On the Value of Doubt

“A faith that has never been doubted is not as valuable or authentic as a faith that has been doubted.” Hang around discussions of Mormonism for long and you’ll hear some variation on this claim. I’m skeptical. To be clear, I see nothing wrong or sinful about doubt. I believe that it can be a productive and positive force in one’s life. On the other hand, I don’t think that it is the good-house-keeping seal of intellectual legitimacy. In other words, there is nothing wrong with doubt, and doubt can be good. I don’t think that doubt necessarily makes one’s faith better.

I’ve got basically two reasons. The first is philosophical and the second is theological. First the philosophical reason. It is a common place of modern thought that true knowledge and intellectual respectability comes from doubting one’s beliefs and subjecting them to the highest possible level of hostile scrutiny. This is an idea that no one really had until the seventeenth century. This doesn’t mean that it is wrong. Sometimes progress happens, and new truths are discovered. On the other hand, we ought to be suspicious of ideas that require that we believe that lots of demonstrably smart people — Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, and Aquinas to name a few — were really dumb. The doubt-as-intellectual-legitimater idea has its origins in Descartes, who famously tried to subject all of his beliefs to systematic doubt until he found one that could not be doubted — “I think therefore I am” — from which he then reconstructed his beliefs. The overwhelming consensus, I think, is that Descartes philosophical project was a failure. First, it was a failure because the argument that he uses to save himself from skepticism and solipicism — the beliefs that I know nothing and I am the only mind in the universe — is basically specious. (It is a modified version of the ontological argument for the existence of God.) Now, you might take it as a sign of great philosophical courage and sophistication to embrace skepticism and solipcism, but it is probably better to think of them as a reductio ad absurdum. The second reason for Descartes’ failure is that it turns out he actually doesn’t doubt nearly as much as he thinks he does, and his point of radical doubt is actually chock full of unacknowledged assumptions. Now one might assume that this means that one should be even more radical in one’s doubt, and begin the reconstruction of knowledge from even thinner premises. It is not really clear that one can do this, however. There always seem to be unquestioned assumptions lurking in our thought, and systematically extirpating them doesn’t seem to be possible.

My second reason for doubting that doubt is the ultimate legitimater of faith, is that it seems fundamentally self-centered. It makes the arbiter of spiritual value into an individual psychological state through which one’s beliefs must past. The heart of the Christ’s message, it seems to me, is that it isn’t all about you. Even the most private of spiritual events — personal salvation — seems to be social, involving relationships with God, Christ, and those to whom we are sealed. Furthermore, everything that I read in the scriptures suggests that righteous action is considerably more important that justified belief. To be sure, the scriptures encourage us to be able to give an answer to any man that asks for the hope that is in us, but try as I might I can’t read this as an endorsement of Descartes. To be sure, the scriptures — especially the New Testament — exalt faith as a great virtue. However, I don’t think that “faith” in this context simply means belief. I certainly don’t think that it means something like “belief justified in Cartesian terms” or alternatively “belief engaged in as an act of existential choice in the face of courageous engagement with doubt.” Rather, I think that it means something much simpler, like trust in Christ or trust in God. Issues of doubt, epistemic justification, and existential choice simply aren’t part of the message. This doesn’t mean that they are evil or even that they aren’t valuable. It just means that they aren’t at the center of what it means to be faithful and righteous, and I take it that this is what ultimately justifies us in God’s sight. Hence, I really don’t see a reason for judging the sophisticated faith of the doubting intellectual as superior to the undoubting faith of the non-intellectual. Nor do I think that this requires a patronizing affirmation of the “simple faith” of others. I tend to find the sophisticated faith of the doubting intellectual to be more interesting, but I suspect that this has more to do with my personal temperament than with cosmic truth. I certainly don’t think that what I find interesting can act as some sort of legitmater of what sort of religious life is most valuable.

A final, and largely unrelated point: It is a mistake to equate doubt with questioning or curiosity. Lots of thinkers before Descartes were puzzled about things. Lots of them had questions to which they did not have answers. What they didn’t do was assume that the legitimacy of a belief hinged on subjecting it to “rigorous” and “radical” doubt. As an intellectual matter, I actually find the pre-Cartesian justification for intellectual life much more appealing. Descartes thought that philosophy was a matter of using doubt to gain certainty. The earliest Greek philosophers, however, saw philosophy as curiosity in the face of the wonder of the universe. Ultimately, their quest was driven by wonder rather than by doubt. Regardless of the theological merits of this approach, I think that intellectually it is a lot more fun.

46 comments for “On the Value of Doubt

  1. Nate:

    I think skepticism is built into Mormon theology through “Moroni’s Promise”. Those desiring to be converted are challenged to to ask if “these things are not true.” Does testing that promise constitute an element of doubt?

  2. Nate Oman: “It is a mistake to equate doubt with questioning or curiosity.”

    John Henry Cardinal Newman: “Ten thousand difficulties do not equal one doubt.”

