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The Training of Doubt

One hears a lot, these days, about the virtues of doubt. There is much talk about creating space for doubt, encouraging doubt, dignifying doubt, about how doubt is preferable to the illusory certainties of faith, about how doubt can even be an important part of faith. We have doubts about whether or not there is a God, whether freedom is real and meaningful, about the possibility of things like absolute truth and objective value. This is all fine, as far as it goes. It is good to acknowledge that we don’t know as much as we think we know or as much as we would like to know. I think that at its best, a willingness to live with doubt can engender a humility and patience with others that is quite obviously preferable to the wearisome alternatives that we are all too familiar with.

But one of the things that we do not seem as eager to doubt is, well doubt. Doubt is often portrayed as something like an unqualified virtue—both outside and even inside the church. Doubt is a badge of honour, a heroic disposition to be boldly embraced, a restless proclivity that separates us from the unreflective and uncritical herd. Doubt is cool. Doubt means that we are smart and thoughtful and fearlessly unique. Or so we are pleased to think. Yet it seems to me that doubt is often implicitly viewed as an end rather than a means toward some other human end. It is seen as a stopping point or a definitive marker of our identities rather than as a tool for the journey toward a better land with more fruitful options and possibilities regarding what it means to be a human being.

I recently read a delightful little book by Rainer Maria Rilke called Letters to a Young Poet. In one of his letters to a certain “Mr. Kappus,” Rilke offers these wise words about the nature and purpose of doubt.:

And your doubt can become a good quality if you train it. It must become knowing, it must become criticism. Ask it, whenever it wants to spoil something for you, why something is ugly, demand proofs from it, test it, and you will find it bewildered and embarrassed, perhaps also protesting. But don’t give in, insist on arguments, and act in this way, attentive and persistent, every single time, and the day will come when, instead of being a destroyer, it will become one of your best workers—perhaps the most intelligent of all the ones that are building your life.

In other words, make sure that you include “doubt” in the category of things that you doubt. Demand answers from doubt. Press it, interrogate it, require an account for the privileged status it is so often assumes for itself. Insist that it justify its presuppositions, ask it to construct in addition to the much easier task of deconstructing. And, above all, remember that there are higher goals for a human life than doubt. It can be useful, yes, even essential in the building and maintaining of a life; but it must be disciplined and trained. It must be reminded frequently of its limits and of its value as one tool among (many) others in the task of becoming a genuinely human being.

14 Comments Post a comment
  1. As so often, Ryan, a bracing reminder and excellent thoughts. I think you’re quite right that often doubt is a kind of badge of honor, something cool which adheres to certain personality types perhaps, which allows them/us to consider themselves/ourselves separated from “the unreflective and uncritical herd.” But perhaps this kind, which can so easily become prideful, is a lowercase doubt.
    If ever one has had episodes of doubt with a capital D, it’s no mark of pride but a dreadful and quite frightening experience, in which the place beyond it feels only like rescue and to no credit of one’s own. I’ve had perhaps 2 or 3 episodes (periods of time) like that and am not anxious to repeat them. — Then again, perhaps some training like you suggest would have helped me in advance. I’d be interested to have you spin out this kind of discipline and training around doubt a little more.

    March 19, 2013
    • Thank you, Dora, for these kind words… And for the very appropriate nudge to clarify exactly what kind of doubt I’m actually talking about here.

      I appreciate the distinction between doubt and Doubt. In the post, I was absolutely thinking about lowercase doubt. I had in mind the kind of default secularism that permeates much of our public discourse and our culture in general. I was thinking of the delicious pleasures of endless deconstruction, of the angry anti-religious rhetoric that is often quite blind to its own assumptions and the extent to which its values are profoundly borrowed in nature, of crude and oft-rehearsed declarations of the superiority of science and logic over religion (as they were competing for one explanatory slot in a zero-sum game!) and, in Christian circles, of the kind of condescending, smarter/more critical-than-thou, morbidly introspective faith that loves to bash those whose faith is of a more simple variety. There are other examples, of course, but in each of the above there seems to be an undercurrent of pleasure in the doubting—and, usually, pleasure in ridiculing/marginalizing those who are not sophisticated or intelligent enough to understand/embrace the level of complexity and nuance that we (think we) do.

