Beliefs And Doubts

The other day I was leafing through an old notebook and stumbled upon a page titled "Some Thoughts On Certainty." I had assembled the passages during graduate school while corresponding with an old mentor who took pains always to remind me of the correlative truth of rival doctrines. I sat still, grinning at my creation as perhaps one might when reviewing an aged term paper or love letter. A few thoughts went through my mind.

First was the question whether our inclination as human beings is to believe something rather than to doubt it, to commit to a position prematurely rather than to stand back disinterestedly, cautiously. Children are disposed to polymorphous beliefs: belief in the existence of ghosts and goblins, Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny; belief in the sincerity of adults and parents, in a world that is permanent, structured, and more or less intimate. Adolescents and young adults have more refined belief systems, but perhaps as a group are more inclined towards credulity than agnosticism. Thus, the vague belief in the goodness of family and country; the acceptance of facile dichotomies, as between good and evil, right and wrong, god and the devil, truth and falsehood; belief in the future or in oneself or in a world susceptible to positive change. Perhaps there's a germ of truth in the old saw that idealism flourishes in youth and gives way to a hardheaded (or hardhearted) realism later on. But adults are hardly without their own anchors, and one needn't travel far to find those who take "holy books" seriously or search earnestly for meaning in their life or try in some nebulous way "to do good" or "to be good."

How often do we meet someone who is assumptionless, suppositionless, wholly agnostic and wholly unopinionated (N.B. not apathetic, just someone who forswears all opinions because of their supposed inadequacy)?

In all my conversations with people over the years on some serious subject -- politics and religion, history and philosophy, science and literature -- rarely are concessions like "I don't have enough information or knowledge" made. Heated discussions end in a pseudo-diplomatic way, with lines like "we'll just have to agree to disagree," or "we're not going to change one another's mind," or "nothing's going to get resolved here" (a favorite of chat shows: as if something had to get "resolved" in order for a discussion to be any good).

The behavioral default setting, at least in many people I've known, at least here in America, isn't silence but articulation -- and not articulation of any refined sort in which ideas are labored over and purified, but articulation from the gut as it were. We treat even serious conversations casually, as though we were doing them the greatest justice by spluttering an opinion or two. Convinced of our divine right to express ourselves, we needn't feel embarrassed by our ignorance or reluctant to rush into conversation. It is enough simply to be aware of our right to opine.

It occurred to me, rereading J.S. Mill, that beliefs might naturally be classified according to the intensity with which they're held; thus the following, for instance:

1 - Belief as the core of an identity. Who hasn't come across a true believer? A literalist Christian, say, with rigid boundaries? A social activist with a "nothing-you-can-say-will-change-my-mind" mentality? A warrior in the abortion debate -- angry, smug, closed-minded?

2 - Belief as an ego investment. A professor, for instance, whose long career has been built on the edifice of a single theory and whose sense of worth is threatened every time the preferred theory is assailed.

3 - Convictions. A belief about something that affects the heart or pricks the conscience. Few will take to the streets if the Consumer Price Index rises one-tenth of one percentage point, but more than a few will dash out and be heard if a minority is denied its human rights or a savage war is undertaken under false pretenses.

4 - The "both-and" approach to ideas: relativism of the intellect, compassion of the heart. The way of the philosopher, the sage, the detached genius. Most ideas have something to recommend them: a doctrine or belief system isn't simply true or false, right or wrong, but has elements of both "rightness" and "wrongness" in them. Here the heart is engaged, but the intellect is large enough to see and to appreciate ambiguities, paradoxes, and antinomies.