When in doubt

Charles 20 Comments

Posted by Richard Rawlinson

Doubt: a short, meaning-packed, medieval, Anglo-French word (origin douter) which I doubt many foreigners could pronounce if only seen in written form. Adapted as a verb, noun, adjective and adverb (to doubt, a doubt/doubter, doubtable, doubtably) it, of course, means to be uncertain, consider questionable, hesitate to believe.

None of us being omniscient, we all have doubts about a lot of things from life choices (relationships, jobs, homes) to metaphysical ideas. ‘Life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards,’ said Soren Kierkegaard.

And if physical reality is unpredictable and error-prone, then existential meaning is unknowable. Faith—another short, meaning-rich word—is belief that doesn’t rest on material evidence. Even Richard Dawkins concedes, as a scientist, that he’s effectively agnostic as he cannot logically prove beyond doubt that atheism is true.

Philosophers have divided us into physicalists and dualists. The former claim we’re just a body, with the brain being the sophisticated organ that makes us a ‘person’ capable of complex thought, emotion and action. If we’re shot in the heart, our brain dies—we continue to be a body but cease to be a person. Just as a smile is created by muscle reflexes moving our lips to reveal our teeth, a mind, which gives us our unique persona, is an abstract term to describe the brain function’s cause and effect.

Dualism is an older school of thought that’s been developed in various forms by philosophers from Plato and Descartes to the Bhuddist teacher Dharmakirti. Putting aside the separate yin-and-yang, good-and-evil deliberations, dualism, in simple terms, separates mind from matter. It gives birth to an immaterial soul which, like a smile, mind, persona or self, is distinct from the body, although somehow interacting with the brain.

Though increasingly unfashionable among secular academics, modern agnostic and religious thinkers continue to argue that the gap between objective and subjective experience cannot be bridged by reductionism because consciousness is autonomous of physical properties. Philosopher Frank Jackson talks of a non-corporeal form of reality, and claims that functions of the mind/soul are so internal they cannot be observed by science. In comparison, we can know about a bat’s echolocation facility but we can’t know how the bat experiences it because it’s not a physical fact but a conscious one.

We can only have unscholarly hunches about whether or not we have souls, and indeed the nature of our souls. A shaman might believe he has a ‘free-soul’ that can undertake spiritual journeys. Others see the difference between soul and mind as mere semantics, and doubt a ‘soul’ has life beyond the body, let alone eternal life with its Creator/Saviour.

‘It is so hard to believe because it is so hard to obey,’ said Kierkegaard. He also said: ‘If I am capable of grasping God objectively, I do not believe, but precisely because I cannot do this I must believe’.

Religion as man-made psychological crutch for weak mortals, say the Freudians. And while we’re at it, why does this so-called God not make his loving presence evident in this world full of misery? But if, like God, our souls are not tangible things, surely it’s down to us to recognise we do not live by bread alone in order to develop an attitude capable of providing bread for all.


  1. Charles

    Materialism, in a functional if not an absolute sense is, of course, nearly as old as our first philosophical statement of dualism in Plato, having been developed by his pupil Aristotle who said (in effect) that while a candle is not the same thing as wax, it makes no more sense to say that you can have a ‘person’ without a body than it does to say that you can have a candle without wax.

    Reductionalist materialism and dualism are not, of course, the only two options ‘on the market’ as it were. I would describe myself, broadly speaking, as a epiphenominalist (sometimes). Many cultures (Ancient Egypt and Ancient China spring to mind) posited the existence of multiple souls for an individual. Clearly this is not as simple as a division between physical matter and consciousness.
    Even for Plato (whose thinking on the subject is by no means consistent) there is confusion as to what belongs in the realm of the physical (soma) and what belongs in the realms of soul (psyche). Emotion, for example, is firmly in the realm of the material whereas because it is in the realm of ‘qualia’ (the subjective experience of a thing rather than its measurable outward manifestation) most modern people would be inclined to put it in the ‘soul heading’.

    Then of course there is the ‘atman’ of Eastern thought which is usually taken to be the unchanging glimmer of the eternal (and non-personal) Brahman within the physical and no conected at all to the personality, emotions or memories of the individual. Many Eastern philosopies of course make no distinction between physical and ‘spiritual’ seeing both as different manifestations of a single reality.

    Whilst I agree with you that consciousness is a very strange thing (which we have been studying for less than 50 years in any neurological sense), and that a human being (I will leave the thorny issue of animals to one side for the time being) apear to be more than the sum of their parts, and, while I am not convinced that there is any form of life after death I am no longer convinced that there is not; I do think that Cartesian Dualism is far too simple an explanation for whatever it is that is going on, and not a proposition that is easily defendable in the light of modern scientific thought.

  2. Charles

    Richard Dawkins says “There may be fairies at the bottom of the garden. There is no evidence for it, but you can’t prove that there aren’t any, so shouldn’t we be agnostic with respect to fairies?”
    Dawkins has a problem with the term atheist because then there would have to be an equivalent term for all the other invisible/supernatural beings he doesn’t believe in.

  3. Charles

    I am extremely agnostic with respect to fairies (and indeed most other things) and this, I think, is where Dawkins essentially comes unstuck. He assumes its the old guy with the white beard in the sky or nothing. His version of theism is indeed, hard to defend which is why its just as well that its one that most theists don’t hold.
    Which is why good quality Religious Education is so important.
    You don’t want to get me started on that!