  3. “Behold, I would exhort you that when ye shall read these things, if it be wisdom in God that ye should read them, that ye would remember how amerciful the Lord hath been unto the children of men, from the creation of Adam even down until the time that ye shall receive these things, and bponder it in your chearts. And when ye shall receive these things, I would exhort you that ye would ask God, the Eternal Father, in the name of Christ, if these things are not true; and if ye shall ask with a sincere heart, with real intent, having faith in Christ, he will manifest the truth of it unto you, by the power of the Holy Ghost. And by the power of the Holy Ghost ye may know the truth of all things. And whatsoever thing is good is just and true; wherefore, nothing that is good denieth the Christ, but acknowledgeth that he is.” (Moroni 10:3-6)

    This doesn’t sound like subjecting one’s beliefs to the crucible of doubt to me. Notice, for example, that he calls us to pray in the context of memories of God’s other works. Furthermore, the end result is not certainty or even “faith in the face of doubt.” It is a testimony of the goodness of the work and an acknowledgment of Christ. Now for investigators mired in the categories of modernism, I have no problem with using this passage rhetorically as a sort of doubt resolving formula. On the other hand, it seems to me that here we are talking about getting faith, which is less a matter of conquering doubt than trusting God. It is not that we trust in the face of doubt, or that trust operates as something we rely on instead of knowledge. We just trust. Questions of doubt and certainty don’t seem to really be an issue in the text.

  4. Notice also that we’re asking if ‘these things are not true,’ which if I’m not putting too much weight on the language seems to sugges that you’re coming from a position of already thinking they are and wanting confirmation. Notice also that you are asking while in the state of ‘having faith in Christ.’

  5. Nate, I think on your first point, you’re wrong in the genealogy of the notion of doubt. It was Socrates who said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” This overstates the importance of self-reflection, to be sure. Decartes innovation was the subjectivication of knowledge, not the introduction of doubt. (This has it’s advantages, but it makes it hard to explain (say) how logarithm table can constitute knowledge when nobody knows them in any subjective sense.) But it goes back even further than Socrates.

    As far as the earliest Greek philosopher, I take it you mean the pre-Socractics, I think that your characterization of their approach is wrong–and this also bears on the genesis of the notion that doubt is important. Before they came along, schools were static, expounding the views of the founder with religious reverence and expelling heretics. In the pythagorean school, there’s the legend that Hippasus was thrown overboard by his fellow Pythagoreans when he discovered that the square root of two couldn’t be expressed in the Pythagorean number system. Whether or not this actually happened, it is in keeping with what often occurred at school.

    Thales, however, started a school based on critical thinking. He seems to have encouraged his students to attack his own views. Anaximander’s cosmology is best viewed as an answer to the inadequacies seen by a pupil in his teacher (Thales’) work. (And it’s quite a remarkable one, wherein he anticipate the modern view of how the earth floats in space due to gravity-like forces.) Far from being thrown overboard, Anaximander’s teachings became part of the school. As did the criticisms of Anaximines to Anaximander’s system.

    In short, you have the genesis of what we call critical reasoning right there with Thales (and thus the germ of the entire edifice of Western thought). Now, critical thinking isn’t doubt, as such. But it certainly entails it. For my part, I hold Thales methodological innovation of requesting decent rather than squelching it to be the birth-moment of western thought as we know it. And western thought, as we know it, is a tradition of critical reasoning and problem solving nthan frequently requires doubt to play a large role. In any case, I think that you’re wrong to try to claim that the ethic that places a high value on doubt has arrived so lately on the scene.

    I also agree with Paul Mortensen. I think that a religion with such a strong emphasis on proselytizing (not just Mormonism, but historical Christianity) has to look on doubt as a good thing insofar one key outcome of missionary work is to usually to induce doubt in many of the beliefs held prior to contact with missionaries. It won’t do to draw a line at the point of conversion and say, “After this point, doubt is not constructive and can be dangerous.”

  6. Nate:

    I like your response except that I don’t have a clear understanding of how you define “doubt.” You interpret Moroni 10:3-6 as a guide for increasing trust in God but trust is something measured on a sliding scale with its counterweight being doubt. Do you have some alternative to doubt as the counterbalance of faith? You seem to be interpreting the concept of “doubt” as something necessarily profound, or critical, or foundational.

  7. DKL: Why shoudl we assume that examination, curiousity, and inquiry are the same thing as doubt? I am not suggesting that someone how questioning or critical inquiry didn’t exist before Descartes. I am not even claiming the doubt and skepticism didn’t exist before Descartes. Rather, I am claiming that the notion that no belief was legitimate that had not been subjected to systematic doubt was a Cartesian innovation. This is a different claim that Socrates’ that the best life is one that is examined, which seems to me to be different than saying that the best life is one that has been doubted.

    As I tried to make clear, I have no objection to doubt per se. Indeed, I think that doubt can be a healthy and productive force. I simply want to resist that the notion that it can be made into either a spiritual or intellectual master virtue.