      Capital D Doubt is an entirely different matter. I will always have more respect for this kind of Doubt (not least because I have had my moments here as well!). The existential dread of capital D Doubt can be shattering and profoundly disorienting. This is Doubt that knows of the terror of death, of the implications of a truly meaningless world, and of the sense of alienation and abandonment in a world without God. There is no pleasure in this kind of Doubt, much less a desire to use it to exalt oneself. This Doubt is not an academic exercise or a “position.” This Doubt is personal. As you so rightly say, there is only the hope of rescue from this kind of Doubt.

      Re: the discipline and training part, I wish I had something useful to say here. I wish I could speak from a place of strength and not weakness—a place where I have successfully trained doubt to know its place. But I cannot. I still give doubt and Doubt too much room to roam around unchecked, I fear.

      I will say that I have found it useful to at least attempt to follow the program outlined in my last paragraph. So often, people of faith instinctively default to a kind of defense or justification mode when it comes to matters of faith and doubt. We are so often on the back foot when it comes to the attacks or even honest questions of skeptics. I have found it useful to be a bit more assertive, to ask questions about the assumptions and moral values undergirding this or that objection or protest, to challenge those critical of Christianity to provide a coherent account of their worldview, their understanding of the challenge of evil, their justification for their commitment to truth, etc, etc. At worst, this tends to stall the interrogation :). At best, it can lead to very interesting and fruitful conversations.

      Sorry for rambling. Your comment brought some very interesting things to mind for me…

      March 19, 2013
      • Thank you, I appreciate your taking the time to reply, and your answer is a good one. Your last paragraph did indeed have places to begin. I think even the awareness you have brought to mind in this column will be helpful to me.

        March 19, 2013
      • Tyler #

        ” This is Doubt that knows of the terror of death, of the implications of a truly meaningless world, and of the sense of alienation and abandonment in a world without God. There is no pleasure in this kind of Doubt, much less a desire to use it to exalt oneself. This Doubt is not an academic exercise or a “position.” This Doubt is personal.”

        I somewhat disagree with this sentiment. As you say, this type of doubt is personal and it must be. It would be hard to imagine someone feeling this doubt in a non-personal sense but I digress. There is a certain pleasure in this type of doubt. It is not there at first because the initial feeling is so overwhelming. But, after a bit of adjustment, for me I picture the unchained individual escaping from the cave and seeing the sun for the first time (not trying to imply Platonic truth here), the Doubt becomes a condition to be embraced. It is illuminating and sheds new light on all things familiar. It provides insight where there was none. It brings freshness to the stale world.

        I agree that it is scary and dreadful. But it also is in these moments where we can create, truly create. To borrow from Sartre, it is these moments where we realize we are condemned to be free. Personally, I wish I had more of them.

        March 19, 2013
      • It sounds like you are doing a good job of training your doubt, Tyler :). As in the Rilke quote above, you are using it in the building of a life—and one that evidently has value and purpose.

        One question I might have would have to do with how doubt is working in your view. Is doubt embraced for intrinsic or instrumental purposes? It sounds as though, you appreciate the creative possibilities and the opportunities for insight and truth that the condition of doubt can provide. Doubt has pragmatic value because it leads to better, deeper questions and a truer understanding of the world.

        But operating above the pragmatic level, it seems to me that there are higher values at work that colour your assessment of the value of doubt (we don’t have to call them Platonic… but kinda like that :)). I’m thinking of values like truth, originality, creativity, freedom, etc. My sense (based on this comment and previous conversations we’ve had) is that you do not consider these values to be peculiar to you—that they are, at least in some sense, universal values, or values that should be embraced and implemented on a broader scale than just individual preference.

        It seems to me that the kind of existential capital D Doubt that Dora brought up is an even deeper thing. This kind of Doubt calls even these values into question. This kind of Doubt says, if all the world really is, is matter in motion, then why should we care about abstract, meaningless fictions like value or truth or creativity? I suppose I am thinking that truly capital D Doubt can only end in nihilism. Doubt itself is meaningless here, regardless of what practical or psychological benefits it might confer. This is the kind of doubt that I think many of the current crop of skeptics steer well clear of. The doubt that prevails today is of a much safer kind. It is a doubt that operates within very fixed limits, and which leans heavily on values that its own worldview assumptions struggle to justify.

        March 20, 2013
      • Tyler #

        You make a really good point. My assessment of doubt is coloured by other values I hold. You are correct in stating that there is higher values present and they do operate on a level higher than their pragmatic intention. I don’t have an answer for this. I will say this though is that I don’t think Doubt produces any truth. To me it appears to produce honesty and that is fundamentally different than truth.

