manifestly positive: patients get better. What if House’s philosophical beliefs are similarly positive, though what keeps that from showing is something else about his life? If that’s so, then the fact that House is a lonely, unlovable curmudgeon functions as dramatic misdirection. We can easily conceive of someone who possesses those same beliefs but is socially well-adjusted. The reality is that the show never offers a case for thinking that the two things — rejection of God and unhappiness — are necessarily connected.
The interesting question is why traditional views come off as so unworthy of rational consideration. It’s clear the show links intellectual seriousness with atheism, but why? How is it that there is no room for treating faith as reasonable? The answer to this goes a long way toward determining whether the show’s portrayals of traditional views are mere caricatures, or whether they genuinely represent the quality of religious commitment and ethical realism one finds in society today. Are the writers merely dismissive of these views, or is it that they are ignorant of them?
Both seem true. Society supplies example after example of vapid, empty spirituality. Our dominant worldview is a moralistic, therapeutic deism that is a far cry from the cathedrals of the mind offered in our greatest theological systems. Our culture is replete with expressions of faith that are weightless and undemanding. If this is the religion one encounters in society, how can the writers be blamed for their ignorance? Though this makes their stance somewhat understandable, it’s also true that writers need to look below the surface. Good writing should respect its subject. Every outlook, every worldview, admits of superficial versions. So the problem is ignorance, yes, but it’s not an entirely innocent kind of ignorance. The last I checked Aquinas has not gone out of print.
We are left with a tempered criticism of the writing. While it’s true that the writers don’t actually do anything to discourage the proposal that belief in the supernatural is fundamentally irrational, the sheer emptiness of the spirituality on display in our culture makes it somewhat understandable. But we can also register our disappointment that characters who should have been supplied with better responses never offered much of substance in their interactions with Dr. House.
Take one example from the episode “Office Politics”. Dr. House’s debate partner in this episode is not a patient but a new underling. She is Martha Masters, a medical student so precocious that she was hired to work within Dr. House’s prestigious department despite not having yet finished medical school; a genius so special that she has managed to acquire separate doctorates in fields conceptually very far apart: mathematics and art history. In addition to being intellectually prodigious, Masters is rigidly principled. This feature of her personality of course immediately signals her function as a foil for Dr. House, who is unabashedly and devotedly unprincipled. It doesn’t take long for their worldviews to clash.
Upon first meeting her, Dr. House gets a whiff of her ethical objectivism and senses blood. Soon, his joy at ridiculing her stance on morality becomes nearly total — his smile stretching even longer than his cane. But while Dr. House shines in his exchanges with his young underling, it’s only because Masters’ particular brand of ethical objectivism is so weak to begin with. That is, the writers have invested her with a laughably silly position on moral matters. And she is supposed to be the only character in House’s intellectual neighborhood.
What’s so disappointing about her moral reasoning? Take her position on lying. She thinks it’s always wrong, in each and every case, to lie to a patient. Yet as first year philosophy students can attest, this view has an embarrassing historical and philosophical legacy. Its champion is Immanuel Kant, who, despite being epically intelligent himself, was rightly ridiculed for this view by his contemporaries and by contemporaries of every generation of philosophers since (see here for a vindication of Kant).
So, why saddle Masters with this view? Perhaps because it’s what the writers think logically follows from a commitment to moral objectivity. And this is because the show has confused objectivity with absoluteness. They want to showcase the error of taking the view that morality is objective, that its rules are absolute, but these two things are not the same. A moral rule can be objective and nevertheless admit of exceptions. I’m an objectivist about morality and yet I accept exceptions to nearly every moral rule that I think exists. Why? Because life is replete with situations in which multiple moral rules are naturally applicable. Unless a moral rule concerns our highest overall value, it will be vulnerable to being trumped by more morally significant considerations. Having a good moral sense is not just about knowing what is right and wrong, but knowing how to adjudicate between competing ethical considerations. There is a hierarchy to ethics that rests on the relative weight of the values preserved or promoted by the rules.
So, for example, lying to someone is typically wrong, but it’s probably right if it’s the best way, and certainly right if it’s the only way, to help that person recover from a life-threatening illness. The value of preserving someone’s life overrides the disvalue of lying to that person. To fail to see this is to obtusely conflate objectivity and absoluteness, resulting in a caricature of moral realism as the silly position that objective moral rules are inherently exceptionless.
Or consider this exchange from Season 1.
Sister Mary Augustine: Why is it so difficult for you to believe in God?
Dr. House: What I have difficulty with is the whole concept of belief. Faith isn’t based on logic and experience.
Augustine: I experience God on a daily basis, and the miracle of life all around. The miracle of birth, the miracle of love. He is always with me.
Dr. House: Where is the miracle in delivering a crack-addicted baby? Hmmm? And watching her mother abandon her because she needs another score. The miracle of love. You’re twice as likely to be killed by the person you love than by a stranger.
So what we have are multiple arguments against God — the fundamental irrationality of belief; the problem of evil; a critique of love — raised against Augustine. Except in this case, the Augustine in question is not the titan of the faith who magisterially addresses each of these arguments in various works but a nun who shows a mild indifference to Dr. House’s frustrations with belief.
When Sister Augustine tacitly concedes that faith is non-rational, she ignores a rich inheritance of Christian witness from her own tradition. That’s not to say that her reply, which stresses the experiential over the rational, is wrongheaded. A philosopher as competent as Alvin Plantinga has argued that belief in God needs no rational justification — yet Sister Augustine’s presentation is hardly a robust version of that argument. Viewers are thus left with the following binary: atheism is rational, theism is irrational. I don’t expect a show to insert heady philosophical defenses of Christianity into everyday characters. But if the frequent exchanges pitting theism against atheism never generate a worthy moment for the theist position, the takeaway is clear: our culture has obscured what real faith looks like, and Hollywood writers typically do not try too hard to recover it again.