the doubting game

May 5, 2005

It's interesting to observe what happens as I try to think like an agnostic. Thomas Kuhn wrote, “When reading the works of an important thinker, look first for the apparent absurdities in the text and ask yourself how a sensible person could have written them.” This is what Peter Elbow called the Believing Game in his essay on rationality in Writing without Teachers. The most popular option for testing ideas is to doubt them – to try to poke holes in them and see how well they withstand critical scrutiny. That's not in fact the only way to test ideas. You can also bracket your own way of looking at the world temporarily and try to put yourself in the other person's shoes. Take their idea upon yourself and see how it wears. Play along with it for awhile and see what happens.

It may be that there are some wrong ideas that can resist the Doubting Game, whose flaws only appear when someone plays the Believing Game with them. It may also be that there are some truths that can't stand up perfectly to the interrogation of a skillful Doubter, but their strength is evident when they are examined from within.

What happens as I try to bracket all my cherished notions and put on the profound skepticism of the agnostic? I'm getting a refresher course in intellectual paralysis. If the skepticism is profound enough, it begins to dissolve all notions, cherished or not – not simply my faith in God, but my interest in reading novels, my desire for a swim at the pool, my sense of what action to take next. The premise of skepticism is that it is inappropriate to trust any authority, and when left long enough to itself, it also corrodes my own authority to tell myself what to do.

I'm also rediscovering that skepticism, like any other good thing in God's world, contains its own corrective within it. You can see this if you make an effort to be consistent and fair in your skepticism, because as you stick with your doubts to the end, you start to doubt your doubts. You reach the terminus of that particular approach. At that point, you are released from your paralysis, because your sense of humor comes back. As long as you don't take yourself too seriously, you can make a choice, recognizing that anyone good enough at the Doubting Game will be able to find a hole in your perspective, and that you might look silly. Someday, you may even look silly to yourself. That's the flip side of learning and growing.

Here's how it's working out for me, more specifically.

I can recognize in myself a longing for salvation and an apprehension of having meaningful choices. Doubting the notions of salvation, freedom and meaning, I try to penetrate my vague impressions of life and achieve a more secure and objective understanding of myself. I read up a little on evolutionary psychology and see that my mental states can be accounted for in other ways, though not without difficulty. It's very clear that people often deceive themselves about their own motives and state of mind. There is a pattern to their behavior that reveals their evolutionary heritage. My sexual identity is partly an expression of a biological mandate to reproduce for survival. My religious identity is part of an enormous, species-wide project of building strong social structures and moral codes that will preserve genetic communities. My intellectual identity is inextricably bound up with my cerebral cortex, and it has delusions of grandeur – it will think it is choosing actions when a lower part of the brain has actually already set those actions in motion.

At a certain point a thought occurs to me: if my consciousness is a feature of my frontal lobe, which has a fundamental misunderstanding about its role, then I have to acknowledge an element of doubt is interwoven through all of my intellectual activity. Including the line of thought that brought me to this thought. It seems I will have to trust the human intellect after all, even if it is fallible, if I want to retain the ability to cross-check my perceptions against the demands of logic. So there is more to my intellectual identity than my intellect, aided by science alone, can grasp. And while I can doubt my desire for salvation and sense of myself as free, I am bound to doubt those doubts as well.

That's as far as I've gotten so far. I hope to become better at the Believing Game.


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