        Outside of humanity, or my social interactions with others my values are meaningless. My values are the product of centuries of language, culture and human thought. This doesn’t make them truthful. Maybe this rich history (and capacity to) is what helps them to appear universal in my eyes. Richard Dawkin’s concept of memes is a good analogy. I share his belief that any value emerges out of biology. However, you are correct that this value does produce a world view that has no firm ground to stand on.

        This is why I agree with you when you question that if this world is matter and motion then why we should care about meaningless fictions or value creativity? Well my answer would be something a long the lines of when a painter comes across a blank canvas why do they paint? Because they can and desire to. They are not obliged to but they may choose to. To me this is better (because it is more honest) than convincing yourself there is already a painting there.

        “Doubt itself is meaningless here, regardless of what practical or psychological benefits it might confer.”

        Can you explain to me how, if we assume the bible is correct, that any values would have meaning? What difference does it make if the universe has a being giving meaning on a higher level? How can you say something has meaning without referring to the thing giving the meaning?

        March 21, 2013
      • I like this metaphor of a blank canvas and a painter. Your “because they can and desire to” strikes me as a kind of softer Nietzchean perspective. The chief factor is human will. I can respect that, even if I think there is inevitably more going on. From a Christian perspective, I would say that it’s not about convincing ourselves that “there is already a painting there” (that would be strange indeed!) but, rather, that the desire, the impulse, and the capacity to create respond to something beyond the human self and its arbitrary will—something about how the world genuinely is and ought to be.

        Can you explain to me how, if we assume the bible is correct, that any values would have meaning? What difference does it make if the universe has a being giving meaning on a higher level? How can you say something has meaning without referring to the thing giving the meaning?

        Well, first I would prefer to avoid the statement “the bible is correct.” The bible is more like a library than anything like a unified single “book,” much less a book that is either correct or incorrect in a monolithic kind of way. I think that the books that comprise the Bible must be evaluated according to the genre in which they were written, the truth they were trying to communicate and in the way they were trying to communicate it (i.e., poetry communicates truth very differently than a letter to a church). But that’s just a little aside ☺.

        Re: what difference does the existence of higher meaning make, speaking from a Christian perspective I would say that the main thing a biblical worldview would provide is a sense that the things that we value most, the things that have guided and inspired and motivated human beings for millennia—the conviction that truth is not an arbitrary fiction, the deep sense that beauty is real and transcends personal preference, the strong sense that there are things that are true and good about the world regardless of how partially and inadequately human beings grasp them—exist outside of human perception and cognition.

        From a consistent materialist perspective, nothing escapes the “well, I guess it must have been somehow adaptive or reproductively beneficial somehow” rubric. Whatever else we might think is going on when we pursue truth or beauty or creativity or justice or the good, what’s actually going on is that we are essentially deceiving ourselves. If I believe that these things are real and independent of me (or my culture) and that I was created to resonate with them, that’s a different story. And, I should add, I think that there is nothing inconsistent between the view that human beings were created for purpose and meaning AND saying that our values and emerge over time and are negotiated through a variety of historical/cultural matrices. Nothing about a view that there are objective truths and values out there whose origin is God entails that these truths and values cannot be realized gradually and inconsistently through God’s interaction with human beings across time and space.

        Anyway, long answer. Not sure I expressed myself as well as I would have liked there, but it’s a busy day and I wanted to at least gesture toward a response before my daughter finishes swim club ☺.

        March 21, 2013
      • Tyler #

        Sorry for the late reply and thanks for yours.

        My question for you is why do you require the universal conception of value? Moreover, if value is culturally or biologically derived does that make it any less real? Or, alternatively, if value is divinely inspired does that make it any more real? Where you see deception I do not. There is no deception in saying that “I cannot make any serious claims about reality but choose to value this.” It is a very isolated view, that we are fundamentally alone and atomistic, but deceptive? No. As you say, it values will and also choice.

        In terms of the painter and the desire to paint. Well, I’d say the desire comes from having the capacity too paint. The desire comes from the alternative; not painting. For some we may paint more by numbers, some of us less, and the truly inspired paint with very few numbers. I might call these later bunch artists. Nietzsche might call them free spirits. I’d include Christ in this group because they are fundamentally value creators. There is also another group that stare at the canvas and crumble under the pressure of the canvas and the responsibility it entails. In my opinion, our current culture, is adding to this last group at an alarming rate, but I digress. So when emerge into this world we are confronted with one single choice, to paint or to not paint. Or, as Shakespeare more elegantly put it through the lips of Hamlet…

        To be, or not to be, aye there’s the point

        The happy smile, and the accursed damned.

