On doubt in science and religion

The Kauravas Confer – Wikimedia Commons

That doubt is of the greatest value in supporting the scientific tradition has been a fundamental principle for many of the greatest scientists.  Richard Feynman has eloquently described how doubt and intellectual humility are values at the heart of the scientific enterprise.

“We have found it of paramount importance that in order to progress we must recognize our ignorance and leave room for doubt. Scientific knowledge is a body of statements of varying degrees of certainty — some most unsure, some nearly sure, but none absolutely certain.”

[from ‘The Value of Science’]

“Western civilization, it seems to me, stands by two great heritages. One is the adventure into the unknown, an unknown which must be recognized as being unknown in order to be explored; the demand that the unanswerable mysteries of the universe remain unanswered; the attitude that all is uncertain; to summarize it — the humility of the intellect”

[from ‘The Pleasure of Finding Things Out’]

Whereas doubt manifest itself as intellectual humility in the context of science, by contrast, in the domain of religion, doubt manifests itself as spiritual humility.  Thus Richard Feynman goes on to explain this and express a concern that this need for spiritual humility should mean that doubt should similarly be manifest in the Christian church.

“The other great heritage is Christian ethics — the basis of action on love, the brotherhood of all men, the value of the individual — the humility of the spirit … Is the modern church a place to give comfort to a man who doubts God — more, one who disbelieves in God? Is the modern church a place to give comfort and encouragement to the value of such doubts?”

[from ‘The Relation of Science and Religion’]

In the context of Christianity, the Lutheran theologian Paul Tillich similarly distinguishes the existential doubt of religious faith from the methodological doubt of the scientist, but also from the more radical doubt of the sceptic or cynic.  Tillich argues that both scientific doubt about doctrinal statements of the church and also religious doubt about the core tents of the church are fundamental to faith, writing –

“If doubt appears, it should not be considered as the negation of faith, but as an element which was always and will always be present in the act of faith … But serious doubt is confirmation of faith.  It indicates the seriousness of the concern , its unconditional character.  This also refers to those who as future or present ministers of a church experience … existential doubt about the message of their church, e.g., that Jesus can be called the Christ.”

[from ‘What Faith Is’; Paul Tillich]

Tillich goes on to talk about doubting the existence of God as follows –

“God would not be God if we could possess Him like any object of our familiar world, and verify His reality like any other reality under inquiry … Faith is the courage that conquers doubt, not by removing it, but my taking it as an element into itself.  I am convinced that the element of doubt conquered in faith, is never completely lacking in any serious affirmation of God.”

[from ‘The Divine Name’; Paul Tillich]

With this in mind, it is not surprising that the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, has spoken about his own religious doubts, saying “There are moments, sure, when you think, ‘Is there a God?’ ‘Where is God?'”.

The Christian philosopher Søren Kierkegaard is another thinker who has closely examined the question of faith and doubt, and linked it with concern, or ‘interest’, in a similar way to Tillich.  For Kierkegaard, doubt can never be overcome through systematic inquiry.  Adopting the persona of Johannes Climacus, Kierkegaard writes –

“Even if the System were absolutely complete, still doubt would not be overcome – it begins first – for doubt is due to interest, and all systematic knowledge is disinterested.  One can see from this that doubt is the beginning of the highest form of existence, because it can have everything else as its presupposition.”

[from Johannes Climacus, Søren Kierkegaard]

Rather, doubt must be overcome through a leap of faith and an act of courage –

“Faith is the opposite of doubt.  But they are not two varieties of knowledge which can be set alongside each other.  Faith and doubt are not different kinds of cognition; they are contrary passions.  Faith is a feeling for coming into existence, and doubt is a protest against every attempt to draw conclusions beyond direct knowledge and sensation.”

[from Philosophical Fragments, Søren Kierkegaard]

Tillich interestingly goes on to illustrate the subject of doubt in terms of the Indian concept of māyā, and sees the Indian mystic as one who has the courage to radically doubt all and yet affirm himself.  Tillich writes –

“That which from the point of view of the finite world appears as self-negation is from the point of view of ultimate being the most perfect self-affirmation, the most radical form of courage … the anxiety of doubt and meaninglessness is taken into the mystical courage to be.  Doubt is directed towards everything that, according to its Maya character, is doubtful.  Doubt dissolved the veil of Maya … the anxiety of meaningless is conquered where the ultimate meaning is not something definite but the abyss of every definite meaning.”

[from ‘Courage and Transcendence’; Paul Tillich]

This passage may perhaps remind us of the description of the enlightened person from the Tantrāloka.

“For those [enlightened people], this world-maṇḍala, though present, appears to be destroyed by the fire that is Śiva who is pure awareness.  For these, the differences between pleasure, pain, doubt and disquiet are left behind as they are absorbed in the highest [reality].  For these there is no mantra, no meditation, no worship, no thinking, no time, no [progress] from initiate to teacher, nor any such illusion.”

[from Tantrāloka of Abhinavagupta; my own translation]

In the Indian context, we find not only discussion of the existential doubt which a feature of spiritual practice, but also methodological doubt and sceptical doubt  appearing as themes in religious and secular literature.  Thus the Nāsadīya Sūkta of the Rig Veda, which I discussed here, takes an attitude of radical doubt concerning cosmological questions –

Who Really Knows?  Who Here Can Say?  from Whence Did It Come?  from Whence This Creation?

The Gods Came After the Creation, so Who Knows from Whence It Was Produced?

[Ṛg Veda Maṇḍala 10 Sūkta 129 Mantra 6 by Ṛṣi Prajāpati Parameṣṭhī; my own translation]

As for methodological doubt, for thinkers of the Indian Nyāya and Mīmāṃsā avenues of inquiry, this is an essential part of the well-functioning cognitive process.  Further, genuine methodological doubt which is bounded within reasonable parameters is distinguished from the compulsive doubt of spurious conjecture.

“In regard to some object, the self-concerned investigator should establish [the belief as correct], by not continuing to conjecture that [defeat of the belief] is possible at some [later] time”

[from Bṛhaṭṭīkā of Bhaṭṭa Kumārila; my own translation]

However, at least in literature, such doubts can sometimes not be resolved.  Thus I discussed here the example of Draupadī’s question in the Mahābhārata, which could never be resolved by the eminent assembly.  When Yudhisthira stakes and loses his own life and the life of Draupadi in the gambling match, Draupadi’s question for him is –

“Did you lose yourself first or me?”

[from Sabhā Parvan of the Mahabharata; my own translation]

However, the assembly is unable to answer this question, and Bhishma only says –

“Dear lady, because dharma is subtle, I cannot properly investigate this question of yours.”

[from Sabhā Parvan of the Mahabharata; my own translation]

In general in the Mahābhārata, there is much doubt about the right course of action for the Pāṇḍavas to take, and this is one reason it is such a perennially interesting text.  In summary, then, this article has only tentatively suggested some ways in which doubt may feature in methodological inquiry and existential questioning.  We can say that there is much yet to investigate and understand about the proper role of doubt, intellectual humility and ethical humility, in science, in religion, and in other areas of human endeavour.  Returning to the opening theme above, we may end with the concluding words of Richard Feynman from the same essay.

“How can we draw inspiration to support these two pillars of Western civilization so that they may stand together in full vigor, mutually unafraid?  Is this not the central problem of our time?  I put it up to the panel for discussion.”

[from ‘The Relation of Science and Religion’]

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