Tuesday, December 27, 2011

A Perpetual State of Doubt

But now I have come to believe that the whole world is an enigma, a harmless enigma that is made terrible by our own mad attempt to interpret it as though it had an underlying truth.  ~Umberto Eco, Foucault's Pendulum

As this year draws to a close I and you naturally reflect on the year that was I realized that despite the restaurant taking over most of my time and being the focus of most of what I have been doing since May, as a dominant story in my inner life it has possibly played second fiddle to a new found respect for the state of doubt. Doubt gets a bad wrap in my opinion, naturally people want to alleviate themselves of it, they want answers, and in that I think we find one of the more noble aspects of humanity- our search for answers and truth to what existence actually is. The flip side of this is that in order to alleviate ourselves of this sometimes uncomfortable state we just make shit up, make horribly unfounded assumptions and can often find ourselves basing much of our lives on completely unfounded beliefs.

The most obvious can be religion, which I don't really feel like picking on in this post, but it is very low hanging fruit for an example. The more I have traveled and experienced religion all over the world the more absurd it all seems to me. Beliefs for instance here insist that bells have to be wrung to wake up spirits or ward off bad luck etc, and yet in other places around the planet this doesn't happen and one experiencing this would have to thus wonder if people around the rest of the world are less lucky or do their house spirits never wake up on time? Maybe, but at what point did it become clear to people that there were house spirits that had to be woken, or that bells would ward off bad luck? I'm not sure, but it seems to me that a lot of people have made up a lot of shit in order to fill in the gaps of what we just don't know.

Rene Descartes famously declared, in what may be my favorite example of horribly done philosophy, "I think therefore I am." His assertion was derived from some very poorly argued assumptions, but his major failing was that he never pushed doubt far enough. He famously creates a description of the possibility that we are being deceived by a demon, and this has been in modern times used as the mad scientist, or something like the story line for The Matrix. How do we know we are not just a brain in a vat somewhere? How do we know that our sensory perceptions are not being fed to us by some outside force, that this is all an illusion? Essentially we don't, but Descartes failed to also see that it is not enough to doubt our perception, we must also doubt our ability to see things clearly, to understand the very basis of what we are trying to answer. Just as you can't teach most dogs calculus, we may not be able to comprehend a good part of what is going on around us. Why was it that the demon in Descartes example couldn't keep his from seeing the obvious answer? Why could his perception be doubted but not his ability to decipher it?  All Descartes could really show is that thinking was going on, and experience was taking place, that there was an "owner" to those things even would have to be doubted if you took things back as far as they can go and not just to a convenient stopping point that allows you to be an apologist between god and science. What got in the way of Descartes finding an answer was that instead of actually asking an honest question, he went in search of a question that gave his desired answer.

My point here is that this isn't so much about doubt, as it is about just being honest. It's about really coming to terms with your situation, and just having the courage to really question every single thing and not being afraid of just admitting that you just don't know the answers to some things. Or as often that the answers do not fall in line with some preconceived notion about how the world is "supposed" to work. It also means being open to the fact that the things you think you know could well indeed be entirely wrong. In the previous paragraph I noted how we need to question our very ability to comprehend our experience in life, and I have often heard religious folk use this same argument as an argument for their side, as if a lapse in a scientific or logical explanation of existence is like a belief vacuum which must be instantly filled. This is not the case, some empty spots are just better left blank if you really don't know the answer. Before 1859 (and sadly to this day for the most part) the world at large had no understanding of how evolutionary processes create diverse life forms. Sure there were plenty of unfounded theories you could fill that gap with, but your best answer as to how these things came about would have been to just say, "I don't know".

But this also highlights that just because something hasn't been answered doesn't mean that it can't be answered. The evolution of our understanding of evolution (no pun intended) also highlights how even though we might kind of figure some things out it doesn't mean we have the perfect definitive answer. How we understand evolutionary theory today and how Darwin first wrote about them are very similar at their core, but at the same time there is also a tremendous difference. I have to also be open to the fact that should evidence come forth that overturns all of these beliefs, no matter how well founded they seem, that you attempt to be unbiased and not cling to certain concepts and ideas about how things are. We have a horrible tendency to try and make the world conform to how we want to see it, instead of being a bit more discerning and allowing our experience dictate to us how it actually is.

I don't know if there is anything beyond direct experience, I don't know what the meaning of life is, I've never had any direct experience that would lead me to conclude that there is anything more than what I've been experiencing for the last 35 years of life, but not knowing is also not affirming the negative. While I strongly suspect that Hinduism isn't true, maybe after I'm dead I'll be greeted by some blue dude with a trident, but I'm not betting on it. I don't have all the answers, but I'm ok with that. I've become comfortable with doubt, it's not about having all the answers, but knowing which questions are still worth asking.

1 comment:

  1. Good post. Interestingly, I was planning on writing something to a similar effect, though from a different point, slightly, over the next couple days when I found time.


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