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Sunday, June 5, 2011

Doubt: Everything or Anything

       I’m not sure if Descartes was the first, but he was certainly the most famous philosopher who attempted to doubt everything. As anyone whose studied any of Descartes work would know, this was not a very successful tactic. But most people seem to think that the alternative is to hold some things to be beyond doubt. This is (sometimes) where you hear the “science requires faith too” ideas. So it may sound strange when I say that I do not doubt everything, and yet I do not hold anything beyond doubt. The fact is that I have taken a third option. Instead of doubting everything, I doubt anything.

       Remember the two steps: Ask a question, apply your benchmarks.  You can’t use this method if you’re doubting all of your benchmarks.  You have to have something to apply.  But this does not mean that you have to have something which is fundamentally beyond doubt.  All it means is that you can’t doubt everything at the same time.  I’ve already presented four benchmarks, and there are several other benchmarks I haven’t touched on yet.  So it’s perfectly fine to doubt a benchmark or two, as long as you have at least one more remaining to use in step two.  And in fact, any benchmark can be doubted.  You just have to doubt them sequentially or in small groups, instead of all at once.

Now I can already anticipate one obvious objection to this point.  Suppose I doubt empiricism, apply the logic benchmark, and obtain a Pass or Good result.  Then I doubt logic, apply the empiricism benchmark, and obtain a Pass or Good result.  So what do I have at the end?  A circular argument!  Of course this isn’t going to show that empiricism or logic (or both) are true/valid in some abstract, metaphysical sense.  In fact, this problem extends to any finite set of benchmarks (and some philosophers would argue even to infinite sets).  I’m not going to address this problem here (though I will address it later).  However, this process of sequential doubting does have some use.  It serves as a consistency check.  If the chain consists entirely of Pass (or a very strong Good), the conclusion is that the whole set of benchmarks has a very high consistency.  In other words, they tend to agree.

It also separates this method from the way religious faith tends to work.  Imagine a theist having doubts about the validity of their faith.  They go to their preacher/mystic/holy man and express these doubts.  Is the religious going to advice the doubter to apply logic/reason or perform a scientific study?  This is pretty unlikely.  In most of the more serious religions, the answer to doubting your faith is to have more faith (how many priests will tell doubting Christians to read Bible verses?)  Faith isn’t allowed to be doubted, not seriously, even though there are other benchmarks available.  It’s beyond doubt.

While the method I’ve proposed does not allow you to doubt everything at once, it still allows you to doubt (and seriously examine) anything you want.  No particular thing is held beyond doubt.  There is no corollary here to the sort of faith that religion uses.  I use empiricism and logic as my leading benchmarks.  I’ve doubted empiricism and found that logically, it works.  I’ve doubted logic and found that empirically, it works.  I’ve doubted both at once, and found that the two make intuitive sense.  And I’ve doubted my intuition, which has led to many intuition-changes when it fails logic and/or empiricism.  I’ve run consistency checks on my systems, and I’m still running them.

Compare this to the moderate Christians out there who have to jump through hoops with words like “allegorical” in order to make the Bible even remotely compatible with modern ideas.  They take pains to make their claim unfalsifiable so they can dodge the consistency check between their religion’s teachings and all the other things they’ve learned from science or mathematics or moral development.  They have no idea what it would take to convince them that they are wrong, because more often than not, they refuse to even think about the possibility.   They close their mind by refusing to doubt.

So take a look at your own beliefs, and at the various benchmarks you tend to use.  Run a consistency check, and change your beliefs when you reach an inconsistent patch.  Ask yourself the really tough questions.  If I’m okay believing in God without evidence, why don’t I believe in Russel’s Teapot?  If I believe that people who don’t accept Jesus go to hell, do I also believe that Ann Frank is being tortured right now?  If I’m okay at using faith, then why would I seek medical attention from a hospital instead of a faith healer?  This is just a few of the various inconsistencies that crop up when you stoutheartedly avoid running consistency checks for years and years.  You don’t have to suddenly doubt everything all at once.  Just take it one step at a time, and make sure that you’re willing to doubt anything that comes up.

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