William James

William James
We must get by on what truth we have today, and be willing to call it error tomorrow.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Is Doubt A Virtue?

The question was put:

"In another thread, Bender said that "doubt is a virtue".

It struck me instantly that I disagreed with that point of view, and that it was a central issue to Bender's values as opposed to mine.

I have often felt that values and psychological preferences often trump "reason" for atheists and believers alike. We often end up believing what "feels right" to us even if we demand "proof" everywhere we look.

Bender obviously feels that it is "good" to doubt and demand proof. (I should say that I could not find the actual quote-- so apologies to Bender if I got it wrong- still there are others who seem to agree with this point of view)

I think no one would advocate "blind faith", so I suppose it is a question of balance.

My time is short right now, so I will probably put this thread on "autopilot" and see what happens, but I think the question is crucial and central.

From an ethical perspective, is doubt "good"? I think the degree to which we think it is good is what divides many on this board. Atheists demand it as an absolute value, and believers put it on the back burner.

What do you think?

How do we get the right balance?"

To which I responded:

Doubt is a tricky word. Some people equate it with disbelief, but I think it is not necessarily so in every case. In my view, doubt can actually (and very often does) coexist with faith. Doubt is at a minimum lack of certainty- a willingness to entertain the possibility or likelihood that something is not what someone claims it is. Doubt is an inevitable part of our reasoning process, even if it eventually is overcome by evidence or personal resolve to accept something as true without complete evidence.

Whether you are an atheist or a theist, you will almost certainly have faith of some kind or another. The issues are deciding when it is reasonable to believe something even without perfect evidence, and when the belief should exclude all doubt. My opinion is that there are many instances when we can have faith in things which lack perfect evidence. I have never seen God, yet believe in him based upon my own spiritual experiences and thoughts about the universe. Yet at the same time, I accept the possibility that he may not exist, and I therefore have faith and doubt simultaneously. In my case, my "faith" is my choice to believe even though I do not have a perfect knowledge.

The times when it seems unreasonable to have faith in something is when there appears to be affirmative evidence or argument, whether direct or circumstantial, to render the thing believed in unlikely to be true (even though it is theoritically possible that it could be true). Obviously, there is a great deal of disagreement on this point, particularly what constitutes "affirmative evidence or argument, whether direct or circumstantial, to render the thing believed in unlikely to be true." Many atheists would argue that the lack of affirmative objective evidence for God is inconsistent with a view of a God who daily intervenes in our lives, but this does not quite hold up in my opinion.

There are instances where I choose to reject various LDS doctrines because I perceive there to be "affirmative evidence or argument, whether direct or circumstantial, to render the thing believed in unlikely to be true". For instance, some LDS restrictions on the expression of human sexuality are, in my view, highly inconsistent with our God-given physiology, empirical evidence of human behavior, and my own anecdotal experiences in life.

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