Culture and Society Faith Philosophy

On Doubt

What is doubt? What are its good and bad points? Why is it such a big issue in faith circles anyway? There is so much to say that it is really hard to know where to start. However, I was a philosophy student first, so it is most natural for me to start there, with the question of “how do we know anything at all,” technically known as epistemology (“episteme” is the Greek word for knowledge, so epistem-ology is the study of knowledge.)

Way back in Philosophy 101 we were taught a version of Plato’s take on this. Very briefly, Plato wanted to distinguish between knowledge and mere opinion. The problem with opinions is that they are inherently shifting and unreliable. Plato wants to move from this very uncertain level to that of true and certain knowledge. What is the difference? Stripping it of the complex (and highly contested) world of Platonic metaphysics, what makes an opinion into knowledge is (a) it is true and (b) it is justifiable (sometimes known as “warranted”).

Let’s look an example question. What is the highest mountain in the world? I Googled it and now my answer is Mt Everest. How can I claim to “know” that Everest is the highest mountain? It is a true belief (Everest really is the highest mountain), and I have a good justification for believing it (I looked it up on Wikipedia.) So my warrant is an appeal to authority. I haven’t myself measured it, and wouldn’t really know how to go about it. But I believe in the expertise of people who have, and the ability of scientists to verify that sort of publicly available fact – anyone who wants to, and has the necessary skills, equipment, and so on, is free to measure it themselves.

However, the moment I say “I looked it up on Wikipedia”, doubt begins to creep in. How can I be sure, for instance, that the entry has not been tampered with? Wikipedia is famous for being hacked by mischievous and/or stupid people – how do I know that this is not an example of that? It is possible to doubt it – and the Wikipedia article itself notes how difficult it is to measure mountains exactly.

This problem is universal: I can’t absolutely know very much. Starting from questions that seem as easy to answer as whether minds other than my own exist, there is hardly anything at all that cannot be doubted. In fact, outside the truths of mathematics and similar systems, I’m not sure that anything at all can be known with absolute confidence.

Famously, Descartes used systematic doubt to question everything that he could question without falling into logical absurdity, and, in his Meditations, he reached a point to stand with the realisation that the only thing he could not doubt was his own existence – because in doubting his existence, it was he himself who was doing the doubting – therefore he had to exist in order to do so. “I am, I exist,” he proclaimed (this is a version of the famous cogito ergo sum– I think therefore I am.)

Since then, thinkers have questioned the existence even of the self – so there really seems to be nothing that cannot be doubted.

So. That’s philosophical doubt. So what, you may be tempted to ask? What bearing does this have on anything at all? Just this: if we want to think at all intelligently about doubt and Christian faith, we have to know that everything seems to be, in principle, doubtable. Just because something feels more, or less, plausible in our particular corner of history, it does not make it true or false. Read Peter Berger on “plausibility structures.”  for more about this.

This is important because a lot of doubt is to do with the clash between Christianity on the one hand, and the “common sense” of our culture – common sense that is itself open to challenge.

Please note what I’m not saying here: I am not saying that everything Christianity says must be taken as a priori true, not to be questioned, just put up or shut up. Not at all.

But what I am saying is that none of us have completely unfettered access to Truth-with-a-capital-t. The obvious truths of our culture – for example the impossibility of miracles – are not, in fact, self-evident at all. If philosophy teaches us anything (and really it’s more of an approach than an established body of knowledge), it teaches us that pretty well any claim  is contestable.

This is especially true in something as contested, and as emotionally powerful, as religious truth. Not many people are going to get too exercised about the date of the Battle of Actium.  Not many people have a stake in it. But really everyone has a stake in the sorts of questions Christianity claims to answer. Questions like: does life have a meaning? Is good somehow absolute, or does it radically change from place to place (so could murder be good in some cultures, or would it always be evil?) Are we morally accountable? Is there hope for life after death – and what on earth might that be like?

Next time I’m going to write about doubt as an experienced reality.

By Alister Pate

I'm a minister in the Uniting Church in Australia, with two congregations: one in Northcote / Chalice, which now includes Cafechurch Melbourne, and one up the road in Reservoir, confusingly known as Preston High Street. I am

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