Foundational Doubt

Foundational Doubt June 15, 2018

I previously shared a quote from Robert Weston that is worth revisiting. Here is a small part of it:

Doubt is the touchstone of truth; it is an acid which eats away the false.
Let no one fear for the truth, that doubt may consume it; for doubt is a testing of belief.
The truth stands boldly and unafraid; it is not shaken by the testing;
For truth, if it be truth, arises from each testing stronger, more secure.
Those that would silence doubt are filled with fear; their houses are built on shifting sands.
But those who fear not doubt, and know its use; are founded on rock.

Click through to my earlier blog post to read the rest.

The point is one that I myself have made many times before: doubt is healthy and indeed essential. Fear of doubt indicates that one prefers the comfort of believing one is right to the harder possibility of being wrong and having to rethink things. That fear goes hand in hand with the rhetoric of the slippery slope that conservatives abuse so effectively. “What if you’re wrong?” is offered as a challenge to others, but they never ask themselves, “What if you’re wrong to cling with such certainty to your beliefs despite your human fallibility? What if you are wrong to exclude others as heretics and/or sinners despite God’s wide mercy and compassion, not to mention God transcending all that we could ever hope to understand or describe?”

As Peter Ustinov once said, “Beliefs are what divide people. Doubts unite them.”

If we could all be united in doubt, in the recognition that we all have convictions and indeed certainties, but none of them deserve to be held as certainties, not necessarily because of any shortcomings in those things we believe, but because of shortcomings in ourselves, what a radically different religious and ideological landscape we’d find ourselves in!

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  • jekylldoc

    Well, I would modify Peter Ustinov’s quote a bit, because I have come to think of saving faith as a matter of trust, not belief. So, while I agree that doubts about supernatural propositions unite people, I don’t think we are united by doubts about whether we can trust justice, and a commitment to caring, and the truth of values that are right.

    Trust unites people – doubt can strengthen that trust.

    • Yes, trust is every bit as crucial. Belief tends to turn into dogmatism about the rightness of our own beliefs and the untrustworthiness of others who disagree with us. Trusting that we are all human and capable of both great insight and great error makes room for us to balance having convictions and being open to learning.

      • jekylldoc

        I like this.

  • Phil Ledgerwood

    I agree with the standpoint of this article. When I was in jr. high, I remember a teacher taking a survey of the class asking if they would prefer to live in a world of harsh reality or beautiful illusion, and I didn’t have to think twice – harsh reality. The truth is more important than being happy.

    While I still hold to that basic conviction, as I’ve gotten older, I place more value on being happy and less value on being right than I did when I was younger and life was long and my “harsh reality” consisted of things like whether or not I had a date to homecoming. I’ve become a lot more tolerant of people choosing beliefs that make them happy so long as this doesn’t produce any negative consequences for anyone else, especially if those beliefs fall into realms that lack any kind of hard verification.

    I guess where I’m going with all this is, for me, doubt has a lot of value in being a mechanism for helping my beliefs conform to reality, but it also has value in tagging all my beliefs with a level of uncertainty that keeps me from dogmatism and helps me to be “realistic” about the level of verification and certainty I could ever have about some of them. This has overall made me gentler about reasons people may choose to adopt a belief – we all have to get through life, after all – and if all doubt has done is to enable me to be dogmatic about a new set of beliefs, then I’m not sure I’m much better off than I was.

    If someone believes “everything happens for a reason” and that helps get them through the tragedies they experience, I don’t feel a need to argue them out of that position, even though I may not hold that position, myself. As long as they keep that sentiment to themselves when someone else is experiencing tragedy.

    • John MacDonald

      Phil said: ” When I was in jr. high, I remember a teacher taking a survey of the class asking if they would prefer to live in a world of harsh reality or beautiful illusion, and I didn’t have to think twice – harsh reality. The truth is more important than being happy.”

      – Remember the guy in the Matrix movie who chose living a blissful life in the Matrix rather than the dystopian reality? I would choose the illusion every time! If an alien appeared and said she had technology whereby I could live in a fantasy and be 21 again forever with all the friends I had back then, I would accept it in a heartbeat. That’s my secular point of view, though many theists buy into the afterlife/heaven fairy tale that amounts to the same thing.

      • Phil Ledgerwood

        Yeah, I have a lot of sympathy for that. My hesitance these days comes more from the fact that I would be at the mercy of whatever power was maintaining the illusion, but if I think very critically about the power relationships that govern my life, I’m not sure that’s not equally true for a great deal of “harsh reality.”

  • John MacDonald

    I like Derrida’s model for ethical action as it relates to doubt. Derrida says that there is never enough time, precedence, information, etc., on which to base our decisions, so we take a Kierkegaardian leap of faith when we decide to act. As for the consequences for our actions, Derrida says we are like the little hedgehog who decides to cross the road to give pure gifts to the hedgehog on the other side, but senses danger part way across, and so decides the best course of action is to do what she has done in the past in the face of danger and roll into a protective ball – which gets her squished by the oncoming car (a consequence that would have been avoided if she just kept on walking). In our actions, we can’t assume that we have reasoned it out properly beforehand, and despite our best efforts the consequences may be unintended violence. But there is also an ethics and a magic of unknowing that emerges from such doubt. There is a “mere human” model for ethics.

    • jekylldoc

      “Mere human”? The alternative being . . . ? What I think faith adds to our human ethics is a sense of the mystery of it all. We make our decisions with far less than certainty, and we accept to leave the results “in the hands of God.” A few times in my life I have had to take such steps in enough uncertainty that it felt like a leap of faith, but I put my trust in the love of God within the hearts of others, and I believe the sense of mystery would have seen me through even if they had disappointed me (which they did not.)

      • John MacDonald

        I like Philosopher Emmanuel Levinas’ point that the infinite responsibility I experience when encountering the suffering face of the other (widow, orphan, stranger, and enemy) points me to the infinite love of the absolute Other (God)

        • jekylldoc

          Works for me. I don’t know how familiar you are with Kierkegaard, but that phrase “the infinite responsibility I experience” reminded my of his “Knight of Infinite Renunciation.” Relationship is not all about responsibility.

          • John MacDonald

            If I remember correctly, my professor in university took the example of the “house” that Kierkegaard identifies in “Sickness Unto Death” and explained that we move from the basement of the house (the level of the aesthete), to the first floor (the ethical), to the second floor of the knight of infinite resignation (Religiousness A), to making the paradoxical leap of living on all floors of the house at once (Religiousness B)

          • jekylldoc

            I have recently convinced myself that “leap” is irony. Trust is neither easy nor obvious, but neither is it terribly daring or impossibly absurd. It is only a problem if one is of a philosophical turn, and wants to know how we know that we are doing the right thing. The simple answer is that we don’t know. We trust, and if we trust in bad faith (secretly hoping that what we know to be wrong will pass for the right thing) then we are broken.

          • John MacDonald

            Much violence has been birthed in our history out of people trusting the wrong person or ideology, just as much regret has arisen out of the failure to trust the right person or ideology.

      • John MacDonald

        I find that a lot of people say “God is Love” without concretizing what that “Love” means.

  • Tom

    My level of certainty correlates directly with the likelihood that I’m wrong 😉

  • bobyount

    Without the potential and presence of doubt there can be no faith. If you have no doubt, then you have absolute certainty and therefore do not need faith.