The Wisdom of Doubt, Part I

There’s an excerpt from Glenn Greenwald’s new book (A Tragic Legacy: How a Good vs. Evil Mentality Destroyed the Bush Presidency, to be published June 26) in Salon today. Here’s just a snip:

One of the principal dangers of vesting power in a leader who is convinced of his own righteousness — who believes that, by virtue of his ascension to political power, he has been called to a crusade against Evil — is that the moral imperative driving the mission will justify any and all means used to achieve it. …

… Intoxicated by his own righteousness and therefore immune from doubt, the Manichean warrior becomes capable of acts of moral monstrousness that would be unthinkable in the absence of such unquestionable moral conviction. One who believes himself to be leading a supreme war against Evil on behalf of Good will be incapable of understanding any claims that he himself is acting immorally.

Glenn’s point of view nicely tracks what’s been rattling around in my own head for the past few days. As I’ve mentioned I’m going to be part of a religion panel at the Yearly Kos convention in August. After I got the invitation I began to think about what I might say, and write it down, and I am up to about a three-hour sermon at this point. I suppose I might have to boil that down a little. But the primary point I hope to make is this: What the world needs now is doubt.

Yeah, I know the song goes “What the world needs now is love.” That, too. But I think we should work on the doubt first.

These days religious people want to be called “people of faith.” But I object to the practice of using the word faith as a synonym for religion. Faith is a component of religion, to one degree or another, but not religion itself.

Zen students are told that the path of Zen takes “great faith, great doubt, and great determination. I found a dharma talk about this by Sensei Sevan Ross, who is the director of the Chicago Zen Center, called “The Distance Between Faith and Doubt.” Here’s just a bit:

Great Faith and Great Doubt are two ends of a spiritual walking stick. We grip one end with the grasp given to us by our Great Determination. We poke into the underbrush in the dark on our spiritual journey. This act is real spiritual practice – gripping the Faith end and poking ahead with the Doubt end of the stick. If we have no Faith, we have no Doubt. If we have no Determination, we never pick up the stick in the first place.

Faith and doubt are supposed to be opposites, but the Sensei says “if we have no faith, we have no doubt.” I would say, also, that true faith requires true doubt; without doubt, faith is not faith. This is exactly the sort of paradox that permeates philosophical Taoism and its cousin, Zen Buddhism, but which is alien to the way most westerners understand faith and doubt.

Zennies are, I admit, not exactly in the mainstream of American religion. Zennies were never all that mainstream in Asian religion, for that matter. Even so, in the histories of the major monotheistic religions — Judaism, Christianity, and Islam — you can find many great theologians, scholars, rabbis, contemplatives, and mystics whose religious understanding came from wrestling with their doubts.

I found an online Catholic encyclopedia that defined doubt as:

A state in which the mind is suspended between two contradictory propositions and unable to assent to either of them. … Doubt is opposed to certitude, or the adhesion of the mind to a proposition without misgiving as to its truth; and again to opinion, or a mental adhesion to a proposition together with such a misgiving.

I like that definition. To religious seekers and mystics, “A state in which the mind is suspended between two contradictory propositions and unable to assent to either of them” is a fertile place from which profound understanding may grow. Certainty, on other hand, is a sterile rock that grows nothing.

Unfortunately, religious institutions tend to be run by dogmatists, not seekers. And dogmatists don’t like doubt. This same attitude spills over into non-religious beliefs and ideologies. Some people (me, for example) enjoy diving into a nice, messy paradox or conundrum to get to the bottom of it. Others hate ambiguity and want easily digestible bumper-sticker answers for everything. We call the latter sort of people “conservatives.”

This Psychology Today article by Jay Dixit discusses the psychology of political opinion. Here’s a bit:

The most comprehensive review of personality and political orientation to date is a 2003 meta-analysis of 88 prior studies involving 22,000 participants. The researchers–John Jost of NYU, Arie Kruglanski of the University of Maryland, and Jack Glaser and Frank Sulloway of Berkeley–found that conservatives have a greater desire to reach a decision quickly and stick to it, and are higher on conscientiousness, which includes neatness, orderliness, duty, and rule-following. Liberals are higher on openness, which includes intellectual curiosity, excitement-seeking, novelty, creativity for its own sake, and a craving for stimulation like travel, color, art, music, and literature.

The study’s authors also concluded that conservatives have less tolerance for ambiguity, a trait they say is exemplified when George Bush says things like, “Look, my job isn’t to try to nuance. My job is to tell people what I think,” and “I’m the decider.” Those who think the world is highly dangerous and those with the greatest fear of death are the most likely to be conservative.

