Thursday, October 30, 2008

Doubt is not necessarily a bad thing

"Doubt is the beginning not the end of wisdom" -- proverb

I just read one of the best essays on faith and atheism that I've read in awhile from a writer at The Times of South Africa:

... as an atheist, faith is one of the big issues I have with religion. Faith is not simply a religious concept - it is a concept of knowing, of being absolutely sure of your ideas, your leaders, your concept of right and wrong, to the point where any evidence to the contrary just annoys you, it doesn’t have the power to convince you.

This concept has caused immeasurable harm to the world - it is what made Stalin so sure that his five-year plans weren’t starving Russia, it is what made Hitler think that the Jews were the root of all the world’s problems ...

The criminals who rape, murder and pillage our country do not do so out of a lack of faith, out of a sense of doubt in the rightness of their actions, they do it rationalising that their victims deserve it. These criminals think that they are still good people.

It is as William Butler Yeats said in his oft-quoted poem: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.”

This is not because the best are weak. This is because in terms of the people you want to know, the people who don’t go around flying planes into buildings, it isn’t faith that fuels their good, it is doubt. Doubt that they are right, doubt that they are always good, doubt that makes them stop and consider things from another point of view.

The dubious, the doubtful, the people who do not know what they know but, rather, think there is a good likelihood for something, these are the people who take us forward.

Atheism is not about what we know, it is what we don’t know. It is “I don’t believe in God” rather than “I believe there is no God”. Though there are atheists who subscribe to the latter, the former is all it takes to qualify as atheism. It is a philosophical concept, not even a fully formed idea, based on doubt, and in terms of crime, atheists are a disproportionately small portion of America’s prison system.

This is also reflected in crime stats on an international basis - highly atheist countries like Japan and the Scandinavian ones have crime under control. This is not atheism in and of itself, this is the virtue of doubt.

And it isn’t just in morality that doubt is good, that not taking things on faith is good.

We have seen over the past year the effect faith has had on business, with the faith-filled idea that the US’s housing market would always grow, that house prices were never coming down and that those sub-prime loans were structured to never fail. They failed.

The Titanic was a ship that the designers thought would never sink, and thus they didn’t have enough lifeboats or a plan to save the lower decks if it actually did begin to sink. It sank.

George W Bush had absolute faith that he was right, the US had faith that if they re-elected him to “stay the course” things would improve. He is probably going to go down as one of the worst presidents in the US’s history, if not the worst ...

... Faith is not a virtue to teach your children. The virtue is in faith’s opposite. It is in doubt we find caution, in doubt we find tolerance, in doubt that we find humility, in doubt we find ourselves and the best of our humanity.

In his poem, Yeats seems to have thought that in the best lacking all conviction there was a flaw, when it is the strength of lacking conviction that makes the best. It is the weakness of passionate intensity, of knowing beyond all evidence’s power to prove otherwise, that makes the worst.

"Doubt is uncomfortable, certainty is ridiculous." -- Voltaire

"Dubito ergo cogito; cogito ergo sum.
(I doubt, therefore I think; I think therefore I am)" -- Rene Descartes


wunelle said...

That's really excellent.

I think this is another of the great lessons of the hard-won scientific method: that we refrain from absolute conviction until evidence warrants it (and it does so on a very measured number of things).

Doubt--skepticism--is something quite different from cynicism, and it's a natural byproduct of knowledge being provisional upon the strength of the evidence. We learn that just about everything is amendable if new evidence dictates. And so we stop being certain and learn to say "Well, this seems the most probable explanation... stay tuned!"

This seems wondrously healthy to me.

Jewish Atheist said...

Yes yes yes. I go nuts when I hear Republicans talk about "conviction" and "resoluteness" as if that's the most important thing.

shrimplate said...

Suits me well enough.

CyberKitten said...

Doubt is good... Doubt is my friend....

Laura said...

the scary thing is that people who are so certain also think they have nothing new to learn. There's ALWAYS something new to learn, and changing your mind isn't weak, it's human.

dbackdad said...

Wunelle said, "Doubt--skepticism--is something quite different from cynicism ...." -- Good point and an important distinction. A lot of those of faith think that non-believers are depressed because there is no after-life (or we don't know if there is). It's the exact opposite for me. I find more wonder in the life I'm living and the world around me because I'm not just biding my time till Heaven or the Rapture.

JA - I agree. "Conviction" and "resoluteness" have not exactly been serving us well in foreign policy or the economy. Real life is making even stout idealist-Ayn Rand-types question some of their "conviction".

Shrimplate, CK -- Hear, hear.

Laura said, "There's ALWAYS something new to learn, and changing your mind isn't weak, it's human." -- Couldn't have said it better myself.