American Atheist Interview
With William B. Davis
Reported by Conrad F. Goeringer
William B. Davis is best known as the infamous 'smoking man' in the hit television series The X-Files. His acting career has included roles on Sliders, the Outer Limits, North of 60, Nightmare Cafe, MacGyver, Airwolf, Wiseguy and many other programs. He is also the founder of the William B. Davis Centre for Actor's Study based in Vancouver, Canada.
Naturally, we were excited when Davis spoke at the American Atheists Convention last April in Orlando, Florida, where he informed, provoked and delighted a packed auditorium as he spoke on being a "Skeptic in an Alien World."
Davis is a second-generation Atheist with interests in evolutionary biology. He graduated with a degree in Philosophy from the University of Toronto, but left academia to pursue his real avocation in theater. Along the way, he has maintained an insatiable curiosity, and remains today a voracious reader.
American Atheist magazine staffer Conrad Goeringer and American Atheist Newsletter Editor Carl-Eric Boberg sat down with Davis for several hours of intellectual free-for-all that included the substance of this interview. Carl-Eric and I were impressed by Davis' familiarity with a wide range of writers in diverse fields such as psychology, biology, history, and philosophy. In the perennial 'nature or nurture' debate, Davis expressed the need to explore evolutionary and biological information about sexes and races; yet, on the other hand, he drew no political or social implications from all of this. Politically, he describes himself as a Democrat and progressive.
While we talked about biology and aliens from space, we also couldn't resist touching upon his career in what surely will be one of the most popular and perhaps even influential programs in the history of television - The X-Files. It is a role Davis has played with considerable force. More poignant for both myself and Carl-Eric, though, was the pleasure of meeting a man who is far more than celebrity gloss. Articulate, literate, and familiar with a wide area of subjects, from philosophy and science to literature, and a delightful conversationalist to boot, William B. Davis was a perfect subject for an interview that awaits a sequel.
AA: Tell us about your academic career as a philosophy major.
DAVIS: It was a little bit accidental in a way, since when I went to university, we didn't have any theater programs in any university in Canada at the time, and what there was at the University of Toronto was a very extensive extra curricular theater program with a full-time director and that's where you went if you were interested in acting. Donald Sutherland was there when I attended; so there you were really to do an extracurricular activity and you could choose what to do academically without having to worry about "how would I get a job?" So, I went into philosophy for interest's sake entirely, knowing that I was eventually going into the theater.
After I was in philosophy for a while, I toyed with staying in. I was in awe of some of my classmates and people a little farther ahead, and I wondered "Do I really have the intellectual chops for this, to work at this level?" Most of the emphasis in the department was on the history of philosophy
AA: You're a second generation Atheist. While in college, did you have a skeptical attitude toward the paranormal? Was it something you thought about at the time?
DAVIS: I was always skeptical of ghosts, or aliens, or whatever it might be.
AA: When you started your career and were offered a job on The X-Files, how did you react? You must have read some of the scripts...
DAVIS: Well, I read one script, and the whole show from the beginning to end was by the seat of their pants. We often didn't know until the day before shooting what script we were going to use. I knew from the pilot, which set out the basic elements of the show, that it would be about the paranormal.
AA: Did you think the show would be that enduring and take off in the many directions which it has?
DAVIS: I didn't think for a minute The X-Files would be successful. I've now done about 35 episodes!
AA: Within the skeptical community, one senses the attitude that many programs dealing with the paranormal and the occult, even on a fictional basis, convey a power and subtle message to people. Some might feel this undermines the status of reason and skeptical thinking in the culture.
DAVIS: I had some concern about that with The X-Files, whether participating in a show like this was substantiating or engendering belief in the paranormal. I guess I could have said NO, I WONT DO IT, but I don't think I was just comforting myself when I finally decided that this really is a fictional show and nothing more. I don't think it's changed anyone's mind, though it may serve to reinforce certain beliefs some people may have.
The programs I think are more insidious are the pseudo-documentaries, or even a show like Psi-Factor which imbeds and announces itself as if it were based on something. I don't think Chris Carter [producer of The X-Files] believes in the paranormal. I know Frank Spotznitz doesn't; he's another executive producer. Chris Carter, on the other hand, does believe in government conspiracy, and I think he may be conveying that message subtly.
AA: This brings us back to the issue of hidden agendas. Many Christian fundamentalists see Hollywood and the entertainment industry as having a hidden agenda. Do you see any evidence of that?