Liberals, on the other hand, are “more likely to see gray areas and reconcile seemingly conflicting information,” says Jost. As a result, liberals like John Kerry, who see many sides to every issue, are portrayed as flip-floppers. “Whatever the cause, Bush and Kerry exemplify the cognitive styles we see in the research,” says Jack Glaser, one of the study’s authors, “Bush in appearing more rigid in his thinking and intolerant of uncertainty and ambiguity, and Kerry in appearing more open to ambiguity and to considering alternative positions.”

I’m not sure I would have picked John Kerry as an example of a liberal truth-seeker, but I think the point is valid. Conservatives objected to this study, claiming that the authors are liberals and therefore biased in spite of their rigorous methodology. “Liberal bias” is, of course, one of the Right’s favorite bumper sticker answers to any fact that challenges their assumptions.

Our culture looks at doubt as something to overcome. Being without doubt is celebrated as a virtue, and if you do have doubts you are supposed to replace them with certainties as soon as possible. But I say the ideal is to have faith and doubt in balance. This includes faith in and doubt about yourself. Too much doubt is crippling, but so is not enough doubt, although in a different way.

Our President, for example, is a man without doubt. This may be the single biggest reason he’s a disaster at his job.

Recently Peter Birkenhead wrote a piece for Salon called “Better to Be Hamlet Than King George.” We have created a culture, he said, that confuses leadership with “an almost psychotic form of false optimism.” I’d leave out the “almost.” The Bush Administration, Birkenhead continued, is riddled with people who lack the wisdom of doubt, the grace of humility, and the simple ability to learn from mistakes.

Let’s face it, George Bush doesn’t have to doubt himself, any more than Donald Trump or Tom Cruise or Mitt Romney do. We live in a culture where they will never be forced to examine their prejudices or flaws. Of course, they have been denied the true confidence of people who are brave enough to face their doubts and who know there are worse things than feeling insecure. Like, say, feeling too secure. Pumped up by steroidic pseudo-confidence and anesthetized by doubt-free sentimentality, they are incapable of feeling anything authentic and experiencing the world. But that hasn’t stopped them, and won’t stop others, from succeeding in a society that is more enamored of a non-reality-based conception of leadership than previous generations were.

The neocons and others who surround President Bush ought to be rounded up by psychologists for intensive study. Truly, P.T. Barnum himself couldn’t have imagined these creatures. No matter how many times their predictions are proved wrong and their grand theories fall apart in the face of reality, their faith in themselves remains absolute. They, and only they, understand what’s wrong with the world and know how to fix it. They, and only they, are so perfect they are above the rule of law itself.

Although the neocons’ worldview is not thought of as religious, in fact it comes from the same pathological certainty that fueled the Inquisition and the destruction of the World Trade Center. Wisdom comes from facing not only one’s doubts but also the many ambiguities and paradoxes inherent in human life. People who refuse to walk that path are what we call “fools.”

Naturally I’m just getting wound up, but I think I’ll stop here for now. Am I making sense, so far?

Update: Glenn has a blog post up about the excerpt and responses to it so far. People are commenting that Bush doesn’t really believe the moral and religious shit he spouts. He just spouts this as part of his Evil Conspiracy to Take Over the World, they say. Glenn responds to this nicely. I only want to add that while no one can know what evil lurks in the heart of Bush, it’s plain as day that a big chunk of the American public has bought into this good-versus-evil, all-faith-all-the-time worldview, and you find it reflected in mass media day in and day out.

40 thoughts on “The Wisdom of Doubt, Part I

  1. Great post, and yes, you are making lots of sense. In gestalt theory, it is the impasse that leads to insight. The way I like to say it is, ‘Allow confusion, because it is the only place from which you can learn something new.” In other words, certainty is often just the result of forcing new data into old categories because one is unable to tolerate an impasse or interim state of confusion.

  2. Yes, you are making sense.

    You voice the thoughts that I wrestle with. The certainty that Conservatives (TM) use to attain power causes those opposed to them to act more certain, thus more in error, than ideal (look at the false dichotomy of Global Warming for an example).

    Science is all about doubt, which is why these people fear it. Politics is all about doubt, which is why they can’t do it.

  3. Donna,

    Education theory is all about setting up confusion, so that the mind must find a place for the new material. Obviously, too much confusion doesn’t work. Getting students to accept being confused is a major undertaking, and something our education system does not do particularly well and our culture does not tolerate well.

