Doubt and its Variety

Doubt and its Variety

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Doubt is a state of mind, some would say an affliction of the mind. It refers to a condition in which one is unable or unwilling to accept, on the face of it, a given statement as true. When we say we are in doubt, what we mean is that we are not altogether certain about the truth or correctness of a proposition, the reliability of a person, the existence of something, etc.

Like the word faith, the word doubt is also used in a variety of contexts with varying shades of meaning, resulting in some avoidable misunderstandings between science and religion. Here again, controversies tend to arise when one ignores the variety of doubts that might arise in the mind. To clarify this, I will refer, as I did with faith, to three different situations where doubt could arise.

First, consider a salesperson who extols a product which he or she is eager to sell. One may not be prepared to accept everything that the person says. Or again, if a doctor were to tell a close relative of a seriously ill patient that there is a good chance of recovery, one may have some doubts about what the physician says. Finally, when a very probable suspect who is questioned by the police asserts that he or she is really innocent, one may not accept the statement as absolutely true. These are instances of what may be called quotidian doubts or quotidian doubt. In quotidian doubt, there is reason to suspect that the proponent of a proposition is probably not telling the truth. Usually, the individual has an ulterior motive for this. The opposite of quotidian doubt is not faith, but credulity or gullibility.

Next, consider a preacher who tells the audience that those who commit sins are bound to suffer one way or another, here in this world or in the hereafter. Or again, there may be an expert in economics who says that if certain steps are taken, certain economic problems would be solved. Finally, let us take up the assurance that one will attain salvation if one accepts Jesus Christ as the Savior, or Mohammed as the only Prophet, or an equivalent proposition in another religion. In these instances too, one may doubt that the proposition is 100% reliable. The doubt arising in these cases is very different from quotidian doubts. Here, those who make the claim are honest and sincere in what they say. They have no intention to cheat, fool, or take advantage of others. Doubt may arise in these cases, not because one distrusts the credibility or integrity of the source, but rather because the proposition in question strikes the doubter as somewhat improbable. This type of doubt may be called the skeptic’s doubt. Skeptic’s doubt is not necessarily associated with disregard or lack of respect for the source, or with suspicion of dishonesty.

When it says in the New Testament “He that doubteth is damned (Romans, xiv, 23),” it is of skeptic’s doubt that one is speaking. When it is declared that there is no doubt in the Holy Qur’an (xxxii,2), what is implied is that one should not approach it with skeptic’s doubt. When the Bhagavadgita says that for the doubting person there is happiness neither here nor in the next world (iv, 40), it is again of skeptic’s doubt that Krishna speaks.

Skeptic’s doubt is the antithesis of religious faith, and is not religion-friendly. Over the ages, many thinkers have recognized this since ancient times. Thus, the poet Tennyson reminded us in his In Memoriam that sowing doubts in times of prayer would spoil the richness of the experience:

Leave thou thy sister, when she prays
Her early heaven, her happy views;
Nor thou with shadowed hint confuse
A life that leads melodious days.

Now let us take up the announcement that some chemists have produced nuclear fusion reactions at ordinary temperatures. Upon reading this report, the general public may be impressed and excited, but the scientists who know something about nuclear fusion, and especially those who are working in the field, will have serious doubts about the correctness of the report or the claim of the chemists. They will immediately set to work to reproduce the reported result. Or again, suppose that an astronomer says that he or she has spotted a comet or a new galaxy at such and such a celestial location. Now too, other astronomers will direct their instruments towards the reported coordinates to check if this is indeed true. This gesture, from a truth-content point of view, is also an expression of doubt in what one has been told.

Finally, take the case of a student who is performing an experiment in a physics laboratory to verify a certain law of physics which was enunciated in a lecture. Why should the student do the experiment? Does he not trust the professor or the text book? The point is, a student learning the methodology and techniques of science must not, in principle, trust (i.e. accept unquestioningly as true) whatever the teacher says. The act of doing an experiment in a science course is a scientific ritual in which the student implicitly says: “Yes, my teacher may be right in what he told is in class, but unless I do the experiment myself and verify it to be true, I really cannot accept its validity.”

These are all examples of what may be called verificatory doubts. A verificatory doubt arises, not by distrust in the integrity of the source (quotidian doubt), or even necessarily from the implausibility of what is stated (skeptic’s doubt), but from two other considerations:

(a) Scientific results need to be validated by people beyond and away from the first source through independent observations and repeated verifications. This has nothing to do with the unreliability or untrustworthiness of the source. In fact, if a reported result is not pursued by others to verify or modify it, this would be an insult to the scientist who first presents it to the community.

(b) No matter how reliable the scientific authority may be who proposes or tries to propagate a scientific proposition, unless his or her claim is tested independently by as many different people as possible, using all the available resources, it is not regarded as scientifically valid. Thus, verificatory doubt is a necessary component of the scientific enterprise, it is an important element in scientific methodology, just as r-faith is a necessary ingredient of religion.