I have spent the past three posts building a case for rational doubt, starting from why it’s worth being sceptical (instead of just a naysayer, or being afraid of doubt), then going through some examples of how to actually do that. In the finale, I would like to go back to the beginning and show that, no matter how well-organised, doubt can be immobilizing. Disconcerting as this might sound, there is a point at which you either stop asking, or you end up getting nowhere.
If only doubting things was enough for us to be rational in our actions (and therefore, presumably, less prone to panic), life would be much easier. Certainly, we might be right to think that scepticism helps us not to fall for the tricks of the advertisers and pundits. Wherever there is a space for doubt, exploring it seems to bring us closer to the truth. But the source of the peril of doubt is embedded in this very thought, or rather in the ultimate goal. In my first post, I remarked about how one should be sceptical of one’s own scepticism. After all, what good is verifying someone’s argument if your own reasoning is flawed?
The problem is, that is exactly where the descent into infinite doubt starts. Just consider this:
- Name just one belief of yours.
- Why is it that you believe that? What reason, what evidence do you have that your belief is true? If your goal is to be rational, I presume you can present an argument.
- Since you have presented the argument, you must also believe that the argument is correct.
- We are back to square 1. You have just revealed another belief. Since you did, you should, as a sceptic, inquire into why it is that you have that belief.
The key observation here is that your initial belief in X was exchanged for a belief in the reason for X. However, in order to be completely satisfied, you’d have to also check the resulting belief – otherwise, how would you know that it is sound? Try it for yourself, and you will quickly realize that you end up mimicking a behaviour from childhood – endlessly inquiring “why” about any given explanation. In philosophy, the stance of never being satisfied that you sufficiently know anything is sometimes referred to as “radical scepticism”. “Radical” because it doesn’t stop at the first, second, or any step in questioning knowledge. What’s uncomfortable to admit is that in the search for truth, we are forced to stop at some point – and that point appears to be arbitrary. In the end, we give up, leaving with unanswered questions. (Taking one of our already-accepted beliefs as a reason isn’t viable if we don’t want to end up with circular reasoning.)
To a person who strives to be rational, the world might appear somewhat bizarre once he or she realizes there are ultimately some assumptions to be taken for granted. How can you be sure, then, that you are ever making the right decision? In a quest for trying to ensure that all your beliefs are sound, you can either give up and accept something, or never give up, and so never be done with considerations. It’s a plain fact of life that only the former is practical, because whether you like it or not, you’re going to have to act, if only just to breathe and eat. Yet, it might be disappointing to think that you will only be sure up to a certain limit. What do we make of this?
Maybe the proper thing to do is to actually acknowledge the limitation. In thinking that we’re giving up on being reasonable by giving up on seeking further explanations, we are assuming that it is rational to enter the endless regress. But how rational can such an assumption be, if it can never be realized? Is it rational to think that by accepting assumptions on some level, we are no better than gullible people? Or is it that there’s a scale of belief, ranging from absolute disbelief to absolute gullibility? I think we can accept limitations, and yet strive to be as sound within them as we can. Maybe it’s disappointing, but are there any other viable options?
This series started by presenting the value of doubt, in order to show the positive effect questioning can have on one’s intellectual life. Now we’ve gone full circle to seeing how questioning – if unrestrained – can cause a person to doubt everything, making any sort of decision-making impossible. There is worth in doubting, as much as there is in being satisfied to halt further doubt. While you might never be ultimately satisfied, at least you’re better off having considered things. It’s neither bad to doubt, nor to stake claims, if we know that’s not the end of learning. Since you will have to make decisions, it’s better if they’re the informed ones.