  4. This is what historian Barbara Tuchman wrote in her 1984 work “The March of Folly“:

    “Wooden-headedness is a factor that plays a large role in government. It consists in assessing a situation in terms of preconceived fixed notions while ignoring or rejecting any contrary signs. It is acting according to wish while not allowing oneself to be deflected by the facts. It is epitomized in a historian’s statement about Phillip II of Spain, the surpassing wooden-head of all sovereigns: ‘No experience of the failure of his policy could shake his belief in its essential excellence.'”

    Sounds like somebody we know, doesn’t it?

    I hereby nominate George W. Bush as the new champion wooden-head of all “sovereigns.” Philip II is a hard act to follow, but Bush has made it seem easy.

  5. I think of “belief” as being something like a theory.
    As such it can be tested.
    One test is that it can embrace more data(happenings) i.e. it has more explanatory power.
    Another test is that it has more predictable power.
    Religious beliefs lack the elements of a theory.
    So if I say God is dead, that can’t be tested, nor can it predict the outcome of much.

    A good reference for this topic can be found in the writings of George Kelly who developed a “personal construct theory.”
    Kelly’s fundamental postulate for personal construct psychology was that:

    A person’s processes are psychologically channelized by the way in which he anticipates events.
    He saw all people as personal scientists engaged in anticipating the world. His first corollary, the construction corollary, states:

    A person anticipates events by construing their replications.
    This emphasis on the role in behavior of a view to the future is what distinguishes Kelly’s approach to psychology. He saw anticipatory processes as the source of all psychological phenomena:

    A person’s processes, psychologically speaking, slip into the grooves which are cut out by the mechanisms he adopts for realizing his objectives.
    These grooves provide templets for construing events which he termed personal constructs:

    Man looks at his world through transparent templets which he creates and then attempts to fit over the realities of which the world is composed. Constructs are used for predictions of things to come, and the world keeps on rolling on and revealing these predictions to be either correct or misleading. This fact provides the basis for the revision of constructs and, eventually, of whole construct systems.

  6. This is anathema to righties who will see it as “moral ambiguity”, which is supposedly the worst thing wrong with lefties. Rush would have a field day with this since he thinks no moderate/middle of the roader/fence sitter was ever “Great”. I agree that a bit of “doubt” would have helped mightily and that Bush is insane with his intense level of non-doubt.

  7. I forgot to mention that simplistic constructs such as Good vs. Evil are more inclined to lead us to wars. It also leads to winning at all costs. The end justifies the means.

    And the Good vs. Evil paradigm is commonly found in those exhibiting a Borderline Personality Disorder.

    Some of Bush’s actions are Sociopathic and can also be explained by Narcissistic Personality symptoms.

  8. Great start. And don’t forget that inducing doubt in one who embraces certainty is a very dangerous task. Their reaction tends to be irrational wrath at whoever disturbed their moral slumber. Expunge the doubt by punishing the doubter.

  9. Yes, you are making a lot of sense. A very interesting post.

    I was stimulated to consider how being comfortable with doubt leads, somewhat counter-intuitively to facility with the tools of science and reasoning. If it is OK, on a fundamental emotional level, to ‘not know’, to not be certain, there is more freedom to experiment and examine and determine what, if anything, you can know, while acknowledging that you still aren’t certain. If one lives in a world of doubt, one learns to use ways of navigating that world that involve questioning, experimenting, and reasoning. But using those tools, continuing to exist in a state of not knowing, is an act of faith in its own way. If we have no faith we can not hold that doubt, as in the Sensei’s image.

    Sadly, it seems, the “faithful” in the mode of Bush take certainty as a measure of the quality and intensity of their faith, and have patterns of seeking certainty in all parts of their lives. Sometimes, holding their certainty becomes an end in itself and their ability to do so a point of pride: Bush being “resolute”, having “resolve”, “staying the course.”

    I never understood why being resolute (in a vacuum, not about something) was supposed to be important.

    Thanks for getting these ideas bubbling in my head!

  10. “Faith” is a psychologically loaded word. Faith in oneself is very often based on real or perceived reasons for that faith: confidence instilled by a parent, a successful pattern of activities–something that can be traced back to an action or actions. Religious faith, however, is often more mystical. There may be no basis in fact or reality for religious faith other than the desire to believe in a force more powerful than what we are able to normally comprehend. Beyond that, I would certainly not confuse what the Bushco crowd exemplifies as pertaining to either definition of “faith”. To paraphrase John Edwards, it’s just another bumper sticker phrase to excuse whatever they want to do.

