"What embitters the world is not excess of criticism, but an absence of self-criticism." - G.K. Chesterton

Thursday, February 07, 2008

A new perspective on doubt (to me anyway)

It has recently been brought to my attention that doubt is not properly conceived strictly as a negative position. In reality we have a two sided coin; doubt being the negative side, is balanced by positive and simultaneous belief. The one cannot exist without the other. For instance to utter a statement in the form of "I doubt P" is at the same moment affirming "I believe not P", or "I believe P is not proven". What is revealed here is that in order for us to doubt anything we must believe something else which we are not at present doubting.

As Trevor Hart puts it in his highly recommended book "Faith Thinking",
Thus every doubt has a fiduciary structure and is rooted in a set of faith commitments which for so long as they support the doubt, cannot themselves be doubted. The branch upon which every doubt sits is a belief. To insist on chopping this branch off in the misguided attempt to assume a wholly uncommitted position can only result in self-referential destruction, as the initial doubt itself falls to the floor.

The reason I find all this so fascinating is that for quite some time now I have felt that in the absence of mathematical/empirical certitude the most responsible epistemological stance to assume is that of doubt. (not just epistemological humility) As such, my Christianity, which does not at all rise to such a level, has been held in tension with this basic conviction. However after reflecting on the above perspective it becomes clear that doubt is not analogous to an uncommitted stance. The question must then be raised, what does our commitment rest on in light of the always searching tendrils of Cartesian doubt?

I'm hoping I will have something to say to this question in an upcoming post I'm working on while also responding to Matt's questions here. Apologies for the roughness of anything I post this week. Whatever I end up posting is an attempt by me to synthesize material we are being drenched with while away at "intensives". (aka two weeks of 8 hour per day lectures) It's a wonderful exercise in drinking from a fire hose. I feel like complete mush at the end of the day, but I also can't help but feel like I need to do something with what was thrown our way before crawling into bed. Otherwise I fear it will all seep out my ears as I sleep. Speaking of sleep...

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Blogger Matt M said...

What is revealed here is that in order for us to doubt anything we must believe something else which we are not at present doubting.

There's a podcast somewhere looking at this, but I can't remember where at the moment - from what I recall, the guy being interviewed made a distinction between general and local scepticism (or doubt), arguing that the former is invalid as it undercuts its own position.

Normally when we say that we doubt something we mean that it fails to meet certain conditions. In order for me to say that X fails to meet the required level of justification necessary for me to believe it I have to hold that the level of justification itself is valid.

Because of this, certain things are apparently immune from scepticism - If I doubt the validity of reason then I lose the ability to put forward a rational justification for my doubt, which leaves me up the creek without a paddle. My argument ends up undermining itself. The same goes for desires - If I doubt the validity of my desire to live, for example, then I lose the justification for my desire for validity.

9:08 AM

Blogger Alex said...


9:30 AM

Blogger Matt M said...

Okay then.

10:05 AM

Blogger Matt M said...

Glad we cleared that up.

10:17 AM

Blogger Alex said...

Well... I guess we can pack it up then.

10:24 AM

Blogger Matt M said...

I guess we can.

11:27 AM

Blogger Alex said...

...until I finish up the "quick" post that is quickly becoming a bit more epic than I had originally intended...

11:28 AM

Blogger Matt M said...

Looking forward to it.

11:40 AM

Blogger Matt M said...

(If only all our discussions were as easy as this current one)

11:41 AM

Blogger Alex said...

what fun would that be?

11:42 AM

Blogger Linda said...


Just stopped in to see how things are over here with the brainiacs and maybe pick up some brain food. After closely examining your conversation, I'm beginning to have "doubt." ;-) Just kiddng! Glad to see you're agreeing for once! Bye!

1:19 PM

Blogger Timmo said...

Alex and Matt,

You might be interested in reading Wittgenstein's On Certainty. In that book, he discusses doubts and their grounds.

Actually, Alex speaks of the tendrils of Cartesian doubt. But, I do not think that Descartes believed that every belief must possess "mathematical/empirical certitude" in order to be justified. Check out my posts, On Cartesian Doubt Part I and Part II. (I have a Part III planned, though I haven't yet written it.)

12:49 AM

Blogger Alex said...

Hey Linda,
Glad to see you are still popping by from time to time. All the more so that you were able to witness this heart warming moment between Matt and I! (Which probably owes something to the fact that I was trying to process a trinitarian theology lecture at the time of our exchange, but still...)

Thanks for the book recommendation.

As for Cartesian doubt, you are right. Descartes did not believe that to be the case, though my point is that Descarte's demon later proved to be more difficult to exorcise than it was to conjure. That being the case 'certainty' was asked to jump a hurdle it simply could not clear. Autonomous reason lead to a place of chronic doubt. Though only the insane choose to live in such a place, the legacy Descartes thoughts on this matter had on Western thought can still be felt.

Great posts btw. I think I read them a while back, but it was good to have another look given the recent readings I've been engaging with.

10:57 PM


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