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.