W. K. Clifford, the eighteenth century philosopher and mathematician, argued that “it is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything on insufficient evidence”. I know little about Clifford’s life, but this I can guess: He was no sports fan.
Clifford’s main point in the essay “The Ethics of Belief” is that beliefs lead to actions, so we should try to act on justified beliefs. I take this responsibility very seriously, but over the last year or so, I have accepted a surprising fact about myself. Sometimes, I am a man of deep, abiding, and utterly blind faith.
I believe that some of us need periodic vacations from reason. We occasionally enjoy the unfettered force of our most arbitrary and senseless passions. Superstition can be fun – when it doesn’t lead to, say, burnings at the stake.
I believe that the enjoyment of spectator sports can serve as a harmless and uplifting redirection for our urges to rebel against reason. It is part of the beauty of sports fandom that one person can embody both reason and delusion. Clifford wouldn’t get it. He didn’t watch Super Bowl XLII through the eyes of a lifelong Giants fan.
It is February 3, 2008, Super Bowl Sunday. The New York Giants are in Arizona playing the undefeated New England Patriots. Time is running out and the Giants are trailing 14-10. It is third down and five. Eli Manning is in the shotgun, and I am pacing around my couch.
But I have believed in the Giants all season, and I believe now that they will get a first down and go on to score the game-winning touchdown.
Eli takes the snap. Patriot defenders quickly surround him, grabbing fistfuls of his jersey. Somehow he pulls away, refusing to go down.
“Eli Manning… stays on his feet,…”, says Joe Buck, the play-by-play announcer, “…airs it out DOWN THE FIELD…”
David Tyree leaps for the ball forty-some yards downfield with Patriots safety Rodney Harrison draped all over him. Harrison is ripping Tyree’s right arm down so he can’t keep his hands together.
“It is…CAUGHT by Tyree!”, calls Buck.
Tyree makes the catch, falling backwards onto Harrison, with the ball in his right hand and pressed against the side of his helmet! He catches the ball with his head before securing it with both hands to complete the play.
“Oh, my God…”, begins Troy Aikman, Buck’s partner.
Amen to that, Troy.
Clifford argued that accepting any belief without adequate evidence, no matter how isolated it may seem from harmful action, reinforces the habit of irrationality in one’s character. But our beliefs in our sports teams are usually frustrated, sometimes brutally. I know – I’m also a Mets fan. The disappointments are frequent and forceful reminders that improbable beliefs are usually false, and that our vacations from reason are best not taken in “real life”.