The Foundation of Doubt

As a tangent to the idea of blind appeal to Scriptural authority, my love and I had a really cool (if short) conversation the other night. We were talking about a discussion over at TWIM, which not too surprisingly involved Quixote, whose ideas we take an interest in from time to time.

The Frontiers of Knowledge

The conversers were tossing around the relevance of rules of induction (how and whether to form conclusions about the general state of things from the particular state of things) to how we doubt, and Quixote said,

I don’t think you can doubt without them. Your doubts are formed or engaged by rules of inference, and in that manner they undergird your doubt. Perhaps we could say they’re more fundamental than doubt.

I said to my love, “Really, he’s saying in a way that truth is more fundamental than doubt.”

To which he said: “Hm, yeah. Doubt has to be based on something.”

Living in Boxes

The interesting thing about induction is that it’s not about 100%-all-the-time-true kind of thinking, it’s about what’s likely to be true and how likely that is. But of more immediate interest to us is the fact that we’ve encountered complete non-recognition of the proper place of inductive reasoning among Christians who genuinely desire to be smarter than to make a bunch of rote, blanket statements of blind appeal to Scriptural authority.

They come out with something like, “Our perception can’t ever be complete or perfect. Therefore we can’t really know truth, only what we each think truth is.”

And there it ends. All truth is relative. We may deduce nothing, even from a plain reading of the Scriptures, nor may it inform our inferences.

The pragmatics we witnessed were pretty horrible — they boiled down to religious universalism, complete confusion on the part of the would-be thinkers, and utter lostness in attempting to rightly divide the word of truth, to borrow a phrase from an ancient and venerable intellect. These people were swept to and fro by every opinion — first happy in a box of their own making, then squirming to get out of it as soon as they encountered an authoritative-seeming relabelling of it.

That type of thinking destroys personal freedom. This sort of Christian relativism holds a self-contained principle that it provides the only way to handle doctrinal differences. To be truly meek toward others, complete moral and theological relativism is required by Christian love. That means anytime somebody thinks a thing is wholly right or wholly true, they’ve committed a sin against those around them.

After all, who are we to say the other guy’s truth isn’t true, even if it contradicts ours? That’s so not humble. We could be wrong, you know. Better use a chastened epistemology: absolutely no absolutes.

The Function of Doubt

What is truth?

Another famous personage said that one, and shrugged and turned away; and I believe we stand in his shoes before the mob if we join him in his viewpoint, asking to be commanded by popular opinion according to the mood of the moment.

There’s a corresponding cliche that the only true humility toward God, or life, or others, is a stance of doubt; yet it doesn’t reference genuine doubt, only a decision not to examine. Genuine doubt is based on a fundamental, underlying truth: there are functional operating standards which allow us to examine if and when a thing is true, how often that turns out to be the case, and whether the correlating factors are consistently correspondent or variable, or somewhere in between.

If doubts are founded on inference, there is room to doubt our doubts, to question whether they’re founded on correct presuppositions, and what we really know about that grey frontier where reliable inference fades from grasp. If we do not doubt our doubts, we are operating on a form of faith — one that stands in opposition to the truths which undergird doubt.

It was out in that grey space, in doubting my doubts, that I unexpectedly encountered truth that set me free. It would have been easier to just relabel the box. But then what?