Tag Archives: unexamined life

On the dangers of doubt

Unmitigated doubt is a cancer.

What I mean by that is not that doubt itself is a bad thing. IT isn’t. Men are borne with doubts and fears which naturally lead to a sort of curiosity about the world around them and about the larger philosophical questions such as meaning, purpose, existence, origin, etc.

Socrates famously put it this way: The unexamined life is not worth living.

So doubt itself is not a problem. The problem comes in when we doubt and have no end in mind, no clear requirement as to what could possibly satisfy our doubt. This type of doubt is what Pascal had in mind when he wrote:

But as for those who pass their life without thinking of this ultimate end of life, and who, for this sole reason that they do not find within themselves the lights which convince them of it, neglect to seek them elsewhere, and to examine thoroughly whether this opinion is one of those which people receive with credulous simplicity, or one of those which, although obscure in themselves, have nevertheless a solid and immovable foundation, I look upon them in a manner quite different.

This carelessness in a matter which concerns themselves, their eternity, their all, moves me more to anger than pity; it astonishes and shocks me; it is to me monstrous. I do not say this out of the pious zeal of a spiritual devotion. I expect, on the contrary, that we ought to have this feeling from principles of human interest and self-love; for this we need only see what the least enlightened persons see.

We do not require great education of the mind to understand that here is no real and lasting satisfaction; that our pleasures are only vanity; that our evils are infinite; and, lastly, that death, which threatens us every moment, must infallibly place us within a few years under the dreadful necessity of being for ever either annihilated or unhappy. –Blaise Pascal, Pensées, Section III: Of the Necessity of the Wager, #187

I must agree with Pascal here. He notes that a person who refuses to ground his doubt in something is not to be pitied like the person who makes an honest effort of seeking answers through careful and diligent study and yet, for whatever reason, comes to hold wrong beliefs and ideas. No, the person who does not ground their doubt in anything, like most modern atheists who are blinded by the post modern notion that any objective answers concerning the deep and fundamental questions of life, are to be scorned as being intellectually lazy.

That is, they should strive to take up the challenge of honestly examining what it is they reject. As Pascal also says:

In order to attack it, they should have protested that they had made every effort to seek Him everywhere, and even in that which the Church proposes for their instruction, but without satisfaction. If they talked in this manner, they would in truth be attacking one of her pretensions. But I hope here to show that no reasonable person can speak thus, and I venture even to say that no one has ever done so. We know well enough how those who are of this mind behave. They believe they have made great efforts for their instruction when they have spent a few hours in reading some book of Scripture and have questioned some priests on the truths of the faith. After that, they boast of having made vain search in books and among men. But, verily, I will tell them what I have often said, that this negligence is insufferable. We are not here concerned with the trifling interests of some stranger, that we should treat it in this fashion; the matter concerns ourselves and our all. –Blaise Pascal, Pensées, Section III: Of the Necessity of the Wager, #187

Questions beg to be answered. Or at the very least explored. The worst place is to end up in a state of perpetual and unending doubt. Doubt which does not drive one forward to a further examined life, but paralyzes with fear unto inaction.

Unmitigated doubt, therefore, is a cancer. And that cancer will spread until it is terminated in something. For those who choose not to stop the spread of their doubt themselves, the cancer, when fully developed, will lead inexorably to apathy.

If any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to him. But when he asks, he must believe and not doubt, because he who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind. That man should not think he will receive anything from the Lord; he is a double-minded man, unstable in all he does. -James 1:5-8 (emphasis mine)

When you ask questions, expect answers.