A Methodic Doubt for Theists:
Of great concern to me are the philosophical quandaries that arise when one tries to reconcile current and past scientific discoveries and knowledge with basic Christian Orthodoxy. Atheism, much like theism, is very much concerned with truth. Speaking as a former atheist, when others would ask me questions I didn’t know the answer to – and in many cases knew there was no current answer sufficient enough – I never felt incredibly uncomfortable; I never felt a sense of instability in my beliefs. Rather, I knew that one day we would converge upon knowledge and truth in all areas, and have answers to solve all our questions; that knowledge was enough to satisfy my doubts. The quest of the Christian academic is to discover that same proposition: that knowledge (theological, scientific, aesthetic etc…) will come together and converge on some objective truth, and to be comfortable with it. As a theist, I do not find the same stability in my beliefs when pressed with questions I simply do not know the answers to. There’s just more at stake; being a Christian commits you to a narrow set of beliefs about our existence, whereas atheists are free to pick and choose as they see fit. I find that in order for the narrative of the bible to flow smoothly, there just cannot be massive holes. And when I do find holes in my beliefs, It’s very difficult to assent that ‘just because I don’t know now, doesn’t mean I won’t (or someone won’t) some day’. Instead I tend to question my belief in theism in its entirety. I am also a very doubtful person, naturally; I tend towards agnosticism, rather than sticking to my guns in the face of controversial evidence. My switch to Theism has brought many of those doubts to the forefront of my mind; doubts about death, Adam and Eve, sin, sickness etc… The goal of Christian Education should be tempering the feelings of anxiety and doubt when faced with an absence of answers for important, faith-changing questions. In Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis says “I was assuming that if the human mind once accepts a thing as true it will automatically go on regarding it as true, until some real reason for reconsidering it turns up.” The human mind isn’t ruled by reason; we forget, we have imagination and emotions, desires and wants. That’s why, even though I have major doubts, I try to remind myself daily of the things I do believe; by reading certain books, studying certain problems I find helpful, and talking with anyone who will listen.
Now that I am more comfortable in my faith, what can I do to reconcile the doubts that remain? I think it’s rational to assume this convergence on universal truth in all areas a) won’t happen all at once, but over a span of time, and b) won’t happen in my lifetime. In the meantime, I have decided to engage my doubts. I doubt because I find with new evidence, or a new perspective, I cannot accept the truth of a particular proposition with complete conviction. Naturally, my doubts are similar to most; they aren’t a unique, systematic approach to questioning belief. Because of that, doubt itself is insufficient. Doubting, and then stopping at doubting, doesn’t serve you in your quest for truth any more than driving to the store and waiting in the parking lot provides groceries. My quest is for truth; I want my doubt’s answered. Descartes had an answer, an answer in the form of doubting.
Cartesian doubt, or methodic doubt, is an approach to belief which determines the truth or falsity of a belief by doubting all beliefs. Knowledge in this system means knowing something beyond all possible doubt. It is broken into four steps. 1) accept only information you know to be true. 2) breaking down the truths into smaller units. 3) solving the simple problems first. 4) making complete lists of further problems.
So how can we apply that to our own faith, our own beliefs? And why choose this method? To be sure, there are many intricate methods for testing beliefs; Bayes’ theorem comes to mind. What I find so great about methodic doubt is how natural and accessible it is; we all do this, to one degree or another. I just haven’t personally met anyone who methodically and systematically spelled out their own approach to doubting belief, and then consistently applied that process to see if it in fact worked. Another virtue is its simplicity; there’s nothing too complex about it. I once gave a presentation on Bayes’ theorem in metaphysics class, you could see the students eye’s glazing over. Cartesian doubt is natural and straight-forward. The big question for us, as theists, is whether or not this approach to belief is of any real benefit, and works with our theology. Let’s take the first step, ‘accept only information you know to be true’. Well, the ‘information you know to be true’ is largely subjective; obviously truth in its essence is objective (that is, it’s validity transcends personal interpretation), but we’re imperfect. Applying this to theological information is much more complex, because in most areas we have yet to converge on objective truth. The take home point would be to not get bogged down in strict fundamentalism on either end of the spectrum; don’t accept everything on ‘faith’, and don’t deny everything because you can’t totally verify it. There are antecedent probabilities that guide our intuition about certain things; we ease through most problems intuitively. For those that are more complex, apply methodic doubt ‘as-needed’. The second step tells us to ‘break down the truth into smaller units’. It’s not advocating for Reductionism, so don’t get bogged down trying to reduce the belief. If I believe that Christ died for my sins, I would break down that belief and analyze all the parts, and implications, and antecedent requirements, looking for something that doesn’t fit, or make sense – inconsistencies. Once you’ve done this with a particular belief, step three tells us to ‘solve the simple problems first’. This makes sense; we do this with everything. When drawing a portrait, you do a very rough sketch first. When learning math, you aren’t presented with calculus before you can perform multiplication or division. Once you have accomplished this (although, in reality, you never ‘technically’ will), make a list of further problems (step four).
I still have doubts, and new doubts still make me doubt old beliefs, but a new perspective like this one, in combination with my belief that one day the truth will be known in all areas, has decreased the running anxiety that accompanies me as I investigate Christianity more deeply. As a rational person, I realize that I’m not always rational. I know that many of my beliefs are formed and re-formed by emotion and imagination, not necessarily by reason. When I encounter problems within a specific area of Christianity, my emotions, my imagination and my anxiety wreak havoc on the rest of my confirmed beliefs. As a result, I tend to doubt for non-rational and irrational reasons. Often resulting in an anxiety so strong that I am forced to abandon my beliefs in their entirety. Having this cartesian method in my arsenal, a lot of the anxiety that I used to feel when doubt would rear its head has been taken away, and I find myself able to address problems with a clear, rational mind.