        March 25, 2013
      • Why do I require a universal conception of value? Well, perhaps in good Nietzschean fashion, this is just the value I prefer, the value I choose… :).

        In all seriousness, I think that this requirement of a universal conception of value is not unique to me. I think all of us share it, even if we might understand it differently or disagree about the nature of this or that value. As always, this is most obvious at the extremes. Is it objectively wrong to abuse children or is this just a kind of provisional cultural consensus we have arrived at (for now)? Is it objectively wrong to buy and sell human beings and force their labour or is this simply a value that we have implicitly agreed upon for now (and might change in the future)? Is it objectively wrong to exterminate people groups based on race or religion or is this a value that we have gradually produced collectively and more or less agree works best right now? Would it have been adequate to say, in the face of, for example, the Rwandan genocide a few years back, “I cannot make any serious claims about reality [i.e., whether or not it is right or wrong for one group of people to systematically attempt to destroy another] but I choose to value this [i.e., the absence of genocide]?” My sense is that all of us would want to say something quite a bit stronger in cases like this.

        (Of course, we could frame things more positively, as well. We could look at instances of beauty and goodness and ask ourselves similar questions about whether these things represent simply the peculiarities of our own biological and cultural development or whether they point beyond this.)

        Again, I would hasten to add that there is nothing contradictory between the view that there are objective truths and values “out there” and the (obvious) awareness that human biology and culture are part of how these values are discovered, shaped, and implemented. Human history is characterized by all kinds of forward and backward steps, but as I understand it, the story is still one of the genuine discovery of things that exist quite apart from us. It is a story of discovering and participating in and giving unique and varied expression to values, not creating them.

        March 26, 2013
  2. James #

    Great article and a fine distinction between doubt and Doubt, Dora. The latter reminds me of Pilgrim’s Progress and “Doubting Castle” owned by the Giant Despair. There is nothing good or “cool” about that Doubt.
    There may be another distinction within lower case “doubt” alluded to in your thought, Ryan. In the classical tradition of doubt called Scepticism [very alive in Jesus' time], there is indeed room for doubting doubt. In that tradition doubt was discipline but not one to be engaged in lightly since it is a knife that cuts both ways. I wonder if what is popularly called “doubt” has more to do a unwillingness to commit than an intellectual exercise.

    March 19, 2013
    • I wonder if what is popularly called “doubt” has more to do a unwillingness to commit than an intellectual exercise.

      I wonder, too, James…. And by “wonder,” I mean “am almost 100% convinced of the truth of” :). So very often, it seems to me, “doubt” is a nice academically respectable, fashionable place to camp for a while—a lifetime, even—while avoiding tougher existential questions such as to whom or to what will I commit my life? It functions like a kind of orthodoxy in the academy. If you deviate from the accepted path, and begin to ask unpopular questions or challenge cherished assumptions, look out! This morning, my brother sent me a sobering article from The Weekly Standard about how the philosopher Thomas Nagel is being mocked and ridiculed for daring to muse along more existential lines, and questioning some of the cherished assumptions of skeptics, wondering if there might be objective meaning in the cosmos, etc. It’s depressing reading indeed. It’s risky business to run afoul of the self-appointed guardians of orthodoxy, whether this orthodoxy is religious or secular in nature…

      March 19, 2013
  3. Tyler #

    The point you make here could equally be made on “tolerance,” the primary virtue of the left. The only thing you cannot be tolerant of is intolerance. This virtue backs itself into a corner that makes it hard to justify any position. Thank you for making me think about this in relation to doubt.

    March 19, 2013
    • Yes, absolutely. One could hardly hope to find a more confused arena of public discourse than in how we use “tolerance” language…

      March 20, 2013
  4. mike #

    ..Whether intentional or not, certain aspects of this post and the ensuing comments have helped me to see some distasteful things about myself that I had previously only vaguely suspected. So let me take this opportunity to confess my self centered arrogance, pride and my often condescending demeanor toward others.* I especially apologize to Joyce.* My attempt on this blog to appear wise and knowledgeable is merely a defense mechanism to mask my fear and ignorance of the Unknown.

    March 21, 2013

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