DAVIS: That's a good question. I don't see a hidden agenda in our show other than possibly Chris's bias over government conspiracy. I think there is an up-front agenda in West Wing, and I think it argues eloquently for a move to left of center, and I'd describe myself as being on that part of the political spectrum.
AA: Have you ever thought about running for office?
DAVIS: I've thought about... (sighs). I've never been asked. The real danger is that you might get elected!
AA: Is there a danger in the fact that the media have become so compelling that they can seriously blur the line separating fact and fiction?
DAVIS: I think so, I think there is a danger, yeah. These shows on the paranormal certainly do suggest something about the culture. What concerns me is how television is used and what it is becoming. In Canada, we still have the pretense of a public broadcasting service. But if I were an American, I'd be up in arms about the hijacking of this terrific medium of television to mass-market forces. What it's done is create a situation where advertisers don't want a market of over 35. They want a young audience and they tailor their programming to that audience for a couple of reasons. One, they're more susceptible and they might have less resistance to advertising.
AA: But isn't this a kind of conspiracy theory? Aren't you giving younger people, especially the Internet generation, less credit than they deserve?
DAVIS: It doesn't really matter. What matters is that the advertisers think so, and as a result all of the programming is designed for that group. There is no adult programming on television, no programs being made for me as a viewer.
AA: You do a good deal of reading in science including works by Richard Dawkins. There is an explosion of scientific information in mass media. Do you accept the proposition that people are becoming more scientifically illiterate and immersed in pseudoscience?
DAVIS: I don't know what's happening in terms of scientific literacy. It certainly does seem that there is an increase in belief in pseudoscience, alternative medicine, those sorts of things. One example is a bill passed by the Private Members (legislative members) in Canada to allow doctors to prescribe alternative medicine and treatments against the advice of their own College of Physicians.
AA: If you took all of the topics which skeptics discuss, from UFOs to fortune telling and other areas of the paranormal, are there any of these that when you're falling asleep at night you might say, "Well, maybe there's something to this...?"
DAVIS: Well, there's certainly a whole range of what doesn't, because so many of them are based on the assumption that there is a force which science has been unable to detect. And if we were to believe in mental telepathy or an afterlife or those sorts of things, it would challenge the whole underpinning of science. So, those, I don't know. There could be aliens flying around in UFOs, I guess, without challenging our essential scientific beliefs. I don't lose much sleep over that, but it's possible. And I do slip into magical thinking occasionally, like the situation with my water skiing coach. I had some trouble with my shoulder and he recommended that I use a magnet, and for some reason I was prepared to believe that he knew something that the whole scientific establishment didn't (laughs). I don't know why I slavishly applied this magnet to my shoulder for the longest time.
But this is the danger in this thing. A friend recommended that I try some kind of herbal remedy. I got it, but I didn't end up taking it and much to my relief the condition got better! But if I had taken the remedy, I could have ended up thinking "This caused it to get better!"
AA: During your talk at the American Atheist Convention, you asked for a show of hands over a couple of questions including: "Do you believe there is intelligent life elsewhere in the universe?" Did the result surprise you?
DAVIS: Yes, a great many hands went up for that. It didn't surprise, even though I wouldn't have raised my hand. The coincidence of intelligent life developing on our planet seems so 'coincidental' in so many ways that the likelihood of there being someone out there similar us is quite remote. But, the arguments can be made on both sides, and ultimately this is a question for scientists to settle. It's not a foolish position.
The universe may well have plenty of life; I'm not saying there is not life, I mean intelligent, self-conscious life; but when you look at the number of species on this planet only one has really asked this question. Unless you allow the argument that evolution is progressive. When we used to think that it was progressive, then we used to think that intelligent life had formed on other planets. But if intelligent life is accidental and coincidental rather than progressive, then the chances are low.
AA: Why do you think people want to believe that there is something or someone 'out there'?
DAVIS: (laughing) "We're alone," or "we're not alone." Who cares? Muldur's slogan on the show is "I want to believe," not "I want to investigate!" His bias is right up front.
AA: Same line of questioning: did you see the movie Contact based on Carl Sagan's book?
DAVIS: I saw the movie. Just the shots of those towers -the radio telescopes - reminds one of totems. I thought the movie was even a bit hokey. But this goes back to your question of why we seem to need this, the belief in the possibility of life elsewhere. I think that's an area for genuine investigation at a hard evolutionary and psychological level. So many societies have believed in gods; that need to have 'something' superior to us, something outside of us, may have some kind real kind of evolutionary roots. It could even be hard-wired into our brains.
