Wednesday, September 05, 2007

The believer's doubt

The Apostate disagrees with my recent post on Doubt, faith, certainty and conviction. The Apostate is a sharp cookie (that's why I married her), so let me clarify my position.

Of course, I cannot read minds, nor am I equipped to undertake sophisticated experiments in cognitive science, so what follows is speculation about the mental processes of skeptics and believers.

As a skeptic, I think I'm on pretty firm ground when I describe the thought processes of skeptics, at least skeptics who think like I do.

First of all, everyone is certain about the content of his or her experiences as experiences. I may be uncertain or unconvinced about the veracity of my experiences, but I cannot be uncertain about their existence. The pencil may or may not really be bent, but when I put it in a bowl of water, I'm certain that I see it as bent. If I drop a lot of acid, there might not really be a pink elephant walking down the street, but I'm certain I'm seeing one. Certainty about experience as experience is not unique to the skeptic, it's a fact of human experience, perhaps a fact of all minds.

The skeptic's doubt starts when her conviction regarding the interpretation of some experience contradicts her convictions about the world. This internal contradiction causes distress, but the skeptic instantly quells her distress by becoming unconvinced about her interpretation of the experience or her beliefs about the world. Her uncertainty about these beliefs is evidenced by her loss of conviction: The definition of uncertainty is that you can become unconvinced.

The skeptic then resolves her lack of conviction by altering her interpretation of the experience or altering her beliefs about the world until she becomes convinced of both without internal contradiction. But the doubt doesn't stop there: She still must determine that her resolution is the simplest by considering alternatives. To do so, she must at least provisionally suspend each of her convictions in turn, singly and in groups. Of course, one cannot in practice suspend all of one's convictions, so there are heuristics both for determining whether an explanation is at least simple enough as to require no further examination as well as for determining which beliefs are most productively questioned.

The believer's doubt starts in exactly the same way: A contradiction between conviction regarding the interpretation of an experience and one's beliefs about the world. It is in the resolution of the contradiction that the believer departs from the skeptic.

(Religious belief generally revolves around ethics, and the typical contradiction the moderate believer faces is between some ethical "truth" revealed by her religion and her own natural ethical intuition.)

The fanatic believer is certain about his beliefs about the world—there is no possibility of changing them—so he instantly resolves his doubt by changing his interpretation of the experience. The submissive believer is certain about the initial interpretation of experience, so he instantly resolves his doubt by changing his beliefs about the world. Believers tend to be submissive regarding experiences that relate to their chosen authority—if the priest or guru says so, it must be true—and fanatic regarding experiences that don't relate to their authority.

The "moderate" believer, though, is in a hell of a bind. She is certain about her beliefs about the world and certain about her interpretation of experience, and so the distress at the contradiction just sits there, instead of being instantly resolved by the loss of conviction. The moderate believer may say she is uncertain, that she is willing in principle to alter one of her beliefs, but she does not actually do so, at least not at first.

It is the distress at the contradiction of certainty that the moderate believer mistakes as "doubt".

Furthermore, the moderate believer (if she is to stay a moderate believer) resolves the contradiction by exchanging one certainty for another. There is never a state where the believer is just unconvinced. If we take the willingness to be just unconvinced as the sine qua non of intellectual honesty, then the moderate believer is in a sense less intellectually honest than either the fanatic or the submissive: At least the latter are willing to be unconvinced about something, even if their thought processes are lopsided and generally authoritarian. And that's if the moderate even bothers to resolve the contradiction at all and doesn't just wave her "God works in mysterious ways" hands and refuse to think about the issue.

We see a perfect example of this sort of cognitive dissonance passing as "doubt" in Mother Theresa's diaries. She was certain about her beliefs about the world (Catholic dogma about God) as well as her interpretation of her experience as God being absent. But she didn't abandon any of her convictions (hence the conclusion of certainty).


  1. It seems to me that believers are caught in a bind when it comes to doubt. Doubt is only lauded when it leads to a reinforcement of faith or, at the worst, is something you soldier on carrying while continuing to believe. Actually finding the doubt more persuasive is considered pernicious.

  2. Central to the thesis is the definition of "doubt" as abandonment of conviction.

    The skeptic abandons conviction, at least provisionally, about all conclusions. The fanatic and submissive believer abandons only half his conclusions. The moderate or conflicted believer does not abandon her conviction at all, she merely replaces one certainty with another.

  3. I read something once about the psychology of conversion and the process by which one ego state replaces another. Doubt may act as a catalyst for The Ego Exchange Program, but there's obviously more to it than just doubt. Sometimes the doubt or distress can lead to even more extreme version of the previous ego’ beliefs just to compensate for the aforementioned doubt.

    You're right about "mistaking the distress for the doubt," but many people don't want to leave their comfort zones, which is what this distress can potentially lead to. Some people can't or don't want to handle it, or they're not equipped to handle it. So… how does one construct an ego for a smoother transition to disbelief of patently false (but perceived as comforting) beliefs?