  8. Nate, I said myself that they weren’t the same thing as doubt. I do hold, however, that they entail embracing doubt as constructive. I don’t believe that (in practice)anybody really holds doubt as such to be more important than the overall program of critical thinking that it is a part of.

    After all, doubt alone is pretty pointless (when I was a teenage, a popular, but pointless, reply to a yes or no question was, “I doubt it.”). Even Descartes’ vaunted doubting methodology was more than mere doubting. Doubt must be considered as part of a more expansive, critical methodology in order to take on any significance whatever.

    And Socrates was certainly not advocating the examination of just a few things when he said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” He was advocating the examination of all things. That’s how he arrives at the oddly Cartesian maxim that true knowledge is knowing that you know nothing.

  9. Not knowing philosophy anywhere close to as well you do, Nate, I hesitate to make an offender for a word. But while I don’t know exact titles and publication dates, I suspect Bacon beat Descartes to the punch on methodological skepticism (‘doubt as method’), even if Descartes must be credited with really trying to take it all the way and coining the memorable motto. Also, I think the innocent ‘light of wonderment’ in which you bathe the Greeks is a tad artificial. I gather there was pretty thoroughgoing skepticism among some Greeks; and while for many of these it was ‘terminal’ rather than productive of knowledge, my naive impression of Socrates is that he comes pretty close to methodological skepticism—at least close enough for his views to be misunderstood and considered worthy of death.

    These trivialities aside, I agree with your substantive point that doubt is nowhere lauded or considered part of a faithful ‘way of being’ in the scriptures. I too am quite uncomfortable with formulations that would make a superior mixture of ‘faithful doubt.’ Having said that, the tangible fruits of methodological skepticism in the realm of science are so abundant as to be undeniable. It has limits, and therefore in principle can be kept subordinate to the gospel way of being that claims to transcend these limits. But its potency as a potentially competing worldview should not be dismissed out of hand either, out of pastoral awareness if nothing else.

  10. Christian: All I can say now is to reiternate two points: One, questioning and inquiry is not the same as doubt, although they are clearly related in some sense. (Frankly, I think that idea that one can equate Descartes methodology with Socrates’ — if indeed it even makes sesne to say that Socrates had a methodology — is ridiculous. For example, the Socratic dialogue seems to assume that we have intuitions about things like justice and knowledge against which we can measure our theories about them.) Two, I don’t doubt the value of doubt in many contexts.

  11. “I don’t doubt the value of doubt in many contexts.”

    But how can you truly appreciate doubt if you refuse to doubt its value?

    By the way, here are the scriptural uses of the word doubt. All in all, it does not appear that doubt holds an exalted role.

  12. But how can you truly appreciate doubt if you refuse to doubt its value?

    This is exactly the sort of Gödel-like recursive statement with the power to shake pure rationalism to its roots. But not empiricism… ;->

  13. Nate, my position on doubt and critical reasoning is akin to Sammy Kahn’s lyrical view of love and marriage; viz., you can’t have one without the other.

    But I don’t wish to equate Descarte’s methodology with Socrates. In fact, I think that’s an insult to Socrates. Moreover, it’s a mistake to equate Descarte’s claim to doubt everything as the differentiating factor in his philosophy. As I stated above, it’s his formulation of subjective view of epistemology.

    Perhaps we’ll just have to agree to disagree on the history. I take you’re statement, “we ought to be suspicious of ideas that require that we believe that lots of demonstrably smart people — Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, and Aquinas to name a few — were really dumb” to be reflective of a mistaken historical view of positivism, too. In any case, conventional wisdom has it that positivists (among whom I generally count myself–after much doubt and examination, I might add) are terrible historians, so you’ve got that much on your side at the very least.

  14. Nate, I never claimed equivalence between Socrates and Descartes (or should we say, Bacon).

    Let me ask a question in the putative spirit of curiosity, examination, and wonderment sans doubt: Do the scriptures not consider doubt a part of faith because faith without doubt really is superior, or only because the scriptures came out of worldview in which no one had yet thought of methodological skepticism?

  15. Christian,

    “Do the scriptures not consider doubt a part of faith because faith without doubt really is superior, or only because the scriptures came out of worldview in which no one had yet thought of methodological skepticism?”

    Try this on and see if you agree.

    If the scriptures don’t consider doubting an important aspect of faith, this is a reasonably good argument that neither should we. Put another way, the scriptures are likely the best available guide to understanding how to work with faith, and we would probably do better adopting a scriptural worldview of faith rather than discounting the scriptural approach because we cling to our favored worldview (ie, the traditions of our fathers).

