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Two Kinds of Doubt

I love discovering new conflations.   Or rather, I love discovering that there’s a conflation being bandied about that I hadn’t noticed before.  You see, I believe that a substantial number of disagreements, misunderstandings, and in general, a lot of the problems in the world, are caused by conflations.  There are two common ways in which conflations cause problems:

  1. Internally.  Sometimes, we don’t recognize the distinction between two concepts, and use them interchangeably in our critical thinking.
  2. Externally.  Sometimes, we use a word that can be easily conflated, and assume that the person hearing our argument is using the same definition that we are.

This taps into one of the most basic problems with language.  It is at best a fallible and incomplete tool for information transfer between humans.  There is no “solution” to the fallibility of language.  All we can do is go to whatever lengths we can to make sure that we are reducing the possibility of misunderstanding to a minimum.

With this in mind, I’d like to introduce my newly discovered conflation:  Doubt.

When I was a Christian, I went to my youth ministers from time to time and expressed doubts about some of the things I was being taught.   I was told that doubt is a common emotion and that the power of my faith would overcome my doubts.

When I went to college, I was taught that doubt is the foundation of knowledge, since the word itself embodies the principle of the Burden of Proof.  I was taught to methodically and unceasingly doubt every claim, and to demand proof appropriate to the weight of the concept in contention.

As with so many other words, theists and atheists are speaking two entirely different languages when they say “doubt.”   The word can apply to an emotion or a methodology.   The emotional context of doubt is difficult to pin down, but what we can say is that like other emotional states, it’s physiological.  I clearly remember breaking out in a cold sweat when I realized that I wasn’t certain that I was going to heaven.  We can all relate to the emotion of doubt.  We’ve all waited nervously by the phone for one reason or another.  The anxiety is real.

When I was told to let my faith overcome doubt, I was really being taught to let one emotion overcome another. Faith, by definition, is not evidence, so any feeling of certainty had to come from somewhere else.   The concept of heaven is really nice to a believer.  Believing that we are unconditionally loved by a father figure who wants only the best for us is equally attractive.  Believing that we are “chosen,” or “special” in the eyes of God feels very good.  When I experienced uncertainty, I focused on the positive feelings I had when I was certain, and tried to let those feelings quell any negative emotions.  Usually, this approach was relatively effective.

It was also an internal conflation.  My doubt came in two forms — emotional and intellectual — but the intellectual was first.  Something just didn’t make sense.  If my memory serves me right, the first serious doubts I developed came from the question of all the non-Christians who had never even heard of Jesus.  None of the answers to this theological problem seemed sufficient to me.   The intellectual doubt led to questions.  The questions led to possibilities, and those possibilities gave me the emotion of doubt.  Unfortunately, the first few times I discovered the intellectual doubt, I responded by applying emotion to the problem.

(As an aside, this is one of the manifestations of faith-based reasoning.  Since logic and evidence are specifically distrusted, faith-based reasoning encourages emotional decisions, and as readers of my blog know, emotions are nature’s way of getting us to do things we wouldn’t rationally do otherwise.  They are not to be trusted.)

For the learned critical thinker, doubt is specifically not emotional.  In fact, doubt as a method is particularly useful when we are experiencing strong emotions because it forces us to try to find an answer regardless of any emotional attachment we have to any potential solutions.   Doubt is the consistent, unyielding application of the Burden of Proof.  A skeptic is a person who attempts to apply this method to all areas of life.  He believes that until and unless a thing is proven true, it is treated as if it is not true.

Intellectual, methodological doubt is hard.  The cold reality of life is that things often are as bad as they seem, and scam artists really are all over the place, and if it’s too good to be true, it’s false.   These realities aren’t pleasant to think about, and sometimes they make us feel sad or depressed or hopeless.  Real doubt can and often does make our life more emotionally difficult because it forces us to face reality squarely instead of relying on blind optimism to make us feel better while we’re fiddling and the fires are blazing.

To add an interesting twist to this entire line of thinking, we should note that faith-based reasoning actually facilitates a disconnect between the two versions of doubt.  When I, a skeptic, feel intellectual doubt about something important, I also feel emotional doubt.  Likewise, when I feel emotional doubt, I am alerted that I need to put my brain in high gear and look for signs of cognitive dissonance, or for unsupported claims.  The emotion and the intellect work in conjunction.  If I feel emotional doubt, and my intellect convinces me that I have sufficiently accounted for the Burden of Proof, and have good reason to believe a claim, that knowledge eases my emotions.  For the faith based theist, the emotion of doubt is a call to avoid intellectual inquiry and tap into an alternate emotional reserve.   In fact — and I am remembering this happening to me — Doubt and Doubt become opposed!  When I began applying critical thought to Christianity, the more intellectual certainty I achieved, the more emotional doubt I experienced!

So, the moral of the story is that emotional doubt may or may not be valid.  We may be emotionally uncertain about something that is actually set in stone, or certain about something that is completely false.   Intellectual, methodological doubt, however, should be our default state of existence at all times.  When we hear someone talking about alleviating doubts, we need to remember to ask ourself if we’re supposed to be feeling emotional certainty or if we’re being encouraged to explore every possible argument for or against a claim to satisfy the Burden of Proof.  I’m going to start watching for this conflation more.  I hope you, gentle readers, will do so as well.




One thought on “Two Kinds of Doubt

  1. “In fact — and I am remembering this happening to me — Doubt and Doubt become opposed!”

    Ah! Nice observation. I’ll have to ponder that one.

    Having never been religious, I’ve always favoured intellectual doubt, and usually respond to emotional doubt with curiosity and an attempt to learn the truth. In wonderism, I associate doubt with wonder, in this sense of sparking curiosity. However, I can appreciate now what you mean about emotional doubt as something more akin to ‘fear of being dreadfully wrong’. “But… but… if my parents already have the presents from Santa in their closet, …. ”

    Doubt in this sense throws one into chaos and confusion, lacking a solid foundation. Falling from the mountain into the abyss, metaphorically speaking.

    Ultimately, as usual, this is a base fear of the unknown. Perhaps doubt is something that can shift one way or the other, depending. Doubt with curiosity is associated with wonder, whereas doubt tinged with fear is more along the lines of dread, apprehension, anxiety, angst, etc.

    Hmmm. Thanks for the brain food.

    Posted by Wonderist | January 26, 2011, 10:02 pm

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