AA: How would this fit in to biological evolution?
DAVIS: It could be related to the hierarchical groups and the need for someone more powerful with whom you can forge an alliance. Those who didn't accept or want or like the idea of that, they didn't survive - they wandered off into the wilderness or died off, and they didn't have a lot of descendants. The ones who congregated and cohered may have had more offspring.
AA: Many religious people look at this emphasis on nature and evolutionary behavior and insist that without a 'higher power' there can be no moral code.
DAVIS: We've just been discussing some thing and I've been wrestling with my conscience about things like "Should I have been involved in this show?" How could I even be asking that question without belief in a supreme being or a revealed moral code? But I do. This raises that other question of whether we have any purpose in life. That's why Beckett writes plays like Waiting for Godot. What do we do? We don't have the help from a Christian or other god, a point of reference, so we have to create our own. And we do - we create what I call an "infrastructure" which gives us this thing called 'meaning' and if we are sensible people, we create an infrastructure that is humane and cares for other people, that respects other peoples' rights, understands that doing unto others as you would have them do unto you makes sense, it's a good practice. And we develop our empathy with other people and our codes of behavior.
AA: Do you see this as an integral part of evolution, then?
DAVIS: Yes, I don't think there's any doubt. For those early bands of humans to have survived, this had to be hard-wired in our brains in some way. Dawkins talks about this.
AA: What are some of your favorite books? Who are the authors who have influenced you the most?
DAVIS: Well, in recent years, Richard Dawkins, E. 0. Wilson, Jared Diamond. I enjoyed Consilience. As far as my early academic days, all of the historical philosophers got me thinking — Locke, Berkeley, Hume. Descartes got me being skeptical, although I didn't arrive at the same conclusions. At the end of my university career, I was left in a way not knowing any more than when I started, but I understood the questions a lot better!
To me, the big eye-openers today are in biology. Holy Smoke! We're learning things about ourselves we had no idea about twenty years ago! From my reading in recent years, the interesting things are coming from what biology is telling us. We don't know how far this will take in terms of sociobiology and evolutionary biology.
AA: In your talk, you mentioned Freud and psychoanalysis was presented as a scientific theory. Can you elaborate? Has Freud influenced your outlook?
DAVIS: Well, another author to add to the mix is Frederick Cruz. He was the one who for me first challenged ideas about memory regression and how memory operates, and that led me to some other writers. Memory doesn't work the way hypnotic or recovered memory say it does, and that gets into the whole issue of alien abduction... why people believe they've been abducted by aliens. The process becomes suggested through the present context, they're not actually discovering memory, it just feels that way. We've had this problem in acting teaching, where some people believe that through voice release work memories are being uncovered; but in fact they're only suggesting emotional experiences.
AA: Can you elaborate? Are you saying that the craft of acting incorporates some kind of psycho-drama element?
DAVIS: I haven't attacked this as an acting teacher, but I think that the work in biology and the work by Frederick Cruz that we've been discussing rebuts most of what's been going on in actor training since Stanislavski, and it certainly challenges Strasberg and the whole method which is largely based on discovering repressed unconscious. Even Stanislavski defines acting as creating the conscious conditions that will release the unconscious. Well, if there's no unconscious in the Freudian sense, that's probably not a good technique, right? So there are implications for acting and actor training in all of this new science.
AA: What do you think about the future of electronic media such as the Internet, and its influence on movies and television?
DAVIS: That's an interesting one! I read something recently about people who describe themselves as "ex-Internet users" now, people who have actually abandoned the Internet. That's one of the questions that's come up with the 'dot-com' market. Did we think too much of the Internet, did we over-rate it as to what it would be, could-be, will-be? It may or may not be an integral part of our lives. It's obviously going to serve some useful purposes, but it's like going to a library that has no catalogue. And it's been hijacked by economics - it's all about selling something, so if I want information and I go to the Internet, I get it from somebody who's selling something.
AA: Is this necessarily bad?
DAVIS: It's bad if that's the only information you can get, and it's certainly bad if you confuse it with genuine research. So I think somehow, just as we've talked about television, the Internet is gradually deteriorating in its quality of 'service' as it's being turned into a commercial enterprise.
AA: What about it being a medium for independent producers and writers, and people who want to get into media but in the past have been excluded? Could the Internet be a liberatory force?