  16. Frank, yes, I agree that is a good answer. But it addresses only the superficial content of my #15. ;-> My true intent was not to introduce a threadjack on competing worldviews (though I will note that the fact that Aristotle was a very smart guy is not, in light of subsequent developments, a valid reason for accepting his mechanics or cosmology). The ‘esoteric intent’ of #15 was to, by explicit example, echo DKL’s point about the impossibility of separating curiosity and examination from exposure to doubt. (But then, we already knew that from common wisdom about curiosity and cats.) The felicitous term “wonderment” is not a big enough rug to sweep this under.

  17. DKL: I am not trying to offer a summary of Descartes’ philosophy, or even of its most important element, only of its contribution to our ways of thinking about the importance of doubt. As for positivism, I don’t think that I said anything one way or another about it. Indeed, in my world the positivism that really counts is H.L.A. Hart’s variety, and I don’t think that I said a word about that.

    Let’s put it this way. Analytic philosophy frequently puts questions of language at the center of philosophical discussion. This does not mean that previous philosophers never used language, but it also does not mean that all previous philosophers were just doing analytic philosophy, even though language was an important part of their thinking.

    I think that both you and Christian are assuming that puzzlement and curiousity are the same thing as doubt. I can, for example, be quite puzzled about how the universe functions without having any serious doubt that it does function and that that functioning can be described in ways that will make me less puzzled. To be sure there is a sense in which “doubt” of some sort or another would play a part in such thinking. My point, however, is that it does not play a central or foundational part in my thinking. It is something that I deploy as a tool at times, ie doubting the adequacy of this or that reason. It is not, however, a global legitimater of beliefs or thought.

  18. Very nice, Nate. On your theological point, it’s the grandiosity of the Doubtinger-Than-Thou that, I think, poses problems for true Christian discipleship—-and, perhaps, true intellectual humility.

    While we all seem to agree that to doubt is not to sin, the question remains whether, then, doubt is not sin, or rather that doubt *is* sin but that doubters are not accountable for that sin because, as I suspect, the propensity for doubt is largely a matter of temperament rather than moral agency. I’m not sure. I suspect that doubt is not “evil”, but is “an evil” in the same way that illness or misfortune is “an evil”: a condition of the fallen world, not prima facie evidence of wrongdoing, and an opportunity to elicit and reveal a godly response.

  19. Frank,
    Are you really saying that the world-view that the scriptures adopt really should be accepted uncritically? The scriptures frequently hold that demons are the cause of disease. Is this the world-view that we should accept?

    Nate, this is an interesting post. I am not entirely sure that you are successful for recovering “unexamined faith” from patronizing. I think that the better way would be to examine the rules of engagement within different kinds of discourses. The discourse of the “unexamined faith” actually has a complicated and sophisticated way for dealing with problems. The discourse of a post-enlightenment faith has another way. Perhaps one really is better than the other, but there is no way to reconcile them within the same system.

    I would also add something else between your characterization of “doubt” and “wonder”, which is an awareness of different kinds of “knowledge”. Descartes’ method is actually very successful for certain kind of inquiry. Wonder may be appropriate for questions of faith.

  20. “I suspect that doubt is not ‘evil,’ but is ‘an evil’ in the same way that illness or misfortune is ‘an evil’: a condition of the fallen world, not prima facie evidence of wrongdoing, and an opportunity to elicit and reveal a godly response.”

    Yes, yes, yes; excellently put, Rosalynde.

  21. Trailer Trash,

    No, I’m not. I’m saying that on the subject of faith, the scriptures are likely to be a better guide than 21st century intellectual views.

    Rosalynde, that makes sense to me too.

  22. I think that both you and Christian are assuming that puzzlement and curiousity are the same thing as doubt.

    Not exactly—this is why I was careful in #17 to link curiosity and examination not to “doubt” itself but “exposure to doubt.” Look, I’ve already said I agree with Nate about the scriptures’ perspective. But because methodological skepticism has proved fruitful in some arenas, it is not surprising that some become curious (!) to apply to it the scriptures themselves and indeed consider it as an alternative worldview and fundamental epistemology. From this perspective the bald self-excepting statement ‘the scriptures do not value doubt’ amounts to special pleading—never very flattering.

    So it is of interest to understand why the scriptures are not big on doubt, and consider whether they say something that gets beyond such self-serving exceptionalism. The ancients’ association of faith with trust and fidelity rather than epistemology may provide a clue: running with Rosalynde‘s spousal comparison on her recent thread, I can acknowledge how wrong it would feel for me to “doubt” my wife by asking to look through her cell phone records or read her emails (much less do so behind her back). But I am not exactly sure why I feel this way, and would like to understand it better, and how it relates to God and the scriptures. Of course, there may be times in which it is appropriate to seek knowledge of cell phone records and emails—and it is not beyond the realm of imagination that some come to find “doubt” of various gods and scriptures and sacred writings, as opposed to mere “curiosity,” legitimate because of certain things that have come to light.

  23. Nate,

    What do you mean by “doubt”?

    If it means lack of certainty, then it seems inherent in faith, otherwise it might be “knowledge.” I have heard testimonies that “I know beyond a shadow of a doubt”; I have never heard “I have faith beyond a shadow of a doubt.”

