Posted by: HAT | April 28, 2014

“Great Doubt”

A picture of Thomas the Apostle as a guru

Saint Thomas as he is remembered by Syro-Malabar Christians of India, also remembered as ‘Doubting Thomas’

Hi, Gang!

Doubt is on my mind.

Some people think doubt is a terrible thing. It’s not clear to me these are exclusively religious people, either, although doubting the central claims of one’s religion can’t help but feel serious to a religious person. But doubting anyone’s central claims can feel seriously threatening to anyone. If I doubt what someone else takes as absolutely unquestionable, that someone else is likely to argue with me and my doubt for a long time. I myself doubt that the determination that energizes that argument comes mainly from a desire for my welfare; I think it comes more from the desire not to feel the destabilizing force of my doubt. (“How can you not be convinced by what convinces me? It’s so compelling … isn’t it?”) If I begin to doubt what I myself have taken as solid fact or good thinking for a long time, I may feel like arguing with myself; that experience of destabilization, of not knowing in the face of now-doubtful ideas is … extremely uncomfortable, sometimes even panic-inducing. I am not convinced that doubting the privileged status of objective evidence in establishing believability, or the absolute necessity of the principle of the excluded middle in valid logic, is any less vertiginous than doubting the divine provenance of the Torah or the truth of the Trinity or the reliability of the Atman.

I doubt that the discomfort of the human experience of doubt is what the people who think doubt is a terrible thing think is so terrible about it, though. Whatever those people think that terrible thing is – a sin, a temptation to sin, a basic error of reason, a crime against the people, or whatever else – I don’t think their main problem with it is the uncomfortable way it makes people feel. Instead I suspect – that is, I am almost certain – that the people who think doubt is so bad are people who have the idea that people need to think the right things before they will do the right things, and who have a fairly clear idea of what they mean by “right” in both of those categories.

If I don’t doubt that the people who make the rules know what is good for me, and care about my welfare, I will respect those rules and try to follow them. I will even put up with a good deal of inconvenience, with a decent amount of patience and good cheer, in the process. I will even be fairly annoyed or even outraged by people I perceive to be breaking those rules, and may even chide them and effectively perform surveillance and local enforcement tasks on behalf of the well-meaning and benevolent authorities. I am inclined to say this is the macro-sociological equivalent of being a cheap date.

So I think that if I were going to construct a governing ideology from scratch I would include in it some idea about doubt that would make people try not to have it, and to suppress it in themselves if they noticed it. I might call the opposite of doubt, like certainty or unquestioning acceptance, a positive virtue; I might even reward such virtue in some way, or encourage people to believe that it would be rewarded at some point in the future. Or I might figure out a way to make doubt itself either a crime or a mark of unreason or a cause for alarm about one’s sanity. Or maybe I would try to do both of those, just to be on the safe side.

In short, I don’t really trust the people who are most against doubt. I doubt their motives.

I sometimes wonder whether I think this way because my major in college was the Hermeneutics of Suspicion. I’ve been trained to doubt people’s motives pretty systematically. That sort of doubt actually comes with a fair measure of certainty. Doubting the pure motives of the powerful and the logic of their ideologies comes from not doubting the theoretical perspective from which one critiques them. If ideas can be compared to dark chocolate, the hermeneutics of suspicion might be 65% cocoa – still candy, really. Wondering about the adequacy of one’s received ideas, which has no satisfactory alternatives attached, is closer to 85% cocoa – .healthier, possibly, but not as sweet.

I don’t think my mistrust comes only from what I learned in school, however, and I am unwilling to give it up, in any case. Doubt seems to me like basic equipment, an essential component of an indispensable survival kit, like the flashlight in the glove compartment, or the battery in the smoke alarm. Doubt is a form of “otherwise” thinking, one of the flavors of the vital ability to imagine alternatives to the way things are, one of the ways of challenging the necessity and exclusivity of “what is,” one of the doors that open onto what might be.

I rather doubt that our worst problems as human beings and human communities come from too much doubt. They seem to me to come more from too much confidence, on one hand, and from the wrong kind of doubt, on the other. Too much confidence in the familiar, in our customary ways of doing things and of thinking about things, in the adequacy of our own unquestioned assumptions. Too much doubt of other people’s motives, and not enough doubt of the goodness and rightness of what we ourselves are comfortable with and take for granted. Critical thinking is in reality a kind of disciplined doubt. I doubt that we are as good at it as we need to be. I know that I am not as good at it as I need to be.

For example: I grew up in the 60s. If more white people had had less confidence in the social arrangements of the 50s, and had doubted the legitimacy of their white privilege even a little more, maybe “the 60s” wouldn’t have been necessary. If a lot more of us white people would have less confidence in the way we are doing things now, and even a little more doubt about the relative importance of meritocracy and white privilege in the social arrangements we currently inhabit, maybe we could get closer to actually dealing with racism, instead of just reacting with disingenuous outrage at this or that isolated over-the-top individual expression of it, while shrugging our shoulders at its constitutive institutional expressions – that is, the ones that count.

An image of US voting patterns in 2004 and 2008 presidential elections

An interesting presentation of data on US voting patterns, created at the University of Michigan, which thanks to a Supreme Court ruling handed down last week, can comply with a state constitutional amendment barring use of race and gender in college admissions decisions


For example. But racism is an easy example – we already know we should doubt it. As little progress as we’ve made towards ending it, we at least know that progress is something we need to make. There was a time, though, when we – whoever we were then – didn’t doubt the goodness and rightness of racism yet, but could have, and should have.

The doubt that’s on my mind is the doubt I haven’t had yet. I suspect I need it. But how do I get to it?

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