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Friday, 20 July 2007


Doubt is a virtue, people.

By this I do not mean to say that we should seek to doubt everything without further thought. Courage is also a virtue, but to seek to be maximally courageous without further thought would kill you very quickly. Just as wise courage does not consist in doing everything dangerous that you can find, so also wise doubt does not consist in giving no credence to anything. Rather, doubt and evidence play counterpoint to each other; doubt creates room for new evidence and the desire to seek it.

Doubt is connected both to courage and to humility. It takes humility to concede that you might be wrong, humility to be open to the ideas of others and to resist the temptation to assume that the conclusions you have reached to date will always be as sensible as they currently seem to be.

But courage is perhaps the most difficult aspect of doubt, and lack of courage rather than lack of humility is surely the biggest reason why none of us are perfect doubters. The ideas on which you build your life can be like a platform above an abyss of doubt, despair, and purposelessness. Subjecting the ideas on which you build your life to skeptical criticism is like jumping on the structure to see if it holds. It can, with good reason, feel like tempting fate.

Doubting yourself is psychologically difficult enough that nobody could be expected to doubt themselves completely all the time. Indeed, it takes work. As soon as we find the foundation to be unstable we have no choice but to shore it up somehow, and if we are to hold to the ideals of doubt, a quick-fix refusal to look is out of the question. Instead, we have to try to find a better way of living. This can be more or less time consuming, depending on the problem. Nobody can force you to do it. The only way you could possibly survive a major change in this area is to take it in your own time.

Now imagine if I told you that you didn't need to doubt. Imagine if I said "You can take this as absolutely true and go build your life on it, no need to question." Would you be tempted? Would you take the opportunity to try to escape fear of the abyss?

I don't know if it works. But it's wrong. It's lazy. In some cases it has terrible consequences, as the dubious history of so many religions and the famines (to say nothing of terrible abuse of human rights) caused by communist regimes clearly show.

When religions explicitly sanction a complete lack of doubt, such blatant encouragement of laziness is in stark contrast to the bold ideals of virtue that religion usually demands in other areas. While you must be constantly on your guard against greed, anger and jealousy, you may have as much faith -- I spit the word -- as much faith as you like. Often, it is worse. Being allowed to be intellectually lazy is bad enough, but to be encouraged to be so! I am told that faith can be difficult. I dare say it is. I dare say complete gluttony would also be rather difficult. But it is also, pardon the phrase, bloody stupid.

Doubt is tough. Nobody ever said that virtues are easy! All we can do is try our best to be both open and discerning at the same time.


L.L. Barkat said...

To lack doubt is to see oneself as God, knowing all, comprehending all. And of course, I can't see myself that way in good faith. :)

Halfmom, AKA, Susan said...

It seems to me that faith is something that we always test - not something we never test. If the object of my faith is unchanging, then my tests will always provide the same data. However, if the object of my faith is changeable, then I must doubt and constantly test the veracity of my conclusions for they are, indeed, based on shifting sand - which must be constantly tested and re-evaluated.

Lynet said...

"In good faith"? LL, you tease, surely! :P

No, I can see that you're saying something, there. I'm glad your worldview leaves room for some doubt, at least. And even if my worldview approves of doubt, I have to concede that I don't have -- can't have -- all the doubt my worldview allows for. Too scary, too unstable. I wouldn't survive.

I tinker with my platform but I confess that usually I don't jump on it until forced to.

Halfmom, correct me if I'm wrong, but the 'evidence' of faith that you 'test' is all subjective, isn't it?

I have subjective evidence of my own that would be just as admissible for the atheist position were it not for the fact that the atheist worldview does not include any mechanism for giving me such evidence beyond that of my own subconscious.

Kellygorski said...

Well said!

Halfmom, AKA, Susan said...

Lynet - post you might find interesting on a similar topic - I'm sure he would appreciate your unique perspective.

Subjective? I think it's a lot more like correlative data than that of true subjectivity - at least from a pure reason basis.

Philosophically, since subjectivity refers to the specific discerning interpretations of any aspect of experience which is unique to the person experiencing them (gotta love Wikipedia) - we can't consider the observations purely subjective - we are talking about multiple different people across several thousand years thinking/reasoning/examining/observing and coming to the same conclusions.

Perhaps, it is more like looking at epidemiologic data, so what you find is correlation rather than causative? Don't quite know how to explain it - and I wish I did - it just seems that if there is any/significant doubt in your own position - for any of us - that a good, hard look at other positions is a wise choice. But to really examine anothers position, you have to set aside all preconceived notions and listen to how they came up with the conclusions they have to begin with.

Lynet said...

we are talking about multiple different people across several thousand years thinking/reasoning/examining/observing and coming to the same conclusions

Not so! Few independent descriptions of God or gods agree save the notion that one or all such beings built or designed the world.

Lynet said...

Oh, and as for the post you referred to --

-- I confess I wouldn't dare jump in.

No, seriously. You think me capable of reasoning with something like that? You do me too much honour! What could I possibly contribute? Reason is all I have, and that post eschews reason entirely, doesn't it?

Should I make a moral argument? Talk about what happens when people trust "God" (that is, what they believe to be God) above conscience?

I really am honoured that you think I could say something in a debate so far from my own turf; personally I would have thought the views expressed in that post to be beyond hope entirely.

Maybe I'll try. I anticipate frustration, though.

You think I have that much patience?

I blush.

Ted M. Gossard said...

Lynet, Thanks so much for doing me the honor of coming on my blog and engaging even when it seemed senseless or unreasonable (!) to do so.

Your thoughts here I really do appreciate. I do believe in doubt because if at anytime we think we have the paradigm right, then I think we're wrong.

I say this from my faith perspective which believes in a god that does not lay things out "cut and dried", but does give us sufficient direction to go, even when we don't really know where we're going (like Abraham).

L.L. Barkat said...

Yes, Lynet, I love to be serious and tease at the same time! Pun intended. I figure I can get away with such fun here.

AlvaroF said...

Hmm, I am not sure if doubt is such a good thing...

after all, isn't doubt what makes many people look for easy answers and gurus? couldn't we focus more on how to get out of doubt in a rational way, building knowledge? that may be, just might be, a good muscle to flex often...

or maybe not. hmmm, i love circles

Anonymous said...

It just so happens that I am reading Jennifer Michael Hecht's Doubt: A History. Just today I am reading about Augustine; and his position that in the end, doubt is all that we can trust. Doubt proves that we are thinking, and by thinking we prove that we exist (presaging DesCartes.) Of course, Augustine said that there are things about which it is impossible to doubt; the Resurrection and the Creation.

But, AlvaroF, doubt is the skill needed to question those with the easy answers and gurus; or do you doubt my position? Whatever your knowledge, especially in matters religical, doubt really is a muscle to continually flex.

Lynet said...


As Pratchett puts it, "the trouble with having an open mind is that people come along and try to put things in it". You're right that this essay is incomplete in that it doesn't cover the 'evidence' half of things. To be complete I would also need to explain what sort of evidence would be admissible in order to overcome doubt (and what sort of evidence would not be admissible!). However, I chose to focus more on the psychology involved in doubt itself. In the vocabulary of my final sentence, I've covered 'openness'; the 'discerning' part has had to wait.