    If it means examining propositions thoroughly with an open mind, without prejudgment as to the outcome, it seems, as has already been pointed out, consistent with what we invite investigators to do. As Paul put it, ” Prove [examine] all things; hold fast that which is good.” 1 Thes. 5:21. The Brethren have felt free to thoroughly examine the structure of Church government. “But we know that the administrative load is very heavy on our bishops and stake presidents, as well as some others. An awareness of that fact has led the Presidency and the Twelve to hold a number of meetings, some of them long and interesting, in which in effect we have taken the Church apart and then put it together again.” Gordon B. Hinckley, “To Men of the Priesthood,â€? Ensign, Nov. 2002, 56

    I do not say that a person who has “never doubted” is somehow inferior in any way, any more than a person who has not endured physical challenges would be inferior. But, as a believing skeptic, I feel enveloped much of the time in God’s love–notwithstanding my doubts and inadequacies. And that is good enough for me. Whether God will one day bless me with a sufficient certainty to banish those doubts, I leave to Him (I have prayed for that many times, and the answer seems to be that such an absolute certainty, if it comes to me in this life, will be in His own way and time table, not mine.) In the meantime, I rejoice that the full blessings of the gospel seem to be available to those of us who believe, or accept on faith, not just those who know.

  24. Jettisonning the historical question of whether doubting is a recent addition to western thought, I agree with Rosalynde about the ironic preachiness of doubters.

    I don’t think that doubt is “an evil” or “a misfortune” in any sense like (say) allergies are. Einstein famously said something to the effect of “Don’t bother me with your math problems; I assure you mine are much worse.” The extreme finitism of BH Roberts and others stipulates that God is still learning. In such a scenario, it is, I think, conceivable that God has his own doubts–and, in all likelihood, are much worse than our own.

  25. Frank, how do you determine when to accept 21st c. views and when to accept scriptural views?

    Nate, I agree with what some others have said here, that a distinction of different kinds of doubt is needed. There is methodological doubt, which is a tool for suspending belief in order to find what is absolutely true (Descartes). This can not be a sin. This may be more or less useful for deepening faith.

    There is also existential doubt, which is greater than methodological doubt because it affects a person’s actual life. This is the sincere beleif that a person holds which doubts the veracity of certain truth claims.

    Finally, there is questioning doubt, which you are calling variously “wonder”, “questioning”, etc. This sort of doubt you are trying to distinguish from methodological doubt, but it really seems that you are trying to distinguish it from existential doubt.

    I think that you are conflating methodological and existential doubt which is causing you to come up with this third kind of “useful” doubt. It seems that you are trying to prove that methodological doubt is problematic on the basis of arguments that are really against existential doubt. Does that make sense?

  26. “In such a scenario, it is, I think, conceivable that God has his own doubts–and, in all likelihood, are much worse than our own.”–DKL

    God is like Ivan Karamazov’s devil?

  27. Taylor: I understand you, but I do think that the there is a difference between “methodological doubt” of the Cartesian kind and earlier kinds of puzzlement and questioning. Descartes creates this stark dicotomy between doubt and certainty, and insists that the absence of certainty is some sort of massive epistemic disability. I think that that is something genuinely new, and I am skeptical of its usefulness as a method outside of fairly narrowly defined situations. Furthermore, it leads to the denigration of lots of other ways of knowing that I think is very unfortunate. There are very few legal propositions that I have any sort of Cartesian certainty about. Furthermore, it is not clear that I discover them by reference to some method of radical doubt. Yet nevertheless, I know quite a bit of law…

  28. Nate,
    If I understand you correctly, your real beef is with Cartesian certainty rather than Cartesian doubt. I still think that the kind of \”puzzlement/questioning\” that you are advocating isn\’t fundamentally different from methodological doubt. The only difference is in the result that each is said to produce. I do think that Descartes\’ methodological doubt can be saved from his beleif in absolute certainty and truth. You are right to break down the dichotomy b/t doubt and certainty, but I think that certainty is the loser in the contest, not doubt. Doubt is still a useful intellectual tool. I am not sure that absolute certainty can claim the same honor.

  29. John, by “Ivan Karamazov’s devil,” I suppose you mean someone who mirrors our own shortcomings. If we are to suppose that God made man in his own image, you don’t need Robert’s thesis of extreme finitism to come to that conclusions. He’s certainly not Dostoevsky’s devil, who is the personification of vicious nihilism (if we’re to take the name of The Devils at face value).

  30. One more note, I think that you would agree that the issue of your “knowing” law apart from methodological doubt is to speak of a different epistemic quality than questions of faith, or even questions of science. Methodological doubt is used for problem solving, and I suspect that you use this quite a bit when thinking about the law, which is different from “knowing” it.