  4. I think this all hinges too much on the definition of doubt. If you grant my definition -- the 'discomfort' to me denotes 'doubt' -- I'm right. If we stick with your definition which calls for a resolution of the discomfort, you're right.

    But regardless of the resolution of the discomfort, we both seem to be agreeing that there is something that sets the whole process off (in the moderate believer) and I don't know why we can't grant that it is, in fact, doubt. Also, sometimes a moderate religionist's doubt does get resolved (to their satisfaction, if not to ours) in the form (say) of a reinterpretation of whatever it was in their faith that seemed to be warring with nature, science, or ethics. What then? Was it not doubt because it didn't lead to unbelief? You seem to find it difficult to credit that the believer is ever unconvinced, or even willing to be so, if presented with sufficient evidence. I am tempted to agree, but that is guessing too much at the internal processes of someone's head.

    Take another situation - when a person has faith, but admits that they could be wrong, that there are certain things (not just ethical things) that don't make sense, but for which they can't find an explanation that satisfies. Isn't that admitting of doubt?

    But since mere doubt is a paltry substitute for dispassionate critical examination of one's convictions anyway, I don't know why we shouldn't just accept that among other self-contradictions and intellectual dishonesties, the believer also manages to experience genuine doubt. The believer, after all, is a hodge-podge of idiocies and a mass of wrong-thinking in any event -- why NOT throw in doubt to further complicate and render intellectual the brew of nonsense they're wedded to?

  5. I think an understanding specifically of "doubt" helps resolve the persistent moderate religious criticism of skepticism, atheism and scientism as lacking doubt, as being just as "fanatic" as the religious extremists.

    Skeptical doubt actually does resemble fanatic-submissive ideation more than it does moderate ideation. Neither the skeptic nor the fanatic-submissive is ever (apparently) tortured by the cognitive dissonance of competing certainty.

    The moderate gets stuck on the contradiction precisely because she can't doubt: She lacks the mental flexibility to adjust any of her certainties. She interprets the lack of confidence that comes from this sort of contradiction as "doubt", and confidence as the lack of doubt.

  6. As usual, your philosophy is a bit over my head. But I'm glad I read both posts (I think I got something out of them. I'm probably one of stupid atheists you mentioned)!

    Maybe you clarified this, and I missed it, but how do you differentiate the "believer" and the "skeptic"? In other words, as Homo sapiens, what is the dividing line? If a "believer" is not really experiencing doubt, then how do we account for the fact that the majority of skeptical thinkers will tell you that at one time they were anywhere (on a continuum), from convinced to absolute certainty about one dogma or another? At what point do they make some metaphysical "jump" from belief to your version of true doubt, in order to leap out of the belief camp and into the skeptic one?

    Incidentally, Brussels sprouts are one of the truly great vegetables of all time. Well cooked (but not too soft), cut in half, with just a hint of butter - delicious. I have no doubt about this. I have faith that if you ate some with me at Thanksgiving, you would enjoy them. Even my wife's solemn prayer before dinner wouldn't ruin the experience.

  7. John: Don't give me this "over your head" bullshit. If there is any flaw, it's not in your understanding but in the clarity and precision of my writing

    I don't really differentiate the believer and the skeptic: I'm using a trope of personalizing modes of thought. There is really the skeptical and the believer mode of thought, which people employ in varying proportions.

    It's difficult for me to understand the more abstract thought processes that change a person's less abstract processes from belief-mode to skeptic-mode; I've been a skeptic all my life, and the believe-mode thought processes hold no appeal for me.

    From my conversations with believers (people who often employ belief-mode thought processes) who converted to skeptics (rarely employ belief-mode), the biggest factor seems to be unhappiness with the mental gyrations necessary to reconcile belief with the evidence of their senses coupled with the awareness that there is a live alternative. It's notable the more totalitarian (i.e. cultish) the social system, the more the subjects are physically and ideologically insulated from alternative ideas.

  8. Barefoot Bum said: "John: Don't give me this "over your head" bullshit. If there is any flaw, it's not in your understanding but in the clarity and precision of my writing"

    NO! I'm serious. It isn't just you, so I doubt it's your clarity. I have the same problem with guys I admire a lot, like Dan Dennett. I "get" some of what he is saying and makes it worthwhile to struggle with it, but I can't claim to have a deep understanding of everything he is saying.

    You obviously have more than a passing interest in philosophy. You know a lot. My layman's interest in it is VERY passing! I do appreciate what certain philosophical traditions have to offer. Yours in one of them and why I visit here. Believe me - it's more to learn than to contribute.

  9. John: I'm of the opinion that if a normally intelligent reader is interested in a subject, and he doesn't fully understand what an author is saying on that subject, it is author who is at fault, not the reader.

    If there's something you don't understand, please ask specific questions so I can improve my presentation. I expect someday to turn the contents of this blog into a book, so I need all the help I can get to make my work as clear as possible.

  10. You got it.

    Please remember me in acknowledgements. John, with an "h".


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