Belief and Doubt

It seems as if many philosophical conflicts in a variety of areas are a clash of temperaments geared respectively towards belief and doubt. Skepticism, in a very general sense of the term, is a temperament of doubt or the suspension of judgement. On the other hand, there are philosophical tendencies that reflect a temperament of belief in that they try to construct systems of thought and to positively justify particular ideas. A skeptical attitude wagers in favor of doubt because it values avoiding error, while a non-skeptical attitude wagers in favor of belief because it values the attainment of truth. These are value judgements which effect the kind of philosophy that people are likely to adopt.

Of course, it is probably too simplistic to attempt to broadly classify everyone into either of these camps, since many people are skeptics about some things and believers about other things. Indeed, to the extent that philosophy is thought of as something that one lives by, it seems impossible for anyone to be a “pure” skeptic or a “pure” believer about everything. An attitude of suspension of judgement about literally everything would essentially signify non-action; it’s part of the nature of being a human being that one has beliefs and acts on them. On the other hand, doubt is something that everyone experiences in one context or another. No one goes through life believing literally everything that they are told, and the abandonment of a belief is a possibility.

Nonetheless, people can have tendencies in these two directions and take philosophical positions that are broadly skeptical or positive (by positive I mean something involving an attempt at justification, or at least representing a certain bundle of beliefs that are advocated with some degree of passion). Some people build a particular elaborate system of thought and positively advocate certain ideas, and other people pride themselves on picking apart other people’s systems of thought while shying away from presenting some positive alternative. Some people are uncertain that any particular position on a topic is valid, while other people dig in to a particular position.

In their extremes, this is represented by dogmatism and pedantic nitpicking or an obcession with negation. From the skeptic’s perspective, the believer is a dogmatist. This may or may not be a caricature depending on the person and how their beliefs cause them to act. It certainly would be unfair to act as if passionately taking any belief seriously is dogma. But there certainly is such a thing as dogmatism, represented by closed systems of thought, a lack of critical thinking, and psychologically questionable ways in which people can act in the name of ideologies. Metaphorically speaking, dogmatism is what happens when a believer is imprisoned by their belief. The skeptic’s attitude is informed by caution against dogmatism, which is definitely understandable.

From the believer’s perspective, the skeptic is a party spoiler who has nothing constructive to offer, hopelessly obsessed with negating other people’s beliefs while asking questions or setting up the grounds for inescapable philosophical puzzles that have no practical weight. This may or may not be fair, depending on the person and what skepticism really means to them. Skepticism in a more epistemically agnostic sense should not be confused with positions of absolute negation or unqualified claims to know that such and such is false or non-existent, since that would also be a type of dogmatism. But there is something to this. Sitting around doubting that there is a mind-independent reality or that moral propositions can be true presents us with nothing particularly useful or practical. And at what point does skepticism devolve into nihilism?

I suspect that there are contexts in which one can be justified in holding on to beliefs while acknowledging the possibility of error, and doubting beliefs while abstaining from claiming that they have been absolutely disproved. To hold on to a belief while knowing that it is false or when one is presented with overwhelming evidence to the contrary is certainly problematic if not dangerous. Yet the notion that one must have absolute or even apodictic certainty in order to justifiably belief something is also ridiculous. Fallibility doesn’t mean nothingness, while probability and possibility don’t mean unqualified or absolute fact. Certainty has a threshold or spectrum. Beliefs can be added, subtracted, and modified over the course of inquiry and discourse, and this may require a certain balance of these temperaments.

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~ by brainpolice on May 25, 2010.

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