  31. DKL, I’m only referring to Ivan demanding of the devil whether there’s a God or not, but the devil can’t tell him because the devil doesn’t know and wishes he had faith like a fat, devout woman. Your comment seemed to me to conjecture an analogous situation of people in heaven approaching God to understand eternal mysteries only to find He is frustrated by lack of knowledge too.

  32. John, you’ll have to ask B.H. Roberts whether God offers a money-back guarantee at the question and answer desk that he runs in Heaven.

  33. Taylor,

    I don’t know where the bright line is, but I am pretty sure that faith as a topic is not on the margin. :)

  34. DKL,

    I understand doubt in the scriptures to be used in a very particular sense derived from the following principle:

    The knowledge of spiritual things is founded in revelation

    The first two chapters of 1 Corinthians (q.v.) deal entirely with this principle. A secondary precept, the basis of the whole field of theology is:

    All theological knowledge is derived as the proper (inspiration validated) logical consequences of axioms known only by revelation.

    Now, if you take out revelation, what you have is not theology, but rather pure philosophy, and a natural philosophy at that, occasionally misnamed “natural theology”.

    Now there is a lot one can learn from experience, if one has an open mind. The medieval philosophers, for example beleived that there was a broad variety of moral truths (aka natural law) that could be known by natural reason alone, unaided by revelation.

    Even William of Ockham, who is well known for the proposition that obedience to the will of God is the highest law, had an extensive natural law theory, referring to the natural moral law here, not the natural laws of material substances or rationality.

    See for example:

    John Kilcullen, “Natural law and will in Ockham”, …

    All these medeival philosophers were great inquirers, who were not willing to rest in any logical contradictions or first class paradoxes as a rule, but rather insisted on proving contraries, that truth may be made manifest, as Joseph Smith said. However, they went about trying to understand and establish the truths of the faith, not throwing out the truths of the faith because they could not understand them. Some truths (e.g. the trinity) they were never able to understand, but they were willing to believe in them just the same, until the day came when they did understand.

    So the deleterious variety of doubt and skepticism, comes not in inquiry and curiosity, and seeking to understand principles from every more sure foundations, but rather in refusing to believe that any truth obtained by revelation, and the consequences thereof, even *might* be true.

    That is the cliff that separates an informed, pro-rational theism, from a rationalist agnosticism, namely the intellectual arrogance to believe that anything one cannot understand cannot possibly be true, and second the utter disbelief in the reality of revelation, and hence the whole world of the spirit.

    Such disbelief is not the foundation of knowledge, it is the foundation of ignorance, the way of stupor and stupidity, so far as spiritual things are concerned.

    As it is written, Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God hath prepared for them that love him.

    But God hath revealed them unto us by his Spirit: for the Spirit searcheth all things, yea, the deep things of God.

    For what man knoweth the things of a man, save the spirit of man which is in him? even so the things of God knoweth no man, but the Spirit of God.

    Now we have received, not the spirit of the world, but the spirit which is of God; that we might know the things that are freely given to us of God.

    Which things also we speak, not in the words which man’s wisdom teacheth, but which the Holy Ghost teacheth; comparing spiritual things with spiritual.

    But the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned.
    (1 Corinthians 2:9-14)

  35. Nate,

    I think that DKL was right to argue that doubt must be understood within a critical methodology to have any significance. That being said, I wonder if you are conflating critical thinking and skepticism. Most people would agree that we don’t need to engage in Cartesian skepticism to justify our beliefs. That seems pretty uncontroversial. But saying that exposing beliefs to criticism doesn’t increase their epistemic justification is more controversial. Most people, who doubt, do so because they are confronted with arguments that they find very challenging. They do not just sit back and try to doubt the existence of the external world. Philosophically speaking I think that people who have confronted those arguments have a more mature set of beliefs. If one takes their intellectual engagement seriously, then I think exposing one’s beliefs to criticisms does increase their justification.

    Theologically speaking, I think you are right. I see the main problem with the doubter’s “holier-than-thou” belief comes from placing too much value on intellectual activity. As you say, righteous action is considerably more important than justified belief.

  36. I think that you and I have a fundamental disagreement, Mark. Introducing revelation does not solve the problem of knowledge. At least, it didn’t for Joseph Smith. Joseph received false revelations, and he revised the true ones with each new publication. There’s no reason for me to view myself as less fallible than him. Have you ever given a blessing that you thought was inspired but said things that didn’t come true? Is there a non-circular (i.e., predictive) way to determine which ones are which?

    I’ve joked about it elsewhere, but I hope you wouldn’t be willing to kill someone just because you received a revelation. I’ve stated elsewhere (contra Paul) that Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his own son is not to be chalked up to righteousness and obedience.

    As far as your take on the kind of stuff that you quote from Paul, I reject that out of hand. Indeed, Joseph Smith does not seem to have made the same division that we do between spiritual and worldly knowledge. In a response to my fictional co-blogger Aaron Cox at Banner of Heaven, I responded quiet clearly about the role that education plays in salvation. I want to be perfectly clear here: I think that anyone who is willing to discard all worldly knowledge to attain the Kingdom of God is a nut (and yes, Paul was a bit of a nut) and belongs in a cult–a real cult, like the nuts in Waiting for Nesara.