  11. When one practices blind faith, is one a “person of blindness,” rather than a “person of faith”?

  12. Well put. You made me think of this quote from Jacob Bronowski in The Ascent of Man:

    It is said that science will dehumanize people and turn them into numbers. That is false: tragically false. Look for yourself. This is the concentration camp and crematorium at Auschwitz. This is where people were turned into numbers. Into this pond were flushed the ashes of four million people. And that was not done by gas. It was done by arrogance. It was done by dogma. It was done by ignorance. When people believe that they have absolute knowledge, with no test in reality — this is how they behave. This is what men do when they aspire to the knowledge of gods… In the end, the words were said by Oliver Cromwell: “I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ: Think it possible you may be mistaken.”

  13. Religious faith, however, is often more mystical. There may be no basis in fact or reality for religious faith other than the desire to believe in a force more powerful than what we are able to normally comprehend. Beyond that, I would certainly not confuse what the Bushco crowd exemplifies as pertaining to either definition of “faith”.

    Let’s be sure we understand the difference between mystical and doctrinal faith. In mysticism, faith is not faith in doctrine but faith in practice. Doctrines and beliefs may even be irrelevant. Desires to “believe” anything generally are also irrelevant. This is what Sensei Sevan Ross was talking about.

    The Wikipedia article on mysticism is not too bad, as long as you understand that mysticism takes many forms. The important point that the ideal in mysticism is to gain understanding of the Great Whatever through direct experience of it, not primarily by means of doctrine or intellect or choosing to believe anything in particular.

    I am going to argue in future posts that the way right-wingers process political ideology, even how they understand current events and how they understand themselves, very strongly relates to what they do with religion. I’m also going to argue that what the fundies think of as religious faith is not true faith, religious or otherwise.

  14. Biggerbox — “continuing to exist in a state of not knowing, is an act of faith in its own way.” That’s excellent. I may use that. 🙂

    A point I plan to make in future posts is that “faith” that God and the spiritual realm must conform to rigid, dogmatic concepts is not true faith but its opposite.

  15. This is slightly off-topic, but I needed to show the sane readers of the Mahablog a representative comment from the other side. The following post comes from a group that I participate in where we discuss certain medical issues. This “off-topic” (non-medical) post was in response to a call for the closing of the infamous School of the Americas that trained some of the worst torturers in Latin America (the site does have a number of thinking people within its ranks):

    “My husband was active duty Navy (currently reservist) and worked with many secret documents.

    Let me just say that the general public usually only gets half the story and that is not always reported acurately.

    He supports the war and feels (based on information he was privy to) that is is founded. His only regret is that we don’t just go in and take care of buisness.

    If only terrorists would play by the rules, maybe we could be more gentlemanly about our tactics. Forgive me if you think I am cruel, but if it saves military and civilian lives I don’t have a problem using means that are considered cruel. It is easy to judge when we sit in our comfortable homes were we can do and say almost anything without fear. Until we all walk on the lines that those serving do, NONE of us will know what we would do if it would help get information that keeps us in our state of comfortable freedom.”

    Lord, oh Lord, what does one do with such people?


  16. Canadian Reader, ask them what happened to all that name, rank and serial number shit. If it doesn’t apply to battlefield “terrorists,” do our soldiers in turn lose their rights not to be tortured if they are declared terrorists (cause for instance, they’ve like been known to terrorize people to get them to talk)? And point out that the army field manual at least previously did not countenance torture because it is unprofessional and unreliable in its results. And ask if we’re going to have to shut up about human rights in our foreign policy now for the foreseeable (OK, duh).

  17. I would say, also, that true faith requires true doubt; without doubt, faith is not faith.

    This is definitely fertile ground to explore. I’ve slowly realized that the common thread that runs through most of my favorite thinkers(Montaigne, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, James, Russell, Camus) was that they were great doubters. And many of the examples of religious faith that I admire and am able to identify with the most strike me as lifelong struggles with doubt and uncertainty. That struggle doesn’t mean a paralysis or hopelessness… in many cases it means a much more living and active faith, as the struggle and doubt prevents complacency and keeps the faith foremost in a person’s life and mind.

  18. There’s a lot of ways to go with this very relevant topic. As you mention, your big challenge will be to boil it down to the time allotted. At the risk of making it more complicated than it needs to be, I’ll mention Fowler’s Stages of Faith. Fowler has something important to say, it’s unfortunate that he uses a lot of technical words to say it.

    I’m interested in how people feel free or not to doubt. The mere raising of certain doubts in certain religious circles can make one an instant outcast. We saw how this played out for Ron Paul when he doubted GOP dogma at their debate a few weeks ago.

