Doubt is most associated with science, and with good reason. Doubt is how the process works. No matter how slick your ideas are they have to be testable. Skepticism is a healthy thing. We live in a sea of audio-visual garbage and absorb it through the pores daily. Having a strong doubting sense helps. You have to sort out the knowledge from all the information, the signal from all the noise. Advertising and politics depend on gullibility. They know Barnum was right and they peddle their un-testable stuff shamelessly and they tell you what you want to hear. TV evangelists and mega-churches are the best at it. You relax your doubting muscle and they get you in an arm bar and you have to tap out. Next thing you know it you’re chanting Hare Krishna.
So you keep that doubting muscle firmed up and “play the doubting game” (as Peter Elbow would say). But science isn’t so simple and one-sided. You can’t have doubt without belief. When a new idea comes along, especially if it bears fruit right away, scientists can jump on the believe-train just as easily as anyone else. Think about the Big Bang Theory. Not a very satisfying notion from either a philosophical or common-sense point of view. If God made the universe, then who made God? When did it all start and how? If the Big Bang made the universe, then what came before? When did it all start and how? Neither idea gets you anywhere.
But believing in the Big Bang, or at least suspending doubt and dis-belief, is enormously useful. It’s a testable notion, this idea that there was a gigantic explosion. Because such a thing, applying the known laws of physics, would presumably have observable consequences. The so-called “cosmic microwave background” is such a thing. It’s real, measurable radio astronomy and it could be the remnants of this immense ancient event. The theory has value as an organizing idea, a way to tie together observations of unusual and difficult phenomena. At some future date, I sincerely hope, schoolkids will sit around giggling about the silly concepts that their ancestors used to describe the universe back in the day. But a model, no matter how crude, that accounts for things that are happening right now is too valuable to discard until something better comes along. What’s better? One that survives more experimental tests and describes a greater swath of the known universe.
I don’t mean to make it seem that belief is just a hat to put on when you are at work. Scientists are just like everybody else, they believe in all kinds of nutty stuff. They have well-developed doubting skills, just like ballplayers have well-developed hand-eye skills, but these are not unique to them. We can all activate the doubting schemes we have when we need to. In fact it’s so much more necessary today with our 24/7 saturation culture, but I said that already.
Scholarship and other intellectual endeavors suffer from too much doubt. It’s the nature of these things to probe and ask questions, to think critically, to analyze and to de-construct. These are essential academic skills. In the oneupmanship culture of academic publishing you can go far by how cleverly you can skewer another’s work. Being a critic is easier than being an original. But that’s only part of thinking and learning. The other part is belief. Now no one likes a zealot, especially a reformed one. And the earnestness of true believers is wearisome. Skeptics need to furrow their brows and there’s nothing wrong with that. But they have to “play the believing game” too.
So how do you do that? How do you embrace something without losing your footing? For me I read less and write more. I talk less and listen more. Communication is all about belief. You believe in the meaning you ascribe to your scribbles and you also believe that I can find the same meaning in them. I’m here creating bits to send into cyberspace because I believe a consciousness is on the other end assigning meaning to them.
I’m a skeptic by nature. I’m the doubting-est of the doubters, man. Thomas the Apostle was my favorite of The Twelve because he had to see for himself. I’m like that. I don’t trust it unless it’s the source and even then I have my doubts. But that’s not enough to live on. You have to balance doubt with belief. They aren’t really contradictory, rather they are complementary. And why worry about a few contradictions? I used to think that consistency was an important thing. Salt-water taffy has consistency. That’s why we buy it and eat it. If I’m selling taffy, I’ll worry about consistency. Real life is nothing but confusion and contradiction, it’s only in art, music, and fiction that things can make sense.
Maybe that’s it. Creating things requires belief. So when in doubt, paint. Or sing. Or dance. Or carve wood. Or cook. Or build something. When I get up at the crack of dawn so I can be fit and fed and ready to ride my mountain bike up a steep goddamn hill I gotta believe. I can’t do it otherwise. It’s way nicer in bed. But once I get going and overcome my inertia I find it to be one of the best things I do. It makes me feel great.
You play the doubting game to survive, you play the believing game to thrive. Oh, is that clever, or what? I think I might have the stuff, finally, to fulfill one of my dreams: writing a self-help best-seller! With that and eumentics I’m on my way.