  37. DKL,

    I like Joseph Smith’s lumping together of wordly and spiritual knowlege. I wish more of us took our religion that seriously. I have always objected to the human impulse to compartmentalize aspects of our lives in isolation from each other.

    “This is my work persona … And this is my Church persona over here…”

    I also don’t object to killing when required by God. And I’ve never been in so much as a schoolyard fight. I routinely avoid stepping on ants. However, when the voice is clear, I would hope I’d obey. But I also recognize a LOT of safeguards that have been placed on that possibility by both scripture, revelation, and the revealed Church organization. So I’m hardly someone who is going to go on a bloodletting without a lot of good reasons.

    I also think that “fanaticism” is often a label applied by people who don’t take God seriously in order to riducule those who do take Him seriously.

  38. DKL, I think you are incorrectly assuming that revelation must be absolutely infallible to have any value, to be pristine, perfect, and free from any error or approximation whatsoever to be worth anything. By those standards we would have to conclude that empirical science is likewise utterly worthless.

    The scriptures do not say that there is no value in secular or natural understanding, prior to revelation. The scriptures say that revelation is necessary for understanding the things of God. The reason why this is the case is the things of God are not natural laws, but divinely authored laws and ordinances.

    Attempting to derive an empirical proof of the fulness of the gosepl, is like trying to read someone’s mind without asking them any questions. How many journalists do you know who are capable of that?

    In short, if one wants to know the will of God, and his rationale and reasons for what he does, the purposes and intents of his laws and ordinances, the relationship of divine law to natural law, and in what way the latter constrains the former, one must either ask God directly, or work with the records of those who did, gradually resolving paradoxes and apparent contradictions in faith, line upon line, precept upon precept, the same way Joseph Smith himself did.

    This is a first order joint intellectual and spiritual exercise. As Joseph Smith said:

    … the things of God are of deep import; and time, and experience, and careful and ponderous and solemn thoughts can only find them out. Thy mind, O man! if thou wilt lead a soul unto salvation, must stretch as high as the utmost heavens, and search into and contemplate the darkest abyss, and the broad expanse of eternity–thou must commune with God. How much more dignified and noble are the thoughts of God, than the vain imaginations of the human heart!
    (TPJS, 137)

    Note that the idea here is not to understand natural law alone, but to understand the *thoughts* of God.

    By the way, It seems to me that hardly a week goes by without me learning some new aspect of the way the writings of Paul teach some of the most profound and deep doctrines ever recorded. Same goes for Joseph Smith.

    Someone who has limited inspiration one cannot go very far without running into serious, and unresolvable problems. Neither Joseph Smith nor Paul were such men. Their writings are an endless source of inspiration to me, far more than any philosopher, particularly any secular philosopher.

    A philosopher who denies free will and the world of the spirit is like a one watt light bulb compared to a 100 watt light bulb in any philosopher or theologian who takes free will and the world of the spirit seriously, insofar as moral and social matters are concerned.

  39. Mark: I think you are incorrectly assuming that revelation must be absolutely infallible to have any value, to be pristine, perfect, and free from any error or approximation whatsoever to be worth anything.

    Where in the world did you get that? What I said is that it does not solve the problem of knowledge. The reason it does not solve the problem of knowledge is that it simply exports (lock, stock, and barrell) to a new locality. Instead of asking, “what worldly knowledge is correct?” we have the question, “what inspiration is correct?” And those two questions abound in all the same problems.

    The implication of many scriptures (like the one that you quoted by Paul) is that an obedient follower should be willing to eliminate any single worldly piece of knowledge and replace it with something based on faith. The problem is that the scriptures don’t talk about the threshold past which continued changes make the entire endeavor of faith untenable (the people in the documentary Waiting for Nesara are an easy example of folks that have gone too far; I saw it at the Boston Underground Film Festival, and it was quite a good documentary). But there’s got to be such a threshold–there has to be some point at which I can say, “No. That requires me to surrender too much of what I know is true by other means.” This, for example, would be my response to the hypothetical order to kill someone. If that threshold doesn’t exist, then I think that the term fanatic is entirely appropriate. The fact that this threshold does exist makes worldly knowledge key to our religious faith. And all this compare and contrast stuff about seeing things with spiritual eyes vs worldly eyes is just so much Pauline nonsense.

  40. DKL, I believe you are misreading Paul. First of all, he is not suggesting replacing secular knowledge at all – the vain imaginations of the world perhaps, but not anything that is knowledge in the proper sense of the term (i.e. actually true).

    Secondly, he is not suggesting that we replace secular or natural knowledge with *faith*, he is suggesting we radically augment our natural understanding with *revelation*. Faith is not knowledge. Full stop. Faith in God leads to knowledge, by leading the holders thereof to act accordingly to learn the truth by spiritual experience and personal revelation.

