Breaking Bad and Doxastic Voluntarism

As I work my way through the acclaimed television series Breaking Bad, an episode from Season 3 struck me.

I have been a devotee to The Wire ever since I plowed through all five seasons back in 2008...and then again in 2010.  The Wire is a masterpiece.  I think it is best summarized as being about "the effect of institutions on individuals."

But what is Breaking Bad "about"?  I had enjoyed the first two seasons, but this was no Wire.  In this particular episode of season 3, it struck me: BB is about belief.  Of course, BB is about many things. But I think its overarching metaphor of "breaking bad" qua transformation or rebirth can be analyzed in terms of what we choose to believe, or rather whether we can choose to believe things in a non-self-deluding way.  To use fancy philosopher terms, BB is about doxastic voluntarism.

In this particular episode, Walt's wife Skylar finally abandons a crucial strand in her web of beliefs to acknowledge what she knew to be true all along.  Skylar has always known that Walt had two cell phones.  Walt's abduction and subsequent (epically) elaborate alibi–that he was in a "fugue state"–give Skylar two doxastic options: (a) Remain skeptical of Walt's alibi in favor of her hard perceptual evidence that Walt is indeed "up to something", or (b) Assent to (adopt the belief that?) Walt's alibi is honest testimony.  Skylar acts as if she believes Walt for several episodes, which is perhaps sufficient for (b). When Skylar finally confronts Walt, her words echo Tolstoy's when Karenin lets himself go on believing that there is nothing going on between Anna and Vronsky:
"What he knew was so dreadful that now he was ready to believe anything"
Here I simply rehearse Ermanno Bencivenga's argument in his (1999) "Knowledge Versus Belief."  Belief is a more sophisticated achievement than knowledge.  Knowledge is basic and belief is "a way of countering knowledge, of disturbing it and possibly deactivating it, not of subsuming it in a comprehensive embrace."  Belief is deontic to the core: it involves a choice, a taking responsibility for a certain manner of representing the world and one's place within it.  Skylar had too much at stake to not adopt the veracity of Walt's alibi.  The lie was too big, too major of a strand in a coherent web far preferable to that other coherent, but incomplete, web.

Just as Karenin tells himself an improbable story about the meaning of Anna's mannerisms and gestures, Skylar projects improbable scenarios regarding Walt's strange disappearances, his second cell phone, his "fugue state."  Perhaps most interesting is the social nature of Skylar's delusion.  Not only is she wrapped up in a commitment to representing reality a certain way, she is wrapped up in Walt's commitment to representing reality a certain way.  From a third-person standpoint this is not surprising; of course we are more likely to adopt commitments that mirror and support the commitments of those closest to us.  Our stability depends on it.

1 comment:

  1. Your post got me thinking a bit, Phil. Here's a link to my much less brief and focused thoughts: http://holeinyoursoul.blogspot.com/2012/08/the-experience-of-brutality-breaking.html

    I apologize for the typos in advance.