    Ultimately this comes down I think to parenting or how stressed one’s childhood is. Denying yourself this freedom is the start of denying all sorts of things, and is the beginning of becoming a stranger to yourself and to the greater world. A mask forms, which hides this deepening shadow.

    If you were a Jungian (maybe you are) you might feel more comfortable expressing doubt in terms of the shadow, or in tying the two together, if you feel it’s helpful. It’s very clear to me that America has a huge shadow, and BushCo and the far right personify it.

  19. Maha @13: Excellent elaboration on the difference between true, mystical faith and doctrinal faith. As you say, real faith is never part of any agenda or used to form an agenda. However, I do think that the *desire* to believe may be what makes the religious fundies so susceptible to authoritarian (dogmatic) personalities; and perhaps, also, the desire to belong–the tribal identification that seems to give emotional safety to the fundies. I wonder how many of our institutional religions are simply fulfilling a need to belong, or fulfilling other psychological needs, rather than addressing a desire to express faith in company with others.

  20. ” your doubt has made you whole”… 🙂 For me, in so many ways..I can say that’s true.

    You make good sense, Maha. Great post and great comments.

  21. I have to take exception to Glenn Greenwald’s title.How a Good vs Evil metality destroyed the Bush presidency… It somehow implies to me that aside from the good and evil mentality issue, that there was some degree of worth to be salvaged from Bush’s presidency. If there ever was a redeeming quality in Bush’s presidency..I missed it. All I saw was an exercise in ego mania and arrogance.

    In answer to the question whether Bush is secure in his knowledge and impervious to doubt..Remember..He’s a dry drunk, so no matter how solid an act he presents, or good a face he the core of his being he’s riddled with doubts to who he is as a person and where he’s going with the presidency..even his stupidity can’t shield him from his insecurities and doubts.

  22. Yes, you make a lot of sense, Maha. Great post.

    This is why I believe in a God of some sort, but I don’t believe in religion.
    Do have doubt’s about that God? Plenty.
    Do I wish I could find “religion?” Not really.
    I think of myself as spiritual, not religious.
    This is why I’m more of a follower of Ralph Waldo Emerson than Jesus Christ, or any of the other “prophet’s.” Prophet’s and their follower’s demand obedience, not independence, of thought and action.

  23. I really cherish my old 1977 copy of E.F. Schumacher’s “A Guide for the Perplexed”. I re-read it every once in awhile because doing so really rewards me with a palpable sense of my ‘placement’ of being one human in a universe. Here’s a bit from this book:
    “To accept anything as true means to incur the risk of error. If I limit myself to knowledge that I consider true beyond doubt, I minimize the risk of error, but at the same time I maximize the risk of missing out on what may be the subtlest, most important, and most rewarding things in life………….Maybe it is necessarily so that the higher things cannot be known with the same degree of certainty as can the lesser things, in which case it would be a very great loss indeed if knowledge were limited to things beyond the possibility of doubt.”

    There’s a blurb on the backside book jacket from a reviewer at Newsday:
    ‘…Schumacher proceeds to knock the foundation from under much of what science has been about these past few centuries, and then to bring into synthesis the definitive tenets of the world’s major religions. All this–and more–in only 140 pages. But hold the snickers; the man pulls it off.’

    Maha, where and when is the conference?

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  25. The comment about faith and doubt echoes the statement of Reinhold Niebuhr, the great liberal American theologian, author of some of the seminal works challenging the notions of American self-assurance, including “Moral Man and Immoral Society” (1932); “The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness: A Vindication of Democracy and a Critique of Its Traditional Defense” (1944); “The Irony of American History” (1952). He was one of the founders of the Americans for Democratic Action, a liberal organization opposed to the two Joes, Stalin and McCarthy. (For a very short synopsis of Niebuhr’s thought, see Arthur Schlesinger Jr,.Forgetting Reinhold Niebuhr, New York Times, September 18, 2005, at

    Niebuhr paraphrased a statement from the Book of James to read “There is no faith without doubt.” That is to say, that the person who claims to have no doubt about their Christian faith — or many other things, for that matter — has never really thought it through.

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  28. In addition to Niebuhr, I also recommend Paul Tillich for a Christian perspective on the relationship between faith and doubt. Here’s a teaser:

    “If faith is understood as being ultimately concerned, doubt is a necessary element in it. It is a consequence of the risk of faith.” (Tillich, The Dynamics of Faith, 1957, p.18)

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