    We often see talks about the putative dichotomy between faith and reason. That is a false dichotomy – the real tension is between reason and revelation. It is a first order principle of our “faith” that reason and revelation are perfectly reconcilable.

    Now the problem with reason, in the modern sense, is that it is purely analytical – it can demonstrate where problem areas are, but strictly speaking deduction is an information losing or filtering operation, not an information gaining operation, and furthermore must start from axioms that cannot be known be reason alone. In short, reason by itself is impotent. And to resolve this utter impotentence, most worldly philosophies start engaging in semi-rational speculation, the vain imaginations Joseph Smith was talking about.

    And where they do not, they resort to radical skepticism – literally the doctrine that anything we do not understand or prove cannot be true. That borders on solipsism, of course.

    Now from a religious point of view, if one has even the most rudimentary testimony of the power of God, his justice and mercy, the question is not can anyone prove that revelations are true, but rather can anyone prove that revelations are false, or more mildly speaking what difficulties does the rational analysis of revelation raise, and what avenues are available to us to resolve those difficulties.

    That is a fundamental difference in attitude – one is faith seeking understanding, and the other is doubt seeking confirmation. The latter doubt is what the scriptures roundly condemn.

  41. Always the pragmatist, please answer me this: If I decide that the story of Noah and the ark is greatly exaggerated because there is no geological evidence of a global flood and housing a representation of every creature in the world on one boat seems implausible, AND, this conclusion causes me to take an approach of evaluating Old Testament stories based on their spiritual messages, rather than assuming all stories are accurate representations of history, am I doubting or questioning? Or, would you classify this behavior in some other way altogether?

    Also, does the distinction between doubting and questioning change based on the time period? For example, if I questioned the historical accuracy of the creation story in the late 1800s or early 1900s when scientific inquiry sparked hostility between science and religion, I think a much stronger word than “doubt� would be applied to my faith (or interpreted lack thereof). Whereas today, the consensus seems to be that it doesn’t matter if you interpret the creation story literally as long as you understand the symbolic value of the story.

  42. Brenda (#43),

    I would say that adopting an a priori disbelief in the historicity of all Old Testament accounts because you have become convinced of the less than full fidelity of just one of them, is indeed adopting an attitude of spiritual doubt. Looking for the moral to the story is a good thing, but in my opinion, the primary message of the Old Testament is void if the accounts are not understood to be predominantly literal, either literal history or prophecies of what someday will indeed have a rather literal fulfilment.

    And that message of course, is the the great lengths that the Lord God of Israel will go to both chasten, and ultimately recover his chosen people, and all those others who will are willing to abide the terms of the covenant. Ruth for example.

    There are several other related messages, the most interesting of which is the soveriegnty of God, and the way he can turn things upside down, molding persons and nations as clay upon a potter’s wheel, all without unduly constraining our agency, indeed fulfulling both his purposes and our often unrighteous goals at the same time(!), turning good for evil.

    The grand theme of every book of Old Testament prophecy is the temporal judgment upon Israel for iniquity, and the latter day restoration and glorification of Israel. Unless one believes those events actually did, and actually will take place, even according to the words which they spake, the writings of those prophets is largely in vain.

  43. A final note in response to others: While I do think that there is something new about Cartesian doubt and I am skeptical of its ultimate usefulness, I do think that doubt is fine and can be healthy and useful. My central thesis is simply that doubting our faith confers no special spiritual merit upon on us. My target is not doubt per se. It is the pretentiousness with which doubt is proclaimed as a quasi master virtue by some. I am not better nor is my faith more legitimate because of my occasional doubts than the faith of the person in the pew next to me who has not doubted. My doubt may have been useful and productive. I certainly don’t think it was sinful. I simply don’t think that it makes me spiritually superior.

  44. \”There lives more faith in honest doubt, believe me, than in half the creeds\”–Tennyson, In Memoriam

    For me, the key is honest doubt as opposed to unproductive skepticism. From my own experience, if I had never doubted my faith, I would still believe that Jehovah is the father of Jesus Christ. Learning more about the gospel led me to doubt that aspect of my faith and to question until I achieved what I know see as a more perfect faith in the one I worship. We need to recognize that our faith is based on our human understanding and is therefore imperfect. While we should not be consumed with doubt, failling to recognize its value is the height of hubris.

    It seems contradictory to say that doubt can be productive and useful and then to say that it also could have no value. President McKay said that the testimony that has not served an apprenticeship of doubt is not worthy of its name. I think that\’s true.

    As far as making one person spiritually superior, I see that as an entirely separate issue. In my view, it is not possible under any human circumstances to assign one person a spiritual value and assign another person a lower spiritual value. But I don\’t tihnk we have to do that to evaluate the value of doubt. In my own experience, doubt has been better than no doubt.

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