Friday, November 18, 2011

THE WILL TO DOUBT



Without undue sensationalism it may be said that this is an age of doubt. Wherever one looks in journeying through the different departments of life one sees doubt. And one sees, too, some of the blight which doubt produces, although the blight is by no means all that one sees.
We would often hide it from others, not to say from ourselves, but it is there, and we all know it to be there. In a fable, never in real life, a man might get the smell of burning wood in his house and refuse to recognize the danger because of the inevitable delay to his business which the alarm of fire would involve.
Doubt is not less real nor less dangerous, nor even less capable, when under control, of useful applications. Any danger, too, squarely faced is at least half met. Why, then, be so impracticable, so like characters in fables, as to overlook or turn one's back upon the doubt of the day, refusing it a place and a part in real life? Our life is ever cherishing what we are pleased to call its verities, some in religion and morals, some in politics, some in mathematics and science, some in the more general relations to nature, but what elusive things these verities are! How shallow, or how hollow all of them are, or at one time or another may become.
Self and society, love and friendship, mind and matter, nature and God have again and again been subjected to essentially the same questioning. The verities of life, all the way from simple words used every day to the great things of our moral and spiritual being, have lost, sometimes slowly, sometimes very suddenly, the reality with which we have supposed them endowed, and although we may still bravely believe we find ourselves crying out passionately for help in our unbelief. There certainly are the verities; not one of them can possibly fall to the ground; yet these very verities are never quite in our experience.
Still the world has its thoroughly confident people. Every one of us has met some of those estimable beings to whom doubt seems wholly foreign, people who assert with trembling voice and sacred vow that their convictions, political perhaps or religious, are unassailable, and that they must hold them to the grave.
Moreover, positive people under any standard are notoriously as fearful as they are dogmatic.
Fear is often, if not always, the chief motive of dogmatism, and fear is hardly the most natural companion of genuine confidence. The eyes may have been moved and the head turned, but in spite of the impulses present in them the legs have not been used to bring the observer nearer to the object seen, nor have the arms and hands been raised to secure a contact with it, and perhaps a tracing of its lines, although some stimulus for such contact and tracing must be always present as a part of the actual or possible value of the experience. It may be objected that at times men, individually or collectively, seek not something else, but simply more of something already secured; more money, it may be, or more learning, or more territory, or more pleasure.
There is, however, in spite of man's many conceits to the contrary, no change that is purely quantitative. More is also different or other. Accordingly, we both always find, and, what is even more to the point, always seeking a real change whenever we do anything. Life, then, is a game, and the game of life, doubts and all, is a real interest as well as a necessity. We are creatures of habit, but we have, and we cherish, no habit stronger or more essential than the habit at once of adaptation and variation. Doubt is necessary to life, to real life, to deep experience. Doubt is but one of the phases of the resistance which a real life demands. Real life implies a constant challenge, and doubt is a form under which the challenge finds expression. The doubter is a questioner, a seeker; he has, then, something to overcome; he fears, too, as well as hopes.
Man ever confidently seeks what man has lost. Dependent man and doubting man must have society. Now, there are five things, some of them already foreseen, that seem worth saying here of the essential habit of self-contradiction, and they seem worth saying because so effectively and so comprehensively they warrant the conclusion that even upon our strongest reason for doubt we may rest a genuine case for belief.
Have you ever climbed a mountain up and up and up, through thick woods, over rough, almost impassable trails, into clouds dense and chilling, stormy and angry, over treacherous snows and frightful cliffs, and come out at last on the very top to see both earth and heaven, yourself between, the clouds dispersed, the hardships and dangers all forgotten, the whole world real and yours? Well, that is doubt become achievement.
Have you worked at some problem of everyday life, or a problem of science or philosophy, patiently or impatiently applying all the rules and precepts at your command, trying every resort known to you, and in final desperation many you only guess at, and then, when failure seems almost certain, caught a glimpse of the real meaning and the real way, attaining to an insight that reveals a new world to you? That, too, is doubt rewarded. Have you ever suffered a great heartrending disappointment or a great personal loss, and found it seemingly impossible to return to the routine of your former life, but nevertheless, almost imperceptibly, come into a sense of presence and gain from the very thing that seemed taken from you? That, once more, is doubt without its sting, robbed of its victory.
Does it hurt your business to doubt it sufficiently to make you able to sympathize with the interests of another? Does it hurt your politics, if you can lose enough of the partisan's conceit or the jingo's bombast to sympathize with the other parties or the other nations? The value of real independence in politics is one answer, and the idea of federation among competing states, or of international polity as a basis of successful national life, is another. Does it hurt your understanding to outgrow your own profoundest ideas and see some validity in the doctrines and formulæ of others?
So we find ourselves well upon our way in the world of the doubter—and what a world it is! No finality, because so much reality. Conflict is forever necessary to its effective realization. Relativity is finiteness, of all things, of all things in it, just for the sake of its own true absoluteness, just to conserve its own actual infinity. And, also, in such a world human life, individually and socially, gets new interest and vitality. There is given to human life so much fellowship, and yet, at the same time, so much hostility and competition. Society and the individual, though neither loses its own peculiar importance, are so vitally intimate with each other.
The confession of doubt, which we set out to make with all possible candor, is now nearly concluded even to the harvesting of the promised fruit. The confession began, as will be remembered, with recognition of certain general and easily demonstrated facts, of which there were five, as follows: (1) We are all universal doubters. (2) Doubt is essential to all consciousness. (3) Even habit, though confidence be the horse, has doubt sitting up behind. (4) Like pain or ignorance, doubt is a condition of real life. (5) And the sense of dependence, so general to human nature, gives rise to doubt, although also, like misery, it always seeks company—the company of nature, of man, of God.
Then, after this beginning, which left us by no means so hopeless as might have been expected, we proceeded to try the doubter, nay, to try ourselves, first before the court of ordinary life with its ordinary views of things, and secondly, before the court of science, and, in both trials, we found the doubting justified. We believe through our doubts; we believe, not in something apart, but in the very things we doubt.
Certain people have cried illusion and unreality at things political or moral or even at things physical, but only in the end to feel, and to make others feel, first, their evident narrowness, if not their actual dishonesty, and then their need of a more hospitable idea of what is valid and real.
Nothing can be, or ever has been, unreal. At once opponents and companions—this is the truth about the doubter and the believer. Consider how taken alone neither would be quite justified, while together both are justified. Perfect approval or, for that matter, perfect disapproval, can belong to neither singly, in our doubting, even though we fully confess, nor yet to him who hides his doubts in an outward show that almost deceives him as well as others.
Of course in all matters as well as in this of intellectual honesty, the conceit of individual righteousness or individual possession is a very strong one, but it is "easier for a camel to go through a needle's eye" than for a man who is anything or has anything to himself alone, to enter into any kingdom. Is not life everywhere a movement and a struggle? And who is there, rich or poor, law-abiding or lawless, righteous or unrighteous, faithful or treacherous, believing or doubting, who can stand aloof, or who needs to stand aloof, and say to himself: "I personally, within my own nature, have no part in the struggle; for good or for ill, I am just what I am, and with him that is against me I have and can have no dealings"?
The doubter, then, and the believer may have to look askance at each other; the looking askance may be quite appropriate to the conflict in which each has and must feel his social role, but, at most and worst, they are only jealous lovers. They may be given, and profitably given, as much to quarrelling as to gentleness, but they love still, and, to borrow part of a line from a familiar college song, their battling love affords just one more view of that which "makes the world go 'round"—instead of off at some tangent.
(Adapted from The Project Gutenberg EBook of The Will to Doubt, by Alfred H. Lloyd)

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