NOTE: The subject of this week’s blog post came to me after watching “The Path,” a fictional series on Hulu about doubters and believers in a cult, and the movie “Doubt,” starring Meryl Streep and Philip Seymour Hoffman.
Doubt is one of my favorite activities, annoying as this may be. Doubt is related to what was celebrated in college as “critical thinking,” where we learned to examine claims to “truth,” entertain counterarguments, and then arrive at something that is far from certainty – but close enough for now.
What is the opposite of doubt? Faith? Certainty?
Science, one vehicle we use to reach the truth, is constantly revising conclusions, largely through the process of challenge and the discovery of new evidence. This process of revision and adjustment, as we have seen in the shifting guidelines related to the pandemic, bothers some people. Well, so did Galileo’s championing of the heliocentric system, which bothered the Church enough to bring him the Inquisition. (Interesting word there, as the practitioners hardly seemed inquisitive!) I used to argue with my students who were taking A.P. Physics that science is never true because scientists keep doing research to change what is “proven.” Instead, I said, stick with philosophy. I doubt I convinced any of them, but I hoped to create a little healthy doubt.
At the opposite extreme of the so-called Inquisition is Rene Descartes, whose persistent and systematic doubting of everything he ever thought he knew – evidence of his senses, truths he had been taught, etc., led to his famous “Cogito ergo sum”: “I think, therefore I am.” The one thing that he could not doubt was that he is a creature who is doubting (the kind of thinking he was doing), and therefore he must, in fact, exist. That was his starting point.
And mine. What do I doubt? Here’s a short list:
I doubt anything is immortal. Even me. I welcome any arguments to ease my doubt.
I doubt that Torch Lake is really as blue as it appears to be. A few years ago, someone (Phil?) explained that Lake Michigan’s blue ice really isn’t blue but only appears that way.
I doubt the daily weather forecasts I see on my phone. I love it when my weather app says the snow will begin in eleven minutes.
I doubt that God is all of these three: omnipotent, loving, and existent. Look at all the human suffering! As Archibald McLeish states in his play, J.B., “If God is God, He is not good,/ if God is good he is not God;/ take the even, take the odd.” It appears that it’s our job to deal with suffering. We can’t just pass it upstairs.
I doubt that half of the people who started to read this blog entry made it this far.
I doubt that I will ever understand love. I experience love, both giving and receiving, but I don’t understand it. It’s certainly possible to doubt that someone loves you, or that you love him or her, but I suspect that there are as many different kinds of love as there are people. What do they all have in common? Can someone who claims to be experiencing love be mistaken?
I doubt that f=ma (force equals mass times acceleration). Usually true, but not always. Just a taste of quantum physics, seasoned by Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, undermines what had been the cornerstone of my high school understanding of physics. I do not, however, doubt the very existence of gravity, for I experience it more and more every day.
I doubt that I will ever learn to cook. My brief bachelor cooking (microwave a potato with an egg on it for protein) was not very encouraging, and my progress under Kim’s tutelage has been slow. But I may be wrong.
Of course, what I experience as doubt may be as much a feeling as it is an intellectual position. So-called doubt may also be simple ignorance, confusion or bewilderment – sometimes but not always a result of critical thinking (e.g., climate change doubters and election result doubters). So be it.
And the important question remains: Given the amount of doubt, how should we therefore live?
The simple answer, for me, is to live with humility. Of that, I am almost certain.