      1. Charles

        Yes, we do, but… why should theism have to have anything whatsoever to do with religion? It’s like confusing body disposal with funerals (would that be called Cremationism?).

        I for one am quite happy with my own idea of god (or what I could have called ‘god’ if religion hadn’t purloined the perfectly good term for its esoteric purposes and Capitalized on it), but I regard religion as a distraction from that, and religious commentators’ comments on God as an irrelevance. I’m not a believer, neither do I doubt; I’m not an agnostic nor an atheist, and I’m not a theist either; I have no religion, neither am I non-religious; in fact all of these otiose terms are simply ankle-snares to keep the conversation on someone else’s territory and prevent the simple truth from being explored.

        Sidestep them, and THEN let’s have a good quality discussion, about god.

    1. Charles

      Not that Dawkins needs me to defend him but I think he knows that there are many many concepts of God – which is why he says we’re all atheists.

      1. Charles

        I don’t think I have ever heard him comment on the concept of a God who is anything other than realist, personal, and transcendent and who is in some way responsible for creation. He is pretty much stuck in a Judeo-Christian framework.

  4. Charles

    Jonathan says: ‘I regard religion as a distraction from that, and religious commentators’ comments on God as an irrelevance. I’m not a believer, neither do I doubt; I’m not an agnostic nor an atheist, and I’m not a theist either’.

    That’s absolutely fair enough. Noone is saying you have to read the irrelevant content of this blog! However, I’m always glad when you grace us with a comment.

  5. Charles

    I have this feeling that the human passion for naming things works well with things but falls short when applied to the abstract. Words just ain’t up to it. So I agree with Jonathan. Making sense of things doesn’t make sense.

    1. Charles

      I want one! The more I find out about religion, the less I know. When it comes to spiritual matters, I believe in the wise words of Fun Boy 3 and Bananarama: it ain’t what you do it’s the way that you do it.

    2. Charles

      When I left my last school my sixth form got me a T shirt that said ‘Mind the Epistomological Gap’
      I absolutely love it.
      They also made me a cartoon book featuring ‘Kant the superhero’.
      Sometimes I really miss them.

  6. Charles

    Jenny, belated reply. Your scholarly words at the top of this thread add new layers to the original post, some of which (for example, epiphenominalism) I left out only in order to keep copy brief(ish). You’ve effectively produced Part II offering greater depth. I also do wish you’d say more about the ‘thorny issue’ of animal consciousness…!
    Also like:
    Ain’t what you do but the way that you do it (inspired me to revisit the video on youtube!)
    Making sense of things doesn’t make sense…

    1. Charles

      For me it’s got to be epiphenominalism – the most exuberant sneeze known, the sort snufftakers utter.

      Seriously, I’m going to look it up. Presently, I have the existential standpoint of an average dog – not that that’s anything to be sneezed at.

    2. Charles

      ‘Thorny issue of animal consciousness’ commented on elsewhere 🙂

      I do think that the dualist materialist dichotomy is too simplistic. One possibility (which I have a lot of time for although I am not fully convinced) is that the ‘soul’ (by which, in this context, I mean a personal consciousness that can survive bodily death) is not utterly separate from the body, at least initially. It is contingent upon the physical brain although it is not identical with it (this is what I mean, I think, by saying that we are ‘more than the sum of our parts’. There has been some very interesting work done recently (I’m sorry, I can’t remember by whom, I will try and track it down when I finish with the day’s results enquiries) focussing on consciousness and ‘quantum coalessence’ whereby the ‘soul’ arises out of the brain and is initially contingent upon it but reaches a stage where it can survive (at least for a while) without it. Much as a baby cannot exist without its mother but is not always contingent upon her. Food for thought at least!

  7. Charles

    AAAAaaaaTISHoo – TIL – Thing I learned today
    (actually this should be Thing I READ today as I’m not convinced I’ve learned it yet)

    Epiphenomenalism is the view that mental events are caused by physical events in the brain, but have no effects upon any physical events. Behavior is caused by muscles that contract upon receiving neural impulses, and neural impulses are generated by input from other neurons or from sense organs. On the epiphenomenalist view, mental events play no causal role in this process. Huxley (1874), who held the view, compared mental events to a steam whistle that contributes nothing to the work of a locomotive. James (1879), who rejected the view, characterized epiphenomenalists’ mental events as not affecting the brain activity that produces them “any more than a shadow reacts upon the steps of the traveller whom it accompanies”.

    Read on for a thorough brain befuddling!
    PS: I am in awe of Jenny.

  8. Charles

    Jonathan, it is precisely because of this that good quality RE is so important. It gives people that vocabulary, space and critical awareness to discuss the whole spectrum and formulate opinions such as the one you have expressed which is fair enough. (God, like soul, is a word we throw around with the assumption that it means the same, or even similar things to everyone who uses it. It doesn’t). i am not, you understand, talking about the ‘scripture lessons’ that you were no doubt exposed to as a child. Whilst I am grateful for these in so far as they provided me with much of the ‘building material’ that came in handy later they were no more nor less than ‘how to be a good Christian’ lessons.

    The sort of RE about which I am passionate is the sort that actively encourages young people to explore, think, challenge, question and begin to formulate a position on a variety of philosophical, metaphysical and ethical issues. It does this in a way that no other subject does and for many it is the only opportunity that they get to have these conversations. Without it we will be in big trouble.
    Ok, soapboxing over 🙂

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