DAVIS: Well, it's certainly true that you can publish things on the Internet cheaply, so it can be a kind of vanity press. And as a way to market your capabilities to others, it can be quite useful. But again we're talking about it as a commercial bazaar. Yes, there will be a way to make your movie digitally and cheaply, put it on the Internet and have some people see it. So that has advantages in leveraging you forward in your career, but is it a big service to mankind? No, I don't think so...
AA: What about the claim that it is a medium that governments can't control and allows dissident groups to have a voice? Is that exaggerated?
DAVIS: No, there's some value in that, that you have access to opinions and thinking that is otherwise repressed. The downside is that you have all sorts of groups speaking out, and that means that the Internet can smother itself. "Too much stuff," you might say. Bishop Berkeley can have his tree chopped down and thanks to the size of the Internet, no one will hear it!
On the other hand, the Internet does create some communities that were not easily created otherwise. People enjoy that, and it probably has something to do with our brain's hardwiring and tribalism and finding new units of cohesion, and I think that's going to continue.
AM: What are your plans know that the X-Files is in its last season?
DAVIS: I have the William B. Davis Center for Acting which I oversee, but it's fairly well delegated to other people. I've been working on some other acting roles, and I'm doing some writing which includes a film script. In this movie, the two leading characters are married; one is a biologist, the other a psychologist, they're both distinguished university professors. They started their marriage with her as the people person, he's the 'hard' scientist, but he's become a follower of E. 0. Wilson, and now he thinks he knows something about people, but it's not the same stuff she knows!
AA: Do I hear left-brain versus right-brain here?
DAVIS: You could! And you hear nature and nurture. There a conflict and the marriage is on the rocks, but what drives the story is that he has discovered a skull that shows that blacks and Caucasians are separate races, and the university does not want this information published...
AA: Don't give away the story... But if there are biological differences between or among certain groups of people, maybe even substantial, do you want to try to derive a moral or political statement from that body of facts? As an ex-philosophy student, are you trying to get an 'ought' from an 'is'?
DAVIS: No! I don't think so... but once you say "this information isn't useful" or "we don't need to know about this, it isn't any good," you're saying that there's something about the condition and the human evolutionary basis that we aren't going to look at. And if you're like his wife, or the Christians and you believe that we are divine or special creatures, that doesn't matter. If nurture is really the dominant force, it doesn't matter. But if we really want to understand how human beings work, how can we leave a part of the puzzle out? Put another way: have you ever tried to do a jig-saw puzzle with one piece missing? It's a lot more difficult.
While some things in biology may have awkward social implications, do we not look at it? Look at a basketball game. The NBA is populated by blacks of West African descent, marathons are populated by Africans and Kenyans.
AA: Michael Shermer just devoted a whole issue of Skeptic Magazine to this subject...
DAVIS: I know he did. And he's quoting Stephen Jay Gould, and I don't think he's right.
AA: Does this research, then, have any particular moral or political implications for you?
DAVIS: None. I was looking for information and writing about a situation, and I wanted to do a situation where scientists found out something which people didn't want to know about — as scientists have over the generations. Look at Galileo. But I wanted it to be completely believable that people wanted the character to keep quiet about it. I also didn't want the stereotype of good guys and bad guys. I wanted something more complicated than that.
AA: Would you extend this type of argument to differences between men and women?
DAVIS: Absolutely! Until we look at those differences... Take that guy (Ray) Comfort [an evangelist who took part in a debate at the American Atheists convention], did he really say - he did really say! - that if I looked at a woman with lust in my heart, even if I didn't do anything about it, I'd be damned for eternity, or I've committed adultery. I'm hard-wired for it!
AA: Alright, you're hard-wired for it. But doesn't that mean that if, say, you're the job administrator and you have women working for you in subordinate positions, you can turn that wiring off?
DAVIS: No, I can't turn it off! I can turn what I do about it off, I can not act upon it, but if a woman comes in to my office with a short skirt and tight sweater, and they look terrific, I can't stop myself from having a certain reaction. But I don't have to do something about it! I could even say, "You look really nice today," if I were really daring! (laughs).
AA: So we should continue to explore what some consider to be taboo areas of evolutionary biology having to do with things like race or sexuality?
DAVIS: To put it another way, so long as we consider that men and women are the 'same creature,' and that genetic hard-wiring makes no difference, we will not understand the changes that occur or the relationships between the genders, and probably other groups too.
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